Salt and Seed
A Is for Agency
This leaves us with an historiographical—not to mention a moral and existential—dilemma. Do we retain the framework of agency, which structured our ancestors' worldview and continues to describe much of lived human perception today, despite its theoretical weakness? Are we better off to jettison the creaky old jalopy and adopt a different theoretical vehicle? Or can we revise and re-purpose the notion of agency in a way that is intellectually defensible but also relevant to everyday experience? I am not the first person to whom these questions have occurred, of course. Several of the panelists at the conference addressed these issues, explicitly or implicitly, with great insight. Let me identify three possible revisions that emerged from the proceedings of the conference, none of which is perfect but each of which provides a path forward.
First, we might reject a positivistic, macro-dynamic notion of agency—the "great woman" theory of history in which extraordinary individuals move history forward through great achievement—and move toward a critical micro-dynamics of power. This was the theoretical move proposed by Katherine Brekus in her important 2010 speech to the Mormon History Association, a speech that directly informed the historical session of last month's conference. Brekus called for—and Susanna Morrill, Quincy Newell, and Kate Holbrook skillfully implemented—a notion of agency that is not only focused on intentional individuals but also on relationships and collectives; not only directed destructively against institutions and social structures but also constructively reproducing them; not aimed solely at liberation but also at cooperation.
This notion of agency works beautifully to bring to analytical light the experience of Mormon women, who, after all, tend to work relationally, cooperatively, and constructively within the Church. But it also raises the question: if "agency" is construed so broadly—to describe, for instance, the experience of women who are plainly marginalized and constrained—does it actually perform any intellectual work, or have we diluted it beyond all efficacy? If every woman and man exercises micro-agency simply by virtue of being human, what extra critical lens does the notion of agency bring to the inquiry? Wouldn't we be better off with a more focused and therefore more meaningful theoretical framework?
A second possibility is to drastically pare down the robust agency that Claudia Bushman espouses. Though my heart thrills when I hear her say it, it is plain to me that we cannot and do not "choose the alternatives" from which we construct our lives. Our ability to imagine possible life paths from which to choose is entirely constrained by the worldviews that inform our minds—indeed, the worldviews that endow us with a "mind" in the first place. We do not make these ideologies; they make us. Nevertheless, we have some degree of freedom to negotiate within the frameworks we inherit. We can sometimes choose between alternatives, even if we do not choose the alternatives themselves. This is a defensible notion of agency, I think. The problem is that it doesn't make for very interesting history.
A final possibility with which I'll conclude was suggested in Quincy Newell's fine presentation on Jane Manning James, the African-American Latter-day-Saint whose experience with the early Saints defies contemporary interpretation. Newell asked us to consider the ways in which Jane James was "multiply marginalized" as a Mormon, a woman, and an African-American, and asked how these marginalized subject positions may have subtracted from her agency. But what if multiple marginalization, rather than subtracting from agency, instead constitutes agency? If agency is the condition that results in individual humans taking different paths, we might look for its source in the unique constellation of identities and ideologies that forms each of us. These identities need not be marginalized identities, either: I am no less subject to a notion of "whiteness" than an African-American is subject to "blackness," nor my husband to "masculinity" than I to "femininity." I am female, Mormon, educated, white, married with children, and a hundred other descriptors: each of these subjectivities makes its mark on my mind, and the unique combination of those ideological signatures leads me to certain views, choices, and behaviors—that is, to something resembling agency. That may just have to be close enough for now.
Rosalynde Welch is an independent scholar who makes her home in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and four children.