At a very young age, Heather Farrell began thinking about her role as a woman and the place of women in God’s plan. That led to a Women’s Studies focus at BYU, a passion for studying women in the scriptures, the publication of her blog, Women in the Scriptures, and deep-seated feelings about birth and motherhood.
Tell me about how you came to be so passionate about the role of women.
I grew up in Idaho. My mom worked from the time I was little until I was about twelve or thirteen. Then she got really sick with some mental illnesses that required her to take medications that would wipe her out. She would sleep all the time. I’m the oldest of four children, and I felt like I had to step up and take over.
Maybe because of that, or maybe because it’s just the way my spirit is, I started thinking about women’s roles in the Church when I was a Beehive or younger.
When I was really young, I told my mom I wanted a cause. I remember thinking I should have been a suffragette. I was angry that in Young Women’s we’d spend our time doing cooking or quilting. (We did whitewater rafting and rock climbing, too, but somehow to my young mind that didn’t count!) I had read in history about women who did big, important things to change the world, and that’s who I wanted to be! History never tells you about the women who stay home and raise the babies. I thought you didn’t change the world by quilting.
I remember telling one of my Young Women advisers, who was a stay-at-home mom, “I’d never stay at home all day. That would be so boring. What do you do all day?” She laughed at me. She had six kids. She wasn’t bored at all. Of course some of the women in our ward worked, but I thought they weren’t doing anything important—they weren’t winning the Nobel Peace Prize, they didn’t have titles or make lots of money.
It’s funny to see where I and all my high school friends are now. We swore up and down that we would never be stay-at-home moms. But most of us are stay-at-home moms now and have two or three kids and are really, really happy.
Now I wish we had spent more time in Young Women’s on homemaking skills because I think I came ill-equipped to adulthood. I had to find someone to teach me to knit recently. Yet at the time I was angry.
It’s interesting that you were angry and yet you still diligently attended Young Women’s. Your questions didn’t push you away. Why do you think that is?
The Lord grounded me with a strong testimony of the gospel. I had faith in scriptures and I had faith in God, not faith in Mutual. Going to Mutual was just jumping through a hoop. What mattered to me was that I had talked with God and I had learned how to receive revelation.
I desperately wanted more knowledge, so I had started reading my scriptures on my own when I was ten. My parents were active in the Church, but we never had Family Home Evening, and you could probably count on your hands and feet the times we did family scripture study. It was just never regular. I never saw my mom and dad reading scriptures. I’m sure they did, but I never saw it. So I hid that I was reading my scriptures. My mom would come in to put me to bed and I would hide my scriptures from her.
I had a goal to read the Old Testament when I was thirteen, before I went to seminary. I wanted to make sure I read every word, but I kept falling asleep, so as I read I kept lists of all the boy names I liked and all the girl names I liked, just to keep me awake. It was my first scripture journal.
I can really relate to Joseph Smith at fourteen. I look back on some of the prayers I said when I was that young and I am amazed at all the insights I got, things I still don’t fully understand, things I’m still trying to figure out. When you’re that young, you don’t realize that you can’t know things. When you get older, you think, “People don’t see Christ.” But when you’re twelve or fourteen, you know that you can see what you want to see. That was an important age for me.
Issues around women and their roles can hurt. I have quite a few college friends who could never reconcile their feelings and experience and have drifted from the Church, and I have friends who are still faithful but shaken. That’s hard. I know what it feels like to be shaken. But I’ve always had that rock, which the Lord gave me really young, and which I’ve never lost. So while I have questions and times when my rock is shaken, I know that even if I don’t understand it now, there is an answer. I understand that God is no respecter of persons. He doesn’t love men more than He loves women.
What was a time when you felt shaken?
My parents got divorced when I was a sophomore in college. It had been coming for a long time. It shouldn’t have been a huge surprise, but it’s never something you want to happen. When your sealed family falls apart, everything falls apart. You ask: who am I? Where do I fit in? Where do I belong if this relationship that was the most stable is not stable?
That summer, instead of going home like I had the summer before, I took a job as a camp counselor in Maine. I fled. Looking back now, I feel guilty; my brothers and sisters probably really needed me, and I simply said, “Nope.” I just couldn’t handle it.
So I went to Maine, and I had the worst summer of my entire life. It was awful. I was at this girls’ camp that was for rich girls. Really, really rich girls. Tuition for one girl for one summer was $25,000. At Young Women’s Girls’ Camp, your counselors are your role models, and I assumed that was what this camp would be, but it wasn’t. It was like glorified babysitting. I got to pick my age group, and I chose the twelve year olds. Beehives! I love Beehives! But these little girls were twelve going on seventeen. I was so sad. They went to boarding school all year and then they went to sleep-away camp all summer, and their parents came for one day of the summer to visit them.
Also, I’d never been around college kids my age without my same values because I’d attended BYU. But at the camp, the other counselors were dealing with drinking and sex. I had friction with another counselor. It was bad.
It was the darkest point of my life up to that point. I was really low. My parents were getting divorced. I was surrounded by all this filth. I saw what it was like to have lots of money, and I thought, I don’t want it! I don’t want money! I don’t want fame! This is how your children turn out! This is what you have to deal with! I saw what the girls my age were into, and I thought, I don’t want any of that.
I realized that what I wanted was the gospel. It came back to that rock. Even though marriages fall apart, even though people lie, even though people don’t treat you right, you still have light. And even if those people treating you wrong are in your family, even if they’re in the Church, it doesn’t matter. You still have light. Someone else’s behavior doesn’t change any of that.
What led you to your interest in women in the scriptures?
When I got back to BYU, I got a job at the Women’s Research Institute. I worked there four years, and the women there were hugely influential for me. I can’t think of key conversations that changed me, but I watched how those women professors lived their lives, what they thought about, what they were passionate about, how they balanced their family and their work. By the time I graduated, I understood that God loves women. Our office was a healing spot for me.
I got my degree in Public Health and did a Women’s Studies minor. I learned that God did not make women unequal, but in the way our world is set up, we don’t see women. They’re invisible. A lot of the classes I took asked us to look for what the issues are for women and to talk about them. I realized that a lot of the anger I had was simply because women aren’t talked about. I think that’s central to my blog. Once you know that there are women in the scriptures, you can bring them out and talk about them.
At BYU I took a class from Camille Fronk on women in the scriptures. She was writing a book for Deseret Book about women in the Old Testament, and recruited us to be her research assistants. I got Deborah. That was my first taste of research and, wow! I loved it.
In that class, I learned about women I’d never heard of before. It’s funny to me now because I know them so well that I think, how did I never know who Puah and Shiphrah were?
I don’t know who Puah and Shiphrah are.
Really? They’re in Exodus. They’re the midwives who saved the babies. You ought to look them up.
Later, after I had graduated, I had our first baby, Asher, right before Christmas. I found myself thinking a lot about Mary. How did she go anywhere on a donkey nine months pregnant? I think she must have walked more than she rode. I had this kinship, this real affinity with Mary. I felt an amazing amount of love. I remember being in the grocery store and wanting to burst into tears seeing other mothers with their children. I went to a BYU football game almost a year later and was so overwhelmed seeing all these people and thinking, every person in this stadium was once carried inside a woman. Some woman gave blood so they could be born. The love!
So I was thinking a lot about Mary and other scriptural women. I started looking to see if anyone had written about women in the scriptures. I found two websites on women in the Bible but nothing on women in the Book of Mormon, and nothing on women in the Doctrine and Covenants. There’s lots of academic stuff, but nothing in easy layman terms. I wondered, why is nobody writing about women in the scriptures? I had a powerful feeling: YOU should write about women in the scriptures.
I had started a family blog to show my family in Idaho baby pictures. So I started writing one or two little posts about women in the scriptures and eventually started the blog Women in the Scriptures.
What is your process for writing posts?
I feel self-conscious about my qualifications. Some people think I’m a great scriptorian or have a degree in ancient scriptures. I don’t. When I study a woman I just read her story over and over and over again. If I have questions I look them up. I try to read the whole chapter so I can think about her in context, thinking about the other people in the chapter and how they would relate to her. Who would be her neighbors? Would she have known this person? I try to put the whole puzzle together. I don’t have time to go to the library and I don’t have access to the kind of library I’d need to do a lot of research. So I rely on scriptures.
Sometimes I read my scriptures and a woman will stand out. I have a lot of thoughts about her and then I write a post. Other times I try to find the most obscure woman I can think of and pull her out and see what I can learn about her.
How does blogging affect your social world?
When I was first pregnant, I struggled with the idea of staying home and being happy. I used to think I didn’t even want kids! But while I had come to know that I wanted to stay at home with my kids, I was still afraid being at home would drive me crazy. I wanted to have some kind of career. My blog has helped me transition. My blog is a little career for me. It meets the desires of my heart while I’m at home.
The problem is that when you’re a stay-at-home mom, the online world becomes addictive because it provides instant gratification. You can see what people are doing anytime. It’s easy to know more about the girl who lives in Pennsylvania whose blog I read than about my neighbor across the street. At first, I would be writing blog posts in my head all the time. I’d go to the computer first thing in the morning because something might have happened during the night. Because people are awake in New Zealand when I’m asleep!
Also, because your readers don’t really know who you are, you can be whoever you want to be on a blog. When we first moved into this ward I was nervous about telling people about my blog. I wondered, do I really want them reading my blog? I had my secret online identity and then my real life identity, but I feel they’ve merged a lot more now. My blog’s more a part of my life.
We cancelled our internet for a while because I couldn’t figure out boundaries. During that time, I had to go to the library in the evenings to blog. I realized that I had to set limits for myself, that my blog should be a benefit to my life and not something that sucked me in.
You have a book coming out this spring. Tell me about the book and how it came about.
I wrote a post about Eve and about how childbirth is not really a curse. Felice Austin is a blogger who writes about childbirth issues, and she linked to my post. Because of that link, I eventually co-authored with her and a group of women a book that’s coming out this spring, The Gift of Giving Life.
When they first invited me to work on the book, I didn’t know how I was going to be useful. I’m not a midwife. I don’t write a birth blog. Then one day I realized a significant proportion of the stories of women in the scriptures are birth stories. Especially the women we have names for: Rebekah, Mary, Elizabeth–they’re all birth stories! I realized that’s what I could contribute to this book: I could tell their stories.
We hope our book will help people realize that birth is a spiritual experience. You’re bringing a child through the veil to the earth. All of us co-authors had natural births, so we started by wanting everyone to think like we do. But the Lord has led us in a different direction. We gathered stories—there are about 70 different voices in the book–from women who prayed, and they were supposed to have C-sections, or they were supposed to have epidurals; that was what was right for them. And other women prayed and they were supposed to have a home birth. We came to realize that birth is innately spiritual; it doesn’t matter how you do it. So the book doesn’t advocate for one type of birth.
Doing the book, I came to realize that God cares about birth, and He’ll give you guidance. You should pray about where to give birth. You should pray about how to give birth. You should pray while you’re giving birth! I think we’ve lost those things a bit in LDS culture. I did the historical research for the book and realized that LDS women used to have a different, more spiritual perspective on birth. LDS midwives would pray before they’d attend births. During the births they’d call on priesthood holders to give the mother a blessing if the birth wasn’t progressing. LDS women did washing and anointing before birth. As LDS women, we’ve lost that understanding that birth is not separate from your spiritual life.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I want women to know that God didn’t leave women out of the gospel. They’re not a side story. When I ask, “How many women do you think there are in the scriptures?” people guess twelve, twenty, thirty. Actually, there are nearly 600 women in the scriptures.
Women are there in the scriptures, but you have to find them. Too often we skip over their stories or just don’t talk about their stories.
Now that I know these scriptural women so well, I find myself wondering, why there are only 600 women in the scriptures. Part of it is that women didn’t write books when most of the scriptures were being written. They didn’t record their faith. I’ve been struck by how important it is for us as women to write our personal histories. If we don’t do it, then in a hundred years when they’re writing our history books, women will still be hidden.
At A Glance
Marital status: Married for 6 years
Children: Three ( 4, 2, and 5 months)
Occupation: Wife, mother, sister, daughter and friend
Schools Attended: Brigham Young University (BS in Public Health with a minor in Women’s Studies)
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief”
On The Web: http://womeninthescriptures.blogspot.com/ and http://thegiftofgivinglife.com//
Interview by Annette Pimentel. Photos used with permission.
At A Glance