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.
Thank you for penning such a poignant description of what it feels like to be a Mormon woman.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences, I love that you are seeking to know our Heavenly Mother through personal revelation. You have inspired me.
Have you read any of Margaret Barker’s works? She is a methodist preacher and scholar who has studied the early Jewish temple period. Many Mormons are excited about her work as it seems to back up a lot of what we have learned through Joseph Smith. A really neat part of her work is revealing an ancient Jewish worship of a mother goddess. She talks about women being “wisdom” and men being “knowledge”. I’ve only read her book called “Temple Theology, and Introduction”, but I found it throughly enlightening. Donna Nielsen’s “Beloved Bridegroom, Finding Christ in Ancient Jewish Marriage and Family Traditions” was also quite enlightening.
I have heard great things about Margaret Barker from many of my friends. It was their comments which helped me seek for more. Surely her books will be in my hands in the near future. Thanks for the reminder.
Thanks for the references. I’ve always thought it was interesting that wisdom was always a feminine noun in the scriptures while other characteristics were gender-neutral. After a session in the temple I was reading the wisdom sections in Proverbs with an assumption that they might be about Heavenly Mother, and they made a LOT more sense!
I can definitely identify & relate with your experience! I know so many other women who feel the same way & try to find sources outside the traditional “church” culture. To me we have a fullness of the Gospel & not a Wholeness. There is a big difference. I long for more because I innately know there is more, because I am an equal.
In my mind I don’t know why we can’t talk to our Mother like we would our Father. I don’t know how others feel about that, but I can say from my earthly experience that speaking to someone who actually understands on every level what it is like to be a woman is much more powerful to me. It is sad to say that history was often written or edited by males & we are all human in how that would have changed. How I wish more people would have the courage to ask questions, speak up & out, & shout the deepest desires of their heart. No, our religion does not presently have “everything” restored to it because the Goddess/Priestess role is still largely & very visually missing (though there in theory, just not in accounted details).
My favorite books/articles that have helped me with women in our religion are:
Eve & the Choice Made in Eden by Beverly Campbell
“Nephi and His Asherah” by Daniel C. Peterson
and, my favorite, “How to Worship our Mother in Heaven (Without Getting Excommunicated)” by Kevin L. Barney
Thanks for reading and commenting! I love any references I can get. A friend of mine recently felt prompted to start researching the Goddess, which meant having to look outside Mormonism for almost any information. She’s Mormon as well, but feels the need to connect to the feminine divine to learn more about her own divine potential.
Nephi and his Asherah is one of my favorites as far as looking into possibilities for Goddess symbolism in the Book of Mormon which is probably the most male-heavy book of scripture we have.
I’ve been slowly coming to the conclusion that the female divine was never in this creation. None of our teachings reflect any real care for women as humans in their own right, more like vessels to do other things. Patriarchy allowed men to own, control, answer for, sell, buy and exploit the women and no one in the heavens was concerned. Rather than find that Heavenly Mother is a cold beast, I think it is far more likely that she never existed. It may be that we have to expand beyond this creation and beyond our Heavenly Father (who is so indifferent to ALL his daughters) to find other female divines and learn of ourselves.
I have never thought of myself as a feminist in any way shape or form. I don’t need the scriptures to be about women. I don’t want a leadership position in the church. I truly don’t want to do anything but stay home, raise my children and take care of my family. I personally like the feeling of protection that the anonymity of being a women gives me. I don’t have to go out into the world to struggle and make a living. I don’t have to prove my worth to anyone because I’m important to my family in the home. I have a husband and 6 children that love and appreciate me. My two year old tells me 100 times a day, “I love my mudder,” while he give me a choke hold with his chubby arms and kisses my cheek. Our home is heaven on earth and I could almost be perfectly content if it weren’t for one thing.
I have goals and things I want for my family that I have to finally admit will never happen for us because my husband doesn’t have the same goals. We do have a lot in common and agree on many things but the truth is that I can really only do what I want when he agrees with it while he can go out into the world and do anything he wants without my consent. I can’t tell him how to make a living but he can come home and tell me how to keep house. My husband is nothing like a controlling jerk but we obviously aren’t going to agree on everything and in the end he will always have his way because he is the man. For the first time in my 17 years of married life I am feeling stuck and powerless.
As I was feeling particularly frustrated about this a few months ago I had some interesting thoughts and questions pop into my head.
-The cold hard truth is that my children and I are completely powerless and subject to my husband and he will be responsible for any amount of suffering that he causes us.
-This applies to ALL men.
-What if that is the point of this life?
-What if it’s the men that are on trial here?
-If the scriptures are written about and for men then do they apply to me in the same way?
-What if I have been reading them wrong all these years, thinking they were written for me when they weren’t?
-Men seem to have all the main trials and weaknesses in this life. The big sins in general apply mostly to men (and maybe women that have been abused by men), power, greed, lust, addictions, violence, etc.
-I’m not joking when I say that any problem women seem to have can be traced back to abuse or neglect by men. I can definitely see that in my family and families around me.
I don’t have any answers, just some interesting new questions. Men and women are certainly different creatures so maybe what we really need is a very big adjustment in our thinking about these issues if we want to see things more clearly. If my calling really is to raise children and be my husband’s help meet then why should I concern myself with all these other issues that have nothing to do with me? Yes, my children and I will continue to benefit from my husband’s good choices and suffer from his bad ones but maybe that is the point. If it weren’t for us how would he practice and learn these lessons? And if it weren’t for my husband and children how would I learn patience and to be grateful for our blessings even if they aren’t always the ones I would choose?
I am totally in support of women being stay-at-home moms if that is what they are happy doing. I have a friend who excels at it and could give Martha Stuart a run for her money. I am happy that she has found her calling in life, she has a right to pursue doing good for her family in a way that she thinks is best, and she loves it. I just wish that women who don’t fit that model were afforded the same privilege in our culture. I have several friends who are not happy unless they are working, and it’s not for lack of trying to be good stay-at-home-moms. They tried really hard and were very unhappy. They even felt prompted to go back to work or start a business, and now they are better parents.
You have some interesting questions at the end of your comment. I’ve gone through a few of them in trying to understand how things are, but the more I research the less I’m satisfied that the way things are now is the way things are intended to be forever. In Judges, we have Deborah, a female prophet who judges Israel. She was the final authority at the time. I also listened to a podcast with a Biblical scholar who said that in the early Church (Paul’s time), there were female deacons and apostles. They are named in the New Testament (I can link to the podcast if you’re interested.) Also, in the Old Testament, a lot of references to condoned Goddess worship were removed by men. I think these may be some of the plain and precious truths we still haven’t received all of yet.
I also think there’s a certain amount of us as a church not asking so the Lord doesn’t give unless we’re really serious about wanting to know the answer. My faith journey forced me out of my comfort zone of thinking “well, I don’t have to ask any of the hard, unanswered questions, because that’s the bretherens’ job. I just get revelation for personal stuff.” But I can feel that that is not a healthy place to be for me spiritually.
While I absolutely believe we are to learn lessons from marriage and our different circumstances (and they differ a lot from culture to culture and family to family), I don’t think it is supposed to all be about the men. That robs women of their agency, and the world of a lot of the contributions women can make. Why does God make some women brilliant scientist, musicians, leaders, etc. if he never wanted them to pursue those things?
Honestly, I don’t have many answers either (and a lot of questions.) But the thing I do know is that each woman’s journey is individual and I can’t judge what someone else needs to do or learn in their life, I can only speak for myself and what others have told me bout their experiences. I am grateful for the many women who see things very differently than I do for the insights they have given me. Thank you for your comments and questions, and God bless!
This is beautiful. As a woman who’s gone through similar struggles with the absence of women and especially Heavenly Mother in our gospel narrative, and who often wonders how to help her newborn baby girl avoid the same struggles later in HER life, this totally resonated with me.
Thank-you for stopping by to comment. I’m still working through everything myself, but I have found people and sources to give me a starting point to search from. Sadly most of them are not sources in the church because we don’t have many, but I do believe God will reveal more on a collective level in the future. In the meantime, it will have to be person revelation 🙂