Come Forth as Doctors in These Valleys of the Mountains

By Taunia L. Bean

Looking back to my upbringing in the 1980s and the idea that women can “have it all,” I remember a TV commercial with an attractive young woman asserting, “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never, never, never let you forget you’re a man!” As funny as that memory seems to me now, the fact that I can still repeat this 1979 ad for Enjoi perfume word-for-word shows the impact it had on me and the culture of the time. We were breaking out of traditional roles and feeling the empowerment of the age. I felt ambition, drive, and the strength of all a girl could do.

But in my early 20s, I became frustrated as I tried to balance all of my personal and professional demands. Despite the voices of empowerment rising all around me, I wondered if it was really possible to increase my personal freedom, prepare myself for any career I desired, compete with men in all arenas, and still find time for home, family, and religious devotion as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In the “tops of the mountains” of the Utah frontier, I found stories of women playing strong roles in the fight for the rights of women and religious freedom. One such woman was Dr. Ellis Reynolds Shipp.

Like many Latter-day Saints of her generation, Ellis and her family emigrated to the Utah Territory in 1852 and began the back-breaking work of settlement in an area that is now known as Pleasant Grove. In the 1840s, following the martyrdom of Joseph Smith and religious persecution and violence in Nauvoo, Illinois and elsewhere, Brigham Young led members of the Church west to practice their religion without fear. They trekked 1,300 miles to the Rocky Mountains to find their promised land, and as the Church grew, Young “longed to make Utah self sufficient in all respects” and independent of those who would treat them unfairly because of their religion.

Even as a child, Ellis Reynolds felt a pull towards education and formulated a rigorous plan to educate herself. In her diary she wrote, “I could not well concentrate on the lessons in books during the very busy daylight hours, so I decided on the early morning hours for my studies.”. She resolved to rise at four o’clock every morning and study for three hours before the household awoke. She was most interested in the study of medicine and began to study with Dr. Gunn in Salt Lake City.

In a move to further Utah’s self-sufficiency, during a church-wide conference in 1873, Brigham Young announced that “the time has come for women to come forth as doctors in these valleys of the mountains.” Eliza R. Snow, president of the Church’s women’s organization, the Relief Society, echoed this call, asking for women of “nerve, energy and ambition” to qualify themselves as physicians. These calls for female physicians to help with the medical needs of the frontier people showed confidence in the ability and intelligence of women to take on an expanded role in the territory and to help support the religious sanctum that the Latter-day Saints had founded in Utah.

Even as a wife and a mother of three, Ellis responded to these calls for women of the Church to enter the medical profession. Leaving her children in the care of others, She moved back east to attend the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Ellis did not find ease and comfort in her studies of medicine. She was beset with doubt of her own abilities, exhausting study, homesickness for her children and family, and financial worry.

When Ellis’s husband came to visit her after her first year at the college, he found her weak and tired and convinced her to come home during the summer to recover. However, she persevered and returned for her second year at the college pregnant and with little money for her tuition and support. By picking up sewing jobs and even guarding the hall of cadavers at night, she earned enough money to successfully complete her second year. At the end of this year of studies, when her pregnancy was advanced, Ellis prayed to have the strength to finish her classes before the baby was born. She gave birth to a baby girl the day after she passed her final exam. Ellis wrote in her diary, “It is to me the crowning joy of a woman’s life to be a mother.” She kept the baby with her during her third year, eventually earning her Doctorate of Medicine and graduating with high honors in 1878 at the age of 31.

After returning to Utah, Ellis combined her love of family, devotion to religion, and passion for medicine. She moved her family to a house near her office and was one of the first female physicians in the territory to practice medicine. After realizing the need for more female doctors in the area, she opened the School of Obstetrics and Nursing. She taught the practice of medicine well into her 80s in Utah, Colorado, Nevada, Canada, and Mexico, taking her children with her on her travels. She delivered more than 5,000 children and licensed 500 women as midwives, while giving birth to 10 children herself. “[I]t was not unusual for Ellis to be pregnant or for her to be holding the baby of one of her students while she lectured.”

Ellis worshipped in the Church as a devoted and active member, serving on the general boards of the Relief Society and Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Association. She was also the president of the Utah Women’s Press Club and a delegate to the National Council of Women. She died in Salt Lake City at the age of 92, truly an example of what a religious woman can accomplish in her community.

As I consider the life of Ellis Reynolds Shipp and her legacy, I find a pattern for my own life as a mother of five with church leadership responsibilities and a career as a public school teacher. I pull strength from her story to expand the roles of women in my community and even to “have it all.” Can I bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and still enjoy my family? If Ellis is any model, it turns out, I can. Most of the time.

Taunia L. Bean, an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is a mother of five and teaches English at a local high school in South Jordan, Utah.

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