Back in January of 2022, I wandered into my local Deseret Book store with a Christmas gift card to spend. I hadn’t been there for awhile, but I used to shop there fairly frequently back in the day. I was a big fan of Deseret Book!
Within the categories of framed artwork, sculptures and unofficial church media, there was again an unequal representation of men and women – probably because so many historical events in church history and the scriptures were recorded and taught only from the perspective of the men involved. The imbalance was less stark in this section, mostly because of one popular artist with a lot of images for sale, mostly of women. What I noticed was that her art typically features faceless female figures, while many of the men represented were specific and well-known historical figures.
Joseph Smith, the original twelve apostles, heroes from the Book of Mormon – the male centric art seemed to be focused on real characters and stories that we all know.
I took these photos at the beginning of 2022, and thought to myself, “Huh, maybe I’ll sort these thoughts into a blog post someday.” But I never did. Months passed, and in August of 2022 I drove past Deseret Book and thought, “I wonder if anything has changed”, and with nowhere else I needed to be I walked in to explore.
At the door an employee asked me what I was looking for today. I felt guilty, knowing my entire purpose was just to look at their book and art selection and probably complain about it in a blog post. I said, “I had a gift card and wanted to look and see what you’ve got.” (Which wasn’t a lie – earlier this year I’d had a gift card. Today I wanted to see what they had. I felt like I was an undercover spy!)
I went in and found everything to be quite similar to the past winter. Some of the main displays still had the same books, even – and almost zero of them were female authors. (Again, the image quality is low – just take my word for it these are a lot of male authors, like Russell M. Nelson, Tad Callister, Steve Young, Adam S. Miller, Scott Sorensen, David Ridges, Thomas R. Valetta. There was one exception – Emily Belle Freeman had a featured book.)
I decided to pick one section and do some scientific quantitative research, so I looked for the most neutral topic I could find. I picked the biography section. There were two bookshelves full of biographies, which at my best count held 109 different books. I pulled each book out and snapped a quick photo of it, planning to do the counting later at home. When I got to the bottom shelves and could no longer squat, I sat right on the floor and kept going. In that position, holding up books to photograph, an employee who looked like the manager passed my aisle and said, “Can I help you with something?”
I panicked a little and felt like a criminal. Was it illegal to photograph books you haven’t purchased? Do people who want to read books but not pay for them sit on the floors of bookstores and photograph the pages to read for free at home later? Had they been watching me on the store cameras? Was this the shoplifting task force checking on me? I didn’t know, so I tried to act casual and just said, “I’m doing great – just trying to look at these books on the bottom shelf.”
To my relief he didn’t argue and just said, “They’re kind of hard to get down to, aren’t they?” Then he left without calling security (phew!), so I went back to photographing book covers. I only tell this story so those of you reading this appreciate the risk I went through for this Deseret Book social science project.
Here are the results! Out of 109 biographies, I counted 85 solely about men. Three were mixed (two were about a married couple, male and female, and another was written by Lucy Mack Smith but it was only about her son Joseph- so it didn’t really fit neatly in either category). The remaining 21 books were about women’s lives. That is just over 19 percent. (None of them represented a gender minority.)
The following photo collages are all male biographies:
What is there to conclude about this months-long experiment of mine? Deseret Book is church owned, but certainly doesn’t write church doctrine. It’s run by a female CEO (Sheri Dew), who clearly believes the business is catering to an audience most eager for the male perspective. It simply reflects our current church culture, and what successfully sells there is a lagging indicator of what the general membership wants. Church leaders (especially the highest up leaders) sell more books than anyone else, probably based on name recognition alone. If you have a loved one who is hard to shop for, a gift from Deseret Book with a favorite apostle’s name on the front is probably a safe bet, even if the content is less relevant or exciting than what’s in a book about a woman on the bottom shelf in the back.
The more I think about it, the less I blame Deseret Book for including so few female perspectives. It’s a business with employees and 401ks and managers who have to deal with women sitting on their floors suspiciously taking pictures of every book for sale. If members of the church aren’t interested in hanging photographs of the general Relief Society presidency in their homes, why would it make financial sense for Deseret Book to print and sell them? They are just holding up a mirror and reflecting back our priorities.
I hope that fifty years from now Deseret Book looks very, very different. I want there to be a main display someday with only female authors! I want calendars with daily quotes from female leaders, and framed art showing women who made history. I want so many books about women that the shelves break.
Years ago I tried to find a picture of the current Relief Society General Presidency in the distribution center catalog. When I couldn’t find one I emailed them. I honestly thought I just hadn’t figured out how to search for it online. The answer was that there wasn’t one. If I wanted a picture I would need to print one out myself. There’s no official photos of any of the general auxiliary presidencies. Deseret Book can’t carry those posters if they don’t exist.
This one feels big to me. How do we expect the women called as leaders to be treated like actual leaders if we don’t even have a picture of them in their leadership capacity available?
It would be really nice to have their pictures hanging up in the Relief Society room (and Young Women’s room, and Primary room), so we can learn who our leadership is.
I actually wrote a blog post about this a little while back:
My husband and I were at an event with Bonnie Cordon, but nobody recognized her even though she was one of the top three female leaders in the entire church. We just don’t know their faces or names nearly as well as we should.
Thank you so much for your undercover, risky efforts. I am so sorry that you felt like a criminal for noticing, questioning, and recording the absence of women’s stories and faces in church culture. It shouldn’t. This is comprehensive and important information. And I LOVE that you are a woman writing it here.
I love your project, I haven’t been inside a Deseret Book in a decade. The last time I was in one, I realized I’d never be back. I was a little put-off by the art. So many pictures of Euro-Jesus, often in a warm fuzzy style. But his face was depicted as so specific that I realized there must’ve been a model. Someone told me that one of the artists uses her BYU-student grandson as her model. She’d created the Lord in her grandson’t image. And apparently, people bought the art.
Thanks for gathering and reporting this data. (Especially with the risk! 🙂 ) I think you’re right that DB is just reflecting back patriarchal church priorities, where men are central and women are peripheral. I do wonder, though, whether they might push the envelope just a little, and feature more books written by or about women, and thus push Mormons toward more egalitarian ideas. I mean, I’m not expecting them to, but I wonder if they could if Sheri Dew or whoever high up wanted to.
Deseret Book does stock Tender Leaves of Hope: Finding Belonging as LGBTQ Latter-day Saint Women. It amplifies the voices of over 40 women (primarily mine, but others are represented as well).
Also, Laurel Christensen Day has been CEO of DB since April 2021, so two women have filled that role most recently. There are some powerful books that have been released recently (Holbrook, Inouye, Freeman, Lane), but they could seek content from women writers more aggressively.
I didn’t realize that Sheri Dew was no longer then CEO, so thank you for that correction, and thank you for sharing the book you were part of! Here’s the link if anyone wants to buy it:
Thanks for this entertaining post and also for the insightful observation that Deseret Book is just a mirror to church members’ tastes. These tastes must change. The way they change at Deseret Book, which sells books, is by people buying books written by women at Deseret Book. Here is an option for your Mother’s Day purchasing: https://deseretbook.com/p/every-needful-thing?variant_id=200906-paperback It’s a compilation of voices of Latter-day Saint women scholars, speaking with faith and authority, representing 25 perspectives from multiple disciplinary backgrounds and from national and cultural backgrounds including China, the Philippines, Nigeria, the Navajo Nation, the Seneca Nation, Kanaka Maoli, Peru, Argentina, the US, Samoa, New Zealand). To get this for-profit area of culture to change, in the words of a wise person who’s working hard to get Church institutions to change in this direction, “people have to put their money where their mouth is.” Full disclosure: I co-edited this book with Kate Holbrook. But now that you know it was co-edited by Kate Holbrook, you really have to buy it and strike a blow against the weak demand for women’s books at Deseret Book.
Yes! Everyone should buy that book. I second your opinion! 🙂
Oops sorry for the missing open parenthetical, that looks super annoying
Spoken like only a published author would say. 😄
I went into Deseret Books some years ago looking for a book about Christ for a grandchild’s baptism. Lots of books about J Smith and Book of Mormon characters, but only one or two about Christ. I wrote a very pointed letter to Sheri Dew about how the Church of Jesus Christ’s bookstore was way off target.
Most likely not because of my letter, but Deseret Book and conference talks are much more about Christ now.
I like the work and insights that the author, Abby Maxwell, has made about the gender of authorship and content. The Church is sexist from a feminist viewpoint, and the Utah/LDS culture is biased. However, I am not convinced that there is sexism in Deseret Book.
I’m wondering what the process is to submit books to sell in Deseret Book. Are women voices being shut down or discouraged? That would represent sexism, but I do not see evidence of that in this article.
Additionally, I don’t think sexism is a good route to correct perceived sexism. A “Women Only” bookshelf or section is an example of sexism. It’s fashionable to perform this type of sexism in the current marketplace, but I find it distasteful.
Female authors do not need hand-holding or sexist marketing. They are, presumably, just as capable as men in writing informative, compelling, and interesting work.
Pandering to women voices to correct perceived but un-evidenced sexism is unwarranted. It ultimately tells women they are not as capable as men, and need a handout to be successful.
I tried to make the argument at the end of my post that Deseret Book isn’t the one creating the sexism – it’s just reflecting back on us, as a culture, what we spend our dollars on. I also wasn’t advocating for a “Women’s Only” bookshelf – just hoping that someday we will become so accustomed to hearing women as authoritative voices that we’ll walk into a Deseret Book and the main display tables will be filled with best selling books by female authors and nobody will bat an eye. (Right now it would be very unique and out of the ordinary to see something like – I would love to see a day when it’s not strange at all.)
Thanks for reading and commenting, even if you disagreed with parts! ♥️
This is ridiculous. I guess people can always find something to complain about even when there is no problem. Don’t try to lead people away from the church with stuff like this. It is wrong.
I wouldn’t say there’s anything about this post trying to lead soneone away from the church. I’m hoping for a future world where we hear more female voices from within the church!
Someone’s logical findings and observation aren’t “ridiculous.” She wasn’t trying to lead anyone, just writing what she found. Yeesh!
Abby, thanks for your blog post about this, and thank you also for featuring my books in two of your photos. Frontier Grit and Women of the Blue and Gray are both historical biographies about diverse women. As you mention, this representation is sorely needed, particularly at Deseret Book. I’ve been publishing with the company for 12 years and I have seen significant changes over that time period, though as you mention they’re often slow to come. Additionally, my historical fiction novel Her Quiet Revolution is a novel based on the life of Martha Hughes Cannon and The Opera Sisters is focused on two remarkable women who lived in London during WW2.
I agree with you that some of the problem is structural (most scripture stories are about men and the leadership of the church is largely male). Part of it also is related to sexism that pervades our broader society (Women of the Blue and Gray was nominated for an award by Foreward Reviews in the military category and I was the only female author nominated. The areas of history and military history are highly male dominated both in and out of the church.) I appreciate your article and hope that you’ll consider reading and supporting the books that ARE out there by female authors because that’s one of the best ways to bring about the changes you’re wanting to see. Here’s to supporting talented female content creators, including you!
Marianne, it’s so cool to hear from you! If you ever feel like writing a guest blog about your experience as a female author sold at Deseret Book (or anywhere), we’d love to publish it on the Exponent II blog. Someone in the Facebook comments about this post specifically asked to hear the experience of being an author through DB. (You (or anyone) can submit a guest post here: https://exponentii.org/submit-a-guest-post/)
Anyone interested in Marianne’s books can purchase them here, through DB (and help encourage them to seek out more female authors!):
i find it strange that general authorities in the church make a profit off of their church position by writing and selling books.
“It’s run by a female CEO (Sheri Dew), who clearly believes the business is catering to an audience most eager for the male perspective. It simply reflects our current church culture, and what successfully sells there is a lagging indicator of what the general membership wants.” Fascinating analysis, Abby!
Thanks for pointing out this disparity. I was particularly bothered to get the DB spring catalog in the mail featuring Mother’s Day books written by men about women. However, there is a promising new upcoming release: She Did: Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Faith by Emily Cushing and Bekki Hood. Come on ladies, let’s flood the market with these sorts of offerings!