Years ago, I asked a pioneering historian of Latter-day Saint women why there was no biography of Susa Young Gates. She replied that Gates’s reputation for being difficult meant no one was eager to spend enough time with her to write one. But the lack of a biography of this key figure among second-generation Church leaders left a serious gap in the historical literature. Recently, Romney Burke, a retired physician and great-grandson-in-law of Gates, sought to fill that gap with his Susa Young Gates: Daughter of Mormonism.
Gates left behind an immense trove of papers now housed largely at the Church History Library and the Utah State Historical Society. After immersing himself in this sea of materials, Burke has produced what best fits the category of a family history. It shares some of the problems common in such works, like a deep dive into the minutia of genealogy and occasional digressions into matters of little general or scholarly interest. (I, for one, could do without the extensive verbatim selections in chapter 12, “Novels, Poetry, and Short Stories,” 257–73.) But Burke has produced an especially good example of the family-history genre. While not a professional historian himself, he has consulted them, and his efforts to encompass the reach of Gates’s rich life include references to much of the relevant historical literature. With 7 pages of introductory material, 424 pages of text (generally well footnoted), 28 pages of photographs, as well as a thorough bibliography and index, his treatment of Gates’s broad-ranging activities is exhaustive.
As Brigham Young’s daughter, Gates grew up at the nexus of the Latter-day Saint community and seems to have wished to always remain at center stage. Indeed, like Theodore Roosevelt, as described in a quip attributed to his daughter, Gates seemed to wish she was “the bride at every wedding, the baby at every christening, and the corpse at every funeral.”
Beginning in her childhood, Burke shows that Gates was intelligent, energetic, outspoken, determined, calculating, and at times impulsive—traits exhibited throughout her life. Yet she quickly learned that her ambition and strong will pushed against the limitations imposed upon her sex. Close as she was to the center of power, she knew she would never be able to fully occupy it because of her inability to hold the priesthood. She recalled that for a long time she bridled against such gendered restrictions but ultimately came to accept her status (346). One gets the impression from Burke’s narrative, however, that such acquiescence never came easily.
Gates was Brigham Young’s forty-second child and his second daughter with Lucy Bigelow Young, who by some counts was Brigham’s twenty-seventh wife, though, Burke points out, the eleventh of sixteen who bore him children. Gates grew up immersed in the system of plural marriage, a practice she staunchly defended in idealized form throughout her life, yet, as was true for most of her generation, one she did not enter into herself.
Like her older sister, she rushed into an early marriage—in Gates’s case at age sixteen. The union ended in a bitter divorce but produced two children, one of whom, Leah Dunford, would marry future Apostle John A. Widtsoe and become an influential figure herself. Gates soon married again, this time united in a true love match with Jacob Gates, who indulged his wife’s talents and supported her ambitions. They would have eleven children together.
Gates’s family life is one topic I wish Burke had explored more fully. At the beginning of his volume, he notes his aversion to moving beyond evidence into the realm of speculation (ix). But part of a biographer’s job is to evaluate and make judgments based on her or his thorough understanding of the subject and the surrounding circumstances. Biography requires an author to interpret limited evidence as part of this process. Given this necessity, a little speculation, properly identified as such, could have benefitted Burke’s treatment of the tragic events surrounding the early deaths of several of Gates’s children.
Of Gates’s thirteen children from two marriages, eight died of causes ranging from infectious disease to unfortunate accidents before they reached maturity. Even at a time of relatively high childhood mortality, Susa seemed especially stricken. Burke gives brief treatments to each of these tragedies, but I wished for a little more detail about the circumstances and consequences surrounding those events. In particular, I was left wanting more information about the cumulative effects these losses might have left in their wake, both on the Gates family emotionally and on contemporaries’ perceptions of Gates as a parent. These involved situations about which family lore—as unreliable as it is sometimes—might have enriched our understanding. Burke was especially well positioned to draw upon such sources. Perhaps a more thorough discussion of Susa’s lifelong rejection of modern medicine in favor of remedies like taking warm baths and drinking consecrated oil might have been relevant here as well, something Burke, as a physician, might have been especially well qualified to reflect upon.
In general, however, Burke does not avoid such knotty issues. Instead, he leads the reader through conflicts and disappointments, family tensions, financial problems, and various wrenching tragedies. While he might be seen as giving short shrift to some issues, most often it appears he did not do so purposely, but more likely because he was swept along by the rushing tide of Gates’s very crowded life. There is a great deal of activity in this biography, so much so that at times it left me wishing the author had paused a little more to reflect on what had just been recounted and in so doing had allowed me time to catch my breath.
Burke’s treatment shows Gates to have been a woman of talent and recognized ability, traits that led her into prominent Church positions, including the leadership of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association and the longtime editorship of its journal. While unsuccessful in her effort to become coeditor of the Woman’s Exponent, Gates was the first editor of its successor, the Relief Society Magazine, and a member of the organization’s general board. Burke demonstrates that she was a key figure in promoting genealogical study in the Church and in educational and cultural developments in Utah. An important link to the larger community of women, she held leadership positions in several organizations, including the National and International Councils of Women. In all this, Gates pursued and maintained friendships with a remarkably diverse group, including radical feminist and reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
But as Burke makes clear, Gates’s strong will and drive could also alienate those with whom she associated, especially when she disagreed with them, while her criticism of those who opposed her views could be at times harsh and unfair. (See, for example, her interactions with Emmeline B. Wells, 332–33, and her criticism of Amy Brown Lyman, 352.) Concerned as Gates was about her reputation, however, Burke notes that she generally kept such criticism out of public view (422). Similarly, she can be seen as overly ingratiating and even manipulative in her praise of Church leaders, especially close family friend and Church President Joseph F. Smith (see especially chapter 15, “Best and Truest of Friends,” 319–29). As the above implies, while Burke acknowledges and celebrates Gates’s remarkable abilities and achievements, he does not sugarcoat her life. Achieving balance is always a challenging task for a biographer, made more so for Burke as a member of the family, but despite a few quibbles of the kind mentioned above, I would say he has managed the task quite well. Under Burke’s hand, Gates emerges as a complicated and sometimes difficult figure, but such people are often the ones who move things along, and he demonstrates just how effectively she did that.
This will not be the last word on Gates. Scholars will undoubtedly want to further contextualize her experiences, especially regarding the history of Latter-day Saint women and their gendered status in the Church. Nevertheless, Romney Burke has done an outstanding job laying out the boundaries of a far-reaching and remarkably accomplished life. When scholars seek to extend our understanding of Gates, they will have this biography as a foundation to build upon.