By Margaret Toscano
Or download the audio file here: Heavenly Motherhood: Silences, Disturbances, and Consolations
It was many years after I embraced feminism in the 1970s before I felt drawn to the Heavenly Mother, before I felt any emotional connection to even the idea of her. Priesthood first stirred my desire, a desire to be endowed with the power of God. To be imbued with the light and love of God’s spirit seemed a reasonable spiritual goal for an eager student of the scriptures, for someone seeking after righteousness, as I was in my twenties and thirties. Shouldn’t a person want to reach for the faith of Abraham? Little did I realize how audacious my spiritual yearnings were—until I was set straight by male priesthood leaders. Of course by that time, my feminism had taught me both to critique power and to claim it—which is one reason it was more difficult for me to claim the Divine Mother as an embodiment of my spiritual ideal, since there are notable ways in which LDS iterations of the Divine Mother lack power. But I know there must be other reasons too, and I have often pondered what they might be, since I like being a mother and grandmother very much. And I try hard to do a good job, though I don’t see myself as any kind of model. I often feel my children have done more for me than I for them.
There seem to be at least two major reasons why I have been put off by motherhood—heavenly or earthly: first, my ambivalent feelings about my own mother have always made me feel less than enthusiastic about motherhood as some exalted status; and second, motherhood is defined in Church discourse in such a way that it becomes the sum total of a woman’s identity. She is to be a mother first, even if she is not literally a mother.1 All other aspects of a woman’s personhood, all of her talents and desires, are to be subordinated to that one role. And that role is defined so narrowly that it feels only superficial, sentimental, and saccharine in the worst kind of way, where sweet ideals are used to control women’s behavior and to encourage women to use control on others, manipulating to get their way indirectly.2 Women mostly have been made to bear the burden of everyday care: the grunt work of cleaning, food preparation, childcare—the burden of always being required to do the kind of service work necessary for any home or business to function well. Now, I believe I should do my fair share of jobs like cleaning the toilet, but I also have a lifelong fear of being so overwhelmed with such mundane tasks that I will never have the energy left to think or write or produce anything else worthwhile.
It was a long process for me to connect with the Heavenly Mother. I had to start first by admiring other aspects of the Feminine Divine. I found myself attracted to pagan goddesses—their pictures and stories and images: I love Inanna, Isis, Aphrodite, Athena, and Demeter—goddesses of wisdom and love and power. (It should be no surprise that I do not connect much with Hera, the jealous goddess of marriage, or Hestia, the goddess of home and hearth.)3 The next step for me was to allow myself to feel angry at my own mother for the way she gave up her personhood, the way she retreated to her bedroom in defeat.4 And I had to acknowledge my anger at the Heavenly Mother too; it felt like she had abdicated her place, just like my own mother. Then finally I had to allow myself to feel the full weight of my anger against the patriarchal system that set both my mothers up for failure, the system that undergirds not only the Mormon religion but every aspect of a culture that privileges maleness. I did not really do this until after my excommunication in November, 2000.5 I did not realize how much I had preferred the male god and male hero figures, how I had subconsciously blamed women for their weakness, especially myself. Understanding and compassion have always been fundamental values for me, so it was hard to admit all of this anger I felt raging inside. But it has been healing to work through this anger. It has helped me feel the Divine Feminine in myself, to see myself more compassionately, and to hear the voice of the Feminine Divine in my soul. My ability to perceive the Mother God at work in the world has been aided, too, by the stories women and men have shared with me of her presence in their lives, by their visions of her power.6 It surprised me when I first began to have a fierce longing to be the Heavenly Mother’s champion, to make others see that we have as much need for her as we do for a Heavenly Father or a male Savior. I want us to acknowledge that she is as vital for our spiritual and temporal salvation as is the male God.
For me, it does not matter whether we believe literally in the Heavenly Mother or not. She still stands as a crucial symbol for the power, voice, and status of Mormon women, really women everywhere. As French feminist Luce Irigaray argues, “as long as woman lacks a divine made in her image she cannot establish her subjectivity or achieve . . . an ideal that would be her goal or path in becoming.”7 And what should this divine image look like? A Mother? Here is the crucial issue for me, the issue that has torn me apart, and that tears women apart so often: We are pitted against ourselves and each other.8 On the one hand, to accept motherhood, even heavenly motherhood, as an ideal is to acquiesce to a reduced sense of self, as though all we women are made for is motherhood, forever and ever.9 Even if we like being mothers, this can sound like a prison sentence. On the other hand, to reject motherhood as a role for women, or to see it as insignificant, is to turn against the cycles of our own bodies and against what is a life-altering experience for the majority of women who have lived. I do not mean by this assertion that a woman who has never borne a child is less of a woman—not at all, for I don’t think it is possible for a woman to be more or less of a woman than she simply is. It is just that we women seem always caught in a simplistic and false dichotomy: to embrace motherhood and be sucked into a patriarchal value system, or to reject motherhood and thus devalue most women’s work and experience.
My underlying objection to Heavenly Mother as she is portrayed in LDS Church discourse is that she promotes this damaging split. She is used as a vapid placeholder in a system that subordinates women to men through a rigid priesthood structure that controls resources and knowledge.10 This is nowhere more obvious than in the Church’s Proclamation on the Family. There the Heavenly Mother is not even mentioned by name; she is just one of our “heavenly parents,” while the Heavenly Father’s authority is highlighted and personalized. The barely visible mother “parent” is only used to reinforce women’s one role in the eternal plan of salvation: to nurture children. I believe in the importance of nurturing; it reflects my feminist concern with putting the well-being of others on an equal footing with my own.11 Care for others and for the world around me is central to my idea of social justice. I just think men should bear the burden of this responsibility equally with women.12 But in the Proclamation on the Family, the patriarchal father is the presiding authority who alone also protects and provides, which makes any kind of equal partnership between the sexes impossible. The Heavenly Mother has no life independent of her function to promote patriarchal, heterosexual marriage and the offspring that come from it.
Silence surrounds the image of the Mormon Mother God. Will she ever be more than a reproducer of billions of spirit children or an unspoken prohibition? In May 2011, in her blog on ReligionDispatches.org, Joanna Brooks asked: “Is Heavenly Mother Making a Comeback in Mormonism?” Brooks reported what she sees as a promising loosening of the taboo against talking about the Heavenly Mother in LDS meetings and publications. I hope that she is right. But I also fear that Mother in Heaven is only re-emerging as the anonymous female parent in a patriarchal marriage meant to reinforce the Church’s conservative stand on marriage.13 I am skeptical that a lifting of silence about the Heavenly Mother is a positive sign for the improvement of women’s place in the LDS Church.
In their recent BYU Studies article titled “‘A Mother There’: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Heavenly Mother,” David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido argue that there is no official prohibition against discussing the Heavenly Mother in the LDS Church; there is only a ban on praying to her.14 The implication of their argument is that the general authorities of the Church are not the source of the popular notion that members should not talk about the Mother in Heaven because she is too sacred, but rather that this is a popular misperception that the research in the article intends to correct. In a biographical box with Paulsen’s picture, he expresses his perplexity at the idea of “sacred silence” surrounding the Heavenly Mother, saying that this concept does not square with his own life experience in the Church.
I applaud Paulsen and Pulido for speaking out and publishing on this important topic; I believe in their good intentions. I hope that their article encourages more open discussion about the Heavenly Mother in LDS Church meetings, as well as more devotion toward her. Paulsen has also written about the Mormon doctrine of a Female Deity in other contexts in ways that show that he cares deeply about the Mother in Heaven and is not apologetic about claiming this unique Mormon doctrine in front of other Christians, evangelical or mainline.15 Nevertheless, I must respectfully disagree with him. I believe that his privileged position within the mainstream Church as a male professor at BYU blinds him to both the official and unofficial practice of silence on the topic of the Heavenly Mother, as well as to the effects of this silencing that are experienced by those on the margins, especially women.16
Paulsen and Pulido are right, of course, that there is not an official statement from the First Presidency or general authorities forbidding discussion about our Mother in Heaven. This does not mean, however, that there is no official silence surrounding the Heavenly Mother. Even if Church leaders have not officially prohibited discourse about the Mother God, the absence of references to her by top leaders in general conference and other official Church venues speaks volumes to the members of the Church, who take their cues from those highest in authority.17 Leaders set policy not only by words and proclamations, but even more by example. The general authorities’ almost total silence about the Heavenly Mother is a signal to leaders all the way down the chain of authority and to members, who follow suit, since obedience to leaders is of utmost importance in the Church.
Paulsen and Pulido feel that it is significant for their thesis that they have found more than 600 references to the Mother in Heaven since 1844 in official and academic discourse. Even if these were all authoritative statements readily available to the Saints, which does not seem to be the case, still 600 references are not abundance, but extreme poverty. This represents the absence, not the presence, of the Heavenly Mother in Mormon discourse and practice. To illustrate this point, let me contrast the references to male deity in just two days of general conference with the total number of references to our female deity in the 167 years of our history since 1844. Using conference talks from April 2011, I counted references to male deity, using the terms “God,” “Lord,” “Heavenly Father,” “Holy Ghost,” and some combination of “Jesus” and “Christ.” There were over 900 such references in the five sessions of conference in those two days alone. The staggering contrast between 900 in one conference and 600 in 167 years is a stark testimony to the difference in value the Church gives to male and female deities, and by analogy to male and female roles. And the absence of references to Heavenly Mother indicates her insignificant position in Mormon theology, cosmology, and worship. As Holly Robbins points out, even Satan gets more air time than the Mother in Heaven.18 And what we emphasize shows what we value. We are more concerned with the negative power of the Devil in our lives than the positive power of the Heavenly Mother. Even when leaders do talk about her, they almost never stress the magnitude of her work among us, or even that she is working for our salvation. Rather, she is put forth as a model of motherhood to reinforce this role for women.
Significantly, at certain points in the April 2011 general conference where it would have been natural for a leader to mention the Heavenly Mother, or at least the heavenly parents, there was an absence. Elder Quentin Cook gave a talk called “LDS Women Are Incredible!” where he makes the following statement: “Women are daughters of our Heavenly Father, who loves them. Wives are equal to their husbands. Marriage requires a full partnership.”19 I wonder how many noticed the irony of the juxtaposition of his sentences. If marriage (to say nothing of parenting) requires full partnership, then why not emphasize the partnership of the Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother? Why doesn’t the Church tell the girls and women to repeat the statement, “We are daughters of our Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother” if partnership in marriage and childrearing is so important? To say that there is no prohibition against discussing the Mother in Heaven overlooks actual practice in the Church, on both a general and local level. The deafening silence of leaders on the topic of the Heavenly Mother amounts to an unofficial prohibition. And the absence of the Divine Mother reflects the value Church leaders place on women themselves and the Church’s reductive view of what motherhood means. Like the Heavenly Mother, Mormon women should be silent, hidden from public view, and have no part in governance.
The Church’s position is also evident on the official lds.org website. When I began researching my ideas for this piece in July 2011, I perused the Church’s website to see if there would be any acknowledgment about the Mormon Heavenly Mother doctrine. On the initial page, there were flashing pictures with captions that emphasized three Church doctrines: “God Is Our Father”; “The Way of the Disciple,” focusing on the gospel of Jesus Christ; and “Make Time for the Temple,” emphasizing the eternal nature of the family. After clicking on “God is Our Father,” I found sub-headings with hyper-links to further discussions, such as “Our Heavenly Father’s Plan,” “We Lived with God,” and “We Can Live with God Again.” Among all of this, in small letters, was the statement, “All human beings are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and each has a divine nature and destiny.” There was no link explaining more about these “heavenly parents.” An important part of these web pages about God the Father was a series of pictures of members from all over the world with their testimonies about the reality of Heavenly Father and their gratitude and love for him. Not one of them mentioned “heavenly parents,” let alone the Heavenly Mother, though they talked about being literal children of God.
All of this evidence points to the fact that the official Church has indeed taken a stance about the Heavenly Mother. Silence about her implies at least an unofficial prohibition. And yet, by arguing that there is no such official position, Paulsen and Pulido divert responsibility away from the general authorities. The conclusion seems to be that it is not our highest leaders’ problem and that they do not need to address the issue of the “sacred silence” about the Heavenly Mother. The burden is then shifted to local leaders, implying that if a local leader reprimands a member for discussing the Mother in Heaven, he is simply uninformed, not following Church policy. Would a general authority, however, take up the cause of some woman who was disciplined by a local leader on this issue? The fact that actual appeals sent to general authorities are almost always denied, supporting the local leaders, says no. Women sense this, as is evident from blog posts where many talk about the fear they feel discussing the Heavenly Mother in a Church context, or even in the bloggernacle under their real names. This is a very legitimate fear. Just recently I talked to a woman in Orem who had her temple recommend taken away last year for claiming a revelation about the Heavenly Mother. Interestingly, this was not something she talked about in a Church meeting. She confessed it privately to her stake president and bishop after being reported by her visiting teachers.20
Insisting on silence about the Heavenly Mother is not about reverence for that which is too sacred for discussion, nor does it promote reverence for the mothering role. After all, the temple is considered sacred, but there are talks about its importance all the time and pictures everywhere to keep the significance of the temple before our eyes. Silence about the Heavenly Mother is due to her controversial nature because the idea of a Divine Female has buried in it possibilities for women beyond motherhood. The purpose, or at least the effect, of the kind of silence that currently surrounds the Mother in Heaven is the erasure of her as anything other than the subordinate parent she is currently represented as in Mormon discourse.
It is important to note that most of the references to the Heavenly Mother cited by Paulsen and Pulido occur before the 1960s. All of the LDS hymns referencing her (there are at least five) were written during that time period, too.21 And significantly, other than “O My Father” (changed from its previous name, “Invocation to the Eternal Father and Mother”), most of these hymns are not sung on a regular basis. The decreasing number of references to the Heavenly Mother over the years seems to reinforce what scholars like me have speculated about the declining discourse surrounding the Mother in Heaven: that it reflects the Church’s desire to appear more Christian, to assert a Trinitarian view of God, which the Heavenly Mother disrupts; and is also a response to feminists who see the Mother God as evidence for women’s expanded, eternal personhood.
Another implication of Paulsen’s and Pulido’s assertion that there is no official Church silencing in regard to the Heavenly Mother is that women who complain about her absence are simply trouble-makers who like to blame men.22 It says our concerns are not real, not important. We don’t need any more talk about the Heavenly Mother; there is plenty already. Therefore, if we get in trouble with the Church for talking about the Mother in Heaven, it is our own fault; we are to blame. I have actually had men say something like this to me, with the implied accusation that because they have never gotten in trouble for talking about the Heavenly Mother, the censure and punishment I have encountered must be due to what I have said about her and how I have said it, not at all the simple fact of my speaking. I admit there is truth in this assertion. Feminists like me insist that the Heavenly Mother is not simply a heavenly housewife, nor one mother among countless other polygamous wives of the Heavenly Father.23 She is a goddess of power and might who can speak for herself, who in fact speaks to her children, and who insists on the right of her daughters to speak for themselves too. Without these voices, divine and human, the female perspective is missing in the Church and women are diminished. When women are punished for speaking about the Heavenly Mother, she is punished, too, for our fates are intertwined.
Paulsen and Pulido also address the question of the role of the Heavenly Mother as it appears in official discourse. They argue that there is evidence that she is not limited to the “reproductive role.” She is a divine person in her own right. She is co-creator and co-framer of the plan of salvation along with the Father. She is also involved in our lives here in mortality. Again, I applaud them for trying to expand the role of the Mother in Heaven from the popular perception. However, note the language that Paulsen and Pulido use. They call her “co-creator” and “co-framer.” The Father is never limited as co-creator or co-anything. We do not need to search long and hard to find testimonies of his divinity, his many divine attributes, and his work in our creation, salvation, and redemption. And it is again important to note that almost all of the references to the exalted status of the Heavenly Mother are found in early sources, before the 1960s. In contrast, most of the more recent references found by Paulsen and Pulido do not even speak of the Heavenly Mother directly, but rather indirectly as one of our “heavenly parents,” as seen in the Proclamation on the Family.24
One of the very few general conference references to the Heavenly Mother by that title was made by Gordon B. Hinckley during the 1991 general Relief Society meeting. The main purpose of his remarks was to emphasize the inappropriateness of praying to the Mother in Heaven. While he acknowledges her existence and does not directly forbid discussions of her, Hinckley does put the lid on such discussions with the following remark, which I find odd because of its mixed message: “The fact that we do not pray to our Mother in Heaven in no way belittles or denigrates her . . . . None of us can add to or diminish the glory of her of whom we have no revealed knowledge.”25 While acknowledging the “glory” of the Mother in Heaven, President Hinckley asserts there is no revealed knowledge about her. The implication is that since nothing has been revealed about her, there is nothing we can really say about her—that anything we do say is merely speculation and therefore dangerous. Perhaps other women have had this argument thrown in their faces, as I have. Its intent is to close all discussion about the nature of the Female Divinity.
Moreover, forbidding prayer to Heavenly Mother also implies that worshipping or honoring her in other ways is out of line for Church members as well. But to not worship or even show gratitude to her is to downplay her role significantly. It takes away from her divinity, and it does in fact diminish her glory, not her actual glory of course but what we attribute to her. It diminishes our view of the cosmic and salvific roles the Divine Mother plays in our lives, and therefore our access to and understanding of her. That there is a lot of nervousness not only about praying to Heavenly Mother, but about worshipping and discussing her, is shown in the 2008 Dialogue article by Kevin L. Barney, titled “How to Worship Our Mother in Heaven (Without Getting Excommunicated).” Using the biblical scholarship of Margaret Barker as a foundation, as well as the work of Daniel Peterson from BYU, Barney argues that the worship of the Mother God by the name of Asherah was legitimate at one time among the Hebrews.26 While I appreciate Barney’s attempt to legitimize Heavenly Mother discussion and worship, I think it is significant that he never quotes, footnotes, or references any Mormon feminists, other than Linda Wilcox, who have written about the Mother in Heaven. He also ignores the broader scholarship about the Divine Female from liberal feminist theologians.27 The lesson seems to be that the way to avoid excommunication is to make sure you are a male who cites sources acceptable to farms.
One of my objections to Paulsen, Pulido, Barney, and Peterson is that they further marginalize all the women who have bravely spoken up for the Heavenly Mother over the years. Not to footnote women scholars and writers is tantamount to erasing their names and work, as anyone in the academy knows. Whether these male scholars intend to or not, their discourse about the Mother in Heaven silences women by appropriating her for the male system and by demonstrating that discourse about the Heavenly Mother is more acceptable when it comes through men.28 What those like David Paulsen do not understand, or at least do not acknowledge, is that there is a deep-seated power issue involved in Heavenly Mother discourse.29 It is acceptable for men to talk about her, even in Church-approved venues, because their position in the hierarchy and the way they frame their discussion keeps her solidly within the patriarchal structure where she is subordinated to male divinities and male priesthood power in every way. Women like myself, or my sister Janice Allred, or many others, such as those in Maxine Hanks’ volume Women and Authority, speak their knowledge and love of the Divine Mother in their own voices by their own authority. The spiritual power of our testimonies challenges the exclusive hold of male leaders over knowledge about the Heavenly Mother.30
For this reason, I believe that an on-going counter-discourse to the male, Church-acceptable discourse is absolutely necessary for the elevation of the Heavenly Mother’s status. It is a way we women can redefine the meaning of heavenly and earthly motherhood. It is a way we have of expanding the roles and nature of Female Divinity, and our own too. We must keep constructing Heavenly Mother theologies that creatively help us rethink the nature of divine and human personhood.
I have come to call myself a skeptical believer. At the deep core of my soul, I believe in the reality of the spiritual world and the divine, and yet I always doubt too, in part because I am very nervous about dogmatism and blindness. Still, I must confess that I love the Divine Female even if she is a fictional character, for even as a human construct, she still has great power to shape our ideas about what women can and should be, as do all of our perceptions and images of God.
The Heavenly Mother, as I know her, stands as a reproach to the male-dominated corporate Church. She is a fierce defender of the weak and the outcast. She is an advocate for the voices of women. She comes to their aid, as seen in the reports of women themselves. She is not at the bidding of Church leaders. They may tell members they cannot pray to her, but she shows up in the name of the Father all the time—and in her own name as well, to those who dare call on it. She does not care about the misuse of her name because she is more than we can name. She does her own work. She is nobody’s baby and everybody’s baby. She cannot be used but allows all to use her. No one can stop her work. She cannot be domesticated. She will yet come red in her apparel with an innumerable company of female angels. She is magnificent, beautiful, glorious, wonderful, powerful, and abundantly divine. She is Sophia the wise, Eve the fearless, Mary the merciful. She is a Creator and Redeemer. She is the Dove, the Holy Spirit who broods over her children like a mother hen. She cares about mothering because she cares about the suffering of her children; she works for their salvation and eternal life. She is our great High Priestess. Her presence not only demands priesthood for women but equality and dignity for all her children.
The most troubling aspect of the LDS motherhood rhetoric, both as it applies to the Heavenly Mother and her daughters, is the damage it does to all women’s identities, whether they have children or not. To be told that nurturing is my one primary duty, implying I am wrong to aspire to others, feels deeply confining, so out of step with the LDS doctrine of eternal progression. I think this is an underlying, if hidden, reason Julie Beck’s talk about motherhood caused such a stir in the fall of 2007. The more obvious reason is that the language she used conjured up images of perfect moms from TV sitcoms of the 1950s, but decked out in a new church dress. She equated “nurturing” with “homemaking” and “homemaking” with “cooking, washing clothes and dishes, keeping an orderly home.” Her tone felt almost militant, as though there is only one “righteous” way to approach mothering, which was offensive even to conservative women.31
In what seemed to be a response to the negative reaction against Beck’s talk, apostle M. Russell Ballard gave his own talk about the challenges of motherhood for women in the subsequent April conference. There he asserted that, even though he has never been a mother, he knows “there is no one perfect way to be a good mother. Each situation is unique.” He acknowledged that many women either must work outside the home or want to at some period of their lives. He stressed that the most important thing is “that a mother loves her children deeply . . . and prioritizes them above all else.” He acknowledged how frustrating mothering can be, especially when children are young. He encouraged mothers to find time for themselves and “cultivate their gifts and interests.” And he ended by praying “that God will continually bless the women of the Church to find joy and happiness in their sacred roles as daughters of God.”32
I do not want to take away from the inspiration of Ballard’s talk, which I believe has been very encouraging for women in the Church and has helped them see their personal value. I agree with almost everything he says.33 Even so, I must point out, for the sake of women’s worth, that Ballard validates women within the patriarchal structure of the Proclamation on the Family, where women’s primary role is still nurturing and motherhood. Yes, they also have “sacred roles as daughters of God,” as Ballard points out. But the descriptor “daughters of God,” not even daughters of heavenly parents or of Heavenly Father and Mother, emphasizes women’s ancillary status once again. What would it be like for women and men, girls and boys, to hear other phrases spoken by both female and male leaders? To hear references to women’s sacred roles as priestesses of God, or their sacred roles as healers, or revelators, or prophetesses, or their sacred roles as poets, teachers, scientists, scholars—whatever might emphasize a diversity of roles and spiritual power?
Women’s motherhood role in the Church is almost always juxtaposed with men’s priesthood role. It is once again the reductive quality of this false equation that is so disturbing. The motherhood-priesthood rhetoric hides women’s real spiritual contributions to the Church at large because it makes their service in the organization invisible to a large degree, at that same time that the priesthood structure limits women’s organizational power that could give their service broader scope and more real power. Both the rhetoric and structure make it appear as though women perform no spiritual or priest-like functions, or that they shouldn’t if they are mothering correctly. This adds another layer of guilt to women’s already overburdened consciences. Beck’s talk suggests that if we find influence and power outside the realm of mothering in the home, then we are on the wrong track. Motherhood and priesthood are juxtaposed in Church rhetoric as though they are equal roles in both function and value, but they are not.34
Many recent talks about women’s place in the Church emphasize the phrase “equal partners” from the Proclamation on the Family. I believe this phrase is deeply deceptive (at the same time I want to acknowledge that many couples in the Church are striving to make this a reality, despite the ways the Church’s structure works against it). “Equal partners” is a deceptive phrase because it makes it seem as though Mormon women are fully equal if they are equal partners with men in the home, even if they are not equal in the public arena. Dallin H. Oaks admitted in a 2005 conference talk that the concept of “equal partners” for women and men only applies to the home and not to the Church organization.35 On one level this is obvious, but on another it is an appalling admission since it reveals the hollowness of the motherhood-priesthood dichotomy put forth to demonstrate the equally important roles of men and women. Oaks’ statement also reveals how inequality in the Church structure promotes inequality in the home too, since men are to preside there as priesthood leaders. If motherhood were really the equivalent of priesthood, then its influence would not be confined to the home. If mothers are so vital, where is the council of mothers, either in heaven or on earth, to promote nurture, care, and right relationship at every level of the Church and in the world at large?
If Church leaders really cared about motherhood, they would put their money where their mouth is. Councils of women in the Church who had real authority and resources could think of many creative ways of helping mothers with their most pressing problems, which they themselves could identify. The only suggestion M. Russell Ballard had for helping young mothers was that leaders should be sensitive about giving them too many Church callings. How about asking women what they need? They are intelligent and inventive.
If the Church did nothing more than redirect all the resources used to fight the legalization of gay marriage, there would be plenty of money, time, and energy available to help mothers and children. Gay marriage is not a threat to the family, but poverty is. There are plenty of financial wizards in the LDS community who could come up with creative corporate solutions to vexing problems. For instance, no child in the Church should be without health insurance. If we still believed in the principles of Zion, we would band together to make sure that mothers who desired could stay home with their children during their early years. We could at least insure a six-month leave.
Gay marriage is not a threat to the family, but isolation and depression are. Mothers need places where they can take children for activities with other children, as well as having opportunities to interact with other women in a less formal setting than church meetings. For years, women have been saying how LDS chapels that stand empty during the week would be great places for daycare. No family can survive without quality childcare, whether the mother works outside the home or not. With high gas prices and economic crunches, local chapels would be perfect places where mothers could meet to chat while their children played together. I heard recently that women have received permission for these kinds of weekday activities in some wards in Utah, Arizona, California, Oregon, and Idaho, where women exercise in the cultural hall while their children play nearby. Constructive ideas of this nature, generated by women’s real needs, could be a standard offering, not required but available in all areas in the Church.
Gay marriage is not a threat to the family, but violence and war profiteering are. Why hasn’t the Church mustered its resources to speak out more against war? If we really cared so much about motherhood, we would be concerned about mothers and children all over the world, in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
This motherhood rhetoric in the Church makes me angry, and I think other Mormon women should be angry too, and without apology. It makes us all feel inadequate and makes us critical of each other in non-productive ways. We need more protest because the bottom line is that this kind of rhetoric is not at all about the valuing of mothers or the mothering role. If it were, the Heavenly Mother would be more visible. The motherhood is “near to divinity” slogan that Russell M. Nelson spouted in his 1999 conference talk “Our Sacred Duty to Honor Women” is simply manipulative.36 How near to divinity? Not near enough, in my opinion. Motherhood has no divinity if Heavenly Mother is not an equal partner in the creation and salvation of the world. Motherhood’s proximity to divinity is useless to us if the Heavenly Mother is not directly involved in our lives, if we cannot have access to her in prayer.
I believe in paradox, that self-discovery is a life-long, even eternal task that pushes beyond simple dichotomies, formulas, or roles. Power is dangerous but important because it is a principle of action. In giving it up, I may find it. My worth is more than even my identity as a daughter of a Heavenly Mother and Father. God says, “I am that I am.” What an intriguing self-description! I am worthwhile because I am alive now and eternally. I have often thought how silly it is that I should give up all my personal dreams for learning and achieving so that I can mother daughters who will give up what they want to mother daughters who will give up what they want in some endless chain where all that is achieved is the perpetuation of a mindless human race and the subordination of women.
I like the line from the “What Women Know” proclamation, written in response to Julie Beck’s talk: “the life story we are ultimately responsible for is our own.” It is not just that I am more than my roles as mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend, teacher, scholar, or countless others; the truth is that I am more than anything I do or achieve or say or believe or even know about myself. Because our souls are eternal, our identities are ever unfolding in ways that we choose but often do not choose or understand. And the beauty and excitement of the journey is in the very process of discovering and becoming and desiring. Like power, desire is dangerous, but so necessary for development. I fear Mormon women and men are afraid to desire what is not prescribed. What I resist most about rigid roles and formulas of behavior, like that of motherhood, is that such constructs stop us from desiring, from longing for the unknown, from seeking the mysteries within our own hearts, and from exploring our complex relationship to the wide expanse of the universe of which we are a living and changing part.
1. Sheri L. Dew encourages this view of women in her conference talk “Are We Not All Mothers?” Ensign, November 2001, 96.
2. For a study of how this attitude is ingrained in girls culturally, see Rachel Simmons, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls (New York: Harcourt, 2002).
3. I explore these archetypes in my essay “Images of the Female Body—Human and Divine,” The Mormon Women’s Forum: An LDS Feminist Quarterly 5, no. 4 (December 1994): 1–24.
4. Part of this healing came from writing my essay “If I Hate My Mother, Can I Love the Heavenly Mother?” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 31, no. 4 (Winter 1998): 31–51. The process also helped me see that my mother’s retreat was self-protective, maybe even subversive, because she refused to fully cooperate with the system.
5. Though I was threatened with church disciplinary action in 1993, along with the September Six, my case was subordinated to my husband Paul’s for some time, so my court was not held until seven years later.
6. I have been collecting these visionary accounts for the last twenty years, which I have written about in two articles: “Peripheral Visions of the Mormon Mother God,” The Mormon Women’s Forum: An LDS Feminist Quarterly 8, nos. 3–4 (Fall & Winter 1997): 3–9; and “Movement from the Margins: Contemporary Mormon Women’s Visions of the Mother God,” Spirit, Faith and Church: Women’s Experiences in the English Speaking World, 17th-21st Century, edited by Claire Sorin and Laurence Lux-Sterritt (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, forthcoming 2012).
7. Luce Irigaray, Sexes and Genealogies, translated by Gillian C. Gill (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 63.
8. That this happens is evident in the many books addressing the conflict: Ann Crittendon, The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001); Miriam Peskowitz, The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother? (Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2005).
9. Lorie Winder Stromberg emphasized this aspect of the Church’s motherhood rhetoric on a 2008 Sunstone panel responding to Julie Beck’s controversial talk. Janice Allred, Emily Benton, Janet Garrard-Willis, and I also participated on that panel. This current article reflects some of my ideas from that panel.
10. See my essay “Is There a Place for Heavenly Mother in Mormon Theology? An Investigation into Discourses of Power,” in Discourses in Mormon Theology: Philosophical and Theological Possibilities, edited by James M. McLachlan and Loyd Ericson (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 193–223.
11. Feminism, for me, has two equally important functions: critiquing power and promoting care. When we encourage women to claim power, we are promoting their care.
12. I agree with the “What Women Know” proclamation published online in response to Julie Beck’s conference talk about motherhood; the proclamation states that nurture is about “peacefulness” and “care,” universal attributes that both men and women should acquire to be good stewards of the earth. See http://whatwomenknow.org/ .
13. In Marlin Jensen’s 2009 statement to the press about gay marriage, he suggests this is the Heavenly Mother’s new role: the “context for our being so dogged about the family is that Mormons believe that God is their father and that they have a heavenly mother and that eventually their destiny is to become like that.” See David Van Biema, Time, 22 June 2009.
14. David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido, “‘A Mother There’: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Heavenly Mother,” BYU Studies 50, no. 1 (2011): 71–97. Brooks cites this article as a sign that “the taboo might finally be easing.”
15. See his “Dialogue on Openness Theology” with Clark H. Pinnock, in Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies, edited by Donald W. Musser and David L. Paulsen (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2007), 505–550.
16. The impetus for this article began with my participation on the panel “A Material Improvement?” for the Utah Sunstone Symposium in August, 2011. Janice Allred, Joanna Brooks, and Holly Welker were also on the panel.
17. The fact that the Heavenly Mother only bears that title and not even “Mother God” or something like “Female Divinity” is telling about the Church’s view of her eternal role.
18. I have her essay “Instead of Satan” in my possession.
19. Quentin L. Cook, “LDS Women Are Incredible,” Ensign, May 2011, 18–21.
20. I have collected other examples of discipline against women that have taken place in the last year.
21. These include: “A Voice From the Prophet: Come to Me” by W.W. Phelps, December 1844; “Sons of Michael, He Approaches”; “Oh What Songs of the Heart” by Joseph L. Townsend (1849–1942); and “To Kolob Now My Thoughts Repair,” by Joel H. Johnson, 1882. These sources come from a 26 February 2007 timesandseasons.org discussion.
22. I am not implying that this is Paulsen’s or Pulido’s motive. That is not the tone of their article at all. I am asserting that others can draw this conclusion from what these authors report.
23. In the online responses to Joanna Brooks’ blog, the issue of the Heavenly Mother’s connection to polygamy was raised by several people. I agree with Martin Pulido’s response on the blog that there is no historical connection between the emergence of the Heavenly Mother doctrine in Mormonism and the doctrinal development of polygamy.
24. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism (New York: MacMillan, 1992) entry on the “Mother in Heaven” is almost the only recent and also exalting description of her.
25. Gordon B. Hinckley, “Daughters of God,” Ensign, November 1991, 97.
26. Kevin L. Barney, “How to Worship Our Mother in Heaven (Without Getting Excommunicated),” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 41, no. 4 (Winter 2008): 121–146.
27. To name just two among many: Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992); and Rosemary Radford Ruether, Goddesses and the Divine Feminine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
28. Like Barney, Paulsen and Pulido include almost no Mormon feminist work on the Heavenly Mother. Neither does David Hamblin in his new book Mary and the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: MC Printing, 2011).
29. I want to thank Martin Pulido for acknowledging my work on the power issues involved in Heavenly Mother discourse in his online response to Joanna Brooks’ blog.
30. I do not have space here to include all Mormon women’s work on the Divine Feminine, but at least the following sources should have been readily available to male scholars: Janice Allred, God the Mother and Other Theological Essays (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997); and in Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism, edited by Maxine Hanks (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992): Carol Lynn Pearson, “Healing the Motherless House,” 231–245; Martha Pierce, “Personal Discourse on God the Mother,” 247–256; Maxine Hanks, “Emerging Discourse on the Divine Feminine,” 257–296; Margaret Toscano, “Put On Your Strength O Daughters of Zion: Claiming Priesthood and Knowing the Mother,” 411–437.
31. Julie B. Beck, “Mothers Who Know,” Ensign, November 2007, 76–78.
32. M. Russell Ballard, “Daughters of God,” Ensign, May 2008, 108–10.
33. I do feel sad that male Church leaders often give more expansive and compassionate talks about women’s roles than women leaders do. Perhaps this reflects the need within a patriarchal system for women to be more compliant in order to be acceptable.
34. For a fuller discussion of the problems of the motherhood-priesthood equation, see my “Are Boys More Important than Girls? The Continuing Conflict of Gender Difference and Equality,” in Sunstone, June 2007, 26–28; and Sonja Farnsworth’s seminal piece, “Mormonism’s Odd Couple: The Motherhood Priesthood Connection,” in Women and Authority, 299–314.
35. Dallin H. Oaks, “Priesthood Authority in the Family and in the Church,” Ensign, November 2005, 24.
36. Russell M. Nelson, “Our Sacred Duty to Honor Women,” Ensign, May 1999, 38.
Thanks Margaret. This is a worthy gift for and on behalf of LDS women everywhere. I find your description of the problems inherent in current official and non-official discourse about HM to be powerful and penetrating, though I think you may have gone slightly too far in asserting that LDS motherhood rhetoric is “not at all about the valuing of mothers” or that it is “simply manipulative”. Still, I get your essential point. I have written a critical review of Paulsen and Pulido’s article at FPR: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/2011/09/critique-of-paulsen-and-pulidos/
and my encounter with biblical and ancient Israelite evidence for goddess worship at Exponent II, fall 2010: http://www.exponentii.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Fall-2010.pdf
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