Memory Capsules: The Robes I Have Worn and the Parts I Have Played

1) When I was a child, my siblings and I would act out the nativity story on Christmas Eve, as per one of our family’s traditions. My youngest brother always played the babe, Jesus; my brother Joseph always played the betrothed Joseph; my oldest sister always claimed the prized (and perhaps lone) female role of Mary. Another fair haired sister generally played the angel, leaving me and the remaining sister as shepherds. We wore headdresses in the form of bath towels and robes in the form of sheets, and braided our respective long, dark hair in front of our faces as beards. (If I had a picture, I promise I would share.) I don’t recall resenting this repeated casting too much (though I did dream of being Mary), because if you have to be a shepherd, there was no one better to be a shepherd with. Still, I do recall noticing that there weren’t that many parts for girls.

2) When I was a slightly older child (think 4th grade), some of my classmates called me Squanto. The reason? Because I had played Squanto in a class play the year before, after collectively reading Squanto: Friend of the Pilgrims. Sometimes it embarrassed me, but more often it made me feel proud, because I had played the biggest part, and was not limited by my gender.

That same year I ran for Student Body Vice-President (which was the highest office a 4th grader could run for). My slogan employed my last name Hunt, and a ketchup bottle, with the words “Catch Up with Hunt.” I gave a speech in front of the entire school, and came out victorious in the votes.

3) When I was slightly older than that (think 5th grade), my elementary school teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. I told the truth, that I wanted to be the President of the United States of America. If I knew then, that no female had ever been President, it didn’t deter me from thinking it was possible.

4) When I was a middle school child (somewhere in the vicinity of the 6th or 7th grade) my Choir teacher announced the name of the annual Christmas play, as well as the date and time of auditions. This was of course, back when public schools were still allowed to do Christmas plays, and/or Christmas anything. The play’s title was something along the lines of “Father Time Saves Christmas,” with the largest role, unsurprisingly going to ‘Father Time.’ I immediately raised my hand and asked if girls could play the lead role. Just as quickly, my teacher informed us that both girls and boys could try out for Father Time, and that the part would be given to the best actress or actor.

I got the part.

For the umpteenth time, I donned a beard, though for the first time it was white and attachable, rather than brown and braided. For the umpteenth time, I wore a robe, though for the first time it was not made out of bed sheets.

5) Still in middle school, but in 8th grade I was selected to take a math class at the high school. Only two other students were similarly chosen: they were both boys.

6) When I was 19 I told someone close to me that I decided to go on a mission. That close-person-to-me told me not to go on a mission. It went back and forth for some length of time. The individual’s main point was that I was a girl, and didn’t have to go. My main point was that I wanted to, and felt like God also wanted me to.

7) When I was 21, I wore temple robes for the first time.

8) Two months later, I put on a name tag that I would take off and put on every day for a year and a half. It was a name tag more frequently worn by men, but mine said Sister instead of Elder.

9) A few years after that, I wore graduation robes, and then again, two more years later for my Masters.

10) Now I am working towards my Doctoral robes. It is a long process.

It is a long process, and I am not as brave as I once was. Somedays it takes all of the courage I can muster to raise my hand in predominantly male classes, to open my mouth and speak. Still I do it, consciously reminding myself that I got accepted too; I am smart too: I belong there too.

And I do.

11) As I reflect on these memory capsules from my past, I am pleased with the robes I have worn and the parts I have played–especially those I had to carve out myself.

 How do we encourage girls to want the biggest part? (And if they face the same  Nativity reenactment, how do we get them to envision themselves as shepherdesses, or better yet, as wise women, coming from the East? Or if in a similar play: Mother Time, instead of Father?)

 How do we, ourselves, keep the courage?


Rachel is a PhD student in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University. She co-edited _Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings_ with Joanna Brooks and Hannah Wheelwright. She is also a lover of all things books and bikes.

You may also like...

12 Responses

  1. Emily U says:

    I think girls naturally want the big roles (just like boys do) – it’s when they start getting told they can’t have them that they stop going after them.

    How to we keep the courage to want them? That’s a tough question because the grown-up me is more of a pragmatist than a dreamer. Obligations rule my life. But I do still have some dreams, and when I finally decide the time it would take to pursue them isn’t claimed by something/someone else then I hope I will follow them.

    • Rachel says:

      Emily U, I think you are right, and the fact of that rightness/”when they start getting told they can’t have them” that I am so concerned about.

      I am glad you still have some of your dreams, and a desire to pursue them when the time is right. That is even one thing I HAVE been impressed with in my current graduate program. Where some of my classes are predominantly men, others have a more even split, and of those more even splits, quite a few are LDS women, in a variety of stages of life: some are single, some are married, some are married and have small children, some are married and have grown children. It reminds me that lives can be quite long, and that there is no correct order to pursue certain dreams.

  2. Mhana says:

    I don’t have answers to the big questions. I will just say that this year I bought some more figures for my nativity set (I buy them in France whilst doing research) I found a shepherdess with a little sheep. I was very excited and now I have my angel announcing to a shepherd, a shepherdess and about five sheep. Peace on earth good will to all!

  3. Caroline says:

    I love the post and I love the questions, Rachel. One of my biggest fears about raising my daughter Mormon is that she will internalize messages that she shouldn’t want or have the big parts. I’m not sure how to counteract those messages. It gives me hope that you always went after those big parts.

    If I’m ever in the Primary presidency and we’re doing a nativity, I am absolutely going to have wise women and shepherdesses.

  4. Spunky says:

    This is lovely, Rachel. I agree that it is problematic about allowing the thought that women could have more that what the typical Mormon spectrum offers (the spectrum being very limited.)

    There are so few parts for females in the church. The rarity of women in scripture is obvious– as is the usual attitude of skipping over females in church lesson material. That is something that I think would have made a huge difference to me as a child, and now. It would be nice to feel like my gender is really a part of the church, not just a companion to a male who is a part of the church.

    With Christmas on the brain, I do like a book by Mem Fox called Wombat Divine. It is about a Wombat that auditions for every part in a Christmas nativity- gender aside. I think it sends a good message about trying out for everything. Even though the Wombat is a “he”, the pronouns could easily be changed in the reading. Most of the other animals in the story are genderless.

  5. DefyGravity says:

    This post reminded me of my gripe that all the good parts in plays are for men. 🙂 Good thing I’m not an actor anymore.

    I know what you mean about being braver than you are now. I feel that way often, looking back on what I did as a teenager and my early years in college. I wonder what happened. But I think getting a PhD is incredibly brave, as is looking back on your life and seeing how you have changed.

    I think one way to show girls they can have big roles is to speak of all options as possible and likely. In the church we often say “when you get married,” or “when you have kids.” (Neither of which is certain) Can we start saying, “when you graduate” or “when you move out on your own” or things like that? Also, putting all choices on an even footing, instead of suggesting that one choice is better could help give girls the courage to choose what they want to do, instead of feeling they have to pick one path to be doing the best thing.

    • Rachel says:

      You bring up such good points, DefyGravity.

      Just this Sunday I was asked to speak to the Laurels in my ward about education, what it has meant to me, and how I ended up first getting a Masters and then now pursuing a Doctorate.

      I didn’t want to tell them that they Had to follow the same path that I trod, but I did want them to see that it was a possible option, and that there are a Lot of paths that they can take. When I was speaking with them I mentioned some well meaning, but unproductive advice I had received while I was applying for PhD programs to “move to Utah and try to get married.” I explained to the Young Women that while wanting to get married may be a righteous desire, it is not a desire that can or should be forced, and that it is better to pursue paths that are personally meaningful and fulfilling, since 1) we don’t know what will happen, or if marriage will come for all and 2) it is better to meet a potential marriage partner while in a meaningful and productive place rather than a waiting place. I then told them that I disregarded the advice I got, applied for my program, and met my husband the very week I got accepted. They all swooned. Which at least means that they were paying attention, but I hope that they got other things out of it as well.

  6. EmilyCC says:

    I think the last question you ask is an important one…how do we keep that courage?

    It helps me to see role models and people around me working for that equality. It does feel hard sometimes.

    A beautiful post, particularly at this time of year, Rachel. You are a role model I hope my daughter will emulate.

  7. April says:

    I am in charge of the primary nativity in my ward this year. There will be wisewomen.

    Thank you for this beautiful post.

  8. Suzette Smith says:

    Rachel – this is a great piece. I so enjoyed reading about your experiences. I think we keep up our courage by practicing. The more we do it, the better we get … and the less scary it seems.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.