“Extraordinary Ordinary Mormon Women”: Exponent II’s Coloring Book “Illuminating Ladies”
I’m attending Sunstone this week and went to a very moving session yesterday. It was titled “Extraordinary Ordinary Mormon Women.” The session description promised to “explore the lives of women, both ordinary and extraordinary, [to] help us better understand our past, give us insights into our own lives, and expand our own possibilities.” It featured a panel of women, including Margaret Toscano, Janice Allred, Vickie Eastman, and Gina Colvin, all of whom spoke about seemingly ordinary women who lived what they considered to be extraordinary lives. Nearly all of the presenters highlighted their own mothers’ lives, from their struggles with depression and surviving traumatic experiences to how well they loved, supported, and championed their children. After their remarks, the moderator made time for attendees to stand and tell the audience about women they considered to be extraordinary. Every woman who stood told a similar story—how their own mothers seemed rather ordinary until they were adults and reflected on the mundane yet heroic feats their mothers accomplished.
Margaret Toscano also reviewed the life of a remarkable woman from Church history named Jane Manning James who was a contemporary with one of Toscano’s female ancestors. Both of these women lived very long and productive lives raising large families, often alone, while experiencing crushing poverty and significant health challenges. It struck me that we know about these women over a hundred years after their deaths because they chose to record their personal histories before they died. They chose to tell their stories.
This Sunstone session reminded me of a coloring book that my daughters and I enjoy working on together every Sunday during sacrament meeting. It’s called “Illuminating Ladies: A Coloring Book of Mormon Women.” I adore this book. It contains biographical sketches and illustrations of notable Mormon women from Lucy Mack Smith to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. When sacrament meeting begins, I ask my 5-year-old daughter to choose the illustration she’d like us to color during the meeting (my 3 year-old is too busy for this part). When the sacrament begins, we snuggle together and I quietly read the woman’s story that accompanies the picture she chose. Then we begin the process of coloring the page together, with my 3-year-old daughter occasionally adding her toddler flare with a few scribbles here and there. This is an activity that I look forward to every Sunday when attending church can be a challenge for me due to the invisibility of women in almost all aspects of Church structure, leadership, decision making, and theology.
Last week, my daughter flipped through the “Illuminating Ladies” coloring book and chose the pages devoted to Eliza Roxcy Snow Smith Young (whose full name I didn’t know!). What struck me about this illustration was the depiction of the God couple, specifically that Heavenly Mother is depicted side by side with Heavenly Father at the top of the page. It filled my heart to imbue the image of Heavenly Mother with color, and to watch my daughter choose red and purple crayons to bring color to Her hair and face. It was such an ordinary task to color during sacrament meeting, but having an image of the Feminine Divine provided for us—two marginalized members of the LDS Church—became a sacred, empowering moment.
Below the illustration of the Heavenly Parents, and next to the image of Eliza, is a portion of the well-known LDS Hymn “Oh My Father” that Eliza penned:
In the heavens are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal
tells me I’ve a mother there.
Eliza R. Snow was childless. I imagine this caused her great pain over her lifetime, and yet the fact that she wasn’t a mother does not make her any less notable. As I read the page describing her life, my daughter and I learned how significant her contributions were. She wrote more than 500 poems during her lifetime. One of those poems became the lyrics for the song, “Invocation, or the Eternal Father and Mother,” which we now know as “O My Father.” The coloring book goes on to explain that
“In this poem Eliza expounded upon doctrines she had discovered as a Latter-day Saint—a premortal existence, an intimate relationship with a personal God, our own godly potential, and the marvelous truth that God is not just a Heavenly Father but also a Heavenly Mother! Eliza had learned these truths from the Prophet Joseph, but she had her own powerful revelation of their realities. Her poem was one of the only declarations of Heavenly Mother in LDS writings. . . . Eliza’s poem about Heavenly Mother helped elevate the discourse concerning women’s divine destiny.”
But, we learned, that was not the end of her contributions as a Mormon woman. She worked to reconstitute the Relief Society after it was disassembled by Brigham Young in Nauvoo, and she led the women of the church as General Relief Society President for over twenty years. Eliza was one of the first women in church history to receive her temple ordinances and “was eager to continue this worship . . . and frequently performed ordinance work in the Endowment House.” Because of this, many referred to her as a “High Priestess. She devoted her life to expanding knowledge and wisdom through both action and words.” Ultimately, Eliza Snow was “lovingly called by her contemporaries, and is still remembered as, Zion’s Poetess, Priestess, Prophetess, and Presidentess.”
What a legacy of a woman born as ordinary as you and me who used her life to accomplish the extraordinary. This coloring book reminds me that despite the institutional and structural sexism my daughters and I experience inside and outside of the Church, we can make meaningful contributions to the arc of human experience.
(You can purchase “Illuminating Ladies: A Coloring Book of Mormon Women” today and tomorrow for $10 at the Exponent II booth at Sunstone in Salt Lake City, at the BYU-Provo Bookstore, or online at the Exponent II Etsy shop, once it resumes after a summer hiatus.)