This is the first in a series of responses to Taylor Petrey’s “Rethinking Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother,” recently published in the Harvard Theological Review.
Margaret Toscano is an Associate Professor of Classics and Comparative Cultural and Literary Studies at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Her research focuses on religion, myth, and gender. She has published extensively on Mormon feminism.
Taylor Petrey states his complaint against certain Mormon feminists (i.e., me–Margaret Toscano, Janice Allred, and Valerie Hudson Cassler) on page 16 of “Rethinking Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother”: “Mormon feminists writing about Heavenly Mother have been complicit in heteronormative narratives that universalize a subset of women as the hypostasis of ‘woman.’” Taylor’s argument ignores the complexity of the god narratives I have explored over the years, as well as the multiplicity of images I have put forth to represent women and the Female Divine.
Taylor says I put forth “a singular mother who represents the plurality of her daughters” (9). It is only possible to assert this if you pick out statements where I focus on the Heavenly Mother and ignore those where I explore other goddess figures from Mormon sacred texts. In my 1992 “Put on Your Strength O Daughters of Zion: Claiming Priesthood and Knowing the Mother” (Women and Authority), I suggest a female trinity of Mother, Daughter, and Holy Spirit who could easily parallel the male godhead in form and function; and I do not line them up as heterosexual couples. I also investigate Eve, Mary, Wisdom/Sophia, Zion, and the Bride as female divine figures, asserting that in Mormonism “there may be more than one female deity” who “have been intimately involved in our creation, redemption, and spiritual well-being and growth.” In my slide presentation “Images of the Female Body, Human and Divine,” given many times and available online, I praise multiple kinds of female bodies and goddess images, including non-human ones. I ask the rhetorical question, “How would our pictures of reality change if we saw God the Mother as black, not white?” to suggest the appropriateness of the idea and to show the problem with both embodiment and images, which are inherently limiting.
Taylor criticizes me, Janice, and Valerie for being gender essentialists, though he does acknowledge that Janice and I try to avoid this problem. I admit I believe differences between male and female bodies are part of physical reality and not simply a cultural construct (though our perceptions of reality are shaped by our sign systems). But I also want to emphasize that I have never said anywhere that there are certain characteristics or roles that are inherently male or female because I do not believe it. All humans are capable of displaying and occupying many roles, qualities, and sexualities.
What I have not made clear, until my recent speech, “The Gender of God, and the Diversity of Human Sexuality,” is my belief that even as biological descriptors “female” and “male” are complex and not singular. There are multiple genotypes, as well as variations on internal and external sex organs and hormones. I want to state clearly that I am committed to full social and legal rights for all people, whether they identify as intersex, androgynous, transgender female or male, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or some other category of gender identification and sexual desire.
Nevertheless, I still believe that “woman” and “man,” and “male” and “female,” are meaningful categories because they reflect most people’s lived, bodily experiences. No woman wants to be reduced to her body, but bodies do matter. The very fact that transgender women want to claim the term reinforces the meaningfulness of the category “woman.”
If there is one regret I have about Strangers in Paradox that I wrote with my husband Paul, it is that we didn’t make homosexuality visual and theologically viable in Mormonism (though we hoped people would see the possibility with our emphasis on polytheism). When we wrote the book between 1984 and 1989 we had other major concerns. For me, it was creating legitimate spaces for women within the all-male priesthood and godhood structures. For Paul, it was a concern for moving Mormonism away from corporate power toward Christ’s gospel of grace and love. And we asserted the interconnectedness of these two goals; a gospel of love should not erase women, or anyone for that matter. Since then both of us have affirmed same-sex expressions as “natural,” “spiritual” and valid within Mormon Christianity. I do not have space for references, but I want to emphasize that even back in the early 1990s I tried to create places for Lesbian voices through the Mormon Women’s Forum.
“Heteronormativity” is not a neutral term. It implies an insistence that heterosexuality is the only valid way to express sexuality and that all else is not “natural.” This is not my position at all. But if a person values heterosexual relationships, is this the same as marginalizing everything else? And why is the Heavenly Mother blamed for heteronormativity? Why is it the Heavenly Mother who needs to be rethought? Why is she the problem? Why not the Heavenly Father? I have noticed over the last thirty years as I have interacted with Mormon male theologians that they never think there is a gender or sex problem until the Heavenly Mother is introduced. They see an all-male divinity as neutral and the male-subject position as normative and most topics as gender-free zones.
This is obvious with the work of Blake Ostler, whom Taylor highlights. Since Blake often focuses on the interpenetrating love of the male godhead and talks about humans with male pronouns, his work is conducive for the male homosocial and homoerotic interpretation Taylor gives it (whether that was Blake’s intent or not). This same view is reflected in Taylor’s cosmology in his “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” where he states that the “creation of the earth, organization of the elements, and even the creation of the living bodies of Adam and Eve all occur without the presence of female figures” (I guess Eve doesn’t count). It is unclear whether Taylor is simply describing what he sees as possible within Mormon theology, or whether he sees this emphasis on male love in the godhead as only positive. But the introduction of the Heavenly Mother seems to be a problem for him; she seems only to represent heteronormativity for Taylor. While it is true that the LDS Church mandates heterosexual marriage for members, its godhood teachings focus on God the Father and the Son. The official language focuses on God as male with a male body, not on a heterosexual godhead. The Heavenly Mother barely makes it into official theology; and usually she is just one of our heavenly parents.
I guess that without the Heavenly Mother we can eliminate heterosexuality from heaven and all will be well again. But how far does this move us toward an expansive Mormon theology that includes many sexualities and subject positions? It seems to me that it takes us back to Plato, the patristic fathers, and medieval monasticism where male love is praised and women are allowed only on the sidelines until they can become more fully male.
Those of us who have tried to emphasize the divinity and necessity of female figures in a Mormon cosmology where embodiment is central are seen as troublemakers who want a kind of Proclamation on the Family heteronormativity. But this is an inaccurate portrayal of our work. Janice, Paul, and I have worked to oppose the hold of patriarchal hierarchy. By emphasizing male godhead constructs Taylor does not loosen the stranglehold of patriarchy in Mormonism. He merely diminishes femaleness as a reflection of divinity.
These are hard issues to sort out. Hopefully this discussion can suggest new possibilities for valuing many sexualities within Mormon theology.