This collection of essays based on the interviews in the Claremont Oral History collection is well worth reading for anyone who wants a better understanding of modern LDS women.
The Claremont Oral History collection consists of interviews with over 100 LDS women. This book does not consist of those interviews (I think the subtitle might be a little misleading) but rather topical essays that mine the interviews for data. (You can read a little here about the oral history collection; don’t miss the anecdote about President McKay’s hair dye.) The topics addressed range from infertility to Heavenly Mother and the essays vary in the degree to which they engage academic theory and other women’s experiences. (For example, the Heavenly Mother essay explores goddess worship across cultures and times, but the infertility essay does not delve into the experience of infertility in other times and places.)
Reliance on the oral histories is the great strength–and the great potential weakness–of the book. In what I believe to be the finest essay in the work, Taunalyn Ford Rutherford analyzes Daughters in My Kingdom and finds both overlap with and divergence from the experiences recorded in the oral history project. Her analysis of DIMK is close and keen, full of sharp observations such as the fact that DIMK notes the institution of “Mother Education” in Relief Society, but not its elimination. She then shares the words of women who were interviewed, some who bemoan the end of Mother Education and some who think that there is still too much emphasis on motherhood in Relief Society today. In doing so, she not only provides a great analysis of DIMK but shows how that book does and does not reflect the real lives of real women. I appreciated that Rutherford included the voices of women who think that Relief Society is too focused and motherhood and not focused on it enough. It left me feeling that she was not cherry-picking from the interviews to select excerpts that conformed to a pre-determined narrative.
I can’t, however, say that for all of the essays. For example, in the essay titled “Motherhood,” Allison Keeney and Susan Woster present a range of women–some who work outside the home and others who do not. But nearly all of the experiences recounted are positive (that is, the woman feels good about the decision she has made) and non-judgmental (that is, the woman does not criticize women who make a different choice or themselves feel criticized for their choices). I was left feeling that all of these women had eventually somehow found the perfect motherhood-career balance and did not experience criticism. I suppose it is possible that this is a fair analysis of the oral histories (I haven’t read a word of them outside of what is excerpted in this book), but it strikes me as pretty unlikely that, in any group of over 100 LDS women, not a one would agonize over her choices and/or feel judged for having made those choices. So did Keeney and Woster fairly reflect the interviews, or did they want to present a certain picture and find data to support it? I don’t know. Also, I felt a little misled by the title of this essay: it is not about motherhood. It is about mothers choosing (not) to work outside the home. And this left the book with a gaping lacuna. Of course, motherhood is addressed indirectly in most of the essays (from infertility to Prop 8 to Heavenly Mother to Relief Society), but never really grappled with on its own terms. For a culture that exalts motherhood as much as the Church does, it seems a shame to not have a focused examination of how the theology of mothering plays out in LDS women’s lives.
The apparent gap between the world portrayed in this essay and the world that many of the LDS women I know live in caused me to wonder to what extent the other essays were a fair reflection of the oral histories or a carefully selected sample designed to advance a thesis that the author wanted to develop. I suppose that any project of this nature carries that risk; the flip side is that the analysis of oral history interviews can, at its best, showcase a wide variety of the actual lived experience of people and give a window into a community that will be missing from its official pronouncements. The essay entitled “Proposition 8” by Anna Terry Rolapp quoted women who expressed not only a diversity of opinions on Prop 8, but a variety of reasons for those opinions as well as a spectrum of intensity in their opinions. I definitely did not get the sense that she was trying to advance a predetermined narrative but rather that she was presenting the whole enchilada.
As with any essay collection, there is some unevenness in both form and quality. The best essays in this collection clearly present church teachings on a topic, show how they change over time, and then present a spectrum of women’s opinions about and experiences with the topic, all the while succinctly engaging with the various academic literature on the topic. It isn’t easy. But some of these essays are spectacular and the very worst ones are only middling.
I’d recommend this book to anyone who plans on doing academic work on 20th or 21st century LDS women or LDS Church teachings about women. I’d recommend it for anyone with a personal interest in those topics. There are some very good personal stories (see: stake president’s reaction to boudoir photography project and how to avoid turning in your money if your Relief Society budget is getting correlated out of existence) and wise words in these oral histories. And if your book group picks this, you will not lack for interesting items to discuss.
Notes: This book was published by Kofford Books. If you want to buy the Kindle version, you have to buy it in three separate parts. My understanding is that they do this as a way around Amazon’s byzantine royalty structure. I can respect that, but it also leads to some confusion. For Kindle readers, know that the lengths of the actual, readable text (not the back matter and ads) for each part are 2423, 1801, and 2546.