Book Review: Stand As a Witness: The Biography of Ardeth Greene Kapp

February 26, 2006 | 22 comments
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Book Cover

We begin with a quiz: How many book-length biographies of LDS women can you name?
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Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith is probably the first one that comes to mind. There are a few other biographies of Emma Smith as well. There’s Camilla, which is good but short. 4 Zinas, Mothers of the Prophets, The Children’s Friends, and Elect Ladies only get partial credit since they cover more than one woman. A brand-new release that I’m eager to get my hands on is Emmeline B. Wells: The Public Years 1872-1920. There are a couple of rather obscure ones such as Emma Lee.

But you’ll notice that the pickings are relatively slim [I imagine that I've overlooked others; since I don't know of a thorough list of biographies of LDS women, perhaps we could create one in the comments here if you know of others.] and, with few exceptions, a woman who is the subject of her own biography is known primarily because of her relationship to a prominent man.

That’s why Anita Thompson’s Stand As a Witness: The Biography of Ardeth Greene Kapp is an appreciated addition to the ranks of LDS biography. This book fits snugly into the tradition of near-hagiographical LDS biographies of recent Church leaders (such as this, this, this, and this, just to name a few) with, of course, the obvious exception that Sister Kapp is, well, a sister. And not only do I applaud it for the mere fact of its existence, but I think that this book is a worthwile read on several levels. I am convinced that virtually any life story that spans the 20th century, if it is in the hands of a reasonably competent biographer, makes a good read. Here’s a description of the first home that Kapp and her husband shared:

The basement apartment . . . [was divided] by a curtain, into two small rooms. One room held a bed, which they could get to only by walking sideways. The other room contained two laundry tubs that were used every Wednesday by their landlady on her weekly wash day. The room also served as their kitchen and living area, having a small counter space, a stove, and a refrigerator. A wooden screen closed off the bathtub and toilet from the rest of the room.

While I’m not up on the housing code in Ogden, Utah, my hunch is that such a set-up would not even be legal today.

While the book succeeds simply as a portrait of a 20th century life, it is also much more than that. As an infertile woman who was once told by her high school that she wasn’t college material, Kapp’s successes in the face of major challenges make for inspiring reading. She was the General Young Women’s President during the time when the current iteration of that program (theme, motto, values, Personal Progress) were created and instituted under her leadership. She introduced her proposal to change the YW program to the Priesthood Executive Council with these words:

Brethren, if you want to know about Young Men, you can hear about them at the annual priesthood restoration commemoration. If you want to know about Young Men, you can attend their annual Scouting conference. But if you want to know about Young Women, the satellite screens are dark and the message vague.

When she finished her presentation, which called for more recognition of the young women as well as giving them a clearer sense of what they could contribute to the church and a better understanding of their identity, President (of the Quorum of the Twelve) Benson said, “Brethren, I think we should stand in acknowledgement that this is acceptable to the Lord.” Another GA told her, “You have not only opened our ears, but also our hearts.” This is but one example of her intense, inspired, and inspiring leadership experiences, which included being the first woman to attend a meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency in the temple.

The overall picture of Kapp is of a woman who did not let the stigma of being an infertile LDS woman (in the 1950s! in Utah!) determine her life, but rather chose to magnify her talents and devote herself completely to the work of the Lord. She became a great leader, writer, and teacher and so I’m pleased to see her story commited to writing. This book is recommended reading for anyone interested in women in the church.

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22 Responses to Book Review: Stand As a Witness: The Biography of Ardeth Greene Kapp

  1. Adam Greenwood on February 27, 2006 at 7:38 pm

    I think its insulting to Sister Kapp to think that the main significance of her biography is the contribution it makes to the scorecard we’re keeping of male vs. female biographies. I’m glad Julie in A. got away from that later in the review to actually tell us something about Sister Kapp and the book. I’m sorry she thinks that the book would only be of interest to Saints who are interested in women’s issues, so-called, but its often true that what we get out of a book is influenced by what we bring to it.

  2. Russell Arben Fox on February 26, 2006 at 11:34 pm

    A great, short review, Julie. Thanks. Since you bring up the topic of biographies of LDS woman, a question: do you (or anyone reading this) know of a good–or indeed, any–biography of either Eliza R. Snow or Mary Fielding Smith? Melissa has long looked for one.

  3. Wilfried on February 26, 2006 at 11:56 pm

    Fascinating, Julie. Opens a window to a perspective we seldom hear about, the direct impact of YW (and RS) general presidents on the Brethern. We sometimes hear the remark that their talks in general conference or elsewhere are a little insipid or very careful. Then one wonders if they have any impact in higher regions. A biography like this allows a different look.

  4. Ariel on February 27, 2006 at 1:46 am

    I don’t know anything about Sister Kapp except that she spoke at my stake women’s conference a few years ago, and it was simply incredible. I found a used copy of a short book she wrote (called “Miracles in Pinafores and Bluejeans”) about various experiences she has witnessed or experienced of girlhood, womanhood, and sort-of-motherhood. It is beautifully written and I would recommend it- I don’t think anyone still sells it, but a quick googling tells me that one can get a cheap copy on e-bay.

    Anyway, I’ll try to pick up the book. I’m excited to see a bio of an LDS woman whose claim to fame doesn’t rest with her husband.

  5. Sara R on February 27, 2006 at 9:43 am

    I enjoyed Juanita Brooks’ memoirs and biography. Here’s a brief summary of her interesting life.

    While googling to find references to these, I found a page about Mormon biographies and autobiographies.

  6. Kristine Haglund Harris on February 27, 2006 at 12:42 pm

    Russell, I believe Jill Derr is writing a bio. of ERS that should be published in the next year or so, and an annotated edition of her poems is also in the works.

  7. Melissa Proctor on February 27, 2006 at 12:46 pm

    Kathleen Flake is co-authoring the ERS volume with Jill as of recently.

  8. Russell Arben Fox on February 27, 2006 at 12:49 pm

    Kristine and Melissa–thanks! I’ll have to keep an eye out for that. Do you know who the publisher is?

  9. DKL on February 27, 2006 at 12:52 pm

    I can understand your leaving out Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness, because it is about many women. But there is also Annie Clark Tanner’s autobiography, A Mormon Mother (which I’ve recommended elsewhere), Lucy Mack Smith’s autobiography, and (at the risk of weighing the list too heavily with Tanners), Mary Jane Tanner’s autobiography.

    For 20th century women, someone has already mentioned Juanita Brooks’ memoirs. There’s also Bringhurst’s bio on Fawn Brodie (is she not an LDS woman?), which is interesting and a good read, but not as thoroughly probing a biography as she deserves.

    Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. It’s definitely reflects happier times in the church than any of the preceding books.

    Your review relates a story in which the Quorum of the Twelve seems to be especially open to change and outside input, and that looks especially good in the context of subsequent history. I wonder where the stories are of obstinate resistance with regard to issues that would now be considered quite reasonable (a few of the preceding books at least hint that there is some of that as well). Is there anyone who has undertaken to relate these kind of experiences (dropping out of the realm of hagiography) while still avoiding an overtly anti-church stance.

  10. maria on February 27, 2006 at 12:55 pm

    Thanks for this review, Julie. I am excited to read the book.

  11. Eliza on February 27, 2006 at 1:12 pm

    Thanks for this review. I have seen this one around but haven’t picked it up.

    There are several books about Eliza R. Snow’s life, writings, etc., although I can’t say anything about quality since I haven’t spent much time looking at them, although it is a goal of mine to do so. Eliza and Her Sisters and Eliza are two short ones.

    Here‘s a bibliography on Eliza R. Snow from BYU’s special collections library. There was an exhibit and lecture series there a few years ago on Preserving the Lives of Mormon Women that I found fascinating (I worked there at the time so I’m sort of biased!) Jill Derr appears a few times in both links.

    Mary Fielding Smith I couldn’t tell you much about except that a subject search at Amazon or the BYU library might yield something interesting.

  12. Eliza on February 27, 2006 at 1:27 pm

    I should probably add that I really don’t know much about women in the Church, Church history scholarship, or Eliza R. Snow in particular. At least as much as I maybe should.

  13. John Mansfield on February 27, 2006 at 1:47 pm

    For something a little different, there’s Rose Marie Reid: An Extraordinary Life Story. Sister Reid was a highly lauded swimsuit designer who David O. McKay called upon to redesign the priesthood garment.

  14. Deborah on February 27, 2006 at 2:06 pm

    Russell: A few years ago at Deseret Book, I picked up a copy of the eulogies given at Eliza R Snow’s funeral — it’s priceless.

  15. Julie M. Smith on February 27, 2006 at 8:37 pm

    Thanks to all those who added titles to the list.

    DKL, I didn’t deliberately leave off _ISL_; I’m embarrassed to admit that I forgot it (I just read it last month!!). While the coverage of polygamy might be troublesome to some, the biographies are superb. I also didn’t consider autobiographies at all, but I enjoyed _A Mormon Mother_.

  16. Wilfried on February 27, 2006 at 9:34 pm

    If I may add a little international perspective. In my opinion, what is dramatic is the disinterest in recording the biographies of exceptional women in the mission field (mission field in its broadest sense). Attention is so geared towards those who contributed to the making of Mormondom from Kirtland to Nauvoo and then in the West — continuing in the same vein today. Easily explained: too few or simply no Mormon historians in many parts of the world. And no interest from publishers who know of course where their money-making market is. Harsh economic logic: a book must be commercially viable.

    But in those faraway units we count women, converts, who have given their life to build up the Kingdom, remained in their homeland as asked, and many who are doing it now, while little or nothing is being recorded of their achievements. Years ago there was an oral history endeavor emanating from SLC, where older members were interviewed, but I haven’t heard of any results of that project, nor of any ongoing work in that sense. Moreover, it seems the gathering of written material has been overlooked, and so every year valuable material is lost. Sorry to whine, but perhaps someone who could help change things is reading this…

  17. Ben S. on February 27, 2006 at 9:45 pm

    John, do you have a reference for that?

  18. Tona on February 27, 2006 at 10:08 pm

    Don’t overlook the new book out from the Smith institute on New Scholarship on Latter-day Saint Women in the Twentieth Century. I’m not just plugging it because I’m a contributor, but it represents a first stab at putting some biography (albeit in essay form) down in print for many of our twentieth-century leaders. I did the piece on Belle Spafford, RSP from the late 1940s until 1974, yes, you read that right, and I was astounded at how little there was written on her, especially in comparison with somewhat comparable female leaders of large religious auxiliaries or organizations in the 20th century (say, Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of Foursquare, or Mary McLeod Bethune, founder and president of the National Council of Negro Women). Pitiful.

  19. Julie M. Smith on February 27, 2006 at 11:44 pm

    oops, I just noticed Adam’s comment in #14.

    Adam–

    I think I will get no disagreement from you when I note that men and women are given different roles. It should not be surprising, then, that women might be interested in reading about how exemplary women have gone about fulfilling those roles. I’ll admit to peering through the lines of the many biographies of prophets that I have read for insight into how their mothers and wives lived their lives. But there isn’t much there. To me, this isn’t some crass form of scorekeeping (you’ll notice that I make no reference to the authors’ gender–I can honestly say that until right now I hadn’t thought about it, and I don’t think it matters). But it is not unreasonable that LDS women might want more templates in print of how some faithful women have gone about fulfilling their roles.

    The existence of a biography is, I think, also a metric of how interesting or valuable or worth recording the person’s life story was/is. To that extent, the lack of biographies of LDS women suggests that somewhere (whether the choice was primarily by the authors, publishers, or readers, or some combination), there’s been the sense that women’s lives weren’t worth writing/reading. That’s a tragedy.

    (And I didn’t say that the book would _only_ be of interest to readers interested in women’s issues, but rather I identified them as an audience that would have a _particular_ interest in the book.)

  20. Kaimi Wenger on February 28, 2006 at 2:41 am

    LDS women bios. Hmm.

    /scans bookcase.

    I think you’re relatively well covered as far as full-length treatments go.

    Add to the growing list: Portions of Bushman, Mormon Sisters; portions of Godfrey & Derr, Women’s Voices; Smith & Thatcher, Heroines of the Restoration (which includes a selection _by_ Ardeth Greene Kapp!).

    On the Eliza front, Beecher has a volume of her writings.

    And don’t leave out Sunbonnet Sisters!

  21. Marc Bohn on February 28, 2006 at 8:59 am

    As always, great review Julie. I personally didn’t find the observation in your introduction about the general lack of biographies of LDS women in any way objectionable or insulting to Sister Kapp.

    Another LDS biography of sorts you may want to take note of is Women of Nauvoo by Richard and Jeni Holzapfel.

  22. Suzanne A. on March 1, 2006 at 1:49 am

    Life Writings of Frontier Women Series, Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, series editor:

    Volume 1 “Winter Quarters The 1846-1848 Life Writings of Mary Haskin Parker Richards” ed. Maurine Carr Ward
    Volume 2 “Mormon Midwife The 1846-1888 Diaries of Patty Bartlett Sessions” ed. Donna Toland Smart
    Volume 3 “The History of Louisa Barnes Pratt The Autobiography of a Mormon Missionary Widow and Pioneer” ed. S. George Ellsworth
    Volume 4 “Out of the Black Patch The Autobiography of Effie Marquess Carmack, Folk Musician, Artist, and Writer” ed. Noel A. Carmack and Karen Lynn Davidson
    Volume 5 “The Personal Writings of Eliza Roxcy Snow” Maureen Ursenbach Beecher
    Volume 6 “A Widow’s Tale 1884-1896 Diary of Helen Mar Kimball Whitney” ed. Charles M. Hatch and Todd Compton
    Volume 7 “No Place to Call Home The 1807-1857 Life Writings of Caroline Barnes Crosby, Chronicler of Outlying Mormon Communities” ed. Edward Leo Lyman, Susan Ward Payne, and George S. Ellsworth editors
    and the upcoming (Spring 2006) Volume 8 “Recolections of Past Days: The Autobiography of Patience Loader Rozsa Archer” ed. Sandra Petree

    “A Woman’s View: Helen Mar Whitney’s Reminiscences of Early Church History”, ed. Jeni Broberg Holzapfel & Richard Neitzel Holzapfel
    “Lucy’s Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir”, ed. Lavina Fielding Anderson
    “Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah” by Claudia L. Bushman
    “Sister Saints” by Vicky Burgess-Olson
    “Women’s Voices: An Untold History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900″ Kenneth W. Godfrey, Audrey M. Godfrey, Jill Mulvay Derr.

    Many of the books listed are the original sources from which Compton put together “In Sacred Loneliness”. The original sources make for better reading, are in context, unembellished and undistorted by Compton’s pen. For those who believe Compton did a good job with ISL, I strongly recommend they look up the original sources.