Margaret K. Brady, “Transformations of Power: Mormon Women’s Visionary Narratives,” The Journal of American Folklore 100:398 (Oct.-Dec. 1987), 461-468.
Brady writes, “[F]or most women living within patriarchal religious systems, … feminine reproductive goals and values are inextricably entangled with the goals of their chosen religion.” She examines personal narratives of LDS women gathered over a 30-year period, all having to do with dreams, visions, or other premonitory experiences concerning an as-yet unborn child to develop “insights into the ways in which the women themselves conceive of their own power.”
These narratives (only one of which is presented in full in the article, although elements from two or three others are briefly paraphrased; there is no indication of whether or where these narratives might be examined by other scholars) reportedly contain five elements in common: a woman considers her family complete; she has a visionary experience of a child not yet born; the child is aware that he or she is “supposed to” come to the woman’s family, and calls her “Mom”; the experience is so powerful that the woman becomes pregnant again as soon as possible; the mother determines whether or not the baby is the one she saw in vision (is it the right gender? is some characteristic appearance present?), and if this is not the foreseen child, the mother is so convinced that there is yet another child waiting to come to her family that she immediately plans another pregnancy.
Brady theorizes that these experiences are repeated within Mormonism because of the centrality of the family, the doctrine of premortal existence, and the concept of personal revelation. All these doctrines are loosely enough defined that they allow a woman to interpret her experiences to her personal advantage — that is, she can see them as confirmatory of a personal life mission, and, according to Brady, grant herself status within the Mormon community, “for one who has experienced a personal revelation is clearly marked as a spiritual individual.”
The women in Brady’s narratives have also, almost to a woman, previously decided that they will bear no more children, for what most of us would consider entirely valid reasons, and yet feel guilty for their decisions.
The visionary experience delivers a woman from the throes of guilt, uncertainty, and the necessity of constantly justifying her decision both to herself and to others. She no longer has to decide; Heavenly Father has so clearly spoken the decision for her — through the voice of her own child. At the same time, He has touched her personally, marked her as spiritually worthy — and all this at a time when she most questions her own spirituality because of the guilt of the former decision not to bear children.
Brady reports her narratives were told as personal experiences in Relief Society meetings, over the pulpit in testimony meetings, or in classes for young adults. She writes,
One woman who had used such an experience in a class on spirituality for teenage girls said to me that ‘in the Mormon religion a spiritual person is a prestigious person. A person who related such an experience, a ‘spiritual experience’ is the phrase used, would be special and would be thought of as righteous and close to our Father in Heaven. Many people would repeat the story with awe and decide to pattern their lives after the individual so perhaps they too could have a similar personal revelation from God.’ The status derived from the telling invests the teller with a new kind of personal power.
Although I do not recall ever having heard such an experience directly from a woman who claimed to have lived it, I have no trouble believing that some women have had such visionary experiences and spoken about them in church settings. I do question Brady’s interpretation of such narratives as giving status within the community to women who tell of them — I can and do say “amen” following a testimony of healing, or physical protection, or divine help in resolving a personal dilemma, but I do not raise a pedestal for the bearers of such testimonies, nor regard them as more spiritual or more righteous than someone who has not had such blessing. I certainly have never “decide[d] to pattern [my life] after the individual so perhaps [I] too could have a similar personal revelation from God.”
Indeed, while I found this article to have value for presenting a new type of “spiritual experience” which I can readily accept but with which I have no direct experience, the article fails on another level. The author does not present her data and then follow it where it leads; rather, she appears to be agenda-driven and interprets her data with a predetermined end in mind. Without giving the reader any background, without discussion of the events or presentation of evidence, Brady baldly asserts:
Unlike the medieval women visioanries, Mormon women have not always lacked access to real ecclesiastical power. … Interpretations of different patriarchal leaders over the last hundred years, in subtle changes in emphasis, have continued to alter Mormon doctrine regarding appropriate spiritual activities for women. While late 19th-century Mormon women healed the sick, spoke in tongues, cast out devils, had visions, and prophesied, their modern counterparts have been barred from all of these activities except the right to have their own personal visions. The history of how these changes came about presents another side to this same patriarchal story, but what is relevant here is the fact that the only spiritual “gift” still allowed Mormon women today is the ability to have visions. No wonder, then, that many Mormon women find through the visionary experience and its narrative counterpart an access to spiritual power denied them in other traditionally appropriate arenas.
Perhaps Brady’s assertions are true, in part or in full. But Brady makes no argument which can be examined by a reader for persuasiveness (accuracy, completeness, logic, fairness — whatever your criteria are for judging the success of an argument). She merely describes a phenomenon (women’s visionary experiences in connection with childbearing), then announces a conclusion about other phenomena (women’s access to all other spiritual gifts). This was a disappointing end to an otherwise promising beginning.