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Rethinking Mormonism's Heavenly Mother

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 July 2016

Taylor G. Petrey*
Kalamazoo College


When feminists interrogate the symbolic realm of religion, they often expose much of theological discourse as an idealized projection of a masculine subjectivity. In response to androcentric theological discourse, some feminists’ approaches have reframed religion in support of feminine subjectivity. For example, Luce Irigaray experienced an important, constructive turn to religion in her writings in the 1980s and 1990s following her early criticism of phallogocentric Western philosophy. She argued provocatively:

Monotheistic religions speak to us of God the Father and God made man; nothing is said of a God the Mother or of God made Woman, or even of God as a couple or couples. Not all the transcendental fancies, or ecstasies of every type, not all the quibbling over maternity and the neutrality (neuterness) of God, can succeed in erasing this one reality that determines identities, rights, symbols, and discourse.

Elsewhere, she contends: “as long as woman lacks a divine made in her image she cannot establish her subjectivity or achieve a goal of her own. She lacks an ideal that would be her goal or path in becoming.” For Irigaray, “to become divine” means to become a subject, as opposed to being a term that defines the other. Fertility, motherhood, and female genealogies are central to Irigaray's divine woman as a way to establish female subjectivity.

Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 2016 

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1 I presented oral and written versions of this paper in several fora and wish to thank audiences for their questions and feedback. I wish to thank specifically Susanna Morrill, Joseph Spencer, and the members of Patrick Mason's “Gendering Mormonism” course at Claremont Graduate University in spring 2014 for their critical input in the late stages of this paper, and Grant Adamson for his keen eye. I also wish to thank the anonymous reviewers who provided important perspectives and encouragement.

2 Irigaray, Luce, “Equal to Whom?,” in The Essential Difference (ed. Schor, Naomi and Weed, Elizabeth; Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994) 76 Google Scholar.

3 Irigaray, Luce, Sexes and Genealogies (trans. Gill, Gillian C.; New York: Columbia University Press, 1993) 6364 Google Scholar.

4 First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “The Origin of Man,” Improvement Era 13 (1909); repr. in Ensign (February, 2002), The affirmation of “Heavenly Parents” is made also in the 1995 document, First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” The Church also produced a “Gospel Topics Essay” dedicated to the issue. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Mother in Heaven,”

5 Toscano, Margaret, “Heavenly Motherhood: Silences, Disturbances, and Consolations,” Sunstone 166 (2012) 7279 Google Scholar.

6 Irigaray's interest in the subject of religion has continued in subsequent books. Irigaray, Luce, In the Beginning, She Was (New York: Continuum, 2012)Google Scholar; Irigaray, Luce, Between East and West: From Singularity to Community (trans. Pluhácek, Stephen; New York: Columbia University Press, 2002)Google Scholar.

7 Irigaray's deployment of Feuerbach's theory of God as a projection has been the subject of critical assessment of her work. Some have pointed to this approach as a safe appropriation of religion, while others have noted that religion does not work without sincerity of belief, which Irigaray deconstructs in “Belief Itself” (Irigaray, Sexes and Genealogies, 69–72). Amy Hollywood critiques Irigaray's assumptions about religion that bypass belief, suggesting that Freud was correct when he argued that religion works when the dynamics are hidden ( Hollywood, Amy, “Beauvoir, Irigaray, and the Mystical,” Hypatia 9 [1994] 158–85Google Scholar; Hollywood, Amy, Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002] 211–35)Google Scholar.

8 Jantzen, Grace has argued for a new religious imaginary based on Irigaray in Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999)Google Scholar. Anderson, Pamela Sue argued that projection is the way to understand religion in A Feminist Philosophy of Religion: The Rationality and Myths of Religious Belief (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1998)Google Scholar.

9 Irigaray, Sexes and Genealogies, 69.

10 Ibid., 18.

11 Ibid., 107.

12 Ibid., 70.

13 Roy, Marie-Andrée, Women and Spirituality in Irigaray (New York: Routledge, 2003) 1618 Google Scholar.

14 Stone, Alison, Luce Irigaray and the Philosophy of Sexual Difference (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 Irigaray, Luce, “Toward a Divine in the Feminine,” in Women and the Divine: Touching Transcendence (ed. Howie, Gillian and Jobling, J'annine; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) 1326, at 13–14CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Irigaray, Luce, I Love to You: Sketch for a Felicity Within History (New York: Routledge, 1996) 47 Google Scholar.

17 Joy, Morny, Divine Love: Luce Irigaray, Women, Gender and Religion (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006) 34 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 Ibid., 34.

19 Poxon, Judith L., “Corporeality and Divinity: Irigaray and the Problem of the Ideal,” in Religion in French Feminist Thought: Critical Perspectives (ed. Joy, Morny, O'Grady, Kathleen, and Poxon, Judith L.; New York: Routledge, 2003) 4150 Google Scholar.

20 Jones, Serene, “Divining Women: Irigaray and Feminist Theologies,” in Another Look, Another Woman: Retranslations of French Feminism (ed. Huffer, Lynne; Yale French Studies 87; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 4267 Google Scholar.

21 Poxon, “Corporeality and Divinity,” 45.

22 Ellen Armour, “Divining Differences: Irigaray and Religion,” in Religion in French Feminist Thought, 29–40; Morny Joy, “Irigaray's Eastern Explorations,” in Religion in French Feminist Thought, 51–67.

23 Irigaray, Luce, This Sex Which Is Not One (trans. Porter, Catherine and Burke, Carolyn; Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985) 213 Google ScholarPubMed. See also Irigaray, Luce, Speculum of the Other Woman (trans. Gill, Gillian C.; Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985)Google Scholar.

24 Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, 105–18.

25 Joy notes that Irigaray shifts in this transition to an ideal divine woman. She suggests, “It will provide the foundations for her promotion of ‘sexual difference’ which is of a different order from the plurality of the ‘two lips’” (Joy, Divine Love, 29).

26 Armour, “Divining Differences,” 30.

27 Irigaray's transition from multiplicity in Speculum and The Sex Which is Not One to the singular idealization of “woman” in Sexes and Genealogies has complicated her discussion of corporeality and embodiment (Poxon, “Corporeality and Divinity,” 43).

28 Givens, Terryl, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) 3752 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 Derr, Jill Mulvay, “The Significance of ‘O My Father’ in The Personal Journey of Eliza R. Snow,” BYU Studies 36 (1996) 98 Google Scholar. Derr, Jill Mulvay, Cannon, Janath Russell, and Beecher, Maureen Ursenbach, Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Co., 1992) 5758 Google Scholar.

30 Morrill, Susanna, “Mormon Women's Agency and Changing Conceptions of the Mother in Heaven” in Women and Mormonism: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (ed. Holbrook, Kate and Bowman, Matt; Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 2016) 121–35Google Scholar.

31 Paulsen, David L. and Pulido, Martin, “‘A Mother There’: A Survey of Historical Teachings About Mother in Heaven,” BYU Studies 50 (2011) 7197 Google Scholar.

32 Wilcox, Linda P., “The Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven,” in Women and Authority: Re-Emerging Mormon Feminism (ed. Hanks, Maxine; Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1992) 317 Google Scholar. This often-republished essay first appeared in Sunstone 5 (1980) 9–15.

33 Charles, Melodie Moench, “The Need for a New Mormon Heaven,” Dialogue 21 (1988) 84 Google Scholar.

34 Charles, “A New Mormon Heaven,” 84–85.

35 Gordon B. Hinckley, “Daughters of God,” Ensign (November, 1991) 97.

36 The Church does not comment publicly on the reasons for excommunication. The accounts of these scholars who were excommunicated report that they were excommunicated for “apostasy.”

37 Paulsen and Pulido, “‘A Mother There;’” Barney, Kevin, “How to Worship Our Mother in Heaven (Without Getting Excommunicated),” Dialogue 41 (2008) 121–46Google Scholar. Some Mormon feminists at the online journal SquareTwo have taken to feminist philosopher Sylviane Agacinski, a structuralist in the tradition of Claude Lévi-Strauss and his successor Françoise Hértier. Agacinski vigorously opposes feminist ideas that seek to make women more like men, a view she associates with Simone de Beauvoir, and cautiously admires feminist separatism like that she associates with Cixous, Hélène and Irigaray, Luce. Agacinski, Sylviane, Parity of the Sexes (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001)Google Scholar. SquareTwo has established itself as a feminist voice in Mormonism under the leadership of political science scholar Valerie M. Hudson, also known as V. H. Cassler or Valerie Hudson Cassler. Every issue of the journal features at least one essay on women and gender, and the issues regularly oppose homosexual relationships.

38 Valerie Hudson Cassler, “I am a Mormon Because I am a Feminist,” Mormon Scholars Testify,

39 Toscano, “Heavenly Motherhood,” 73.

40 Allred, Janice, God the Mother: And Other Theological Essays (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1997) 29 Google Scholar.

41 Toscano, Margaret and Toscano, Paul, Strangers in Paradox: Explorations in Mormon Theology (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1990) 56 Google Scholar.

42 Toscano and Toscano, Strangers in Paradox, 7.

43 Allred, God the Mother, 25.

44 Toscano and Toscano, Strangers in Paradox, 56.

45 Allred, God the Mother, 29.

46 Ibid., 24, 27.

47 Toscano and Toscano, Strangers in Paradox, 240.

48 Allred, God the Mother, 30.

49 Kline, Caroline, “From Here to Eternity: Women's Bodies, Women's Destinies in Janice Allred's Theology,” Element: The Journal for the Society of Mormon Philosophy and Theology 5 (2009) 115 Google Scholar. Oppositional Mormon feminists have long been critical of the priesthood-motherhood equivalency ( Farnsworth, Sonja, “Mormonism's Odd Couple: The Priesthood-Motherhood Connection,” in Women and Authority: Re-Emerging Mormon Feminism [ed. Hanks, Maxine; Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1992] 299314 Google Scholar).

50 Toscano, “Heavenly Motherhood,” 71.

51 Valerie Hudson Cassler, “I Am a Mormon Because I Am a Feminist.”

52 Cassler, Valerie Hudson, “Plato's Son, Augustine's Heir: ‘A Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology’?SquareTwo 5 (2012)Google Scholar,

53 Sorenson, Alma Don and Cassler, Valerie Hudson, Women in Eternity, Women of Zion (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 2004) 155 Google Scholar.

54 Cassler, Valerie Hudson, “Review of Paulsen and Pulido's, ‘A Mother There,’ BYU Studies 2011,” SquareTwo 4 (2011)Google Scholar,

55 The first online version of this essay repeatedly called homosexual relationships “gender apartheid,” which was later edited to “gender apart-ness” throughout the document. Cassler, Valerie Hudson, “‘Some Things That Should Not Have Been Forgotten Were Lost’: The Pro-Feminist, Pro-Democracy, Pro-Peace Case for State Privileging of Companionate Heterosexual Monogamous Marriage,” SquareTwo 2 (2009)Google Scholar,

56 Cassler, “Some Things That Should Not Have Been Forgotten.”

57 Sorenson and Cassler, Women in Eternity, xiv.

58 Valerie Hudson Cassler, “The Two Trees.” FAIRMormon Conference (2010),

59 Hudson sometimes offers visions of equality that are in tension with one another. At times, she explains that the difference between men and women is no more absolute than the difference between men is absolute. She explains, “there are no two men who are identical, and yet they stand as equals before each other and before the Lord. Can we imagine an understanding of equality that means that a man and woman, though different, can be equals before the Lord and before each other? That is the vision of equality that the Restored Gospel teaches” ( Hudson, Valerie M., “The Curious Appeal of Roman Catholicism for Certain Latter-Day Saint Intellectuals,” SquareTwo 4 [2011]Google Scholar,

60 Hudson, Valerie M. and Sorenson, Alma Don, “Response to Professor Thomas,” in Mormonism in Dialogue With Contemporary Christian Theologies (ed. Musser, Donald W. and Paulsen, David L.; Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2007) 323339, 326Google Scholar.

61 Sorenson and Cassler, Women in Eternity, 146.

62 Ibid., 158.

63 Some of Hudson's more recent work has been more aware of the imbalance of this division, calling for a greater role for women in the church and other spheres: “Men should not hold a privileged position in shaping the world in which women and their children and loved ones must live. This principle of equal voice must extend beyond the family: women should be equally represented in the leadership of towns, cities, nations, and the world.” What Hudson is suggesting here, obliquely, is that women should have equal voice in all church councils, but that this does not entail that they be ordained to the priesthood. She notes that changes are being made already and optimistically anticipates more changes: “The co-presidency of men and women in the human family, reflecting the co-presidency of our Heavenly Parents, is becoming better recognized.” Cassler, Valerie Hudson, “Ruby Slippers on Her Feet: Reflections on the OrdainWomen Website,” SquareTwo 6 (2013)Google Scholar,

64 Toscano and Toscano, Strangers in Paradox, 9.

65 Ibid., Strangers in Paradox, 90.

66 Allred, God the Mother, 39.

67 Toscano and Toscano, Strangers in Paradox, 69.

68 Allred, God the Mother, 24.

69 Ibid., 28–29.

70 Ibid., 29.

71 Gatens, Moira, Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power, and Corporeality (New York: Routledge, 1996) 43 Google Scholar.

72 Judith Butler's numerous works on gender and sexuality are influential here. For a collection of essays on Butler's influence on religious studies, see Armour, Ellen T. and Ville, Susan M. St., Bodily Citations: Religion and Judith Butler (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006)Google Scholar.

73 Fausto-Sterling, Anne, Sexing the Body (New York: Basic Books, 2000)Google Scholar.

74 Cassler, “Some Things That Should Not Have Been Forgotten.”

75 Agacinski articulates a certain feminist view that discounts race: “ethnic traits are altogether superficial and accidental compared to sexual difference” (Agacinski, Parity of the Sexes, 14). In contrast, she offers a dualist and essentialist view of sexual difference: “being a woman truly constitutes one of the two essential ways of being a human” (Agacinski, Parity of the Sexes, 157 [italics in original]).

76 Butler, Judith, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004) 8 Google Scholar.

77 Irigaray, Luce, The Way of Love (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2002) 13 Google Scholar. Joy has criticized Irigaray's heterosexual framework for transformative love saying, “the more spiritual Irigaray becomes. . . the more conservative are her views” (Joy, Divine Love, 4). On the heterosexual limitations of Irigaray, see Joy, Divine Love, 109–12.

78 Bacon, Hannah, What's Right With the Trinity? (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009) 173 Google Scholar.

79 Dahl, Paul E., “Godhead,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism (ed. Ludlow, Daniel H.; New York: Macmillan, 1992) 552–53Google Scholar.

80 Allred, God the Mother, 54–59. She also argues that in Joseph Smith's visions of two divine personages, he witnesses the Father and the Mother (Allred, God the Mother, 67).

81 Ostler, Blake, Exploring Mormon Thought: Of God and Gods (Exploring Mormon Thought 3; Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2008) 257 Google Scholar.

82 Ostler, Of God and Gods, 259.

83 Ibid., 261 (italics in original).

84 Ibid., 274.

85 Ibid., 276.

86 Irigaray, Sexes and Genealogies, 62.

87 Some early Mormons advanced the idea of multiple divine females in a “trinity of Mothers,” identified with divinized Eve, Sarah, and Zion. Mormon women took on these models for identification in marriage and motherhood. Tullidge, Edward W., Women of Mormondom (New York: Tullidge and Crandall, 1877) 195, 534 Google Scholar. The notion of multiple “Heavenly Mothers” owes its origins to the polygamous teachings of 19th cent. Mormonism and notions of divinization that developed in tandem with this idea: “In the heaven where our spirits were born, there are many Gods, each one of whom has his own wife or wives which were given to him previous to his redemption, while yet in his mortal state” (Orson Pratt, The Seer 1.3 [Mar 1853] 37). In the subsequent pages 38–39, Pratt posits multiple Heavenly Mothers for this world because of the immense time it takes for the gestation of spirit children. Yet, the patriarchal implications of this idea are difficult to escape. In a later issue, Pratt continues: “But if we have a heavenly Mother as well as a heavenly Father, is it not right that we should worship the Mother of our spirits as well as the Father? No; for the Father of our spirits is at the head of His household, and His wives and children are required to yield the most perfect obedience to their great Head” (The Seer 1.10 [Oct 1853] 159).

88 The classical treatment is in Ruether, Rosemary R., Sexism and God Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon, 1993) 116–38Google Scholar.

89 Irigaray, Speculum, 199–200. See discussion in Hollywood, Sensible Ecstasy, 198–203.

90 In marking this transition, she explains: “But for women that model [of Jesus] is inadequate, because even if, as representative of the life of Jesus, it is not in opposition to them, it does not furnish them certain needed representation of themselves, of their genealogy, and of their relation to the universe or to others. Older religions offer them better examples of mother-daughter relationships, of the divinity of woman in her own sexual body, and of her relation to nature” (Irigaray, “Equal to Whom?,” 80).

91 Bynum, Caroline Walker, “Introduction: The Complexity of Symbols,” in Gender and Religion: On the Complexity of Symbols (ed. Bynum, Caroline Walker, Richman, Paula, and Harrell, Stevan; Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1986) 120 Google Scholar.

92 Hollywood, “Beauvoir, Irigaray, and the Mystical,” 158–85.

93 Allred, God the Mother, 30.

94 Ibid., 34.

95 Cassler, “Ruby Slippers.”

96 Okazaki, Cheiko, Lighten Up! (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Co., 1993) 174–75Google Scholar.

97 Butler, Judith, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993) 29 Google Scholar.

98 Petrey, Taylor G., “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” Dialogue 44 (2011) 106141 Google Scholar.