Late last week LDS Newsroom announced that the promised Relief Society history, Daughters in My Kingdom, was ready for distribution and would be mailed to English-speaking Church units this week, with work proceeding to translate the book into some 25 other languages. As the book is distributed in the next few weeks there will undoubtedly be much Bloggernacle discussion.
This is my first attempt at – what? Not a review, or even a preview, because I haven’t seen the book and know no more about it than what has been publicly reported. Let’s call it an exercise in forecasting what’s coming, and an exercise in revising expectations that, before Friday, I hadn’t even realized I had formed. When the book is in hand and can be given a legitimate review, I will be overjoyed to correct anything I prematurely and wrongly assess here.
As I wrote to a friend over the weekend, my reaction upon reading the press release was that I “was so disappointed that I curled up in my rocking chair and cried until I couldn’t cry any more.”
I hadn’t expected the book to be a scholarly history of Relief Society, to address women’s issues in an academic way, to explore the place of a single woman in a married church, to contrast the historic opportunities of Mormon women with those of the surrounding society, or to examine what it was like for 19th century Mormon women to bear their children on the underground or, even if they were in monogamous families, to cope with the pressures of a community steeped in plural marriage. I didn’t even expect it to be a traditional history – Sister Beck had already warded off that expectation with her April Women’s Conference talk: “[I]t’s not so important to have a linear historians[’] history in the Church.” Never mind that it’s important to me to have a “linear historians’ history” – I’m used to being the odd woman out, with needs that don’t mesh with the only demographic the Church cares about, and I’m used to finding my way on my own without much help.
But I did expect, I think, a narrative history that told us about the role of women in God’s plan, and in the Church, and how the sisters of the Relief Society of the past had lived those roles, models for us as we live an updated version of mortality.
Not long after last fall’s General Relief Society meeting when the history was first publicly mentioned, a reader asked me “which parts of Relief Society history we were supposed to focus on, and what we were supposed to learn from them?” My response to her, typing even as I thought about it for the first time, was:
I think Sister Beck and her board would probably want us to understand — really understand, in a visceral way — that Relief Society isn’t just a class we go to on Sunday to keep us off the streets while the menfolk are in priesthood meeting. I think they’d want us to know that Relief Society wasn’t a routine thing for every woman, that they joined the Society voluntarily because they wanted to serve.
To know that would require us to know about all the things they did outside of Sunday worship — the relief of the poor, nursing (both in families and on a larger hospital scale), hands-on work of creating clothing and blankets and food, perhaps the social work of improving their communities (anti-fly campaigns, beautification campaigns, improvements to sanitation, nutrition, families in crisis). They might want us to learn about how Relief Society brought a measure of education to women who often had only a scanty district school education and spent the rest of their lives on farms — Relief Society brought them elements of culture in the way of music and literature and history and current events that nobody else was providing for them. Maybe they’d want us to see how those sisters looked out for other women — fought for their rights in the world, provided restrooms (safe havens, not merely toilets) for women who came to the larger towns for shopping and needed a place to get off the street for an hour, and provided an employment bureau and safe temporary living quarters for girls coming to the city to find work.
I hesitate to think the modern leaders would care that we know those facts just for the sake of knowing facts, but because of what those events of the past stand for: Women can do more — for themselves, their families, the church, and their communities — than we often make the effort to do, and it’s our privilege to look to our sisters of the past for models of how they improved their world, then go and do likewise.
After reading the press release, I think I was way off base in my assumption. Instead of telling us our history, letting it speak for itself, and having it model for us how earlier women of faith faced their lives and, therefore, how a contemporary woman might face her individual circumstances, I think this book is written 180 degrees in the other direction. Sister Beck calls it “message based,” and the press release says it is “organized by themes.” From that, I expect this book will be like all other manuals produced by the Church in this generation:
Rather than narrating our history and letting it speak for itself, I’m guessing that each chapter or lesson or section (however it’s divided) will be written to teach one aspect of the gospel that Relief Society leaders have decided women in the Church need to focus on. We’re familiar with this approach in our Sunday School manuals – a few minutes’ survey of any manual lets you pick out the standard faith lesson, standard family lesson, standard tithing lesson, standard obedience lesson, and the other three dozen standard topics that are covered each year – the same lessons, with a veneer of Book of Mormonishness, or Old Testamentishness, or whatever book we are pretending to study that year. We don’t study those scriptural books, letting them speak for God and directly to us; instead, we discuss the same gospel themes, with verses from that year’s scripture pulled out as proof texts to teach us the same lessons we had the year before, illustrated from last year’s scripture.
In other words, I expect that Daughters in My Kingdom will consist of a selection of the same gospel lessons as appear in the Gospel Principles book or any Gospel Doctrine manual, but with examples and quotations and vignettes drawn from Relief Society history as proof texts, instead of (or in addition to) scripture verses. Based on statements in the press release and a rereading of Sister Beck’s April Women’s Conference speech, I’m guessing that we won’t be reading history; we’ll be reading a current presentation of gospel didacticism, illustrated by carefully selected bits of history.
I can live with that. I live with it as a substitute for scripture study in Sunday School; if Daughters in My Kingdom is used as a manual in an upcoming year in Relief Society, I can deal with it in the same way there. With diligent effort, we can have some effective discussions, with a real focus on the scriptures themselves as well as the assigned gospel theme, even with a skim milk lesson manual. But as I’ve also learned from being a member of umpteen Sunday School and Relief Society classes, everything depends on the teacher, and her commitment and preparation and thoroughness and skill (and the Holy Ghost, too – but I’ve noticed that the Holy Ghost seldom bothers to put in an appearance when the teacher hasn’t bothered to prepare). There is no reason to expect that Sunday lessons taught from this book in our wards will be any more moving, any more helpful, any more applicable to our needs – to my needs, at least – than the generally dismal run of classes in our wards now.
What disappointed me, though, and what made me cry, is the anticipated superficiality of the forthcoming book. “This is not a conclusive history,” says its author. It’s to be another Church-produced beautiful but lowest-common-denominator book, “accessible to the whole world.” It is not meant to engage the mind, but is intended for women with short attention spans (“the book is designed to be user-friendly for an audience that may not read much”; “it is the kind of book [a woman] could pick up even if she only had a few minutes”). The thumbnail page views provided with the press release, and the release’s favorable notice that “every page featur[es] colorful photographs and beautiful artwork,” as well as the book’s brevity (208 pages), all give notice that the word count is low, the lessons simple and explicit, and the written word of no greater importance than the page ornamentation. Even the book’s odd size – it seems very short and very, very wide, although I haven’t seen actual dimensions given anywhere – means that it isn’t designed to be held comfortably for focused reading, but for flipping through like a glossy magazine. If you like the slick, shiny style of the Ensign, you should like Daughters in My Kingdom.
I don’t begrudge new readers, busy readers, new converts, unsophisticated readers, or any others of my sisters who need this special consideration having their needs met. I hope this book does meet their needs. If my needs cannot be met at the same time, it is doubtless more urgent that their needs be met than that mine be met. I have the opportunity and skills and access to learn from genuine, “historians’ history” what I need to learn from and about our sisters of the past. Millions of other Latter-day Saint women have no such opportunities.
I don’t need my history to come from the Relief Society General Board. I don’t have the words to say, though, how much I do need some sign from the Church that my needs, and the needs of others like me, are known and understood and addressed. Daughters in My Kingdom gives promise of none of that. For many sisters somewhere, yes, but for me, no.