Women of Righteousness: A Mother's Day Talk

Posted by on May 21, 2007 in Gender roles, Mormon women, motherhood, Sacrament talks | 9 comments

For Mother’s Day, I was asked to speak, as a surprise for my mother, in my parents’ home ward. The bishopric asked me to address Elder M. Russell Ballard’s talk entitled “Women of Righteousness.” I took the opportunity to expand on his talk’s treatment of what it means to be righteous women. In my talk, I try to illustrate that righteousness has very little to do with what work we are asked to do (whether the work of mother- or fatherhood, community service, career, or church service) and everything to do with the manner in which we accomplish the work we are given. In my opinion, that truth means that gender, marriage, and mother- or fatherhood are unnecessary categories for understanding what it means to be a “righteous woman” or a “righteous man.” Caroline asked me to share my talk here.

In his talk, “Women of Righteousness,” Elder M. Russell Ballard addresses a concern voiced by a faithful sister in the church. In a letter sent to church headquarters, this sister wrote the following:

“I have a wonderful husband and children, whom I love deeply. I love the Lord and His Church more than I can say. I know the Church is true! I realize I shouldn’t feel discouraged about who I am. Yet I have been going through an identity crisis most of my life. I have never dared utter these feelings out loud but have hidden them behind the huge, confident smile I wear to church every week. For years I have doubted if I had any value beyond my roles as a wife and mother. I have feared that men are that they might have joy, but that women are that they might be overlooked. I long to feel that I, as a woman, matter to the Lord.”

In his talk, Elder Ballard replies to this sister’s concern with a “resounding yes”—women do matter to the Lord.

This sister’s concern may seem misguided and even ungrateful. It may seem absolutely obvious to us that of course women matter to the Lord. Of course they are of equal value to and deserve joy as much as men. Of course God loves his daughters and would never have them be overlooked.

But no matter how obvious this may seem to us, my experience and friendships with LDS women tells me that this concern is very real—that many women in the church wonder whether they have worth in the eyes of the Lord.

In response to the problem of what value this sister has outside marriage and motherhood, Elder Ballard says that while the doctrine of marriage and family “sometimes causes women to ask: ‘Is a woman’s value dependent exclusively upon her role as a wife and mother?’ The answer is simple: No.” When we hear women voice this concern, we far too often glibly dismiss it by asserting that being a wife and a mother is the most important thing a woman can do. This is certainly true—marriage and parenting—creating families—is the most important thing either a woman or a man can do. But that does not change the fact that many women find themselves wondering what other contributions they can make—how they can make contributions as themselves, not only through others, even when those others are as dear to them as their husbands and their children are. It is a heartbreaking and very real problem for many of our sisters.

And then there are women in my position. Women who are not wives or mothers. Again as faithful Latter-day Saints, we often too easily dismiss this situation by assuring single women or women who are not mothers that all women are by nature mothers. That they will be given this blessing sometime. That they can nurture and love children around them, whether nieces and nephews or children in the primary. It is true that all of us, whether women or men, can and should reach out in love to the children in our lives whether they are our own children or not. But believe me, when faced by loneliness and depression, these assurances are very cold comfort. Even when I am happy and trust that, in his goodness, God will bless me with the opportunities of marriage and motherhood whether in this life or the next, the fact remains that I am here on earth with a life to live now—a life I thought would be full every single day with teaching and loving children together with my eternal companion, but which is not.

So, if motherhood is not always enough and if it is not even an option, what does it mean to be a righteous woman? In a church which places so very much emphasis on family in general and, for women specifically, on being a wife and mother, the answer to this question is not always apparent. Too often we use “wife and mother” as a kind of shorthand for righteousness in women. But I don’t think it’s that simple. After all, there are many wives and many mothers who are anything but righteous. I would like to present the examples of three righteous women whose righteousness is not entirely rooted in their roles as wife and mother: Eliza R. Snow, Deborah, and Esther. Each of these women were wives, but Eliza R. Snow never had children and the Bible leaves it unclear whether either Deborah or Esther bore children. Each of them teaches us a great deal about what it means to be righteous regardless of gender.

When the Relief Society was first organized in 1842 in Nauvoo, Eliza R. Snow served as its first secretary. 25 years later, Brigham Young called Sister Snow to help establish Relief Societies in the wards of Zion. Serving as president of the Relief Society for twenty years, she pioneered a variety of programs meant to educate the women of the church and promote the church’s self-sufficiency. For instance, she asserted that “We want sister physicians that can officiate in any capacity that gentlemen are called upon to officiate . . . Women can occupy precisely the same footing that men occupy as physicians and surgeons.” She proceeded to establish, with President Young’s support, programs to send LDS women to medical school to become doctors and to train LDS women as nurses. Under her leadership, the Relief Society established a hospital where a woman served as head surgeon.

In many ways, President Snow’s efforts epitomized the spirit of President Hinckley’s recent advice to the young women of the church. At the spring 2007 General Young Women Meeting, he said: “You may plan on marriage, and hope for it, but you are not certain that it will come. And even though you marry, education will be of great benefit to you. Don’t just drift along, letting the days come and go without improvement in your lives. The Lord will bless you as you make the effort. Your lives will be enriched and your outlook broadened as your minds are opened to new vistas and knowledge.” Eliza R. Snow’s efforts as the president of the Relief Society encouraged women to gain knowledge and valuable skills, allowing them to establish successful silk manufactures, mercantile commission exchanges, grain storage systems (which outstripped the system run by the church’s bishops), publications, and educational institutions.

As a result of her dedication and diligent work to establish the kingdom of God on earth, Eliza R. Snow was frequently referred to as both a prophetess and a “mother in Israel.” The last seems a rather strange title to be given to a woman who, though married to first Joseph Smith and then Brigham Young, never bore children. But that title’s meaning is illuminated through the story of another prophetess, the Old Testament judge in Israel Deborah, who is the first woman to have been called a “mother in Israel.”

Deborah had many roles. Poet. Prophetess. Judge. Leader of military action. As a prophetess and judge, she received instruction from God that Barak should raise an Israelite army and move against the Canaanites who held them captive. Even after Deborah assured Barak that God would deliver the leader of the opposing army into their hands, Barak insisted that he would not go to war unless Deborah accompanied h
im. Barak lead the army; Deborah, in her role as prophetess and judge, lead Barak, making possible through revelation his military victory.

While Barak’s army, with God’s divine assistance, defeated the much more powerful Canaanite army, Deborah advised him that “the Lord shall sell Sisera [the leader of the Canaanite army] into the hand of a woman.” True to this prophecy, Sisera fled sure destruction on the battle field and took refuge in the tent of Jael, the wife of an Arab chief allied with the Israelites. Having made Sisera comfortable and promised to hide him, Jael waited for him to sleep and then killed him.

Both Deborah and Jael righteously performed the work of God, but they did so by performing actions that fall outside what we would think of as women’s typical roles. In doing so, these women demonstrated that what matters is not necessarily fitting ourselves to preconceived notions of what it means to be a woman (can you imagine what would have happened had Deborah refused to go into battle with the Israelite army because it would be dirty and difficult and dangerous? or had Jael hesitated to kill Sisera because such a deed did not conform to notions of femininity?); Deborah and Jael help us understand that it’s more important to do the work God gives us to do, and to do it well, than it is to try to force ourselves into being what we think it means to be a woman, or for that matter a man, and therefore failing to do what needs to be done.

After the Israelites’ victory over the Canaanites, Deborah sings in praise of God that “the inhabitants of the villages ceased, they ceased in Israel, until that I Deborah arose, that I arose a mother in Israel.” How is it that she arose “a mother in Israel” as she first revealed God’s plan and then accompanied the army into battle as it fulfilled God’s plan? At the end of her song of praise, Deborah sings: “So let all thine enemies perish, O Lord; but let them that love him be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might. And the land had rest forty years.” Deborah’s efforts, Jael’s actions, and the Israelites’ obedience to God’s commands resulted in forty years of peace. The number forty represents the gestation period—forty weeks to bring forth new human life. This symbol is repeated throughout the Old and New Testaments: forty years of peace, forty years wandering in the desert, forty days fasting in the wilderness. In each instance, this period of time functions as an incubator to foster new spiritual life. While we do not know if Deborah actually had children, her righteousness fostered the spiritual life of her community just as Eliza R. Snow’s dedication and hard work fostered the physical and spiritual strength of the early church as it settled in the west.

Esther, like both Eliza R. Snow and Deborah, dedicated herself to preserving her community and did so at great risk to herself. We all know that in entering the presence of the king in order to seek protection for her people, Esther risked her own life. The extent of that danger becomes more clear when we understand what went before. When Esther took this risk, she had not been queen for very long. The previous queen, Vashti, had been put aside by the king, Ahasuerus, because she disobeyed his command. As a result, all of the king’s provinces were instructed that women must obey their husbands and all of the young women of his kingdom were brought to the court so Ahasuerus could choose a new queen. When Esther chose to disobey the king’d command that no one enter his presence without his having summoned them, she did so knowing that her predecessor had lost her position because of disobedience. She further knew that her people were threatened because her uncle, Mordecai, had disobeyed another of the king’s commands when he refused to bow to the king’s first in command, Hamar. In spite of these two powerful examples of how disobedience to the king could result in a loss of status, home, and position at best and life at worst, Esther risked entering the king’s presence in order to save her people from death. Her uncle Mordecai first suggested this course of action; Esther in turn suggested that she and her attendants, her uncle, and all of the Jews in the king’s provinces fast and pray for three days prior to her entering the king’s presence and making her request. Esther’s selfless sacrifice and her recognition of the power of fasting and prayer saved her people from destruction.

Each of these women, with their obedience and dedication, helps us understand that righteousness is not a factor of the role we fill in this life. Instead righteousness is about how we do the work we have been given to do, whether it is the work of mother- or fatherhood, of our careers, of public service, or of church service.

In his ministries in both Jerusalem and the Americas, the Savior said: “Therefore what manner of men (and women!) ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am.” He is our ultimate example of what it means to be righteous. If we will worry less about making ourselves the perfect woman, or man, and instead embrace the example of the Savior, we will live lives of righteousness and meaning. As we become loving, compassionate, strong women and men of Christ, we will change our selves, our families, our communities, and ultimately our world and help build Zion.

I have been richly blessed with parents who set an example of such righteousness. Today I would like to honor my mother. I know no more perfect example of Christlike love and service. Her love and compassion have taught me to reach out to others. It is her example of righteous living and her belief in me that makes it possible for me to find happiness in my life.

I know that as we strive to live as Christ did, we will lead lives of righteousness that will allow us to bless our families and communities. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

{I’d like to thank our Deborah and those who commented on her lovely post about being the namesake of the Old Testament prophetess Deborah. I used their thoughts in preparing my own thoughts about Deborah.}

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9 Comments

  1. Amy,
    Wow. This is awesome. How I wish I had gone to your meeting instead! (Mine was filled with references to motherhearts.)

    I love that you openly acknowledged and addressed the fact that many LDS women don’t feel that they matter that much to God. Like you, I know a lot of women that struggle with this, and it’s great that your talk highlights ways all women can be righteous – ways that don’t necessarily have anything to do with mothering.

    I also loved the part where you said that the common assurances that someday in the eternities you’ll be a wife and mother are cold comfort. I think it’s good for well-meaning people to know that that’s not always the best thing to say.

    One question: did you at all hesitate to use that Jael example? I’m going through a pacifist stage right now, so any Nephi-esque righteous slaying is a bit problematic to me.

    Another question : you mention obedience being a part of being a righteous woman. I have mixed feelings towards the concept of obedience. I’m sure i’m totally simplifying, but obedience to me sometimes seems like the least noble reason to perform a certain action. And of course, obedience to whom is a big part of the concept. I’m less conflicted over the idea of obedience to God, and I’m more troubled by the concept of obedience to our leaders and/or husbands. Maybe because it’s all rooted in our current system of patriarchy. Anyway, do you have any additional thoughts on obedience as related to women?

    Thanks so much for posting this!

  2. Wonderful talk. Reading the quote that women don’t matter as much to God makes me think about the difference between women and Mother’s Day and men and Father’s Day. Men aren’t ridden with guilt, feeling they aren’t measuring up. Perhaps that is the root cause – women feel that they have to earn HF love and approval much more than men do.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Caroline. I (obviously, since I included it in my talk) feel very strongly that well-meaning people need to stop and think about what it feels like to hear the kinds of reassurances we sometimes give–whether to women who are single, women who are not mothers, or women who are mothers but find themselves wanting more. To offer the kinds of placating assurances that it will all work out if we just stop thinking about our problems is to suggest that our problems are a result of our ingratitude, rather than of some actual imbalance in life or of some situation that requires active engagement rather than passive acceptance.

    I didn’t really hesitate to include the story of Jael. First because I think she’s a fascinating example of an “unwomanly” woman who does exactly as she’s meant to do. And second, because I think this situation was one in which the death of Sisera was justified by his having held the Israelites captive. I am a pragmatic pacifist. which is perhaps a contradiction in terms. But essentially I believe that we should avoid war and violence whenever possible. But when it’s not possible because another person or nation violates our own rights, I think the use of violence is justified.

    (sorry for the tangent.)

    on obedience: I think that obedience has to be understood as a complex virtue. There is simple obedience, where we simply do as we’re told because we’ve been told. but I believe God does not want us to obey with such motivations indefinitely. I believe he wants us to reach a level of understanding at which obedience is a function of right understanding, not a function of submission. and generally, I think of being obedient to principles (not husbands or leaders) and, when I don’t understand the priciple fully, to God.

  4. Thanks, Sally. I really enjoyed writing the talk–especially since the source material I was given so explicitly mentioned the ways women struggle to feel that they measure up–that they merit God’s love and attention.

    I think that your assessment is a good one. In fact, for centuries in the western world, “man” has been the default from which “woman” is a deviation. This has only started to change in our recent history. It’s no wonder that women feel inordinate pressure to measure up.

    That said, I know that many, many men feel very similar pressure. I simply think that the pressure manifests itself in different ways.

  5. I love this talk! It is perfect for Mother’s Day. Like Caroline, I wish I could have been at that meeting, too. (Except then I would have missed out on the Mother’s Day brownies. Hmmm.)

    I especially appreciate how you make righteous womanhood about more than mothering – even “mothering” in its broader sense, as people often use the word in church – without, of course, taking away from the importance of that work. And I’m so glad you used the Jael story. You’d have to do some fancy philosophical gymnastics to classify her actions (in that situation) as “motherly” or “nurturing.”

    No offense, mind you, to motherliness or nurturing, two wonderful qualities. But the challenge of being a righteous woman is so much larger than that.

    Again, this was truly a great talk.

  6. I’ll comment more later — but this is great, Amelia (and not just because you highlight my favorite biblical heroine). Bravo.

  7. Wow, Amelia, thanks for sharing such a great talk. I didn’t know all the details about Deborah–what an amazing woman! I love how you specifically make the point about her breaking out of the mold–and still being okay. We need to hear this message more often.

    Like many of the others who have commented, I wish I had been in your ward that day instead of the one I attended (I was visiting my parents’ ward in UT). A former bishop was the main speaker and for about 15 minutes he chastised all the women who weren’t mothers from taking away part of the joy of mother’s day by complaining that they weren’t mothers yet (I don’t know of any woman who would “complain” about this in public–so I am curious as to who he was directing his remarks to). Anyway, according to this speaker, we should just be content in knowing that we will be mothers someday, and not whine or feel bad on mother’s day. I was seething mad…my husband and I had to go on a walk for about 2 hours to get it out of my system. It was just so…annoying that here is this man trying to tell me how I should feel about something he has absolutely no understanding of. I just tried to imagine how a talk from a woman directed to the men of the congregation about how they should feel about something would go over. I imagine not very well.

    The only redeeming part of the day was the wonderful dinnner my husband and my dad prepared for the women of the family (men doing the cooking is the norm, not the exception, in our family–but the meal that day was extra fancy/special).

  8. Maria: That should go into the record books of “worst things to say in a talk on Mother’s Day.” Ouch.

  9. i agree with you, madhousewife, about the “motherly”/”nurturing” point. i have no problem with either of those traits and i possess both of them. but i *hate* womanhood being reduced to them. and it’s clearly wrong to reduce righteousness to those two things.

    and maria, i’m so sorry you had to sit through that. i hear such speakers and i just have to wonder why it is they think they can say such things. they obviously haven’t stopped to think about what they’re saying and how it sounds to the people they think they are helping (??!!!!) with their comments.

    frankly, if rank and file church members want to turn mother’s day into a celebration of all women by suggesting that even non-mothers are mothers (and this particular piece of logical gymnastics is performed in almost every single mother’s day meeting i’ve ever been in), then they’ve opened the door to talking about the difficulties of not being mothers in mormon society. if we spent less cultural energy trying to make all women out as mothers and spent more cultural energy recognizing and authorizing individuals regardless of their parenting (and marital) status, maybe there wouldn’t be so much angst around mother’s day.

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