I recently read the new book Fresh Courage Take: New Directions by Mormon Women (Signature Books, 2015; publisher’s page), edited by Jamie Zvirdin with a foreward by Joanna Brooks. Twelve enlightening essays reflecting the plight, fight, and delight of being a Mormon woman circa 2015. You might ask: Not being a Mormon woman myself, who am I to write a review of this book? I know at least a few Mormon women rather well (mother, wife, daughter). Also, I have read lots of blog and Facebook posts by articulate Mormon women sounding some of the same themes and experiences, albeit shorter and less polished than these published essays. There’s a certain “I’m mad as heck and I’m not going to take it for much longer, only a few more years, but I really enjoy teaching the Sunbeams” quality to a lot of Mormon feminist writing. These essays show even less mad and more enjoyment.
Fresh. You probably won’t recognize the names of any of the essay authors — I didn’t. These are fresh voices. So you haven’t heard the details of their stories or their particular observations before. On the other hand, you will be quite familiar with the big picture: professors, professionals, part-timers, and talented stay-at-home-moms relating their path through modern Mormon womanhood. Church issues or not, gender issues or not, served a mission or not, married or not, kids or not, grad school or not, happy or not (okay, they all seem happy in the end). Mormons used to love reading conversion stories. Now it seems Mormons have shifted to what you might call “navigation stories”: accounts of how other similarly situated Mormons deal with life as a Mormon, how they successfully navigate through a Mormon life and Mormon issues without crashing and burning. That’s not as easy as it used to be. We’re all thrilled when someone can pull it off. This book provides twelve good examples of Mormon women pulling it off on their own terms.
Courage. Alas, it still requires a dose of courage for a Mormon woman to take a new direction, even more to write about it. There was a decade or so from 2003 (when popular blogging started to explode) to about 2013 (when Ordain Women got rolling) when that was not so true, sort of a Mormon Prague Spring. But another wave of retrenchment has arrived, the SCMC is still going strong, and we have a new cohort of public “apostates” to show for it. Local leaders are on the lookout for wolves among their congregational sheep. Feminists seem to be at particular risk, although perhaps not the mellow feminists featured in this book. But it is hard to predict what LDS leadership will do in the wake of Obergefull v. Hodges. While getting mixed signals from LDS sources, Mormon women nevertheless face a much wider menu of choices in education, career, and family than ever before. As Joanna Brooks announces in the foreward: “Take courage, sister. Your time has come.”
Take. “Take” is an action verb. Besides taking courage, these essays show women who — faced with the wider menu of life choices noted above — are taking action and doing great things while living a familiar but flexible Mormon life. The book exists because Jamie Zvirzdin (MFA, Bennington), the editor, dreamed up the idea while on assignment in Majuro, then recruited (by email) a dozen contributors to write for the book. Then actually completed the book. Rachael Decker Bailey (MA, English, BYU) teaches writing at Purdue while raising five kids and a husband. And she runs marathons. Karen Challis Critchfield (supported husband through college, then SAHM) escaped the “just a stay at home mom” feeling by making a pre-bucket list of 101 goals (I love lists), then actually achieving all of them (much tougher). And so forth. Degrees, kids, projects, accomplishments, challenges, struggles, issues. It strikes me that Mormon men have a fairly well defined path through early adulthood: mission, marriage, college, job, fatherhood/kids, callings. But Mormon women face a variety of paths, more choices, and seemingly have to justify those choices to themselves and often to others. That seems a bit unfair.
The first essay sets the frame for the balance of the book, Colleen Whitley’s account of the limited opportunities women faced in the 19th and early 20th centuries as well as her own experience just a generation or two ago (graduated high school 1958). She got a grad degree at BYU and then taught in the English department, but given policies against hiring married women at BYU and elsewhere, she left BYU when she got married and decided against pursuing a PhD. Nineteen years later, she was hired (again) at BYU, where she taught until 2006. It really is a different world now than just fifty years ago.
The Writing Thing. What I can’t convey very well in this short review is the quality of the writing in these essays. Seven of the twelve writers have at least one English degree. Several of the essays are “creative” in the way nothing that I write is ever creative. They are all better writers than I. They certainly convey more in their essays than simply an account of their experiences, struggles, and accomplishments. I suspect any Mormon woman reading the book will find two or three essays that really resonate. Mormon guys will merely gain some insight into the new directions of Mormon women and perhaps be better equipped to deliver fresh courage at opportune moments. Maybe we need to seek out those moments. Fresh courage give; fresh courage take.