Women and Authority
Edited by Maxine Hanks

Chapter 10
Healing the Motherless House
Carol Lynn Pearson

[231] A spirit of change regarding women is moving over the globe. Let me share some headlines from a few articles in my pile of recent clippings: “Soviet Women Want a Better Deal”; “Japanese Women Battle Nuclear Plants”; “Young Jewish Women Question Status”; “Conservative Jewish Seminary to Certify Women as Cantors”; “’God a Mother as Well as Father’ Anglicans Say”; “Church of God Votes to Give Women a Voice”; “Adventists to Study Female Ordination”; “Anglicans Allow Female Bishops”; “First Female Episcopal Bishop Voted.” Here is one my cousin sent me: “Awareness of Women’s Issues Promoted by New BYU Group,” which tells of the formation of the Committee to Promote the Status of Women at Brigham Young University. Of course women are reassessing things. And Mormon women are reassessing things. The spirit is there, and happily we have not been passed by. I love to see women recognizing their power.

Virginia Woolf said, “Men and women are different. What needs to be made equal is the value placed on those differences.” I agree with her assessment. Throughout recorded history, as well as currently, femaleness has been devalued at a great loss to us all. I believe that the exclusion of the female from our religions and philosophies is both a cause and an effect of this devaluing.

We live in a Motherless house. In our worship we are Motherless. In our hymns, our prayers, our scriptures, our temples, our religious discourse, we are Motherless. In the symbols that connect [232] our minds and our hearts with our origin, we are Motherless. The double picture frame on our mantle that has space for divine parents has only one picture in it—the face of a male.

There is nothing trivial about this near total exclusion of the female from our religious processes. Balance is enormously important to our well-being. The Jewish Cabala tells us that “Only the togetherness of male and female is a state of blessedness” and that “when a man sins he thereby causes a separation between the male and female aspects of the deity, which, in turn, leads to a transcendental and universal disaster.”1

Is there any simpler way of putting it? We have sinned. We have created a separation of maleness and femaleness—in our deity, our culture, our world view, and in ourselves. And we are suffering and have suffered for a long time the effects of a transcendental and universal disaster.

My mother died when I was fifteen, and I learned what it was to live in a motherless house. In my longings for God, I encountered that same anguish.

Motherless House

I live in a Motherless house
A broken home.
How it happened I cannot learn.
When I had words enough to ask
“Where is my mother?”
No one seemed to know
And no one thought it strange
That no one else knew either.
I live in a Motherless house.
They are good to me here
But I find that no kindly
Patriarchal care eases the pain.
I yearn for the day
Someone will look at me and say,
“You certainly do look like your Mother.”
I walk the rooms
Search the closets
[233] Look for something that might
Have belonged to her—
A letter, a dress, a chair,
Would she not have left a note?
I close my eyes
And work to bring back her touch, her face.
Surely there must have been
A Motherly embrace
I can call back for comfort.
I live in a Motherless house,
Motherless and without a trace.
Who could have done this?
Who would tear an unweaned infant
From its Mother’s arms
And clear the place of every souvenir?
I live in a Motherless house.
I lie awake and listen always for the word that never comes, but might.
I bury my face
In something soft as a breast.
I am a child
Crying for my mother in the night.

I believe that God does not intend that we live in a Motherless house. There is a wonderful line from a song in the musical Les Miserables: “When you love another person you have seen the face of God.” I believe that as we love one another, female and male, we see the face of God, Mother as well as Father. I believe that God as Father and God as Mother are constant as the sun and that we as children receive what we can at certain times in our history and according to our agency.

Feminist research especially during the past decade has yielded new evidence about the worship of a female deity. For the first 25,000 years of known human existence, during the Paleolithic and early Neolithic periods, the human family conceived of God as the Mother. The earliest civilizations seem universally to have worshipped the ancient goddess, who I believe was their understanding of the deity we call Mother in Heaven. The earliest written creation [234] story, the Babylonian “Enuma Elish,” tells that “When the heavens had not been formed, When the earth beneath had no name, Tiamat brought forth them both … Tiamat, the Mother of the Gods, Creator of All.”2

The Chalice and the Blade, by Riane Eisler, provides ample evidence from archaeology that a partnership society existed prior to the dominator society that followed and that this partnership society was characterized by worship of the Mother. But beginning around 4300 B.C.E., this knowledge gradually began to be lost. In order to replace worship of the female with worship of the male, the idea had to be “imprinted in the mind of every single man, woman and child until their ideas of reality had been completely transformed to fit the requirements of a dominator society.”3 Interestingly, the book Sarah the Priestess, the First Matriarch of Genesis presents a reevaluation of Sarah and Abraham as figures in transition from a female-centered society to a male-centered society.4

On 30 October 1983 the LDS Church News ran an article with the headline, “Scholars Expose a ‘Cover-up’”:

A cover-up was exposed at BYU’s J. Rueben Clark Law School recently. Several speakers at the 32nd Annual Symposium on the Archaeology of the Scriptures … pointed accusing fingers back through time. They held two groups of people responsible for “covering up” valuable information about ancient Hebrew goddess worship … Dr. Raphael Patai, renowned Hebraist and anthropologist, said “Goddesses were worshipped most of the time by most Jewish people, even in the temple … but the Bible writers … only refer to it as idolatry and condemn it as utter abomination” (p. 7).

The article points out that goddess worship was a respected part of worship among Hebrews in their homes and that in the temple “feminine deities were worshipped for 236 of the 370 years prior to the destruction of the temple in 586 B.C.” The article concludes that early Hebrews may have been responding to their understanding of the concept of a Mother in Heaven.

Of course they were. And they held tenaciously to that concept, as witnessed by the incredible violence required to stamp it out. According to Eisler, this process “went on for millennia and is still going on in our own time: the process whereby the human mind was, sometimes brutally and sometimes subtly, sometimes deliber[235]ately and sometimes unwittingly, remolded.”5

Images of the powerful, divine female were turned upside down to become dark and negative images, including “the mother of harlots,” “the Abomination,” “the mother of abominations,” and “the whore of all the earth” in the Bible and Book of Mormon. Negative female images we have. But where are the images of our powerful and magnificent Mother who bore and sustains us all? Where are the female images which girls and women can relate to, which validate rather than belittle our femaleness? Having a wonderful father does not preclude the need for a mother. The absence of the Mother inevitably demeans the daughters and deprives the sons. No matter how many good men are kind to their wives or how many women say they have never felt less important than a man, in a Motherless house we are all wounded children.

I grew up in Utah. The first memory I have of a little explosion within me that said “something is wrong here” was a day in my seminary class at Brigham Young High School. My seminary teacher bore his testimony that God our Father practiced polygamy, and that we had many heavenly mothers. I felt the blood drain from my face. My seminary teacher would not lie to me.

I confided in my journal. “Oct. 3, 1956: ‘All day today I was very distraught about the idea of polygamy in heaven.’” “Oct. 6, 1957: ‘In Sunday School they discussed what a wife has to do to make a happy home. It indeed painted a dark picture … I doubt if I shall ever find the type of man I want or who shall want me as an equal.’” “July 12, 1960: ‘I’ve read every scripture regarding woman that is mentioned in the standard works. Each one only upsets me more; I don’t mean casually bothers me, I mean upsets the very core of my nature.’”

I was so hungry for information, something that would tell me things were not as bad as they looked. I spent many hours as a student at BYU, going to the shelves in the library, looking at the church books, I became adept at looking in the index under two letters, “W” for women, “M” for Mother in Heaven. Any time I found even a crumb of information, I devoured it. But often I would go home hungry.

I knew that something felt wrong. For a long time I assumed that the wrong was not in the system, the wrong was in myself. But [236] gradually I moved beyond that position, and gaining a little courage, I began to question some of the things I saw and heard. Questioning leads, of course, to tension with the system. But tension and even pain, as women know, is the only way new life is brought forth.

I questioned a lot. And I heard mixed messages everywhere. For instance, as I listened to LDS general conference sessions, they began with a greeting to the governor of the state, presidents of universities, general authorities, and stake presidents. Then somewhere in the session would be a talk with the statement, “There is no greater calling than that of a mother,” and I would think, “Really? If they really believe that, why didn’t they start this session saying, ‘We are so grateful to have the presence of all the mothers here; we also welcome the governor, the president of BYU, and presidents of universities.’”

It is not right to say to women, “You shouldn’t have been feeling that.” Feelings are authentic and do not respond to “shouldn’ts.” They must be expressed and respected. Each woman has her own experience, which is true for her own life. My experience is personal, not universal, but it is also not unique. I know, because I have talked to hundreds of Mormon women.

So many women are exhausted from having to work hard to validate femaleness. It is not right that we should have to. It is not right that our history, our theology, our present, and our future be given us solely in masculine terminology and from a male point of view. The injury to the female psyche is incalculable. But we have lived with it for so long we have come to accept it as natural. We have come to accept the absence of the female as just the way it is.

I want our children to have something better than a twisted version or complete void of femaleness. I want them to know why history has excluded women and to know a history that includes women rather than having to search and scrape for tiny crumbs.

I want them to read the Old Testament knowing it is not direct quotes from the mouth of God but often a reflection of a society struggling to discover what was godly. To know why in those times people prayed for male children but never for a girl; why a woman was unclean seven days after bearing a boy but fourteen after bearing a girl; why the woman was listed with the other property of her husband. I want our children to know that these were characteristics [237] of a fallen society, not an ideal pattern for our lives.

I also want them to know that in a day in which the orthodox Jew prayed “Praised be God that he has not created me a woman” came the revolutionary figure of Jesus, who seemed to value women as much as men and invited them to follow him, spoke to them in public, allowed a woman with the blood taboo to touch him, made women witnesses of the most important events in his life, and all in a day when woman’s word was not valid in a court of law. I want children to know that the writings of the Christian gnostics and other apocryphal texts tell even of Christ speaking not only of God the Father but of God the Mother. I wish I had learned those things on the nights I went home empty-handed after reading church books at the BYU library.

I want our children to know of the great lack of esteem for woman in the centuries after Christ, when Saint Clement said, “Every woman should be overwhelmed with shame at the very thought that she is a woman.”6 To know that Saint Augustine denied women had souls and that this issue was debated at church councils. That Martin Luther said, “Woman, though a stupid vessel, is essential. But man must always hold power over her, for he is higher and better than she.”7 I want them to be sad and angry for Saint Teresa of Avila who said, “The very thought that I am a woman is enough to make my wings droop.”8

Our children need to know that 85 percent of those executed for witchcraft—hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions—were women whose sins were a show of rebellion or an evidence of spiritual power, seen as a threat to the male-dominated church and society. They should know that an ancient Moslem mosque still bears the inscription, “women and dogs and other impure animals are not permitted to enter.” That in Morocco for centuries the custom was that the man rode the donkey and the woman walked six feet behind—until WW II left many dangerous unexploded mines in the ground, after which the woman walked six feet in front of the donkey. That Chinese girl babies’ feet were bound to keep them close to home and under complete male domination. That the phrase “rule of thumb” comes from old English law that dictates that a husband cannot beat his wife with a rod larger than his thumb. Our children need to know this sad history. And they need to know about [238] brave women and men who struggled to change it.

Our children need to know the history and contributions of women in our own church, women I had never heard of. To know that women such as Elizabeth Ann Whitney were, as the women themselves described it, “ordained and set apart under the hand of Joseph Smith to administer to the sick and comfort the sorrowful.”9 Until I researched my book Daughters of Light, I had never heard of Mormon women healing the sick, casting out evil spirits, receiving revelation, and prophesying. I had never heard of Louisa Pratt laying her hands on her children’s heads and healing them from smallpox in Nauvoo or Heber J. Grant’s wife giving him a prophetic blessing in tongues, for which he expressed gratitude until the end of his life. Knowing about these women would have comforted me as a teenager.

I remember the first day that I read Woman’s Exponent in the BYU library, how I walked home both elated and furious—thrilled that I had found these magnificent women and outraged that no one had ever told me they existed. No one told me about Emmeline B. Wells, who said of a woman running for president of the United States in 1884, “A new era is being ushered in and women are born with hearts as large, and aims as lofty, and courage as undaunted as men … They may be called innovators and extremists, but, nevertheless, they will stand out grandly in the future and be applauded as benefactors of the human race.”10

It has been a long journey from my first naive questioning, and I am not at the end of it. My work shows some of what I have learned along the way. In my poems, such as “Millie’s Mother Red Dress” and “The Steward,” I expressed the feelings of women who have given up too much. In Daughters of Light (1973) I compiled stories, experiences, and reports of Mormon pioneer women exercising spiritual gifts, such as healing, blessing and prophesying. In The Flight and The Nest (1975) I published photographs and descriptions of Mormon women of one hundred years ago and detailed how they responded to the women’s issues of their day, politically, educationally, professionally. In Goodbye, I Love You (1986) I traced how I discovered that seemingly God, obviously my church, and evidently my husband—all preferred men. In One on the Seesaw (1988) I talked about trying to raise children with a heightened consciousness about [239] women and men, using one of my favorite quotes, “Dear God, are boys really better than girls? I know you are one, but try to be fair.”

I want our children to know that progress has been made on behalf of women but to know too that we still have a long way to go. History will show us in transition from a dark day to a brighter day, but there are plenty of dark spots in America and in Utah. Historians will see that in our day maleness was still valued more than femaleness.

They will see a headline that reads “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing,” referring to a 1990 world census study. It estimates that extraordinary numbers of girls and women are missing in various countries due to female infanticide and lack of health care.11 In China some of these missing girl babies can be found at the bottom of the river.

They will see records of the World Health Organization showing a struggle to give adequate aid to at least 74 million women in Africa who have been subjected to the crude surgery of genital mutilation, keeping them more easily under male domination.

They will see news articles showing that in India in one year, 610 new brides died of burns after their husbands soaked them with kerosene and set them afire because they were displeased with the lack of dowry.

They will see in the records of American clinics that determine the sex of a fetus, far more requests for a boy than a girl, and records that show far more abortions of females than males.

Historians will see in the September 1988 issue of BYU Today alumni magazine, a letter to the editor telling of a man who prays daily that his wife will be a better wife so he will not have to hit her anymore.

In my diary they could read about a husband who would raise his hand “to the square” and command his wife to obey him when she disagreed with him. Or the woman who told me she watched her son’s Scout Court of Honor with pride and sorrow that her daughter did not have a moment of equal recognition.

They could read about the psychiatrist in San Diego who told me that a large percentage of his work with sexual abuse of children involves Mormon families. He said, “It seems to me that your church does not listen to its women. When a woman tells me she has [240] reported terrible abuse to the church, and her husband goes in and tells a different story, his is believed; by the time the truth comes out, the damage can be irreparable.”

They could read about the woman whose husband severely abused all of their six children and who after she forced him to meet with the bishop, slammed his fist into the church wall and said, “I am the god of my home; no one can tell me what to do or not to do with my family.”

They could find in my diary the statement made by the husband of a friend in Utah, who asked him in great frustration, “What would you do if you were the one in this relationship born a woman?” “Well,” he said, “I think I’d just make the best of a bad deal.”

I noticed something important in 1988 when Gordon B. Hinckley, first counselor to the president of the church, said,

I have an anxious concern for the young women of the Church … [T]he faithfulness of the young men as evidenced in the Church activities has moved forward, but that of the young women generally has not. In fact, in some areas it has slipped. We are prone to put emphasis on programs for the boys. We speak much of the Aaronic Priests and of Scouting. They are tremendously important, I do not minimize their importance … But I am greatly concerned over what is happening with the young women of the Church.12

Elder Hinckley noted a problem and expressed concern for our girls. But we need to be asking, “Is there something wrong with what we are giving our girls?” Future historians might find an interesting relationship between his statement and another one he made three years later,

I consider it inappropriate for anyone in the Church to pray to our Mother in Heaven … I find no where in the Standard Works an account where Jesus prayed other than to His Father in Heaven … I have looked in vain for any instance where any President of the Church … has offered a prayer to “our Mother in Heaven.” … I suppose those who use this expression and who try to further its use are well-meaning, but they are misguided.13

Men must come to understand that their esteem for their maleness comes easily, automatically. In our scriptures, in our prayers, in our temples, in our church organization, in the index to [241] the Book of Mormon, where we look in vain for friendly female names, esteem for maleness comes automatically. And femaleness is absent.

Nevertheless, in our theology we have both a Mother in Heaven and a Father in Heaven; our creator is both male and female. Should we include the Mother in Heaven in our worship? My answer is an unequivocal yes. As a child of God, I claim my Mother without apology. She is in my heart and my mind and I need her in my worship. I wish that our daughters and sons might raise their hands and say, “I request that we acknowledge this doctrine and allow it to nourish us.”

Carl Jung warned that if the feminine is not restored to its archetypal place in western religion and culture, the results might be catastrophic. I have sensed that it is true. The mythologist Robert Graves said that the unusually miserable state of the world demands that the supreme Godhead be redefined, that the repressed desire of western culture for some practical form of goddess worship be satisfied.14 I have sensed that this too is true. Joseph Campbell traced a mythology of the goddess in a day he calls “a milder, gentler day” than the day of the male god. He yearned for the day when the male and female deity can be side by side and dance together.15

The great marvel is that the truth of the divine female was not really buried; it was only planted. The knowledge of God as Mother continued to sprout through the driest of ground. Every religion and mythology bears an echo, a seed of this truth. It is growing and greening and you and I are the gardeners. It will continue to grow and reshape the landscape of a sometimes brutal male world. We might even say the field is white, all ready to harvest.

Since 1989 I have been performing a play, “Mother Wove the Morning,” which is an historical and personal search for the Divine Mother. I have performed to people of all religions as well as to non-religious people. And what I have learned from this experience as I have met the audiences in the lobby after more than two hundred performances is that thousands of people have a hunger as deep as mine and a commitment as firm to the proposition that we will no longer be content to be without our Mother.16

The Mormon church could have been a leader in giving to the modern world the concept of God as Mother: for 150 years we have [242] been sitting on this doctrine. Many other churches have moved ahead, making strides in this direction. Currently the reintegration of the feminine divine into our religious experience is happening almost universally. I am sorry to say that Mormons are now almost of the last wagon. However, within the LDS church there are thousands of women and men who are hungry and ready for this step.

My former stake Relief Society president said in her closing prayer at stake conference, “And we are thankful for our Heavenly Mother, who bore and nurtured us, and we pray that soon she will be revealed to us, and that we can worship her just as we worship thee.”

A dear friend who is a stake patriarch in the Midwest told me that in every one of more than 700 blessings he has given, he has spoken of that person’s Heavenly Father and Mother and that he routinely speaks to new bishops on our need to speak more openly of our Mother. He finds the bishops to be completely receptive to this suggestion.

Years ago a dear friend of mine in Provo, Stella Oaks, sent me a copy of a treasured song her father had written, a song yearning for the Heavenly Mother and apologizing for the “oversight that veiled Her from our view.”

We are seeing a miracle. It is the emergence of the feminine from over 4,000 years of suppression. It is the rediscovery of the knowledge of our divine Mother. It is the emergence of an era of partnership between male and female. It will take time, but this process will teach us to value femaleness. It will make our vision of God more whole and therefore more holy. It will make us better people than we have ever been, men as well as women.

I do not believe the notion so prevalent in the church—that everything is set and will not change, that there are no surprises. I think we are going to have amazing surprises. Every Mormon child has memorized, “We believe that there are yet to be revealed many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God.”17

The church is a history of response to demonstrated need. Emma Smith criticized the brethren for spitting tobacco on the floor.18 Did she have the right to do that? She did. The result was the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom. We have the Primary [243] because Aurelia Rogers complained to Brigham Young about the unruly boys. As members we have the right and responsibility to demonstrate the needs of the church. The church is in need of the Mother. So many of us are demonstrating that need and the need is profound.

We can wait for a world that includes the female or work for it. I am committed to work for it. What that world will be I do not exactly know. But I do know that the valuing of femaleness and maleness will be equal. Our language will reflect that equality. Maleness will not be a premium commodity. Femaleness will be central, not auxiliary. God the Mother will be no more foreign to us than God the Father.

The journey to that world is not an easy one. As with all important things, it is challenging and unsettling with the possibility of error. But I think we are up to it. After all we are pioneers.


My people were Mormon pioneers
Is the blood still good?
They stood in awe as truth
Flew by like a dove
And dropped a feather in the West.
Where truth flies you follow
If you are a pioneer.
I have searched the skies
And now and then
Another feather has fallen.
I have packed the handcart again
Packed it with the precious things
And thrown away the rest.
I will sing by the fires at night
Out there on uncharted
Uncorrelated ground
Where I am my own captain of tens
Where I blow the bugle
Bring myself to morning prayer
Map out the miles
[244] And never know when or where
Or if at all
I will finally say,
“This is the place.”
I face the plains
On a good day for walking.
The sun rises
And the mist clears.
I will be all right:
My people
Were Mormon pioneers.

Today’s Mormon feminists are one more wave of pioneers stepping onto a frontier that calls urgently, a frontier essential to the safe destiny of the human family. It is not a battle of women against men but a struggle of women and men together against a limited consciousness, against a limiting history. Some of this journey we can take together. But being a pioneer means sometimes we will be very much alone. I hope that both individually and as a church, we invite the Mother back into our lives and into our worship.


Carol Lynn Wright Pearson, author, poet, playwright, lecturer, and mother of four, resides in Walnut Creek, California. She has performed her one-woman play, “Mother Wove the Morning,” for more than 200 audiences throughout the United States. “Healing the Motherless House” combines material from two speeches delivered to the Mormon Women’s Forum: “A Walk in the Pink Moccasins,” 4 January 1989, and “Is There a Need to Include the Mother in Heaven in Our Worship?” 7 September 1991.

1. Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990), 95.

2. William Muss-Arnolt, “The Enuma Elish,” in Assyrian and Babylonian Literature (New York: Appleton, 1900), 282-83.

3. Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), 24, 43-44, 244, 250, 83.

4. Savina J. Teubal, Sarah First Matriarch of Genesis (Athens, GA: Swallow Press Books, 1984).

5. Eisler, 83.

6. Elizabeth Gould Davis, The First Sex (New York: Penguin Books, 1971), 231.

7. Ashley Montagu, The Natural Superiority of Women (New York: Collier Books, 1968), 140.

8. Mary Daly, The Church and the Second Sex (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), 98; “The Way of Perfection,” in The Complete Works of St. Teresa of Jesus, trans. E. Allison Peers (London: Sheed & Ward, Ltd., 1978).

9. “A Leaf From an Autobiography,” Woman’s Exponent 7 (15 Nov. 1878): 91.

10. “Mrs. Lockwood’s Nomination,” Woman’s Exponent 13 (Sept. 1884): 60.

11. “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing,” New York Review of Books, 20 Dec. 1990; quotation from Amartya Sen, professor of economics and philosophy, Harvard University.

12. Gordon B. Hinckley, “Our Responsibility to Our Young Women,” Ensign 18 (Sept. 1988): 8.

13. Gordon B. Hinckley, “Cornerstones of Responsibility,” address, Regional Representatives Seminar, 3-4, 5 Apr. 1991, Salt Lake City.

14. Robert Graves, The White Goddess (New York: Creative Age Press, 1948), 391.

15. Joseph Campbell, Occidental Mythology (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 62.

16. A young man named Paul Whiting was sitting on the front row of my performance, smiling. Afterward he approached and handed me an envelope. Inside was a poem he had written: “If you listen,/ you can hear/ sixteen women/ singing/ through her, and sixteen billion/ humming along” (Mormon Women’s Forum Newsletter, 1 [Mar. 1990]: 2).

17. “Article 9, Articles of Faith,” Pearl of Great Price (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1989), 60.

18. Valeen Tippets Avery and Linda King Newell, Emma Hale Smith, Mormon Enigma (New York: Doubleday, 1986), 47.