I read At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women a few weeks ago, tearing through it start to finish in a single day. (My train was delayed so I had slightly more commuting time than usual. Thanks, I guess, BART.) I’m hungry for the words of women in the church, and this was a welcome meal, with a balance of historical and (near-)contemporary women, and a balance of rhetorical types, from prayers to Relief Society sermons to longer theological discourses. Shortly after finishing it, I taught a Relief Society lesson on prayer, and I was delighted to have the book as a source text from which to pull examples of women’s words and women’s experiences of prayer.
I have remarkably few criticisms of the book, in fact; it’s a well-executed and welcome volume. I’m delighted, too, to see the Church History Department focusing on the stories of women, and supporting women scholars in doing so. All this seems like a positive development for women in the church.
And yet, like so many positive developments for women, in some ways it just leaves me feeling more depressed. It’s not enough: fundamentally, this work, and others like it, is optional. I’m delighted to have more access to female role models, and more ways to feed my hunger for the spiritual leadership of women, but whether or not a Mormon reads this book, and gets exposure to the excellent sermons of Chieko Okasaki or Lucy Mack Smith or Elsie Talmage Brandley, will likely depend on whether or not they want to, and, beyond that, whether or not they 1. speak English, 2. read Church history material for pleasure, 3. hear about the book, 4. choose to and have the resources to buy or borrow it. The words of men are the meat-and-potatoes meals of our church, served weekly over the pulpit, in the scriptures, and in our standard lesson manuals. In contrast, the words of women are the specialty desserts, beloved but optional, and, in some cases, hard to find. Women may seek them out, but will men? With the publication of this book, and more like it, but without any structural change, will men look to these women as leaders too, and take their theologies seriously, or are they remain relegated to auxiliaries, the macaroons of leadership rather than the main course?
My worry, with this optionality, is that At the Pulpit, with its many virtues, will go the way of Daughters In My Kingdom: a small splash, a reason for hope, and then no real change. Remember that? Has your ward used it lately? After the big push, a few years ago, for every woman in the Relief Society to receive a copy—clearly designed to be an heirloom, with a fancy “this book belongs to” nameplate on the inner cover—and after a lovely lesson focusing on it by my Relief Society President, I’ve never seen or heard it referenced at church again. I admired the effort behind Daughters In My Kingdom, actually; it was a search to reconnect with and rebuild the history of the Relief Society, to ground contemporary LDS women in an admirable past, to recreate a strong sense of purpose for the Relief Society, which as an organization you now join involuntarily, doesn’t engender the same sense of loyalty it did in the 19th and early 20th century. Kingdom seemed like an effort to correct that, to connect women to their histories.
And yet: in a church like ours, books without works are dead. Daughters In My Kingdom was encouraging to me at the time, but in retrospect I’m not sure I see it that way; the Relief Society may have a greater sense of its own history, but it still doesn’t have independent control over its own curriculum or budget, for example, or even continuity of leadership and therefore the ability to pursue a long-term vision. Similarly, with At the Pulpit, scholarly collections of women’s words are a fantastic first step, but if we relegate those words simply to scholarship—if we don’t quote them regularly in church, if we don’t continue to tell and retell the stories and insights of these women, if we don’t start inviting more women in the current Church to share their wisdom and leadership with us, for example in General Conference—they’re less like steps on a path towards equality and more like the (entertaining, graceful, accomplished) back-and-forth steps of a salsa dance.