Book Review: Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings

Amanda is a longtime reader and lurker on BCC (and has been our guest in the past). She received a BA in French from Yale University and now lives in a Paris suburb with her husband Didier and son James. She is currently working on a law degree while working in a law firm in Paris. We’re grateful for her perspective on this important book.

“Great news! Sister Burton and Sister Oscarson are coming to our Stake to give a training meeting, followed by a fireside. … Amanda, will you translate for Sister Burton and accompany her after the meeting to translate for the sisters wishing to speak with her?”

Would I!

Members of different quorums of the 70 often visit my Stake, but a visit from two auxiliary presidents in a relatively intimate setting is much rarer. Training meetings directed to Relief Society or Young Women leaders attracted men and women from all auxiliaries and the fireside that followed was standing room only on all three floors of the Stake Center. A few sisters I spoke to said they were more excited about this visit than a visit from any other General Authority.

I live in France, where members of the Church are not only a tiny minority of the population, but also a minority in the Church. As someone who has followed and participated in the Mormon Feminist movement for years, it would be easy to attribute the excitement felt by my sisters to the developments made over the last few years or to doctrinal questions about women. Personally, I tried to reduce my list of questions to one or two that I could slip in after the meetings. To top it all off, we woke up that morning to the new essays on lds.org about women and the Priesthood and Heavenly Mother.

However, few resources outside of official manuals are translated into French, and the essays on lds.org aren’t among them. I had expected celebration or questions on the new information provided in the essays but didn’t hear a word. When I asked a fellow Stake Relief Society counselor, she said that she didn’t know they had been published.

It was at that moment that I really felt the importance of a book like Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings.

Although I had finished reading the week before, I had put writing my review on hold to see if I could gain some new insight or answer some pressing question by speaking with Sister Burton. I already knew why I thought this book was important for me and for the discussions I have in the bloggernacle. To me, Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings is like a collection of greatest hits: all the hot topics are covered and all the big names are mentioned. It is a well-documented, evenly-balanced record of meetings, poems, research and personal essays. Within its pages, I revisited old favorites and discovered new ones. I loved the references to more articles and books to supplement every subject.

But sitting with my sisters that day, I was reminded of what Joanna Brooks writes in her introduction, “Mormon feminism offers the welcome message that none of us is alone in our questions, nor are we the first to ask them. We can learn much from those who have been living, researching and writing about these questions for the last forty years.” As I have served and taught in Relief Society, I have witnessed several sisters ask the hard questions for the very first time and struggle with issues they have only vaguely heard about. A few have expressed their relief and happiness to know that they were not the only ones to question, to want to speak up, to want to know more. I want to give these sisters this book and show them that not only are they not alone, but women have been thinking and writing about these things for a long time. For them, this book fills an important gap by grouping all of the issues and all of the sources in one resource, while telling them where they can go to find out more.

I especially appreciated the first section of the book, which features some of the earliest Mormon Feminist essays, about the history of the Relief Society. I believe that knowing our history is essential for capturing the true vision of what the Relief Society could be and how large woman’s role in the Church and in society has the potential to become. Consider for example this quote: “As I have often told my sisters in the Female Relief Societies, we have sisters here who, if they had the privilege of studying, would make just as good mathematicians of accountants as any man; and we think they ought to have the privilege to study these branches of knowledge that they may develop the powers with which they are endowed. We believe that women are useful, not only to sweep houses, wash dishes, make beds, and raise babies, but that they should stand behind the counter, study law or physic [medicine], or become good bookkeepers and be able to do the business in any counting house., and all this to enlarge their sphere of usefulness for the benefit of society at large. In following these things they but answer the design of their creation.” Even I was surprised to learn that it was Brigham Young who said these words! Knowing that women in the Church were once encouraged to go out and become more than housewives brings into question later counsel to “come home” and restrict our roles as women, especially in a country where staying at home just isn’t affordable.

The section I was less familiar with is one that I think will resonate with my sisters. I had never read Lynn Matthews Anderson’s or Carol Lynn Pearson’s thoughts about the absence of women in LDS scripture. It is easy to criticize Mormon culture as Utah-centric or based on tradition, especially living so far away from the center of it. Criticizing scripture touches on the very foundation of our theology. We need to address the absence, even if it is difficult or unsatisfying to create theories on why this absence exists. Lynn Matthews Anderson quotes Jewish feminist theologian in “Toward a Feminist Interpretation of Latter-Day Saint Scripture,” “if we refuse to recognize the painful truth about the extent of women’s invisibility, we can never move forward.” She goes to explore the important theological implications and then reiterates the mission of Mormon feminism: “to recover and reconstruct women’s stories whenever possible, as well as to develop and promulgate new ways of evaluating and interpreting scripture.” The first mission is accomplished in works like Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings, the second is still to come.

Unfortunately, the small size of the French Mormon market means we will probably never see a French translation. I’ve recommended the book to a few English readers who already have feminist leanings, and there are probably others who have done the same. But I think that the format of a collection of essays lends itself easily to sharing excerpts, perhaps translated on the fly, to respond to a specific question or teach more about our rich history as women in the Church. I hope that these little discussions between a few sisters will one day lead to creating our own history as Mormon feminists outside of the United States.

Comments

  1. I really enjoyed your review. I was wondering, did you get to ask either President Burton or President Oscarson any of your questions? If so, what did they say?

  2. Great perspective.

  3. Amanda, thanks for the review. I really like that you approached it from the experience of a Mormon living outside the United States. Although we’re quick to say that we’re a worldwide church, we often forget the reality of that and don’t look beyond our own neighborhoods. This was a great review from a slightly different viewpoint.

  4. Enjoyed this take. Thanks.

  5. Great review, thanks! I like how your review is focused clearly on how the book can affect every woman and speak to their concerns. While it is an academic book (Oxford University Press, not too shabby!), unlike the off-puttingly detached approach that many theology works take (I’ve complained about before), this book refuses to engage in the topic of women without engaging with women. It has a pastoral purpose as much as an academic one. Your review does a nice job of highlighting this aspect of the book, as well as taking that same approach in the review itself.

  6. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    So happy to be in the book and to hear from our sisters in France!

  7. Thank you for this review. I’m eager to read and learn from this book!

  8. Amanda in France says:

    I did get to ask my questions privately. Sister Burton is very gracious and well aware of the issues (this was pre policy change). We talked a lot about President Nelson’s talk and how important is for women to encourage each other to rise up to their potential and speak out. It was a great conversation.

    Thanks everyone

  9. I’ve been looking forward to getting my hands on this one. Thanks for your review, Amanda! While living in Romania for a season, I have quite enjoyed translating and sharing with local members small passages from some of my favorite english-only books and essays. Your post encourages me and inspires me to do more of that.

  10. This review was so nice to read. Thank you for writing it, Amanda in France.

  11. Nancy Ross says:

    Great review! Amanda, please note that some of The Exponent Blog posts are translated into French, if that would help some of the women you know http://www.the-exponent.com/tag/French/

  12. Thank you, Amanda. You’ll be delighted to know that Lynn Matthews Anderson, whose essay you enjoyed, lives in Europe. She can probably translate her essay into French herself!