Book Review: Mormon Women Have Their Say
It took me a long time to read this book, 1) because I actually read it one and a half times, and 2) because I read it almost entirely out loud. The first “half time” came on a long, long road trip across the United States, and was enough for me to know that I wanted every member to read it. The reason was both simple and personal: reading Mormon women’s experiences in their words facilitated the most amiable discussion on Mormon feminism that my traveling companion and I had ever had. He heard the women’s pain and joy, and he could not ignore them. Mormon Women Have Their Say birthed compassion and understanding.
The “whole time” came after my babe was born. I started again, and read a few pages at time, while I fed her. We finished just a few days ago, and it felt like a marvelous accomplishment.
The book begins with a preface from a woman at my graduate school that I do not know well, and then a longer introduction by Claudia Bushman, about the project the book stems from, and its history and impetus. One of the things she talks about is how we have few records on Mormon women, and fewer records on Mormon women that weren’t named Emma Smith, Eliza R. Snow, Emmeline B. Wells, or so forth, and fewer records still on Mormon women in the 21st century. The Claremont Oral History Project begins to correct all three.
It offers hundreds of records on regular Mormon women. In Claudia’s words:
They do not tend to be of any particular age, activity in the Church, marital condition, or ethnic group. They range from their teens to their nineties, with widely differing educational achievement, marital status, number of children, and faithfulness. We have interviewed beauty queens, CEO’s, converts, Relief Society presidents, inactives, bishops’ wives, high school drop-outs, PhDs, and women on welfare. We have women returned from Church missions and divorcees, temple workers and excommunicants.
This project records the experiences of LDS women in their homes and family lives, their church lives, and their work lives, in their roles as homemakers, students, missionaries, career women, single women, converts, and disaffected members. We have many frank voices. These signed and dated statements, currently amounting to 2,500 single-spaced pages, are a rich source at the moment of their creation and will continue to increase in value. I think that they are pure gold.
I do, too, Claudia, and offer my loud, “Amen!”
The rest of the book stems from these records. Each author became familiar with the collection, and then sought to interpret it using a lens, a backdrop, or a question. Many themes are considered, and many more could have been considered. As it is, we are offered rich insight after rich insight of what it means to be a Mormon women in the 21st century.
And the conclusions are anything but simple.
It is impossible to mention everything I loved about the book. I will highlight a few.
Caroline Kline’s first chapter, “The Self and Other,” considered the way Mormon women relate to themselves and others in terms of self-sacrifice. Do they abnegate themselves in their care of others, or perhaps do they care for themselves as they care for others? Kline found that some of the oral histories do show “traces of an extreme self-sacrificing dynamic,” while many more “reflect a balance and intertwining of self and other,” with the majority of women viewing “their choices as opportunities to create meaning in their lives” and “embracing their whole selves” by withdrawing from those who have hurt them.
Sherrie Gavin’s contribution on fertility compared public statements by LDS leaders with private statements by Mormon women making reproductive choices in the same time periods. Overall, she found that the majority of women felt free to make the choices that worked best for themselves and their families, regardless of official church rhetoric. No woman tied righteousness with reproduction. This chapter also touched upon the deeply personal topics of miscarriage and infertility in important and thoughtful ways.
Liz Mott asked what it meant to be a single woman in the LDS faith, which esteems marriage not only culturally, but doctrinally. Her answer was fittingly complex. She included women’s voices from a variety of backgrounds: Some were quite young, and some were quite old. Some have not married, and some have lost their spouses to divorce or death. Some are content in their position, and some are less so. Some have been met with great support at church, while others have been met with greater sorrow. Some felt like they lost authority in their wards, and were no longer given as many opportunities for service, and some did not.
This last point made me think of one of the most effective Relief Society Presidents I have ever known: she was a widow in her 80’s, and had ample ability and time to serve. One more thing that was quite interesting to me, and that Mott did well was demonstrate how very big the population of single Mormon women really is. She gave numbers, and percentages. It does not need to feel as lonely and unwelcoming as it often (and unfortunately) does.
The next chapter on motherhood did not resonate with me quite as much as the others, though I am grateful to be a mother. It seemed to try a tad too hard to show that motherhood is the sole thing that Mormon women want and find value in. There was also very little acknowledgement of those who want to be mothers but can’t for infertility or lack of marriage opportunity. Still, I imagine that many Mormon women would recognize themselves in the interviews and analysis.
The following chapter on adversity felt very meaningful to me, perhaps because adversity and sorrow are such natural parts of being human. The author, Pamela Lindsay Everson, began by stating that “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints promises its members happiness and an abundant life by following its teachings,” before boldly asking if ‘it can really deliver.’ In response, she offered beautiful and poignant accounts of Mormon women’s struggle to face their life’s most painful events with grace and resiliency. Many were able to succeed, though the discourse often depended on the event’s relationship to time: those whose trials were past could more easily speak of God’s love or purposes than those who remained in the murky middle.
Lisa Clayton contribution, “Revelation,” highlights the way that personal revelation makes room for Mormon women to be agentive. Many recorded speaking to God through prayer, and receiving “dialogic answers” back, where real words and sentences were felt or heard. The women respected their own revelations, as well as the revelations received by their female peers or family members. In turn, they exercised agency by acting upon the dialogic answers they received in a way that worked for them, even when it required standing up to male leaders. There was a lot of freedom involved.
Elisa Pulido began her chapter, “Missions,” by noting that there was only one question in the Mormon Women Oral History Project that explicitly mentioned missionary work, but that the theme is threaded throughout the narratives. Women spoke about proselytizing missions, service missions, being a “member missionary,” their ancestor’s missions, their own missions, their children’s missions, and their grandchildren’s missions, as well as how they felt if their children or grandchildren chose not to serve full-time missions. There was a nearly ubiquitous and palpable sorrow when sons didn’t serve, though there was only one expressed regret that a daughter didn’t. Many of the sons mothers reported feeling a personal responsibility for their child’s action, while simultaneously believing in agency. I saw multiple women that I love here. Thankfully, most of the women interviewed were able to “forgive” themselves, and find peace.
Amy Hoyt’s chapter is a must read on agency. One camp of theorists assumes that religious women are only exercising agency when they are fighting against patriarchy. Another assumes that religious women exercise agency even when they are upholding it. Hoyt argues for a combination. Mormon women practice agency by both resisting and supporting religious norms–often at the same time. She offered pretty persuasive examples.
Kline’s second contribution, “Patriarchy,” presented a range of ways Mormon women respond to patriarchy, from embracing it fully, to fully stepping away. This chapter is useful for understanding the pain that many Mormon women feel.
Taunalyn Ford Rutherford’s chapter on the Relief Society helped me know the importance of this book, and the strength of the Oral History Project. It includes anecdotes from women who are old enough to remember that things used to be different, and that the Relief Society used to have more power and autonomy. With that, there are also those who remember that the responsibility also brought challenges, and some were happy to give up both. This chapter includes a great anecdote about a Hawaiian Relief Society who faced with the call to turn their funds over to the Priesthood spent every last cent at a buffet in the city. It was the good kind of tear inducing, as well as the good kind of laugh inducing.
The last chapter happens to be the only one written by a man. It also happens to be on a topic that I care deeply about: Heavenly Mother. The author, David Golding, framed LDS belief in Heavenly Mother alongside a broader Goddess theology. It was fascinating for me to see how and when they intertwined, as well as how and when they stood on their own. Even more fascinating to me, however, were the patterns Golding noted in the oral histories. I thought a great deal about whether they matched the patterns in the 15 or so oral histories I performed. To a large extent they did, except for one. Golding sensed an apathy among the women, that I just didn’t see. The women I interviewed cared about Heavenly Mother and wanted to know more.
For a few last thoughts: I still want every member to read this book, and I like the way that the book functioned as its own history. Each of the authors brought her (or his) own beliefs and assumptions to their chapters. They asked the questions that they asked, and chose the narratives that they chose. Different curators would have written a different book. And they can. There is still room to explore.
Listen here to a podcast on the book with Caroline, Claudia, and myself.