Book Review: An Advocate for Women: The Public Life of Emmeline B. Wells

July 3, 2006 | 11 comments
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An Advocate for Women: The Public Life of Emmeline B. Wells by Carol Cornwall Madsen

I’ve written before on the need for more biographies of LDS women, so I was predisposed to like this book. But I couldn’t even finish it; I admit, guiltily. The main problem was this: Cornwall Madsen’s approach is to bifurcate the “public” and “private” lives of Wells. (One gets the impression that another biography–covering her private life–is forthcoming.) But as every feminist knows, the personal is political: how could it not be when the main issue of the protagonist’s life is polygamy? Without the backdrop of Well’s private life, I couldn’t peg the events in her public life. Cornwall Madsen seems to inadvertently make the case for combining Wells’ stories when she writes:

As for her contributions to the Exponent, the decade of the 1870s that brought her periods of disillusionment and unhappiness also produced some of her sharpest feminist critiques and opened a broad new avenue of experience for her. The private despair of her middle years gave way to heightened pleasures in her public life. Out of the depths of her own private battles, she created the feminist manifesto that initiated a lifelong commitment to the advancement of women.

With statements like these, it seems hard to rationalize the separation of Wells’ public and private personas. And I don’t wish to be overly critical, but a second major problem was that the prose just didn’t hold my attention. Because I have read everything that I’ve ever written, I have a pretty strong stomach for colorless writing, but I still found this book dull. I’m not sure why Cornwall Madsen uses such odd phraseology as “the woman movement” or “woman suffrage” instead of the more common and felicitous alternatives, but they don’t help the lackluster prose. I don’t need my historians to be wordsmiths, but I need more than this to hold my attention.

Wells’ story is important; her defense of polygamy provides an interesting warp to the weft of modern feminism: “polygamy advanced woman’s status by making her less subordinate and more independent than monogamy, with more opportunity for personal development and a share in the world’s work.” Unfortunately, this volume doesn’t do justice to Well’s legacy.

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11 Responses to Book Review: An Advocate for Women: The Public Life of Emmeline B. Wells

  1. Kimball L. Hunt on July 3, 2006 at 1:25 pm

    Could SOMEBODY PLEASE put Amazon reader reviews up for ee/gee Madsen, Bushman, et cetera? (And also: J. (um, M.! lol) Smith’s book? Christopher Bigelow’s even posted there a capsulization of print reviews of his own “Dummies Guide.”)

  2. Jim F. on July 3, 2006 at 5:12 pm

    Julie, I don’t think anyone needs to apologize or feel guilty for not finishing a book. It took me a long time to learn that. It was ingrained in me, somehow, like finishing all of the food on my plate (which I still feel I have to do and which has produced in me such a manly girth). It is perfectly all right to stop reading a book when you no longer find it interesting enough to continue. That itself is a review of the book.

    Thanks for the work you do on these. They are very helpful.

  3. costanza on July 3, 2006 at 5:46 pm

    When I first started graduate school I got some great advice from Thomas Alexander. He said that one of his professors at Berkeley told him “graduate students aren’t supposed to read books, they’re supposed to gut them.” The implication was that you learn how to look for the parts you need and toss the rest. It’s a skill that came in very handy during my Ph.d. work.

  4. costanza on July 3, 2006 at 5:47 pm

    Ph.D. ahem.

  5. Tatiana on July 3, 2006 at 6:39 pm

    Ah, it’s a shame that the book is lackluster. Emmaline B. Wells was kickass! She’s my hero!

  6. costanza on July 3, 2006 at 8:14 pm

    Tatiana, they should have asked you to write a blurb on the dust jacket!

  7. Suzanne A. on July 3, 2006 at 11:35 pm

    The main problem was this: Cornwall Madsen’s approach is to bifurcate the “public� and “private� lives of Wells. (One gets the impression that another biography–covering her private life–is forthcoming.)

    ————————-

    Yes, one does, especially since Cornwall Madsen, in her prologue, wrote, “Thus, my decision to separate the public from the private and proceed with this volume came after a long, internal debate. I concluded that the rhetorical duality I was imposing by writing two biographies of her, the public and the private, accommodated itself to a pattern of dualities that hyphenated, more than disconnected, the various elements of her complex life.”

    I don’t know that Wells would disapprove, since Wells, as we know, was somewhat ‘dual’ herself. Cornwall Madsen adds, “…Thus, I have followed [Emmeline B. Wells] lead and separated her two personae, with hyphens where necessary. This book is primarily Blanche Beechwood’s story.” Blanche Beechwood being Emmeline’s nom de plume when writing editorials for the Woman’s Exponent.

    I agree the book disappoints especially in light of her diaries numbering forty-seven volumes! Let’s hope the second biography, if Cornwall Madsen authors a second biography, will be better. If not then it will be up to someone else to pick up the story, Cornwall Madsen says that she is “committed to being one of the storytellers” not the only one.

  8. Kristine Haglund Harris on July 4, 2006 at 10:35 am

    I haven’t read the book yet, but it seems to me that, if one can’t tell the whole story of a Mormon woman’s life, it’s actually important to get the story of the public life told first–we have lots of accounts of LDS women in the private sphere, and even more dogmatic pronouncements about how that is their only proper place. It’s interesting and important to tell the story of a Mormon woman who *had* a notable public life!

  9. J. Stapley on July 5, 2006 at 3:49 pm

    Hmm…I haven’t finished the book yet, but I disagree completely with Julie’s review. The use of “woman movement” is historically correct. I very much look forward to potential subsequent volumes (BYU houses the voluminous Wells papers). So far the book is excellent.

  10. Julie M. Smith on July 5, 2006 at 4:31 pm

    “The use of “woman movementâ€? is historically correct.”

    I didn’t claim it wasn’t.

  11. Evaine on May 20, 2008 at 9:51 am

    Good post. You make some great points that most people do not fully understand.

    “Wells’ story is important; her defense of polygamy provides an interesting warp to the weft of modern feminism: “polygamy advanced woman’s status by making her less subordinate and more independent than monogamy, with more opportunity for personal development and a share in the world’s work.” Unfortunately, this volume doesn’t do justice to Well’s legacy.”

    I like how you explained that. Very helpful. Thanks.

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