The Reification of Women in the Book of Mormon
It has been many years since I have read the Book of Mormon on a regular basis, but in the last few months I have returned to studying it as part of my spiritual practice. I have been struck by many beautiful insights that speak powerfully to me – most notably in terms of the many forms of bondage in the scriptures. I trust there is still an effectual struggle to be made, and I can bear with patience mine afflictions.
But the pattern that keeps striking me, and is indeed the reason I stopped reading the Book of Mormon several years ago, is the reification of women. Reification, or objectification, is a term in feminist theory that signifies the act of treating someone as an object rather than a person. Understanding the process of reification is crucial both to our understanding of structural sexism and structural racism. Modern racism has been inextricably shaped by the institution of slavery. Slavery has existed for millenia, though the process of linking it to race happened well after the initial process of establishing dominance and ownership over individuals or groups. This racialization of slavery was particularly shaped and accelerated by the European invasion of the Americas, but slavery itself existed since the earliest days of civilization.
The historian Gerda Lerner made the case that a necessary precursor to slavery was the reification of women. Before you can enslave someone, you need to be able to imagine a person as ownable, less-than, exploitable. Controlling the reproductive potential of women was crucial to survival in antiquity, which made the exchange of women — capturing them, sexually assaulting them, controlling them — crucial to creating and maintaining power structures. Capturing women opened the door to the possibility of enslaving women from other groups rather than adopting or integrating them into the community. *
Some of the most ancient sources discussing slavery do not suggest the presence of male slaves — The Illiad, for instance, tells of Briseis and Chryseis, captured women who had to serve Achilles and Agamemnon. Andromache faced the dreadful prospect of becoming a slave should the Trojans lose. Her husband Hector fearlessly faced death, his only possible fate should the Trojans lose, but mournfully declared:
“But it is not so much the pain to come of the Trojans that troubles me, not even of Priam the king nor Hecabe … as troubles me the thought of you, when some bronze-armoured Achaian leads you off, taking away your day of liberty, in tears; and in Argos you must work at the loom of another, and carry water from the spring Messeis or Hypereia, all unwilling.”**
Incrementally societies moved from reifying women, to enslaving women, and only from that to enslaving men and women, and making enslavement an inheritable and perpetual quality rather than a temporary condition resulting from loss of a war. Thus discussing the reification of women is inextricably tied both to our understanding of patriarchy and to our modern understanding of racism and oppression.
Returning then to the Book of Mormon, the pattern that strikes me again and again are the ways in which the female characters are erased or objectified. The feminist theorist Barbara Nussbaum posited seven categories within the idea of objectification. I want to look at each one and consider to what degree the (extremely limited) references to women within the Book of Mormon fit these patterns.***
1. Instrumentality: Treating a person as a tool for one’s own purposes. Existing to provide children, to provide food, to provide sexual pleasure.
- (1 Nephi 7:1) “It was not meet for him, Lehi that he should take his family into the wilderness alone; but that his sons should take daughters to wife, that they might raise up seed unto the Lord in the land of promise.” The purpose of bringing the women out of Jerusalem, soon to be destroyed, was so that they could reproduce and perpetuate Lehi’s lineage.
- (Mosiah 19:13) “Those who tarried with their wives and their children caused that their fair daughters should stand forth and plead with the Lamanites that they would not slay them”. The beautiful daughters are used as bait, or perhaps a reward. They’re certainly at risk of bodily violation. Why pick the fair daughters as ambassadors? Why not the plain ones? Or the sons? There was a potential for a peacemaking exchange of freedom for the fathers in exchange for sexual availability of daughters.
2. Denial of Autonomy: treating a person as if they lack autonomy or self-determination. Dictating how the other person will behave so as to secure one’s own satisfaction.
- Lamoni offers one of his daughters to Ammon as his wife (Alma 17:24). Lamoni and Ammon’s agency are clear. The desires of the daughter are seemingly irrelevant and indeed there’s no evidence they would have met before Lamoni made the offer. The daughter seemingly exists to cement desirable partnerships between men.
- (Mosiah 23:33) Amulon and friends “sent forth their wives, who were the daughters of the Lamanites, to plead with their brethren, that they should not destroy their husbands.” (Note that these are different men and women from those I discussed above) So they kidnap and sexually assault these women, then use them as pawns to save their own skins.
3. Inertness: Treating a person as lacking in activity or agency. Things happen to this object, but the object takes no active role in determining the outcome.
- The other examples I offer here abound in this. Lamanite daughters are abducted. Ishmael’s daughters leave Jerusalem and marry Nephi’s family without any suggestion of choice on their parts. Lamoni offers his daughter as a wife to Ammon.
4. Fungibility: Treating a person as interchangeable with other objects. A person is reduced to a set of body parts performing a certain task, and under that understanding can be replaced by another similar body, or by a machine.
- (1 Nephi 16:7) “I, Nephi took one of the daughters of Ishmael to wife; and also, my brethren took of the daughters of Ishmael to wife; and also Zoram took the eldest daughter of Ishmael to wife.” Are these daughters distinct from one another in any meaningful sense? Not that we ever learn, since they don’t even rate having names. This example also works with inertness – there is no evidence of agency from these women at all.
- (Mosiah 20:3) When the priests of king Noah decide to abduct the Lamanite women it is because “they durst not return to their wives.” But they needed sexual services and female labor so they just took some other women and replaced their former wives with new ones.
5. Violability: Treating a person as lacking in boundary integrity. The society engages in the sexual use of women or physical displacement of women without their consent.
- (2 Nephi 23: 16) – Isaiah is prophesying what will happen to wicked men “Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled and their wives ravished.”
- (Mosiah 20:4-5) “[The priests of Noah] discovered the daughters of the Lamanites, they laid and watched them; and when there were but few of them gathered together to dance, they came forth out of their secret places and took them and carried them into the wilderness; yea, twenty and four of the daughters of the Lamanites they carried into the wilderness.”
- (Moroni 9:9) “Many of the daughters of the Lamanites have they taken prisoners; and after depriving them of that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue. . .” (followed by torture, murder and cannibalism).
6. Ownership: Treating a person as if they can be owned, sold or bought. The exchange of women in return for a desired object or outcome – actual sale is less important than the idea that one person has the right to transfer control and possession of the person to another individual.
- Mosiah 13: 24 “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.” Neither the wife nor the maid-servant (or the man-servant) qualify as neighbors in this context. They are things that belong to the neighbor, and are in the same category as a house or an animal.
- (Alma 54:11) “I will not exchange prisoners, save it be on conditions that ye will deliver up a man and his wife and his children, for one prisoner; if this be the case that ye will do it, I will exchange.” Now in this case Moroni was trying to swap entire families for single soldiers and was doing a good thing for these women – but nevertheless he is literally offering to swap people.
7. Denial of Subjectivity: Treating a person as if their experiences and feelings lack importance. Not showing interest in understanding how the other person might be thinking or feeling
- There are only six women named in all of the book of Mormon. Three of them are references to Bible characters and don’t appear at all (Eve, Sarah, Mary). One of them does not appear as a character but instead is referred to as a sign of wicked behavior (the harlot Isabel). That leaves Abish and Sariah, in an account that spans a thousand years and millions of people. Offhand I’d say that the authors of the Book of Mormon didn’t think the experience of women was particularly important.
This critique does not mean that portrayals of women in the Book of Mormon are universally negative. This is not so. Abish is a heroine. The (unnamed) wife of Lamoni is loyal and faithful. Nephi’s (unnamed) wife pleads on his behalf. The (unnamed) mothers of the armies of Helaman had powerful faith. Many women flocked to see the Savior. These examples, however, don’t change my larger point that the Book of Mormon, from a female perspective, is the story of the reification of women. Abish was a maid-servant, potentially an owned person given the context that role has elsewhere in the scriptures. None of the other women even have names.
Nussbaum asks “should we say that each is a sufficient condition for the objectification of persons? Or do we need some cluster of the features, in order to have a sufficient condition?” She provides no answer to these questions, but in the case of the Book of Mormon the question becomes moot. If the Book of Mormon met only one of the above conditions then a debate might be worthwhile. Certainly I can see examples that I shared that one could interpret a different way. But the treatment of women within the Book of Mormon manifestly meets most or all of the categories.
This leads me to wonder what place the Book of Mormon should have in my life, given that I self-identify as a woman. I inhabit a female body. I present myself as female. I occupy feminine roles – mother, wife, sister, daughter. This book was written for our times and should guide us to truth. But the patterns that I see of women in the Book of Mormon consistently show that women are not people at all, but are instead objects to be used with varying degrees of benevolence or cruelty by men. What am I supposed to learn? Which female character am I supposed to rejoice in imitating? What female characteristics that I see modeled in the lands of the Nephites and Lamanites am I supposed to embody?
I also wish that this critique would lead us to a more nuanced discussion of Book of Mormon heroes. Every one of them belonged to societies that, in the best case scenario, erased women and denied them subjectivity. The most benevolent and heroic among them clearly still engaged in the reification of women. So while we can treasure words that lead us to Christ and honor the good aspects of their examples, we should also take the time to acknowledge that the silent majority of the Nephite/Lamanite population suffered at the hands of these men to varying degrees.
*Lerner, Gerda. The Creation of Patriarchy. Oxford University Press, 1986.
** Illiad Book VI: 369-439
***Nussbaum, Martha C. “Objectification.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 24, no. 4 (1995): 249-91. Accessed May 20, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/2961930.