not in Primary anymore

a review of the new book, mormon women have their say: essays from the claremont oral history collection

Guest post by Nancy Ross, who also blogs here.

As I’ve been reading and blogging about the Book of Mormon, I’ve become increasingly aware of the lack of women’s voices in Mormondom. I can read about a few women in the scriptures, but I do not hear female voices. Speakers in sacrament meeting, stake conference, and general conference don’t often refer to the deeds of women and rarely quote them. Even if we do something notable, we might only be identified by our motherly roles, not our actual names. Apparently our roles are more important than our individual identities. After all, well-behaved (Mormon) women rarely make history.

So I was pleasantly surprised by Mormon Women Have Their Say: Essays from the Claremont Oral History Collection edited by Claudia Bushman and Caroline Kline. This book is a collection of essays based on the Mormon Women Oral History Project at Claremont Graduate University. A team of grad students and others have recorded and transcribed over 150 interviews with Mormon women of all ages and backgrounds. Feminist Mormon Housewives did a podcast with the editors and others involved in the project, which provides a good background on the project.

Without wanting to gush, I really loved this book. The authors of the essays each created a conceptual framework for the issues that they were writing about and then showed their readers the diverse lives of LDS women using direct quotes from the oral histories.

What struck me most about the essays was the power of the interviews. In the church, we often talk about the power of the Holy Ghost as we share our testimonies. I felt a lot of that same power as I read these women’s stories in their own words. So often we are taught the supposed principles of womanhood from men who believe in gender segregation. It was refreshing to hear the uncorrelated words of women discussing their own experiences. For the most part, these women weren’t saying anything I hadn’t heard before, but I appreciated that they were not describing their lives using Sunday meeting cliches. These interviews seemed to come from a place of authenticity that is hard to get to in an official church setting.

The book is divided into three parts: Life Cycle, Life as a Latter-day Saint, and Relationships with the Institutional Church. If you’re reading this on the Kindle, you have to buy all three parts separately, which is a little strange. Part 1: Life Cycle contains essays on the topics of self and other, fertility, singlehood, motherhood, and adversity. Part 2: Life as a Latter-day Saint includes essays on womanliness, callings, revelation, and missions. Part 3: Relationships with the Institutional Church discusses agency, patriarchy, Relief Society, Heavenly Mother, and Prop 8.

I am an academic and for the academic part of me, the high and low points of the book occurred in Part 3. I thought that Amy Hoyt’s essay “Agency” was the strongest. So many of us, as Mormon feminists, face criticism from the outside for belonging to a conservative church. We often criticize TBMs for being blind followers. To quote the introductory paragraph (sorry, I don’t have page numbers on my Kindle), “Feminist theory has usually portrayed religious women in America (often referred to as “conservative” religious women) as either oppressed or working from within their religion to subvert it”. The theoretical framework for this chapter dispelled this idea and allows women agency beyond the strict sheep-or-rebel paradigm. Hoyt demonstrated women’s abilities to navigate our patriarchal institution by both accepting some elements and rejecting others at the same time. It was balanced, refreshing, and I feel that I really learned something my reading this chapter. A great big tenure-loaded high five to Amy Hoyt for her excellent work!

I hate to admit it, but I felt that the chapter on Heavenly Mother by David Golding was kind of a bomb. It opens with a discussion of the Venus of Willendorf, which the author claims is evidence of the dominance of prehistoric goddess cults. As an art historian, this really put me off. I’ve taught the Venus of Willendorf in my lower-division art history class for the last six years and it is a complex topic. Its also a prehistoric work of art, so you can’t really say much that is definitive and you’re limited to the archeological record. I feel that he ignored evidence that didn’t serve his purpose. The whole of this book deals with the lived experiences of LDS women today, so it was a strange move to discuss our views of Heavenly Mother compared to ancient goddess cults. The handling of the Venus of Willendorf and the Venus of Hohle Fels was clumsy and really brought down the chapter with dodgy scholarship. Yes, he cited some scholarship to try and prove his points, but he only cited limited recent discussions.

This book strengthened my resolve to keep blogging and reinforced the validity and importance of recording my experiences in my own words. I also think that there is something in this book for Mormons of all stripes, as it presents a great diversity of experiences and viewpoints.

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