An Eskimo myth tells the story of Skeleton Woman—a woman who, punished by her father, lives as a heap of bones at the bottom of a lake until one day a fisherman snags her bones and reels her in, thinking he has made a big catch. When he realizes what is on his line, he is horrified at the sight of her and tries to escape, but, caught on the fishing line, she remains connected to his boat no matter how hard he tries to flee. As he rows away, she seems to follow him, brought into sight repeatedly by the churning water in the wake of his boat. After recognizing that he cannot get away, he stops and builds a fire to keep him warm through the night. Although still terrified, he finally feels compassion for this long-dead and abandoned creature and lays her bones out, restoring her from a heap of twisted bones to a human being. After covering her with a bear skin, the man sleeps. As he does, Skeleton Woman becomes a living breathing woman. When the man awakes, he finds that he had slept not alongside the frightening remains, but next to a living woman. His compassion releases her from her fate; she releases him from a long loneliness. As companions they nourish each other.
In her article, “The Struggle to Emerge,” Martha Sonntag Bradley reads this myth as a metaphor for the position of feminists in the church. She argues that not only the male leadership of the church but all too often its female members spend too much energy wrestling with the bones of feminism, attempting to free themselves from its perceived threat. In Bradley’s account—one with which I agree—“too many women have been indoctrinated as girls to believe they cannot or should not or will not be powerful. And by the time they are women they are convinced. And they are afraid every time that Skeleton Woman, the face of feminism, shows itself before them. It is fear of the unknown, fear of failing at the most sacred institution in their charge, their families, that prevents many Mormon women from joining in the work [of feminists]” (137). I believe that if the church would embrace the feminists in its midst, both parties would benefit.
But I would not stop here, implying that the church is merely the frightened fisherman who does not understand a reality that persistently rears its ugly head. I would ask us, as feminists, what our skeleton woman is. Because I have no doubt that we have one, a vision of terror that haunts us, follows us, never leaves us alone. I believe that our skeleton woman is the church—the men in power and the women who seem never to move beyond the passive female created by our cultural indoctrination, all the people who accuse feminists of being merely angry or bitter or apostate and all the people who don’t stop and think about feminists and their issues at all. What would happen if we, as feminists, let ourselves stop being frightened by what will not leave us alone (because both my own experience and that of several of my feminist friends tells me that no matter how hard we try, Mormonism is not something that can simply be left alone)? What if, instead, we looked at that specter that haunts us with eyes of compassion and understanding, trying to see the truths it represents, the beauties that it holds? I believe that we must embrace the church, lay it out in its order, recognize its value, in order to release ourselves from our long loneliness. Only when we attempt to see beyond surfaces, when we diligently try to recognize people’s real motivations, will we succeed in influencing their lives for the better.
More importantly, only then will we realize our own potential to become powerful, Christlike women—regardless of how those around us exist. He, in the most powerful act he ever performed, did precisely this thing. He looked at ugliness and terror—the pain and suffering of those who were not physically whole; the anguish of those who sinned against God; the torment of those who suffered at the hands of sinners—with mercy and compassion and He saw the humanity and the divinity that lay within. He took those twisted bodies and souls and made it possible for them to resemble again their divine origin. And by doing so He made possible the union between apparent opposites. By embracing through faith His act of grace we can become united again with divinity and we can become divine ourselves. Let us emulate Him in our efforts to make the church more equitable. Let us see in the church not only its problems, but its beautiful potential and by an act of grace make it possible to work with it, rather than against it. And let us, through faith, embrace the grace that the church extends daily, believing in its goodnesses and living the changes we can live within its bounds.
This was excerpted from a longer paper I presented about my version of Mormon feminism at a panel on the subject. Jana excerpted other portions of that paper in the Southern California issue of Exponent II last year.