Skeleton Woman

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.


Amelia has recently relocated to Salt Lake City for her new job selling college textbooks (a job she loves). She's a 9th generation Mormon redefining her relationship with the church (the church she both loves and hates). She's passionate about books, travel, beauty, and all things cheese.

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  1. Deborah says:

    Amelia: I’ve read this post a couple of times today – it even sent me back to one of my favorite resources on women, myth, and archetype: Estes’ “Women Who Run With the Wolves.” I’m intrigued by your question about fear and want to think more about it – you definitely struck a cord.

    Your thoughts on fear, compassion, and wholeness remind me of the story of the Fisher King. In the testosterone-filled Arthurian adaptation, Perceval is on a quest for the grail. He stumbles upon the castle of the Fisher King and is warmly welcomed. However, the Fisher King has been deeply wounded in the groin; as a result of this infirmity, his kingdom is barren. In the evenings’ formalities, Perceval notices the king’s wound, a beautiful cup, a bleeding lance, and other oddities. Yet he is too timid to ask the questions that are burning his tongue; he’s afraid he’ll be thought improper. He’ll ask them in the morning, he thinks. But in the morning, the castle is deserted. In grief and confusion, he encounters a wise women who tells him: if you had asked the right questions, you and the king would have found what you desired.

    In an earlier version, a wounded king has sent all his best knights in search of a chalice to heal him. On his deathbed, a jester comes to comfort him. Seeing not a king, but a man, (s)he asks, “What ails you?” The king asks for water. The jester fetches a cup; the king, after drinking, realizes he is holding the chalice. The king asks, “How did you find this when my best knights failed?”

    “I do not know,” replies the Jester. “but I know that you were thirsty.”

    Of course, the chalice is often thought to represent the feminine divine. But there is something, too, about questions and healing that keeps me coming back to this story.

  2. Miss Hass says:


  3. Dora says:

    Amy ~

    I’m so glad you shared this piece. I like how your finishing paragraph encourages women to accomplish what they can and must, regarless of how others around us choose to live their lives. I know so many women who are plagued by the comparison game … thinner, fatter, richer, poorer, smarter, dumber, etc etc … that they fail to recognize the wealth of blessings that they have. I don’t claim to be exempt, but I’m getting better than I have been. In the end, it comes down to what we have done, with the tools available to us, to become more Christlike.


  4. Barbara says:

    I love how he was finally able to “embrace” his fears and they turned out to be the catalyst for moving him to a much better place. Good lesson for us all.

  5. Caroline says:

    Amy, I love this story and I love your (and Bradley’s) interpretation.

    But there’s something here that I’d like to question. You end your post with an injunction to work with the church, not against it. I understand why this is important – it probably is those faithful ones inside the church who have feminist concerns that will do more to advance the cause for us than anyone else.

    But how far do we go in working with the church? I’ll never forget that beautiful, profound thing you said at our feminist panel. That we women need to be like Jesus, standing up powerfully but patiently against the inequities of the world.

    I believe in standing up against the inequities of the world. I believe in not participating in things that hurt me, because the hurt is just to profound to endure. Because of this, I have decided that I cannot right now do an endowment session. I can’t raise my hand and promise to do something that is so completely opposite of everything I know Christ wants for me.

    So is there a place for people like me, people who are active on their own terms, people who want to work with the church, and do to a large extent, but draw the line when the subjugation is just too overt, too painful?

  6. AmyB says:

    Looking through the archives, I came back across this essay. I think it is as pertinent as ever, especially given recent discussions here. For anyone who missed it the first time around, I think it’s worth a read.