When I was a child, I heard of Susan B. Anthony, Susa Young Gates, and John Sousa, but had trouble separating them out in my mind because of similarities in name. The result was that I thought Brigham Young had this rockstar daughter who was featured on a silver dollar for her women’s rights activism and who wrote the “Stars and Stripes Forever” and other popular marches. Well, obviously that’s not quite true to reality, though at the same time, aspects of it aren’t that far from the truth – Susa Young Gates was Brigham Young’s daughter, was highly involved in women’s rights activism, and was a musician. In a recent From the Desk interview, Romney Burke (whose biography of Susa Young Gates was recently published) discussed more about this notable woman in Church history. What follows here is a co-post to the interview (a shorter post with excerpts and commentary).
In the interview, Romney Burke introduced who Susa Young Gates is and what she did:
Susa Young Gates was a human dynamo. She served on the general boards of the Young Woman’s Mutual Improvement Association and the Relief Society. She started the journals for both organizations. She served as an officer in the National and International Councils of Women. Her work in genealogy really established the guidelines we still use today in family history.
She knew virtually all the important figures in the women’s rights movement, including Susan B. Anthony. She met two queens, Liliuokalani of Hawaii, and Victoria of Great Britain, as well as three presidents of the United States.
She wrote extensively, including novels, poems, plays, histories, editorials, and a biography of her father, Brigham Young. She initiated the departments of music and domestic science at Brigham Young Academy (University), where she was the longest-serving member of the Board of Trustees in its history.
She was historian Leonard Arrington’s favorite “Mormon damozel.” She received the sobriquet of “the thirteenth apostle.” All this was in addition to giving birth to 13 children. …
Susa worked with the National Council of Women and the International Council of Women, as well as the Young Women, Relief Society, and Genealogical Society of Utah. Her success in the outside world depended primarily on her intelligence, efficiency, multi-tasking, and force of personality.
She was an accomplished stenographer and writer, which made her invaluable at national and international conferences. In these situations, she was often warned to soft-pedal her state of origin (Utah), her religious affiliation (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), and her family background (daughter of Brigham Young). When this information occasionally slipped out, people were generally shocked and occasionally outraged.
Susa was once told that if she would renounce Mormonism, she would get elected president of the National Council of Women. She replied that this was too heavy a price for her to pay.
While perhaps unknown at times, her influences continues to be felt in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:
Susa Young Gates has left her imprint on virtually every aspect of Latter-day Saint life. We study from lesson manuals, which Susa first produced and championed. She started two major publications (Young Women and Relief Society), which, although now discontinued, continue to influence journalistic standards in the Church. The way Young Women and Relief Society conduct their business reflects her influence.
The way we do genealogy and temple work are in accord with the guidelines she instituted. In fact, Susa could with good reason be called “the mother of family history.”
Susa’s efforts facilitated the transfer of Brigham Young Academy (University) from the Young family to the Church, which has influenced and continues to influence hundreds of thousands of LDS university students. She was the longest-serving trustee at Brigham Young University (over 40 years).
Susa was at the forefront of the women’s rights movement. In the Church she continues to be a role model for women, young and old, today. Virtually anywhere in the Church one looks, there Susa’s hand can be seen.
So, it could be summarized that Susa Young Gates was a significant individual in the Church around the turn of the twentieth century. That was partly why I was delighted a few years ago when she was featured in the Church’s Revelations in Context for her role in family history research in the chapter on Section 138.
Now, returning to her name, Burke offered an explanation as to why it was somewhere between Susan and Sousa, causing me so much confusion as a child:
Susa was originally named Susanne after the midwife who delivered her. When Susa was an adult, her father Brigham Young insisted (erroneously) that he had named her Susan as an infant after his sister. Susa acquiesced to his desires that she become Susan, but when Brigham’s will was read several months later after his death, one of Brigham’s clerks had mistakenly written her name as “Susa.”
It was insisted that Susa sign all of the legal documents as “Susa,” and thus, she became Susa for the rest of her life.
It’s kind of an odd to think of your name changing throughout life because of your father and his clerks, but I suppose it’s not the weirdest name-changing incident that I’ve heard.
Sometimes Susa can spark mixed feelings among Latter-day Saint historians. Burke mentioned this and offered his own take on her after working on his biography:
As I have come to know Susa, I have become much more sympathetic toward her. To me, she is no longer a powerful, domineering, capable, intimidating force of nature, impatient toward fools—but rather a kind, loving, hard-working woman who suffered more than her fair share of tragedy. … Frankly, I have been amazed over the years at the negative feelings several historians have had of Susa; I think most of their information has come from other sources. This book is the first attempt to understand Susa’s life from her own point of view. …
For me there is a triumvirate of “all-time greats” in 19th century Latter-day Saint women: Eliza R. Snow (b. 1801), Emmeline B. Wells (b. 1828), and Susa Young Gates (b. 1856), all born a generation apart.
Count me in with Leonard J. Arrington. Susa is my favorite by far!
Being his favorite, he did have more to say about Susa Young Gates for the interview, so I recommend heading on over to From the Desk to read the remainder!