An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Real Mothers–Then and Now

David O. McKay and Ezra Taft Benson often shared accounts of their sainted mothers who never raised their voices to their children. I attributed these tales of remarkable self-control to the  prophets’ age-impaired memories. Of course, Mormon lesson manuals have always been full of stories of noble, self-sacrificing pioneer women—mothers who claimed not to be hungry as they divided their last morsel of bread amongst their children. The point of these stories obviously being to raise the guilt index in listeners.

But I really enjoyed the journal entries of Mary Jane Tanner published in Women’s Voices: An Untold History of the Latter-day-Saints, 1830-1900 compiled by Kenneth and Audrey Godfrey and Jill Mulvay Derr. The 1876-78 excerpts from Mary Jane’s journal reveal a woman much like contemporary Mormon women.

At that time Mary Jane served as Relief Society president in the Provo 3rd Ward. A plural wife, Mary Jane’s own household included her six children and a niece and nephew. Even with the help of a hired girl, Mary Jane struggles to keep up with laundry, cooking, sewing, and cleaning. She laments having little time to study and to write poetry. Her Sunday entries show her staying home from meetings to catch up on housework and sewing. Sunday appears to be the only day free from Relief Society meetings and responsibilities.

I find Mary Jane most endearing when she complains of her children vexing her when she tries to steal time for writing: “If I sit in the room with them they play and talk to me, and if I sit in another room they are continually coming to the door for something and keep me answering their questions every few minutes.”

Making time for oneself has never been easy for mothers—but at least in Mary Jane’s day, a Relief Society president could get a little peace and quiet once a week after sending the kids off to Sunday School.

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