Monday, April 9, 2012

LDS Women in Science Biography Series: an introduction

While an undergrad at BYU, I learned about many of the accomplished and influential women in Mormon history: Emmeline B. Wells, Louisa Lula Greene Richards, Susa Young Gates, Minerva Teichert, and a whole passel of ladies named Zinah that I never could keep straight. These women are celebrated in our history for their cultural, societal, and artistic accomplishments: they were opinionated writers, economic leaders, poets, and held high positions of leadership in the church.

At the same time, I had also heard rumors that there had been women doctors in the pioneer era. However, nobody ever seemed to have much to say about them other than that they’d existed. There’s a shortage of material that discusses LDS female medical and science pioneers, compared to our artists and writers. Perhaps this is because literary figures, by definition, write a lot. Leaving historical records is what they do. Conversely, doctors don’t typically write much about their day-to-day work—their patients—because that would be a serious violation of privacy and medical ethics… even if there was time left at the end of the day to kick back and write.

(Can you imagine? ‘Saw to Eliza R. Snow’s bunions today. Again. Keep counseling to wear sensible shoes but you know how some people are.’)

I’m still not sure why we haven’t taken these women more seriously in our cultural memory. However, I am sure that their lives and experiences are very relevant to LDS women today. The better-known literary women in our history often accomplished their work while raising a family. However— while editing a newspaper is undoubtedly a heavy workload— it does fit more neatly into a conventional home life than spending four to eight years thousands of miles away in a medical school and residency, then running all over town for a medical practice.

It would be easy to assume that most of these women were ‘spinster aunts’ and others who didn’t fit the family life mold. However, many if not most of them were married and had children during their schooling and career years.

How did they do that? I’m interested in learning more about these women and how they handled— in essence— the same work-life balance issues that women are still grappling with today. I suspect that much like today’s working women they relied on various combinations of family, friends, and hired help to keep their lives together. When so many people within and outside the LDS church feel that having a career is incompatible with being a “good woman,” it’s good to have our pioneer foremothers to prove these ideas dead wrong.

In honor of Sister Julie Beck’s encouragement that we learn the history of our Relief Society, LDSWIS is running a series of biographies of LDS women in science. We are also interested in profiling more recent LDS women in science. We’d very much enjoy hearing your contributions of who you’d like to see profiled here.

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