Eves Dropping: Women’s Speech and Mormonism

A 3-part series cross-posted on FeministMormonHousewives.org

Part One of Three: Speaking in Tongues

 Do words matter?  I mean, beyond “carrying” content, referring to things, what is sometimes called having “meaning”?  In this brief essay I explore the intersection of speech genre, gender, and authority in Mormonism.  Big words, potentially giving us a bland essay, abstract and of vague validity; but with a little analytical framework in place, one can create a fairly simple diagram of how language and gender intersect in LDS Mormonism; or, in what I designate more specifically as Correlationism, or, even, ecclesiasticapitalism (but enough about that!).  And in such a diagram one might discover, outside existing channels of authority, opportunities to revive a religion.

 Into the early twentieth century, Mormon women sometimes, in public and during religious services, spoke in tongues.  If we can leave aside questions of metaphysics, source, grammar, and so on, and focus on the pragmatics – the effects – of these performances, some useful insights may slink forth.  “Speaking in tongues” is a phrase that describes anything from xenoglossia (speaking a known, but to the speaker, foreign language) to glossolalia (unknown language, possibly spoken by the Gibborim).  It is found in the bible, among the Gifts of the Spirit listed in D&C, said by Nephi to be taught by the Spirit so that one can sing the praises of God with the Angelic Tongues of Fire, and in a very limiting and functional interpretation, even is said to exist today (at the MTC, for example). 

 Previously, in Mormon circles a speaker would stand, unbidden and often out of place in a formal setting, and voice an unknown tongue.  Then, in confirmation of the spiritual source of her speaking, another sister might rise and display a gift of interpretation of tongues, giving the translation of the previous utterance.  Often, importantly, these interpretations had it that the utterance in question reported speech from some spiritual realm; sometimes even songs were recorded. 

 Obviously, one could not say, in Tongues, “I am speaking in Tongues!”  Rather, the awareness of formal features unique to this speech genre, say, heightened voice inflection, rapid delivery, phonological opacity, non-referentiality, delivered in “religious” spaces, were recognized by those in the audience; indeed, speakers relied upon recognition of form in order for an utterance to move from Gibberish to, say, Spiritish (sometimes regarded as Adamic; incidentally, Hebrew was regarded by the English as possibly The Adamic tongue, as later English regarded Greek and Latin, a convergence which gave rise to the learned-religious language of medical quackery in the Early Modern era, and which spreads its blight into our day).  The interpretation of tongues was required, then, and ratified the utterance as good, rather than as psychotic, satanic, or mere mumbo-jumbo. 

 Given the risk involved, it is generally true that women of high status were more likely to speak in tongues, and that their performances not only evidenced spiritual gifts, but also a hefty respect in the community: for she was rarely left without an interpreter, and, perhaps, this made some otherwise skeptical men of the priesthood rather more reluctant to denunciate the gift.  For a time.   

 Speaking in Tongues offered an alternate route for delivering revelatory speech outside any hierarchy or priesthood; though, as noted, mostly well-positioned women were found exploring this route.  Men were also expected to display spiritual gifts, particularly before baptism (as outlined by Moroni), but they could more easily fall under priesthood censure.  And, indeed, men could rely on existing venues and channels to delivery revelation in english.  So, how does this past logic of speaking, outlined in mere schematic above, compare with current discursive practices in Mormonism; with how we speak, and why it matters?

Comparisons with other cultures

 Comparisons are always helpful, and anthropologists often turn to these when addressing natives, when explaining to natives their own cultural workings.  Among the Tewa in the American southwest an anthropologist woke one morning, not to the usual male voice of the authorized town crier, but rather to an imitation of the formal features of the crier’s message, with the content being an advertisement for a yard sale.  The voice was a woman’s, who otherwise would be sanctioned for mocking the town crier, or for usurping his authority; but in this case suffered only a rush of very complimentary buyers in her front yard.  Praise singers in parts of Africa, too, take on authoritative figures by singing local gossip, yet in the parodic form protected by the tradition of praise song; often these professionals are hired, and thus, escape sanction because they are merely delivering a message, perhaps from a powerful figure; and when singing in the spirit of entertainment and tradition, they enjoy prestige rather than scorn.  Finally, our own political newsreporting culture, fearful of litigation yet ambitious to capture the spectacle of American politics, regularly relies on a sort of “he said she said he said…” to report news of ambiguous validity, without getting scooped by another network.  Blogs have, of course, ramped up this reportage of gossip by way of reported speech, and done so often without fear of litigation.  So speech genres can be manipulated and put to counter-strategies that take on and yet also evade The Man.  Formal features that make an authorized speech genre recognizable are the deciding factors here.

 My own writing sometimes strays into smart-asseries of the sort plainly irritating to certain readers who’d like me to write it straight, but who also do not find themselves wrestling with certain realities that inform my writing, my purposes, or myself.  My (my my my) recent foray into dictionary parody (called The Dictionary of Correlationism), is a way to bring out certain criticisms of Correlated Mormonism.  It draws on a long tradition of using otherwise absolutely authoritative genres, voiced from an imagined speaker of genre-appropriate vocabulary, syntax, voice, and so on.  Parody newspapers rely on the same trickery and complicity with sophisticated readers.  Satire, irony, parody: these require authoritative genres, and rely on the hearer to interpret and give the message its edge; and do so by “troping” upon style, formal features, setting, graphic design, and so forth.  Thus with help from the reader, “I” can say things otherwise demanding sanction.  By so doing one may say something otherwise dangerous, but also show that more often than not, the powerful are merely traipsing about in gowns from the Emperor’s Clothing Emporium, and easily dressed down by these same ridiculous pomposities.  Stephen Colbert, of course, is the current master practitioner, able apparently to convince many of less sensitivity to irony that his is, in fact, a right-wing voice; while at the same time offering blistering, but dispersed, criticism of the wealthy, the powerful, celebrity, fundamentalism, hypocritical liberals, paranoid America, and many others besides.

Speaking around Power: Form versus Content

 To summarize: “content,” what is “said,” referred to, and so on, can shift while the formal, “para-linguistic,” and non-linguistic features remain (e.g., poetic style, vocabulary, grammar, setting, etc.).  What is “said” thus depends on the reader/hearer as much as on the speaker; and thus, justice can be blinded, or confused, and neither party is held accountable before some tribunal of Correct Thought.  When done with care, sanctions are avoided, while truth, so often on crutches or hidden, treads fearlessly despite the threats of the powerful.  But to abandon formal features, and merely give it straight, content-wise, is to risk much; and relies on a false notion of meaning, as somehow programmed into words by the speaker/writer. 

 Another example: The Oracles given by priestesses in the ancient world provided exactly the same protection against recrimination that speaking in tongues did grace Mormon women with; protections regarded as necessary for a true prophecy.  But a true oracle also displayed the correct, recognizable formal and stylistic features of meter, diction, rhythm, and length, delivered in a ritualistic setting like a grotto, in reply to a question.  Outright oracles deemed formally correct, yet blurted out in the marketplace, unprompted by a petitioner, enjoyed far less protection.

 Imagine, for instance, a Mormon sister of yesteryear speaking in tongues, and the interpretation is later given that, “The United States will fall for its wicked persecution of the Saints.”  Such a statement (common enough, by the way) would leave both messenger and interpreter unsanctioned (by Mormons); imagine, however, if the interpretation was given, in the slow, dramatic delivery of a Shakespearean actor, “Thy Protector Brigham Young seemeth to me even backed as a weasel, yea, verily like a whale.”  Now it gets more complicated: who is at fault?  Who is that “me”?  One can imagine the apostles rallying around the president, and sending out warnings to avoid certain gifts easily imitated by Satan; but nonetheless, both sisters escape persecution, though perhaps at the price of admitting they were worked upon by a few irreverent imps.  But which sister?  A true interpretation could’ve been given of a wicked speaking; a false interpretation could’ve mangled a true, but untranslated, divine message.  The evil act was distributed across speakers, neither of whom are accountable according to the cultural standards in play.  What to do?  Here the powers are shown to have limits, and their own basis of authority and power is used to puncture whatever pomp maybe puffed up their pride to that point. 

 Grace may be found in the formality of genre, which protects the critic from a just sentence otherwise easily gaveled upon her.  Here the Word counters power, to speak more metaphysically, challenges the sort of soul sucking, life destroying power that controls and limits intelligence, and only for its own sake; and the Word counters power by distributing its assault well beyond the reckonings of justice.  Speaking in tongues requires forms, and two persons; neither person is blamed for the message.  The Word shows that freedom of speech is a divine right, not merely something given to a people.  But what happens when the Word flees?  Indeed, a people who lack facility with language – in all its craftiness and creativity – are a subjugated people.  Correlated is one possible word for that culture.  So what of current protest speech in Mormonism?  What could be done if one were dissatisfied with “priesthood leaders,” or Relief Society Presidents, or other figures officially regarded as beyond criticism?  Speak out?  But what if one did not want to be publicly sanctioned, labeled, and thus, baffled at the mouth when addressing the undisciplined Mormons who maybe regard excommunication status more damning than a warning sticker on a CD?  Next time I reply to these questions.


Part Two of Three: Genres in Mormonism

The first part of this essay introduced, by way of speaking in tongues (as an example only; though some readers may find it about as intelligible!), an approach to understanding how speech genres make possible the sort of criticisms of power that otherwise may elicit sanction.  The Book of Mormon gives us many examples of unauthorized speakers warning, challenging, criticizing, and debunking the King Noahs of this world.  But is there a speech genre in Mormonism, voiced inside Correlated circles, which provides a covering of Grace to the would-be Samuel or Lehi, so that she does not fast in flames as a would-be Abinadi?  And if not, why not? 

This question directly concerns what may be called Women’s Speech.  Aside from prescribing fashions and occupations appropriate to the respective genders, authorities also meddle in the affairs of language.  An official-folk notion is found in the Research Information Division at LDS Church headquarters: that women in religious spaces, because they are women, prefer to speak of their own feelings during discussions of scripture, history, or theology.  To share feelings, not to think.  Men, on the other hand, are said to be practical, occasionally occupied with fact and reason, and wish to apply to their daily lives what was written thousands of years previous.  These findings are, of course, prescriptive rather than descriptive; one symptom of failing power, like a dotard monarch, is to confuse the two.  And these notions of gender-driven (rather than what is in fact gender performative) speech are as insightful (and as beneficial if followed) as the popular Mars-Venus rubbish regularly unloaded on gullible Americans.  Women share feelings, men fix tools.  It is a wonder, then, that not only polygamy is no longer found among the LDS, but also human sacrifice, animal sacrifice, assassinations, genocide, communism, pacifism, vagrancy, and so on down the list of very explicitly, biblically recommended practices; all yet somehow regarded as not applicable to daily life today.  The scriptures, at least ones that I’ve read, are not entirely about self-help therapies, being nice, and following the fashion advice of the elderly.  Anyway. 

First, the official version of things: How men and women are said to speak/think (and the distinction is hardly made in the Church Office Building) does determine much of the style, intent, and direction of our lesson manuals; scripts which in turn shape much of the question-response interaction seen on Sundays.  Not determines, but sets boundaries around what is “good” and “less good,” let’s say.  For example, the rise of tattoo parlors in the state of Utah is not unrelated to the teaching that tattoos are wicked; thus rather than a predilection of Marines and bikers, Mormons were handed a new way to understand tattoos, and so, an easy (and profitable!) rebellion was offered to them. 

The same creation of sin-saintliness occurs in language, though the inscriptions are less definite, as it were; more difficult to discern at a glance.  Doctrines of gendered speech make possible the delineation of aberrant replies to instructor’s questions: too much theology, history, textual investigation; not enough about feelings, jobs, or personal life in a reply?  Be ye Anathema, Uncorrelated Heathen!  But thanks for sharin’ yer feelings.  Indeed, with ideal voices (and sometimes replies) written into scripts to be read in corporation-owned spaces, new guesses about you, and interventions for you, become possible: an onerous calling may be given in order to keep one from falling further into apostasy (which, importantly, has no fixed definition, by the way; and so can be applied by those presuming power, without regard to evidence, counter-argument, or justification).  Words can be made to say something about the speaker. 

But note especially that the out-of-bounds speech for men is mere feeling-sharing, which is hardly to hustle along to the big tent of apostasy; they may, as men, at times venture into history, theology, etc., so long as it is a passing fancy, and not a serious interest.  Whereas, for women, they venture out of bounds of their prescribed gender’s speech the instant a reply doesn’t begin with, “I feel…” or “In my daily life….”  Boyd Packer called on some sort of cultural logic in the 1990s when he classed Intellectuals, Homosexuals, and Feminists all together: all names for persons who venture beyond the correlated boundaries of speaking, where their words are not “readable” by (that is, transparently meaningful, or “literal” to) those claiming the right, like gods, to speak a religion into being.  Of course, most Mormons don’t really care, but I imagine those who attend church services are nonetheless aware of the official norms for men and women, even if they don’t perform these norms.  Though important as a standard setter, let us not confuse the official with the actual.

The boundary of unspeakable subjects is more tightly drawn for women in this official model of church-speech, though a later essay will pose alternatives to the official story.  So, while no gender is supposed to linger too long upon “the mysteries” – the term has an ever-increasing circle of things bounded only by the eagerness and power of the zealously ignorant: theology, history, literature, science… —  the timer rings rather earlier for the fairer sex.  The appropriate content of women’s speech, in the COB version of the World, is also, loosely speaking, the problem of pornography: it gazes at the woman’s body.  The difference?  One arouses men, the other is said to bore them.  So how does this doctrine of feeling-sharing – not itself a formal genre but rather a prescription of topic – relate to Correlation?

Speech Genres in Mormonism: Correlation’s influence

There are many ritualized speech genres in Mormonism, and not all are tied to gender, or space of utterance, or offices held.  Anthropologists can get a sense of existing speech genres by asking natives to name different “ways” of speaking (e.g., prayer, conversation, confession, testimony, teaching, small talk); by looking at formal features that are bounded to some ritual setting (see earlier examples); and by observing “troping” behavior: mocking, imitation, irony, and parody.  Non-linguistic features like breathiness, limp posture, and weeping (or the checking of it) mark overtly “sincere” speech among LDS (and Glen Beck’s denunciations of conspiracy, as well).  These features may also be employed when addressing one’s speech to members of that other sex said to exhibit them more freely (I owe this insight to my wife).  While such a discussion of addressee-shifting is beyond this short essay, I can say this:  observe how an apostle’s demeanor changes when addressing “the sisters.”  Note also, that addressees are prescribed by auxiliary: Relief Society Presidents address women, Primary Presidents speak to children (or parents as parents), but men of the Priesthood enjoy the widest range of addressees.  And so they shift and enact stereotypic norms seemingly appropriate to their addressees, and this little fact points up a bit of concern, perhaps demeaning in its own way, of men regarding women: of deference, and even fear, where patriarchal power is said to be absolute. 

There are many ways to perform “gender” in Mormonism, and sometimes these are entangled with ways of showing “me,” ways  of evidencing “sincerity,” or performances of spirituality.  The overriding variable in determining whether a person’s righteousness is shown in their speech?  That is “readable” from what is said: that is, in content, not form.  Referential meaning, what is picked out, the “content,” is not coincidentally the most obvious feature that carries over in translation, from one setting to the next, into print; and can be quoted without aping (or teaching), and so distributing the power of, a genre.  It can be perceived by the most thick-headed of hearers.  On the other hand, formal features of speech (grammatical, syntactical, accent, etc.) that contribute to “style” are often very difficult for natives to describe, and so, difficult to re-circulate through culture by imitation and teaching.   And it was atop content that Correlation built a tall tower from which a new Mormonism could be surveilled, rebranded, scripted, rebelled against, and made deaf to most cries sounded by “inside” voices. 

Correlation is a “content” directed movement, rather than a formal, or speech genre controlling, force.  Content was the most transparent thing to native speakers of english who directed Priesthood Correlation in the 1960s: so they started with single words, worked out the true, eternal meanings, and built “up” from there.  The logic of Correlation – to control the “meaning” by legislating the utterance of particular words, phrase, and slogans – as an informal cultural force, rather than a committee’s achievement, also gives inspiration to local leaders.  Increasingly talks in wards are mere recitations (“reported speech”) of Conference talks, with a little “how I feel” thrown in to show that one’s biography subordinates to the message.  Metatalks are safe for speakers to work with, and show submission in their delivery; and do so without exposing the possibility that one can act like an apostle (formally and stylistically), merely by acting; and thus, by acting, put into question the power or sincerity of the original speaker.  Quotation is different from replication: for those little quotation marks mean the difference between being the prophet, and following the prophet.  The speaker subordinating her voice to the apostle’s message, may not counter it nor mock it, and no speech genre emerges.  This is a solid foundation for saying the same things, for a vast monologue easily turned into a ritual performance of submission, then made readable as a sign of faith or what-have-you.

General Conference talk is a most obvious speech genre; and so, one easily troped upon for purposes of parody.  Or imitated, even unknowingly, by the sincerest at the ward pulpit, during sacrament meeting, perhaps aiming to “sound” authoritative (I’ve often wondered if “pulp it!” was an imperative uttered by the masses in the pews, which then gave us that word?).  So easily are the talks of apostles, the high counsel of high councilmen, and sing-song advice of General Auxiliary leaders parodied, that a recent email provided purported exclamations of Reece’s peanutbutter cups in the varying purple, pompous, pedestrian or pedantic proses commonly postured by particular apostles.  Bednar gave careful instruction for opening the candy, Monson an alliteration-filled tale of woe about widows wedeemed by Weece’s, and Maxwell mellifluously meditated upon the eternal virtues of their creaminess.  Let us not pooh-pooh the effort.  While a soft parody of their preachings, were one to ape the styles of apostles, say, in a sacrament meeting talk, one would find there is a very limited range; hardly beyond quotation.  Just as the peanut butter parody carried over into email, like Correlation it was content-oriented, rather than deriving its punch from formal features.  The subject might shift, and so generate the humor of the absurd: the gospel is substituted with the peanutbutter cup.  But little room otherwise is offered to those who’d employ Conference Talk to counter certain powers holding conference during Conference.  One could not turn the parody against the hierarchy without exposure to sanction, precisely because the genre of Conference Talk lacks robust formal features that can be used outside that ritual setting.

While Part Three continues this discussion of Conference Talk, let us here return to “local” Mormonism.  All the recitation and reprinting of these talks do not make up for a lack of original spirit.  Despite prescriptions to read and re-read, recite and revisit these talks, very few actual talks seem to resonate for longer than five minutes with even the most dedicated of Visiting Teachers.  Sameness is a virtue when it comes to maintaining brand identity, for sure; but merely a cover for insipidness, vacant imaginations, absence of creative spirit, and the soundings of a hollow power, when sameness is promoted as a principle virtue in religion.  An anchor in the stormy seas of this ever-changing world?  Perhaps, but anchors ought to be pulled up if the good ship Zion is to sail anywhere.  “The Church is like Walmart,” I’ve sometimes heard Mormons proclaim, intending a compliment.  Yet, a god who beautified the earth with a diversity of forms cannot be blamed, or credited with, a religion that “economizes” not only on sofas, but also on intelligence.

Indeed, all these local recitations of the titled and high officed do lobby against the development of a formal genre of prophesy in Mormonism, a genre to be invoked by those without titles, but with something to say.  But a survival of Mormonism’s days of revelation remains, even today: the Patriarch.  Not governed by Correlation’s gaze entirely (a sample of blessings is submitted by every patriarch for review by higher-ups), the Patriarch must also bend the content of his blessings to particular petitioners.  So, as Hugh Nibley once pointed out, patriarchal blessings begin with predictable forms, phrases, and the like, and this is a way to invoke a spirit of revelation that may speak with insight, power, and, even if in generalities, reliable guidance.  But such blessings are obviously restricted to a single instant, no longer appropriately imitated in other venues, and private.  Hardly a genre for revolutionaries.  What is lacking is a public, performable, content-variable genre of revelation.

So, Correlation was mainly concerned with regulating content – which emphasis predictably grew in the course of a decade to purifying propositions and assuring their truth.  Yet those who would control and create an exalted people by way of committee censure have hardly expanded their grasp beyond a few, most obvious and easily replicable, parts of culture.  Speech genres remain.  Just as language is far more than referring to things, Correlation depends on (and ignores) cultural processes entirely beyond its control, surveillance, and awareness.  And that leaves many practices, places, and spaces that can never, ever, be correlated by anyone at the Church Office Building.  Here we see a little light finding its way through the façade of their tower, and women, as Part Three takes up, may be the source of that illumination.


Part Three of Three: Prescriptions for Revival

Previously, Part One introduced a basic framework for understanding how language relates to power, and Part Two surveyed briefly some speech genres in Mormonism.  What might come of a formal genre publicly recognized as revelation, and so, wearable by anyone able to find their way into the genre?  Well, can’t we just say what we want, and leave our speech unadorned, just speak from the heart?  Share feelings?  Isn’t that sincere, and isn’t sincerity the principle virtue in Heaven?  Perhaps not.  Speech forms have power: there is, after all, a true way to pray.  Sincerity is merely a necessary, and hardly itself a sufficient, condition for getting a hearing in Heaven.   So a return to form over performances of individuality may be fruitful; may show how Mormonism might be revived.  And it is among women, I believe, that a speech genre of revelation could be cultivated.  A Matriarchal Blessing?  In public?  Of Mormons as a people?  Without being kooky?  Part Three follows that hunch.

Conference Calls

Limits to counter-speech are the result of our own native focus on content; that is, on referential meaning, on what is talked about, picked out, and referred to.  Alternately, other cultures developed rich, formal speech genres – constructed of grammatical parts, rhythm, meter, chanted intonation, syntax, context – that were part of a traditional culture passing from generation to generation.  And these genres could be used not only to create culture, but also to hold powerful figures accountable; and that holding accountable, believe it or not, is good for a culture.  Have you ever been injured by requests to justify your acts and your words? 

Indeed, there are consequences that come from giving men speech-dependent titles like “prophet” and “revelator,” titles to be carried about irrespective of actual words being spoken.  Though said by the Prophet Joseph Smith to be correctly applied only when acting thusly, “prophet” has become – since the days of David O. McKay, but also stretching back to Brigham Young – severed from action.  Such turning against the Prophet is not without consequences.  Most obviously, we developed no formal speech genre of revelation in Mormonism.  One symptom of this absence of a genre of revelation is found in Conference talks. 

Content has suffered, as anyone tuning in to General Conference can testify to, a serious diminution of thought, insight, and practical utility over the past century.  Content in Conference talks has suffered primarily because the titles carried by the speakers allow them to avoid the development of a formal genre of revelation or prophecy.  Joseph Smith didn’t have the convenience of a title at first, and so he drew from the King James Bible, then a repository of cultural authority.  That represented a speech genre with some heft.  Had he found believers before translating the Book of Mormon, the prose style would’ve been rather different, perhaps.  Brigham Young, however, does not pepper his speech with the phrasing, quasi-archaic forms, and care of the Prophet: he had the title, and so could be “folksy” and sermonize as one of the people.  

The title “prophet, seer, revelator” makes a hierarchy explicit, even while allowing its bearer to posture as a commoner.  While nineteenth century prophets seemed concerned with actual prophecy, and actually labored with their hands among the people, our Modern Day Living Prophets seem rather more like Aristotelian priests: pushed toward evidencing hierarchies in their person, and their placement therein (or thereon).  And yet, American culture has not allowed them this posturing without also making its claims upon them, as a recent musical makes evident.

As a consequence of granting titles without requiring any display of merit to hold them, modern Conference speakers draw from whatever happens to mind, apparently.  They seemingly rely on the spontaneity of the happening (and its passing of Correlation’s censure) as a sign of its spiritual source; and may rest on their own titles as guarantees that only apostates, or those without the Spirit, would be critical of their messages.  There is an irony to the spiritualizing of spontaneity as authentic and sincere: within American culture its roots reach only to the 1960s, when orators opposed to The Establishment adopted styles found in conversation (made artistic by Beat writers).  These rebels abandoned a Western oratorical tradition that claimed Cicero as a founding father, and Jefferson, Lincoln, and Bryan as pragmatic yet not unornate masters of this genre.  The signs of public speaking from the heart, of improvisational inspiration – the way one performs “me”-ness – so important to post-Protestant religion and the folksy Sarah Palins of our world, in fact depend a great deal upon Berkeley protesters who rallied the hippies against The Man, and brought into public culture the sloppy dress, casual ways, and informalities so often decried by today’s sermonizers.  The disease and the medicine often come from the same mold, you see.  The remainder of the style of Conference talks can be attributed to mere incompetence in oratory, to amateurs being thrust before the camera, proud enough to believe that by virtue of office-holding, God will make up for their lack of ability, training, and, yes, effort.  There is humility as well as vanity in this. 

If they could draw, however, from a speech genre of revelation, rather than be compelled to enact the breath, inflection, narrative style, subject matter and posture recognizable as Conference Talk, the obligation to actually reveal, to prophecy, to see, could be less easily avoided.  In other words, Conference Talk as a genre works against revelation, just as a prophet who is a Corporation Sole is perhaps unlikely to be the Voice of Warning for the souls in his employ.

Genre of Revelation and Unofficial, Real Power

There is a robust power structure to LDS Mormonism, but the truth about false power is that the more it seems to grow utterly unassailable, the more numerous do vast holes in the architecture open from decay and neglect; until the edifice can be toppled by a slight breeze, or simply from the obesity of its remaining aristocrats.  That is one take-home point from Lehi’s Dream, and from the parable of the olive trees.  We’ve no shortage of dunging about the trees, for sure; what is needed, I believe, is a little pruning, cultivation, and harvesting.  So, we come to the point of this essay, perhaps too late: What might women do, as women, to make our religion more livable, even endurable, and to exorcise the duty to rid their skirts of the blood of this generation, by reproving betimes with sharpness even those leaders said to be nigh unto infallible, yet as Fallen men full of follies turned dangerous if given the cover of title, office, and money?

There is no formal, public genre of revelation or of prophecy in Mormonism, which is as much to say that there is no revelation or prophecy found today.  As women you cannot say, “Thus saith the Lord,” and offer an explicit framing for your message, without also being moved outside the circles where your words would actually reach the stereotypical, church-going Mormon.  There is the risk of being said to oppose some imagined figure called “the prophet,” but also the general risk of kookiness.  And, well, there is no tradition of speaking in tongues which I expect to be revived and employed as a counter-strategy.  In short, I can see no way for those without title and office to say anything about those with title and office – bringing the powerful to a knowledge of their awful situation, a situation veiled by virtue of sitting in the high seats rather than among the groundlings – no way to say anything that might bring a change, and without repercussions local or general.  Not right now. 

At the Conference Center, to extend the metaphor, the contrast of lighting makes seeing the audience very difficult; and well, it has always been difficult to see who is watching on the other side of a television screen.  This is, then, the blind spot of power.  Shouting at the TV changes nothing, I’ve learned; protesting at Conference only makes one’s message seem the crazier.  So what can be done by the faithful, active, LDS woman who’d advise we, as a people, tread like true heirs of pioneers a course different from the current path to Nowhere, to turn us from this absurd, fake Trek we are told to re-enact, weakly, without destination, guidance, or dance?  The powerful always have blind spots; and like Sauron’s leaving open the Crack of Doom in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, thus leaving Frodo to find it, and to destroy the Ring of Power, to be powerful is to be blind to certain faults.  It was folly and vanity, the author said of Sauron’s mistake.  And so, perhaps, some fault or door for women, and women alone, may be found in the burned out cone of our religion; not to destroy it, but, rather, to kindle its heart of fire.

Is there a Crack of Doom for women, so inclined, to find?  Increasingly men claiming priesthood authority, keys, and so on, find themselves unwilling to prescribe the lives of women.   Where once Brigham Young criticized the length of sisters’ dresses (too long, not too short, by the way), and even a few decades ago the ERA was supported, and women told to remain in the home, to not engage in aberrant sexual practices with their spouses, nor serve missions, and again, to remain out of the workforce; today their prescriptions are given to gays, teenagers (always the go-to sinner for this generation of leaders), to those in debt, to viewers of pornography, and so on down the list of predictable Priesthood Session topics.  These men, believe it or not, are wary of women. 

Where can this be proved?   Look to the shift of Mother’s Day sacrament services: from mothers, toward anyone who menstruates or previously did.  By contrast: note the non-shift in services on Father’s Day, which remain focused on fathers, rather than on anyone capable of producing “seed” and/or holding an occupation.  Male leaders are wary to bound anything dealing with women to some subset and so give offense.  So the retribution against feminists in the early 1990s would perhaps not happen again.  And would not, I believe, occur, no matter how harsh the criticisms, if women could find a way to develop, draw from, or integrate a revelatory and prophetic speech genre into Mormonism.   Without such a genre, Mormon feminism remains, I believe, a social and political movement which draws power chiefly from outside Mormonism.  With such a genre, however….

The men are basically SOL on that front, as their ostensible membership in “The Priesthood” also ensures that even more unspoken and unwritten rules are applied to them: to keep them toeing along some imaginary, always slipping away, line.  So it is, that at great risk would women gain entrance into that body.  Yes, that’s what I said: giving women “the priesthood” would be a great detriment to Mormonism as a whole, for the speech of women would be wholly subject to censure by priesthood leaders.  There are powers outside the priesthood, no matter how one defines it: healing, exorcism, tongues, wisdom, knowledge, discernment, and many more besides.  Outside “the priesthood” the sisterhood might develop a revelatory genre that could correct the errors of the priests.  Inside it, any saying that runs counter to the leadership would be covered by the rules of priesthood authority.  And only women thought appropriately submissive to current leadership would, presumably, take up the high seats in the temple.  Not a good trade: all that potential power for a few token positions?

Priesthoods always become corrupted, always; by their powers real or merely faked, exercised even with good intentions, they always come to evil in the end.  So perhaps it was wise for the Prophet to form a society for women, with keys of their own, purposes and obligations, rather independent of men; so at some future day they may graft their remaining life and spirit into the nearly dead tree of our religion, too long infected with the diseases of unfettered authority and unaccountable power.  So it is left to women to regulate the speech of women, and there are no shortage of opportunities for the more zealous to regulate their sisters’ voices.  Yet something about Visiting Teaching also strikes me as potentially so revolutionary, so foolishly left to chance, that there may be reason to hope that, someday, the sisters in Mormonism may find a speech genre of prophecy that protects them, and that actually speaks prophecy! 

The content is important, obviously; but no more, nor less than matters of poetic form, style, setting, number of speakers required to bring it together, and so on.  I can point out the possibilities, but as a one capable, apparently, of reproduction and, at times, of occupation, I cannot draw down and enact that power.  Look to charisma.  Speaking from a secular position, “charisma” is for the most part merely enacting culturally resonant speech forms (concealed by the Spirit), and not yet kidnapped and tormented by the vested priests of some institution; forms that offer hope for recuperation.  So the focus, Dear Readeresses, must be on form, and not merely on content. 

The letter of the law cannot be ignored any more than formal speech aspects tossed aside; and to deliver a spirited, content-driven, formally weak revelation is to risk finding oneself, a decade later, scheduled to appear on a Sunstone panel for “dissidents”.  Dissidents, not prophetesses; a person moved into the realm of the political, rather than the spiritual.  “Dissident” is a nice word for clumsy, naïve, mostly ineffective revolutionaries who believed the virtue of their cause, clearly enunciated, was sufficient to compel the subtle serpents to slink away from our rightful Tree.  Those serpents gained the power of speech; why not Eve, too?  And perhaps like dragon’s teeth sown in the soils of sisterhood (purple alliteration? Now that’s Conference Talk!), some speech forms will march together into a genre of revelation, a genre to be feared!  Kookiness, always the bane of spiritual persons, is avoided by virtue of the spread of a genre through the culture: it is only the single voice that is ignored as “fringe.”  A genre of revelatory speech – where letter and spirit abide – requires no claim to priesthood, no easy authority, nor explicit framing as “revelation”; resides in no single person, permanently; and nonetheless may find itself recognized by masses of Mormons as delivering a message that Heaven no longer bothers to send to priesthood authorities, these Watchers, of our day.


6 thoughts on “Eves Dropping: Women’s Speech and Mormonism

  1. A most excellent essay! The perfect application of persuasion theory as it applies to women’s speech and Mormonism. Remember the rules: all persuasion is local, all bad persuasion is sincere, power corrupts persuasion (Steve Booth-Butterfield).

  2. Dear Daymon: You always “sound”…angry.Which I believe is the feeling many of us know very well, permanently confronting the growing travesty of what once was our Faith.The problem is that our only choice seems to be, “swallow the Church as we are making it or leave it”. The sour fact is that they have the power, and we only have…our deception and anger.

    • Sometimes I am angry, but not often; it’s a text-effect, I suppose. In person I’m rarely angry.
      I don’t think they have the power, so much as an illusion of it. All that must be done is teaching the truth, according to the understanding and language (i.e., ‘scriptures’) of those who continue to allow the exercise of false power.

  3. Wonderful thoughts. I even teared up once–there has to be a connection there–at the realization that Priesthood has always turned bitter, like in the Olive tree. Two questions: one, how do movements like this start in other settings (from the anthropological view)? Two, what do you do if you love this ‘great and spacious building’? Okay I liked…one more–where do you turn for peace?

    • regarding the first question about movements: often they seem to start from the folks who have nothing to lose by conflict. What seems to stop the movement, more often than not, is a buy-out of the leaders, who suddenly have something to lose, and become far less radical in their leadership, and begin to ostracize those now deemed ‘too radical’ for constructive dialogue with the powers. I expect something like this to stop Ordain Women: some leaders will be invited to the COB and shown respect, and listened to, offered this or that, and the movement will settle in for a moderate approach. The second question? Find what it is you love, and what has been attached to that which you love, and separate them. Where for peace? Only to someone worthy of that trust.

      • I wonder what your thoughts are on Ordain Women now that the COB has not shown respect, listened to or offered this or that to them? Does Kate Kelly now have nothing to lose? As a women who is uninterested in the bureaucratic power that seems to define the priesthood I am also increasingly uncomfortable with the heavily sanctimonious tone that power has taken up and distributed to the masses. Is this part of the new form? I’m drowning here.

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