We begin with a quiz: How many book-length biographies of LDS women can you name?
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.