Friday, October 21, 2011

A Feminist Review of Daughters in My Kingdom: Part Two

This is a continuation of my review of the church's recent publication Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society. See Part One in which I discuss how the book constructs a historical narrative to justify the church's contemporary auxiliary structure. I discussed chapters 1, 2, and 6 in detail in that review. In this part, I will discuss chapters 3-5, 7, and 10. If you would like to read my in-depth, 20 page notes on the book, you're welcome to check out this Google Doc.

Service, Service, Service, SERVICE!
Chapters 3, 4, and 5 were definitely the strongest chapters in the book and I actually enjoyed them (for the most part). They told the history of the Mormon women from 1846-1945, with a particular emphasis on the acts of service performed by Mormon women.

Chapter 3 focuses on the pioneer exodus from Nauvoo to the West. It highlights the tremendous strength of the pioneer women and how they often had to make the trek with a very low ratio of men since most of the men had joined the Mormon Battalion. It talked about how women supported each other on the plains and how they endured tremendous suffering as the result of sickness and death. It highlighted early acts of service performed by women who had just newly settled down in Utah such as making clothing for local Indians and helping Saints who were still traveling Westward.

Chapter 4 covered the period of the reintroduction of the Relief Society from 1866 to about 1910. It again highlighted the contributions of women during this period such as:
  • The establishment of the Deseret Silk Association, chaired by Zina D. H. Young
  • The Relief Society practice of saving and storing wheat in silos
  • How women during this period of time frequently traveled to the East to be trained in medicine and then worked as medical doctors when they returned to the West
This chapter also mentioned some great things like women's publications (such as the Women's Exponent and the Relief Society Magazine), women's suffrage, and demonstrations put on by Mormon women to in which they argued that they were not inferior to other women in the world.

Chapter 5 covered the years spanning World War I to World War II. It also emphasized acts of service performed by women such as:
  • Relief Societies that volunteered with the Red Cross and National Council of Defense during World War I
  • Raising money and sewing quilts for soldiers or for European families that had been devastated by war
  • The Relief Society's creation of the Social Service Department, which helped with adoption and assisting low-income families
  • The creation of hospitals by local Relief Societies, which often offered free courses in nurses training
  • The organization of the Church Welfare Program, which was run in coordination with the Relief Society
I actually really enjoyed these chapters quite a bit. It was remarkable to see the accomplishments of Mormon women throughout the last two centuries. In some ways it made me mourn how assertive and proactive the Mormon women of the past appear to have been compared with the Mormon women of today. Had the book ended after chapter 5, I would have given Daughters in My Kingdom a generally positive review for the way in which it highlighted and celebrated the often forgotten contributions of women in the past. But, alas, it didn't end there.

Service and Charity as an Innate Female Attribute
Chapter 7 marked a transition in the purpose of the book. All the previous chapters had been devoted to telling the history of the Relief Society and the remarkable contributions of Mormon women collectively and individually. But in Chapter 7, it switched from telling a historical narrative to a more didactic argument about women's divine nature and their prescribed roles within the church.

While reading this chapter, I began to suspect that this book was appropriating the history of the Relief Society for its own rhetorical purposes. Rather than just telling the story of the remarkable accomplishments of Mormon women and letting that stand on its own merit, in Chapter 7 the book began to impose a narrow interpretation of what that history meant. The previous 6 chapters of the book had been emphasizing the service that had been given by the Relief Society in the past. In Chapter 7, it began to emphasize that giving service is a divine attribute of being female.

Here's a few quotes from the chapter that caused me to get that vibe:
  • "Visiting teaching has become a vehicle for Latter-day Saint women worldwide to love, nurture, and serve---to 'act accoding to those sympathies which God has planted in your bosoms,' as Joseph Smith taught" (112).
  • President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a counselor in the First Presidency, said: 'You wonderful sisters render compassionate service to others for reasons that supersede desires for personal benefits' " (112).
Then in chapter 10, my suspicions were confirmed when the rhetoric about womanhood and service became much more overt. Notice the repeated assertions in from Chapter 10 that service and charity are innate female attributes:
  • "[S]isters in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been taught to live up to their divine potential by fulfilling God's purposes for them. As they come to understand who they really are---God's daughters, with an innate capacity to love and nurture---they reach their potential as holy women. With charity in their hearts, they fulfill the purposes of Relief Society" (171).
  • "The Lord has endowed women with an innate desire to serve and bless others" (171).
  • Quoting Elder Russell M. Ballard, it states that women have "an innate tendency to put the well-being of others ahead of [their] own" (172).
  • "The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, 'It is natural for females to have feelings of charity' " (172).
  • "For true charity to blossom in their hearts, women must combine their innate compassion with faith in Jesus Christ" (173).
I think that on the surface level, the authors of this book (who, incidentally, are unknown to us) probably imagine that these kinds of statements are a way of praising women. After all, it's a rather high compliment to say that women, by their very nature, have an innate capacity for charity, the "pure love of Christ" (Moroni 7:47). Service to others is always considered a noble act---so to suggest that service is an innate female quality is somewhat ennobling, right?

Unfortunately any kind of essentialization of gender is bound to be problematic. While I feel that giving service is very noble in and of itself---and I really do want to applaud the sacrifices Mormon women have made in service to others---I worry that the suggestion that charity is an innate female trait is very problematic. The word "service" comes from the Latin word servitium which means "servitude" and "slavery." It's closely related to the word "servant." And so, to suggest that a desire to serve is an innate female trait feels dangerously close to suggest that it's a woman's innate role to serve everyone, to put selflessly put everyone else's needs before her own.

I don't think that suggests a very healthy role for women. In those kinds of statements, I don't hear any acknowledgment that a woman should set reasonable boundaries for what she will or will not do for others (in order to avoid being taken advantage of or to be abused by others). I don't hear any acknowledgement that a woman should freely choose to serve others (as opposed to doing it out of a sense of duty or obligation). I don't hear any acknowledgement that some women may not find personal satisfaction in service to others and that she should be free to choose that lifestyle or find some other path to fulfillment if she will. In short, let's allow each woman to individually define her purpose in life for herself.

When I finished Daughters in My Kingdom, I created this image to express the way I felt about it:

I just felt that the whole book was a way of allowing male General Authorities to ventriloquize women and femininity rather than let women define their own femininity for themselves. And the leaders of the church ventriloquize womanhood because it ultimately serves them---by reinforcing the system of patriarchy.

For a more eloquent exploration of this problem, check out the Mormon Matters Podcast about motherhood.


I have more I could say about Daughters in My Kingdom, but I'm ready to move onto thinking and writing about other church-related things. So we'll just leave it at that. Feel free to check out my Google Doc if you want more of my thoughts on the whole thing.

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