reviews – Her Side of It
“Marilyn Bushman-Carlton explores how subtly, yet deliberately, we are taught to be women or men. Acknowledging how she was led “through a narrow door” to marriage and motherhood, she nevertheless celebrates her “choices.” Yet she “walks against contemporary traffic” and wonders what it would be like to be “those other women.” From “the shelter of home / commuting to the kitchen and back,” she has been an astute observer of human behavior. With her keen sense of language and an eye for rich imagery, she creates poems that are honest and moving.”
—Kathleen Bryce Niles, The Comstock Review
“Written with candor, these poems transform ordinary experiences into extraordinary glimpses into a woman’s personal life. Bushman-Carlton recalls such things as grade school immunizations, a fire drill during gym class showers, a teacher demonstrating how to put on a brassiere. She writes lovingly of her son dancing in his room, her daughter learning about death at medical school, her concerns for a grandson. With delicacy, humor, and discretion, she tells what women know and what men ought to know about a woman’s side of things.”
—Susan Elizabeth Howe, contributing editor, Tar River Poetry
“The Other Women”: The Reality of Polarity
Reviewed by Nancy Chaffin for Irreantum
Marilyn Bushman-Carlton’s poem “The Other Women,” from her recent collection Her Side of It, illustrates a polarity that can exist between women as they make choices that position them outside the maintstream of Mormon culture. In the poem, the speaker, a mother of adult children, acknowledges her awkwardness as she attends a medical conference with her daughter who is a medical professional. The speaker recognizes that her daughter’s decision to become a professional stands in opposition to her own choice to be a full-time homemaker, and she acknowledges the voices that question both decisions. In Contemporary Theory, Don Bialostsky asserted that, “one’s own position or intellectual identity is never independent of its responses to other positions or identities”; as a result, women naturally respond to opposing and encouraging voices as they forge ahead on their own unique paths (223). Since the founding of the church, societal and church positions have polarized women. Through formal elements, the speaker of “The Other Women” illustrates the conflict that exists in the lives of many Mormon women, as well as the self-actualization and understanding that can be achieved through articulation of those tensions.
From the Church’s inception, Mormon prophets have received revelation that has surprised and divided women. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is founded on the principle of revelation, and, as stated in the recent official publication True to the Faith, the leaders of the Church confirmed that, “the Lord continues to guide the Church by revealing His will to His chosen servants” (140). Initially, one of the most staggering revelations for women was the doctrine of plural marriage. In direct opposition to societal norms, Joseph Smith taught the principle of celestial marriage and was sealed to a number of wives. Frankly, it is difficult to imagine a more controversial practice for newly-baptized Latter-day Saints at that time. In an essay entitled “‘Strength in Our Union’: The Making of Mormon Sisterhood,” Jill Mulvay Derr affirmed, “The practice [of plural marriage] united and divided Mormon women almost simultaneously” (161). Emma, the prophet’s wife, opposed polygamy, and others followed her example and resisted the practice; however, Eliza R. Snow, a beloved saint and women’s leader, was sealed to Joseph Smith and became an example that strengthened Mormon women seeking to follow the prophetic revelation.
While some women eventually testified of the blessings of polygamy, others were very vocal in their opposition. One sister who spoke in favor of the practice was Margaret A. Smoot, who said in 1870, “I have taken pleasure in practicing this pure principle, although I have been tried in it” (qtd. in Derr, 164). Journal accounts from other women indicate that Smoot’s experience was typical; many women had to overcome feelings of anger, sorrow, jealousy, envy, and isolation in order to love and accept a “sister wife” in their lives. Others were never able to reconcile themselves to it. Kahlile Mehr, author of “Women’s Response to Plural Marriage,” shared Fanny Stenhouse’s negative response to the new doctrine. Stenhouse first encountered the revelation in 1852. Years later she declared, “before I had got through one half I threw it aside, feeling altogether rebellious against God […] for I felt that the new doctrine was a degradation to womankind” (qtd. in Mehr, 87). Though Fanny allowed her husband to take another wife, she eventually denounced her membership in the Church and spoke out against polygamy. Plural marriage was not practiced by every Latter-day Saint family, yet divisions existed among women in the Church as they were on one side or the other of the polygamist fence, whether in word or in deed.
In 1890 President Wilford Woodruff announced an official end to any new plural marriages. As a result, Mormons became more accepted in American society; indeed, with the change in Church policy, many LDS women diversified their associations as they joined their non-Mormon friends in a wide variety of women’s clubs. Thomas Alexander, author of “Church and Community: Latter-day Community: Latter-day Saint Women in the Progressive Era,” indicated that “an emphasis on helping others both through voluntary organizations and governments pervaded the United States” (9). Mormon women joined their female counterparts in advocating statehood and campaigning for the right to vote; indeed, “through these clubs […] Mormon women worked with Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Greek Orthodox women and men to promote reform” (14). Women were instrumental in initiating a wide variety of political, educational, and community improvements. Some of the brethren, including Franklin D. Richards of the Quorum of the Twelve, applauded this affiliation; however, in later years, the sisters were chastened by J. Reuben Clark because the Relief Society had, in his words, taken on the attributes that are attached in the world to cultural clubs” (qtd. in Derr, 186). These opposing viewpoints concerning affiliation with women’s clubs mirror the conflicting opinions that have existed among Mormon women throughout the history of the Church, as a number of men and women consider the Relief Society to be the only worthy “women’s club.”
Personally, I have experienced opposition as I have participated in organizations outside of the Church. When I was an enthusiastic member of the 4-H program in Salmon, Idaho, my stake president questioned my association more than once. he seemed to feel that, in view of our family, work, and church responsibilities, association in a club outside the Church was an unwise use of my time. This belief is shared by some faithful Mormon women and has contributed to polarization among Mormon women over the years.
Polarizing forces in American culture again resonated in the Church during the explosive feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. During that time, the Church was implementing a new correlation program that would unify the teachings and the auxiliaries. This resulted in reduced independence for the Relief Society in general, and for women specifically. No longer did the Relief Society have its own bank account, curriculum, and magazine; all resources were consolidated to prepare the way for a church that was moving into an international arena. In contrast, feminists were promoting the Equal Rights Amendment, which encouraged self-sufficiency in the form of equal pay, recognition, and opportunities for women. According to Jill Mulvay Derr, “The contrasting messages—expansive from the larger society, constrictive from the church—caused considerable tension for many Mormon women” (195). Mormon women aligned themselves on both sides of the issue, and when the Church came out against the ERA in 1976, those women who remained in favor of it were “questioned [concerning] their faithfulness” (196). It was a bitter blow for feminists who pointed to the active suffragist role that Latter-day Saint women had played in the late 1800s, when Mormon women campaigned for Utah’s statehood and women’s right to vote. Today, divisions among Latter-day Saint women on the subject of feminist issues remain.
Divisions which had been initiated by the women’s movement were intensified in February 1987 by a significant talk given by President Ezra Taft Benson. In “To the Mothers in Zion,” President Benson asserted, “Contrary to conventional wisdom, a mother’s calling is in the home, not in the marketplace” (2). Some women reacted with fervor in support, others in opposition. Lavina Fielding Anderson, in an article entitled, “A Voice from the Past: The Benson Instructions for Parents,” effectively illustrated the competing voices. Mothers who felt approval and support for their choice declared his address “was exactly what our family needed. I know he was inspired” (105-105). These mothers felt justified for their decision to stay home and raise their children, and they tended to view those who worked outside the home as sinful. According to Anderson, one woman “was greatly distressed because other women in her ward, also not employed, had made ‘strident’ comments in Relief Society and during testimony meeting about women in the ward who were ‘violating’ the prophet’s counsel” (105). However, Anderson’s overall assessment was, “Overwhelmingly, the reaction I have heard from women has been one of pain and of anger, whether they have been employed or not” (105). Resentment flourished and feelings of otherness blossomed, as women on both sides of the issue believed the opposing group was judging and condemning … and many were. Reactions to President Benson’s instruction opened a chasm among Latter-day Saint women that has never been fully bridged. To some degree, each side believes the others have become the enemy.
Recently, the issue was further fueled by General Relief Society President Julie B. Beck’s 2007 General Conference address, entitled “Mothers Who Know.” Sister Beck stated, “Mothers who know are willing to live on less and consume less of the world’s goods in order to spend more time with their children.” To some, this statement implied that mothers who worked outside the home were doing the opposite. Due to a number of factors, including increased educational opportunities, the recession, and cultural trends, more and more women are working outside the home. According to Herbert S. Klein, author of “The Changing American Family,” “By the end of the century, only one in five married couples had just a single male breadwinner working outside the home” (216). With society moving in one direction and leaders in the Church encouraging an alternative, women in the Church can easily line up on opposing sides.
In her poem “The Other Women,” Marilyn Bushman-Carlton effectively illustrates the opposition that exists on these matters through the use of binary pairs. The bold title, “The Other Woman,” places the speaker in opposition to the professional women in the poem and realistically affirms that membership in one group makes participation in the other difficult. The speaker of the poem chose the “traditionally feminine” life of a stay-at-home mother, while her daughter chose the traditionally masculine role of a professional. The title reveals that such choices can divide women as their daily routines, goals, concerns, and thoughts differ; indeed, those who work outside the home are wolrds apart from those who live lives of domesticity.
Additionally, the speaker contrasts her traditional homemaker’s life with her daughter’s professional career by illustrating what the speaker is not. The woman found herself “tagging along” beside her professional daughter. She is the odd person out, the one “walk[ing] against contemporary traffic”; indeed, she feels somewhat like a child accompanying a parent to an important meeting. She is not a medical professional saving lives and conquering illnesses, nor is she a take-charge expert who commands others to do her bidding. That she considers herself a tag-along illustrates the sentiment that she is unnecessary in contrast to her daughter’s circle of professional friends. The speaker seems to believe that a homemaker would naturally defer to the privileged professional woman, illustrating why otherness can develop even among Mormon women, whether they make their lives in or outside the home.
Continuing to communicate opposition, the speaker voices her feelings about the “other” through alliteration. She indicates that their “badges brag” their status; in other words, their nametags illustrate their worth in a society that prefers professionals. In harmony with their status, they carry “bright bags of drug samples” that further establish their authority as well as their connection to the professional world. This stands in contrast to the speaker who is only visiting and apparently not carrying anything worth mentioning. The professional women “babble among themselves in tongues”; indeed, their specialized dialect separates and privileges them. Essentially, the daughter’s career choice results in a unique language, lifestyle, and persona that place her at odds with the speaker, her own mother.
Using another series of binary pairs, the speaker reveals how the “others” view her position. She is identified as the “Guest/Spouse” and, as the spouse is the second term, it is less privileged, thus the “identification that still stings with age.” The speaker senses that the young, contemporary professionals rank her below themselves. She asks herself, “Did I settle? / Use my children as a crutch / in case I failed?” She assumes that these young professionals view homemaking as an escape from the challenges and opportunities of the real world, something less than their life choices have delivered. Josh Allen, professor of English at BYU-Idaho, indicates that “seeing people as ‘others’ allow[s] us to exclude, subordinate, and reject them.” Clearly, the speaker feels excluded and subordinated at the medical conference; indeed, the fact that the other women “crowded [her] over” suggests that they do not consider her presence significant, do not truly see who she is. Even if this does not reflect the way all professional women feel, I can relate to the way the speaker feels. I have been a non-professional for most of my life, and I have sensed the feeling of being the “other” in the eyes of professionals—both men and women.
Feeling thrust aside by the other women causes the speaker to carefully consider her own life choices. In the opening lines of the poem, the speaker views her life through her daughter’s professional eyes. Her daughter might assert that the speaker, her mother, spends her days “contemplating ordinary notions” such as grocery lists and carpools, Saturday soccer games and bathroom cleanser. Truthfully, these mundane activities do not usually provide opportunities for life-saving or earth-shattering discoveries. A mother lives “in the shelter of home,” which may indicate that she is protected from the world rather than involved in it. She “commut[es] to the kitchen and back,” in contrast to professionals who commute between work and home, in addition to travelling to medical conferences to learn of new scientific developments that might revolutionize health care. Using these phrases, the speaker effectively portrays her sense of the professional women’s viewpoint concerning a homemaker’s life.
In opposition to the bold, strident voices of the young professionals, the speaker provides an alternative voice of peaceful reflection. As a writer and a poet, she lives “in temperate quiet rooms” in direct contrast to the young doctors’ frenetic days at the hospital. Her home is a haven; indeed, her description indicates that it is a place of rest and renewal. In contrast to her daughter’s bold, bustling career, the speaker lives a generally pleasant life of reflection. Her description is not accusing, rather it is thoughtful. In the face of vociferous opinions, the speaker calmly invites the reader to examine and consider her voice.
Through the use of alliteration, the speaker continues to express an alternate message. She employs “syllables and sentences” to “write about [her] life”; in doing so, she shares her own personal message with the world. Contrary to the idea that her notions are ordinary, the speaker uses carefully-chosen words and syllables to share the intricate details of her life. Her peaceful environment has provided the opportunity for reflection, as well as the time to see the beauty and complexity of her life. This expression has guided her development and facilitated her in becoming the woman she is. Indeed, she says that, “If it were otherwise, I would not be who I am”; in other words, her choice to become a homemaker enabled her to develop her individual talent and her own unique voice as a writer.
Experiencing otherness at the medical conference compelled the speaker toward thoughts of autonomy and self-actualization. Her ideas reflect Judith Butler’s insights in “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”: “the self only becomes a self on the condition that it has suffered a separation […] a loss which is suspended and provisionally resolved through a melancholic incorporation of some ‘Other'” (27). Indeed, the speaker’s interaction with “others” at the conference moved her to reflect on her choices and the growth she had experienced as a result of those decisions. Though she will never understand “what it is like / to be those other women,” she has come to understand and articulate who she is.
Otherness exists among women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and while it can and has created division throughout the history of the Church, Marilyn Bushman-Carlton’s poem illustrates that it can also lead to articulation. Personally, I have feared that, in the midst of such diversity, women will not be able to unite in loving sisterhood. Amy Hoyt, author of “The Continuum of Women of Faith: Examining Rifts Created by the Equal Rights Amendment between Women in the LDS Church” said this: “LDS women’s lives are still placed into polarities today. This has contributed to a culture of judgment that has isolated women and strained relationships that are central to the Relief Society” (72). In this poem, Carlton artistically illustrates that otherness does not have to destroy relationships; it can actually lead women to examine their own lives and experience self-actualization. As the speaker interacts with the “others,” she acknowledges her feelings of exclusion as well as the possible assumptions of other women. Her introspection brings understanding concerning her personal identity, which leads her to voice her personal epiphany. Sharing these epiphanic experiences with one another can lead women to greater appreciation and understanding of one another.
In an increasingly diverse church population, otherness will escalate; indeed, my own family reflects such opposition. My son and his wife have determined that she will be a stay-at-home mother and will not work outside the home. On the other hand, one of my daughters chooses to take her children to daycare one day a week so she can work as a part-time social worker. Another daughter is a stay-at-home mom who designs award-winning scrapbooking layouts. My youngest daughter is a family consumer science educator who plans to work part-time while her children are at school. I believe we do not need to fear the diversity that exists in our families. Rather, we can embrace it. As we interact with one another and examine our fears and insecurities, we will increase our comprehension of who we are individually. As we share feelings and insights, we can increase our understanding and appreciation of ourselves and of one another, which, I believe, is exactly what the speaker in Bushman-Carlton’s “The Other Women” had in mind.
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