Saturday, June 28, 2008

Writing Pink Notes

Many gems among the pages of the Women's Exponent demonstrate that although the magazine had the approval and encouragement of the General Authorities of the Church, the days of correlation had not yet begun. The first edition stated: "The aim of this journal will be to discuss every subject interesting and valuable to women." [1] It is remarkable how many diverse views and opinions were represented. Recently I came across this little item written by a non-Mormon:


Perhaps you do not know it, but there are women who fall in love with each other. Woe be to the unfortunate she, who does the courting! All the cussedness of ingenuity peculiar to the sex is employed by the "other party" in tormenting her. She will flirt with women by the score who are brighter and handsomer than her victim. She will call on them oftener. She will praise their best bonnets and go into ecstacies over their dresses. She will write them more pink notes, and wear their "tin types," and when despair has culminated, and sore-hearted Araminta takes to her bed in consequence, then only will this conquering "she" step off her pedestal to pick up her dead and wounded. But then, women must keep their hand in. Practice makes perfect.

Affirmation, an organization for Gay and Lesbian Mormons, has suggested that relationships between women within the LDS community in the late nineteenth century were often celebrated or encouraged. They cite the following examples:
  • In 1891 the gay-associated Bohemian Club of Salt Lake was incorporated with both women and men included as members. Katherine Young Schweitzer, granddaughter of Brigham Young, was a chief organizer and benefactor.

  • Mormon suffragist Emmeline Wells reportedly praised the same-sex relationship of Francis Willard, President of the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

  • In 1903, the Young Woman's Journal published a poem by Kate Thomas, a devout Mormon who never married, apparently celebrating her same-sex love. Thomas wrote of her lover, "from her lips I take Joy never-ceasing." (Yeah, I would say this was just a poem written from the point of view of a man. But...)

  • In 1912 the same magazine paid tribute to "Sappho of Lesbos." (So were the editors just completely clueless?)

  • In 1919, the story of Primary general president, Louise B. Felt, and her first counselor, May Anderson appeared in the Children’s Friend. Their loving relationship was described as the "David and Jonathan" of the Primary General Board. [3]

  • From 1920 to 1938 Mildred J. Berryman conducted a study of lesbians living in Salt Lake City. One of the women Berryman interviewed for her study, Cora Kasius, was a staff member of the Relief Society who went on to become a faculty member at Barnard College and a liaison officer for the United Nations. [4]

It was not until decades later, in 1952, that J. Reuben Clark of the First Presidency officially addressed the existence of lesbianism, warning Church members against the practice.

Do you see these instances as understanding and acceptance by the LDS community of same-sex relationships between women? Did the warnings of J. Reuben Clark represent a change in Church policy, or was it the beginning of a greater awareness of the issue? Include in your response your thoughts on how an article such as "Women Lovers" could appear in the pages of the Exponent.


[1] The Woman's Exponent 1872-07-15 vol. 1 no. 1, p. 32.

[2] The Woman's Exponent 1873-04-15 vol. 1 no. 22, p. 175

[3] Also in the Ranks: Lesbian Mormon History, 1998 Affirmation Gay and Lesbian Mormons. Not having access to the original sources, I have no opinion as to whether these references represented female homo-eroticism or whether they were cases of deep non-sexual friendships among women. Affirmation presents them as examples of acceptance of lesbian relationships in the Mormon community.

[4] Also in the Ranks. Berryman’s work has the distinction of being the first community study of lesbians performed in America.

[5] Relief Society General Conference, 2 Oct, 1952. Second Counselor J. Reuben Clark warned the women of the Relief Society against "self-pollution," prostitution, and "homosexuality, which it is tragic to say, is found among both sexes."


angryyoungwoman said...

That's very interesting. I don't really know what to make of it. I can hear my mom's voice in my mind saying, "they just have dirty minds, they want to destroy close friendships by calling them something dirty." But what you've presented sounds like more. I think it was ok with the church for a while, but then at a certain point they became afraid because they thought women might feel autonomous. They might not feel like men are a necessity.

I know I'm not putting this well, but it's 3:30am and my brain doesn't always work.

Anonymous said...

I had NO idea! I've never seen any of that.

It does, however, strike me as very like what I remember of my grandparents' generation (of the turn of the century) who seemed to "know" things about friends and neighbors that they didn't discuss with the younger people. The buzz of what they didn't say was palpable and yet they kept those people as friends and neighbors nontheless.

Not saying, mind you, that what they "knew" was that someone was gay. Could have been adulteries, alcohol, or who knows what. The point is, that they seemed to be able to manage a certain dissonance of lifestyle without needing to crush or isolate people.

anonymous alice

djinn said...

I am awed by this post. Thanks for doing the legwork. The past is a foreign country, as is the future.

As anonymous said, it certainly sounds like the earlier church just didn't consider it their business, which fits in with my rememberance of my older much more live-and-let-live Utah pioneer-descended relatives; now deceased.

E said...

I'm not seeing what you're seeing. I don't think your examples are very convincing at all. What is there to suggest they are not just close friendships, as angryyoungwoman's mother might suggest?

NonArab-Arab said...

This rather reminds me of the recent controversy in Israel over the claims that David and Jonathan were gay. Or the claims that Paul's thorn in the flesh coupled with misogynistic attitudes must mean he was gay. Possible? I suppose. Probable? Doesn't seem likely. Occam's Razor tells me to follow the most likely explanations that don't involve having to create a wide range of supporting evidence in my head that isn't found anywhere else. Especially when what I do know (or at least think I know) about the era in question and my perception of big picture truths seems to hold a lot of evidence to the contrary. That said, first time I've seen these sources and to follow on from djinn, I'm a real believer the past is often just as foreign to us as different places in the present are.

djinn said...

Since you asked, the translations of the Bible appear to be Bowderized; the original text (as per my conservative Jewish ancient hebrew reading Torah singing friend) pretty much state they were, uh, you know....

You could do some research into the original hebrew meanings of the words in the referenced text....

djinn said...

As to Paul, I know of no such evidence. My personal belief is that he was just a body hating neoplatonist who left a rather astonishingly wide shadow....

djinn said...

Please forgive me for my pathetic disjointed posts. Textual support for David and Jonathan being more than good friends. Paul? His sexual orientation is not recorded in the documents we possess, as far as I understand; though, reading the New Testament, it's easy to infer women weren't his favorite life-form...different, though, than sexual orientation.

Bree said...

I love the hidden treasures in the old exponent, but I've never seen this one.

I wonder if living in large polygamous households engendered (to some degree) these lesbian relationships and what other source materials exist on the topic.

Great post as usual.

Bored in Vernal said...

e, I don't know that the examples provided by Affirmation are all that convincing by themselves, but I do wonder how a snippet such as the "pink note" piece could have been printed in the Exponent magazine if homosexuality (at least among women) was not accepted much more than it is today.

J G-W said...

Just FYI... I'm not sure what the sources were for the Affirmation web site, but it sounds like most of the information you've passed on here was drawn from D. Michael Quinn's Same-Sex Dynamics in Nineteenth-Century America: A Mormon Example. The book is worth reading...

Bored in Vernal said...

I read the whole thing when it first came out--it was awesome. I love his books because they really give evidence for how different the paradigms of the past were. It makes me really wonder just how accurate our perceptions are.

NonArab-Arab said...

Djinn, I can't speak for ancient Hebrew, but I do know Arabic and went and read the relevant passages in 1st and 2nd Samuel again today. The Wikipedia entry refers to "Ahavvah" (I might be slightly off in my transliteration there, going from memory, but...) as the verb for "to love" used as if it is erotic. In Arabic, it shows up as the identical "Ahabba" (B and V being interchangeable here, a small optional dot marking the only written difference in modern Hebrew at least, one which I think is generally assumed and not written, but correct me if I'm wrong as my Hebrew knowledge is rudimentary at best). Anyways, that verb in Arabic (and I only bring this up because the languages are very closely related and so I find Arabic often gives me insight that English cannot) is pretty non-specific. It means to love in the same broad sense it can mean in English, nothing necessarily erotic or non-erotic about it, just indecisive. The other phrases (loving him as his own soul and all that) similarly are non-decisive.

As for Paul, agree no such evidence, but I find your slam of Paul rather disconcerting. I've been reading through all the Epistles this year (in Arabic again which while it may not give me any great insight into the Greek has forced me to focus much more intently and given me a much deeper appreciation for what is there than the KJV ever has) and I am struck by a dynamic, vibrant, caring, struggling if still imperfect leader struggling to build the church from scratch while simultaneously watching it fall apart and melt through his and the other Apostles fingers. Tragic, and yet I can't help but call Paul anything but a true Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ and be deeply grateful for all he did. One can have faults, and still be called of and guided by the Lord. If he left a long shadow, it was thanks to an amazing struggle (or as the Arabic frequently translates it in his epistles "Jihad") for and with the Lord.

Biv, I really appreciate all your pulling up of old sources and slaughtering some sacred cows :) That said, I think that one shouldn't automatically assume that because things were different in the past that that past represents the "real" truth. Besides for our standard line about continuing revelation, there is the fact that there is evolution as well and that Joseph Smith and other early church leaders were trying to figure things out from scratch and often needed to correct error. Now, one can go too far either way and accept ossified cultural norms as absolute truth when it's not, or one can go too far in assuming that the past represented pure truth and the present corrupted. I rather prefer to see the whole scope (which the excellent work you do in bringing up historical sources helps immensely in) and try to understand where we should be today in light of it all with special emphasis on present revelation. I don't say that to judge anything on this topic, just to try to suggest thoughts for a framework. There is a natural human tendency to idealize the past, and we should remember if we are frought with human error today, they were then too.

NonArab-Arab said...

Oh, one more comment on the Old Testament language regarding David and Jonathan. The Wikipedia article goes through arguments for those making all the various claims, one of which is that the language used is generally that used in referring to romantic or erotic love. That may be, but again referencing the Arabic, I note that the language is also that frequently used to reference clear cases of divine love. "Found grace in his eyes", "love one another", that sort of stuff - indeed the Arabic reference here to me is just sort of a confirmation of what seems plainly evident in the English. Again, I'm not an ancient Hebrew expert, but the parallel things I do know something about to me don't give a clear answer from a linguistic perspective.