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Where Are All the Feminist Interpreters of the Book of Mormon?

Posted by joespencer on March 6, 2011

I want to try here to make sense of the “scene” of feminist interpretation of the Book of Mormon. My aim is to look at what might be described as the seven years of plenty: 1993-2000. During those seven years, four very important and deeply interesting feminist studies of the Book of Mormon were published. In large part, those four studies are all we have of this genre. Other treatments—before, after, or even during those years—are half-hearted, unfortunately brief, or simply uninformed. Those years, then, seem to have been the seven years of plenty, and we have since seen the seven years (and then some) of famine. I wonder if it isn’t time to let it rain again.

But what is feminist interpretation of the Book of Mormon? That’s the question I want to tackle here. It took four drastically distinct shapes over the course of the 1990s, and it isn’t clear which of them—if any—should serve as a model for further work. Here I want just to probe those four shapes, asking what each of them is worth.

I should note that at least one overview of feminist concern for the Book of Mormon has appeared in print already. In 2002, Camille Williams published a very even-handed assessment of feminism and the Book of Mormon—though written from the obvious conviction that the Book of Mormon is an ancient book: “Women in the Book of Mormon,” published in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. Williams had concerns quite distinct from my own, but her piece is worth reading. It is interesting to note that Williams not only published this piece just after the seven years of plenty were over (it appeared in 2002), but also wrote and published the first detailed exposition of women in the Book of Mormon (without any overt feminist concern) immediately before the seven years of plenty began (it appeared in 1992 in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism under the title “Women in the Book of Mormon). I’ll let Williams’ two piece serve as bookends to the period I want to look at.

But, to the years of plenty themselves.

Beginnings

Feminist concern in Book of Mormon interpretation arguably began—at least in any serious form—at the 1993 Sunstone Symposium. Two papers were presented at that same symposium offering important and, I think, quite robust feminist interpretations of the Book of Mormon. The first of these was a presentation by Lynn Matthews Anderson entitled “The Book of Mormon As a Feminist Resource”; the second, by Carol Lynn Pearson. Both of these papers were, in my opinion very thoughtful and very interesting, and what they suggested and proposed was unquestionably important, as I hope to show—though I will, in the end, suggest that there are other directions to pursue.

I think it is important to note that both of these presented papers turned into publications, but publications of a very different nature, each with its own peculiar aftermath. Carol Lynn Pearson’s paper was published in 1996 in Sunstone Magazine, more or less in its originally presented shape. Lynn Matthews Anderson’s paper was published in 1994 in Dialogue, but in a form drastically different from what she presented in 1993. Pearson’s published paper elicited what I will argue was an important response in the FARMS Review (and a much less important response from a certain Utah Rush), but Anderson’s paper seems to have had unfortunately little impact, despite (or because of?) the level, careful approach taken in the published version.

I want to look at these papers—both in their original, presented form and in their subsequent, published form—in order first to get a sense for what I take to be the beginnings of anything like a feminist approach to the Book of Mormon. Anderson actually presented first at the 1993 symposium, but I’ll begin anyway with Pearson’s paper, especially because of its aftermath.

Pearson: “Could Feminism Have Saved the Nephites?”

Pearson opens her paper with a series of clarifications about what she means by feminism. In a kind of conciliatory move, she draws her “modest” definition of feminism from the Church-sponsored Encyclopedia of Mormonism: “Feminism is
the philosophical belief that advocates the equality of women and men and seeks to remove inequities and to redress injustices against women.” And then she replaces the word “feminism” with the word “partnership” and states: “To me, partnership is the goal, and feminism is the journey absolutely necessary to get us there. Where? That wonderful land in gender relationships, choice above all other lands—that space in our minds and hearts and society where we are truly one. Perhaps we could even call it Zion.” Helping to make clear that her vision is anything but radical, she solidifies her position with quotations from the Ensign and from Hugh Nibley (his article “Patriarchy and Matriarchy”). All these first steps are taken quite carefully.

Along with her clarifications of feminism, Pearson offers some initial comments about militarism, pointing to research that connects militarism and patriarchy. Here she has less to say in a clarificatory vein, but her brief comments set up her again carefully ventured thesis. I think the thesis statement deserves to be quoted at some length:

I believe that the Book of Mormon is indeed a book written for our day, that it contains many powerful lessons that can greatly benefit us. I propose that there is a lesson in this book that we have not really examined, one that is profoundly important. I propose that a society that negates femaleness will likely be a society that is militaristic—or that a society that is militaristic will likely be a society that negates femaleness; whichever the cause and whichever the effect, the result will be disaster. I choose to believe that . . . with awareness comes a desire to do better. . . . I propose we find a remarkable example [of the coupling of militarism and patriarchy] within the pages of the Book of Mormon. Let us examine these two phenomena—militarism in the Book of Mormon and the accompanying bias against and negative portrayal of women.

In the end, I think Pearson ventures her thesis too carefully, making it—and its remarkable force—easy to miss. As I read her, the point of the paper is to suggest that the Book of Mormon can be interpreted as trying to promote awareness of the relationship between patriarchy and militarism, and that it is thus that feminism—by displacing patriarchy—could have “saved the Nephites.” This is, in a word, the “lesson in [the] book that we have not really examined, one that is profoundly important.” But does Pearson make a good case for this claim?

Ultimately, I think she provides all the important details and evidence for her claim, but—as with her stated thesis—they are too easily lost in the flow of her rhetoric. To some extent, she anticipates this by stating that her paper “will spend little time on [militarism in the Book of Mormon] because it is so obvious.” She thus proposes a coupling, then dispenses with the need to expound one of the two coupled terms, and so goes on to provide what can only come across as a strictly feminist reading of the Book of Mormon, too often losing the thread of her original and ultimate claim. Allow me here, however, to isolate from her paper the elements of what I take to be her core argument, buried though it often is in the course of the paper.

Much of the article is given to reviewing the lack of female characters (and especially role models) in the Book of Mormon, the presence of negative female imagery, and the like. But late in the paper, Pearson strikes on something much more intriguing, I think, than all of these things:

Various parts of the Nephite record refer to women being
beaten (see Alma 50:30), having their tender hearts broken because
of the faithlessness of their polygamous husbands (Jacob
2:23-35), being stolen as wives (Mosiah 20:5), being required
to defend those who stole them (Mosiah 23:33), being taken
prisoners (Alma 54:3), being offered as sacrifices (Morm.
4:21), being burned to death (Alma 14:8), being raped, being
tortured to death and then having their flesh devoured by
men, and being fed on the flesh of their husbands with only a
little water (Moro. 9:8-10).

This is an impressive list, and it could be augmented as well. Pearson thus nicely brings out a consistent pattern in the Book of Mormon of Nephite brutality towards women. (Note that only one of the references Pearson cites describes an act of brutality on the part of the Lamanites. More on that below.) This, it seems to me, is what most convincingly clinches her case: A history of Nephite brutality towards women is fully on display in the Book of Mormon, and it may be that one of the aims of the Book of Mormon as a whole, then, is to suggest that it is precisely such a pattern that led to the Nephite destruction. It is certainly significant that Nephite wickedness begins with this theme (in Jacob 1-3) and comes to its horrifying climax with this theme (in Moroni 9). It may well be that the Book of Mormon is at pains to suggest that, as Pearson provocatively puts it, feminism could have saved the Nephites.

This is all the more provocative when one pays attention—as Pearson does not—to the apparently less misogynistic character of Lamanite society. As early as the book of Jacob, one finds evidence that it was only the Nephites who were brutal towards women, since “their husbands love their wives, and their wives love their husbands; and their husbands and their wives love their children” (Jacob 3:7). And again, as late as the end of Nephite civilization, one finds again that it is only the Nephites who exhibit deliberate cruelty towards women (Moroni 9). One begins to wonder whether it wasn’t specifically because of a kind of latent Lamanite feminism that the Lamanites were spared and preserved as a remnant for the later unfolding of the covenant of Israel.

All of this, I think, is quite provocative, and it hides just beneath the surface of Pearson’s article—too much of the surface being given to a polemic against exclusion (and that often based on somewhat weak points of argument). Read quite charitably, Pearson’s paper points in some very interesting interpretive directions.

Unfortunately, and apparently simply because her most forceful argument is only lightly touched on in the course of the paper, Pearson’s real claims were not really engaged in the question-and-answer session following her paper at the symposium. Neither, incidentally, have they been engaged in the years since, though her paper arguably helped to launch what I will below describe as a second wave of feminist interpretations of the Book of Mormon. Pearson’s real provocation has gone, for the most part, unnoticed.

Anderson: “The Book of Mormon As a Feminist Resource”

Lynn Matthews Anderson’s paper at the same Sunstone Symposium was, in many ways, much more provocative than Carol Lynn Pearson’s. But much of that provocation was lost in the transition from oral presentation to written publication—as I will show.

If Pearson beat around the bush with her claim a bit, Anderson came right out and stated what she was after: The Book of Mormon can (and should) serve as a feminist resource, but it can do so—ironically—only through a full acknowledgment of its overt misogyny. Straightforwardly stated, sure, but what does the claim mean? The argument is subtle, and it goes something like this:

(1) Scripture—the Book of Mormon, here—is employed in (official) justification of current ecclesiastical practices.
(2) Careful interpretation of scripture (the Book of Mormon), however, reveals that current ecclesiastical practice—despite advances that still need to be made—is much more sexually egalitarian than what is reflected in scripture.
(3) The unrecognized gap between what scripture (the Book of Mormon) actually enacts with regard to women and what current Church leaders believe it enacts with regard to women can be forced into recognition through publicly ventured, responsibly rendered, and convincingly presented feminist interpretation.
(4) Once this gap is recognized, Church leaders will recognize (a) that current ecclesiastical practices are not justifiable through scripture (the Book of Mormon); (b) that serious advances in the direction of gender equality have already been made without justifiable concern; and (c) that there are thus no scripturally justified reasons for refusing to make further advances towards gender equality.
(5) Thus, carefully undertaken feminist interpretation of scriptures—the Book of Mormon in particular—can be employed, through an ironic gesture of rejecting scripture’s relevance, to further the feminist cause within Mormonism.

That’s the argument, but I suspect it appears a bit abstract at this point, so let me see if I can make it a bit more concrete by using an example.

One of Anderson’s concerns is that women are barred from holding the priesthood. And one of the official justifications of the practice of granting the priesthood exclusively to males is scriptural precedent: women do not hold the priesthood in, say, the Book of Mormon. But Anderson points out that neither is there any suggestion in the Book of Mormon—if one reads carefully—that women were baptized! Thus, if one is going to use the Book of Mormon as a guide for contemporary practice, and to do so consistently, then one would have either to claim that women can neither hold the priesthood nor be baptized or to claim that the current practice of women being baptized is correct and so that the Book of Mormon cannot be used as a strict guide (or justification) for current ecclesiastical practice. Trusting that the latter of the two options would be chosen (and Anderson’s optimism here is perhaps a bit misplaced?), Anderson thus suggests that feminist interpretation of the Book of Mormon might open the way towards gender equality in bestowal of the priesthood.

That’s the strategy. It is an outrageously audacious suggestion, and perhaps far too optimistic, but its strength cannot be missed.

Ironically, however, as I have already pointed out, this remarkably bold claim disappeared in 1994 when a version of the originally presented paper went to print in Dialogue. In the published version, what had been a kind of manifesto concerning strategic uses of feminist hermeneutics became a too-academic demonstration of gender unbalance in scripture. Her claims were made carefully—much more carefully than, say, Pearson’s in her paper—and they are unquestionably convincing, but her published paper lacks the activist punch of her presented paper. What one finds in the Dialogue piece is the following, much weaker thesis statement:

This essay briefly outlines the extent of the dearth of women and the feminine in LDS scripture, delineates some of the theological implications of women’s absence in scripture, and then briefly discusses the possibilities for recovering women’s stories as well as for developing a framework for a feminist interpretation of sacred writ.

Anderson unquestionably does a good job at fulfilling the task she thus sets for herself—though the framework she develops has been largely overlooked—but one wonders what happened to the more militant spirit of the presented piece of only a year earlier. Not audacious enough to draw the attention feminist interpretation arguably needed—and needs—her piece has been almost systematically ignored since then.

The Turn

To make the best sense out of the aftermath of Pearson’s and Anderson’s mid-90s interventions, it would be helpful here to provide a brief aside describing the contours of the field of feminist biblical interpretation. In the light of such a framework, it will be possible to make sense of the response to the beginnings of feminist interpretation of the Book of Mormon.

Biblical and Book of Mormon Feminist Hermeneutics

It is relatively standard to divide feminist biblical interpretation into three categories. (1) First is the hermeneutics of rejection. Here the task is to reveal the irreparable sexually oppressive nature of scripture in order, ultimately, to claim that the Bible must be rejected as irredeemable. (2) Second, and wagered in obvious response to the hermeneutics of rejection, is the hermeneutics of loyalty. Here the interpreter declares fidelity to scripture, in one of two ways. (2a) On the one hand is what might be called a more “conservative” loyalty, one that takes all biblical texts to be of equal normativity. This approach tends to assume that whatever the Bible has to say (or to imply) about gender and gender relations should be understood as binding on the believer—even if what is thereby prescribed is, in the end, oppressive from a feminist perspective. (2b) On the other hand is what might in turn be called a more “liberal” loyalty, one that, while refusing to compromise scripture’s claim to normativity, nonetheless emphasizes or focuses on texts that call for sexual equality, subtly ignoring texts that suggest otherwise. In either case, the task in the hermeneutics of loyalty is to hold fast, in one way or another, to scripture as normative while investigating what it has to say about gender. (3) Third, finally, is the hermeneutics of revision. This last approach is attentive to both the rejectionist commitment to activism and the loyalist commitment to scripture. Thus the revisionist works up counter-readings of biblical texts that can be shown to provide models for the liberation of women, thereby reclaiming a kind of feminist project from within the text of the Bible itself. Revisionists are thus principally attuned to the ways in which their own contemporary struggle is mirrored in and can be guided by scripture.

Where do Pearson’s and Anderson’s essays fit in this basic categorization? The answer: nowhere comfortably. It is certainly clear that neither study can be described as loyalist. But what of the other two categories?

Beginning with Anderson’s piece, it is just as clear that it cannot be called revisionist as it is that it cannot be called loyalist. But is it therefore rejectionist? Yes, but with a twist. Biblical rejectionism issues a call to women to reject scripture because of its irreparable patriarchal nature, but Anderson suggests that women issue a call to men (in positions of authority) to reject scripture because of its irreparable patriarchal nature. Thus while biblical rejectionism concludes ultimately on the unusability of scripture for feminist purposes, Anderson hopes to demonstrate the unusability of scripture for non-feminist purposes and so concludes on the usability of scripture for feminist purposes. The task, according to Anderson, of a feminist hermeneutics is not to show to women that it is necessary, for the purposes of liberation, to abandon patriarchal scripture, but to show to men in power that they are already at odds with scripture, thereby urging such men to make a full break with the patriarchy represented in scripture.

Of course, as I have already mentioned, the call Anderson issues has really never been heard, especially since the published version of her piece abandoned this program, putting in its place a much milder call to pay attention to women in scripture.

What, then, of Pearson’s essay? In the end, it is probably best to understand it as a brilliant piece of revisionist interpretation. But it goes about the task of revisionism in a singular way. The revisionist interpreter of the Bible begins with the assumption that scripture is patriarchal because of its cultural origins, and so she scours the Bible for stories that make clear that women were—even then—struggling for power and liberation, struggling against the patriarchy that dominated their lives. The stories thus uncovered (Tamar, Rahab, Delilah, Judith, etc.) provide models to be followed in today’s struggle against patriarchy. Pearson, though, makes no attempt to find such models for the struggle of liberation in the Book of Mormon—indeed, she explicitly suggests that no such models can be found. How, then, can her essay be said to be revisionist?

Pearson’s strategy is fascinating. The rhetorical throughout her essay points in an undeniably rejectionist direction, and when she draws her conclusions at the end of the paper, she makes an unmistakably rejectionist suggestion: “I suggest that we teach the Book of Mormon in an expanded context, that we teach these stories with an acknowledgment of what they say about women and a clear statement that that message about women is not the message God wants us to have.” But as with Anderson, this rejectionist gesture is offered only with a twist—though a twist of a rather different nature here.

The twist in Anderson’s rejectionism is, so to speak, external to the work of scriptural interpretation. That is, Anderson never softens the blow of her rejectionist criticisms of the Book of Mormon, but suggests that the very act of rejection can be employed in an ironic way to further the feminist project. The twist in Pearson’s rejectionism is, however, internal to the work of scriptural interpretation. The result is that while Anderson’s rejectionism is complete, Pearson’s must be said, in the end, to be compromised, but in a striking way. For Pearson, all the rejectionist rhetoric is necessary just to establish that Nephite history is a history of misogyny, but then she can claim—or at least hint—that part of the intentional message of the book is to suggest that that history of misogyny was catastrophic, one of the reasons for the Nephites’ demise.

Pearson’s rejectionism, then, is ultimately sublimated by a subtle loyalism, marked by her willingness to assume that the Book of Mormon—against and ultimately through the history it recounts—itself offers a feminist voice. And herein lies Pearson’s curious revisionism. Though she uncovers no specific models of women struggling for liberation, no inspiring heroines who can be employed to further the feminist cause today, she does offer a counter-reading to the Book of Mormon that brings Mormon himself to the feminist cause. The whole book, for Pearson, might be said to serve as a kind of transcendent stamp of approval on feminist endeavors, though it provides no actual role models. Revisionist then, but in a strikingly distinct way.

The Response to Rejection

Unfortunately, Pearson’s piece was understood—particularly in one response I’ll look at in detail in a moment—as being principally a rejectionist interpretation of the Book of Mormon. That neither Anderson nor Pearson fits comfortably into the triple categorization of feminist interpretive schemata perhaps has something to do with this. I have my suspicions that Pearson’s over-subtlety has a good deal to do with it as well. But whatever the reasons, the beginnings of feminist interpretation of the Book of Mormon have seldom been taken as anything but negative and critical.

I have reference here to the only substantial written response to Pearson. (Remember that there have been no substantial written responses to Anderson’s original presentation. I’ve also made reference to a not-so-substantial written response to Pearson’s piece by Utah Rush, a piece published independently under the title “Could Feminism Have Destroyed the Nephites?” Rush’s piece is a good read for those looking for a laugh, but little else.) This substantial response was written by Kevin and Shauna Christensen and published in the FARMS Review in 1998 under the title, “Nephite Feminism Revisited.” It deserves careful attention.

The Christensens express sympathy with and interest in “some of [Pearson’s] general propositions and observations” (propositions and observations that they do not specify), but they dedicate the whole of their article to providing criticisms, counter-examples, and the like. Unfortunately, however, they seem to have missed the most forceful—and, on my reading, most central—of Pearson’s claims, namely, that the Book of Mormon itself might have a kind of feminist agenda. In what is unquestionably the weakest part of their paper, the Christensens dismiss Pearson’s concern about militarism (they offer a kind of defense of Nephite militarism!), and they never engage at any point in their paper with Pearson’s impressive—but passing—argument that Nephite history is in part a history of brutality towards women. Missing these aspects of Pearson’s argument, the Christensens ultimately set up something of a straw (wo)man.

This is all the more unfortunate, given that the Christensens’ paper was published in the FARMS Review. Let me be clear here: I have nothing against the FARMS Review; I appreciate a good deal of what they have published over the years. However, I think it is important to recognize that many of its readers will read only the critiques offered in its pages and never read the actual books and articles critiqued. That the Christensens miss the most interesting and provocative of Pearson’s claims means that many (most?) of the readers of their article would never get behind the criticisms to see what Pearson was actually after. That, I think, is genuinely unfortunate.

That said, the Christensens’ essay is an important piece of feminist interpretation itself, and I want to suggest that they—in response to Pearson’s rejectionist/revisionist gesture—effectively launched (or at least outlined the possibility of launching) a strictly loyalist approach to feminist interpretation of the Book of Mormon. It is for this reason above all else that their paper deserves close reading. So what do they do there? Here is their straightforward thesis statement from the beginning of the article:

We affirm that the message of the Book of the Mormon for women is a positive one, more so than has been recognized by most readers. We shall consider several kinds of evidence that this is so:

* Doctrinal statements and the absence of proscriptive statements
* Type-scenes involving specific women
* Imagery concerning a Divine Mother
* Symbolism in narrative context
* The significance of the narrator perspective (male, Nephite, military)

Most of the remainder of the article works systematically through these five categories of evidence. By far, the bulk of the essay is given to readings of particular stories, scenes, and passages—texts both clearly salutary towards women (Abish, Sariah, Eve, Mother Earth, the Bride, the mothers of the stripling warriors, etc.) and more obviously negative towards women (Isabel, the daughter of Jared, the stolen Lamanite daughters, Amalickiah’s Lamanite wife, the whore of all the earth, etc.). Where positive texts are concerned, the Christensens dedicate themselves to showing that such texts are overlooked by Pearson and others and that they witness to a more gender equal Nephite/Lamanite society than is sometimes supposed. Where negative texts are concerned, they focus on contextualization and clarification, arguing that there is no actual misogyny expressed in the text. Many of their readings are productive, and they certainly lay the groundwork for a hermeneutic of the Book of Mormon focused on women.

Towards the end of the essay, they provide data drawn from a computer analysis of Book of Mormon language, suggesting that the Book of Mormon employs far more gender inclusive language than Pearson guesses. Interesting as this set of data is, it is not without its problems. The production of sheer numbers can be impressive, but computers do not think, and some of the positive data the Christensens produce had actually been criticized in advance by Anderson in her 1993 presentation (though not in the 1994 publication). Thus, the Christensens conclude: “This expressly inclusive use of language by Book of Mormon authors creates a problem for those studies that try to measure the gender balance and female presence or absence by counting male versus female pronouns.” Over against this, though, is Anderson’s more contextual analysis:

More problematic to the modern reader is the use of such collective nouns as “people,” “Nephites,” “Lamanites,” “people of God,” “people of the church,” and so on. In our day, these words and phrases are perceived as gender-neutral or explicitly inclusive, but they are demonstrably exclusive of women an overwhelming percentage of the time they are used in the Book of Mormon. Indeed, out of the more than 1,400 times the word “people” is used in the text, only twice does the word unambiguously and explicitly refer to a group which includes women; by contrast, “people” explicitly refers to men alone in many instances, as in Mormon 6:7—“And it came to pass that my people, with their wives and children…,” and in 3 Nephi 3:13—“Yea, he sent a proclamation among all the people, that they should gather together their women, and their children, their flocks and their herds, and all their substance….” . . . In many other instances, “people” is contextually linked to men, as in Jacob 1:15—“And now it came to pass that the people of Nephi,… began to … indulge themselves somewhat in wicked practices, such as like unto David of old desiring many wives and concubines,….”—obviously “people” here refers only to men. Truly “ambiguous” usage is not as common as one would expect.

Anderson provides similarly—and equally convincing—analyses of the words “parents” and “children.”

These concerns expressed, though, it is necessary to state again that the Christensens, particularly through their careful and relatively close attention to context, narrative nuance, and details, lay the ground for the possibility of a strong loyalist approach to women in the Book of Mormon. But what has followed their article is a surprising shift in thought about women and the Book of Mormon.

Altering the Stakes of the Question

The feminist question reopened in the new millennium with Camile Fronk’s “Desert Epiphany: Sariah and the Women in 1 Nephi,” published in 2000 in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. Given its venue (a FARMS publication) and the position of its author (a professor in BYU’s religion department), one would guess that the essay has relatively little to offer by way of feminism. But the more one looks at the essay, the more one realizes that there are crucial things at work in it.

The Subtleties of Fronk’s Essay

From the introduction, one would likely not think to call Fronk’s essay feminist. She describes her immediate task there not as looking at women in the Book of Mormon, but to effect a kind of interpretive disorientation. She explains:

Perhaps one of the greatest deterrents to effective scripture study is the pattern of reading verses in the same order, focusing on the same insights, and asking the same questions. When I have considered a different perspective in scripture study, I have nearly always discovered new insights, almost as though supplemental verses had been added since my last reading. I found myself asking questions I had not considered and seeing connections I had not recognized.

When reading 1 Nephi, one might profitably consider the eight-year wilderness experience through the eyes of the women in Lehi’s company. Because 1 Nephi was recorded by two men (Lehi and Nephi), we naturally encounter their faith and sacrifice on every page. The women, however, are not nearly as visible as the men, and their voices may initially appear muted or feeble.

Note that Fronk here comes to rather than begins with what might be described as feminist concerns. A feminist interpretive approach is for her a tool or instrument—a means, but not to the end of gender equality; to the end, instead, of shaking up complacent interpretation of scripture. So she says. But the rest of the article—and particularly the conclusion—suggest that her concerns are actually more overtly feminist, though more in the loyalist than the rejectionist or revisionist vein. In her conclusion, for example, Fronk states:

Equality of the sexes, without duplicating each other’s responsibilities, is further acknowledged in the wilderness saga of 1 Nephi. Women were neither superior nor inferior to men, but contributed female strengths that complemented men’s talents, making everyone stronger. In context, we see that the women’s God-given capacity, both physical and spiritual, enabled them to accomplish whatever the Lord required. Nephi issues the same assurance to anyone who desires similar strength: “For he that diligently seeketh [the Lord] shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost, as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as in times to come” (1 Nephi 10:19; see also Alma 32:23). While cultural lenses may cloud the clarity and hide the deeper meaning of truth, to those willing to listen, God speaks through prophets who boldly proclaim that “he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; . . . and all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33).

The language here is unmistakably feminist.

As the title of her piece suggests, Fronk sets at the heart of her argument the story of Sariah’s “epiphany”—that is, the experience, recorded in 1 Nephi 5, through which Sariah comes fully to believe that her husband, Lehi, is a prophet. The logic of that narrative underpins everything Fronk has to say: It begins with man and woman at odds, each driven by concerns irreconcilable with those of the other; it culminates in a scene of full reconciliation, expressed not only in the actually quoted words of Sariah (“now I know of a surety,” etc.), but also in the narratively provided words of Nephi (“they did rejoice exceedlingly”; “they gave thanks,” etc.). By voicing feminist concerns about the exclusion of women from the Book of Mormon (like Sariah voicing her complaints against her “visionary” husband), but then by allowing the book to respond to her in a comforting way (like Sariah’s listening to Lehi’s attempts to “comfort” her), Fronk finds that she can unite with the Book of Mormon and proceed without doubting its divine nature (like Sariah’s union with Lehi).

This is interesting and very nicely done. But it hangs on a detail that is too easy to overlook, one that Fronk, though, catches in a roundabout way: “But the fact that Sariah desired repeated reassurance indicates that Lehi’s powerful testimony, though comforting, was not enough to deal with the threat of the potential loss of her sons (see 1 Nephi 5:1, 3, 6).” Fronk’s statement here is based on a small point of speculation, namely, that Sariah’s complaints were voiced “a number of times.” That is possible, but it isn’t the only possible reading of the passage. Nonetheless, it does at least capture the spirit of the passage, since it seems clear that, Lehi’s comforting words notwithstanding, Sariah was only really comforted when her sons returned from Jerusalem (note the parallel—and ironic—uses of “comfort”/”comforted” in verses 6-7). Is the implication that Fronk—as a stand-in for all women readers of the Book of Mormon—can only genuinely be comforted about this all-too-patriarchal book when independent and deeply personal experiences confirm for her that the book is true?

At the very least, Fronk has laid out the possibility of looking more closely at the difference between the way that men and women experience—and even gain testimony of—the deeply patriarchal book that launched and continues to underpin the Restoration. There is thus, I think, a subtle but crucial something at work in Fronk’s study of women in First Nephi. It might all too easily appear to be a kind of systematic apology for the unfortunate conditions Nephite women endured—explanations about how things “just were” in the ancient world, apologies for the remarkable absence of female characters, etc.—but it is actually much more interesting and potentially important a piece than just that. It is loyalist, but—as in every other case here—with a twist. There is in Fronk’s piece a tacit suggestion regarding what the nature of Mormon feminism should be, a subtle hint that the question of “women and the Book of Mormon” should be less a question of “women in the Book of Mormon” (cast in whichever of the three categories of feminist criticism) than a question of “women reading the Book of Mormon” (a more explicitly existential question). This, at any rate, seems to be the real importance of Fronk’s introduction: What she is most interested in is not the overt content of the Book of Mormon, but the work of reading the Book of Mormon.

The Effects of Displacement

Fronk never mentions Anderson or Pearson—or even the Christensens!—but it is possible to interpret her displacement from substantial content to existential encounter as grounding a crucial critique of her feminist forebears. By asking how the Book of Mormon can be encountered by a women—and especially by finding within the book a narrative that models that encounter, or even that constructs the feminine reader—Fronk implicitly suggests that the studies of Anderson, Pearson, and the Christensens betray an over-seriousness about the static meaning of the Book of Mormon. What matters for Fronk is not to secure an incontrovertible interpretation of the Book of Mormon—one that would, in its inviolability, force everyone (and especially, eventually, the Brethren) to see that things need to change. Rather, what matters for Fronk is the always-open possibility of reading the Book of Mormon a new, of allowing the book to speak differently than it has before. Thus for Fronk, one might say, not only the loyalism of the Christensens but also the rejectionism of Anderson and the revisionism of Pearson remain trapped within conservatism. Now, it is certainly true that Anderson and Pearson offer non-conservative interpretations of the Book of Mormon. But the twists each of these feminist readers offer on their respective traditional biblical categories of feminist interpretation are actually symptoms of a concession to conservatism: Anderson, rather than fully rejecting the Book of Mormon, holds to it in the hopes of using its normative status to feminist advantage; and Pearson, rather than scouring the book’s pages for a model of subversive femininity, has ultimately to suggest that it was faithful Mormon himself who had something to say about the validity of the feminist project.

But Fronk’s essay also offers a twist on a traditional interpretive category. But here again there is a bit of a surprise. While Anderson and Pearson ultimately offer conservative twists on otherwise non-conservative interpretive projects, Fronk offers a non-conservative twist on an otherwise conservative interpretive project. Taking up something like the Christensens’ straightforward loyalism, but then displacing the question of interpretation from content to encounter, Fronk opens up what might be a deeply radical possibility for feminist interpretation of the Book of Mormon. Radical? Rather than trying to find in the Book of Mormon some kind of latent sexual equality (Pearson and the Christensens in different ways), and rather than trying to use the Book of Mormon in a rejectionist gesture to promote an agenda of equality (Anderson), Fronk asks what it means to read as a woman, assuming gender equality. Recognizing the lack of sexual equality in the book, and further recognizing how difficult it would be to use the book to further an agenda, a Fronkian reading of the Book of Mormon takes the feminist question as settled and proceeds to the task of making sense of what it means to experience scripture as a woman. If more of this kind of reading were to be undertaken, I wonder what might be found in the Book of Mormon, how it might be counter-read and counter-interpreted, how it might give us to understand its very “doctrines” differently, etc., etc., etc.

But there are, of course, some important concerns to be expressed here as well. Is it a good idea to take the feminist question as settled? Is there anything in existence like the sexual equality Fronk seems to take for granted? Certainly, much in the way of gender equality has been achieved, but not enough. I do not here have reference to the status of women and the priesthood, because I have nothing invested in that debate: I’m quite happy to let happen whatever happens. But I do have reference to other instances of sexism that prevail in the everyday dealings of the Church: bishops who will trust a husband over a wife when an accusation is made (not only have I witnessed this personally, but the fact that Elder Scott had to say something about it in General Conference suggests that it is a common problem); trite, condescending lessons for young women (anyone can witness this personally by looking at the manual or by entering most any young women classroom, but this is also something recognized on Temple Square: in response to an e-mail about the Church’s website, my wife recently received a word from Curriculum explaining that it is well recognized that the YW manual needs to be updated, but that there are no announced coming changes); devastating mistrust of divorcees (I don’t know that this even needs a parenthetical comment); and on and on. Much has been accomplished, yes, but more needs to be accomplished. Can a hermeneutical project like Fronk’s help at all in such a venture?

Conclusions

All four of the approaches taken in the course of the “seven years of plenty” are, I think, fascinating, and each of these studies deserves more attention. But I want to wrap things up here by asking how it is that these four studies were followed by seven years—and more!—of famine. How could these rich interventions, each of them only introductory in scope, not be followed up, worked out, and furthered? Where are all the feminist interpreters of the Book of Mormon?

I learned recently that Feminist Mormon Housewives gets a half a million hits a month. I learned also that that website is being recognized outside of Mormonism as a kind of center of struggle for Mormon feminism. Professors teaching university courses on Mormonism, on history of Christianity, on women and religion, show their students that site to let them know that, despite the concern that Mormon women are oppressed, there is a flourishing community of Mormon feminists who are not being ecclesiastically disciplined. I find that fascinating. But I find the enormous lack of feminist scriptural interpretation in the FMH crowd to be disappointing. We have more feminists—and especially more feminists who aren’t worried about being feminists—in the Church today that we had in the 1990s. Why no careful, nuanced, intelligent readings of the Book of Mormon from a deliberately feminine perspective? Is this a reflection of the Saints’ general lack of interest in scripture? Is it that there just isn’t enough creativity to look beyond Abish and Sariah? Heather Moore’s recent full-length (but very short) book, Women of the Book of Mormon (Covenant, 2010) doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. Enough of this famine—this famine, “not of bread, nor of water, but of [reading] the words of the Lord.”

Where are all the feminist interpreters of the Book of Mormon?

23 Responses to “Where Are All the Feminist Interpreters of the Book of Mormon?”

  1. Matt W said

    This is great stuff. I hope the ladies at Zelophahads Daughters see this. Or Julie Smith

  2. joespencer said

    Thanks, Matt. We’ll see about the other blogs, but fMh has already picked it up: see here.

  3. jeans said

    I am looking forward to reading this in greater depth – but after a skim and a glance at fMh’s conversation about it – it strikes me that the age of the Bloggernacle has given many LDS women a certain framework for feminism and for scriptural exegesis that didn’t exist when these four pieces were written – but one that lends itself not to extended scholarly (i.e. peer-reviewed, published) treatment, rather to a shorter form and a more rapid (comment-driven) peer response process. My answer isn’t that “all the feminists have gone blogging” but I think there’s something about the current climate with its rich opportunities for short-form LDS women writers (many of them uncredentialed and many of them brilliant) that diffuses the pressures that made the earlier generation of feminist scriptorians you so eloquently write here about. The circles of women writing scholarship and the circles of women being name-recognized in the Bloggernacle may overlap but are not identical.

  4. joespencer said

    jeans,

    This is an excellent point. I don’t want to say “but,” but:

    But I worry that the very format of the ‘nacle (indeed, precisely the “more rapid [comment-driven] peer response process”) seldom results in productive engagement with scripture. It is much more common to see short (i.e., two- or three-paragraph) treatments of immensely complex scriptural narratives, followed by comments only one in thirty or forty of which say anything novel about the text in question. So many minds coming together, but much more engagement with each other than with scripture.

    Of course, I need to be very clear that this is not a problem for feminist interpretation alone, but for all Mormon engagement with scripture.

    Anyway, all that “but” said, you make an excellent point, and the last paragraphs of my post are meant to suggest that FMH, for example, has done a great deal for encouraging faithful feminism among members. Now I want to see that faithful feminism do something interesting with the scriptures. I could not be more convinced that it is productive, close, and convincing interpretation of scripture that makes the world of the Church go round….

  5. Douglas Hunter said

    “Why no careful, nuanced, intelligent readings of the Book of Mormon from a deliberately feminine perspective? Is this a reflection of the Saints’ general lack of interest in scripture?”

    But Joe how many careful, nuanced intelligent readings of ANY scripture are produced by ANY group within the Church? How big is the Mormon exegetical community in total, if there can be said to be such a thing? I may be hopelessly ignorant of such things as I am focused on theology and teaching rather than academics but I am not aware that we Mormons do much exegeses at all. Its not encouraged within the institutional Church, and close readings are not part of our cultural practice, which is a shame of course. Is it your thought that feminists are perhaps better positioned or more likely to produce such work within the Mormon community?

    • joespencer said

      Entirely agreed, Douglas. Entirely agreed.

      And no, I don’t think that feminists are better positioned, etc., to produce such work. I’m just hoping to provoke someone into writing something—like I usually am. :)

      • Douglas Hunter said

        I was actually hoping you would provide examples showing how limited my understanding is. I would like to be wrong on this issue.

  6. Chris H. said

    I will no doubt jumping in on this. fMh has a few academics on staff, but it is not an academic-focused blog. This is fine. It is what it is.

    That said, I wonder if this could be part of a larger decline in critical scholarship about the Book of Mormon. It also seems that must of the feminist academic work in Mormon Studies is taking place in Mormon history.

    Long live Mormon feminism.

  7. Chris H. said

    Oh, and thanks for the lit review.

  8. Chris H. said

    Doug,

    Are you familiar with FPR?

  9. […] Where Are All the Feminist Interpreters of the Book of Mormon … […]

  10. Lynn M Anderson said

    Hi Joe,

    When I have a bit more time (whenever that may be!), perhaps I can respond a little more in detail to your article. For the moment, however, I want to say that I think the reason many people overlooked my article in Dialogue was that it appeared in the same issue as Janice Allred’s “Toward a Mormon Theology of God the Mother,” which (for better or worse) was deemed much more controversial at the time.

    Cheers,
    Lynn

  11. Lynn M Anderson said

    Per something I just posted on the related thread at Feminist Mormon Housewives (with various typos and such corrected here):

    My point in writing/presenting what I did, by the way, was to assert that none of our scriptures, be they biblical or latter-day, can answer *any* questions re: women and their roles in the (then-20th, now-21st) kingdom of God. The questions were never posed in our scriptures (and given the cultural milieu, the writers thereof could not conceive of such questions), so the answers aren’t there, either.

    The daughters of Zelophehad went to Moses to complain about the unfairness of the proposed inheritance laws, and Moses (to his credit) took their question to God. The result was a set of laws that was much fairer to women (though still not ideal). I hoped for a long time that by pointing out the dearth of answers about women-related issues and questions in scripture, LDS leaders would be moved to ask God for answers. But where no problems or questions are perceived, there is no impetus to seek for answers, so I’m still waiting. And I fear that there are a great many systemic factors that hinder any such revelation (“seniority” being foremost among them).

  12. Lynn M Anderson said

    PS: I strongly encourage anyone interested in feminist exegesis and hermeneutics to look at the list of references I provided at the end of my Dialogue article (viewable as a PDF from dialoguejournal.org: just do a search for “Lynn Matthews Anderson”; it’s in vol. 27 no. 2, 1994). Feminist biblical scholars such as Judith Plaskow and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (among others) have provided an *excellent* framework on which to build a similar body of work for latter-day scripture.

  13. Kevin Christensen said

    Very interesting observations.

    As feminist resources for Book of Mormon readers, I’d also recommend Alyson Von Feldt’s Occasional Paper essay “His Secret is with the Rightious: Instruction Wisdom in the Book of Mormon”,

    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/papers/?paperID=9&chapterID=74

    and Daniel Peterson’s Nephi and His Asherah

    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=9&num=2&id=223

    And Ariel Bybee, A Woman’s World in Lehi’s Jerusalem

    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=2&chapid=24

    Camile William’s Women in the Book of Mormon:

    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=11&num=1&id=297

    Personally, I think that pointing out that Mormon and Moroni were military men is more a matter of setting realistic expectations than defending militarism as such. I think it was Williams that points out that in the Book of Mormon the treatment of women appears as a barometer of the spiritual state of a culture at any given time.

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

  14. joespencer said

    Thanks for chiming in, Kevin. (We’re 40% of the way to having everyone talked about in detail chime in on this! :)

    I agree these are important resources. I mention Williams’s piece in the original post, and I seriously considered including discussions of both Peterson’s and Bybee (Laughton)’s piece. I’m not, however, at all familiar von Feldt’s study, so my thanks for the notice. I’ll take a look.

  15. jennywebb said

    Joe, you always do a great job contextualizing conversations such as these—thanks. I keep writing responses to your question, but they just sound like excuses once I get them typed out.

    I do find it interesting that much of the rhetoric of current mormon feminism circles around what I would consider to be social/cultural/policy issues rather than textual ones. The problem, it seems to me, is that such issues require a feminist textual framework or foundation in order to reference their discussion in a more productive manner. In other words, I’m not sure there’s much headway for any type of institutional or cultural change without some of the theoretical textual thinking being done first.

    How about this: you work on the thinking and I’ll jump in once the hard work’s done :)

  16. joespencer said

    On it! :)

  17. […] work in his series here (as well as his thoughts on Book of Mormon feminist readings here) issues a challenge, I think, to those of us who call ourselves both feminist and Mormon. Perhaps […]

  18. […] it be, as has been suggested by others (whose work is described here), that the destruction of the Nephites was a consequence of how the fathers treated their wives and […]

  19. […] up on my provocation/study from some weeks ago (see here), I’ve been invited to write, in the form of a series of guest posts, something of a start in […]

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