Mormon Women Oral History Project

AKA The best thing I did in Vienna, Austria while my husband and I were studying (architecture and philosophy, respectfully).

Have you ever sat down with someone, and asked them to tell you all about themselves? I have done this. In fact, I have spent days and weeks doing this in a foreign country, right before I was about to say goodbye. I wanted to do it the whole time I was in Vienna, because there is a project I believe in that is comprised of such asking and such listening. It is called the Mormon Women Oral History Project, and was started by a woman I admire, named Claudia Bushman, when she was at teaching at my school in California.

The point of the project is in many ways wrapped up in its name: to let Mormon women speak their own histories, and to record them and transcribe them. It is so simple but so beautiful, because sometimes women’s voices are forgotten in scriptural and spiritual discourse. I wanted to help the project become even more international to open up the voices still further, and recognized that my Vienna stay gave me a unique opportunity to do so.

I was able to meet with sisters from the UK, the Philippines, Austria, Canada, and the United States. Together they represented a fair spectrum of human experiences and backgrounds. Each was a woman I cared about. Each was a woman I would call friend. As I sat with them, I asked them about their life, their faith, their families, their experiences inside and outside of the church, and their feelings on LDS women’s issues. I listened as they told me diverse stories and viewpoints. I remembered that the church is big, not only geographically, but ideologically. I remembered that it remains relevant in those differences, rather than in spite of them.

My favorite question of all asked simply and straightforwardly, “What is your conception of Heavenly Mother?” I understood the courage of this question, and its assumption that these women did have a concept of their Mother in Heaven that was just waiting to be teased out. Maybe I liked this question because I shared that personal hope. And maybe because of that personal hope/investment, I found myself nervously hurrying to fill any silence with a softer, less effective question: “Or do you have a conception of Heavenly Mother?”

Many of them did, but not all. Some expressed a desire to know more. Some expressed theories on why we don’t. Some were satisfied with their supposed reasons. Others were not. One shared the most beautiful thing about Heavenly Mother I have heard in all of my 2008 paid-by-BYU months of Divine Feminine research, and all of the years that have intervened.

It concerned a personal story/revelatory experience in the temple. The woman was sitting there, hurt and frustrated with her husband—more hurt than she could have imagined—when she felt God speak to her. In her anger and frustration, she said, “No. I don’t want to speak to you. I want to speak to Mother.” And then she felt/heard something else. “She’s here.” Like when you’re in college and you call home before the time of cellphones, and your dad picks up, but really you just want to talk to mom. And your dad goes and gets her, and sometimes he stays on the line too. It was like that for this woman. She felt them both, and knew that they were both listening and that they both care. And because her Heavenly Mother was there, she could speak. She could speak honestly and openly, and she could let them give her an answer.

It reminded me of something Eugene England once said at a BYU Women’s Conference. He started out by asking, “What is a good basis for imagining eternal marriage, then?” before he went on to answer:

    The plain scriptures, I believe. In the first place, modern scriptures and revelations suggest quite plainly that we would more accurately and profitably read the scriptural references to “God” as meaning God the eternal partnership of Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother. They have a more perfect unity even than that of God and Christ and the Holy Ghost, and so the word God implies both of them, at least as much as it denotes the three beings in the classical Christian trinity called “God.”

Such a more correct identification of “God” might help us better comprehend the direct role our Heavenly Mother played in our creation and salvation. When we read in Genesis that God said, “Let us create man in our image,” it makes most sense to read it as God the Father and God the Mother speaking as One. When we read in John that God sent His only begotten Son to save us, it would be better to understand, as it certainly makes more sense, that our Heavenly Parents sent Their only begotten Son.

This process is truer to the evidence—and to our real needs as men and women—than looking for a female God between the lines in the scriptures or in apocryphal works or mythologies, as many feminist theologians are doing. It might help us better imagine our futures as husbands and wives, equally yoked in what Shakespeare called “the marriage of true minds”—and to work toward that future now.

Second, modern revelation tells us that when God put “man” on the earth, “in the image of mine Only Begotten created I him; male and female created I them.” (Moses 2:27.) Clearly men and women were both created in the “image” of Christ. That would seem to mean we are created in the image of the Heavenly Parents who together make up the “God” whom Christ came to reveal, that is, the perfect eternal partnership He came to teach us how to achieve and to show us in His life and character what we would be like when we achieved it.

On another day I asked myself these same questions (the ones I had been posing to my friends). Spencer was at school, so I sat on our couch, microphone headset in tow, and I talked and I talked for three hours, out loud to just myself. I talked about the things that are hard for me in the church and I talked about the things that are good for me. I talked about my feelings on sisterhood and the myriad ways that women have blessed/saved my life. I talked about my own experiences researching Heavenly Mother, and I talked about the million times God has answered my small, simple, and specific prayers in ways that I know are from heaven. I talked about lessons learned from my father and mother, and how I know that my mom believes in prayer because when I was a child I walked in her room to talk to her and found her kneeling beside her bed, quietly crying, when she thought no one was looking.

As I spoke, my first feelings were renewed: that this project is an important one. There is something so powerful and beautiful and affirming in letting individuals tell their own stories. It is redemptive, really. And in this context of spirituality, where women’s voices are often lacking, the simple act of asking and the even simpler, but not less essential act of listening, becomes doubly important. I believe that the French philosopher, Levinas, would agree, because he understands that it is this simple back and forth talking that lets us have relationships of peace. It is how we let the other present themselves to us as a self. It is how we avoid violencing the other.

One more interesting thing happened: as I sat with these women, these sisters who I already cared for, and as I heard their stories, my heart was filled with even greater love for them. I felt the spirit every time. I felt love and tenderness every time. I remember reading in Ender’s Game that it is impossible to truly know someone and not love them. Participating in this project is the strongest I have ever felt that. One possible reason for this, is because hearing someone’s words, in their voice, from their mouth lets us rejoice with them when they rejoice, and mourn with them when they mourn. The simple act of talking becomes healing, and things that are hard no longer feel quite so burdensome when they are shared, when they are spoken. And it also works the other way: things that are happy feel even happier. Even more joyous.

I am left with the sneaking suspicion that we should all be telling more stories. We should all be asking for more stories.

Rachel

Rachel is a PhD student in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University. She co-edited _Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings_ with Joanna Brooks and Hannah Wheelwright. She is also a lover of all things books and bikes.

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13 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Rachel, this is a gorgeous, beautiful post. I myself have conducted three or four of these interviews for this project, so I understand how wonderful it is to encourage women to share their stories and insights. I am proud to say that I am the one who got the Heavenly Mother question onto the interview sheet. 🙂

    And let me also say that I just LOVE Eugene England’s quote about God actually consisting of Divine Male and Female acting together. I’ve embraced this idea for years, which is why I never refer to Heavenly Father or pray to Heavenly Father. I only speak of and pray to God, because to me, that’s both of them, and I cannot justify deliberately cutting out the Mother when I speak or pray. “God” is also useful in a Mormon context because it doesn’t immediately raise hackles when other Mormons hear it. It’s a subtle change which most wouldn’t notice, but it’s a deeply meaningful one to me.

    • Caroline, bless you for getting that question in there. Sincerely. It made for some of the most touching moments. And also, I may or may not have used the question to go off on an excited flurry of teaching after the interviews closed with sisters who were not familiar with the concept. I felt responsible to share Something with them.

  2. spunky says:

    This is a beautiful project, I am so glad this history collection is being accomplished! Thank you for your work in this!

    I am similar to Caroline; when I think of God, I think of Elohim, which is a plural term, meaning to me Father and Mother (I love that Robert D. Hales reminded us of this in the October 2009 conference). Because of that, I also regard the phrase “Heavenly Father” as meaning both of our Heavenly Parents; I just assumed it was a post-Catholic culturalism that Mormons retained the male verbiage, perhaps as means to better integrate for missionary work in an era that was addressing both male and female suffrage (ownership classes, ethnic pay equality, etc.).

    In another train of thought- I love that the histories of these international women are being collected. The primary manuals seem to have quite a few Hispanic and even Islander examples, and even DiMK has a handful of international examples as well. Still, this history project addresses and resolves the problem of having a selection of women’s experiences and views. Most church material is aimed at western women with typical and traditional family relationships and roles. Because of this, the church can feel unwelcoming to women who are not typical or traditional.

    This new and ongoing collection of women’s history adds a depth to the overall church because it is reflection of diverse cultures and individuals who call themselves Mormons. Since I am practically-minded, I can only see this as a priceless resource for future church talks, books and manuals that will better embrace women and women’s diversity on a global scale.

  3. Deborah says:

    Thank you! This is an important project . . .

  4. Jessawhy says:

    What a great post.
    You would have loved Margaret Toscano’s talk at the Phoenix Regional Mormon Stories conference yesterday. It was all about the value of myth (stories) in our lives to tell us what is true, to give us our identity.

    Thank you for sharing this amazing experience.

    I have been asked to do something similar. I have a recorder and some questions to interview Mormon women to gather their stories, but I haven’t made the time to do it. Not even once. Thanks for motivating me to get started.

    • Rachel says:

      I so wish I could have been there. Stories are so powerful. The stories we tell and retell are so powerful.

      Do it! It is almost surely bound to be a beautiful and/or deeply meaningful experience. There was only one interview that didn’t touch me very much, and sadly it was my own grandma. But, it has more to do with the fact that she is 93 and has some level of dementia than with anything else…

  5. That experience about HM “being here” is wonderful.

  6. Courtney says:

    Rachel, are the questions used for collecting oral histories available? I would love to have a copy to help collect stories from my family.

  7. Annie B. says:

    Very beautiful post.

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