Hidden Harms of Heavenly Mother: Part 1

Monday, April 18, 2022

Hidden Harms of Heavenly Mother

Kate M.(she/they), Ruth M. (she/her), Channing P. (she/her), & Elise P. (she/her)


Although General Conference has placed a spotlight on Heavenly Mother conversations, she has existed within white Mormon feminist spaces for quite some time. Whether we trace back interpretations to Eliza R. Snow’s 1845 hymn “Oh My Father,” explore poetry books, search popular Instagram pages, or review scholarly Mormon spaces like Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, we would find much creative discussion on the topic. Unfortunately, decades of heartfelt endeavor and extensive devotion to unveiling Heavenly Mother has yet to reveal more expansive and inclusive interpretations of her divine purpose and potential.

For all the claims of radical reclamation of divinity, why is it that she continues to be white, straight, married to Heavenly Father, peaceful, mother-of-all, and endlessly nurturing? Does crafting a divine female and assuming her gender and sexuality within a cisheteronormative framework truly get us closer to inclusive theology? Or is the current rendering of her a hollow idol created in our own image and crafted from patriarchal scraps that uphold white supremacy and gender essentialism?

The authors of this piece hope to critique current interpretations of Heavenly Mother while offering a radical reimagining that disrupts systems of domination and includes space for divine queerness. While our approach is informed by research and analysis, our primary voices are those of Latter-day Saint women and genderqueer people. We either house the wounds of Latter-day Saint patriarchy, colonialism, and white supremacy or who actively wish to honor, sustain, and bear the burdens of those wounds.Rather than strip this piece of emotion for the sake of objectivity, we maintain a perspective rooted in our lived experience of a well-intentioned but harmful Heavenly Mother. We want others to know and feel the harm which Heavenly Mother oftentimes does not relieve but instead perpetuates.

This is a discussion about harm. It is uncomfortable. Rather than repeating the familiar phrase of “it will be figured out in the next life,” we invite readers to be willing to bear the burden that comes with a Heavenly Mother and take on the discomfort. Sit with it and decide how best to reduce harm moving forward. We hope to be clear: we are all on this journey together. While none of us have fully dismantled our prejudices, we have chosen to engage with them as we engaged with one another. We have talked with one another. This is more than a mere list of the harms our Mormon, Latter-day Saint, and adjacent siblings express. Instead, we seek to truly honor their experiences by working toward progress and improvement, even if imperfectly.

As we situate this piece within conversations of Mormon Heavenly Mother, we offer some questions as a guide: Are we willing to side with patriarchal representations in deity? Or will we work to dismantle patriarchal systems for the liberation of all? Currently, we see the movement for discussion of Heavenly Mother at a crossroads, unsure which direction to turn. Will we move down the path of patriarchy or down the path of radical liberation? Once again the authors fear that Heavenly Mother offers an expansion of Mormon patriarchy to include the paradigms of white, middle-class, married (to men) women, and does very little to actually dismantle those patriarchal paradigms.

Enshrining Heavenly Mother as a Latter-day Saint deity within the doctrine is a topic not only revived among Latter-day Saint feminists, especially in online spaces, but one which has encouraged a favorable tipping of the collective critical mass. But before we ground ourselves too firmly in this Heavenly Mother doctrine, it is important to ask ourselves what we find so critical, urgent, and necessary about recognizing Heavenly Mother as a deity.

The authors here support the notion that representation matters. Marginalized groups should see themselves represented in media like television and literature and also in positions of power. In this regard, we understand the importance of representation and the desire to see oneself reflected in the doctrine of deity, especially if the doctrine explicitly states that people are created in the “image” of deities. We empathize with a desire to recognize and speak of and to Heavenly Mother as a deity because of her implied potential to represent all of the following: a female body, the concept of gendered womanhood, and the concept of sacred femininity.

The efforts to bring forward a Heavenly Mother are rife with conflations of a female body with gendered womanhood and femininity. We consider such a deified embodiment as a cisgender Heavenly Mother because her body is assigned female, her gender is that of a woman, and she is seen as feminine. This is problematic because it defaults to cisgender ideas. The colonial racist, cisgender, and gender essentialist ideology built in to the doctrine of the divine are the primary focus of this article.

How do we incorporate Heavenly Mother into our religious worship without causing further harm? We must first address two major issues with Heavenly Mother: the first being the interrelated concepts of racism, white supremacy, and the nuclear family; with the second as gender essentialism and heteronormativity.


“Can you tell me why you think Heavenly Mother is white?” Someone asked Kate recently, “I’ve seen many visual representations of Heavenly Mother as non-white.”

We have seen that white Mormon women are creating Heavenly Mother in their own image, no matter how many visual representations of Mothers of Color they call on. Their understanding of womanness and “the feminine” are rooted in colonial and white supremacist ideas which inform their image of a Heavenly Mother figure. When we say that Heavenly Mother is white, we are saying that her default image is constructed from the cloth of white femininity and the white cisgender understandings developed out of colonialism. Colonialism fabricated both race and gender and exported it throughout the world under the guise of spreading civilization.

But Western concepts of “civilization” led to genocide and cultural genocide. This process even became part of scientific movements that have later been realized to be pseudoscientific, like that of the eugenics movement in the United States that was exported to Nazi Germany. The first attempt to separate the legitimate international scientific community from eugenicists came in 1950 with the UNESCO document titled The Race Question. In this document, well-known scientists admitted that: “Science was faced with the problem of race at the beginning of the nineteenth century when the great evolutionary theories were being formulated. Unfortunately, the problem soon shifted from the purely scientific field to the field of politics.” It also stated that: “The biological fact of race and the myth of ‘race’ should be distinguished. For all practical social purposes ‘race’ is not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth. The myth ‘race’ has created an enormous amount of human and social damage,” (pg. 8).

The myth and the science of race have never been successfully disentangled. An example of this can be seen today as calls for racial justice make news headlines and DNA tests intended to provide heritage results are given as Christmas gifts. The results of these tests, which have been shown to provide vastly different results for even identical twins, highlights the ways that racism still penetrates into genetic and biological science.

The scientific process of evaluating specific DNA factors might be objective, but the interpretation of those factors on real world situations is subjective, creating biased heritage results. Defining and redefining categories like “German” is a subjective process based on specific times and places. Most subjective understandings of “German heritage” do not include Afro-German heritage, nor do they recognize peripheral or intermingled heritage. One example being the case of German towns in Romania, where citizens speak both languages and participate in shared traditional practices.

Can we trust science to be purely objective and politically neutral when the above cases indicate that science can be subjectively racist? The Scientific Revolution was a series of scientific movements which relied on elite 16th and 17th century European men to discover scientific methods. This was not a discovery as much as it was a fabrication. The authors believe that this creation has contributed to important advancements in medicine and technology; however, its methods were also steeped in religious subjectivity and an unattainable standard of purely objective observation. Because of this, the Scientific Revolution is a reflection of white, elite, European, male worldview (referred to as paradigm from here on). When white Europeans made claims about biology in the 16th century, they created white supremacy as well as misogyny. As a result, these concepts are inherent in the Scientific Revolutions, just as racism is inherent in modern DNA science. Science is not ‘purely objective’ or ‘politically neutral’. From its inception it has been a methodical weapon used against marginalized groups.

This process seeped into social science as well, creating colonial interpretations still found in anthropology and archaeology today. 19th century anthropologists and ethnographers used these so-called biological understandings of race, ethnicity, and gender to create hierarchies of “civilization.” These observers concluded that some races, ethnicities, and people were inferior or more “primitive” and they needed to become “civilized.” This is colonialism. Part of that colonial process was deciding who had “civilized” family, marriage, and kinship networks and who had more “primitive” ones. Because science seemed to have the definitive interpretation of what race, ethnicity, civilization, and gender meant, science claimed objectivity on those matters while enshrining racism, sexism, and imperialism.

When someone challenges the recent win of trans athlete Lia Thomas by saying she is “biologically male”, we should immediately wonder if this “biological science” is similar to that questioned by UNESCO in 1950. If so, race and gender are bound up in the same oppression. “Biological science” of gender developed alongside the “biological science” of race and both were created out of the white, male, elite Scientific Revolutions.

More sinister is the concept of “civilized” that subconsciously enters our discussion of Heavenly Mother. When we say that Heavenly Mother is white, we are saying that she is a reflection of a particular understanding of family, kinship, and community structures constructed by colonial scientific knowledge makers. There are other family and community networks besides that found in the Family Proclamation, but Heavenly Mother discussions have yet to sufficiently challenge the colonial patriarchal interpretation of family or gender. Heavenly Mother, therefore, seems to be colonial patriarchy deified.

Koa Beck introduces her book White Feminism with the story of a viral personal essay she wrote. In that essay she explained that she moved through the world as both white and straight “of which I am neither” she states. she writes that she had many responses to the essay, “but more disturbing to me than even the most violent or condescending responses was the assertion that I should just be white. That if I was light enough to pass and other white people were buying it, why couldn’t I just ascend to whiteness? Wasn’t this an upgrade? Wasn’t this progress?” she continues, “Key in this assumption that I would even want to is the unquestioned belief that white is better. That if I am being given the opportunity to be a part of this special club where I’m not racially harassed and managers deem me competent before I even say anything, I should just take it. But even more importantly, I shouldn’t question it,” (p. x-xi).

Globally in the United States and additionally within Mormonism, the stance taken is that white supremacy should not be questioned. Mormons generally are not committed to anti-racism. Said differently, while Latter-day Saint members are encouraged to “abandon attitudes and actions of prejudice,” most – like those who responded to Beck – are not questioning why whiteness, “Western civilization”, heterosexuality, and cisgender are still considered the default, “superior” statuses. Kate remarks that: “It would be bitterly hypocritical for me to say that I have abandoned my attitudes and actions of prejudice. It would be wrong to say that my past is not littered with racist actions and assumptions. I am not demanding perfection, in fact, I plead for grace for all of us, but as a culture, we have essentially all the corners of our religion to sweep for prejudice, including white Mormon feminism and Heavenly Mother.”

We continue to believe and promote trickle-down feminism, a model introduced by writer, sociologist, and cultural critic Tressie McMillan Cottom, which says that if we fight long enough to get elite, white, non-disabled, married (to men) women a feminist platform within patriarchal institutions, that privilege will trickle-down to other women and genders.

Elise spoke about trickle-down feminism in an intersectional episode of the First Name Basis podcast, hosted by Jasmine Bradshaw, when Jasmine interviewed The Faithful Feminists co-hosts. Elise unpacked the problems with trickle-down feminism especially as it pertains to Mormonism:

Elise: “Also, intersectional feminism recognizes that the trickle down effect never trickles all the way down. It has to be destruction from the ground up. It has to center the voices not just of women (often meaning white cis-het able bodied middle class women), but of the most marginalized women [and genders] in our society and communities.”

What would that destruction look like? It would, of course, involve a thorough examination of colonial underpinnings of Mormonism. This is a difficult task for a religion constructed alongside the construction of American colonialism. If the goal is to dismantle and untangle Mormon white supremacist patriarchy, we cannot introduce (and thus reduce) diety to fit within the same white, patriarchal parameters. Deconstruction of these systems within Mormonism requires the simultaneous decentering of the nuclear family and the examination of gender.

After the murder of George Floyd in the United States in 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement gained increased national attention. As some white Americans began their anti-racist journeys, others began to attack more specific tenets of the movement: primarily, the statement on the movement’s aim to “disrupt Western-prescribed nuclear family structure by supporting each other as extended families and ‘villages’ that care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.” It should be noted that this paragraph comes directly before a statement of solidarity and support of LGBTQ+ people, families, and networks. The white criticism was enough for the official Black Lives Matter page to eventually remove the statement from their website.

The racist ideal of the nuclear family demands resolving. Haley McEwen wrote a 2021 academic article for Africa Today titled “Inventing Family: Colonial Knowledge Politics of ‘Family’ and the Coloniality of ‘Pro-family’ Activism in Africa,” (vol. 67, nr. 4) that “the notion of the nuclear family ideal became fused with notions of race, racial hierarchy, and civilization” which leads to arguments about “the rise of the international pro-family movement” and “colonial power relations: efforts to define, universalize, and politicize a particular conception of the family.” The nuclear family, therefore, has been used as a tool of white supremacy to delegitimize and destabilize other familial and kinship networks that operate differently than the nuclear family model.

Finally, the paper concludes “that these components of pro-family advocacy reveal that the movement’s opposition to inclusive sex- and gender-based rights for LGBTIQ+ individuals reinforces Western epistemic power and authority over families and recapitulates colonial-era power relations between Global Norths and Souths.” In other words, colonial powers use “epistemic,” or scientific, evidence to try and reinforce the gender binary in the Global Souths and global majority communities.

Clearly, then, we can see that mere artistic depictions and renderings of Heavenly Mother as non-white do not successfully address the racism present in a Heavenly Mother and Father deified relationship. Additionally, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a history of manipulating and destroying the nuclear family for colonial and assimilating purposes. The nuclear family is used as a standard to uphold, but more so for white Latter-day Saints to further enact violence on marginalized communities, particularly Indigeneous communities. Latter-day Saint leaders and families from 1947 to 2000 committed cultural genocide by destroying Indigenous family structures that existed beyond the nuclear family structure. These Indigenous communities had a heritage of kinship networks which were upended by the Indian Placement Program wherein Indigenous children were baptized into Mormonism and placed into Mormon families to be raised both Mormon and white. These children and their families were labeled Lamanites and were instructed to dissociate from their Indigenous heritage, and their kinship networks, in order to get rid of their “Lamanite curse.” This deeply troubling practice shows just how interwoven racism is within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with the purpose of destroying relationships between Indigeneous parents and children, Indigeneous communities, and their descendents. We highlight the fact that this program existed into the 21st century, five years after the Proclamation on the Family had been delivered. To the authors, this reinforces the idea that the nuclear family model as the ideal standard within Mormonism is suited for white families and not others.

Returning to the question, “Can you tell me why you think Heavenly Mother is white? I’ve seen many visual representations of Heavenly Mother as non-white.” As demonstrated above, “biological science” of race and gender are rooted in colonial and white supremacist ideas that shape a Heavenly Mother figure who defaults to both the expected and preferred patriarchal image of white femininity and a white cisgender woman. Her relationship to Heavenly Father as wife and to mortals as the mother-of-all reinforces the nuclear family as rooted in colonial power. As white Mormon feminists continue to offer up visual representations of Mothers of Color (often for profit), this is merely a performative attempt at inclusivity without truly deconstructing Heavenly Mother as made in the image of whiteness and colonialism.

Gender Essentialism and Heteronormativity

In his history of Heavenly Mother in Mormon theology, Taylor Petrey writes that both Mormon oppositionists and Mormon apologists who write of Heavenly Mother have a problem with gender essentialism.

Essentialism is the belief in an innate, unchangeable essence that defines a person or thing. Essentialist thinking about gender means that one’s gender can be reduced to the pure essence of what makes a woman a woman, and what makes a man a man. This thinking causes us to believe there are qualities or characteristics that one must have in order to count as a real woman or man.

Gender essentialism developed as a European/American pseudoscientific process in the 19th century alongside other problematic social pseudoscience theories about race and society. In an effort to find the essential distinctions between men and women, these social scientists created the categories of physical characteristics that could assign a body “male” or “female.” For race, this movement is now referred to simply as ‘scientific racism’ and led to a construction of white supremacy. The pseudoscientific, epistempic process that was used to construct race also constructed gender and with it, a gender hierarchy.

In this way, gender essentialism reveals two harmful misunderstandings: first, that gender is the same as biological sex and second, that sex and gender are binary, as if there are only two correct ways of experiencing one’s sex and gender.

This is harmful. If gender is tied directly to one’s biology, then gender becomes unchangeable, determined, and permanent. In this way, not only are we erasing queer, trans, and gender non-conforming folks, but we also build such narrow definitions of gender that we quickly come to find our cis-selves (like Elise here) trapped in culturally expected and appropriate gender categories that leave no room for exploration, expression, or critique. Even more, theorists and researchers have proposed that “essentialist thinking in general serves to justify existing social inequalities, rather than merely describing it neutrally…Finally, gender essentialist beliefs have been found to both serve, and enhance, the system-justifying motive to believe that the social system, and thus the status quo, is just, fair and good.” Thus, gender essentialism not only tells us this is the way things are, but also the way things ought to be by pointing back to the perceived natural and determined categories of men and women based in biology.

One real-world example of this is gender or sex assigned at birth. In today’s medically-advanced world, a pregnant person in high social standing goes to the doctor to get an ultrasound. We want to acknowledge that access to modern medicine is not available to everyone, even in the United States, so this is not a universal pregnancy experience. For those that do have access, they can know ‘the sex’ of the child before the child is born. This reduces sex to external reproductive organs. When the baby arrives, the doctor then ‘assigns’ the baby a sex, typically based on the external reproductive organs of the newborn and little other information. This medical assignment is then incorporated into the legal status of the child as that ‘assignment’ is placed on the child’s birth certificate. This is the legal recognition of the baby’s gender. Birth certificates in the majority of states do not have another option beyond ‘male’ or ‘female’, leaving intersex babies without an accurate marker to indicate their sex. This leads to non-consensual cosmetic surgeries on intersex babies in order for their bodies to match their sex ‘assignment’. This process of assigning sex has the appearance of science because it involves medical procedures, but does not have a basis in any ‘natural’ order. It is a legal imposition on a newborn based on one singular physical characteristic that might not line up with what we think of as ‘male’ or ‘female,’ including internal reproductive organs, gonads, hormones, or chromosomes. This is why it is common for intersex people to discover they are intersex much later in life when they have a seemingly unrelated medical issue arise.

Another pillar upheld by gender essentialism is heteronormativity. Heteronormativity is an ideology that claims heterosexuality is the normal, natural, default way of being which also refinforces the gender binary and strict gender roles. In a heteronormative society like the United States, this system creates societal expectations of both perfoming one’s gender based on the sex they were assigned at birth and performing that gender assignment in the context of a straight relationship. Anything or anyone that does not conform to these norms is therefore considered abnormal and unnatural.

Kris Nelson has a fantastic article all about heteronormativity which reminds us how heteronormativity is also racialized. Thinking about our cultural beliefs and values of what constitutes masculinity and femininity, we can see how these notions are built on understandings of whiteness. Nelson writes, “Where white men are expected to be breadwinners and moneymakers, Black men are expected to be lazy criminals and absent fathers. While white women are expected to be innocent, frivolous, and in need of being saved, Black women are seen as hypersexual, loud, ‘masculine,’ and immune to pain.” This line should cause us pause as we consider the interlocking ways hierarchical systems of domination are invested in supporting one another.

Nelson’s passage also calls to mind how our conceptions of femininity and masculinity reinforce and reproduce binary, relational thinking. Current cultural standards place feminine beauty and masculine ruggedness, feminine sensitivity and masculine stoicism, feminine collaboration and masculine competition, and feminine emotional intelligence and masculine rage opposite one another. In each of these examples, we are meant to understand femininity and masculinity in relation to or opposite from each other. Therefore, changing ideas about one gender affects the other. Additionally, as we commit ourselves to the idea that there are only two distinct sexes which necessitate two separate and opposite genders, we reinforce gendered structures already in place. Even more, without critical thinking and disruption of existing structures, we actively reproduce the gender binary. Professor and author Emily W. Kane puts it this way, “...as we engage in daily interactions determined in part by the institutional forces, including gender structures, we legitimate and reinforce the assumption that our actions are dictated by an essential part of our ‘very being.’ We are held accountable to the assumption that we will conduct ourselves in conventionally gendered ways, and this assumption often produces the very outcome it appears only to reflect.” In other words, we anticipate, assume, and expect gendered behavior in ourselves, others, and our images of the divine. In so doing, we contribute to the restriction of gender as innate and binary and further recreate non-binary-, trans-, and queer-exclusive understandings of gender identity and gender expression.

Therefore, when we shape a version of Heavenly Mother who is white, cisgender, stereotypically feminine and in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship with a white, cisgender, stereotypically masculine Heavenly Father, we reproduce our understandings of divinity within the system of heteronormativity and white supremacy, supported by gender essentialism, the gender binary, and racism.

2 This analysis of the Scientific Revolution(s) is found largely in the work of Thomas Kuhn who also developed the concept of “paradigm shifts”. Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). 1962.

3 Stepan, Nancy Leys. “Race and Gender: The Role of Analogy in Science,” Isis, vol. 77, no. 2 (1986).

4 Lea Skewes, Cordelia Fine, & Nick Haslam, “Beyond Mars and Venus: The role of gender essentialism in support for gender inequality and backlash.” (2018), 2.

5 Kris Nelson, “What is Heteronormativity—And How Does It Apply to Your Feminism? Here Are 4 Examples.” (2015).

6 Emily W. Kane, The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls. (2012). 30.

Part 2 coming tomorrow

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