Review: Fresh Courage Take, or What It’s Like to Be a Mormon Woman

Fresh Courage TakeI recently read the new book Fresh Courage Take: New Directions by Mormon Women (Signature Books, 2015; publisher’s page), edited by Jamie Zvirdin with a foreward by Joanna Brooks. Twelve enlightening essays reflecting the plight, fight, and delight of being a Mormon woman circa 2015. You might ask: Not being a Mormon woman myself, who am I to write a review of this book? I know at least a few Mormon women rather well (mother, wife, daughter). Also, I have read lots of blog and Facebook posts by articulate Mormon women sounding some of the same themes and experiences, albeit shorter and less polished than these published essays. There’s a certain “I’m mad as heck and I’m not going to take it for much longer, only a few more years, but I really enjoy teaching the Sunbeams” quality to a lot of Mormon feminist writing. These essays show even less mad and more enjoyment.

Fresh. You probably won’t recognize the names of any of the essay authors — I didn’t. These are fresh voices. So you haven’t heard the details of their stories or their particular observations before. On the other hand, you will be quite familiar with the big picture: professors, professionals, part-timers, and talented stay-at-home-moms relating their path through modern Mormon womanhood. Church issues or not, gender issues or not, served a mission or not, married or not, kids or not, grad school or not, happy or not (okay, they all seem happy in the end). Mormons used to love reading conversion stories. Now it seems Mormons have shifted to what you might call “navigation stories”: accounts of how other similarly situated Mormons deal with life as a Mormon, how they successfully navigate through a Mormon life and Mormon issues without crashing and burning. That’s not as easy as it used to be. We’re all thrilled when someone can pull it off. This book provides twelve good examples of Mormon women pulling it off on their own terms.

Courage. Alas, it still requires a dose of courage for a Mormon woman to take a new direction, even more to write about it. There was a decade or so from 2003 (when popular blogging started to explode) to about 2013 (when Ordain Women got rolling) when that was not so true, sort of a Mormon Prague Spring. But another wave of retrenchment has arrived, the SCMC is still going strong, and we have a new cohort of public “apostates” to show for it. Local leaders are on the lookout for wolves among their congregational sheep. Feminists seem to be at particular risk, although perhaps not the mellow feminists featured in this book. But it is hard to predict what LDS leadership will do in the wake of Obergefull v. Hodges. While getting mixed signals from LDS sources, Mormon women nevertheless face a much wider menu of choices in education, career, and family than ever before. As Joanna Brooks announces in the foreward: “Take courage, sister. Your time has come.”

Take. “Take” is an action verb. Besides taking courage, these essays show women who — faced with the wider menu of life choices noted above — are taking action and doing great things while living a familiar but flexible Mormon life. The book exists because Jamie Zvirzdin (MFA, Bennington), the editor, dreamed up the idea while on assignment in Majuro, then recruited (by email) a dozen contributors to write for the book. Then actually completed the book. Rachael Decker Bailey (MA, English, BYU) teaches writing at Purdue while raising five kids and a husband. And she runs marathons. Karen Challis Critchfield (supported husband through college, then SAHM) escaped the “just a stay at home mom” feeling by making a pre-bucket list of 101 goals (I love lists), then actually achieving all of them (much tougher). And so forth. Degrees, kids, projects, accomplishments, challenges, struggles, issues. It strikes me that Mormon men have a fairly well defined path through early adulthood: mission, marriage, college, job, fatherhood/kids, callings. But Mormon women face a variety of paths, more choices, and seemingly have to justify those choices to themselves and often to others. That seems a bit unfair.

The first essay sets the frame for the balance of the book, Colleen Whitley’s account of the limited opportunities women faced in the 19th and early 20th centuries as well as her own experience just a generation or two ago (graduated high school 1958). She got a grad degree at BYU and then taught in the English department, but given policies against hiring married women at BYU and elsewhere, she left BYU when she got married and decided against pursuing a PhD. Nineteen years later, she was hired (again) at BYU, where she taught until 2006. It really is a different world now than just fifty years ago.

The Writing Thing. What I can’t convey very well in this short review is the quality of the writing in these essays. Seven of the twelve writers have at least one English degree. Several of the essays are “creative” in the way nothing that I write is ever creative. They are all better writers than I. They certainly convey more in their essays than simply an account of their experiences, struggles, and accomplishments. I suspect any Mormon woman reading the book will find two or three essays that really resonate. Mormon guys will merely gain some insight into the new directions of Mormon women and perhaps be better equipped to deliver fresh courage at opportune moments. Maybe we need to seek out those moments. Fresh courage give; fresh courage take.

14 comments for “Review: Fresh Courage Take, or What It’s Like to Be a Mormon Woman

  1. Thanks for dropping by, Camille. She is the author of chapter 12, “Divine Nature,” which features this candid admission: “What I hated most about babysitting was that I had to pretend to like it.”

  2. Thanks for the review, Dave. I’m glad to see that you find value in these essays as a Mormon man; as I have reread them after publication I have been struck by how useful this book is as a resource for understanding how Mormon culture shapes the life choices and outlook of Mormon women in problematic ways that have nothing to do with Mormon doctrine. My hope is that this volume can help us to both better understand where we are now and where we could be by working to narrow that gap between doctrine and culture.

  3. Thanks for dropping by, Rachael. She is the author of Chapter 3, “Career Mother.” My favorite quote from the chapter: “It has been a gradual process for me make it this far, to be able to introduce myself as a mother of five children without immediately adding that I have a graduate degree and still teach.”

    This points up the tension and unfairness that I noted in the post: for Mormon men, education, career, fatherhood, and children all kind of hang together nicely, whereas for Mormon women the expectation is (or at least was) that education/career and motherhood/children were separate choices or at least tough to combine. In the Church, it seems there is subtle pressure against education/career for women; in the professional world, there is subtle (or overt) pressure against motherhood/children. America is not Scandinavia.

  4. Dave, based on my own experience, I think that the issue is that whereas the Church does openly, vocally, and repeatedly encourage formal and continuing education for women, we don’t talk much about what we do with that formal schooling and training once we’ve acquired it. Do we funnel it into a career, or do we stay home with children–and if we stay home with children, are we wasting those degrees? Obviously, the choice is much more nuanced than this, but I think this is the conflict that a lot of young well-educated Mormon women are facing.

    Happily, I think that many of us are working this out successfully. From my perspective as an American woman in my early 30s, it seems like Church culture is becoming much more supportive of women who choose to pursue both a career and motherhood…or at least it is here in the Midwest!

  5. Rachel, I can add my own impressions from about a 40-year span at BYU, as student and professor. Of course people drop out of school for plenty of reasons, but in the 70s I had the impression that plenty of female students around me who got engaged/married tended to drop out of school right away because of a motherhood vs. education choice. When I returned as a faculty member in the early 90s, it seemed that my female students who got engaged/married (or who were in the BYU ward I helped in) now tended to keep going to school: education was okay, and the choice had shifted to motherhood vs. career, as you mention: I had various excellent female students tell me they were interested in continuing on for a PhD but they “wanted to be a mom.” When I would exasperatedly and flimsily reply that I wanted to be a very involved dad but got a PhD anyway and my wife went to graduate school and had a job outside home too, it understandably held absolutely no water with them, and I was glad we started hiring female faculty, who could say such things with a lot more authority than I could, just by their presence; but I still hear students who struggle with this.

    Still, a recent experience suggests an even more recent shift: my quite mainstream niece, just home from a mission, said she’d like to go to medical school but she wants to be a mom so she’s going to be a physician’s assistant instead! So not a motherhood vs. education choice, or even motherhood vs. career choice, but a motherhood vs. top-shelf-career choice. Of course this is all anecdotal, but that’s how bigger studies are born, that could track this more precisely. Plus this and other examples I’ve heard come not from not-quite-middle-of-the-mainstream female students, who could be found in the 70s as well as now (I’ve had numerous such students go on to top-shelf careers too), but right in the middle of the mainstream. My imprecise impression is that most female students still regularly feel torn about careers in ways that males rarely have to (gee, dentistry, law, or computers?), and that more than ever are going ahead and figuring out ways to pursue what they want, and feeling like they’re at least making more of a personal choice, instead of feeling like the choice has been made for them.

  6. Rachel, I worry about you! You do so much. Raising 5 children, teaching English, running marathons (and I’m sure there is more…). Are you living mindfully? Are you taking time for you, your spouse and each of your children? I’ve met other LDS women who sound like you, and I wonder, “What are they trying to prove?” Why must they do so much all at once?” Is the constant flurry of activity a coping mechanism? Are you concerned if you didn’t do as much, you would find yourself anxious or depressed? It seems as if you may be running away rather than running toward…My thoughts, for what they are worth… One more thought, my non-LDS women friends do all you are doing, but not all at once. I don’t see them crash and burn as much as I do my LDS Mormon women counterparts…

  7. jude49, I’m pretty horrified by your comments to Rachel. I don’t know her from Eve, but I do know many women and men who thrive best when they have multiple irons in the fire, so to speak. I can’t imagine what would motivate you to question her choices and motives.

    It bothers me greatly that women–maybe particularly LDS women–are not allowed to make choices about how to use their time, energy, and talents without others assuming that they are doing it wrong. I’m also having a hard time imagining the same kind of response to a male who had multiple outlets for his energy and capacity; we tend to admire them instead.

  8. Ditto. Jude49 links back to a website run by a registered social worker, so she is in the advice business, but that is not the sort of judgment one ought to offer based on a website blurb. You can’t tell someone to get out of the fast lane until you have a sufficient factual basis to determine they are actually living life too intensely for their own health and well being. And generally running (of the adult exercise type, not Olympic competition type) promotes health and balance — it gets one away from the rat race.

  9. Using terminology like “choice” and “feeling torn” implies that it is entirely up to the woman to make up her mind. That doesn’t always work, because our bodies are involved as well, which is far less true of men when it comes to parenthood. (What kind of God designed it this way? Why can’t we reproduce by fission?)

    I didn’t have a paid job during several of my pregnancies because I was so ill that I could not fulfill my responsibilities at the workplace, nor even as a homemaker. My “job” during those seasons was lying on the couch moaning and puking for months on end. That was not something that my husband could do for us.

    I appreciate the church’s teachings on motherhood, which seem very supportive of women who choose to become mothers. And yes, they should always have the choice either/any way and NEVER be judged by others, since nobody else has the stewardship to know what the Lord has in mind for her.

    My non-LDS friends who found themselves at home for a season because it was the best thing for their particular family at a given point in time felt zero support and lots of judgement from their neighbors and friends. They were astonished at the confidence I felt in knowing I was doing the right thing at the time.

  10. For Dave and Julie…There were no judgements made, no advice given. And, Julie, I would be concerned about anyone…male or female…who had many irons in the fire at the same time. Obviously, I touched a vulnerable place here…you may wish to ask yourself why your comments are reactive and judgemental of me. I won’t be participating in any further discussion on this post.

  11. I’ll echo the response to jude 49’s comment. Egads! Who thinks that offering unsolicited advice to an adult about how they spend their time and energy is a good idea? Especially on an open website…..

  12. Thanks for the review, Dave. I look forward to reading this book!

    Thanks to jude49 for illustrating Dave’s point:

    “But Mormon women face a variety of paths, more choices, and seemingly have to justify those choices to themselves and often to others. That seems a bit unfair.”

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