Guest Post: Story

By Chiaroscuro

bibleThe stories we tell matter. They weave the core narrative of our collective culture. It was not until some time after I became a woman myself, and a mother, that I began to earnestly look for mother-stories in the deep past. I wanted to better understand my role as a woman in the kingdom of God.

However, in the pages of the scriptures, I came away disappointed. I too often read that women were seductresses, inconstant, petty, complainers, scheming, betrayers, thieves, murderers. That they were ritually unclean merely for fulfilling their biological role as women (and we all know cleanliness denotes proximity to godliness). The most valued trait of a woman seemed to be her beauty, and thereafter her ability to bear many sons. Beauty is a fleeting thing, at best, and many women can never call it theirs. Many women cannot bear, also through no fault of their own.

Other times, they were only mentioned as ‘wives’ or ‘daughters’ to the men, and even invisible. Though they generally aren’t included in the genealogies they clearly must have had the bigger share in bringing about all the begetting. Most scripture stories are completely bereft of women, and those that contain women far more often demonstrate negative than positive spiritual qualities. I have been taught all my life that the scriptures are the word of God. I wondered, if that is how God sees his daughters? There seemed to be no role for women outside of childbearing and supporting men. It seemed that they were for the most part nameless, and it took a great deal of effort to see where they must be in the story.

I’m not arguing that there are no positive stories about women in the scriptures, merely that it is disappointing how few and far between they are. The hunger for women’s stories that had awakened within me was proven again and again that women were written by men. Scripture stories are about man-ness, found in themes of power, prestige, hierarchy, and obedience. The women were incidental to the stories of men. They were not fully people, on par with men.

I looked to my Mormon history for tales of womanhood. And once again, women were found few and far between. But the more I looked, the more disappointed I became. Not only is she absent, she is more often hidden. My entire course of study in Relief Society, purportedly the women’s organization of the church, has been focused on the life and teachings of Presidents of the Church. It would be nice to have some space where the lives and experiences of women in the gospel could be celebrated and learned from.

But many of those manuals on early LDS prophets refer to a ‘wife’ on an occasion or so. But how am I to take that when I know there were several? Joseph Smith’s 30+ wives, Brigham Young’s 55 wives, John Taylor’s 9 wives, Wilford Woodruff’s 9+ wives, Lorenzo Snow’s 9 wives, Joseph F Smith’s 6 wives, Heber J Grant’s 3 wives. And we can hear nothing about most of them (Not to mention all the other women who were not connected to these powerful men). These earliest of Mormon sisters who felt they were sacrificing all to obey a mandate from the Lord, are now erased from our history–their entire experience now an embarrassment to the modern institutional church. A few years back we had a short booklet about the heritage of the Relief Society with a handful of stories about faithful pioneer women, which came as it were a few drops of water to a woman dying of thirst.

The women I hear about in church are for the most part imaginary to me. Sometimes because we know so little about them, we exaggerate the scriptural tales to make them sound like they contain great matriarchs. Often, the wives referred to in General Conference are the variety that never complain, who selflessly sacrifice ad nauseum, who in trying to emulate, I nearly erased myself.

Give me a real woman any day. Tell me her real story. Give me my Mother in Heaven. Punish me not for this ache, to be a part of a great class of women from Eve down to my someday granddaughters. Sisters with stories that matter and are spoken and written, celebrated, and shared. Surely even a man can learn something from a woman’s story.

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14 Responses

  1. Chiaroscuro says:

    On the one hand, neglect and silence is the common experience of women in history. On the other, can’t we expect more from the ‘true church of God’? Instead it seems like their attitudes about women have changed over time in tempo with those of the world at large. Christ alone was a revolutionary in his time in his treatment of women. And even he did not treat them as true equals.

  2. April Carlson says:

    It hurts to find those stories so frequently outside of LDS correlated curriculum. I’m hoping women might be able to study stories about women when we finally wrap up the two decades of stories of men. Women’s stories, voices, lived experience, isn’t it about time?

    • Andrew R. says:

      Having not spent a whole lot of time (virtually zero) in Relief Society lessons, and possibly none where a Teachings of the Presidents of the Church lesson was being taught, I don’t know (except from conversations with my wife) how these lessons are handled. However, in Priesthood we tend to be discussing the doctrines, principles and life values expressed by the particular president of the Church in that lesson. We are not learning their story, but rather their collected thinking on a subject and discussing it in the context of our own lives. So we spend more time talking about our lives, and the lives of our family members (parents, siblings, wife and children, etc.).

      Seems to me the lesson is a catalyst to talking about our stories. And, to me, there is much more value in talking about the experiences, difficulties, doubts, and faith of those who live a life similar (in the same area, same political climate, same economic circumstances) to mine.

      So in Relief Society there should be multiple female stories being expressed I would hope.

      • Lily says:

        We literally spent this sunday in RS talking about President’s Hinckley’s life, so yeah, we talk about their stories.

  3. I particularly appreciate your last line. In Mormon feminist circles, we often talk about why women need to hear stories of women, but I think men need to hear these stories, too.

  4. Dani Addante says:

    Wonderful article! I also long for more stories about women. It would be great if we were to study stories about women in our manuals. I really hope they do this soon!

  5. spunky says:

    I would also love more stories of women– especially spiritual women where motherhood is never mentioned.

    • Andrew R. says:

      Why would not mentioning motherhood make the story better?

      Surely, from what I understand, LDS feminists are hopeful of a better understanding of Heavenly Mother, who she is, her role and how she assists in the Plan of Salvation.

      But for both our Heavenly Parents the fact that that are just that, Parents, is the fundamental aspect of Their divine nature. Our reason for being is because They are our Parents. And our reason for being on earth is to enable us to become like Them.

      • Chiaroscuro says:

        Andrew, it is so kind of you to read all the blog entries on this site and comment so avidly. Have you ever shared why you are so interested in the discussions here? I feel like you are trying to correct us, does that have anything to do with it? in this discussion are you worried we are anti-mothering? I assure you that is not the case, we are just sick of hearing so much about it and long for something more. Especially in the case of Heavenly Mother, where the only thing we can deduce about her is her motherhood. Heavenly Father and Jesus are given for everything else ever done, so we are left to wonder what the female experience of eternity will look like when/if we ‘become like Them’. Fatherhood is rarely discussed for men, if I understand correctly they hear a lot more about their priesthood responsibilities. We would merely like to better understand our priestesshood.

      • MDearest says:

        Thanks for speaking to this, Chiaroscuro. I am reluctant to engage in conversation with this, but often when I read these comments I have the same feelings I used to have when my judgmental mom and older siblings would correct/shame me. I am now in my 60s and can recognize inappropriate manipulation. My approach to this situation is that it’s impossible to even have a conversation with someone who refuses to accept that you know your own life, so I just don’t bother. And I view such commenters to be in need of more growth and understanding.

        This is so common here that I guess it needs to be spoken to.

      • Lily says:

        Because we are constantly told that motherhood is our only purpose and worth. As a non-mother I feel this very acutely. Childless women are worthless in the eyes of the Church. (Please don’t tell me about Sheri Dew.)

      • Andrew R. says:

        Chiaroscuro, I have no desire to “correct” you. I have served in all but a very few ward and stake callings. I have worked in two quite successful career areas. However, being a father is something I always wanted, have relished being, and I continue to enjoy it and seek to be better at it. And I look forward, with my wife to learning more in the Eternities and being able to get to the point where we can be heavenly parents.

        To what extent this has been influenced by the teaching I have received at Church I can not tell. But I suspect somewhat at least.

        So, all I am saying is for me, at least, parenthood is bound up in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the Plan of Happiness. I appreciate that not everyone gets to be a parent, and for some that this is heartbreaking. However, everyone has the opportunity to work towards receiving exaltation and eternal parenthood.

        Of course everyone is more than just being a parent. And I believe there are messages about women (albeit not not so many as men) that are not simply about their motherhood. And even when the stories are in relation to their being a mother, it is their faith that motivates them – Rebekah, Hannah and the Virgin Mary to name three.

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