Missing Wives in the Presidents of the Church Manuals

Every two years when I get my new Teachings of the Presidents of the Church manual, I go to the index to find the pages that talk about the prophet’s wife. I always hope to see a few pages devoted to her. But, there’s never as much information as I’d like to read.

If the prophet was a polygamist, the wives are usually not mentioned anywhere in the manual.[1] A more recent prophet’s manual will list the marriage and death dates of his wife. If we’re lucky, she might be mentioned in one of the chapters,[2] but often, this is in the context of her death…

…which makes me pause and think, “Wait, the only thing worth mentioned about some of these women is their death?!”

This makes me sad. These women sacrificed just as much (and maybe more) as their husbands did. I want to know about their struggles, too. When I read about how the deaths of Joseph F. Smith’s nine children shaped him and how he taught the doctrine of the salvation of children, I can’t help but wonder how these childrens’ mothers also dealt with such loss.

I was really excited to see two stories about Phoebe Woodruff in this year’s manual (and she’s a polygamist wife, too!). As I read these two stories I get a glimpse of a woman of amazing strength, both physical and spiritual. I think I am particularly amazed because one of the stories has her about my age loosing her baby, who is about my baby’s age, while being pregnant with another baby and having a husband on a mission in the UK. That story makes me a little sheepish when I complain a. about my son and b. that my husband goes out of town too much!

However, even as I write that we should be able to know more about the prophets’ wives, I don’t think these are the only role models we should celebrate. As my Young Women struggle to find their identities as Mormon women, I want them to be able to see the variety of life choices that they have. I don’t want them to grow up thinking that a woman is defined by her husband.

I would love to have manuals that brought up great Mormon women every week instead of just a few times a year. So, I wonder…where can we find other female role models? How do you bring them into your Church lessons?

[1] See Brigham Young, John Taylor, and Joseph F. Smith manuals.
[2] Emma Ray Riggs McKay is the only wife of a prophet who has a story about her that doesn’t involve the death of herself or her child.

EmilyCC

EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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22 Responses

  1. jana says:

    AMEN! Though even more than the prophet’s wives, I’d love to have quotations from the speeches of the RS presidents of the era when each prophet served.

    Can you just see the priesthood quorums rolling their eyes at having to present a lesson that was about women’s experiences or women’s issues (a lesson about women that was not about motherhood)? I hate to generalize, but I can’t imagine that many male teachers would know how to teach such a lesson w/o resorting to sarcasm. I’ve heard that there are many sexist comments in PH: about how their wives nag them, or women only love to shop, etc.

  2. Deborah says:

    Emily: Only noted for their or their children’s deaths? What an interesting observation.

    Jana: Your suggestion kills two birds with one stone for the first three RS presidents:

    Emma Smith (married to Joseph)

    Eliza R. Snow (married to Joseph then Brigham)

    Zina D.H. Young (also married to Joseph then Brigham)

    P.S. I have a loosely related question. A decade or so ago, an acquaintance and her husband were called to serve as mission presidents — that’s how she phrased it to me: “We have been called to serve as president_s_,” and she indicated that she would be involved in training, supervising, and interviewing the sister missionaries. Recently, a couple spoke in sacrament meeting who have been similarly called. However, many times in her talk the woman emphasized, “I am honored that my husband is worthy to serve as a mission president . . . it’s an privilege to support my husband in _his_ calling, etc.” Are couples ever set apart as co-presidents? If not, do some women pragmatically adopt this role in working with the sister missionaries under their stewardship?

  3. maria says:

    I also feel the absence of information about church leader’s wives. I guess one can make an assumption that a man wouldn’t be called into such a high position if his wife wasn’t at roughly the same level of spirituality that he was–meaning that she is also deserving of the same level of respect or admiration that her husband receives.

    But I guess it might be unfair to make that generalization. Sometimes I wonder if there have ever been wives of GAs that were inactive or less-than-100% faithful. Probably not, but I sometimes I wonder.

    Deborah–I think it is common practice for MP couples to refer to themselves both as presidents in the way you’ve described. Both of my roommates at BYU whose parents were mission presidents referred to them in this way.

    But, on the other hand, I’ve actually been in the room with an MP while he and his wife were set apart by an apostle for their mission–it’s been a LONG time but if I remember correctly the husband was set apart specifically for the calling of MP and the wife was set apart to support her husband in his official calling.

  4. maria says:

    And, as a follow-up, it has always bugged me that when mission presidents and their wives are announced in the Church News that it lists the husband’s professional accomplishments but not the wife’s. Even though many of these women come from an older generation very different from ours, I would be shocked to learn that not a single one of them ever taught school, was a nurse, was a lawyer, etc. [before their kids were born, after the kids were grown, or (GASP!) while their kids were at home].

  5. AmyB says:

    I find the way women are overlooked, and unvalued in our church extremely painful. Heaven forbid that teachiings of women would ever be used to teach men.

    What I would love to see is the prophet/presidency of the church be a joint calling. Or it could at least be like the president of the US, where the president’s wife makes appearances, speaks to people, etc. She is seen as a person in her own right. What would that be like if the prophet’s wife were more like the first lady?

  6. Kaimi says:

    Yes, we need more stories of prophets’ wives. Less whitewashing, and more discussion. It is silly not to mention the many important women in these chronologies.

    As far as bringing in the teachings of R.S. presidents on a general curricular level, though, I’m dubious. In one sense, the teachings of women _are_ used to educate men. The theology of Eliza Snow is regularly sung and cited.

    Beyond that – well, I can sympathize. It would be nice to have a statements from women’s teachings. But I don’t know that this is possible, until/unless women receive a greater ecclesiastical role. I just don’t see how we could have a “Teachings of Elaine Jack” or “Teachings of Cheiko Okazaki” given current ecclesiatical structure. Current-era R.S. presidents just don’t occupy the same sort of position of authority. Absent a change in ecclesiastical structure, I don’t think a change in curriculum would make much sense. The R.S. president just does not have the same position as the prophet – it’s not even close. The curricular imbalance is a natural result – or, depending on one’s viewpoint, a symptom – of much more fundamental structural issues.

  7. Caroline says:

    Emily, I also sympathize. The first thing I do when I get a new manual is flip through and look for references to women. Specifically, I look to see if any woman are quoted. And maybe once in a manual, the daughter of the president is quoted talking about how fantastic and wonderful her father was. (This, by the way, is yet another problem of these manuals – the tendency to paint the president as a perfect flawless human being.)

    I would love more stories of the wives, particularly if they discussed experiences of hers that did not relate directly to the President. But like Jana, even more than that, I want a manual that quotes female Church leaders. I really don’t see why it would be difficult to include a few paragraphs at the end of each chapter from the RS Pres of the time.

    Kaimi, you bring up good points about how the curricular imbalance can’t be corrected until there are ecclesiastical structure changes. But I still feel that there’s definitely a way (and legitimacy to do so – after all we do hear from women in General Conference) to get more women’s voices heard a) in the manuals and b)in other lessons every month.

    As I mentioned before, just having a few quotes from the concurrent RS Pres would be easy to put in for each chapter. And individual RS Presidencies have the power to bring in women leaders’ voices on the 1st Sunday. Also, stake presidents could be careful to include at least one female-authored talk a year for the Teachings of our Times packet.

    I think there are ways to promote more women’s voices in the curriculum, even given our current ecclesiastical structure, but most leaders do not seem to have made much of an attempt to do so.

  8. shannon says:

    While I admit that I’m alwyas interested in reading about the women in Church History in our manuals, I’ve never felt strongly that we or even I am “missing something” from my Gospel study because the RS/Priesthood manuals are “about the men.” IN the context of studying the Gospel, I just don’t think gender should be that important. Clearly, the reason the manuals are centered on “men” is that they, not the women, are the prophets, whose words we are studying. Am I the only Mormon woman who sometimes feels that LDS women complaining so much about their “lack of voice” in the church have been too influenced by the world’s definition of our success and value – i.e. fame, power, worldly success? For the record, I am a 33-yr. old, college-educated, former research scientist turned high-school math teacher turned full-time mother. But then again, what to all these labels matter anyway?

  9. AmyB says:

    Shannon,

    For me this issue is about a bigger picture. I do feel that women lack a voice and are utterly devoid of any authority in the church, and I think that leads to a significant imbalance. My personal opinion is that it should be men and women making decisions together. The church seems to say that should be the model in the home, but I would like to see it mirrored in the leadership. Also, like all of the Christian churches with which I am familiar, there is a great lack of the divine feminine.

    We are taught that one day we can become gods and godesses, but what does that mean? Will the men get to go around creating worlds, answering people’s prayers, and being praised and worshipped while we are in some dark corner doing nothing? That seems to be the model. I am not okay with that.

  10. Cdbdis says:

    Amy B:

    How do you figure that you being in a dark corner while your husband goes around answering prayers and creating worlds “seems to be the model” in LDS doctrine? Perhaps it was only rhetorical bluster, but it blatantly discounts LDS doctrine (whether sufficiently talked about for your taste or not) such as the notion of becoming a goddess or queen, to say nothing of various LDS references to (a) Mother in Heaven. You specifically discounted the concept of being a goddess. Why?

    Perhaps it’s telling that you entirely ignored the issue raised by Shannon about complaining LDS women being “too influenced by the world’s definition of [women’s] success and value . . . .”

  11. AmyB says:

    cdbdis:

    I admit that I have incredible angst about the role of women in the church right now, so I need to be careful about how I come across.

    As far as I know we have no doctrine about Heavenly Mother besides that she exists. Compare that to everything we say about Heavenly Father.

    And consider the temple video (if you’ve seen it). There is no feminine involvement portrayed in the creation.

    My point is that we are told we will be goddesses, which sound great, but I am not personally aware of any doctrine saying what that actually means. Men have an obvious god to look to, while all we have a hymn saying commen sense tells us that there is a female counterpart.

  12. EmilyCC says:

    Shannon, you’re absolutely right! Gender shouldn’t be an issue when studying the Gospel, but I think when the people in the scriptures, Church leadership, and even members of the Godhead are predominantly male, it is an issue for some people. And, yes, the men are in the prophets’ manuals because they are prophets, not because they’re men. But, I get to learn a lot about their lives as men from the manuals, and I feel like I’m missing an important component of their lives by not knowing much about their eternal companion.

    Also, I’m glad you brought up the idea of allowing worldly definitions of success define how we think of women in the Church. Thank you for bringing that idea up. It’s so important. Once a man said to me and another woman, “Why would you want the Priesthood? Do you just want to power?” The woman sitting next to me did say, “Yes! I want the power! I want to sit at the head of the table.” I have to admit that that made me stop and realize that my motivations aren’t always completely innocent.

    Now, I try to ask myself each time I write about women and the Church why I am doing so. Is it for the wrong reasons, like pride or causing unnecessary contention? When discussing gender issues, it is important to make sure our reasons are good ones. (To clarify, in this piece, my primary concern is that I saw the potential spot for women to learn about these women and perhaps find new role models—heavens knows, I can use all the positive role models I can get!)

    Amy, I almost included a part in this piece that said how much I appreciated seeing Sister Hinckley often; she seemed to me a little like a First Lady. I miss her frank talks about marriage and raising a family. I’m glad that through her writings and talks I know about her life and can have her as a role model. I hope future wives of prophets will do the same!

    Cdbis, I don’t see how Amy was “blatantly discounting LDS doctrine.” I think Amy was expressing her perception of a possible model based on information she has heard in Church (which is not always doctrine). I think this is a forum that encourages individuals to express their perceptions.

  13. Caroline says:

    Emily’s post: “Why would you want the Priesthood? Do you just want to power?” The woman sitting next to me did say, “Yes! I want the power! I want to sit at the head of the table.” I have to admit that that made me stop and realize that my motivations aren’t always completely innocent.”

    I find the question of wanting power very interesting. I unabashedly say that I do indeed want power. Not to demean, degrade, or trample on others. Instead, I want it to empower others, to uplift others, and to bless their lives. As Lorie Winder Stromberg says, if we define power in such terms, “Who would not righteously want it?”

  14. AmyB says:

    Amen Caroline!

    I want power too. Not to dominate over other people, but to be empowered in my own life and to help others.

    And thank you Emily, I feel like you understood what I was trying to say.

    I also fear that I may have done a bit of a threadjack. I don’t post often and have a love/hate relationship with blogging, so I haven’t mastered the etiquette. I apologize for taking it off course.

  15. bigbrownhouse says:

    http://www.lds.org/churchhistory/presidents/leaders.jsp

    Its interesting to browse through these bios and see how marriages are (or aren’t) dealt with. Apparently, the only pre-manifesto prophet who was married was Joseph Smith, and he was only married to Emma.

    And theres that poor old bachelor Brigham. 😉

    -Carrie

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