The errand of imagining is given to women.
Reading the book of Mormon is hard if you identify as a woman and/or if you care about gender representation. It is a book written “for our day” – and in the sense of the truths therein, I believe that. But it is also a book written by men, about men, for men. The book tells of of male heroes performing masculinity in male contexts. They are seers, bold adventurers, angels, hunters, prophets. They are kings and warriors and missionaries. They travel to unknown lands and conquer and plunder and sin and repent. How they reproduced for 600 years is something of a mystery because women barely appear at all in the narrative. Perhaps the noble Nephites sprang from spores.
The errand of imagining is given to women. The scriptures tell us we should “liken the scriptures” unto ourselves – but imagining you’re a dude is much easier if you already identify as male. Imagining you’re Nephi is at two removes for women – imagine you’re male. Okay, not easy. Now imagine you lived 200 years ago. Okay, I did that. Now rinse and repeat for the next 500 pages.
I think it is fairly common knowledge that there are only six named females in the Book of Mormon: Eve, Sarah, Mary (references to the Bible, not actual personages who act); Sariah and Abish who appear as actors; and Isabel, whom we don’t meet but we hear about her harlotry. That’s it. But the work of imagining also includes other pronouns – him/her, she/he as well as gendered nouns: prophet/prophetess, mother/father, harlot, whore, virgin.
Where do the scriptures make the work of imagining easy for women, and where is it difficult? How often do I easily imagine myself as the heroine? How often do I easily see myself as the villain or victim? Numbers are deceptive in isolation – after all, having three named female actors would be excellent representation in a book that had only six characters overall.
I decided to do a little data collection. I’m ready to admit that my numbers might be a little off. My main source was an online version of the Book of Mormon that allowed me to search by term, and then using the find tool to count how many times the word appeared. For the list of male personages I looked at the Wikipedia entry for List of Book of Mormon people and counted.
Without further ado, let’s take a look.
Named people of the book of Mormon: This excludes folk who were actually Bible characters (Mary, Adam, Isaiah) and were not in the Americas.
Well that’s not great. Let’s look at broader terms.
Father: 624 times
Mother: 46 times.
Wow! That’s a lot of mothers. Is it? Remember the term often refers to the same mother. Who, exactly? The good news: Sariah. Mother of daughters of Ishmael. Mary. Honor father and mother. Lord called from womb, bowels of mother. Queens nursing mothers. Mother earth. Quotations of Isaiah. Mother olive tree. Mothers of stripling warriors.
On the down side: Mother Gentiles go to war against (the 13 colonies?). Abominable church is mother of harlots. Mother of abominations. For your transgressions is your mother put away. Mothers victims of disaster.
Hmmmmm. Is my four year old or my two year old the abomination? Or both? They’re both boys and the scriptures teach us that only girls can be harlots.
Son: 712 times
On the plus/okay side: daughters if Ishmael. Daughters shall be carried on shoulders. Daughter of Gallim (quoting Isaiah). Daughters at Benjamins speech. Daughters of Christ. Daughters not work on sabbath. Daughters of God. Daughters become exceedingly fair and are numbered among the Nephites. Daughters begotten by lots of guys.
On the down side: Daughters of Laman and Lemuel warned about dark future. Cries of fair daughters of this people about sexual sins — so the daughters themselves aren’t bad, but are caught in adulterous and polygamous marriages. Captive daughter of Zion, haughty, wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, crown of head smitten with a scab. Filth of daughters of Zion. Daughters of people of Limhi mourn. Daughters led away captive. Daughters sent forth to plead with Lamanites – human bait for mercy. Daughters of Lamanites dancing and carried away in wilderness. Ammon offered a daughter of Lamoni to wife — this is supposed to be a good thing, but probably not from the perspective of the girl being offered as a prize to the former shepherd from out of town. Lamoni’s daughters mourn. Daughters would have been spared and not buried in Moronihah if we had repented. Daughters fair ones, how fallen. Daughter of Jared plots and dances. Daughters raped, tortured and eaten. Let’s just reemphasize that last one. The grand finale for the daughters of the Book of Mormon is sexual violation, torture, and cannibalism.
Brother: 252 times
Sister: 1 time – Nephi’s sisters follow him.
He – more than 1000 matches – my computer was unwilling to continue counting.
She – 61 times.
She [Mary] was fair and white. She is Zion. She is an unnamed Ammonite Queen. She is Abish. She is the earth. She is a sexy dancer who plots. she complained against my father. She is the whore of all the earth. She is a ship that is lost. She is a vessel tossed on the waves. So half the time “she” isn’t even a person – she’s a boat or an abstraction or the embodiment of sin. Neat.
Him: 952 times
Her: 88 times
Priest: 176 times
Priestess: Not found
Prophet: 256 times
Prophetess: 1 time – a quotation of Isaiah.
Virgin (male) — not found
Virgin (female) — 9 times
A finale of gendered nouns: Some nouns are only ever used to refer to a man or a woman, with no cross-gender equivalent. The Savior, for example, has 67 different names used by various Book of Mormon authors.* These include epithets like Redeemer, Savior, Shepherd, Mighty One of Israel, Lord Omnipotent, Great Mediator and God, to name just a few. That is a beautiful and inspiring list the characteristics of a man who had no female analogue. We all aspire to be like the Savior. It might be just a little easier for someone who is a father on earth to see himself in someone who is called Father of Heaven and Earth, Eternal Father, Father and Son, a Son of God and Beloved Son.
What female-specific words do we have that have no male counterpart?
Harlot: 11 times
Whore: 8 times.
As a final exercise I decided to do a name search of my known female personages, along with an accompanying male personage, just to get a sense of how much space a related character takes up. How many times were they mentioned by name?
Adam: 26 times
Eve: 3 times
Abraham: 28 times
Sarah: 1 time
Joseph (earthly father of Jesus): 0 times
Mary: 2 times
Lehi: 142 times
Sariah: 4 times
Ammon: 234 times (they were both missionaries who served the same people and participated in their conversion, hence putting them together as a pairing).
Abish: 1 time
Corianton: 3 times
Isabel: 1 time
I know that many, perhaps even most women who identify as LDS don’t have any issue with representation in the Book of Mormon. They find it deeply meaningful in a personal way. And that’s wonderful. A huge part of me misses when I was there too. But I’m not crazy for feeling like this book isn’t about me or for me from a narrative perspective. I find reading the story to be alienating at best. At worst I feel erased, invisible or filthy, and wonder if that is how God sees me, or if that is my eternal destiny. For me, the Book of Mormon is most meaningful in excerpts – when I read passages that teach true principles about our Savior. There are passages of soaring beauty and eternal hope and pure doctrine. The narrative aspect though?
Book of Mormon Stories that my teacher tells to me
Are about a lot of dudes and are not about me
Long ago some righteous men wrote down their history
And forgot to write down her / hers / she.
I don’t want to end on a totally sour note. On a more practical level, does anyone have ideas about how to read or study the Book of Mormon without constantly being struck by the total absence of women? How can I still have a meaningful relationship with this book of scripture (and the Doctrine and Covenants, which is not better…) when I find it so alienating and diminishing? Help? Just read snippets? Stick to highlights? Read a companion book of study? How can I teach this to my sons without reinforcing the message that only boys matter?