Category: Women in the Church

Finding My Heavenly Mother, Part 3 (Eternal Polygamy Edition)

Since polygamy will keep rearing its ugly head every time we try to talk about Heavenly Mother, I’ve given it its very own post, as promised. Polygamy occupies an uneasy place in the psyche of many Mormons today. Although the practice was abandoned by the church in the early 20th century, it is exotic and taboo enough that it continues to be one of the public’s primary associations with Mormons. However, even within the church, the idea of polygamy (and specifically, polygyny) continues to complicate theology and life. Today I’d like to take a deeply personal look at some of the fruits of our lingering, troubled relationship with polygamy, and the effect it has on how we conceptualize and talk about (or don’t talk about) Heavenly Mother. If you’re feeling the need for conversational antecedents, please see Finding My Heavenly Mother, part 1 and part 2; also part 4. In public and to their non-member friends, Mormons typically try to distance themselves from polygamy and its popular portrayals in the contemporary media. Church members, leaders, and political figures alike will explain upon being pressed that we haven’t practiced polygamy in a hundred years, and then try to steer the conversation toward less controversial topics. And while fundamentalist Mormons do continue the practice, they are vehemently disavowed by the mainstream church, which views them as apostates. Polygamy is, of course, also a minefield for missionaries. It’s true that in my family we have…

Finding My Heavenly Mother, Part 2

 The same drive which called art into being as a completion and consummation of existence, and as a guarantee of further existence, gave rise also to that Olympian realm which acted as a transfiguring mirror to the Hellenic “will.” The gods justified human life by living it themselves—the only satisfactory theodicy ever invented.    – Friedrich Nietzsche   During part 1 I described for you my personal awakening to the existence of Heavenly Mother. In this post, I’ll explore some of the implications that discovery had for the way I view God, religion, and myself. (Also see parts 3 and 4) It’s funny, it wasn’t until I became experientially aware of the reality of Heavenly Mother that I realized there is a gigantic hole in the way I had been imagining God. All of a sudden, in the midst of a deluge of male pronouns in scripture and hymn and church discourse, all I could hear was a deafening silence about the feminine side of God. As Man Now Is . . .  Women and men of many religious traditions seek out and worship versions of the Divine Feminine. But Mormon doctrine contains certain points that render a female aspect of God peculiarly relevant. Part of Joseph Smith’s departure from mainstream Protestantism was his unorthodox view of the Godhead as completely separate individuals, and the even more radical proposition that God the Father and Jesus Christ have glorified, perfected, and immortal physical bodies.…

Not a Legitimate Rape

I’ve been listening to the radio this morning about the Republican Party platform and abortion and rape. I’ve never had an abortion; thankfully I’ve never been in a situation where that seemed like a viable option. I am thankful that the Church handbook allows for abortion, but even there the wording is “forcible rape or incest” [fn1]. And apparently Representative and would-be Senator Akin meant to say “forcible rape” rather than the terribly unfortunate “legitimate rape.” But what does “forcible” mean in terms of rape? That a woman or girl [fn2] is held down and raped against her vain struggles? That she is forced to comply on imminent threat of death or grievous bodily harm? That she is threatened overtly or implicitly with harm to herself or her family if she does not comply with the rapist’s demands? Does a woman have to fight back? How firmly must she say “NO” for any subsequent action to be considered a rape? It’s not everyone’s natural reaction to fight back during a sexual assault. My reaction was to shut down, to be still, and hope he would lose would interest and just stop [fn3]. Playing possum is a survival strategy for those who are small and weak when confronted by a larger predator, and I’m not the first or only girl who has ever tried it. Joanna Brooks writes about feeling detached from her body as a boy felt her up [fn4].…

The Way We Teach Our Children Modesty

At the age of two, my daughter Axa could point out an immodest outfit in a shop window. At five, she added sleeves to the dress on the princess picture her babysitter had drawn for her. Although I don’t recall making any special effort to teach her about modesty, I was surprised and gratified that she understood the concept at such a young age. However, lately I’ve been having disquieted feelings when she brings up modesty, as I realize that something in the nuance of what I’ve taught has gone awry. And then just a few weeks ago, something happened that disturbed me. Axa (who’s now seven) was reading the Book of Mormon out loud to me. She hadn’t interjected a word until we came to this passage (from the Testimony of Joseph Smith, describing the appearance of the angel Moroni): He had on a loose robe of most exquisite whiteness. It was a whiteness beyond anything earthly I had ever seen; nor do I believe that any earthly thing could be made to appear so exceedingly white and brilliant. His hands were naked, and his arms also, a little above the wrists; so, also, were his feet naked, as were his legs, a little above the ankles. His head and neck were also bare. I could discover that he had no other clothing on but this robe, as it was open, so that I could see into his bosom.…

Gendered Unity

Every ward or branch I’ve lived as an adult has struggled with the dilemma of how to increase a sense of unity among the Relief Society sisters. In some places, demographics have dictated a natural split between the transient (a few months to a few years) young college and graduate age students, wives, and mothers and those who live in the ward on a more permanent basis: more established families, families with grown children, and retirees. We’ve also lived in a branch split by language differences in which about half of the members spoke English as a native language, about half spoke some form of Spanish, and a few spoke other languages like Portuguese and Tagalog. In all cases, there was an obligation felt by the Relief Society presidencies to increase unity among the sisters. We tried planning enrichment meetings that would encourage cross-generational and cross-cultural interaction. Some things, like potluck dinners with recipe exchanges worked pretty well. But we couldn’t ever make it stick; women naturally segregated themselves by common interests or backgrounds, and always a few women were left out. Those lonely women were generally not actively excluded, but because there was no strong sense of inclusion, they often felt rejected and unwanted, or worse, completely anonymous. (There is something to be said for personal responsibility here: if you want to be included, you need to make an effort. But it may be that for some people that…

Single Moms and Adoption — Another Perspective

I have been fascinated by the idea of adoption for a long time. Growing up, I knew a few people who were adopted, and the idea of bringing home your baby from Korea or the Ukraine always seemed exotic to me. But my obsession really took off when I got my Patriarchal Blessing. After gushing about the children that would be born to me, a totally out-of-the-blue paragraph began with the words, “I bless the love of your family to extend to other children . . . ” Suddenly, adoption was part of my envisioned Mormon “happily-ever-after,” and I embraced the idea delightedly. When my husband and I were newly married and trying for a baby, I recall telling him that if we didn’t have a baby before we went on our field study to the Philippines the next year, we were adopting one there. Two biological children later, my compulsion to adopt has only increased, and we’re finally preparing to start the process. For various reasons, we are planning to adopt internationally, so I’ve been doing a lot of research into processes and requirements. Not surprisingly, each country has different rules for financial resources, how old the prospective parents must be, how many children can already be in the home, etc. While noting and comparing these various criteria, I came across one that surprised me: many countries allow adoptions by single women. In retrospect, I’m a little embarrassed that…

Mahana, You Ugly!

Let me tell you a little story. Not long ago, we moved to a new ward. After a few weeks, my husband and I were invited to come early to church to meet with a member of the bishopric. We figured, of course, that he wanted to extend a calling to one or both of us. When we arrived, he asked my husband to come in and speak with him first. So I assumed that my husband was getting the calling. To my surprise, after I was ushered into the room, the bishop’s counselor extended a calling to me. He explained that it was church policy to obtain the husband’s permission before his wife even found out about the calling. When my husband remarked dubiously that this is the first time he’d ever encountered such a policy, the counselor said (somewhat defensively) that they had been instructed to do it that way by the stake president. According to him, it’s part of an ongoing effort to “help the brethren step up to their responsibility to preside in their homes.” He didn’t go into the details of how exactly being given control over whether their wives get the opportunity to serve at church helps men to be better husbands and fathers. Needless to say, I found the exchange depressing, not to mention insulting. To my later chagrin, I didn’t say a whole lot other than accepting the call, partially because I…

Boston’s Mormon women’s organization, 1844

Nauvoo had its Relief Society, but the “society of sisters” in Boston was instead the “Sewing and Penny Society,” or so the Church’s New York City newspaper reported. Despite all that the Relief Society has become in the nearly 170 years since it was founded, it apparently only existed in Nauvoo. In other areas, women were left to their own devices.

Mormons and Muslims

I had a university professor who lived in Iran and ran a television program dedicated to classical Persian music prior to the Islamic revolution. He spent a lot of time during the seventies crossing sketchy borders into various ‘Stans. One of his tools for successful border crossing (not to mention survival) was a pamphlet he wrote himself, highlighting similarities between Mormons and Muslims; things like a founding prophet, directly revealed scripture, fasting, and polygamy. I was intrigued by his comparisons, and this class was one of the many things that prompted me to study Arabic and learn more about Islam.  It’s sad to me that so many Mormons (like Americans in general) have negative and badly stereotyped views of Muslims. As adherents ourselves to a religion that often seems to get more than its share of unfair and unfounded criticism, we can afford a deeper look. During the time I’ve spent in Muslim countries (and with Muslims in this country), I have noticed quite a few points in which Mormons and Muslims have more in common than either group does with other denominations of Christians. One of the first that seems to come up is alcohol. If you go out to a restaurant and decline to order wine, your American waiter will think you’re cheap, your Italian waiter will think you’re crazy, and your Tunisian waiter will light up in pleasure and disbelief, commend you for your temperance,  and tell you this…

Sister Beck and Daughters in My Kingdom

Having spent the past eight months in Tunisia, where our tiny L.D.S. group had very little formal structure, I had almost forgotten what it was like to go to a Church meeting without husband and children in tow. Attending the General Relief Society Meeting with a few friends was like a welcome home. I had found the new Daughters in My Kingdom book at my parents’ house when I arrived a few days before the General Relief Society Meeting, and somehow gotten the idea that it had come out months ago and was more or less required reading before the Meeting. Consequently, the three Relief Society Presidency’s talks, which all quoted extensively from the book, sounded awfully familiar from all my cramming. I found the book interesting, though, and didn’t mind hearing it rehashed. While I know that Relief Society is “the largest women’s organization in the world,” I’ve certainly been guilty of completely forgetting my membership in it during the week, and feeling sometimes like it’s just a nice, well-decorated, girls-only meeting on Sundays. So I particularly enjoyed President Beck’s talk, “What I Hope My Granddaughters (and Grandsons) Will Understand about Relief Society.” My first strong impression from Sister Beck’s talk was her quote that “women were vital participants in the Savior’s ministry.” Yes, the New Testament is full of female cameos, but I had never read it with the purpose of putting together a coherent idea of women’s…

LDS Men Aren’t Incredible

Wheat & Tares ran a fun post earlier this week titled LDS Men Are Incredible … although the URL string shows that the original draft title of the post was “Why Men Suck.” That kind of marks off the two ends of the spectrum, doesn’t it? That’s a nice lead-in for the question: What remarks are going to be directed at LDS men in next week’s General Conference?

Do Titles Matter?

There is a long-standing tradition in the church to use honorific titles identifying priesthood positions for men at just about every level beginning when they become missionaries. Elder, Bishop, President. Women — even those who hold similarly named positions — are generally referred to as simply “sister.” In my 45 years in the church, I can recall less than a handful of times when a woman was referred to by title. When I was 19 we moved to England while my dad took a sabbatical from BYU. My mom soon made a dear friend in the mission president’s wife. We spent hours and hours helping her fulfill her various duties. (My mom out of friendship, me out of a desire to hang out with cute missionaries.) This was more than a full time job. Upon returning home, I started paying attention to the Church News announcements of new mission presidents. The notices generally told about the man who’d been called, what his career was, what callings he’d held — and ended with something like, “President Jones is married to the former Mary Johnson.” Years later the husband of a friend was called to serve as a mission president. As I witnessed the preparations to leave for three years, packing up an entire home, learning a new language, leaving friends and family, it was obvious that the woman was making as serious a commitment as the man. But she wasn’t given…

True Adventures in Turning the Other Cheek, Pt. Two

For the next several weeks, I attended church when I could. Participation often included lowering my eyes when the bishop or his first counselor walked by and gave me stern “We’re watching you” stares. In some ways the whole business interested me so I wasn’t suffering as much as some might suppose. But given the treatment of these two ward leaders, I did feel somewhat cordoned off. Perhaps that’s why when a prettily decorated invitation to a special R.S. council arrived in my mailbox, in a fit of high irritation, I nearly tossed it.

Sister Missionaries and Opposite-Gender Attraction

A wonderful woman who served as my Education Counselor a number of years ago served a mission for the church around the time she was 19. She fell in the fabulous loophole. Her father was a mission president, so she was allowed to serve while he served, even though she was “underage.” But George Durrant was not just any mission president.

Laura Rees Merrill: Replacing Fear with Peace

Laura Liona Rees was born in Brigham City, Utah, in 1876, to LDS parents (her father had emigrated as a convert from England; her mother was born at Council Bluffs). With only an eighth grade, district school education, she studied for and passed the test to be licensed as a grade school teacher. Then she became one of the first women to attend Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University) at Logan.

A Child’s-Eye View of the Mormon Silk Experiment

Utah’s 19th century silk industry was one of those projects encouraged by Brigham Young to stimulate home production and reduce Mormon dependence on a hostile world. Period literature is heavy on sermons advocating sericulture, treatises on raising worms and the mulberry trees they fed on, and praise for the quantities and artistry of finished articles. What I’ve never seen before is the memoir of a child who assisted in the enterprise.