“A Pioneer Is Not a Woman Who Makes Her Own Soap,” Ensign, June 1978, 54
I suppose every Mormon woman has measured herself at one time or another against “the pioneers.” Am I as stalwart? As self-reliant? As devoted to the gospel? As willing to sacrifice? Could I crush my best china to add glitter to a temple, bid loving farewell to a missionary husband as I lay in a wagon bed with fever and chills, leave all that I possessed and walk across the plains to an arid wilderness?
For me, such thoughts have a way of recurring at awkward moments. Perhaps my full pedigree of handcart-pushing, homesteading grandmothers is the cause, but I remember being wheeled into a delivery room on one occasion, surrounded by sterile sheets, rubber-gloved nurses, and the most sophisticated of fetal-monitoring equipment, and saying to the doctor: “I never would have made a pioneer!”
Fortunately for my ego, he laughed and answered: “Of course you would have. You would have done all right in a field.”
I am sure he was right. Given no other option, I could have given birth, as my own Grandmother Thatcher did, in a log cabin while recovering from smallpox. Heroism often consists in simply surviving under tough odds. Yet books of remembrance seldom record the pain, and even less frequently the petty complaints, quarrels, and insecurities that so often accompany great deeds. That is why I enjoy a passage from the journal of Henrietta E. Williams, in which she described an ordinary but trying day when the pioneers had stopped to shoe cattle and reset wagon tires.
“They knew that I was no cook, but left that job for me. I built a fire after gathering buffalo chips, and getting it started, the wind playing with it as it pleased. I put the dutch oven on to heat with the cover by the side of it. I made a pie of dried apples, putting it into the oven, the lid still heating, and turned toward the wagon several yards away from the fire for safety. A nice cow sneaked up and helped herself to the pie and sneaked off, when a girl called me to look at my rice. I had a hard time cooking the biscuits as I was jumping in and out of the wagon, climbing over the provision box, watching my baby girl and getting what [my husband] wanted as it was his misfortune never to find anything he was looking for. The fire had its own way of burning. I thought, ‘Oh, Zion, will we ever reach thee?’” (Nancy Clement Williams, After One Hundred Years, Independence, Mo.: Zion’s Printing and Publishing Co., 1951, p. 157.)
As a modern woman, whose moments of trial often come at suppertime, I take comfort in this homely anecdote. I hope as journal keepers we will share with our descendants our times of discouragement as well as the moments we want to preserve in bronze. I also hope that we will remember that the pioneers were people too.
“Oh, Zion, will we ever reach thee?” Since Zion is the “pure in heart” as the Doctrine and Covenants tells us, all of us live most of our lives on the trail. We are still pioneers. I suppose most Latter-day Saints recognize that. Our challenges are just as important as those of the past. Our testing is as crucial; our contributions may be as great. But it is difficult sometimes to recognize just what those challenges really are, and sometimes the example of the pioneers seems to get in the way.
Recently I heard an announcement in our ward urging couples to participate in a temple excursion. The motivational device that the speaker used was a familiar one: “Of course, it is a little inconvenient to ride on a bus all night and do endowments all day, but when you compare an air-conditioned bus with the covered wagons the pioneers had, you can see that our sacrifices are pretty small.”
But eternal progression cannot be measured in miles, or by the false equation: the more bumps and the more lost sleep, the more valiant the Saint. No. Despite air-conditioning and padded seats, our sacrifices are often as great, and our challenges are as profound as any in the past.
I have a friend who says that the equivalent of crossing the plains in her life is driving to Primary each week through Boston rush-hour traffic. I have another who sees a contemporary version of facing social ostracism in taking four children under five to the playground in the university apartment complex where she and her husband live. Having faced both of these trials, I am not ready to dismiss them as trivial. Urban congestion and zero population growth are as real to many Latter-day Saints as sagebrush and mobs were to their progenitors.
But there are other dimensions to our pioneering. We have usually thought of the “frontier” as an empty place beyond white settlement, a desert or prairie to be cultivated and civilized. But in recent years, scholars of Indian-white relations have suggested another definition. A frontier is not a geographical space but a social space, an environment in which two different cultures meet and interact. In this sense, Latter-day Saints today are at the pushing edge of a new frontier.
A hundred years ago, Church members gathered to a Zion which was perceived as a geographically unified and economically cohesive community of Saints. An adobe brick meetinghouse and a Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution on the same street of the same town symbolized a unity of secular and spiritual life. Because there was no distinction between one’s ward and one’s neighborhood, my great-grandmother could borrow yeast and gather spiritual strength from the same group of women.
How different my own life! I am a citizen of a New Hampshire town of 10,000 people in which fewer than two dozen, including infants, are Latter-day Saints. I owe allegiance to a Mormon ward which meets in a city fifteen miles away and draws members from twenty towns in two states. Thus, at the interface of these two cultures, I experience a different frontier than my great-grandmother.
Yet the ideals of community life and responsibility which the early Saints carried with them to the Great Basin are still greatly needed in my world. As a granddaughter of pioneers, I know that my town and my ward both matter, that Heavenly Father has given me a stewardship in each, and that only by bringing the two together on the frontier of my daily life can I ever hope to reach “Zion.”
Frontiers can be disordered and even chaotic places where men and women appear at their worst as well as at their best. Yet an essential quality of the first pioneers was optimism, an ability to see new possibilities in a strange and unsettling environment. To beautify the desert, they needed faith in God, but they also needed faith in themselves and in their ability to help shape the world. The need for that faith has not diminished.
Because women are traditionally conservative, they have been preservers of continuity from generation to generation. I cherish that role. I like to collect old furniture, can fruit, tie quilts, and grind whole wheat. It is important to preserve the skills of the past, but in any generation that is not enough. In passing along our own spiritual heritage, we must be pioneers.
“Let us not narrow ourselves up,” Brigham Young cautioned our great-grandfathers and grandmothers. “We must lengthen our stride,” another Prophet has urged us. A pioneer is not a woman who makes her own soap. She is one who takes up her burdens and walks toward the future. With vision and with courage she makes the desert bloom.