This week I’ve been getting to know Susa Young Gates. The daughter of Brigham Young and Lucy Bigelow, his twenty-second wife, Susa was no ordinary woman. The following excerpt from Mormon Sisters, by Claudia Bushman, describes, some of her accomplishments.
“During her lifetime of seventy-seven years, she was a prolific writer, musician, genealogist, teacher organizer, administrator, home economist, public speaker, researcher, traveler, suffragist, and Church worker as well as a wife and the mother of thirteen children. Called “the most versatile and prolific Mormon writer ever to take up the pen in defense of her religion,” she also earned for herself a number of unofficial titles, including “the mother of physical education in Utah.” She corresponded with Tolstoy and took tea with Queen Victoria. Susan B. Anthony once offered her the post of secretary of the National Council of Women if she would give up her militant Mormonism; Susa declined.”
Feeling vicariously tired yet? If so, fell free to skip to the next paragraph. If not, I’ll fill in a few more details for you. Susa’s accomplishments as a genealogist included personally cataloging over 16,000 Young family names. She also organized the genealogical departments in the Inter mountain Review and the Deseret News, devised a systematic index of names for the Church, wrote genealogical guides, newspaper columns and a book, organized classes, presented at the International Genealogical Conference, and served as head of the Research Department and Library of the Genealogical Society of Utah. Her accomplishments as a writer were equally impressive. While at the University of Deseret, she was co-editor of the College Lantern, the first western college newspaper. She went on to found the Young Women’s Journal, which would become the official magazine for the Young ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association, to found the Relief Society Magazine, and to publish several books. Her political involvement included serving as a representative in the State Constitutional Convention, founding the Utah Women’s Press Club, serving as a charter member of the National Household Economic Association, serving as Press Chairman of the National Council of Women, serving as a delegate to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, serving as a delegate and speaker to the International Congress of the Household Economics Organization, founding the Utah daughters of the American Revolution, organizing the Sons and Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, Serving as a delegate and speaker to the International Women’s Conference, and as well as other conference attendance, travel and lecturing. Additionally, This multi-talented woman was formally trained in telegraphy, stenography, and baking. She founded the Domestic Science department at BYU. She taught piano and voice lessons, and organized the music department at Brigham Young Academy in Provo.
As if I didn’t have enough to make me feel inadequate, what with my automatic dishwasher, Costco membership, and stockpile of disposable diapers.
So why mention all this? Well for one thing, it’s powerful to contemplate the enormous influence one woman can have for good. And for another, her story reminds me that modern women aren’t alone in our attempts to “have it all,” and our struggle to find balance between family and outside pursuits. And like many modern women, Susa paid a price for her contributions. She suffered a physical and emotional breakdown in which she was sick for three years and her weight dropped as low at eighty-five pounds. Even her eventual recovery was fragile. She had to return from a mission she was called to serve with her husband when she relapsed. She experienced this period of her life as a turning point, in which her convictions were deepened and her interests and contributions turned increasingly to the spiritual. Still, the cost was real.
Her mother (as quoted in Bushman’s book) wrote in a letter to Susa,
“I know you have worked in manual labor until you have almost fainted with exhaustion, and in fact lost the lives of the little ones in embryo which God had committed to your care . . . also, on many occasions, come very nearly loosing your own life as the result of overwork . . . I have also seen you work in your literary labors until it seemed as though your head and brain would almost burst. And your mind was just perfectly exhausted.” (note: Susa experienced six miscarriages in addition to her thirteen live births).
Let me say clearly that I don’t believe the stereotype that all Mormon women are burned out and overworked. But I do know several women who have experienced physical or emotional breakdowns in this century. I know many who struggle on a smaller scale to keep balance in their lives. And as I sit here on bed rest due to complications with my sixth pregnancy, I have to wonder to what extent stress and hard work may have compromised my body’s ability to effectively nurture this child. It seems that the question of balance is a timeless one.
How do you find balance in your life? Do you feel called of God to “wear yourself out” in his service? And how does being a woman impact that experience?