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.