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On Aug. 24 and 25, the University of Utah is staging a conference, "Women and the LDS Church," co-sponsored by the faith's History Department, Brigham Young University groups and other schools.

It opens with a lecture by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich followed the next day by panel discussions.

The gathering is being co-directed by Matt Bowman, professor of history at Hampden-Sydney College and author of The Mormon People, and Kate Holbrook, the LDS Church's specialist in women's history.

Here, Holbrook explains the impetus behind the conference.

When and why did you decide to host this conference?

Matt had the good idea of framing the conference around the topic of agency, inspired by a fantastic talk Catherine Brekus gave at the Mormon History Association Conference in 2010. Brekus described how the academy has tended to discuss female agency in terms of women who act against prevailing norms, so female exercise of agency has become synonymous with rebellion. Brekus argued that women who stay within their traditions also exercise agency. She called for a more inclusive and nuanced approach to the discussion of agency and women's history. The theme of our conference is a response to her call.

What do you hope to accomplish?

The conference will provide space for conversations about the state of the field — what kind of work has been done and what researchers today are doing on women in the church. We hope our discussions will raise new questions and new ways of approaching this work. We are particularly excited about the panel on women outside of the United States. International histories of LDS women are largely unknown. We would love for the conference to function as a seed project, encouraging others to begin to research and tell these stories. Matt and I will edit some of the conference proceedings for a book published by the University of Utah Press.

What's going on with your department and women's studies?

As the first official specialist in LDS women's history, I've thought through what kinds of programs and resources the department needs in order to produce increasingly robust, inclusive histories. Department leadership has responded with tremendous support. My team is currently finishing a documentary history of the first 50 years of Relief Society. The history includes fascinating documents, like the minutes from the Nauvoo Relief Society (1842-1844), newspaper reports of LDS women protesting anti-polygamy legislation, eloquent arguments for suffrage, Exponent articles that tell what Relief Societies were doing in Hawaii, London, Boston and Indianola, Utah. The collection conveys a spiritual heritage of LDS women as passionate, articulate, determined and devout.

What aspects of this conference most excite you?

Members of the LDS Church understand the power of experiences. We share experiences from the past and present when we worship, when we study together, when we visit one another and when we gather as families. Scriptures are collections of experiences. Our history books and journals are collections of experiences. Sharing experiences is the way we make meaning of our lives, and it's the way we learn to build a closer relationship to God and the Savior and closer relationships with each other. I believe church members and leaders alike want to be able to share more women's experiences, and this conference will help with that process. —

Conference schedule

For details about the free "Women and the LDS Church" conference, go to

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