Gates, Susa Young
GATES, Susa Young
Wrote under: Amelia, Maggie Farnham, Mary Foster Gibbs, Homespun, Mary Howe, Dr. Snuffbottle
Daughter of Brigham and Lucy Bigelow Young; married Alma Dunford, 1872; Jacob F. Gates, 1880, children: 13, but only five survived to adulthood
An aristocrat among the Mormons in the intermountain West, Susa Young Gates was raised in the Lion House, polygamous household of territorial governor and church leader Brigham Young. Educated beyond the usual for the time and place, at fourteen she was editor of the University of Deseret (now Utah) literary magazine, and at twenty-two she established the music department at the newly founded Brigham Young University, as well as instituting classes there in phonography (shorthand).
A mixed career of writing and editing began in 1889 with her publication of the Young Woman's Journal, which lasted until 1929. In the interim she also directed the founding of the Relief Society Magazine. Both were monthly magazines aimed at Mormon women. Gates contributed heavily to both, generally under one of her several pseudonyms. She also wrote for the North American Review, the Pacific Bureau Service, and the Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine.
Her involvement with women's issues, including the successful campaign to include universal suffrage in the Utah constitution, 1896, took Gates as far afield as London (1889) and Copenhagen (1902) as a speaker and participant in conventions of the International Council of Women. By no means a radical feminist, she reflected a conservative position of human rights within a patriarchal hierarchy.
Her early marriage ended in divorce after the birth of two children. A subsequent marriage produced eleven more children, whose births and deaths were interspersed among the heavy professional schedule Gates maintained. Of the 13 children, only five survived to adulthood.
Her literary output is varied. Two novels, one full biography, a genealogical handbook, a play, a raft of short stories, and countless short personal essays are in print; her papers contain manuscripts of a history of women and several other unfinished projects. Her commitment to the Mormon belief is the unifying thread through all, a commitment expressed most effectively through her characters' adherence to basic 19th-century Christian morality, or their defiance thereof, with the subsequent, and predictable, dire consequences.
Her own favorite of the novels, John Stevens' Courtship (1909), tells of two young Mormon women of the 1850s and the clash with "the world outside" in the form of eastern soldiers stationed in Utah. The book is often didactic, its message of "virtue rewarded" very openly acknowledged in the disgrace and death of the morally careless Ellen and the happily-ever-after marriage of the steadfast Diantha to Mormon stalwart Stevens.
Superior to the earlier work, however, is the imaginative Prince of Ur, published posthumously in 1945. Through the travails of Hebrew Abram the book presents conflicts of love and religion. The protagonist is a virile statesman-priest, set off against the bestial Nimrod and the cunning Mardan. Sarai is saintly, but markedly less interesting than the provocative, determined Ischa, whose warmth and a certain pathetic quality save her from a stereotyping that would have marred the book.
It was through her short stories, however, that Gates won her reputation among her contemporaries. Didactic, moralistic pieces, they often ran as serials in the journals she edited. Slanted at an audience immature in age or in literary sophistication, they reflected nothing so much as Gates's religious conviction.
More effective in the moralistic purpose for which she wrote were the personal essays Gates often included as editorials or notes in the magazines. Often impassioned, they ranged far afield from religious tenets, though they retained a gloss of Christian, more specifically Mormon, mores.
Her dramatic writing and her poetry generally were not significant beyond their moment. The Life Story of Brigham Young (1930), Gates's biography of her father, though no longer standard, was appraised by contemporaries as, understandably, written "in the nature of a vindication, but indeed polygamy is the only thing…that needs vindicating."
Not Mormonism's nor Utah's finest writer, Gates was in several aspects a worthy pioneer: as novelist, essayist, short fiction writer, and editor-journalist, she set some models which long survived her in the mountainous West.
Lydia Knight's History (1883). Heroines of Mormondom (1884). History of Young Ladies' Mutual Improvement Association… (1911). Surname Book and Racial History (1918).
Burgess-Olson, V., ed., Sister Saints (1978). Bushman, C., ed., Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah (1876). Cracroft, R. P., "Susa Young Gates" (thesis, 1951).
Latter-Day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia, A. Jensen, ed. (1901). NCAB.
—MAUREEN URSENBACH BEECHER