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McArthur Krishna, Bethany Brady Spalding, with illustrations by Kathleen Peterson (2019) Girls Who Choose God: Stories of Extraordinary Women from Church History, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book.

It is lovely to see a new book in this series that has previously included stories about women in the Book of Mormon and the Bible, not to mention the wonderful Our Heavenly Family, Our Earthly Families by the same authors, a print of whose cover adorns my living room (the illustrator for that last book is Caitlin Connolly). Peterson’s art is very distinctive and eye-catching; I first saw and appreciated her work on the small books written by Carol Lynn Pearson, such as The Lesson: A Fable for Our Times. [1]

But this particular volume is somewhat different than the first two books in the series. Because the women highlighted are not from ancient scripture, there is much more information to share about them, and they become a fuller presence to the reader. The authors were assisted in their writing by Church historians such as Jill Derr and Kate Holbrook. [2]

Krishna and Brady Spalding do not give a complete history of each woman’s life, of course, since this is a picture book, but have attempted to pluck from the historical record a particular choice made by each that had a profound impact on those around them. The epigraph for the volume is an inspiring quote by President Nelson:

“My dear sisters, you have special spiritual gifts and propensities . . . I urge you, with all the hope of my heart, to pray to understand your spiritual gifts—to cultivate, use, and expand them, even more than you ever have. You will change the world as you do so.”

This is a wonderful exhortation, and I can only imagine parents and grandparents and their loved ones wanting to share this message with the rising generation of girls and young women. The world does not get better when women shrink; to the contrary, it gets much worse. How sad that for millennia many men (and even women) saw life as a zero-sum game; to wit, if women lead out, men lose face. How happy it is to have male leaders in our Church who do not feel lessened by the presence of strong women, but rather see how their strength could bolster all that the Church hopes to accomplish.

Many of the accounts are well known (such as the story of Mary Elizabeth and Caroline Rollins saving the revelations that would become the D&C from a mob in Independence, Missouri). But others are far less well known. I for one did not know the opening story of the book, which is about Lucy Mack Smith. She was elected the leader of a group of Saints emigrating from Fayette, New York to Kirtland, Ohio in the very early days of the Church. Their boat was trapped by ice in Buffalo Harbor, and some in the company began to complain. She called out, “Where is your faith? Where is your confidence in God? . . . Now, brethren and sisters, if you will all of you raise your desires to heaven, that the ice may be broken up, and we be set at liberty, as sure as the Lord lives, it will be done.”

At that, the ice broke and allowed that one boat to leave the harbor, freezing up again after it passed. No wonder they called her “Mother Moses”!

Given the richness of Church history, the selection of women profiled here serves a strategic purpose in opening up focused conversations about aspects of women’s gifts. Zina Young is profiled as someone who let a gift fade because she had neglected it, perhaps out of fear of being a gifted woman, and had to pray fervently to God to have it restored. [3] This is an important lesson—women are often socialized to feel they must make their gifts invisible so as not to distress those (especially men) around them. So many voices have been lost in this way, so many talents buried! Reading the story of Zina Young may help us suggest to our daughters that hiding our talents is not what God intended when those gifts were given to us!

Emma Hale Smith is included as well, which is noteworthy in and of itself as testimony that her story is being rehabilitated within Church culture. And interestingly, the story told about her in the book is about the choice to become a leader. As the authors phrase it, “Emma had a choice to make. She could do what was ordinary, or she could become the leader God knew she could be . . . Would you have chosen to be extraordinary?” That is certainly in line with President Nelson’s quote at the beginning of the book, and yet at the same time not a question one would often see raised with young women in traditional Church culture.

Here’s an example. I have many tales from my quarter-century at BYU, but this story is from a few years after I left BYU (so that is less than eight years ago). I had returned to give a recruiting presentation, and had also been asked to speak to a student group on campus. After speaking to that group, a young woman named Chloe approached me and told me her story. She was a convert to the Church, and was brought into fellowship by a special male friend who then became engaged to her. At some point she chose to receive her patriarchal blessing, and her fiancé came with her to that event. The patriarch laid his hands on her head and gave her a marvelous blessing about all the good she would do in the world through her career, and what great gifts God had given her to help her in this undertaking. As they left, her fiancé was noticeably downcast. He announced to her that he was breaking off the engagement because she was clearly not going to be the type of wife he was looking for—she was going to have a career, and he didn’t want his wife to have a career. (Let’s see, God wanted her to have a career, but he didn’t! Guess he was more righteous than God?)

You know, maybe you shouldn’t buy this book only for your daughters for Christmas—maybe you should buy this book for your sons. Maybe reading this book together will lead to discussions with your sons so that they will not be the boys who grow up to become this young man. Maybe the potential of the women in our Church is held back because of that old and evil zero-sum mindset in our men.

Back to the book: I was also very pleased to see the story of Ellis Shipp included. There was a time, when I was foundering as a convert with the ridiculous gender stereotypes of Church culture in the 1980s, when Ellis Shipp became my pole star after a friend gifted me her biography. Ellis Shipp was a mother of young children who was called by Brigham Young to move all the way back East to go to medical school so that she could be a midwife among the Saints. She not only had to leave her young children behind, but she was pregnant during one academic year and even had to give birth far away from her family in order to pass the final exams. Her story was relatively hidden from view in the latter half of the last century, because “good Mormon women” didn’t leave their families to pursue medical school and a professional career. It was pretty scandalous to the cultural mindset of the Church late last century that God’s prophet told Ellis Shipp that God wanted her to do exactly that!

OK, I cannot help but give you another story, this from my BYU days, this time in the 2000s. I was on a committee in my department investigating why we had so few female teaching and research assistants, and trying to come up with ways to better mentor our female majors. I remember I was making a point about how incredibly gifted some of our female majors were and how they were as equally qualified as our best male majors to go on for doctorates and how we as faculty should encourage them to do so. One of the male professors—who was younger than I—stopped me and said it would be going against God’s plan if we were to encourage women to go on for doctorates, because then they would become career women and might never form families. Yes, dear reader, I was sitting right there next to him—and he knew well that I had a career and was a mother of eight children and felt the Lord had inspired me to do both. You can see why I am so happy that Ellis Shipp’s story is included—yes, the Lord can require a righteous woman to undertake a labor to build the Kingdom in addition to forming a family. Yes, the Lord might actually not want righteous women to bury their talents. Yes, the Lord might actually have sons who would want to marry such women.

I was also pleased to see among the stories those of the first sister missionaries, and those who were staunch suffragettes, including Martha Hughes Cannon who beat her husband in a Utah election (and this fact is mentioned in the text). I was also unaware of the very inspiring story of Desideria Quintanar de Yanez of Mexico, a visionary matriarch who received the first known copy of the Book of Mormon in Spanish by hearkening to a dream she had been given of the Lord.

All in all, this is a great volume, and definitely deserves a place on the bookshelves of families in the Church. Put it on your Christmas list! And remember, don’t just read it with your daughters—remember to read it with your sons, as well!


[1] So, Kathleen, ever considered illustrating The Two Trees? [Back to manuscript].

[2] They also mention a Mark Staker, and I cannot help but wonder if that is the Mark Staker who was a former student of mine at the Kennedy Center, and who wrote a brilliant master’s thesis that had nothing to do with Church history . . .
[Back to manuscript].

[3] I am assuming that it was Deseret Book, and not the authors, who insisted that her story includes the line, “she was a blessing to women during childbirth” instead of saying plainly that Zina Young blessed women prior to childbirth—yes, put her hands on their heads (and sometimes their bellies swollen with child) and blessed them. C’mon Deseret Book, aren’t we past that point now of having to hide what women really did in the early Church? [Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Cassler, V.H. (2019) "Book Review: Girls Who Choose God (Church History)," SquareTwo, Vol. 12 No. 3 (Fall 2019), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCasslerChooseGodReview.html, accessed <give access date>.

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