Equality is not a Feeling, 27.0

Numerous scholars (e.g., here, here, here, here, etc.) have studied the images included in U.S. and world history textbooks as well as science textbooks and have argued that the representation (or lack of representation) of women and of non-white people therein sends a powerful message to the readers of said books.  In short, it suggests that certain people are key players in the narrative while others are not.  It suggests that certain people (in this case, white men) are the important actors in the main story, while women and minorities are either invisible or are highlighted in colored boxes–separate from the main story.  When I talk to my students about this (I’m a professor in a teacher education program), I usually take a quick poll–asking students how many of them actually look at or read the contents of the colored boxes that are clearly not part of the main story.  Usually one or two hands out of 30 go up.  When I ask them why, they explain that they know that stuff’s not important.  If it were, it would be in the main body of the text.  These studies typically go beyond just counting; they look at things like whether the people in the photo are named or nameless and whether the people in the photos are active participants or mere observers.  If all or most the images of people doing science, for instance, are male, then that sends a message (whether intentional or not) about who does science.

After discussing this issue with a class a while back and looking over several published studies that explored U.S. and Texas history textbooks, my mind turned to the church curriculum and to this column.  I’ve already done a similar count of the 2014 Primary curriculum, so I decided to take a look at what adult men and women in the church are studying.

Thus, today’s Equality is not a Feeling post reports on a quick count of the images found in the Teachings of Presidents of the Church manuals that have been used in Relief Society and Priesthood for a number of years.  As the church website explains, under Relief Society, these manuals should be used as the curriculum for the 2nd and 3rd Sundays of each month.  So, it’s fair to say that half of the Relief Society curriculum (two Sundays a month) is devoted to the study of these manuals–each of which includes a brief historical summary and bio about each prophet (which, naturally, is very male-focused since every prophet is and has been male)–followed by approximately 20 chapters of content about gospel principles.  

Here is what I discovered, with the help of Catherine and Esther, after counting all the images of the manuals from Joseph Smith through Spencer W. Kimball (which are the only ones available).  We counted each individual male or female image in each photo.  If the face was blurry or too small to tell whether the person depicted was a man or a woman (as is the case with some of the paintings included in the manuals), and/or if their clothing didn’t make it readily apparent, then we didn’t count them at all. 

2014 06 03 prophets manuals images take two

Taken as a whole, here is the breakdown of male to female images in the Teachings of Presidents of the Church manuals:

2014 06 03 prophets manuals total

So, who are the actors here?  Who are the main players, the primary participants, and who are the observers?  Who plays the bit parts?  

I know–some will say that I am finding fault, that I am straining at gnats.  But as the parent of two daughters and one son, I am responsible for helping them make sense of their world.  I am plumb out of ideas on how to help them make sense of things like this.  I am simply not willing to tell them (anymore) that there are things that we don’t understand, but that they should just endure it until we die and then maybe we will.  I just can’t.  

I want my daughters and my son to know that women are actors in our lives and in the world.  And in our spiritual lives.  Perhaps especially in our spiritual lives.   That is one thing (among many) that Mormonism has taught me–that we can play active roles in our religious lives.  That we can call on the heavens and that, sometimes, the heavens answer us.   That yes, we can petition god for good and right things.  Nay, we must.

Mormon women do have a voice.  We do want to be able to participate more actively, more fully, more publicly, more formally, more officially in our religious lives and communities.  

We do want a seat at the table.  

And having seats at the table is not the same thing as sometimes being invited to sit at the table.

[For the Equality is not a Feeling archive, click here.]