Madame Chair: The Political Autobiography of an Unintentional Pioneer
Jean Miles Westwood
Utah State University Press, 2007
Issues involving women and Mormonism have been a topic of discussion for decades. Older biographies like A Mormon Mother stand in stark contrast to the diminishing works of some contemporary Mormon women. There is a legitimate interest among LDS women (and men, for that matter) to determine just what role women should be playing in Mormon life and organization. Progressive women writers often must seek alternative publishers to air their views. Whether this diminishes the discussion is a matter of viewpoint and perspective.
Today, Utah is known to be one of the most conservative states in the Union. To some, it is ironic that Utah was the first to give women the franchise. And from its earliest days, Mormon women have had to be strong in their commitment to their faith and to their families. Opposition from without, and sometimes from within, presented LDS women with challenges not faced by others.
To be certain, polygamy played a large part in the early ongoing struggle for self- and societal-acceptance. So many wives defended the Principle. Others described it with some horror. However one experienced the Mormon polygamous passage, its very existence called unwanted attention to the real, or imagined, plight of women in Utah.
In this eminently readable and fast-moving autobiography, a Mormon woman tells a tale that is both intriguing and inviting. Who would have thought that a Mormon woman would be the first female to head a national political party? And the Democratic party, at that? Her journey to prominence is told in this slim volume with enthusiasm and appreciation, but with a certain caution as to how her audience will receive her tale.
Indeed, contemporary Utah is largely conservative, largely Republican, but Westwood insists that this was not always so. In fact, early Utah was heavily Democratic -- reflecting a desire to distance the Mormon community from the larger American political presence. As time went on, and as Mormonism became more synonymous with Americanism, the drift to the current status was predictable and certain.
Westwood suffered some severe health problems in her younger years, including a series of small strokes. As she worked through these challenges, she found herself becoming more involved in the political scene, in the Democratic party. But could a Mormon woman make any impact on a party so foreign to her Mormon upbringing? Westwood found the courage, and the determination, to work her way through the psychological barriers that came with a Mormon upbringing, to emerge a fully-formed, and formidable, force in national politics.
Of course, this book is primarily the story of a Mormon woman in a strange place in life. But it serves well on yet another level -- a fascinating look behind the scenes at the political process, as seen from an insider's perspective. Particularly riveting is her discussion of the McGovern race, in which she paid a large part, and the dismissal of Tom Eagleton as the Vice Presidential candidate. We get to go behind the scenes to see what makes a political campaign tick. And we get to observe a Mormon woman caught up in all of it.
Mormonism plays a large part in Westwood's life, and in her book. Her thoughts about abortion and place of women in the Church are fascinating. She certainly wouldn't qualify as a "Molly Mormon," but neither does she want to completely shed her identification is a Latter-day Saint. She finds some value in her upbringing, but refuses to let the culture define who she is.
Reading this book is a reminder that one can rise above the stereotypes of one's religion and succeed, in a big way, in a milieu that welcomes the kinds of equality that religion may not offer. There is a great hope, a great dream in this book. Told in a straight-forward way, avoiding the temptations to wax poetic and to orate stridently, the author tells her tale. In its heart, it is a thrilling tale. And it is an affirming story. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and hope you like it, too.