In his presentation at the FAC forum, Assistant Professor Mason Allred discussed how technology expanded the roles and vision of women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints between the years of 1890 and 1920. Sharing a chapter of his forthcoming book, titled, “Spiritual Technologies,” Mason explained how women in the early days of the Church used media to get out of the cultural norms of reproduction to share their own perspectives.
He said these women “not only performed more radical versions of femininity, but they even critiqued and expanded gender relations in their work. … These were new women, who found and fashioned their own voice and subjectivity through the most modern machines. They turned hollow reproduction into unique creation.”
A member of BYU-Hawaii's Faculty of Arts & Letters, Allred described his book project as an attempt to bring the spiritual and technological parts of Mormonism together. He said he feels members of the Church have neglected the idea that technology has helped shape what it means to be a Latter-day Saint. He examined different types of technologies that are mastered by people that showed how people change due to their use.
In the chapter he presented at the forum on April 8, he highlighted childbirth as the main form of media practice for women in the Church, in the sense that children are the main type of work that women produce. Allred said, “Maternal reproduction — bridging spirit and mortal realms through childbirth — positioned women as media of life.”
He clarified, saying although this is uplifting, this can also be very constraining as well. And this gendered arrangement even went from biology to technology. Through the feminization of the camera and typewriter, women were cast as best suited for these jobs, as assistants to bring a man’s work into the world, he stated.
Allred said women were confined to being vessels of reproduction and said originally, they were supposed to use these medium technologies to reproduce knowledge not of their own. “Women themselves were mere copy machines for their boss,” he explained.
However, he argued the machines were “turned against established paradigms of practice. The sensitive machines, like the women who operated them, helped carve out a space for women to dislocate or complicate their perceived roles as, essentially, vessels of reproduction.”
He shared the stories of two influential women during this time who used the camera and a typewriter to change this idea of reproduction. One of these women, Susa Young Gates, started working in the field of writing at the age of 12, and at first said typewriting was dehumanizing and lifeless, Allred shared.
But eventually she found she could use it in creative manners and wrote articles, editorials and poems about women’s history and turned typewriting “into a creative and intellectual output.” Gates, also a mother, wife and later widow, “helped forge a model of motherhood in both literal and literary senses in her creative efforts in writing” and also founded the Young Women’s Journal in 1889, just after her mission in Laie, he explained.
Allred shared how Elfie Huntington was deaf, had a speech disability and was orphaned at a the age of 6, spent most of her life unmarried, but she became a public figure in her community in Utah.
She originally worked as an assistant for a photographer but later opened her own gallery that showed her views on life. Some of her photos were “more inclusive” than the male photographers of her time by showing all kinds of scenes, such as a man with prosthetic legs or her cross dressing, playing cards and a drunk man.
He said she was “gender-bending and breaking taboos” as well as critiquing cultural ideals. She also revised previous works of a man showing a “bachelor’s dream” of a sleeping man on a sofa with a wired structure of women acrobatically hanging on it.
Huntington’s photos of a bachelor’s dream, show three images of a man sitting on a chair staring at a woman in three different forms of clothing, well-dressed, with a coat and beekeeper hat and in a wedding dress. The man only gets up from the chair in the photo of the women in a wedding dress, showing a man’s view of women at that time, Allred explained.
He clarifies there were other female photographers at this time, but the Church doesn’t have a record of these collections and their owners.
Around 1890, especially after the end of polygamy, Allred explained, women were encouraged for a time to enter the workforce and use machines, like the typewriter or the camera, which constricted the lines of what women could do outside the home.
Allred stated, “I see Elfie and Susa’s work through the machines as them working out and exploring what it means to be a woman at the time.” The future possibilities for the women were being multiplied by machines and “diminished by cultural conceptions” that encouraged staying at home and being a good mother and wife. By 1920, that was the norm in protestant American and Latter-day Saint culture.
Their work, Allred said, allowed these women to have their own voice and presented feminism in Mormonism. He asserted, “They both composed original creations that showed their perspectives, but also pushed Mormonism to expand its view of women.”
Brent Yergensen, associate professor in the Faculty of Arts & Letters, said Allred’s presentation covered one of the most important topics in the Church. He shared the topic of women’s role in the Church and the evolution of this topic in relation to the improvement of technology was most interesting to him.
He said, “[Allred] is utilizing an investigative approach that is geared toward identifying authentic contexts, and that is the essence of the humanities approach to scholarship.”
Chiung Chen, a professor in the Faculty of Arts & Letters, said she was fascinated by the historical research done by Allred. She said she was impressed by his presentation and novel focus on real, lived experiences of early Latter-day Saint women and how they used new technologies to shape their identities.
Allred explained he loves to be able to instruct his students to be inquisitive about Church history and to keep an open mind. He said he wanted to share the stories of these two inspiring women to show from a new perspective the Church’s history with technology.
Allred added how important it is “to approach history with humility, to be open and excited to learn new things.” By looking at the forgotten media of the past, Allred said it can enlighten people to understand the influence of new media today and how they might best utilize technology toward inclusion.