This is the second post in a two-part series about narrative structures in the Church as they relate to women. You can read the first post here.
“The 3 Lessons”
When I was serving my mission, I had a very feminist trainer. I’m pretty feminist too, but I think she had to be extra-feminist because she grew up in Utah and had to fight that much harder for people to recognize there was more to her than the size of her bump-it, or the depth of her brownie-pan. Well, one day we were discussing the Young Women’s program, and she sarcastically said “There are basically three lessons in Young Women’s: Chastity, being a good wife and mother, and honoring the priesthood.” Now while I did learn a lot about Christ and the restored Gospel in Young Women, as far as what it meant to be a woman in the Church and my place in the world, I had to admit that it was a pretty good summary of the messages I received. So what’s the problem here? Let’s go through “the 3 lessons” and see how they all add to women being sidelined in their own narrative:
Lesson 1: Chastity
Chastity in its purest form is a beautiful principal applicable to both men and women. However, chastity as taught in Young Women is almost entirely focused on men and how not to tempt them with these bodies that, to us young women, feel awkward and strange, but apparently are just oozing dangerous sexuality we must protect the men from. They just can’t help themselves. For me, this took the story of my body away from myself and gave it to others. My body was not my own, it was always being seen or judged by others whose experience of it was, as men and/or priesthood holders, deemed more important than my own experience of it. We didn’t have lessons on anxiety or eating disorders (which many, many young women struggle with), and the young men didn’t have lessons on how their body could make women feel intimidated or hurt if they didn’t use it appropriately. So instead of learning about how our bodies were central to our personal growth and experience, we learned how our bodies fit into the experience of those around us.
Lesson 2: Being a good wife and mother
OK, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be a good wife and mother anymore than there is with wanting to be a good husband and father. However, it’s the amount of time spent on this topic, as well as the way it was taught that began to make me believe that if I ever got married, my own life was over. The message I repeatedly got from leaders, media and manuals was that the “right” choice was to be a full-time stay-at-home-mom who taught the Gospel and cooked and cleaned for her family without ever asking for more. Even the scriptural examples we read were all interpreted to fit this narrative, (though I think they had a hard time making Jael fit, so maybe that’s why she wasn’t in any lessons.)
This narrative presented for women terrified me. Men could still be husbands and fathers while pursuing a career and outside interests, but a woman shouldn’t. I was very devoted to the Gospel, but I had big goals. I remember shocking a Sunday School teacher who asked the young women in the room if they all planned to be mothers. I didn’t raise my hand and told him, “I want to be an actress. I mean, if a family comes along, that’s fine, but I can’t plan on having a husband.” I wanted to achieve success in areas I could control.
I didn’t tell him though, that I was also scared that if I got married, I would have to forget my own dreams and force myself to be happy supporting my husband in only his goals and aspirations. I was terrified that my own narrative would turn into a forgotten side-note in someone else’s story, and my only creative outlet would be vinyl letters and mason jars.
Lesson 3: Honoring the Priesthood
This one is fairly obvious. While the priesthood is legitimately very important in our religion, I don’t seem to recall the young men having lesson after lesson about the Relief Society and how they should respect the work the women in it do, or how to support the MiaMaids and Laurels in their callings because they are an essential part of the ward.
Many have responded, “Well, women do important work as mothers.” However, our Church teaches that ideally women are not to be mothers alone; they require a husband and father for their children. Also, there’s no guarantee a woman will be a mother even if that’s her primary goal. The priesthood as it is essentially being taught, doesn’t need a single woman in order to function and perform its duties, and is available to any worthy male starting at age 12. Narrative-wise, women will never be the main character in a story about the priesthood. Only an occasional supporting character. We start to view it as normal that all stories and view-points are about men, partly because the priesthood is so important to us and is only performed through men. An acquaintance of mine posted on Facebook that a Bishop recently spoke at their youth conference saying: “I look around this circle at the young men and think of what amazing priesthood leaders you will be. I see future bishops and stake presidents. And you young women, behind every great man is a great wife. What excellent bishops’ wives you will make.” As young women in the Church, we subtly learn that we are not, and never will be, the main character again.
Pregnancy, Paradigm-Shifts, New Narratives
As a young adult, I was rather decided in finding my own path and making my own story while still staying as true to the Church and the Gospel as I could. I studied musical-theater, performed abroad professionally, served a mission, was president of a comedy troupe, and studied a semester in Africa before I did indeed get married at a time and to a person that was right (and AWESOME) for me. Now in most of these great experiences, there wasn’t exactly a plethora of female archetypes taught in Relief Society or Sunday School to give me spiritual guidance. I was still inundated with mostly male characters and leaders, with a few female characters whose main function in a story was to be a supporting character so the priesthood leader could fulfill his mission. So when I was going off to work in Japan for a year, or on a mission for a year and a half, or became the director of a popular comedy group, the archetypes/characters I often related to, were men. Unfortunately, this made it harder for me to identify with certain women’s narratives because I started to believe that if they were too “girly” or too “mommy,” that they were irrelevant, likely boring, and not as important. Then I got pregnant…and everything changed.
Having a human being grow inside of you is the craziest thing ever. It’s weird and spiritual and amazing and unsettling and…basically any adjective a woman’s used to describe pregnancy is true. I felt there was something holy about it in a way I hadn’t felt anything else in my life. However, it was a terrifying kind of holy because when it came right down to it, I had no control over what was happening and I really didn’t know how it was happening. There was no detailed spiritual roadmap for this. Pregnancy made me face just how different of an experience being female can be, and that there were only a handful of (often incomplete) women’s’ stories to identify with. I craved more. But I realized it wasn’t just stories about pregnancy I was craving. I wanted to hear about wise women and their experiences with God, with the Spirit, with other women, with their religion, with their community, with their body, with anything that I could look to as a road map of what it means to be divinely female from a divine (or trying to be divine) female. It became jarringly apparent to me that I had felt at peace with most of the Gospel narratives before, because I had never really considered that I was not the (male) protagonist which I had been taught to identify with. I thought I was the main character…until now. Many of the narratives taught at church started to crumble around me, causing more pain than peace. I had unconsciously dismissed my own gender’s experiences and viewpoints for so long, and I felt like I was starving.
Reading the Book of Mormon and attending the temple became more difficult as every narrative reminded me that a woman’s voice and experience was not deemed as “universal” or needed as a man’s. I was going to give birth to a daughter. Where am I to find a spiritually significant relationship of a mother to her biological daughter in any scripture? What guide do I have for that, or is that relationship not considered important in the eyes of God compared to having a son? In the temple, why is there only one female character out of a total of eight characters? This creates a narrative where women are “other”, since all characters, whether good or evil, mortal or immortal, divine or profane, are by default in the temple narrative, male. The Divine males decide to create this important, but abnormal being that is a woman. I’ve often though that if the only template I had for eternity was the temple story, I would assume that every soul is male and that female beings appears on earth for a brief time and then either disappears or turns into a male, because there are no other female presences on earth or in heaven. But my body and soul seemed to tell me in agony that that was wrong. That what I was seeing was far off the mark from what really went down in that glorious twilight of creation when Heavenly Mother also came in Her power and glory. That there were many wonderful things to learn of Her part in this story that have been lost, rejected or forgotten, but might be understood if I was willing to seek truth outside of my comfort zone.
Honestly, it has been a mournful realization that the Church I love and feel great devotion to, cannot give me all the things I need. It cannot give me a divine being to 100% emulate since in our doctrine, gender is eternal and I will never be like my Heavenly Father because He is male. It cannot give me an eternal narrative where I am the protagonist. Church leadership often proclaims how wonderful women are, and I believe their esteem is real, but I don’t believe we’ll truly reach our potential until the story of what it means to be a woman becomes a woman’s to tell. If women are to have a similar narrative to men, but one that honors and acknowledges being female, we need to know more about our Divine Mother. While I do hope for greater revelation Church-wide in the future, in the present, I am currently attempting to seek her on my own through my own personal revelation. While I am starting to more often recognize and feel her influence, I wish I knew more about her. I ache for her and long for her and have cried out to her as I have rocked my own baby to sleep at night, longing for the same divine comfort. When or how these revelations about my Mother will come, I’m not sure of, and I may never know more about her than the whispered, loving presence I have felt in seeking her. What I do know is seeking her is a great and noble journey…one that I am realizing gives me greater power in the story of myself.