Caroline Kline’s Mormon Women at the Crossroads: Global Narratives and the Power of Connectedness (University of Illinois Press, 2022) is an important contribution to studies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 21st century.
The book is based on a series of oral interviews that Kline did with women of color in Mexico, Botswana, and the United States, both presenting excerpts from those interviews as well as analysis. The introduction begins by discussing how her initial lens of gender equality proved insufficient in understanding the stories, perspectives, and priorities of the women she interviewed. Recognizing that overlapping identities of race, social class, sexual identity, etc. shape people in different ways, Kline strives to capture and represent the voices of these women through focusing on the stories they wanted to tell. In her efforts to analyze the interviews through their lenses and priorities rather than strictly through her own lenses and priorities, Kline came to focus on the perspective of non-oppressive connectedness, a worldview that blends elements of female empowerment and liberation with a broader focus on fostering positive and productive relationships. The first three chapters focus on the women interviewed in each of the three different regions (Mexico, Botswana, and the United States) while the fourth is an effort at bringing together and synthesizing theological reflections from the women who were interviewed, focused on a theology of abundance. All told, the book is very rich with insight and perspective on the lived experiences of Latter-day Saints in the 21st century.
There is a lot to love in Mormon Women at the Crossroads, and people approaching it from different perspectives and priorities will have different things that they walk away from the book appreciating. Many Latter-day Saints will appreciate gaining insight into the perspectives of people in different areas and backgrounds than their own and seeing the ways in which the Church has improved their lives. For example, a repeated theme in the chapter on women in Mexico is that through its focus on healthy, companionate marriages and on personal agency, the doctrines of the Church have led to relationships in which domestic abuse is lessened and that the expectations for manhood in the Church countered the machissimo cultural norms for men that frequently lead to abuse, alcoholism and adultery. Access to the Church’s schools and Relief Society activities where skills were shared and taught among women also led to important economic empowerment for the women who were interviewed. Similarly, women in Botswana also discussed that when they were able to establish relationships with Latter-day Saint men, they were more stable (with men remaining more involved in raising children), more equal, and less harmful, which gave them increased opportunities and empowerment. The social networks and leadership roles offered to women in the Church also provided avenues for involvement and community building in a culture that is dealing with the strains of rapid modernization. This aspect of the book and the experiences shared actually were quite faith-promoting for me, seeing how positive of an impact the Church had for these women.
Granted, there are also struggles with the Church that were represented as well. For example, the women in Botswana discussed how they had to do some complex navigation of their Latter-day Saint identities and cultural identities. The three main ones discussed were interrelated, with the emphasis on sexual chastity being one (a belief in marriage before children coming into conflict with a culture where children are emphasized, but marriage is not as much), lobola (bridewealth, a tradition where the groom-to-be gives payment to the father of the bride that is discouraged by Church leaders, since it leads to delays in starting marriage while the necessary finances are accumulated), and the Church’s position in the past of encouraging single mothers to put children up for adoption. Likewise, women in the United States discussed some tension points, like facing ongoing fallout from the former teachings of the Church on race, such as discouraging interracial marriages, etc. Still, the book does provide some information on how these women navigate these issues while still remaining a part of the Church.
The fourth chapter (the theology of abundance section) provides a thought-provoking synthesis of the discussions had during the oral interviews, focusing on how God is gracious and generous. There are some insightful reading of scriptures included in the chapter, as well as ideas drawn from the suggestions and experiences of the women who were interviewed. One thing in particular that stood out to me were some dreams and visions that the Latter-day Saints in Mexico spoke about. The chapter also draws on the teachings of Chieko Okazaki, who was honored as a prolific writer and a prominent woman of color in Church leadership, so was able to bring some important perspectives to her writings and sermons. It was a lot to think about.
If it’s not clear from the above, I thought that Caroline Kline’s Mormon Women at the Crossroads: Global Narratives and the Power of Connectedness (University of Illinois Press, 2022) was fantastic. I felt like it’s given me a lot to think about – both for ways that things could be done better across the Church to interact with the cultures of people around the world, but also the ways in which being a part of the Church does good things for people’s lives. I definitely recommend reading it.
As a side note, for those wanting more of a taste of the book, there is an excellent interview with Caroline Kline by Katie Ludlow Rich over at The Exponent that is worth a read.