Series: #visiblewomen: You Can’t Be What You Can’t See: Primary Pictures

I teach Primary Sharing Time.  I love it.

I love the teaching, the stories, the kids, and the fun.  When we talk about Jesus, I tell the children the stories of His life and the men and women He lived and worked with.  When we talk about the courage to do what is right, I read from “Girls Who Choose God”.  When we talk about faith, I tell them of both Nephi and Abigal.

I tell them stories from my own life and any stories of President Wixom that I can find.

I use pictures a lot.  Aside from the pictures I bring myself, there are few pictures of women.  I will be writing a letter to President Wixom and her counselors, asking them to consider including more pictures of women and girls in packets / manuals provided to Primary teachers.

I believe this will be a great advantage to both girls and boys.  They will learn that both women and men can be examples of faith, courage, and service.  And they can strive to be like them.

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#VisibleWomen: Women in Church Art

relief-society-general-presidency-2012-busath-1031310-gallery-noticeThis week I decided to do an informal survey of the representation of women in my ward building.  I had the general impression that there were few women, but I decided to actually go through and count.  The numbers are a little imperfect, for several reasons.  First, I did not have access to any of the male-only rooms which were locked, including two Bishop’s offices, the Stake offices, the High Council Room and the Clerk’s office.  Second, many paintings and posters feature images that include very small or indistinct figures that can’t really be counted one way or the other.  A few paintings include androgynous angelic figures that I decided not to count either way.  As part of my survey I included both framed paintings and images on bulletin boards, but excluded any snapshots or local images.

In my ward the various auxiliaries are assigned bulletin boards to decorate as they choose, but most feature pictures taken  from church magazines, lesson manuals or the Gospel art kit.  A few have posters produced by the church or affiliated organizations promoting conferences and programs. I figured since I was doing the survey I might as well keep track of ethnic representation as well, since most church art tends to depict the people of the Americas or the Fertile Crescent as looking like they are from northern Europe.  Accordingly, my stat numbers of non-white people reflect only individuals who are clearly represented as not having pale skin or light hair, rather than people who are supposedly of a non-white ethnicity (the Nephites) but actually look like Vikings. Here are my findings.

Representation of people with special needs or disabilities: 1 boy with Down syndrome on a pass-along card tacked to a board.

Number of non-white women depicted: 2

Number of non-white men depicted: 11

Total number of women depicted: 48

Total number of men: 245

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Christmas Series: Primary Nativity Program

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The Annunciation – Luca Giordano courtesy of www.metmuseum.org

 

If your ward is anything like mine, the Nativity program put on by the children of the Primary at the annual Ward Christmas Party is a highlight of the season!  Some years, the script seems like it might have been lifted from “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” others you may notice the absence of spoken lines for the beloved female characters.

Let’s call this an “equitable” Nativity script, then. With spoken lines for Mary, Elisabeth and Anna (in addition to the lines of a second angel and shepherd which may be cast as either gender), this Nativity script offers equal speaking opportunities for girls and boys alike.

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A Review of Walking With the Women of the New Testament

51Hil65oDaL._SL500_AA300_Walking With the Women of the New Testament by Heather Farrell contains 60 meditations on women of the New Testament.  All the named women in the New Testament are featured, as well as many who are not, such as Jesus’ sisters and the mother of the man born blind.

At 291 pages the book has heft to it, and this tangible fact relays one of its main messages: that women in the New Testament were numerous and real, with “real lives, real feelings, and real problems.”  Each entry begins with the scriptural passage telling the woman’s story and artwork depicting her story, and is followed by a 2-3 page meditation by Farrell in which she frames the story in terms of its historical context and/or the possible feelings and motivations of the woman in the story, and then a reflection on a spiritual lesson to be gained from the story.

For example on the Widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-15), Farrell writes,

“We don’t know if this young man’s death was the result of a long drawn out illness or an unexpected accident, but no matter how she died, it is likely that his mother’s grief was fresh.  She may have only had hours to process the news of his death and all the implications that came with it.  As a widow, with no male to take care of her, this woman’s plight might have been hard indeed.  The newness of her grief makes Christ’s tender words, “Weep not” (verse 13) all the more powerful.  He was telling her that even though her grief seemed unbearable, she wouldn’t have to mourn much longer.”

Farrell then explains the etymology of compassion (“He had compassion on her.” (verse 13)), and notes that “in the accounts we have of Jesus raising someone from the dead, all of them are done in the presence of, and usually on behalf of, women.”  This is an interesting insight I’d never thought of.  Farrell continues,

“Raising a person from the dead is an incredible miracle for anyone to witness.  Yet I can’t help but feel that it has special meaning for women, whose bodies create mortal life and who spend so much of their time nurturing and shaping lives.  It seems to me that Christ wanted to demonstrate to women that He had power over the grave.”

I think the meditation on the Widow of Nain is reasonably representative of the other entries in the book.  It’s a heartfelt and faithful reading that reflects Farrell’s original impetus in studying the scriptures with a focus on the women’s stories.  She writes, “I wanted to gain a better testimony of God’s love for women and better understand women’s roles.”  So she kept a journal as she read, which gave rise to this book.  She encourages readers to do the same: read while reflecting on suggested questions, read between the lines, and rely on the Holy Ghost.  She acknowledges that the details about these women are scarce, and that “while there is much truth in the Bible, some of it is missing, and if we want those gaps filled in, we don’t have to turn to outside sources.  The Holy Ghost can enlighten our understanding and teach us.”  While I agree that the Holy Ghost is the unparalleled teacher of truth and wisdom, I would also have liked if the book delved deeper into other historical and scholarly work that has been done on the subject.  I generally prefer exegesis (critical explanation or interpretation of a text, or reading “out of” a text), and this book includes quite a bit of eisegesis (an interpretation that expresses the interpreters ideas, or reading “into” a text).

I feel I must point out that while Farrell’s book is a thoughtful and comprehensive meditation on the women of the New Testament, it is not what I would consider a feminist reading of them.  It does not challenge current gender roles in the Church or attempt to stretch the understanding of roles that women in the New Testament may have held.  For example one of the questions she suggests readers reflect on in their scripture reading is, “What type of influence would she [the woman in the story] have had on those around her?”  She writes of current times:

“I think the problem is that in our society we often don’t see women.  Too often we take their influence in our lives and in society for granted.  Similarly in the scriptures, we simply don’t see the women.  The pages of the scriptures are filled with their stories and their influence, but too often we skip right past them, not even realizing they are there.”

Seeing women in the scriptures and in the world is something feminists have long fought for, but when the focus is on their “influence” I think we lose the perspective of their being agents unto themselves, not just an influence on the other actors or agents in a story.  Too often in the Church praising the “influence” of women is done as a way of deflecting attention from the fact that they hold so little actual power.

That said, this book acknowledges the women of the New Testament as being more present, both in numbers and in significance, than some would suppose.  I think it would make a good addition to Church member’s libraries (it is definitely written from an LDS perspective) and would be a great resource in preparing for talks and lessons as a way of finding examples of gospel principles in the lives of women in scripture.

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A Book Review: Girls Who Choose God

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Girls Who Choose God: Stories of Courageous Women from the Bible by McArthur Krishna and Bethany Brady Spalding, Illustrated by Kathleen Peterson

Girls Who Choose God is a book I wish I’d had as a child, and am thrilled to have for my children. Featuring 11 women from the Bible, this lovely book was conceived when my dear friend Bethany’s three-year-old daughter asked her, “Mom, where are the girls?” when looking through her cartoon book of scripture stories. Bethany wanted her daughter to know not only were girls there, but they have stories that are stirring in their boldness, unconventionality, morality, and dedication to changing the world for good. The women featured are,

Eve
Miriam
Mahlah and her Sisters
Deborah
Esther
Mary the Mother of Jesus
Samaritan Woman at the Well
Mary and Martha
A Generous Widow
A Healed Woman
Mary Magdalene

Each of their stories framed as a choice. For example, when Miriam sees Pharaoh’s daughter approach the basket in the river, the authors write, “Miriam had a choice to make. She could stay hidden to avoid getting in trouble, or she could speak to Pharaoh’s daughter in hopes of saving her brother.” The stories conclude with the choice the girl or woman made, and then provide a question for the reader. From Miriam’s story: “What choices have you made to bring your family closer together?”

I like that the women featured run the gamut from sister to prophetess, and I like that the questions are far-reaching, not at all pointing girls toward deferential female roles. There is Miriam’s question that may seem at first to point toward a role type-cast for women (nurturing families). But there is also Deborah’s question: “When have you chosen to be a leader?” And Esther’s question, “When have you chosen to stand up for others?” When I read this book with my kids they are enthusiastic about answering those questions, they see themselves as leaders, peacemakers, and helpers.

I love that the book uses inclusive language. Male names are not always first (“Eve and Adam” instead of “Adam and Eve”). The authors use the word God instead of Heavenly Father throughout the book. I notice a great effort they’ve made to use language to shine light on women playing the key role in stories that make up our spiritual heritage.

The women are described as people children can aspire to be, with qualities they might see in themselves. “Miriam was a quick thinker. [Her] boldness rescued her brother and reunited her family.” I am used to stories of prophets and heroes from the scriptures being almost always men, and it surprised me how I felt reading about the widow who gave her two mites: “Jesus admired her noble deed. He called his disciples over to learn from her actions.” To learn from her. Our girls need stories told in this way to help them see themselves as full agents in the gospel.  The words “bold” and “courageous” appear several times in this book, words usually used to describe people like David and Nephi, but now used to describe Mary and Mahlah.

I love that the authors included the Daughters of Zelophehad (Mahlah and her Sisters), because this is one of my favorite Bible stories. To me this story has delicious subversive potential, but the question that follows is so perfectly relevant to children (and adults): “When have you chosen to solve a problem peacefully?” I didn’t know of this story until I was an adult. I hope it becomes more well known through this book.

Girls Who Choose God is unique. I don’t know of another illustrated book on women in the Bible, and it’s definitely a first for an LDS audience. The illustrations are striking and accessible, and match the text perfectly in their portrayal of bold women. Excitingly, the Church has acquired the paintings and will install them in the Conference Center this year.  Finally, the authors are donating 100% of the profits to a charity called Interweave Solutions that supports educational and entrepreneurial endeavors for women.

I think this an important book for two reasons: it’s the first of it’s kind, and it’s providing something we have far too little of — examples of strong, godly women.  Stories matter.  They don’t determine what girls can dream of becoming, but they absolutely inform it, and these are stories I want my daughter to know.  It’s also a beautiful book, in prose and in the artwork.  I hope you have a chance to own it.

 

*If you’ll be at the Exponent Retreat this year, you can buy a copy from Bethany there.

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God Recognizes the Matriarchy

Last Sunday in Sunday School, we discussed the book of Judges. As a Mormon feminist, my normal instinct is to turn to the Deborah chapters and start chattering away on prophetesses and female judges. However, our teacher started with a different story that turned my world upside down. I’ll admit that I haven’t gotten very far in my Old Testament reading this year and I had never heard of the annunciation experience of Samson’s mother. This was an entirely new story to me!

I’ll give a short summary, but you can read it in full in Judges 13.

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