Ashley Mae (Ashmae) Hoiland received a BFA in painting and an MFA in creative writing from Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. She is the author of 100 Birds Taught Me to Fly and the illustrator of Mother’s Milk: Poems Searching for Heavenly Mother. A writer at the By Common Consent blog, she lives in Santa Cruz, California, with her three children and husband
There is a rocking chair in the corner of my children’s room. Most nights before they go to bed, I read them library books, and we end with a chapter of the Book of Mormon. In these past months as I’ve read with my children, I’ve started doing something simple that has changed my reading. In the places where it says, “My sons,” I simply add, “and daughters.” In places where it says “Brothers,” I also add “Sisters.” I include female pronouns wherever appropriate. As I add in these phrases, maybe because it makes me feel a little sneaky, I sometimes look up at Remy and Thea to see if they notice, but no, of course they don’t. To them, their own worlds are filled with examples of strong men and women, so why would the scriptures be any different? And it’s true, why would the experiences depicted in the scriptures be any different?
In my own life, as I’ve gotten older, the work of trying to be Christlike has come down to two simple ideas: learning to look and find where people need to be seen and then listening to them. I understood that the women who needed to be seen and listened to are the women I do not see at all, including those in scripture—the women I refer to as “sisters, daughters, wives, widows, friends.” In short, she and her. These perceived shes and hers that are not written about in the Book of Mormon have become increasingly notable to me because in so many ways, my contemporary experience mirrors theirs.
As I read the scriptures with the unmentioned women who were certainly there but not written about, in my mind the Book of Mormon becomes abuzz with the underpinnings of female lives and voices. I see them forming circles. I see them working. I see them as leaders in their communities, even if subversively for the time. I see them helping to raise one another’s children. I see them as strong, and I see them as wanting to be spoken of in our present day.
Most recently I’ve been reading in Mosiah with my kids. One scene I have been familiar with my whole life but have never fully imagined is the part where King Benjamin is speaking from a tower to the people. The narrator mentions that women and children are present as the scene is set up, but then the women move into the background of the text, and King Benjamin addresses “brethren” throughout his speech. What has struck me in recent reading is that when I really try to imagine this scenario, I first see a small scattering of women here and there. But the more I try to picture the scene, the more clearly I see that they are not only a handful of women but also a landscape of vibrant and diverse women. They are busy doing work. They are ready to listen. They are smart and capable. They are wrangling children and feeding them proverbial cheerios. They are helping each other. They are cleaning the tent. They are making plans. They are laughing. They are notable to me because I see my own life playing out in that landscape, and I love them, these long-ago sisters who also believed in Christ, who were trying to do good.
As I delve further into Book of Mormon stories, I start to hear a hum of women, first quiet, almost indiscernible, but the hum of their work and lives grows louder and more abundant in my mind until it is not just women being present and active in the scene before King Benjamin but throughout the whole Book of Mormon. I see these women, women of all types—married, unmarried, old, young, of many different colors and economic classes—and they are not stagnant characters.
I don’t have to imagine very hard to see them in my mind. I feel like my own lived experience has provided enough threads to weave a thousand rich tapestries. Women are, in various ways, undoubtedly an integral part of every major event, but it’s also likely that they will not be the ones who get to have their story spotlighted. These stories are often so regular, so innocuous, so quotidian, so part of the background that we fail to tell these stories because we fail to see the ways in which the diverse stories of women are the foundations of nations.
In a women’s conference nearly two decades ago, Sheri Dew said something that resonates with me as I grapple with my own notions of being notable in today’s world: “My message to you today, my dear sisters, whom I love, is the same: There is nothing more vital to our success and our happiness here than learning to hear the voice of the Spirit. It is the Spirit who reveals to us our identity—which isn’t just who we are but who we have always been. And that when we know, our lives take on a sense of purpose so stunning that we can never be the same again.”1
In these past months as I’ve read the Book of Mormon, I’ve seen a heritage of sisterhood that does help me to know not just who I am now but, in a sense, where I come from. I see in my mind’s eye this vast movement of women and in them I see part of my own identity. I am bolstered by the image of them. These imagined women who are not named, not even hinted at in word, are notable to me in part because I have to believe that in all my own plainness in this world, I am still notable to my Heavenly Parents.
I know there are hundreds of ways to be a woman in the world today, but I’ll speak to my own experience. Living here in Palo Alto, California, I have come to truly love the quiet but strong voices of women who are not always the obvious heroes of the story, the voices that can seem invisible to the world but have done the work of showing me what it is to be loved and cared for in godly ways. Many of the women who have changed and shaped my life are not the “notable” women; in fact, it’s likely that no one will write and tell their story. It’s likely that our conversations, revelations, and intellect will remain buried in the sand and hanging on the play structures of the courtyards where we spent so many hours while our children played. When we first came to Stanford for graduate school, I was resistant to “mom conversations.” I had a desire to be an intellectual or at least come off that way. It didn’t take me long, though, to see that the two are not mutually exclusive.
There will be almost no record of the many incredible women I’ve known in my time here. It’s likely that the husbands of many of them will leave behind written records of dissertations, names on certificates and awards and in academic journals. But for many of the women I know, the written and spoken record in the halls of academic and worldly success simply will not be there. The women who feel that the world is moving swiftly past them and that they cannot make their voice loud enough to be heard, or maybe they feel that they don’t even have something important enough to say loudly in the first place, have become the most notable women in the world to me. They are the stories of the women who have moved me, who have helped raise my children and formed circles around me in dark and tired hours, who have celebrated me as I’ve done for them. The women, who likely don’t feel notable, have time and again done the work of seeing me when I needed to be seen and listened to me when I thought no one would care.
I picture women also in relation to Christ. I think of the women in the New Testament, some of whom are named but many of whom are not. In their proximity to Christ, their willingness to believe that they might be healed, forgiven, listened to, or able to speak, was magnified. The woman with an issue of blood was healed, the woman taken in adultery was forgiven, the woman at the well was listened to, and the widow with her two mites was able to speak.
I wonder then what I am doing in my own life to give voice to the marginalized groups around me. I wonder how I can be Christlike in doing the work that others sometimes cannot do for themselves. In what ways am I seeing those who need to be seen and listening to them when they are found? Am I offering my platform to those who don’t normally get to speak? I am continually moved when I read the scriptures at the ability and insistence that Christ had for making what was typically not notable, notable.
We have a great work to do to ensure that we do not move forward as a Church just having to imagine what the voices of the marginalized might be. We can make room to hear diverse voices from the single people, people of color, the people with and without degrees, the people in poverty, the divorced, the women who work outside the home and the women who work inside the home, the physically or mentally sick, the abused, and the displaced.
Again and again Jesus offers dignity to people in situations where the law offers only judgment. What are we doing to give space and voice to the people who typically do not hold power? How do we make notable what could be deemed unnotable? How do we make sure our modern scripture forms circles around women so we do not leave them out of entire books? How do we mirror Christ’s compassion toward all people? “Have ye any that are sick among you? Bring them hither. Have ye any that are lame, or blind, or halt, or maimed, or leprous, or that are withered, or that are deaf, or that are afflicted in any manner? Bring them hither and I will heal them, for I have compassion upon you; my bowels are filled with mercy” (3 Nephi 17:7).
For me, I think the answer will always be found in what Christ repeatedly taught. Simply look, and then listen. I am changed when I think of the woman with an issue of blood, the way she was listened to, when to herself she said, “If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole” (Matthew 9:21). Christ likely was listening and made her notable within a crowd when she had probably been considered anything but notable.
Finally, maybe we can learn also to be okay with not being notable all the time. In reading about Christ’s interactions with the people in 3 Nephi, no names are mentioned, only a crowd of men, women, and children. Are we not also simply a participant in that crowd? When I read that passage, I imagine a group of regular people, both men and women, both marginalized and not. I see them also forming circles, bolstering one another, notable to no one except to Christ, who seeks them out one by one and blesses them and blesses them and blesses them.
A Place to Belong is filled with distinctive stories written by thirty-three modern women of faith who show from their own lives that there's more than one way to be a believing and contributing woman in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
This collection celebrates the diverse lives that women lead and how they navigate their twin commitments to women's issues and to their faith. Available now at Deseret Book stores and at DeseretBook.com.
1. Sheri L. Dew, “Knowing Who You Are—and Who You Have Always Been,” in Ye Shall Bear Record of Me: Talks from the 2001 BYU Women’s Conference (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 2002), 278, https://womensconference.byu.edu/sites/womensconference.ce.byu.edu/files/dew