Salt and Seed
A Is for Agency
Last month I had the pleasure of attending a stimulating conference at the Tanner Humanities Center of the University of Utah. Titled "Women and the LDS Church: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives," the event was organized by Kate Holbrook and Matt Bowman, two prominent young scholars of Mormonism, and sponsored by a host of regional scholarly institutions including the LDS Church, BYU, USU, and UVU. I had only the tiniest of roles in the day's proceedings, and I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to sit on the receiving end of the intellectual fire hose. The fine line-up of panelists and presentations has been ably summarized by Tona Hangen and Andre Radke-Moss; the proceedings were recorded and are available electronically here.
The conference was organized thematically around the category of women's agency, with four sessions addressing the historical, popular, analytical, and international dimensions of female agency within the Church. This was a smart decision on the part of the organizers: the framework of agency elicited constructive analysis and interesting historical revisionism from the presenters, which lent a positive and generally upbeat tone to the discussion. Agency as an intellectual framework for Mormon studies also has the virtue of being historically and culturally "correct," that is, drawn from the native discourse and worldview of the subject itself: agency is a central concept in the Mormon moral universe, and has been from the beginning. This sensitive approach to historiography and cultural studies, an approach exemplified by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, produces "faithful" research in the best sense of the word: scholarship that stays faithful to the source and its context above any fidelity to ideology.
Claudia Bushman, the optimistic, stubborn, sensible, confident embodiment of everything that is most inspiring about the Mormon moral universe and communal tradition, gave a rousing defense of this robust notion of agency. She shared some of her findings from the women's oral history project she has spearheaded, but mostly she defended, with great intelligence and charisma, the idea of agency itself. Everything is a choice, she asserted: we have the ability to choose between alternatives, and we have the ability to choose the alternatives themselves. If we find the LDS Church to be oppressive, well, that's a choice, too. I have enormous respect for Claudia, and I recognize the power of this moral vision both for our foremothers and for the most vulnerable and powerless among us today—a point driven home by the moving international perspectives shared at the conclusion of the conference.
But that doesn't change the fact that agency poses a huge conceptual problem.
Gone is the era in which agency, understood as free will, can be taken for granted as a stable analytical category. The idea that moral choice is free, intentional, individual, and liberating has come under scrutiny from both humane and scientific lines of inquiry, and from religion and politics as well, and it satisfies neither the new empirical nor the new spiritual paradigms that have come to govern our view of human nature. Yet it remains a powerful and motivating interpreter of human behavior, in part because it allows a hopeful and morally clear vision of human destiny, and nowhere is that hopeful vision more treasured than within Mormonism.
Rosalynde Welch is an independent scholar who makes her home in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and four children.