Susa Young Gates was one of the most influential women in Utah history. As the daughter of Brigham Young, she held a place of prominence in pioneer society. But her legacy goes beyond genealogy. Biographer Romney Burke describes Susa Young Gates as a human dynamo who left her mark on nearly every aspect of contemporary Latter-day Saint life.
How did Romney Burke become interested in Susa Young Gates?
I had heard of Susa Young Gates in passing when I was a youngster interested in Latter-day Saint history, but did not know much about her until I met my wife, Mary Sue Wilkinson, who is a great-granddaughter of Susa.
Mary Sue’s mother, Lurene Gates Wilkinson (1914-2016), during her freshman year of college at the University of Utah (1932-33) was secretary to Susa during Susa’s last year of life. Lurene’s father, Franklin Young Gates (1893-1979), was Susa’s last surviving child. From Lurene and Franklin I gleaned substantial information.
Describe Susa Young Gates for Latter-day Saints hearing about her for the first time.
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.
How did Susa Young Gates get her unusual name?
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.
What was it like to be a child of Brigham Young? Did Susa Young Gates and her sisters have a different perception of him than their brothers?
The Young children led a very privileged life. From about 1850 until Brigham’s death (1877) the Young family was probably the closest thing to royalty that the Latter-day Saints have ever had. They had their own family compound, a private school with the best tutors Utah Territory could offer, music lessons, special seating at the Salt Lake Theater, fancy gym equipment from the East, their own swimming hole, and the Brigham Young farm several miles away.
Susa later asserted, “Our home life was the very happiest domestic drama ever enacted.” (p. 8, Susa Young Gates).
The Young children all learned to work, although the brunt of heavy labor fell on the boys. By report, Brigham was somewhat stern but quite flexible, kind, and forbearing as a father, as a result of negative experiences with his own rough-hewn father.
Susa’s sister, Clarissa Young Spencer, claimed that Brigham Young had a close relationship with each of his children, although it is difficult to imagine how this might have been, considering his large number of children.
I have not discerned any particular differences in how his sons regarded him, as compared to his daughters.
What was Susa Young Gates like as a teenager in pioneer Utah?
Susa was smart, driven, ambitious, and self-directed as a youngster. It appears that she generally played by the rules, at least initially. The main rebellion of Lucy Bigelow’s three daughters (Susa and her sisters Dora and Mabel) were their youthful marriages, which all ended tragically.
Dora eloped at age 18 with Morley Dunford, cousin of Susa’s first husband, Alma Dunford. Dora insisted that Susa accompany them and then tried to get Susa to take the blame for the event. As a result of Dora’s early marriage, the plan to send Lucy and her other daughters south to live in St. George was cemented.
Susa married at age 16 and was divorced 5 years later. Mabel was likewise married at age 16 and subsequently divorced.
What influence did Brigham Young have on Susa Young Gates’s dedication to the gospel?
It seems to me that Susa was always very protective of the Young name and spent most of her life trying to make her father proud of her, especially in her adult years after his death. To her, the “great men” in her life always included her father, Joseph F. Smith, and Jacob F. Gates.
She recalled expressing to her father as a young adult that she wanted the same kind of assurance of the veracity of the gospel that he and her mother, Lucy Bigelow Young, had. Brigham told her the steps she would need to take.
Later in life, she recounted that about 15 years after this conversation she had an “aha” moment and at that time “knew” the gospel and Church were true. After that, she never doubted.
Tell us about Susa Young Gates’s marriages.
Her first marriage, which lasted from 1872 to 1877, was very unhappy. In her biography, I have only hinted at the abuse she suffered from her first husband, who was addicted to alcohol until late in his life. There are multiple unsubstantiated stories in family lore that I have not dealt with, in an effort to shield her first husband and his subsequent family.
Her second marriage (1880-1933) was to Jacob F. Gates, son of Jacob Gates, General Authority Seventy. This marriage was extraordinarily happy and produced 11 children, 7 of whom died in infancy or childhood. (Fortunately, not a single of these deaths occurred when Susa was away from home.)
After 1900, there were only 3 boys left at home, and Jacob took excellent care of them. He occasionally groused but, in general, he fully supported Susa in her work in Church and women’s organizations. Susa could never have done what she did without the unstinting support of her husband, who did not feel that his masculinity was in any way diminished by keeping the home fires burning. He was a remarkable man in his own right.
How did Susa balance her church service with her duties as a mother?
In addition to what I’ve just mentioned, Jacob was, with only 2 minor exceptions, always ready to take care of the children at home while Susa traveled. He was a very patient man, proud of his wife, and willing to do whatever it took to allow her to perform her important work.
She, in turn, always revered him as the head of the household and virtually always followed his counsel. Jacob tended to keep Susa grounded.
What are some of the organizations Susa Young Gates worked with? What enabled her to work so effectively across such different demographics?
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.
What do we know about Susa’s relationship with Emily Partridge?
We know that Emily Partridge lived next to Lucy Bigelow in the Lion House after its completion in 1856. Other than that, very little is known.
Susa left multiple entries about her mother’s sister-wives in unpublished notes at the Utah State Historical Society. Susa’s favorite wives were, of course, her mother, in addition to Eliza R. Snow, Zina D. Huntington, and Clara Decker. She made somewhat acerbic comments about seven other wives, but Emily Partridge is not in this group. Susa reserved her vitriol for Ann Eliza Webb, who made her living later in life giving anti-Mormon and anti-Brigham-Young lectures around the country.
To my knowledge, Susa never said anything negative about Emily Partridge, so, presumably, they got along well together.
What did Susa Young Gates think of Emma Smith? How did that compare to the perceptions of other 19th-century Latter-day Saints in Utah?
Susa’s feelings about Emma Smith largely reflect the prevailing thoughts of the time. Susa was offended that Emma refused to follow the counsel of her father, Brigham Young.
Susa has been unfairly pilloried for her writings about Emma, but nobody in those days had much regard for her. Revisionist history began with the book Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith (1984) by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery.
Now, Emma is viewed as a paragon of virtue, which she probably was. I remember when growing up that we just didn’t talk about Emma, and when we did on a rare occasion, nobody had anything very nice to say.
I don’t criticize Susa for her comments on Emma; Susa was just a product of her times.
What did Susa Young Gates think about self-aggrandizement?
I don’t think that Susa ever thought she was engaging in self-aggrandizement, although her critics most certainly did. According to Susa, her main purposes were to live a righteous life, do as much good among her fellowmen as possible, preach the gospel, burnish the good name of the Young family, promote the Church in a frequently hostile world, and raise a righteous family, among other purposes she considered noble.
Certainly, some people saw this as self-aggrandizing behavior, although I do not.
How did Romney Burke’s perception of Susa Young Gates evolve while writing her 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.
Her father died when she was young, and she did not have a lot of contact with him, particularly after she and her mother moved to St. George in 1870.
Her first marriage was a disaster, and she suffered greatly from the abuse she suffered. Eight of her 13 children died between infancy and adolescence. She was concerned about unwise decisions made by her sisters. She and Jacob were not poor, but money was chronically scarce, and she and Jacob had to scrimp, work hard, and go without in order to educate their children. She agonized over the inactivity in the Church of her son Hal in Hollywood. She had several years of poor health.
All of these things made me much more accepting of whatever flaws she may have had. 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.
How does Susa Young Gates continue to influence Latter-day Saints today?
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.
Where does Romney Burke rank Susa Young Gates among the most important women in 19th-century Utah?
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!
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