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.

Male: 204

Female: 3

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

Daughter: 101

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?

*https://byustudies.byu.edu/charts/44-names-used-christ-major-book-mormon-authors

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12 Responses

  1. Elisa says:

    I loved Carol Lynn Pearson’s article “could feminism have saved the nephites?” I can’t find online in a quick search but I read it in Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings. It doesn’t remotely justify – in fact, the opposite. But once I just confronted BoM sexism for what it was instead of trying to justify or explain away it made it easier to address. As for my kids, I’ll address directly as well and point out the problems.

    I also love the books Girls Who Choose God (although the BoM version is much weaker than the Bible because the BoM itself is so much weaker on this point).

    I’ve ordered the For the Least of These book and am looking forward to reading that as well.

    By the way, I love your title and that concept. Certainly we are required to use our imaginations a lot to imagine a place for us at church, to imagine that God esteems us as equals when our earthly brothers do not, and to imagine what the church might look like if we ripped out its heteronormative patriarchy. When church leaders talk about righteous women being the future of the church I agree but not in the way they imagine (raising righteous boys to be the new leaders). I think it’s because women (and supportive ally men) will imagine a solution for the deep problems, rooted in patriarchy and racism and authoritarianism, that threaten the church’s survival and to learn (and teach others) to be guided by our inner authority rather than rely on external sources of authority that discount us and will always let us down.

  2. Clay Cook says:

    The Book of Mormon for the Least of These by Faith Salleh and Olsen Hemming it is more of a summary but it is a good companion to read along. The bring a more diverse perspective.

    • Clay Cook says:

      Sorry I forgot to mention how I really enjoyed you piece I believe this is a topic that needs more discussion. After all many indigenous groups in the Americas were matrilineal and there are examples of power women from Maya archaeology.

  3. Emily says:

    I’ve started reading Girls Who Choose God to my kids (two boys, one girl). I want my daughter as well as my sons to know that girls make courageous choices and follow God. I’ve started reading the BOM for the least of these and it is also excellent at providing context for reading the BOM. So I second those suggestions from Elisa 🙂

    Kind of stinks that I have to go out of my way to apply scriptures to myself . . .

  4. Em says:

    Thank you all. I’ve started rewriting passages with switched pronouns for my come follow me. It is amazing how powerful the book is when it feels relevant.

  5. Dani Addante says:

    Great post! I too wish there were more women in the Book of Mormon. I like to think that when the new scriptures come out in the future, they will mostly be writings by women and about women. I know Nephi mentioned he had written another history, and perhaps that one has more about his sisters and the other women in his life. It seems strange to me that the religious history of his people would mostly be filled with men, since religion is something that pertains to both men and women. I wish I could talk to Nephi and find out why he never wrote his sisters’ names. I’m sure so much more happened that he wanted to write down, but for some reason he could only write a small part of what happened.

  6. Melody says:

    This is a wonderful and helpful essay. Thank you for the research and specific examples. Switching pronouns helps me feel more at peace – in scripture study and hymn singing. More than that, like you, imagination saves me. Along with a personal belief about tables slowly turning as we move into the future, where women appear from the shadows as what we’ve always been: warriors, saviors, seers and prophets. Thank you again.

  7. Emily U says:

    I wish I had some insight into how to read the BoM and not be sad, but I don’t. I started reading it again this year and it’s making me sadder than ever. Like, if God can work the miracle of the existence of the BoM, can’t God work the much smaller miracle of including women’s voices and stories in scripture? Or does it really just not matter to God? And if not, is that a god I even want to worship? If the celestial kingdom is as patriarchal as the church I will do as Alyosha does in the Brothers Karamozov and respectfully return the ticket even if it means I am alone for eternity.

    Reading about Jesus and trying to be a disciple doesn’t make me feel sad. So what does it mean that the key text of my religion makes me wonder if God is even good?

    • Em says:

      Yes, yes, and yes. And I hate how sad it makes me, and how avoidant I am because once I loved it, and a good LDS gal (who would never call herself that if she were truly good) should love feasting on it.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Because only children are in my seminary class and I feel like they have been taught the Book of Mormon more than the Old Testament over the course of their church education–I made the executive decision to teach the Old Testament this year instead of switching to Come Follow Me.

    Moving from the Old Testament daily seminary lessons to the Book of Mormon for Sundays was so jarring. Women are so present in the Old Testament World and so absent from the Book of Mormon. In the end I could not reach any other conclusion than that Book of Mormon was above all representative of a early 19th C New England world view re gender. Like Emily U recognizing this for the first time made me really sad.

    But for me it is the lived experiences with the text of the Book of Mormon that sanctify it for me. 6 generations of women who have read the Book of Mormon including me and my daughters, finding passages that were meaningful to us and sharing them with each other . . . DESPITE . . . the almost total absence of women. I draw strength from their insistence on making this text their own.

  9. Kaylee says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post all week. I actually read the Book of Mormon in three weeks when President Nelson challenged the women to read it by the end of the year. I chose to underline every reference to Jesus Christ (I’d started several years before, but never got past 1st Nephi). That was an emotionally difficult way to read the Book of Mormon, since I had to figure out who every he/his/him referred to (and meanwhile noticing how few she/her/hers there are). I’d never read it so fast before either.

    The only piece of comfort that I found was in 3 Ne 11:3-7, where the (un-destroyed, supposedly righteous) Nephites don’t recognize God’s voice. I found this comforting because I realized how much we *still* don’t know about the nature of God, and therefore I have to look at this book not as the keystone that holds everything together, but more as one of the stones of the foundation–a beginning to start with and build upon. (Looking up that reference, I also noticed that the voice of God is never assigned a gender…)

    I agree with Dani–women need to be actively involved in creating the next book of scripture, telling future generations how they have experienced God. I wrote a simple imitation of the only (canonical) scripture I’ve found composed by a woman. I found it beautiful to even try to write something that resembled scripture, but in my own voice and and to an audience utterly neglected in our current canon.

    https://bycommonconsent.com/2018/09/18/a-proverbs-acrostic-for-my-daughter/

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