Can Mormon Women Be Wild Women?
My friends and I managed to scoop up the last six seats for a late showing of Wonder Woman this week. We’re not your typical action flick crowd, but after the previews played, we sat back with our ice creams and sodas and cried through every fight scene.
To me, and to many women, Wonder Woman feels like a cultural milestone. We may have missed getting our first female president, but at least we got our first female-directed, female-starring, record-breaking box office hit.
I was surprised by how moved I was by this film, particularly the scenes with the Amazons. They make up the first moments of the film–strong, powerful women of all colors and builds training, fighting, and ruling together. It seems campy, but I cried as they helped each other navigate battlefields, and marveled as they flexed their wisdom and strength without shame and without apology.
Through these scenes, I keep thinking about the way Diana roared.
She roared as she lifted tanks and tossed pieces of shrapnel the size of minivans. She roared as she was forced to make gut wrenching moral decisions. She roared in her own failure, and she roared in moments of triumph. It wasn’t a bloodthirsty roar. It was a roar to rattle the earth, a roar to stamp the universe with its own unique signature.
All that roaring reminded me of a book called Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Estés. It’s a dense book–one that unpacks female archetypes from many different traditions, from the selkies of Ireland, to La Que Sabe of Hispanic culture, to the witches and maidens of European fairy tales. In each story Estés explains how and where the figure of the wild woman appears. According to Estés, when the women in these stories suffer, it’s because they’ve been soul-starved, neglecting their wilder natures to participate in a restrained, orderly hierarchy.
Estés takes her title from the dominant metaphor of the book: that spiritually healthy women are like wolves. No matter the severity of their situation, they’re experts in survival and strength. “The hallmark of a wild nature,” says Estés, “is that it goes on. It perseveres.” When wolves are sick or injured, they carry themselves to safe spaces to heal. If anything tries to harm them, they defend their space with vicious insistence.
As I’ve evolved spiritually, I’ve come to crave wildness. Psychology PhD Diana Raab says, “The important work of the wild woman involves giving voice to authentic expression that might be set aside or ignored by others.” More than anything I crave that authenticity, that permission to roar when I need to—when I’m angry or tired of fighting, when I’m struck by a heavy moral dilemma, or when I triumph in my own personal battles.
But in Mormonism, wildness is not typically seen as a virtue. Wild branches grafted into olive trees destroy the good fruit. The wilderness—a word that literally means place with a wild nature—is often unsettling for the masses. The children of Israel revolt and long to go back to Egypt of all places just to avoid the disorder and chaos that comes with living in the wilderness. This revolt is not without reason. Wildness is terrifying. It’s both boundless and autonomous. It doesn’t listen to directions. It refuses structure. It follows its own intuitive order, stirred by some deep, secret biology.
And yet, in my experience, wildness is one side of a spiritual pendulum. It embodies our most rapturous spiritual experiences: moments when even language fails to describe what we feel and intuit about our spiritual selves. Christ too embraced wildness: before be began his ministry in earnest, he sought the refuge of the wilderness for 40 days. Wildness is raw, unapologetic authenticity—a connection with our true selves, a connection with the divine.
So can we, Mormon women, also embrace wildness? This is something I continue to ask myself as I process my recent experiences in the church.
Not long ago I was asked to meet with a church leader following a lesson I’d given in Relief Society. After a little small talk and some questions about my experience as a teacher, he got right to it:
I’d made someone uncomfortable with my lessons.
After a moment of surprise I asked what, specifically, had made someone uncomfortable.
He told me that the specifics weren’t important. And though I pressed him several more times, he wouldn’t tell me.
I didn’t know what to say. I’d had mostly positive experiences in our Relief Society. It was one of the few church spaces where I still felt safe to be vulnerable and honest and real. In our lessons we cracked open our deepest wounds—our eating disorders, our miscarriages, our children out of wedlock, our feelings of self-loathing and shame. We left question marks dangling in the room and supported each other in all our wild insecurity and imperfections.
Nonetheless, this church leader maintained his warning: I needed to be careful about the discussions I led in class.
I’ve been surprised by my reaction to this conversation. Mostly I’m torn between two extremes: on the one hand, it felt like a violation of my stewardship. It seemed like an effort to control what the sisters say in our own sacred space, a space that wasn’t made for this leader, in the same way High Priest meetings aren’t made for me.
On the other hand, this is someone who helps lead a Mormon ward. According to the nature of our church, we’re a unified body. We teach and believe and profess the same things. There’s in or there’s out. There is no wiggle room, no third option. Without someone to occasionally rein things in, we might find ourselves bereft in the wilderness.
And yet as I continue to wrestle, Estés’ words about nurturing come to mind: “The difference between comfort and nurture is this: if you have a plant that is sick because you keep it in a dark closet, and you say soothing words to it, that is comfort. If you take out of the closet and put in the sun, give it something to drink, and then talk to it, that is nurture.”
For many Mormon women, especially contemporary Mormon women, we’re not nurtured by our church meetings. Our in-class discussions rarely scratch the surface of our doubts. We don’t express our most terrifying ideas or grapple with our problematic shared history. We’re pitched platitudes and Pinterest quotes even while we continue to crave deeper healing.
We’ve been hurt, not only by the inequalities leveled at us by our religion and society, but also by the simple wear and tear of mortality. We long for our real pain to be heard. We long for our true selves to be seen. Our spiritual work hinges on our ability to tell our stories and protect our sacred spaces. We must express ourselves with genuine authenticity, and—like the wolves in Estés’ book—be healed by inhabiting those safe spaces we’ve created.
We’ve sat in a space of structured, masculine spirituality for decades, maybe centuries. And despite the best intentions of our leaders, we also need autonomy in our sacred spaces. It’s time for the pendulum to restore us to a more balanced spirituality. It’s time to embrace our wildness and let ourselves roar.