by Mindy May Farmer
When someone excitedly shared Anthony Sweat’s painting, “Relief Society Healing” in the Exponent II Facebook group a couple of weeks ago, I only wanted to feel joy. The image depicts Mormon pioneer women laying hands on a woman in her bed, comfortable under a patchwork quilt. This is not a simple picture of comfort; one woman confidently pours oil in clear preparation for a blessing. Even more lovely is a small boy in the corner looking at the women in admiration and recognizing their God-given authority. These women represent power to heal and administer in God’s name, offering imagery of Mormon women I crave. Yet, a part of me remained frozen to its beauty when I saw the author’s name.
By all accounts, Sweat is a well-loved BYU Associate Professor and a look at his artwork depicts an honest, heartfelt depiction at Mormonism. Sweat’s online gallery features paintings entitled “The First Visions” and “Purgatory: Joseph, Emma, and the Revelation on Plural Marriage,” indicating a nuanced view of our complex religious history. All groups want and demand allies and Sweat appears to be one. Feminists encourage men to use their privilege to speak up where women’s voices are undermined and challenged. This painting is a good thing.
So, why my mixed emotional reaction? What is wrong with me that I cannot simply see good and appreciate it? When did my glass become so perpetually half-full?
The answers are many and varied. I could list the times male authority silenced me, only to accept some watered-down version from a man. Or detail women criticized, demonized, and excommunicated for concerns and ideas later accepted through male revelation. I could share my heartbreaks trying to carve a place in Mormonism. They all have a common theme: the lack of true recognition or respect for female authority in the LDS church.
With this in mind, I hear about the positive reactions to “Relief Society Healing” and can’t help but wonder what kind of reception a female painter would receive for the same work. What if the artist’s name read “Antonia Sweat”; a woman with no priesthood pedigree? Would BYU sanction her work, which questions modern definitions of priesthood authority? The answer seems obvious.
Let me be clear here: I’m not criticizing Sweat or trying to discourage appreciation for his work. “Relief Society Healing” emphasizes a forgotten, misunderstood portion of Mormon history that many women ache to know and emulate. Any artist pushing for a better understanding and a deeper conversation around women’s roles in the LDS church is urgently welcome and needed.
We can appreciate something good while simultaneously using it to further a difficult conversation around institutional sexism, however. We can and should question when women will be authorities on these matters; when our calls for a deeper connection to our Heavenly Mother, an improved understanding of our female pioneer priesthood heritage, and our inspired depictions of female authority are enough. When a man’s work will emphasize and highlight a woman’s authority, rather than add missing authority to the conversation.
Mindy is a quirky book lover, writer, teacher, feminist, vintage-hat wearer, mom of four, 40-something, who loves a great conversation; written or otherwise.