Any historical discussion of women (and American women in particular) usually includes the idea of a woman’s sphere–the area in which it was socially acceptable for her to act and effect change.
In high school history class, this always bugged me: wait, women have an area in which we’re permitted to act, but it’s glass-enclosed? Whereas men can set their minds and hands to anything they darned well please? Totally unfair. (And especially annoying when the teacher is male, but there you go.) Forget the glass ceiling–this puts women in glass bubbles.
Despite the use of the phrase “sphere of action” in this chapter, I have to say this is one of my favorite parts of Daughters in My Kingdom–and the core of my love for Relief Society in general. The wording is grounded in another era, but the idea is forward-looking, bold, revolutionary.
Here’s why: I think the restored gospel is, at its very center, feminist. We have a lot of misguided practice and now-ingrained tradition to wade through, but remember that Joseph Smith was concerned about bringing all of the saving ordinances to men and women; that when he organized the Relief Society he switched the women’s own written constitution for “something better,” which was a presidency with the right to revelation from God; that Eliza R. Snow recorded his words at the formation of the Nauvoo Relief Society as “I now turn the key to you in the name of God”–signifying that the women in this endeavor held the keys necessary to do the work.
So as you begin this lesson with the sisters in your ward, remind them that these were women who had asked for a philanthropic society to clothe the men who were laboring on the temple, and what they got was essentially a commission to go and do good in any area they felt inspired to address, and a structure for their organization identical to that of the other priesthood quorums Joseph had instituted.
Reorganizing the Relief Society
So, who knew that the Relief Society had been disbanded? Raise of hands? I didn’t know this until DIMK came out, either, and I’m thrilled that this part of our history is available to women worldwide, who don’t always learn the same depth and richness of Church history that we do in the U.S. (Well, especially in Utah. And especially if you can trace three-quarters of your ancestry back to Nauvoo. And especially if the older members of your family absolutely live to tell crazy stories about their ancestors. But I digress.)
DIMK attributes the reorganization of the Relief Society–twenty-five years after its founding!–to Brigham Young. But we really need to give most of the credit to Eliza R. Snow, who took detailed minutes as RS secretary in Nauvoo, and knew what the society meant for LDS women. In fact, it would be completely appropriate to begin your lesson with a discussion about the importance of records. If you didn’t write it down, everyone could just forget that it happened.
The “wide and extensive” quote, by the way, comes indirectly from Brigham Young. Eliza R. Snow is quoted thus:
“If any of the daughters and mothers in Israel are feeling in the least [limited] in their present spheres, they will now find ample scope for every power and capability for doing good with which they are most liberally endowed. . . . President Young has turned the key to a wide and extensive sphere of action and usefulness.”
What did this mean for Relief Society women in 1867?
Eliza R. Snow was instrumental in establishing Relief Societies in each ward of a rapidly expanding Mormon corridor, and with their attention thus focused on local communities and tied to the welfare of the Church in general, LDS women did a whole bunch of really amazing things. Hospitals! Nursing schools! Making silk! Storing grain! Agitating for women’s rights! Publishing a newspaper! The book covers several parts of this “wide and extensive sphere of action.”
Here’s where you get to do some fun chalkboard work. Draw a line down the center of the board. On the left side of the line, start listing some of the things that the women in the newly re-established Relief Society took on as projects and work. (There’s a lot to cover here, so keep the class going–don’t let anyone ramble on too long, because you’re going to want to have time for the second half of the board before the end of the lesson!) When you’re done, you’ll want to make sure you have a list that includes:
(They don’t have to be in those exact words, but you’ll want to make sure they’re on the list!)
If there are women in your ward who aren’t likely to know about the Church’s practice of polygamy, this is a good time for you to do some soul-searching and attitude-adjusting. I’m not asking you to gain a testimony of it. But I do want you to have a way to explain it to your sisters that honors the faith and sacrifice of the women who lived the principle of plural marriage. There’s a terrific quote on page 47 of DIMK that sums it up nicely:
One Latter-day Saint woman expressed the feelings of many others when she said: “There is no spot on this wide earth where kindness and affection are more bestowed upon woman, and her rights so sacredly defended as in Utah. We are here to express our love for each other, and to exhibit to the world our devotion to God our Heavenly Father; and to show our willingness to comply with the requirements of the Gospel; and the law of Celestial Marriage is one of its requirements that we are resolved to honor, teach, and practise, which may God grant us strength to do.”
What does it mean for Relief Society women in 2013?
Now: GO CRAZY. Remember that “wide and extensive” quote? Have someone re-read it out loud, and start asking more questions.
What does “wide and extensive” signify in 2013? Even better, what should it signify? As you gather ideas from the class, help them to push the envelope. If someone mentions that contemporary women should be involved in the political process, ask her if that extends to running for office. Ask if it extends to campaigning for women’s rights both at home and worldwide.
Similarly, take “charity” out of the ward context and into the context of a worldwide church. If you feel so inspired, share some information about Judy Dushku’s work with child soldiers in Uganda with your class.
If someone mentions self-reliance, spend some time discussing the difference between self-reliance in 1867 and self-reliance in 2013. Canning peaches and having a year’s supply of food are good and noble things to do. But self-reliance in the present day involves non-food expenses that are best addressed by modern economic means. Families need housing, transportation, medical care, and education. Are women in a position to take on these challenges?
“Teaching” is another big topic. You’ll get “teaching our children the gospel” answers, but hold out for the good stuff: women serving missions, women as researchers and professors, women as journalists and anthropologists. Ready to go for the brass ring? Elicit a mention of Exponent II, where women share their Church experiences, expound upon the scriptures, and ponder the meaning of true religion.
And now you’re eating into closing-hymn time. End with the idea that our “sphere of action” includes anything we feel it should include. As a worldwide church, we have a world full of problems to work on, and it is our privilege and our calling to roll up our sleeves and do that work.
In a strange and almost quaint pattern, Mormon women tend to wait for a formal calling before we act. The commission we were given at the establishment of the Relief Society does not hinge upon an official calling in a Church capacity. The key is ours. We have the power to do with it what we need to. Any limitation we see isn’t a curved wall of a glass bubble; it’s a barrier of our own imagination. Now go out there and do some good!