“History” by Carrel Hilton Sheldon

Published in Exponent II, Volume 22, Number 4, Summer 1999

From Carrell Hilton Sheldon, Arlington, Massachusetts

You might not expect the women’s movement to have had much of an impact on an isolated Mormon mother who stayed at home.  It might not have, except that I was becoming friends with other Mormon women in my ward who had more of a worldview. Our first response to the women’s movement in the early 70s was to talk together about our lives and then to study women of the past, looking for role models. We were thoughtful–especially about Mormonism and about women.

I started meeting regularly with these women when we were involved in a project of writing, collecting, and editing stories by and about Mormon women for the pink issue of Dialogue (1970) that Claudia Bushman guest-edited.  Some of us already had a history of publishing.  As a Relief Society fund-raising project they had created A Beginner’s Boston–a new student and tourist guide to the Boston area that sold in all the local bookstores.

The Dialogue project whetted our appetites to learn more about Mormon women of the past.  We volunteered to teach an institute class on early Mormon women’s history and each picked a woman or a topic and began researching.  The classes were great.  After that success we decided that, since we had gathered so much wonderful information that was very interesting yet unavailable, we really should write a book.

Writing my chapter for Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah was much harder than I thought it would be.  However, even though I had two little kids at the time, I also had a very supportive husband with flexible job hours.  I spent all the time I could in the Widener Library at Harvard and the Boston Public Library doing research and checking sources.  Both libraries had excellent collections of Mormon and anti-Mormon publications from the 1800s.

When the book project was finally sent off to prospective publishers for review, we decided it was time to begin publishing a quarterly feminist Mormon women’s newspaper.  The thought was to give our “sisters” a voice that could be heard.  Through our research for the institute class we had discovered the Woman’s Exponent, a Mormon women’s newspaper published in Utah from 1872 to 1914.  It seemed appropriate to call our paper Exponent II.

We initially formed Mormon Sisters Incorporated as the corporation to publish Exponent II.  However, we soon changed it to Exponent II, Inc. when we were informed that our choice of name offended some of our Mormon sisters because the name encompassed all Mormon women, not just a small group.  Such a possibility hadn’t occurred to us, but seemed quite reasonable once pointed out.

I helped set up the financial accounting, helped create and mail out advertising flyers, and managed the subscription data-base, which we typed on keypunch cards at MIT. Sometimes I typed the paper.  One scene, firmly etched in my mind, is of me sitting at the end of the table typing up submissions to the paper with baby #3 balanced on my knees, in such a position that he could nurse while I typed.  Children #1& #2 happily raced around our big old kitchen.  At that moment I was awed by my commitment to get the job done and felt powerful in my ability to accomplish it.  It was an amazing contrast to my usual feeling that taking care of three little children was so difficult that adding anything–like getting the laundry done–was almost beyond me.  Somehow in the process of working on Exponent II, I became someone who could do an awful lot more than I had previously realized I could.

We pasted up the paper in my dining room with women, sometimes with their babies beside them on the floor, working at all hours of the day and night.  We worked on light boards made by my husband out of junk wood from our basement.  We taped the finished pages to the walls all around the room to measure our progress, as well as to get a sense of the flow and the look of the finished product.  A typical scenario at my house was women working at the light boards and women proofreading pages on the walls, someone typing up corrections, and someone letter pressing titles.  Claudia, our wonderful editor, was there making sure the articles were in the right order, often editing late submissions.  Her connections to many women throughout the church brought us an array of interesting authors.  Carolyn Person (then Peters), our delightfully eccentric art editor, created our covers and some of the art decorating the pages of our early issues.  Bonnie Horne and Joyce Campbell were there designing the layout as we went, adding art when we had it and creating or finding it when we didn’t.  Within the first year, we had over 4,000 subscribers–which made for a big pile of papers to label and bundle and bag for bulk mail.

Our newspaper was an instant success, but our book, Mormon Sisters, had been making the rounds of publishers for a year without any success.  Deseret Book said they “wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.”  They thought it was a very good book, but “dangerous.”  We thought it was important and should be published.  So I turned my Exponent II job of “business manager” over to Roslyn Udall and set up Emmeline Press, Ltd. so we could publish Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah ourselves.

Within a few months boxes of books completely filled my dining room, stacked from floor to ceiling.  (We moved paste-up to Grethe Peterson’s attic for a while.)  We printed 1,000 hardcover copies of the book and 5,000 paperbacks. They were all sold within a year.  Later, a “legitimate” Utah publishing house (Signature Press) picked up the book for a second and third printing.  Happily, after several years of being out of print, it was republished in 1997 by Utah State University Press.

I learned a lot working on these projects.  For one thing, I learned that I loved these women.  They were great.  I was great.  We were great together.  We could and did do wonderful things. We were all mothers.  We were all Mormons.  Yet we were all very different from each other.  Only two of us were employed full time, teaching at different colleges.  Some of us had college educations, some of us did not.  Two were working on dissertations.  However, we all shared in the process of having our conscious-nesses raised about women’s issues and about ourselves.

Our differences, then as well as now, kept reminding us that we have no agreement on any particular cause and therefore hold no group point of view, beyond recognizing the value of each woman’s voice and the merit of offering a platform for those voices to be heard.  Our commitment to being an open forum for women kept us together through sometimes intense efforts to resolve disagreements over style, content, and control of our project.  Giving Mormon women a voice always was, and still remains Exponent’s mission.This mission still seems very important to me.  In the early days of publishing the paper it felt like a holy calling.  And working with the group of women committed to publishing Exponent II offered a wealth of learning, a fair amount of frustration, a good amount of love and “sisterhood,” and a feeling of real satisfaction from our dual accomplishments:  the actual publication of a substantive newspaper, and the working together of a pretty amazing group of women.

(Photo by DaYsO on Unsplash)

Rachel Rueckert is the current editor in chief of the Exponent II Magazine. She is the author of EAST WINDS.

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