The 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.