“I Would Not Risk My Salvation to Any Man”: Eliza R. Snow's Challenge to Salvific Coverture
Brigham Young and other nineteenth-century male church leaders taught that men were responsible for their wives' salvation. This probably goes a long way toward explaining why the endowment ceremony, which was given by Joseph Smith but first written down under President Young's direction 35 years later, perpetuated that idea until 2019. USU graduate student Brooke R. LeFevre coined the term "salvific coverture" for this teaching, drawing a parallel with the British and American common law practice of men absorbing their wives' identities and thus becoming responsible for all their legal and financial dealings. (This, of course, is why we still have the ubiquitous practice of women taking their husbands' last names. Barf.) In a recent article in the Journal of Mormon History, she documents how general Relief Society president Eliza R. Snow went around contradicting the male leaders by teaching women that they were responsible for their own salvation. You can't read the article unless you pay $14 or have access to it through an institution like I do, but you know it's a good article because USU graduate students are very intelligent and articulate writers.
Changes in LDS Hymns: Implications and Opportunities
In this old Dialogue article that fortunately is not behind a paywall because Dialogue is cool like that, Douglas Campbell looks at some of the lyrical adjustments made to LDS hymns between the 1835, 1927, 1948, and 1985 editions of the hymnbooks. I was most surprised to learn that the compilers of the 1985 edition bothered to change many instances of male-centric language - that is, using terms like "man", "men", "brothers", and "sons" to refer to the entire human race - to gender-neutral language. I was surprised because of course male-centric language remains ubiquitous throughout the hymns and our scriptures, and since we like to sound spiritual by quoting or paraphrasing hymns and scriptures, it has a big influence on our speech patterns within the Church even though nobody in the real world talks like that anymore. But if people noticed and addressed this issue in 1985, they certainly will all the more in the upcoming edition, so that's great. This issue wasn't on my radar whatsoever when I gave feedback on the hymnbook in 2019. I'm glad we're not all depending on me.
It also occurs to me that there's actually no reason at all why the male-centric language in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants - which were translated and written, respectively, in the nineteenth century (other than a couple bits of the latter that don't change the point I'm making) - couldn't or shouldn't be updated like it has been in modern Bible translations. Both have already undergone many revisions, but we're a lot more squeamish about fiddling with the text now than Joseph Smith was. If he can remove a bunch of repetitions of "And it came to pass" (yes, there used to be even more) and change "white and delightsome" to "pure and delightsome" then there's no reason why President Nelson or whomever can't change "Men are that they might have joy" to "People are that they might have joy".
A Mentor's Master's Missionary Memoir
In the USU library skimming the shelves for Sonia Johnson's memoir, I stumbled upon the Master's thesis of a Creative Nonfiction Writing teacher I had once, and read it first because it was much shorter. It was on a subject he had raised in class as well: the paucity of good, non-polemical literature about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that doesn't take a heavy-handed stance for or against. He took a step to rectify that with a little memoir of growing up in the Church, serving a mission, and losing his faith. It portrays the Church in a very human, not altogether flattering, but fair enough light. There's no sense that he's trying to expose anything or destroy anyone else's faith. That's the point. Still, I missed whatever theme was probably meant to tie all the anecdotes together. I easily got the sense that he wasn't all in, that he never had a burning testimony to begin with, but when he took a sip of beer with his friends and realized he was done with the Church and then the story just ended, it felt abrupt and unexplained. Of course, it may have been chock-full of foreshadowing that went over my stupid head.
What struck me was the number of spelling and grammatical errors - not a ton, certainly not enough to ruin it for me, but more than I would have expected in a Master's thesis. I was surprised his committee let him get away with it. I can't imagine Charles letting me get away with it. Anyway, that boosted my confidence in my ability to write a Master's thesis of my own. I don't mean this to sound denigrating to him at all - he was a great teacher and a great human being, and his writing is not bad by any means - but I feel like if he could do it, so can I. Sometimes I feel like this graduate school stuff requires me to be some kind of academic super genius that I'm not.
From Housewife to Heretic: One Woman's Spiritual Awakening and Her Excommunication from the Mormon Church
I never had much of an opinion on Sonia Johnson, a USU alumnus and possibly the most famous Latter-day Saint excommunicant of all time, though I questioned the mental health of a straight woman who grew so bored of men that she married a woman. Well, in 406 pages I could count on one hand the things I disagreed with. Of course, this is very much her personal story and as such a lot of it is subjective or unknowable by definition. I'm not qualified to evaluate the validity of her spiritual experiences or the accuracy of the thoughts, feelings, and motivations that she constantly imputes to every male she's ever interacted with. (And some of the women, too. Actually, I think she has more contempt for the Church's anti-ERA spokeswoman Beverly Campbell than anyone else. Not once in the entire book does she mention Sister Campbell's name, which I figured out from the accounts of some of the same events in Leonard J. Arrington's diaries, instead only calling her "the Chairman" over and over again.) And admittedly, toward the end I did stumble over a bit of shockingly obvious hypocrisy that I think undermines her credibility somewhat.
Page 360: "I recognized the same syndrome I had watched, aghast, in Virginia: the [Mormon] men behind the [Mormon] women, the women fronting for them... The men manipulating the women, telling them what to do and say; the women, like 'fembots,' going about saying and doing it, serving as unwitting tools of their own oppression."
Page 364: "Writing me off as a tool of the enemies of the church... is as convenient a way of disposing of me, and as often used against women, as labeling me 'emotionally disturbed.' It is highly unlikely that a man in my situation would be dismissed as merely being used by others without his understanding, without his volition. Patriarchal persons are so bogged down in stereotypes of women that they refuse to believe we can act on our own initiative out of our own integrity, as men do."
Nonetheless, her scathing observations of sexism in and out of the Church remain accurate forty years later to a far greater degree than I would care to admit. At times when her constant feminist rhetoric started to seem excessive, I asked myself, But is she wrong? I don't think she is. I do think she's emotionally disturbed, and that her state, as evidenced by her writings and political activities, has continued to deteriorate since, but she's had a hard life. The effects on her psyche of hearing adults talk about the Holocaust as a young girl during World War II, the constant delegitimization she experienced as a female teenager and young adult in the 1950s, feeling periodically depressed and unfulfilled as a housewife while her husband left for months at a time and never discussed his problems with her like an adult, then being totally blindsided when he tricked her into signing a divorce paper so he could leave her for another woman during the time when she needed his support the most, then being vilified and slandered by the religious community she devoted her life to and continued to love despite her differences - right or wrong, my heart aches for her. So does God's.
I can relate in a way to her feminist awakening because this year I had my own that's probably become quite annoying to readers of my blog. Mine was far less painful, but it's still left me with a fair amount of confusion and anger to work through. I had believed and assumed for most of my life that because God values women and men equally, the Church values women and men equally, and therefore any teaching or practice that looks sexist isn't actually sexist if properly understood. Besides, Utah gave women the right to vote before almost anywhere else, so the Church must have always been progressive on female equality. I learned that neither of these assumptions are true, around the same time I started to comprehend the extent to which sexism is woven into every human institution on Earth. Learning why most women take their husbands' last names felt like finding out I'd been eating human flesh my whole life. Sonia Johnson experienced sexism her whole life, but had no vocabulary or frame of reference to contextualize it or suggest that things should be different. She was in her early forties when it clicked. In the book she wrote a few years later, her anguish is still raw and palpable.
Sonia Johnson is an extremely talented writer, and there are so many quoteworthy passages, but only so much space in my humble little blog post. I will therefore zero in on a beautiful and funny poem she wrote in sacrament meeting one Sunday because, as the ward organist, she couldn't leave the chapel. I kind of want to frame a copy of it and give it to my bishop.
Power Play in Church
Here I am again, pouring out
to avoid being poured into, singing
to drown out the cacophony.
It's the "God's will for women" theme again
as decided and decreed by some man again
(a particularly virulent form
of hypocrisy in human males).
It is difficult to pour out, however,
as fast as he pours in
which hardly seems fair
since he is after all tampering with my life
not me with his.
Believe me, if it were vice versa,
if I were insisting that God intended
all men to be farmers because Adam
was a tiller of the soil
and any who resisted were in league
with you-know-who to destroy the family,
the nation, civilization -
If I were extolling the exquisite joys
of shoveling hog manure in subzero weather
and taking out endless mortgages
in withering heat
and from my spectator's seat
(light-years from such a fate myself)
pontificating that in these tasks
lay the righteous and complete fulfillment
of men's true natures,
hosts of embattled non-farmers would find
a quick way not only to shut me up
but to lock me up
Ah he's almost finished, dazzled by his own
magnanimity and noble condescension, awash
with zeal, unassailably righteous
and immensely comfortable
like a nineteenth-century missionary to darkest Africa.
It might smudge his shining smug to learn
that despite his dishonorable intentions
I won - I wrote louder than he talked,
and for the love I bear myself
I'll live louder than he talks
And I'll win.
Helen Andelin and the Fascinating Womanhood Movement
From the early 1960s to the 2000s, Latter-day Saint housewife Helen B. Andelin followed what she believed was a literal calling from God to share the secret to happy and lasting marriages, namely, that women should act like stupid, helpless, emotionally manipulative children. There's a word for the kind of man who would be attracted to that kind of woman, and it rhymes with "jedophile". But her book Fascinating Womanhood, largely plagiarized from a series of 1920s pamphlets under a similar title, has sold over three million copies, and the classes she ran to teach its principles have continued in multiple countries after her death. The book and classes now play a large role in the extremely creepy "tradwife" movement of middle-class white women who feel liberated by embracing 1950s middle-class white gender roles. (I mention their whiteness because a. nobody of any other race could possibly think the 1950s was a good time to be alive in this country and b. their movement is, unsurprisingly, associated with the alt-right.)
This book gives a fair and balanced overview of the history of the movement, including the factors that shaped Helen Andelin's own life and worldview. It's very obvious that she was several fries short of a Happy Meal, so I don't want to mock her for doing what she really believed was right (even though it wasn't right and made the world a worse place). I was most fascinated to learn that she made several attempts to convince church leaders to endorse her program as a solution to the members' alarming divorce rate, but they just kind of ignored her until she gave up, and that caused her a severe crisis of faith but she decided she didn't need their approval to share God's message with the world. We dodged a bullet there. Also, her philosophy has had a more subtle, mainstream, and often unacknowledged influence on many other marriage help books, including a couple you've undoubtedly heard of - Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and The Propher Care and Feeding of Husbands. The common thread running through such works is that they promote degrading stereotypes about men and tell women that all marital problems are their own fault.
It's a shame Sister Andelin passed away before someone could host a debate between her and Sonia Johnson. I would pay good money to see that.
Why I Stay: The Challenges of Discipleship for Contemporary Mormons
I also saw this one while browsing for Sonia Johnson's memoir, and decided to save it for last so I could end on a positive note after wading through some heavy stuff. This is a compilation of essays by various liberals and intellectuals trying to make it in a culture that's often very hostile to liberals and intellectuals. Since I find myself in a similar boat, I resonate with a lot of their words. I can't really do the book justice by trying to summarize all twenty essays in one go, so I shan't bother.
The Future of Women at Church: A Conversation with Neylan McBaine
I didn't read this, because it's not a thing to read, but I listened to it while doing a puzzle and I figured I'd tack it on to the end of this post rather than devote another one to it next week. Neylan McBaine is one of my heroes and I think everyone should listen to her.
"Guys. Chris's blog is the stuff of legends. If you’re ever looking for a good read, check this out!"
- Amelia Whitlock
"I don't know how well you know Christopher Randall Nicholson, but... he's trolling. You should read his blog. It's delightful."
- David Young
About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender male and a Latter-day Saint, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic, so you can't. Unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.