It’s the third day of the Our Voices, Our Visions Mormon Women’s Literary Tour and we’re making the long drive on the 89 through the western reaches of the Navajo nation into the red rock country of southern Utah. At Kanab, we turn south towards Fredonia and then west towards the twin towns of Colorado City, Arizona and Hilldale, Utah.
There are, after all, Mormon women writers in these communities too: Mormon women with their own rich stories to tell.
Thanks to a friend we met at our reading in Tempe, we have been invited to visit with a woman named Marylene and her friends in Colorado City.
Holly Welker, Susan Scott, Lisa Hadley, and I are listening to Led Zeppelin and talking about the Word of Wisdom as we pull off the 389 into Colorado City and cross the bridge over Short Creek.
Women of all ages in FLDS-signature pioneer dresses cross the streets, while young men in long-sleeved jeans shirts and pants ride ATVs through the red dust at the edge of the road.
We meet Marylene and her sister Irma. Earlier today on the phone, I spoke to Marylene about our project to collect the writings of Mormon women and archive them at the University of Utah, and she has brought us a short type-written essay about her life, which we accept with gratitude.
We follow them first to the Colorado City dairy (where we sample the famous squeaky cheese curds), then to the home of another woman named Priscilla, who is standing out back frying Utah-style scones in a deep fryer. She offers us sizzling hot scones with powdered sugar and home canned pear jam.
Marylene, Irma, Priscilla, and a fourth woman named Ann invite us to tour their town in a big white family van. For more than an hour, they drive us through Colorado City and Hilldale. They show us large family homes, the award-winning Masada charter school in Centennial Park, the mercantile, the town birthing center, the churches, the park against the mountains where FLDS families are playing softball in the dusk, the empty lots where Bishop Fred Jessop once brought a small collection of zoo animals to entertain the local children. Only a few ostriches are left, squatting in the red dust. The town is still trying to recover from the reign of Warren Jeffs, and the SWAT teams and truckloads of media that came with it.
Our van stops in front of the little school house where the men and women of Short Creek huddled when hundreds of heavily armed law officers came to raid the town in 1953. Priscilla and Marylene were young children when it happened, and Irma was born while her mother was in state custody down in Phoenix, Arizona. They tell us of the children the state of Arizona tried to foster or adopt away from their parents, of the years it took for families to be reunited, of the way the fear the raid brought on has shaped the lives of their communities.
Holly asks them if they see any similarity in their situation and the situation of gay and lesbian families whose marriages are not recognized by the state. The women nod their heads. “Yes,” says Priscilla. “They are both issues of civil rights.”
Priscilla, Irma, Marylene, and Ann are all members of the Centenial Park Action Committee. Their goal is to make sure their voices are heard in the political and media debates that surround their small communities and the practice of plural marriage. In the long run, they hope to overturn the 1877 Supreme Court decision known as “Reynolds” that outlawed polygamy and declared it an “odious” “Asiatic” practice.
“We know we have a long road ahead of us,” says Priscilla. “It’s like the first suffragettes and it took them their whole lifetimes to see women have the vote.”
The hour grows late. We exchange hugs and phone numbers and email addresses with these women, our long-lost Mormon kin.
“Thanks for not being afraid to come to see us,” says Marylene before getting into her white Buick and guiding us back through Colorado City to the 389.
Tonight (Thursday), the Our Voices, Our Visions tour will continue at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Friday at UVU, and Saturday at the University of Utah. For full info, see mormonwomenwriters.blogspot.com.