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.

Image from: https://annegregerson.com/2014/05/02/new-website/

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.
Examples:

  • (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.

Examples:

  • 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.

Examples:

  • (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.
Examples:

  • 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.

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25 Responses

  1. Allemande Left says:

    Em, thank you for laying it out so clearly. I’m going to look into Barbara Nussbaum’s ideas a bit further. I had previously noted the objectification of women in the BOM but I was unaware of these subcategories as framed in your OP. Its so troubling…and ongoing in societies.

    • Em says:

      Yes. If we don’t confront it in our theology and sacred texts we have no hope of eradicating it in our community of faith

  2. Rachel says:

    This was hard to read but so thoughtful and thorough. Thank you for writing it.

  3. Angie says:

    So many of my own feelings detailed here. Thank you for the clarity!

  4. Anna says:

    Thanks for writing this. It is very thought provoking. As I was reading, I thought of how the lesson manuals for the young women are all in a passive voice as if life happens to the young women, compared to the lesson manuals for the young men which are talking about the young men doing this and choosing that, as if the young men are taking an active role in their own lives. It can’t be just a coincident that the young women’s lesson books are trying to teach them that they are objects to be acted on rather than humans who act.

    • Em says:

      That is an interesting observation. I wonder if it is an intentional agenda, or if that is the natural outcome of men writing manuals about scriptures written by men for men. Are they trying to make women be objects, or is that an unconscious bias that they express unintentionally? I don’t have an answer to that, and I’m not necessarily valorizing one over the other. But it is an interesting thought.

    • I have noticed that Young Women lessons tend to encourage passivity as well. In 2013, I talked about how the curriculum, especially the month of June, which was dedicated to studying priesthood, focused on action for young men and passively receiving blessings for young women in this speech: https://www.the-exponent.com/confirming-our-hope-women-and-priesthood/

      But not long after I gave that speech, the curriculum was changed in a way that was less passive. I do believe curriculum writers and church leaders heard the critiques of advocates like myself and adjusted accordingly: https://www.the-exponent.com/young-women-lesson-what-are-my-responsibilities-in-the-work-of-the-priesthood/

      Still, even with these changes, how can we expect women to be active while church policy forbids them from doing so many things? It doesn’t surprise me that since the initial outcry, Young Women curricula has drifted back toward passivity.

      Em, I appreciated this look at how our scripture shapes how we continue to see women in the modern church.

  5. Caroline says:

    Em, this is magnificent. I’ve already passed it on to a grad student I know who does work on the BoM. I think your Nussbaum framework is really productive, though it sure does lead to a depressing analysis for people like me who are looking for female agency. Are you at all compelled by Carol Lynn Pearson’s analysis — that all this horrific dehumanizing of women is what led to the downfall of the Nephites? That if they had been more dedicated to treating women as fully human (the Lamanites appear to have done a better job with that) their civilization might not have fallen?

    • Em says:

      That’s an interesting question of the downfall. And is that the reason that Christianity flourished in Europe? Even though they were incredibly misogynistic and awful to women, there was a sacred space in the narrative for women — nuns, saints, prayers to the Virgin etc. The official story is that “pride” is why the Nephites fell. But what is pride if not a competitive spirit putting one person before another? Even at their most righteous, they don’t seem to have overcome that particular bias.

  6. Hedwig says:

    This makes me wonder how much is the fault of the editor. Mormon summarized and abridged longer plates. I’m sure there were entire subplots that were edited out because they were not integral to the over arching story. Like Ruth, which is mostly a family history story of King David’s great grandma. (I think one great?) It’s not integral, it doesn’t carry much historical importance or new teachings…someone summarizing the bible might just cut it altogether. We’d be so much poorer without it though.

    Which of course leads to the question of inspiration. Was Moroni inspired to cut out the women? Were men not inspired to write about them? Was Joseph Smith not inspired to include bits that should have been in there but had been dropped? (Its not like he was reading the text….)

    Of course, the plates of Nephi were not abridged. So other than naming his mother, Nephi also did acknowledge women.

    I am reminded of Jane Austen’s time when notoriety and being brought into public notice we’re seen as great evils for a woman. Is the name and personality of his wife too private to talk about? Or is that extending way too much credit? He does go into a very long, poetic discussion of the state of his soul, after all.

  7. Hedwig says:

    Other than naming his mother, Nephi also did *not* acknowledge women.

    • Em says:

      I knew what you meant. 🙂 I think we can assume that Moroni had a big ol’ helping of misogyny in his editing process. But I do think that Nephi’s narrative does give us a pretty clear view. And even in the stories Moroni chose to keep, the women are largely cyphers. And Moroni was supposedly the acme of righteousness in his time, so he was likely representative of the best their culture had to offer spiritually — and still totally lacking in regards to women.

      As for Joseph Smith — the Doctrine in Covenants is hardly better. Only Emma ever gets her own revelation, and a lot of that is rebuking her for being disgruntled about his romantic and/or sexual exploits. So if Joseph wasn’t inspired, it is because he had giant wax earplugs over the part of his spiritual revelation that might have exalted women in any meaningful way.

      The point about Jane Austen is an interesting one, and it has much longer roots than that. The Greeks, for example, never named respectable women in legal documents or court cases. The use of a name alone would indicate that the woman was less than respectable. But it wasn’t out of respect for the woman herself. It was because a good woman would always have a kyrios, a head of household to represent her legally. Coverture in 19th century England functioned in a similar way. So while the idea of “silent and invisible = respect” has quite the currency in our church (see: Heavenly Mother) the earthly cultural roots of that have nothing to do with actual genuine respect for individual women. It’s again about reifying women — identifying which women “belong” to a man and are thus legally invisible, vs. the “bad” women who are essentially public property. It’s about the pride and sexual access accorded to powerful men, not about the respect the culture had for the women. In my view.

  8. Hedwig says:

    That’s fascinating, Em. I had never thought deeply about it before, it was just one of those quirks of the time.

    And of course, Jane Austen was still alive when Joseph Smith was born.

    Next year the church is doing the D&C for come follow me, and I have been wondering for the last two weeks how to tell my husband that I don’t want to read that with the kids for scripture study. I’m honestly not sure how inspired it is. I’d rather just stay in the Bible. But that’s borrowing trouble, I have months before I need to bring it up. 😬

  9. EmilyB says:

    The daughters in Mosiah 19:13 are not “at risk of bodily violation.” That passage shows them pleading for their Nephite captors to not be slain because they had impregnated them and the kidnapping vitcims had borne their caotors’ children. The entire passage is a RAPE FANTASY and pro rape culture passage. When read and pondered alongside Joseph Smiths’ troubling history of violating underage girls, as a mother I object to the entire book of mormon being taught to young women (also young men, since it teaches them bad examples of manhood). As the victim of a Mormon leader’s abuse myself, I would rather the YW study the works of a female author than the work of a man with a rock in a hat who apparently had a thing for raping underage girls to the extent that he fantasized about it on paper.

    • Em says:

      It’s possible I have misunderstood the passage, but I think you’re conflating Mosiah 19:13 and Mosiah 23:33. In Mosiah 19 King Noah orders his men to flee. Some of them do, ditching their wives and children. Some of them don’t. The the group that don’t leave their families cause that their fair (Nephite) stand forth and beg the Lamanites in Chapter 19. As no relation to the Lamanites it is unlikely that the Lamanites would just embrace these women platonically and do whatever they ask, no reciprocity needed. Hence my inference that bodily harm was a real possibility the fathers were willing to risk.

      Then there are the group that do flee, and leave wives and children behind. They’re the group that you’re talking about as a rape fantasy — they see the Lamanite women bathing, kidnap them, impregnate them, and then force them to beg on behalf of their kidnappers. I refer to this story under the headings of Denial of Autonomy, Fungibility and Violability.

  10. Chiaroscuro says:

    Excellent piece. i appreciate the analysis and Amen to this– “Offhand I’d say that the authors of the Book of Mormon didn’t think the experience of women was particularly important.” — there are so many things in our culture that contribute to girls/women growing up viewing themselves as objects. we really could do without it in our own sacred texts

    • Em says:

      Agreed. If we’re going to present this as a “the most correct of any book” (Joseph Smith in Church History) then we really need to critically examine what we mean by “correct.” A correct presentation of Nephite and Lamanite culture? Or correct in the sense that it gives us a full and true pattern of God’s plan for all people regardless of gender, skin color, or other distinctions? If “a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts than by any other book” then… what does that say about God’s plan for women?

      I remain an active member of the church (as much as anyone can be when church is cancelled for the forseeable future) but I want to see a more critical examination of what our holy word says and implies about women, and I want that to be an ongoing part of our conversations in our wards.

  11. Ziff says:

    Outstanding analysis, Em. It’s sad that you were so easily able to find examples of all seven of Nussbaum’s categories in the Book of Mormon. But not terribly surprising. Also, thanks for the pointer to Nussbaum’s categories. They seem like a really helpful way of thinking through the nuts and bolts of objectifying people.

  12. Moss says:

    This was really good. I kept up with the Come Follow Me reading for the New Testament with my kids but couldn’t quite articulate why I found the Book of Mormon so hard to read. Nussbaum’s framing helps- I don’t want my kids to see women this way! The Nephite men treat women appallingly and all the heroic women we have stories about (Abish, King Lamoni’s wife, the women of the Anti-Lehi-Nephites) are all Lamanites- where are the heroic Nephite women? Jacob even tells the Nephites that they treat women much worse than the Lamanites do when he calls them on the proverbial carpet for their polygyny.

    • Em says:

      I didn’t even notice the disparity between the Lamanites and Nephites (partially because who are the “good guys” or who is in which group is so fluid, and I’ve kind of lost track of the nitty gritty of the narrative). But you’re right. So why exactly are we calling the Nephites the good guys? Because they wrote the story and tell us over and over that they are. But they also, unintentionally, tell us over and over how they are not the good guys. I was just reading today from our weekly assigned reading. Alma 17:14 talks about how the Lamanites are “hardened and a ferocious people a people who delighted in murdering.” And then a few verses later Ammon is casually hacking off arms and sending them in a gift bag to Lamoni. So who exactly is the hardened, ferocious and bloodthirsty guy here? If Lamanites do it is proof of their baseness. If a Nephite does it then it is proof God is with him. I’m going to do some more reading with your comment in mind — to see how the Lamanite treat women vs. how Nephites do.

    • Ziff says:

      Wow, Moss! That’s such a fascinating point!

  13. Anna says:

    As someone who has left and is now looking into mainstream Christianity, this is not just a Mormon thing. In fact, compared to a lot of Christian churches, the LDS church is better about women – which isn’t saying a lot. Some Christians teach that women shouldn’t even speak in church and must stay silent. Thankfully there are other Christian churches that have women pastors. And there’s a war going on between the two.

    The oppression of women has it’s roots in the bible. Some point to the bible as proof that God wants women to be completely submissive and have no voice, but I think it’s more likely that the culture dictated that into the bible. It’s not God that wants women submissive. It’s men.

    The same with the BOM.

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