Teacher and author Elouise Bell, early Mormon feminist, dies at 82

(Tribune File Photo) Salt Lake Tribune columnist Elouise Bell.

Elouise Bell, a significant figure in Mormon literary circles for decades, has died at her home in Oklahoma at age 82, prompting a lengthy eulogy on the website of the Association for Mormon Letters.

What stands out in the tribute, written by Andrew Hall, is how the established author, humorist and academician combined her deep involvement in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and her activist roles in a feminist movement that have sometimes been in conflict with church policies.

“She served on the LDS Young Women general board in 1973-75. She participated in the U.N. International Women’s Year Conference … in Mexico City in June-July 1975. Her talk ‘the implications of Feminism for BYU,’ at a BYU forum on Sept. 30, 1975, and published in the BYU Studies Quarterly, has been described as a pivotal work in influencing LDS attitudes towards feminism,” the article noted.

Bell taught for 31 years in Brigham Young University’s English department, where she was honored with the Karl G. Maeser Award for Distinguished Teaching, BYU’s Alcuin Award for excellence in teaching and a General Education Professorship for contributions to the LDS Church-owned university’s education curriculum.

She eventually became associate dean of general and honors education at BYU and taught abroad at the University of Arizona, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Berzsenyi College in Hungary.

“She was a delightful, generous and warm colleague and a wonderful teacher,” said Susan Howe, a fellow professor in BYU’s English department.

“When I was a first-year teacher, one student wanted to help me get better,” Howe said. “He told me to take a look at Elouise Bell’s class.”

Howe said that one of her own early achievements was having a poem accepted in The New Yorker.

“Elouise had the poem together with the magazine cover framed and gave it to me as a gift.”

Bell, who was a prolific author, poet and essayist, often colored her commentary with humor, “but she thought deeply about, and wrote about, issues that matter in the world,” Howe said. “She presented things in a way that pointed out problems but not to be offensive. She was an early feminist at BYU.”

Bell wrote a monthly column and served as an editor for the Salt Lake City-based feminist magazine Network. In 1983, the Utah Women’s Political Caucus honored her with a Susa Young Gates Award for “contributing to human rights and the cause of women.” She was a member of the Utah Governor’s Commission on Child Abuse and was honored by the Mormon Women’s Forum with their “Eve Award.”

She wrote essays and columns for Dialogue and Sunstone magazines.

She published several books of compilations of her work and, for four years in the 1990s, was a weekly guest columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune, in which she contributed humor columns combining Mormonism and feminism.

“She and I started writing for The Tribune at about the same time,” said Tribune humor columnist Robert Kirby, who worked as a once-a-week correspondent for the newspaper before going full time in the late 1990s. Kirby remembered that he and Bell were a good combination, comparing his “crass” to her “class.”

“I’ve never been a fan of Jane Austen,” Kirby said. “So one time I wrote a column making fun of Jane Austen and the people who read her.”

He got a stern rebuke in an email from Bell.

“She told me I should aspire to be more refined, or at least try and make people think I’m more refined,” Kirby remembered.

The most popular of her books was titled “Only When I Laugh.”

“This is a collection I assign to my creative writing students,” wrote writer and teacher Margaret Blair Young in a blog honoring Bell.

Young’s favorite, she said, was an essay called “The Meeting,” about a typical LDS sacrament meeting but with the roles of the male members and the female members reversed.

Here are some excerpts:

“There is the usual pre-meeting hubbub. Women are busily conferring with one another over agenda and announcements; at the door, two women are shaking hands with members of the congregation as they enter, trying diligently to call each entrant by her name.

“The men are hurriedly urging children into pews, settling quarrels and trying to arrange seating so that the least mayhem will ensue. Some of the men do a better job than others at juggling their paraphernalia: in addition to diaper bags and bottles of apple juice or milk, most have quiet books, small toys, and some have rather large and cumbersome Primary materials to hang onto and keep track of.

“Abbott [the female meeting leader]: Sisters and brothers, it’s time to begin. We welcome you all here, members and visitors and friends, and hope your time with us will be pleasant.

“To begin with, Brother Hales of the elders group has asked me to tell you that our lovely brethren are collecting empty one quart oil cans, to be used by the group to make special Christmas projects.

“Next, we want to remind you of the Education Week program early next month…Sister Lorraine Larson will be giving a lecture, ‘Eschatology and Ether in the Perspective of the Book of Revelation.’ Sister Ellen Hemming is speaking on the ‘Gnostic Scrolls and Our Concept of Spiritual Translation.’ Brother LeRuth Davis will have a workshop titled ‘Twenty Tips for Keeping a Tidy Garage’ and Brother Terry Joe Jones will repeat last year’s popular series on ‘Being a More Masculine You.’”

When Bell retired from BYU in 1994, she moved to Myrtle Beach, S.C., where she taught in a continuing education program at Coastal Carolina University and, according to her blog, developed a relationship with Nancy Jeffries, whom she married in 2015. Bell died Sept. 30, 2017.