Susa Young Gates, the daughter of one of Brigham Young’s many plural wives, may have been just one child among the Latter-day Saint pioneer-prophet’s vast brood, but she eventually would stand out among all his offspring.
She made her name as a writer and editor. She founded the Young Woman’s Journal, became the first editor of the Relief Society Magazine and published a biography of her famous father.
A go-getter, she labored for women’s suffrage and rubbed shoulders with Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other leading feminists of the day. She suffered through a painful first marriage and rejoiced in a happy second one. She delighted in doing genealogy but also endured the deaths of eight of her 13 children.
Even though 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 her personal, professional and religious life.
On The Salt Lake Tribune’s latest “Mormon Land” podcast, Burke noted that young Susa had some disagreements with her distinguished dad but remained devoted to him. She defended the faith’s — and her father’s — practice of polygamy but never entered a plural marriage herself. Though she pushed for women’s right to vote, she was less enthusiastic about women running for office. She opposed birth control and was an early proponent of a concept that lives on in some Mormon cultural circles — that women have motherhood and men have priesthood.
Here are excerpts:
What was her personality like?
I know a couple of historians who have said they really didn’t like Susa very much. And I find this somewhat negative attitude towards Susa somewhat discomforting. Susa was all there. She was a living presence. She was indomitable. She was optimistic. … She was enthusiastic, but she could be domineering. And she, obviously, suffered fools very poorly. … She had definite ideas, and she was not at all shy about expressing those ideas. So, I think she was a very forceful, dominant personality, but with all a very loving, kind, helpful person.
Did she have any notable clashes with her father?
Yes. Brigham sent her first husband off on a mission to England, leaving Susa with two young children. And Susa didn’t have any money at the time. Her father had not died yet. And she kind of went to her father and said, “Well, I’d like a little help.” … And instead of giving her money, he gave her a 100-pound sack of flour and said, “Why don’t you go live with your in-laws up in Bear Lake?” And so, the last time she actually saw her father was at the train station in Ogden, and her brother came over and said, “Dad wants to see you.” And she said, “I don’t want to see him.” And Brigham said, “Well, you come over here or I’ll go over there.” And she finally went over to see her dad. And, unfortunately, that was the last time she ever saw him. He died a few weeks later. It was in August 1877. So, yeah, she had a few run-ins with her dad. But, otherwise, she had a great, very loving relationship with her father. And I frankly 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 leading feminists of her time?
Well, she got along very well with them. She was a workhorse. When Susa saw a problem to take care of, she took care of it. She was head of the press corps for the National Council of Women and International Council of Women…. But she locked horns with them on occasion. She had very good relations with them overall, but there was a time she was the only representative sent from America to the International Council of Women in Copenhagen in 1902. And she was told, specifically, to not tell people she was from Utah or the daughter of Brigham Young, or that she was a Mormon. And she did that. But then at the end of the conference, she went and spoke at a few meetings at the Copenhagen [LDS] Branch, and the International Council of Women got wind of this and said, “You broke your promise.” She said, “No, I didn’t. I didn’t do it during the conference. I did it after the conference.” So they sort of took her to task for that.
Her Mormonism and polygamy did make it a bit more difficult at times in her interactions with other feminists, right?
Right. She wanted to get sort of an endorsement of one of her books … from Susan B. Anthony. And Susan B. Anthony’s last letter to her was a scathing denunciation of Mormonism, saying, you know, “how dare you ask me to give an endorsement of your book. I don’t do that sort of thing, especially for Mormons.” And in the letter, Susa had written my last communication from Susan B. Anthony. But I think overall she was highly respected, and highly regarded because she was very enthusiastic, very optimistic, and took care of all the press releases for the press club of the International Council and the National Council of Women for many years.
Would she have supported the Equal Rights Amendment?
Well, she and her daughter Leah really are the ones who popularized the mantra priesthood for men, motherhood for women. ... Susa would do whatever the leading brethren of the church wanted to be done. ... As she said with regard to her genealogy work, “I provoke the brethren to good works. Just don’t provoke the brethren.” … So I think that anything that passed official sanction by church authorities, she would be right in line with that. She would certainly be over on the sidelines saying, you know, “Get those women in your councils. Listen to what they say. They’re smart as you are. They’re as capable as you are. And don’t think that you men have, you know, any kind of exclusive rights to inspiration.”