Susa Young Gates was an interesting and important personality, and Romney Burke’s recently-published biography Susa Young Gates: Daughter of Mormonism (SLC: Signature Books, 2022) provides a well-researched glimpse into her life.
Perhaps the best-known daughter of President Brigham Young, Susa led a life as a prominent figure in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She would go on to serve missions in Hawaii, write prolifically about the Church, serve prominently on the National Council of Women in the United States and also participate in the International Council of Women as a feminist advocate, serve in the general boards of both the Young Lady’s Mutual Improvement Association and the Relief Society and edit publications for both, teach courses at universities in Utah, and raise a family with children who would go on to make their own significant contributions in the Church. She could also be outspoken, overbearing, and tactless in pursuing her goals, which could cause her trouble, but also showed herself to be very capable in getting things done and in rubbing shoulders with the powerful and famous.
Burke’s biography follows her life chronologically at first, then shifts to addressing different aspects of her life and career topically by chapters, then returns to discussing the twilight of her lifetime at the end of the book in a more chronological fashion. The book is meticulously researched, drawing on a treasure trove of documents that record her life, particularly from a collection of her papers that her descendants donated to the Church History Library in Salt Lake City. Clocking in at 424 pages of text (with footnotes) and 27 pages of photographs, it’s a pretty hefty and thoroughgoing read. It came across as very professional and even handed – Burke does not shy away from sharing information and different possible interpretations that could be taken from the data. He does generally choose to either let Susa herself have the final say or to throw his support behind whichever interpretation put Susa in the best light possible. As a member of Susa’s family (he’s married to her great-granddaughter), that’s not too surprising, but he does not stray beyond the realm of what seemed plausible in doing so.
Walking away from reading the book, I appreciate Susa Young Gates more than I have in the past. True, I don’t think I would have gotten along with her (I don’t do well with unsolicited or forceful advice, which she was known to dish out abundantly), but her level of faith and commitment to the Church and its leadership was inspiring. It’s definitely a book that is worth reading, whether your interest is Latter-day Saint history generally or specifically Mormon history at the turn of the 20th century, prominent women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, feminism in the United States during the Progressive Era, or the Brigham Young family. In other words, I recommend Susa Young Gates: Daughter of Mormonism (SLC: Signature Books, 2022).