Thursday, 27 September 2012

A little bit of autobiography ~ Women

I've been thinking about Zoe Lambert's comments regarding autobiography in our recent interview. Zoe states,  
Of course, the relation of the self to writing is more complex than the insertion of autobiographical experiences or facts or the creation of characters of the same age and gender as the author.
I think Zoe is absolutely correct, the relation of self to writing is really complex, and it's something I've been pondering. My next few blogs are likely to be long and rambling. I'm going to try to organize my thoughts into three posts: Women, Polygamy and Motherhood *gulp*

I grew up in a patriarchal faith community. I wrote a little bit about it here.

As a child and teen I attended church at least twice a week. Men had a divine right to be in charge of the faith community and women were subject to their authority. Women who campaigned for equality were characterized as either misguided or as man-hating feminists.

The quote below is taken from an article published in a church magazine around the time of my birth (full text found here).
There is concern expressed in some quarters that the growing rebellion of youth is a logical extension of the shift toward equalitarianism. In a new way and in ever increasing numbers, the youth today are demanding a voice in education, marriage, sexual expression, and other significant areas of life. As woman challenges the authority of man, so youth challenges the authority of the family and all other related social institutions(bold added)

Just in case the above quote doesn't make things clear, here's a helpful diagram from Rodney Turner's Woman and the Priesthood, a book that was also published around the time of my birth. This diagram illustrates that face to face communication with God and woman is not possible because 'the man [stands] between Him and the woman' (p.52).

I grew up thinking it was perfectly normal for men to officiate at all church meetings. For men to baptize, bless and interview women about 'personal worthiness' (and it did get very personal). For men to select the leaders of the church's women's organization and to decide who is allowed to go to the Mormon temple. For men to deliver church discipline and act as jurors in church courts. In the Mormon church men 'preside' over women. [Preside (Verb): 1. To be in a position of authority. 2. To be in charge of.]

The above book, Woman, contains fifteen essays written by men.

Nowadays, when Mormon men talk about presiding, qualifications are made: preside doesn't really mean preside - it means something else; the fact that men have the casting vote in a marriage doesn't mean they are in charge; men and women are "co-equals" etc. In a way I prefer the unequivocal language of my childhood to the Orwellian, language-bending prevarications necessary to make this 'separate but equal' ideology palatable to women in 2012.

In a recent attempt to revisit the language and ideology of my past, I ordered a book, Woman's Divine Destiny. This book sets out the guidelines which "God's spokesmen" have given to women. I braced myself for the book's arrival. I knew it was going to be a difficult read.

The book arrived last week, a secondhand, musty-smelling hardback with a water-damaged cover.

I carried the book upstairs, opened it and read the dedication page:

I closed the book and I sat down, suddenly uncertain about revisiting this part of my past. When Woman's Divine Destiny was published I was three years old. Although it was written by a woman, the book is an exercise in justifying and upholding the words of generations of (male) prophets. Many of the women who tended to me at church read books like Women's Divine Destiny. These women loved and cared for me, they sang and played with me in Sunday School, they took me on trips and camps, and they tried to grow me into a good woman; a woman who would eventually become the kind of wife the book describes:
One should choose a mate as he chooses a shoe: if it isn't a good fit, it will be painful. If we consider this shoe-to-foot analogy, we can see the husband as being the foot, having to climb the rocky road to exaltation. A bare foot is going to find the path too painful; it needs a comforter, a shoe...

When I consider what makes a shoe truly comfortable, I see more clearly how to be a comforting wife. What does a comfortable shoe do for a foot? It supports but is also pliant. Good leather molds itself to the demands of the foot, whereas if the foot yields to the shoe, the foot becomes misshapen and doesn't perform as well. The shoe needs to do the yielding as it cushions the hard places. This yielding can be minimal if proper care has been given to the fitting of shoe and foot.

Those of us playing the roles of shoes need to seriously consider what happens to shoes that are painful. They are generally discarded and a more comfortable pair takes their place. Some men are honorable enough to endure the pain of uncomfortable shoes... But far too many pain-producing wives have learned that their husbands aren't that long-suffering, and have found how it feels to be discarded.

Wholesale Lot Steampunk Alice in Wonderland necklace pendant charm Drink me bottle vial 5ml 43 antique silver bronze brassAfter I read the above description of marriage, I put the book to one side. I sat at my desk and wondered why I feel compelled to pick at this particular wound. Perhaps, I told myself, it is because I am writing a story with Mormon characters and I need to remember how it feels to be a Mormon woman [*]. Or perhaps, I thought, it is because I am still engaged in what seems like an eternal, unravelling exercise, separating myself from the teenager who, drunk on the advice of "God's Spokesmen," gave up a scholarship at an American university to get married, work part-time in a menial, poorly paid job and give birth to 5 children in 7 years. I'm not sure. I'm not sure about lots of things nowadays. But I am sure that Zoe Lambert's observation about the complex relationship between writing and autobiography merits further consideration.

To be continued.

[*If I could sum it up briefly, using one experience as an example, this is how it felt to me: Several years ago, a Mormon man I hardly knew telephoned and asked me to play the piano for a Mormon musical production that was happening in a city 20 miles away. There were bi-weekly rehearsals and I was not offered payment for my time or expenses. Back then I had four children under the age of nine, so I told the man I was too busy to play the piano for the production. The following evening the man called again and spoke to my husband. He asked my husband to 'tell' me to play the piano. I didn't.

'Drink Me' image from UmbrellaLaboratory, a gorgeous, Steampunk, Etsy shop.

Part 2
Part 3


  1. I am looking forward to reading the continuation of this measured, accurate and thoughtful piece of writing. This is a story worth telling - don't be silenced! :)

  2. A very touching piece of writing. Your description of the' familiar' book made me cry. I packaged up a box of those yesterday. And although they no longer represent my beliefs they certainly do represent a lifetime of very positive experiences too. Both good and bad are wrapped together. I dont expect my life to be be esy to unravel and there are parts of it i don't want to lose. I look forward to reading your book and finding comfort in your journey.

  3. Thanks Jenn :)

    Yes Libby, the good and the bad are sometimes inextricable. There are bits I don't want to lose either.

  4. Carys, thank you for sharing's a fascinating insight for me and I'm absolutely engrossed.

    I hope that doesn't sound voyeuristic. It's just that I come from a very different background (third-generation atheist) and communities where faith and observance are important are a bit of closed book to me.

    I'm looking forward to learning more. Thank you again for sharing.

  5. Thanks, Carys. Articles like this really help me to relate and interact with women as equals in a saner and more respectful manner. Unfortunately, like yourselves we men are victims of the culture and brain-washing also. Hopefully as more women speak out and express their views openly there will be a turn in the tide, and the burdens of stereotyping and gender-related expectations will be lifted from the shoulders of all of us.

  6. Hi Carys,
    While I was serving my mission in Germany a lady I'd never met came up to my companion and I in the street and berated us strongly about our chauvanistic religion. I remember being very shook up by the experience. I'm sure I was quite naive back then, but was very surprised that any woman could feel that way. I had always seen women as men's equals, and more than anything my superiors. I was always closer to my mother than my Dad, maybe that had something to do with it!
    My eyes have been opened since however with a variety of views I've read from Mormon women on the internet and obviously from women in my life. Although we men can read about women's trials and listen with our ears we haven't experienced it ourselves so at very best can only imagine what it must be like.
    For my sins I've been called as second co. in a Bishopric in Austria. I'm not just saying this, but the best members in our ward are women and when it is my turn to organize Sacrament meetings I try and get the ladies talking as much as possible, including final speaker:) I'm not sure what the best thing for us Mormon men to do is, but trying to listen better to our wives, mothers (including in laws!), sisters, daughters, friends would be a good start, long (centuries) overdue. Good Luck with your writing, Peter Harbon (p.s. I'm glad you didn't play the piano.)