Some people feel compelled to make money, win fame, or build empires, but those were not what drove the soft-spoken but quick-witted wordsmith Mary L. Bradford.
The quintessentially faithful Latter-day Saint feminist just had to write and publish.
“Some of us …can’t help it,” Bradford said in a 1987 essay. “Not doing it would be too much like dying.”
Thus, the dynamo poet and editor spent most of her nine-plus decades with pen, typewriter or computer in hand, working with and through words, coaxing out images and ideas — much of it connected to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Until this week, when Bradford died in Provo at age 92. The ebullient mom served from 1976 to 1982 as the third editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and the first woman to fill that role.
As such, she was at the center of Mormonism’s burgeoning intellectual community in the 1970s as it gained support from coast to coast.
“Mary was a part of any gathering or discussion or event that concerned aspects of Mormon literature, Mormon women’s writings and publications, Dialogue and Exponent II,” says Jody England Hansen, daughter of Dialogue founder Eugene England. “Yet she had no pretense.”
Bradford was “broadly human and fully Mormon, a woman who, in her quiet, unassuming and courageous way,” says Robert Rees, her predecessor at Dialogue, “used her many gifts of intellect, imagination and feminine spirituality to bless all who knew her.”
And she always remained close to the multigenerational Dialogue “family,” especially its founders.
In 2001, Bradford visited England in Utah as the charismatic scholar and teacher lay dying of brain cancer.
“She climbed beside him on the bed, hugged him and kissed his head,” recalls Hansen, and then Bradford whispered to him, “My eternal brother. My eternal brother.”
Last week, the daughter channeled her dad by visiting Bradford in her Utah County care center, holding her hand, and saying, “I love you, my eternal sister.”
A rich interior life
Bradford was born and reared in Salt Lake City as the eldest child of “quiet, hardworking descendants of Mormon pioneers,” writes her son Stephen Bradford, “living in a modest home on an acre of land filled with fruit trees, a vegetable garden, a cow, and a view of Mount Olympus.”
She was the first person in her family to graduate from college, he writes, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English literature from the University of Utah. She later taught at Brigham Young University, where she met and married “fellow extrovert and BYU professor Charles H. (‘Chick’) Bradford” in the Salt Lake LDS Temple in 1957.
The couple soon moved to northern Virginia, where they would live for decades and welcome three children.
“They served separately and together in a number of church, community and government-related leadership positions, and pursued their passions for thinking, writing, public speaking,” Stephen Bradford writes, “and collaborating with others in worthy causes.”
Chick, who lived “an energetic and highly productive life despite dealing with FSH muscular dystrophy,” his son writes, died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1991 at age 63.
Bradford’s literary achievements “were unveiled in fits and starts as she navigated an active family, church and community life,” her son explains. “Mary’s thought and themes were varied, but would often touch on her own engagement with the world as a believing, family-oriented LDS feminist with a moderate left-of-center worldview and a self-assuredness that her perspective aligned with what she understood it means to be a Christian.”
Besides being Dialogue’s editor, her works eventually would include editing a book of essays, “Mormon Women Speak”; her own essays, “Leaving Home,” a biography of Latter-day Saint teacher and humanitarian Lowell Bennion; a volume of poems, “Purple,” and a novel, “The Harp.”
Working as Dialogue editor in the 1970s era “required her to muster all her renowned abilities to interact and collaborate productively with those of divergent viewpoints within the LDS Church hierarchy, the scholarly and intellectual community, and faithful and doubting members of the church,” Stephen Bradford writes. She did it all with “characteristic aplomb” and “a sympathetic but unflinching eye for truth and fairness.”
A feminist for all seasons
When Joanna Brooks insisted on including several of Bradford’s pieces in her volume, “Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings,” one of her co-editors, Rachel Hunt Steenblik initially balked.
“They seemed different than other pieces we were publishing and were not as firmly about big Mormon feminist topics like Heavenly Mother or women and the priesthood,” Steenblik says. But Brooks explained that Bradford’s “pieces were doing the biggest work of all.”
In a church where women “are not seen as having as much authority over the pulpit or to do theology, Mary got women doing theology by writing about their lives,” Steenblik says. “That was theology. Women’s lives, women’s stories, and how God showed up for them in the everyday mattered. All of it.”
Steenblik, also a Latter-day Saint poet, now believes she “could not have written ‘Mother’s Milk’ without that influence.”
Brooks recalls that she felt close to Bradford while writing her own memoir, “The Book of Mormon Girl,” which became a bestseller in 2012.
“When I saw her on my trips back to the D.C. area, she’d clasp my hand, with a mischievous sparkle in her eye,” Brooks says. “She was genuinely delighted to see stories like mine (which really was never mine, but ours) crossing over into big mainstream audiences. That’s what she had been working for all along and made possible for so many Mormon women.”
Brooks felt seen, she says, “and it felt so good.”
Karen Rosenbaum of Berkeley, Calif., was one of the writers featured in Bradford’s book of essays.
“She was a sensitive teacher and a dynamic advocate for all of us Mormon women seeking, through words,” Rosenbaum says, “to make sense of our thoughts and experiences.”
Bradford, driven all her life to write, Rosenbaum adds, “showed us what a woman could do.”
Today’s Latter-day Saint women, “typing out our manuscripts and blogs,” the essayist says, are her literary “daughters and granddaughters.”