In Their own Words

Some books affect you deeply. They change how you see the world, what you believe, what you aspire to do. You return to them again and again. To remember. That is how Mormon Women has been for me.

Months ago I sat in the bookstore with a friend. Good reads scattered the table where we shared thoughts and hot chocolate. She read several paragraphs from Mormon Women and I knew I wanted a copy. I also knew I wanted to review this book.

When my copy arrived, I surveyed the photos of each woman interviewed. I studied their faces then began to read about their lives. Accomplished Latter-day Saint women of every culture and background. Converts mixed with pioneer stock. Some single. Some married. Each telling her own story in her own voice.

Kent Miles claims they are “ordinary women.” Maybe at first glance. But when opportunity came knocking, they opened the door and made extraordinary things happen. Mormon Women is a compilation of life sketches featuring female voices with amazing messages of strength and service. Each woman chose her unique life path. Each courageously expresses her personal gifts. Each has been graceful, even in the face of opposition. Each has marvelously blessed her family and the world.

Mormon Women  was my favorite read for 2009.

When my husband noticed it sitting on the kitchen counter, he laughed. “Mormon Women? It’s written by two guys!” Very astute. What did two guys have to say about Mormon women that Mormon women would want to hear?

Kent Miles explains,

For a long time [Jim Kimball and I] wanted to do a project together, but nothing ever got off the ground. One day my father made a suggestion: “Why not tell the story of Mormon women? They’re really key to the success of the LDS Church, but their story never gets told.” Right away, [we] knew we had our project.

There was just one problem: we happened to be two Mormon men. What made us think that a book about women should be put together by a couple of guys? Shouldn’t it be a women’s project? Does anybody really need more men talking on behalf of women? (ix)

Kimball and Miles decided their role would be as documentarians. They would base the project on something done all too rarely: women conversing about women’s lives. They would “get the women talking and they would listen” (ix).

They wanted to focus on women who inspired them, who were “doing their best to live the gospel while negotiating the deep waters of modern-day life.” They were interested in women notable for their own accomplishments, rather than who they were married to. They felt women of high position in the Church already had plenty of official visibility. They wanted to dispel the stereotypes about Mormon women held by some and reinforced by popular media. They chose to interview women of courage, valor and compassion. Women, they described as, “not unlike our own mothers and wives, sisters and daughters” (x).

Where to begin?

Miles and Kimball started with friends and asked them for referrals. “There was no shortage” writes Miles.  “Everyone knew a woman who should be included.” They started in Utah but soon found themselves traveling the globe. Los Angeles, Boston, Russia, Ukraine, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Australia. They year was 1996.

Eventually they interviewed over thirty women. Miles writes,

Each interview was a gift. Jim and I thought these women had stories everyone would benefit from hearing…They each make the best effort to live according to gospel standards, but they are not perfect. They make sacrifices, finding their way as they go, making compromises between the demands of life when they need to…They roll with life’s punches. When they’re knocked down, they get up, dust themselves off, adapt to the lessons learned, and go on to do what is in them to do (xi).

In late 2003, Jim Kimball was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. He passed away the next spring. He made it clear he wanted the project finished but Miles found it difficult to continue without Jim. Mormon Women was put on the back burner for a time.

Friends of Jim’s family approached Kent about finishing the project. Upon examination, the existing manuscript, surprisingly, was not outdated but had increased in relevance and timeliness. The women they spoke with had “tapped into a wellspring of wisdom and human experience” (xii) said Miles.

With the help of talented, invested individuals and Handcart Books, the book was published in 2009. It includes fourteen of the interviews Kimball and Miles conducted, along with portraits that Miles, who is a professional photographer, took at the time of each interview.

Listen to their Voices

Every woman I know, wrestles with the idea of balance. The women in this book speak about that struggle and the unique way they have come to their own solutions. Miles describes them as courageous – “never allowing themselves to become enslaved by external expectations” (xi). 

What worked for them might not work for you, and what will work for you might not have worked for them. But their stories remind us that with assistance from our Heavenly Father, we can achieve our desires, even our dreams.

It was nearly impossible for me to choose which excerpts to include. Each interview was so different. Every woman had such a remarkable story that brightened and broadened my perspective. Their words made me look at roles, careers and accomplishments differently. Picking out a few gems of wisdom was like trying to snatch a fish out of fresh water and keep it breathing. The quotes below live, thrive, and are best appreciated in the entirety of their context.

That said, I hope the smattering of paragraphs I include, will give you a sense for the worth of this unprecedented book. It is rich with a take on life that is uncommon for the LDS culture, but not amiss. It is the product of retrospect, wise understanding, and commitment to God.

Carol Gray

Carol Gray’s story is breathtaking. Literally. Gray is a British homemaker who has become a recognized humanitarian leader in Europe and Africa. She began by organizing relief aid for victims of the Balkan War. Four years later she had personally delivered over two dozen truck convoys of food, clothing, and medical supplies to Bosnia.

My parents joined the LDS Church when I was about five. It’s challenging to be a member of the Church in England. We don’t have the privileges they have in Utah, where there’s an LDS chapel on every corner. We have to work hard for everything, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s wonderful. And I’m the sort of person that when my back’s against the wall and I’ve got a challenge, that’s when I fight my hardest.

After gathering 38 tons of aid for Bosnians (stacked in every corner of her church building), the local charity Gray was working with ran out of money and couldn’t deliver the supplies. She and her daughter decided they would drive the aid themselves.

We arrived in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, and there was a large meeting held. There were four hundred drivers altogether. We were asked if any of us would volunteer for the crisis area. I suppose it was because I was naive, having grown up in the Church, and my daughter as well. We both looked at each other and thought, We’ve not driven all this way to stick this stuff in some warehouse. We’re off to the crisis area to give it to the people.

But what we didn’t realize was that it was a crisis area because it was under shellfire, and no one else was batty enough to go. I can still remember the sinking feeling when Samantha and I looked around and only two other men raised their hands. I knew I had boobed, but I was too proud to renege on the decision. My daughter was so excited, and I wasn’t going to let her see that I’m a chicken. So that was how I got into doing these convoys – on false pretenses, really.

I think the Lord did this in the only way he could get me to do it. There was simply no way I was brave enough to have made the decision straight away. I just wasn’t that sort of woman. It was one step at a time, which is the way he always does everything with me (11-12).

Catherine Stokes

Catherine Stokes is a professional nurse who retired after 34 years of service in the Illinois Department of Public Health and now resides in Salt Lake City. She was born in rural Mississippi to a sharecropping family, but was raised by her great-aunt in Chicago. Chicago was racially segregated at the time and Stokes was one of a “sprinkling of blacks” in her high school. Her family had very little.

I had no idea how deprived we were. I didn’t realize that until I had gone to college, and then I thought, Wow, I probably should have ended up a criminal! But there is good in everything, and this time there was good in not knowing (111).

Her story is astonishing – where she has come from and who she has become. I admire her selflessness and pragmatism. Here she talks about her conversion.

When you’re facing the truth, the ball is in your court and you have to do something about it. So I returned to the ward in more seriousness. While sitting in one of those yellow chairs in the chapel, this precious little girl came over to me and crawled up into my lap. She started playing with my hair. It was longer then so it would spring back. Her parents turned every shade of red. You could see the red go up her dad’s neck and come around the ears. I was tickled by that, because it was obvious that this kid was so innocent.

The fact that the Church was overwhelmingly white didn’t bother me. I have often been in situations where I’m the only black person…I am accustomed to being in the minority.

I sensed something in these church folks, but it wasn’t hostility. I’d catch folks staring at me. Once, I said to a guy, “Why are you staring?” He said, “Well, because I’ve never known anybody who’s black.” So then I began inviting people and their families over to my home for dinner (117-118).

I love her perspective on living a single life.

In the Church, we seem to have Noah’s Ark Syndrome, as I call it. Everything is two by two. And yet we are born alone, we are baptized alone, we are confirmed alone, we die alone, and we will stand in judgment alone. While nothing is more blessed than a loving marriage, not all of us are going to have one. God loves us all the same. Look at the numbers, there are not enough men for every woman who wants one.

Marriage can be wonderful. But it isn’t the only way to lead a good life. All women are single at some point in their lives. You’re single before you marry, and most women outlive their husbands, and they’re single again. You can have a wonderful life being single. You can serve. As a matter of fact, you may be in a situation of being freer to serve because you don’t have immediate responsibilities for someone else. Don’t waste time feeling sorry for yourself. You agreed to come to this life to have challenging experiences, which may include being single. If you view that as a burden that you’re to carry, then carry it gracefully. Even if you know you’re going to get married, you should be studying, improving yourself, because we need women with knowledge raising our children. It is the most difficult job you will ever have! (121).

Tsobinar Tadevosyan

Tsobinar Tadevosyan was born in Tbilisi, Georgia. She spent five years in Stalin’s Gulag during the 1950’s. Her crime? Having a brother who protested the forced relocation of native Armenians. He was arrested and shot by the KGB. Tosbinar and her family were sent to Siberia, where they experienced unimaginable trials and terrors. At the time of  her interview she was visiting Salt Lake City to be baptized. She passed away in 2006.

I didn’t have any hate in my for my captors or the government. I had deep pain inside, as though my heart was always hurting. But not hate…When I think about my youth, I imagine what my life would have been like if they had not sent me to prison. I lost those years.

In prison I always had big, big hope. I knew that everything would be okay in the end. I was always telling my friends, “The time will come. Our lives will change. It will not always be this way.” My nickname was “The Idealist.” All those years in Siberia, I was trying to take something from life, to learn something.

I was in a building that had two floors filled with bunk beds. We were packed like fish. The room was made for fifteen people, but more than fifty lived there. We had one toilet and one sink in the same room. We were taken to the woods where we worked cutting trees and draining the swamp. Ten months of the year it was snowing. Ten months! Then one or two months without snow, and daylight for twenty-four hours. Every day I prayed. I was praying for my mother. I was praying for my brother – I didn’t know that he had already been killed. I was praying for his children (130).

There are many episodes from my life where I could chose to go the easier way, but Heavenly Father always helped me choose the right way. And when you are doing something good, something for others, you never need to announce it – just do it quietly. When we help someone else, we help ourselves (135).

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is a professor of history at Harvard. In 1991 she received the Pulitzer Prize in history for A Midwive’s Tale, which examines life for ordinary women in the early American republic. She coined the phrase, “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” which has become ubiquitous, making its way onto T-shirts, greeting cards, mugs and bumper stickers. I underlined entire pages of her interview. Here are a few highlights.

I absolutely adore learning and have always felt comfortable doing it, not that it isn’t hard work. But because I loved it so, I was happy to get up at five in the morning in order to write. When I was writing my dissertation and all my kids were in school, I would write until 7:00, when I needed to get everybody up to go to school. And I would just be a crab. It would be like murder to come down and get their lunches ready and get them out the door. By then I was shot and I couldn’t go back to writing.

So we worked out this deal. We figured out that [my husband] Gael was perfectly capable of making breakfast and getting them out to school. That seems like such a simple thing now. We laugh about it, but it was hard. I’d be upstairs working and I could hear everything that was going on downstairs. I would want to intervene and organize and do it my way. “You’re going to miss the bus if you don’t do such-and-such.” And he’d let them miss the bus, which was good for them because then they had to be accountable. He got extremely creative in the way he did breakfast. It was really a wonderful thing. It meant I could work until 11:30, and I didn’t want to write any longer than that.

We always had a joke in our family about the high school kid whose mother still wrote his name on his lunch with magic markers every morning. My kids made their own lunches and did their own laundry as soon as they could press the button to open the washing machine. They had to. And they are just terrific people. They can do anything.

They’re good kids and have succeeded in part because I wasn’t a stereotypically good mom. It’s kind of ironic. If I had known that when I was younger, I would have been much more peaceful about my life (97-98).

I say to women, go out and change the world. Whether you’re seven or seventy, there’s work out there to be done, go to it! But you have to be educated…I would love to hear less about roles and where we’re supposed to be and what we’re supposed to be doing. It’s more about values and spirituality and what it means to be a Christian, and how we can live the gospel in whatever setting we may find ourselves (104).

Emma Lou Thayne

Emma Lou Thayne is a published author, poet and mother of five. She taught English and coached tennis at the University of Utah for several years. She has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the prestigious Madeline Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts and Humanities and the David O. McKay  Humanities Award from BYU.

Thayne’s entire interview was poetry. I hung on every word. Here is a small snippet.

In pioneer days, the esteemed Mormon poet Eliza Snow was accepted in her community, even called a priestess. But she was an exception. She had no family obligations and no children, even as she knew favor as wife of Joseph Smith, and later, Brigham Young. She was free to follow her muse. But most Mormon women exist in a web, a labyrinth of expectations.

My culture idolizes the simplified woman, ardent and singular, bent to the collective and determined to serve it. The idea of the radiant mother, which I have been a part of for nearly forty years, is not something I would abandon. But a concomitant life beckoned, the life of those poets. It’s one of the great human dilemmas: How could I live both lives and be fulfilled with out sometimes neglecting one or the other? Mostly by being tired in the morning.

Luckily, I almost always had more energy than time.

I’ve had five children, five darling girls. Having been a part of their lives has been my most transcendent experience, by far.

At the same time, I realize…My blood runs with a thousand interests and joys. I have loved my life. But as with any housewife, the demands could sometimes be suffocating…I always believed that quality made up for quantity, and that I could love [my children] with all my heart, even if not with all my time. When she was ten, my poet-child ended a poem, “When she’s typing/You answer your own question.”

While I’m sorry in my bones for that, I think my children have come to laugh about it, especially as they have become mothers themselves with many of the same conflicts of interest. We have stayed close through great fun and agonizing tragedies, in sicknesses and in health. Never has there been enough time. And for them, having such a busy mother was never easy. But when they have needed me, they know I’m there.

Things happen and things work out. They come to pass, not to stay (218-219).

And this about her biannual trips to Sun Valley, alone, to write poetry.

Out of time alone came poems. Poems I could never have written from my usual consciousness. Poems to expand my seeing, and to look, as Yeats says, “into that little, infinite, faltering, eternal flame that one calls one’s self.” Going back to my usual life is a challenge, just as staying away too long would be (221-222).

Other women interviewed were Angela Cummings – much sought-after Jewelry Designer – Salt Lake City, Maria Consuelo Dimaya – former Guerilla Medic – Philippines, Lea Rosser – Auburn City Manager – Australia, Victoria Fong Kesler – Homemaker and Mother of Twelve – Colorado, Anne Perry – Novelist – Scotland, Kiyo Tanaka – News Anchor for the Deaf – Japan, Cecile Pelous – Fashion Designer – France, Raquel Ribeiro – Teacher – Brazil, and Christine Durham – Chief Justice of the Utah Supreme Court – Salt Lake City.

Mormon Women should be read by every Mormon woman. It is also a perfect read for friends of other faiths who may express concern about the status of women within the LDS Church.

Miles wrote in the introduction that there are “still many stories to tell.” I hope another volume is forthcoming. Surely there are more conversations to be had. More “ordinary” women to celebrate.

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