I got into a discussion recently (and by “recently,” I mean “about a year ago, because time apparently flies when you’re an adult) in which I made an assertion that the conversations in the mainstream Bloggernacle are mostly male-dominated. (I defined mainstream as “aside from the feminist blogs,” since the writerly voices at FMH and Exponent are mainly female.) My interlocutor pushed back, pointing to such mainstream luminaries as Peggy Fletcher Stack and Jana Riess as evidence of Mormon women writing and speaking publicly. The whole conversation made me curious, and so I asked: these days in the Bloggernacle, who’s really talking?
I’ve heard the “all women are mothers” line at church so many times that they mostly blur together in a haze of Ideas I Wish Would Go Away, but there is one time that stands out in my memory: once, in a ward conference, a stake Relief Society leader was teaching a lesson about the special roles and gifts of women, and, focusing on the nurturing powers of women, started listing examples of how mothers nurture their children: they feed theme, bathe them, clothe them, clean up after them, heal them, love them. She then asserted, as usual, that even women without children are really mothers who can nurture the children in their lives. “For example,” she said, with an entirely straight face, “you can lift a child who needs it up to a water fountain so they can get a drink.”
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.
White men are 31% of the US population, but hold 65% of elected offices in the United States.
That 31% of the population is also:
- 60% of the authors reviewed in The New York Times
- 82% of film directors and most of the speaking characters
- >90% of Fortune 500 CEOs
- most film executives, movie producers, and sports team owners
- 98% of presidents
- and, of course, 100% of LDS prophets and apostles.
With power in our society so thoroughly dominated by white people, and men in particular, the stories and perspectives we’re exposed to run the gamut, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, from A to B. I like white men–I’m related to them, friends with them, work with them–and their personalities are interesting and their opinions worth considering, to be sure, but still: seeing and hearing from white men so much, in so many places of power and influence, is like eating the same thing every day. Variety is the spice of life, and I’m hungry for more and different foods in my diet.
As an example of a similar effect, since I’m a book lover, think of novels about the Holocaust. I’ll start: The Book Thief, All the Light We Cannot See, Number the Stars, The Reader, Suite Française, Schindler’s List, Code Name Verity, The Last of the Just, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Everything Is Illuminated and I’m just naming the ones I’ve read, and not even including memoirs, non-fiction treatments, or movies. Many of these are great novels, and stories about the Holocaust are important. And yet, can you name nearly as many novels about the Khmer Rouge? I’ve got In the Shadow of the Banyan, and then it turns out the other I was thinking of was about Vietnam instead. And how many novels can you name about the 1990s genocide in Rwanda? I’ve gone out of my way to read about Rwanda after visiting there a few years ago, and I can still only name a few memoirs and non-fiction books. And where are the novels about the genocides in Bosnia, Armenia, Namibia, and many other places? Imagine how much more vibrant our literary landscape would be with a broadened range of cultures, histories, and individual stories to draw from, beyond those belonging to primarily white people in the West.
And on a Mormon note, imagine a General Conference with a leadership roster that reflected a truly international and truly diverse Church, instead of one dominated by white men. We’d be able to hear people speak about their personal experiences of growing up on farms in Utah and flying airplanes in Germany, but also of fleeing Spain during the Civil War, integrating the hospitality industry in the early 1970s, learning about the Church from Reader’s Digest, giving up a child for adoption by a friend, or sneaking through security checkpoints to get to church. I love that I can find those stories online (major shout-out to the Mormon Women Project!) but I want more of them everywhere–in my ward, in the Ensign, over the pulpit in General Conference.
We should end this overindexation of white men and their perspectives for all kinds of reasons–a world with more equal representation would better live up to the exhortation to recognize neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female–but, on top of all the reasons of justice and equality and striving for Zion, let add my complaint: this is boring.
For far too much of my life, I avoided activities I saw as overly feminine. I was no tomboy—that requires a base of athleticism I didn’t have—but, as an intellectually-inclined child, I let my bedroom get messy, never moved beyond boiling water in my kitchen skills, eschewed crafting, and never bothered with beauty routines.
I’ve pretty much always been the kind of feminist who thought women should have the priesthood; I remember telling people this when I was in high school, and while they often laughed it off uncomfortably as teenage rabble-rousing, I was perfectly serious. This hasn’t changed, but, in watching the Church’s response to Ordain Women and some of the baby steps they’ve made towards (and away from) equality, lately I’ve been thinking more about what wanting women to have the priesthood really means to me.
This is based on a talk I gave in my ward in February 2016.
I don’t think I’m giving away too much of my identity on the internet when I tell you that my name is Hannah. Growing up, I liked my name: it’s a palindrome, and, for someone of my age, it was relatively unusual. (I mostly only met Jewish girls my age with the name.) I also liked that, like my brothers, I was named after a Biblical figure; I liked the feeling of being part of history, a long chain of tributary Hannahs, and the sense of weight and importance it gave to the name.
I didn’t much like that Biblical figure, though. The lessons I got about her in Primary and even Young Women’s were always lessons about Samuel that framed her only as the faithful mother of someone important, not someone important in her own right. Moreover, every time her story was referenced the other kids looked at me, more or less surreptitiously, and teased me: “Ha, ha, you want to have a baby!” In Primary I did NOT want to have a baby, and this teasing oddly stung, to the point that I dreaded Hannah references in church. (From this I also learned that kids can tease you about anything; kids, don’t do this.)
In another life I was a linguist, interested particularly in linguistic typology, the field of searching for true language universals—and thus some of the deepest building blocks of human language—through description and classification of existing languages into broad types and comparative features. Functionally, and a little flippantly, this means typologists write papers proposing models of how languages work, and then, almost invariably, other typologists familiar with the languages of Papua New Guinea write a response saying, “No they don’t,” with copious counterexamples. Think that all languages have a word for “blue”? Look at Dani. Think that there’s no language with doubly articulated stops? Look at Yeli Dnye. Think that the verb for ‘give’ always takes three arguments? Look at Saliba. Think that all languages count on their fingers or therefore bias towards base-10 numeral systems? Look at Oksapmin.
Some things I proselytize for:
To say I love books is to understate it somehow; reading’s influence in my life has been second only to my family. When I read, I learn, I enter new worlds, I bask in the beauty of words in the hands of masters (or, occasionally, wince at the stilted prose of amateurs). Most of all, I get a view into the hearts and minds of others. I’m naturally an intellectual person, prone to abstract away from emotions, even my own, and it’s easy to imagine myself, raised in a world without the windows of fiction, as cold, standoffish, and a little heartless. Books have trained me in the paths of compassion, offering me a chance to use my mind to connect, paring and shaping the natural woman with an effectiveness that ordinary social interaction could never have achieved. Everyone should read.
I think I ought to say here that I received a copy of Mormon Feminism from Oxford University Press in exchange for a fair review.
When I was in graduate school, far from the heart of Mormonism, one of my favorite pick-me-up-after-a-long-day-of-thinking hobbies was to swing by one of the many used bookstores near the university and hunt for treasures. One day, to my surprise, I found Brigham Young: American Moses on the Religion shelf. On another visit a few weeks later I found Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, and then during yet another visit Sisters in Spirit—somewhere in my secular liberal town, someone was reading and discarding Mormon history, and I was the lucky beneficiary. Read More
1 Timothy 2:9-10 for our time:
In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;
But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works, and lipstick. After all, even a barn looks better when it’s painted.
I’m currently the second counselor in my ward’s YW presidency, and so when we recently had a temple baptisms night and the temple staff asked for us to provide 6 adult volunteers—3 men and 3 women—to accompany the youth, I agreed to go. I find the initiatory and endowment difficult, but I usually enjoy baptisms for the dead, and I always enjoy spending time with the young women of my ward, who are bright, inquisitive, funny, kind, and exploring their lives with faith and verve.
A few months ago I went to a Unitarian Universalist church for a singalong Messiah performance. As I pulled into the parking lot of the church, I found myself overwhelmed by a feeling I couldn’t identify or articulate; I was suddenly shivering and in tears, feeling buoyant and light. Nothing dramatic happened that evening—I sang along with the Messiah, frequently failing to reach the highest soprano notes—but as I dissect my feelings later, wondering what had happened in the parking lot, it came to me: I was happily anticipating entering a church. I was about to do something religious, and all I felt was pure uncomplicated excitement.
That evening at the UU church made me realize that I brace myself each Sunday, and I have been for years. I rarely, if ever, feel the Spirit at church, but I often drive away crying, grieving dogmatism or sexism or boredom or disconnection or my own simple inability to fight my anger or cynicism, and at this point I’ve trained myself to expect this. Sunday is a day I am vulnerable to grief and fear and pain, with little expected joy in return, so Sunday is a day I put up walls. On Sundays I am not the person I hope to be.
By all appearances, I was a modesty success story as a teenager. For whatever reason, I was naturally inclined to cover up, squeamish even about changing in front of friends, and by 16 I was, without much prodding, essentially dressing for BYU and, later, garments. I owned no skirts above the knee, nothing too tight, nothing sleeveless, and, through the throes of the 90s midriff craze I layered colorful tank tops under my shirts to ensure no one saw a flash of my stomach.