Queer Mormon Pioneers Camp Out In Brooklyn

November 5, 2013

Rachel Farmer guest posts at Feminist Mormon Housewives to discuss her new art exhibit in New York, and describes her encounters with the archives of Dialogue.

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It’s funny to exhibit my little ceramic pioneers here on the east coast.  People wonder who they are and what they are doing.  Are they prairie moms?  Eastern European peasants?  Pilgrims?  What are those carts they are lugging around? Are they peddlers?  One thing is certain – these women know how to work!
I grew up in Provo, Utah.  Actually, spent the first 23 years of my life there, raised with stunning mountains and decidedly mixed messages about women. On one hand, there were all the church talks about how a woman’s divine calling is to be at home raising kids and taking care of all things domestic.  Then there were all the church talks immortalizing these kick-ass pioneer and frontierswomen who used faith and biceps to stake their claim to a new life out west.  No wonder I starting fantasizing about being a pioneer woman at a very young age!
Years later, I realized my formative version of Mormon history was, itself, a little skewed from the dominant church narrative (which was itself quite skewed from the messy complications of history).  Part of this comes from personal family stories.  Thanks to their status as second wives, my great-grandmother, great-great-grandmother and great-great-aunt (Annie Clark Tanner, author of A Mormon Mother) were pretty much single moms in the Utah territory.  Their stories fascinated me: while it seemed like a hard life, I also thought it must be super cool to be so independent from a husband!  Of course, looking back, I now see buried in this dichotomy my own budding lesbian identity.
This fascination with my ancestry — and questions about my own place in the Mormon narrative — led my young nerdy self on a quest to read all the back-issues of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (that my parents kept conveniently stacked in their study).

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The women I met on these pages forever changed my worldview:  Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Carol Cornwall Madsen, Lavina Fielding Anderson.  Though they wrote about contemporary feminist issues, it was their insights into Mormon women’s more independent and expansive role in the early church that gave me some extra backbone.
Through them I discovered that these early Mormon women were even more kick-ass than I had imagined (in both ordinary & extraordinary ways).  And if these were my ancestors, then maybe I could also have the courage to forge into the giant unknown: to claim my queerness, leave Utah and pursue my dream of becoming an artist.

So I need to end this post with a huge, public offering of thanks to all the Mormon feminists who have helped light my way.  Your writings gave courage to a scared young Mormon girl – helping me find my own way in life with the strength of ancestors at my back. And with the explosion of Mormon feminist writing, speaking and activism, I watch you all in awe and know what a difference you’re making to a whole new generation of women.
My solo exhibition, “Ancestors”, will be featured at A.I.R. Gallery in Brooklyn through November 30. If you are in the NYC area this month, please come on by!  There’s an opening reception Nov. 7 from 6–9pm.  I’ll also be at the gallery three Saturdays (the 16th, 23rd and 30th) hanging out from 3–6pm. 
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For more info about the exhibition: http://www.airgallery.org/
For more info about Rachel’s art: http://rachelfarmer.com/
And an interview in Exponent II: http://www.exponentii.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Spring-2012-corrected-final.pdf