Susa Young Gates, the daughter of one of Brigham Young’s many plural wives, may have been just a child among the Latter-day Saint pioneer-prophet’s vast brood, but she would eventually stand out among all his offspring.
She made a name for herself as a writer and editor. She founded the Young Woman’s Journal, became the first editor of Relief Society Magazine, and published a biography of her famous father.
A go-getter, she worked for women’s suffrage and rubbed shoulders with Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other leading feminists of the time. She suffered from a painful first marriage and rejoiced in a happy second. She reveled in genealogy but also endured the deaths of eight of her 13 children.
Although her name appears prominently in the pages of Mormon history, few members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints know much about her.
Romney Burke hopes to change that with his new book, “Susa Young Gates: Daughter of Mormonism,” an exploration of his personal, professional, and religious life.
On the Salt Lake Tribune’s latest “Mormon Land” podcast, Burke noted that young Susa had disagreements with her distinguished father but remained devoted to him. She defended the religious practice – and that of her father – of polygamy, but never entered into a plural marriage herself. Although she lobbied for women’s suffrage, she was less enthusiastic about women running for office. She opposed birth control and was an early proponent of a concept that endures in some Mormon cultural circles – that women have motherhood and men have priesthood.
Here are excerpts:
What was his personality?
I know a few historians who said they didn’t like Susa very much. And I find this somewhat negative attitude towards Susa somewhat uncomfortable. Susa was there. She was a living presence. She was indomitable. She was optimistic. … She was enthusiastic, but she could be overbearing. And she, obviously, suffered very badly from the fools. … She had specific ideas and she did not hesitate at all to express these ideas. So I think she was a very powerful and dominant personality, but overall a very loving, kind and helpful person.
Has she had any notable clashes with her father?
Yes. Brigham sent her first husband on a mission to England, leaving Susa with two young children. And Susa had no money at the time. His father was not yet dead. And she kind of went to her dad and said, “Well, I’d like a little help.” … And instead of giving him money, he gave him a 100-pound sack of flour and said, “Why don’t you go live with your in-laws in Bear Lake? And so, the last time she saw her father was at Ogden station, and her brother came and said, “Dad wants to see you. And she said, “I don’t want to see him.” And Brigham said, “Well, you come here or I’ll go there.” And she finally went to see her father. And, sadly, that was the last time she saw him. He died a few weeks later. It was August 1877. So, yes, she had some trouble with her father. But otherwise, she had a great, very loving relationship with her father. And I honestly think she spent most of her life, her adult life, trying to do things that she thought would please her father.
How did she get along with the main feminists of her time?
Well, she got along very well with them. She was a beast of burden. When Susa saw a problem that needed fixing, she took care of it. She was the head of the press corps of the National Council of Women and the International Council of Women…. But she has locked horns with them on occasion. She had a very good relationship with them on the whole, but there was a time when she was the only representative sent from America to the International Council of Women in Copenhagen in 1902. And she was told, in particular, not to tell people she was from Utah or Brigham Young’s daughter, or she was a Mormon. And she did. But then, at the end of the conference, she went to speak at a few meetings in Copenhagen. [LDS] Branch, and the International Council of Women got wind of it and said, “You broke your promise. She said, “No, I didn’t. I didn’t during the conference. I did it after the conference. So they kind of took her to task for that.
Her Mormonism and polygamy sometimes made it a bit more difficult in her interactions with other feminists, didn’t it?
Right. She wanted to get some kind of support for one of her books…from Susan B. Anthony. And Susan B. Anthony’s last letter was a scathing denunciation of Mormonism, saying, you know, “how dare you ask me to endorse your book. I don’t do that stuff, especially for Mormons. And in the letter, Susa had written my last communication from Susan B. Anthony. But I think overall she was very well respected and very well liked because she was very enthusiastic, very optimistic and did all the press releases for the press club of the International Council and the National Council of Women during many years.
Would she have supported the equal rights amendment?
Well, she and her daughter Leah are really the ones who popularized the mantra priesthood for men, motherhood for women. …Susa would do whatever the main brethren in the church wanted to do. … As she said of her genealogy work: “I challenge the brethren to good works. Don’t provoke the brothers. … So I think anything that passed official approval from church authorities, she would be in line with that. She would definitely be on the sidelines saying, you know, “Get these women on your boards. Listen to what they say. They are smart like you. They are as capable as you. And don’t think that you men have, you know, exclusive rights to inspiration.
To listen to the full podcast, go to sltrib.com/podcasts/mormonland. To read a full transcript and receive other exclusive “Mormon Land” content, go to Patreon.com/mormonland.