Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Those Misogynist Nephites

Some readers have accused the Book of Mormon of being misogynistic. I mean, what else can you conclude about a narrative of over 500 pages that mentions only six women by name? And three of them are biblical figures—Eve, Sarah, and Mary—who aren’t even in the story. So really only three women among the Lehites merit having their names mentioned by the Nephite chroniclers: mother Sariah, the Lamanite servant woman Abish, and the harlot Isabel. That’s it. Nephi mentions his wife and sisters, but they are not important enough to identify by name, which makes them even less significant than his brother Sam, a perfectly inconsequential character in the story. And so it goes throughout the chronicle. Women are sometimes identified, but almost never by name.
Maybe misogynist is the wrong word, though. The Book of Mormon chroniclers aren’t hostile toward women. They just dismiss them as largely irrelevant. Some modern women apologists have come to the defense of Nephi and his fellow scribes by pointing out how many times women are actually mentioned in the history. And there are indeed a few instances where they play a supporting role in the drama, but if you look for their names in the playbill, you won’t find them.
Never is a woman the main character in any subplot in the larger story. Perhaps the closest a woman comes to headlining a scene is the wife of King Lamoni. She is a strong woman, a woman with power, but still a woman without a name. For some odd reason, her servant, Abish, gets her name in the record. But the queen herself? Not so lucky.
I would like to suggest, though, that although women appear to be neglected in the Book of Mormon narrative, this may be largely a Nephite thing. Think about it. Almost all the prominent women in the chronicle are Lamanite women, especially if they are positive figures. Reading between the lines, it’s fairly easy to see not only that Nephite society was overly patriarchal, but also that Lamanite society was much less so.
The distinction comes early. Jacob points out that the Lamanite men have avoided the sin of seeking after plural wives and concubines, a sin for which he castigates the Nephite men. So even at that early date the Lamanites apparently regarded their women more highly than the Nephites did. This becomes even more obvious later in the record. Lamoni’s wife is not just a central character; she is a woman who holds power and influence. This high status of the Lamanite queens can be seen again in the story of Amalickiah. When the Nephite traitor schemes to usurp power among the Lamanites, he first kills the king, but he apparently cannot assume the kingship himself until he wins over the queen and marries her.
By contrast, consider the queens of the Nephites. Um, what queens? It is never mentioned in the record that Benjamin or Mosiah had a wife. We only assume this information because we are told that they had sons. No daughters are mentioned, but that does not mean they did not exist. Just like their mothers, they are invisible. And this pattern holds true for the chief judges and the high priests and military leaders. Alma apparently had a wife, and so did Helaman and Pahoran and Captain Moroni and the younger Helaman and Nephi and his son Nephi, but we only assume this because we are told that these men had sons. Their wives are never mentioned.
Now consider the other story in the book1 where women play a crucial role—the account of the stripling warriors and their mothers, who taught them great faith. Guess what? These women were Lamanites. Of course they were. All the strong women in the Book of Mormon are Lamanites. The only Nephite woman who plays a prominent role in the story from the death of Sariah to the destruction of the Nephites is a whore. Mosiah never consults his wife when their sons ask permission to go on a seventeen-year mission to the Lamanites. We don’t read about Alma’s wife when he went off on his travels to set the church in order. Same with Helaman’s sons, Nephi and Lehi, when they set off to convert the Lamanites. When the younger Helaman occupies the judgment seat, there is no mention of Mrs. Helaman. The only woman who gets any airtime is the harlot Isabel. Apparently marrying a prophet doesn’t get you in the news, but seducing a prophet’s son sure does.
All this makes me wonder what the Book of Mormon story would be like if it had been written by the Lamanites. Undoubtedly it would be a fascinating tale with a far different spin than we get in the Nephite version. And undoubtedly more women would have names. Oddly, this may be the only known case where the victors didn’t get to write the history.
1. Of course I am ignoring the Jaredites here, because their society and history were totally separate from the Nephites and Lamanites.


  1. I think the Lamanites are often the most righteous people in the book. In many ways we get a somewhat distorted view of the Lamanites. (Partially due to the Nephites recording history, possibly due to Mormon who had just watched the Lamanites wipe out his people) It's worth noting that it takes Christ explicitly demanding the Nephites mention prophet Samuel the Lamanite for him to even get into their histories.

  2. Kevin ChristensenApril 29, 2016 at 7:22 AM

    I did a close reading of the Book of Mormon for everything it has about women for an essay in RBBM 10/2 back in 1998. Among other things, I found that "unlike the Bible, the Book of Mormon never makes proscriptive statements with respect to women’s roles. In the course of delivering his message, Mormon describes his culture, but never circumscribes ours."

    And I noticed that

    When Women Move to the Foreground "Given that the Book of Mormon doesn’t often mention individual women, what can we learn from those instances when it does? In researching this essay, we have realized that when women move from the background to the foreground in the Book of Mormon they typically do so for three reasons:

    * to highlight profoundly archetypal situations
    * to show the mutual dependence and independent agency of men and women
    * to emphasize that the promises and obligations of the gospel apply equally to men and women

    There is a consistency and deliberation in this on the part of the authors that suggests a positive intent and attitude."

    Kevin Christensen