smash the matriarchy: naomi alderman’s “the power” and what it means for mormon feminism
I spent a few months in the UK recently, and every time I visited a book shop I noticed the same novel prominently displayed: The Power by Naomi Alderman. It had just won the Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction, and the cover quickly drew me in with its no-nonsense female icon and Soviet propaganda vibes. I simply had to have it.
After purchasing a copy and reading the first few chapters, I was pleasantly surprised at how familiar it felt. Familiar in oddly Mormon ways.
To summarize, it’s a novel about women’s empowerment, just . . . not in the way you’re thinking. It’s framed at the beginning and end with letters between a fictional author (Neil) and a potential editor (Naomi), discussing the newly discovered and troubling—even unbelievable—history of someone called “Mother Eve” (ix).
Most readers will notice something’s amiss within the first few pages, when Neil appears extraordinarily submissive. He writes: “I’ve included some illustrations of archeological finds that I hope are suggestive, but readers can—and I’m sure many will!—skip over them.”
His lack of confidence in his own work is strange indeed, and his remarks to Naomi just get weirder, as he writes “Anyway, sorry, I’ll shut up now. I don’t really want to influence you, just read it and tell me what you think . . . Thank you so much for this. I am so grateful you could spare the time.”
Forgive me for pandering to stereotypes, but isn’t it odd that Neil is writing to his superior like many women of today write to their superiors? There’s no denying there’s something amiss in Neil’s world when Naomi responds, “I see you’ve included some scenes with male soldiers, male police officers and ‘boy crime gangs,’ just as you said you would, you saucy boy! . . . I think I’d rather enjoy this ‘world run by men’ you’ve been talking about. Surely a kinder, more caring and—dare I say it?—more sexy world than the one we live in” (x).
Before the novel proper even began, I could see what Alderman was doing. If there’s one fun thing about being a feminist, it’s playing the role-reversal game. Gloria Steinem did it in her 1978 essay, “If Men Could Menstruate,” and if you haven’t read it, it’s a must. In 1990 Elouise Bell published an LDS iteration, “The Meeting,” which imagines a sacrament meeting where women’s and men’s roles in the church are reversed entirely. Women conduct the meeting while men sit quietly with their children on the pews. During an announcement about new babies in the ward, we learn that girls are given names like “Rachel Sariah” and “Ellen Fielding, Jr.” whereas the boys listed are named “LeWinky Henderson” and “Tippy Tom Jones.” Carol Lynn Pearson likewise imagines a gender-swapped LDS meeting in her essay, “A Walk in Pink Moccasins,” which presents a fictional talk about Heavenly Mother’s love–given by a woman, of course–meant to teach Mormon men what it’s like “to be a female child in a motherless house” and empathize with sisters in the church.
In all three cases, the reader is pushed to question the ways power functions in a patriarchal system through outlandish, even humorous predictions that ask the “what if” questions of gender. Steinem imagines that men, faced with a biological process widely thought to make women weak, would instead “brag about how long and how much.” Bell similarly makes pointed remarks that indicate the dehumanization of women in the LDS church: The (female) leader making ward announcements tells the congregation about a proposal “for a method of handling our financial commitments for this next year. This is of vital importance to every member. I stress that. We want every one of you to go home, gather your husbands and children around you, examine this proposal, and decide if you can give us your sustaining vote on it.” The reader is bound to notice the absurdity of similar statements directed toward men each Sunday in real life, and learns to challenge his or her own internalized misogyny. When Pearson’s speaker tells young men, “A rib from Eve’s own body was fashioned into the body of Adam, and he was given her as a friend and helpmeet. What a glorious and noble calling!” we can begin to see some of the issues facing a religion that has struggled with gender equality from the beginning. Each of these examples shows that the gender-swap is a provocative rhetorical move that, if nothing else, gets people thinking.
While I was expecting a similarly outlandish approach from Alderman in The Power, I have to admit she surprised me. Her version of feminist role-reversal took a dark turn that asked the question, “What if?” and answered it with a staggering “Nothing would change.” The Power takes a radical approach of challenging gender essentialism at its root, claiming that if women suddenly acquired power that allowed them physical dominance over men—in this case, the ability to produce electricity from their hands that can result in pleasure, extreme pain, or death—they would form a matriarchy that disenfranchises men in the exact ways patriarchy does women.
This is important to the Mormon conversation, especially when we look at Mother Eve’s story. Alderman discusses the electrifying power’s impact on government, the media, and foreign relations, but as an LDS woman I was especially attracted to the religion she invented—a religion that arose from women finally learning their own strength.
At first, it’s all quite beautiful. (Spoilers ahead, but most of this happens within the first few chapters): Before becoming Mother Eve, she’s a mixed-race teenager named Allie who has grown up with foster parents, some of them horrifyingly abusive. She’s sexually assaulted and chooses to run away, listening to a voice in her head that tells her how to use the powerful electrical force she’s recently discovered in herself. Soon, she takes up lodging in a convent with girls who’ve been kicked out of their homes after discovering The Power and getting themselves into trouble.
Meanwhile, the voice keeps guiding Allie as she teaches the other girls how to better harness their powers. She becomes their leader (known as “Mother Eve”) and decides that “God is telling the world that there is to be a new order . . . Just as Jesus told the people of Israel that God’s desires had changed, the time of the gospels is over and there must be a new doctrine.” The voice responds to Allie’s revelation by telling her, “There is a need for a prophet in this land.” When Allie questions who that might be, the jovial, motherly voice says, “Just try it on for size, honey. Remember, if you’re going to stay here, you’re going to need to own the place so they can’t take it from you. The only way you’re safe, honeybun, is if you own it” (46).
Mother Eve begins prophesying of God the Mother to her new disciples in what I can only describe as a Mormon feminist fantasy. She tells the others that “God is neither woman nor man but both these things. But now, She has come to show us a new side to Her face, one we have ignored for too long” (80). I have to admit I got a little weepy at such a powerful evocation of Heavenly Mother, forgetting for a moment that I was reading fiction. It was all so spectacular—rooted in nature, femininity, the sublime—and undeniably close to home.
I started viewing Eve as a Joseph Smith archetype, a modern prophetess called to redefine God to the masses and restore powers that had existed all along but were forgotten. As the book explores other characters and their spheres, it strongly aligns The Power and its implications with the penis, but I began equating The Power with the current LDS interpretation of the priesthood (which, if you think about it, isn’t all that different).
As the novel progresses, things get crazy. War breaks out between men’s rights activists (yes, really, those 4chan/reddit ones you’re imagining) and the increasingly-powerful women. Female soldiers rape and pillage and men begin fearing for their lives. While young women are sent to state-funded institutions to develop their powers, men are told to avoid walking alone at night.
This seemingly impossible narrative, to Alderman’s credit, is constructed in a bafflingly believable way. It’s disturbingly familiar, and probably not what every feminist would like to hear.
There’s a reason that Neil and Naomi behave as they do, writing from a future heavily impacted by the story we’ve just been told: they live under an oppressive matriarchy plagued with displays of toxic femininity and female supremacy. Women like Naomi are so convinced of the status quo that they’re unable to envision society functioning in any other way. In a concluding letter to Neil, she writes with sincerity, “Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women—with babies to protect from harm—have had to become aggressive and violent” (333). Go figure.
Of course we can’t know if Alderman’s theory is correct. Would women at large really behave this way if they were suddenly stronger than men? Would the desire for revenge—real revenge, for all the ways men have done them wrong—actually become their biggest motivator as they organize themselves? I found myself wondering if assuming otherwise was sexist, since it would imply women are inherently more docile and level-headed then men, even when faced with unprecedented (and unexpected) power.
I don’t know how to answer most of those questions. I’d like to believe that women would establish a peaceful society that’s all pacifism, rainbows, and equality, but I hesitate to see the world as we know it ever working that way, regardless of who’s running it.
In the end, and without giving too much away, Mother Eve isn’t as infallible and perfect as I was hoping she might be. To be fair, I kind of had the same experience learning about Joseph Smith’s relationship with polygamy. Funny how our stories tend to repeat themselves, blurring the lines between fiction and reality as we grapple with both and try coming out with solutions.
To put it simply, The Power takes the strawman version of feminism—that oh-so-horrific worldview of anti-feminists that claim we just want superiority over men—and throws it down, hard. It seems to beg feminists to admit that, even in our wildest girl-power fantasies, we REALLY don’t want women to take over the world. You hearing this, anti-feminists? I know you think we want it, but we don’t!
How does this apply to Mormonism? This should be obvious to anyone reading this blog, but it means that women don’t want to run the church. When we dream of female ordination, we’re not envisioning a repeal and replace of every male leader in the church. We hope to smooth out the hierarchies that have taken over our organization, to question why LDS women are treated the way they are and figure out how we can change things with an end goal of equality. I don’t know exactly what that will look like, but I do know the status quo isn’t it.
We want to challenge the idea that Joseph Smith’s maleness means that men alone can fully hold the priesthood and, in turn, hold leadership positions in the church. Mother Eve’s followers were quick to assume female superiority because their god presented herself as a woman and revealed her plan to a woman. That illusion of favor ultimately led them to take things too far. I think it’s fair to say Mormons are historically guilty of making the same sweeping assumptions about male superiority, and I can’t be alone in thinking they also took things too far. It’s time we strive for change.
It’s our job to advocate for an institution that views women’s stories with as much reverence as they do men’s; a church that’s comfortable rewinding a bit and seeing what they’ve forgotten and sacrificed in the name of preserving the patriarchy. The good news is that I think we can handle it. Unlike the world in The Power, which only allows for one version of God to speak at a time, we believe in a Father and a Mother. We are uniquely equipped to learn from both of our Heavenly Parents and apply what I assume is their example of equality-based leadership to our own homes and meetinghouses.
Unfortunately, dominion feels good. I understand why some LDS men and women feel threatened by true gender equality; they live in a community that places women on pedestals and practices benevolent sexism to a worrying extent. Many women don’t even realize their own value. Change is hard for everyone, and I know that.
But I also know that the answer to the justice we want is not more injustice. I’d like to think equality is inevitable. Like Eve, and like Joseph, it’s time we stop and listen. The answers can’t be far off.
One Response to “smash the matriarchy: naomi alderman’s “the power” and what it means for mormon feminism”
Totally sold- I’m buying this book NOW. And thanks for the great references to Steinem, Bell, and Pearson. Unrighteous dominion is unrighteous, no matter who or what is doing the dominating. Truth.