Masculine and Feminine Verbiage in the Children’s Songbook

A friend of mine has feminist leanings, but when it comes to gender issues in the church, she can have a bit of a blind spot. I remember discussing some items she’d read on an “LDS feminist agenda” several years ago, and she got a bit scoffy at a couple things on the wishlist.

“They want equal mentions of men and women in stories and equal numbers of men and women in pictures in manuals and promotional materials,” she said incredulously. “I mean, how nit-picky can you get? It just seems so petty to go through and count like that.”

My friend has a point: if all things are more or less equal, going through and counting every boy vs. girl mentioned in a story or shown in a picture seems extremely trivial. My friend imagined LDS feminists getting up in arms about 134 men versus 115 women mentioned in stories in one manual and demanding exactly equal representation. As an LDS feminist, I agree with her that this would, indeed, be silly.

But what if it’s not just that one manual? What if every manual has 8% more men’s stories than women’s stories? Or 8% more men quoted than women? Or 8% more named men than named women? What if the disparity never goes the other way, and it’s always women who are less represented than men?

And what if it’s not 8% at all, but more like 80% across the board? Suddenly, fighting for an approximately equal representation of male vs. female names, stories, and quotes doesn’t seem quite as trivial.

The church recently announced that they are going to be compiling new music for the Hymnbook and Children’s Songbook, and they’ve asked for input in an unprecedented way. I am excited for the changes they’ve promised (particularly hymns from other cultures and languages–yay!), and I’m desperately hoping for more female representation in the pronouns, names, and words of our new songbooks.

I’ve gone through the entire current Children’s Songbook and tallied up how many named men vs. named women there are, as well as made note of other gendered language and how the song lyrics gender God. If we want our daughters to see that there’s a place for them in the church and, more importantly, to know that God loves and values them, we need the language we use, the songs we sing, the stories we tell, and the lessons we teach to reflect that and include them.

Men and Women Mentioned by Name
Songs in the Children’s Songbook mention 42 men and only three women by name.

Several of the people are in named in more than one song. Including duplicates, men are named 55 times; women are named nine times.

Gendered Language
In addition to the names of men and women mentioned in song, I also looked for gendered language (indicated by pronouns, words that refer to men/women (with the exception of father/mother), or nouns paired with masculine/feminine pronouns) in the lyrics. Forty four songs contain male specific words; ten songs contain female specific words.

Representation of Parents
To see how mothers and fathers were represented in the Songbook, I only counted songs that mentioned mother OR father (excluding “Heavenly Father” references); songs that mentioned both were not counted. Mother was mentioned in 9 songs; father/daddy was mentioned in 7.

The disparity here is pretty negligible, and in our culture we tend to emphasize motherhood at the expense of fatherhood. Motherhood (and parenthood) is important, but it’s incredibly concerning that the only area where men and women are even close to equally represented is when it comes to motherhood. This props up the narrative that women’s only important/valued role is motherhood, and our girls deserve better than that.

Gendering God
If gender is eternal, as the church teaches, it is impossible for girls to become like their Heavenly Father. It is important for girls to see God as both masculine and feminine if they are to visualize themselves in heaven and aspire to be like God.

References to a male God:
God with he/him pronouns: 15
Heavenly King: 2
Lord: 16
Heavenly Father: 57
Total: 90

Gender neutral references to God:
God (with no pronouns): 22

There were no mentions at all of Heavenly Mother, God as female, or God as partnership of Man + Woman (e.g. Heavenly Parents or God with “they” pronouns).

It is true that there are significantly more men than women mentioned by name in scripture and that the collection of church leaders past and present is almost exclusively male, but we have the opportunity and the responsibility to rectify the oppressive errors of the past. In some cases, including women’s names and stories in song may require a little more creativity, but as of now, there are dozens of unutilized heroes kids could learn about in song: Sariah, Ruth, Hagar, Elizabeth, Abish, Anna, Deborah, Esther, Abigail, Eve, Emma Smith, Eliza R. Snow, Jane Manning James, Chieko Okazaki, and that’s just a start. There are also the powerful stories of unnamed women, like the woman at the well or the woman with an issue of blood or King Lamoni’s wife. A song could be written to teach Primary children the names of the General Primary Presidents or the history of Primary. We could have songs about Heavenly Mother or at least Heavenly Parents.

My goal in writing this post is not to criticize, but to bring attention to this issue and call for change. The church has asked for input on which songs should be included in the forthcoming songbook, and we have the chance to influence what songs are included. Please submit feedback about the kinds of songs you’d like to see, suggest specific songs, or submit your own lyrics and/or music! Feel free to link in the comments any songs that include women heroes, Heavenly Mother, or feminine pronouns so that we can signal boost them to the songbook compilers and use them in our own Primaries and families. While we wait for several years for the new Children’s Songbook, we can include women and Heavenly Mother in songs now by swapping pronouns and writing additional verses to current songs (read this article for some great suggestions).  

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Some notes about how I came up with these numbers:

  • This data doesn’t account for the representation of people/women of color or other marginalized groups. I absolutely believe we need to have songs that represent these groups as well.
  • I did not include the male or female names of the books of the scriptures (songbook pages 114, 116, 119) or “Mormon” when used as part of “Book of Mormon”
  • I included Thomas S. Monson and Russell M. Nelson because even though their names aren’t printed in my book, they are added when the song “Latter-day Prophets” is taught to children in Primary.
  • If a song uses several names for God, I only recorded the most masculine one and didn’t record each usage. I only counted one instance of each name/item per song (so a song that mentions “mother” three times or “Nephi” twice is only counted one time in the data).
  • I did not count references to Jesus in the name data (other than counting his name once), and I didn’t count words referring specifically to him (savior, redeemer, etc.).
  • I did not generally count instances of priesthood offices or words (prophet, bishop, priesthood, etc.) as male unless male pronouns were used in conjunction with the title.
  • If you’d like to see the data, here is a link to my spreadsheet.

ElleK

ElleK is a foodie, gardener, and writer. Women’s issues in the church are not a pebble in her shoe; they are a boulder on her chest.

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17 Responses

  1. Spunky says:

    I’m not surprised , but I’m still heartbroken. Thank you for putting this together.

  2. Violadiva says:

    These little papercuts are really starting to add up. 😢
    I love primary songs, and I really hope the committee does something to fix this gaping discrepancy in the next book.

  3. wondering Why says:

    I have six daughters who have never ask either myself, or their mother, why this is so. What is wrong with them? Why don’t they no they’re oppressed?

    • Lily says:

      I used to think it was no big deal until I went to law school and heard female pronouns used as often as males pronouns. I does matter.

    • Anon says:

      Wondering Why, I think that most children accept the culture in which they are raised as The Way Things Are. Your girls probably don’t see the discrepancy, and they may not ever recognize it until they are exposed to the idea of true equality or they experience true equality in a different context. Then they won’t be able to NOT see the myriad discrepancies within our church culture.

    • ElleK says:

      All children internalize things. Whether they consciously realize it or not, things like lack of representation of women in songs (or scriptures, stories, general conference, church leadership, etc etc etc) absolutely do affect the way your daughters see the world and the church and their place in it. I know it did for me, and I never saw myself as “oppressed,” either.

    • Ziff says:

      That’s extraordinarily depressing, Wondering Why. It suggests that your daughters are *so* used to sex-based discrimination that it doesn’t even register to them as strange. It’s just part of the background of sexism in their world.

      But I suspect a more likely explanation is that, as your comments demonstrate, you are concerned with aggressively squashing anyone’s concerns about sexism, so your wife and/or your daughters quickly learned that if they notice sexism, you’re not a safe person to bring it up to.

  4. Anna says:

    I am a woman who used to be just like wondering why’s daughters. I never mentioned it. Never dared mention it. But I do remember sitting in primary after we just heard ANOTHER story about some boy who grew up to be prophet. I don’t remember the story so much as I remember my thought process about all the stories being about boys/men. If God loves the people in the stories and they are ALL male, then God doesn’t love me ‘cause I’m a girl.

    So, Wondering, your girls may never mention it, specially to a male, but they may still decide that God loves boys/men but not girls/women because of the skewed gender ratios of the stories they get told.

  5. allyall says:

    I went thru and changed my copy of the songbook to have gender neutral pronouns a few years back. But this is more n depth analysis that is very thoughtful. Thanks!

  6. Carrie says:

    I missed this post when I was out of town. WOW! Thanks for your hard work in adding up the numbers. We really need some songs about Heavenly Mother, women, and gender inclusive changes with the new hymn book!!

  7. Carrie says:

    Also, I recently found this article (https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V28N03_79.pdf) pointing out the exact differences in the hymn book. It nicely compliments your blog post, for anyone who is interested.

  8. jonovitch says:

    I was with you up to the point that, in your defense of the value of women, you devalued motherhood.

    Here’s what you wrote: “This props up the narrative that women’s only important/valued role is motherhood, and our girls deserve better than that.”

    That statement props up the narrative that women’s motherhood is not an important/valuable enough role on its own (that they need something more than mere motherhood to see themselves as important/valued), and our mothers and girls deserve better than being told they aren’t enough if they are “only” a mother. 🙁

    • ElleK says:

      That’s not what I said at all.

      What I said was “Motherhood (and parenthood) is important, but it’s incredibly concerning that the only area where men and women are even close to equally represented is when it comes to motherhood. This props up the narrative that women’s only important/valued role is motherhood, and our girls deserve better than that.” My point is that the only valued/important role for women according to the church is motherhood, not that “mothers and girls aren’t enough if they are “only” a mother.” By contrast, there are a slew of valued/important roles for men according to the church (father, priesthood holder, breadwinner, protector, presider, etc.). I never said (or implied) that if a woman chooses to be a stay at home mom she should not “see [herself] as important/valued,” just that women deserve choices and recognition of more than just that one role as valued and valid.

  9. Ziff says:

    This is excellent, ElleK. Thanks so much for putting it together! I love posts with graphs, and I doubly love posts with graphs in the service of a feminist cause! I mean, the results are super depressing, but I’m glad you put them together.

  1. July 19, 2018

    […] fact, a recent Exponent II blog crunched the numbers for the children’s songbook. It turns out that men are named are 55 times […]

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