The Pink Issue of Dialogue, Part I

28 Jul

Note: Summer 2011 will be the fortieth anniversary of the Pink Issue of Dialogue.  The publication of this issue marked the beginning of a resurgence of Mormon feminism and an increased interest in women’s history.  The women who were involved – Claudia Bushman, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, etc. – have become important figures within the Mormon academic community.  In this series of blog posts, we examine the Pink Issue of Dialogue and think about the moment from which it sprang and the possible meaning of that issue today.

(Edit: Thanks to Kristine for reminding us to add the link to the 1971 Pink Issue of Dialogue:

In the early 1970s, Claudia Bushman, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and other women living in Boston formed what they would call the “L.D.S. cell of Women’s Lib.”  They read Kate Millet and discussed Relief Society lessons.  Out of these discussions grew a special pink edition of Dialogue that focused on the experiences of the women within the Mormon Church.  Edited by the discussion group that had coalesced around the original members,  it included articles on nineteenth-century Mormon feminists, the difficulty of balancing academic work with family, and the challenge of being single within a church that exalted families.

As I was reading the articles, I felt like an interloper.  The issues that these women raised were personal ones.  Juanita Brooks described hiding her typewriter underneath her ironing when visitors would knock on her door, and Almera Anderson Romney discussed her experiences teaching in a school for African Americans and trying to educate the children without a proper curriculum or basic materials.  The articles also came from a specifically Mormon perspective.  As a non-member, the questions that they asked about priesthood and authority were not my questions.  Neither was the concern they raised about balancing environmentalism and the church’s emphasis on bearing children.

When I was writing these comments, that distance was in my mind and may become the subject of a later post. As someone who studies religion and gender more broadly, however, I have tried in this post to think about the ways in which my own experiences might intersect with their own as well as the ways in which reading the pink issue of Dialogue might affect my scholarship.  Although the distance I felt is important, so too is the possible relevance of their thoughts to my own experience and position in life.

One of the things that occurred to me was the degree to which the articles are still current.  In her article “Having One’s Cake and Eating It Too,” Christine Meaders Durham wonders whether the degree to which gender roles are predetermined in the church contradicts the doctrine of free agency.  If young women are expected to cook, clean, and be mothers regardless of their talents or desires, she asks, how truly free are they to make their own choices? How extensive is free agency if men are unable to choose whether or not they should be the primary breadwinners in their home based on the skills and needs of their family members?  In asking these questions, she called for greater flexibility within families so that their members were not limited in the options available to them for fulfillment and happiness.

The contradiction between predetermined gender roles and agency has not been resolved.  Although individual women have pursued careers and have manipulated the gender roles within their family to fit their own expectations, the general expectation is that women will dedicate themselves to their husbands and children at the expense of their careers if necessary and that men will be more active in their jobs.  We could ask the same question that Durham did in the 1970s:  How much agency do we have if the roles we will play have already been set? The question becomes more prickly when the question is expanded beyond heterosexual relationships to include the possibility of homosexual ones.  If individuals have homosexual feelings, is it a contradiction to have already determined what decision they must make about their desires if they want to stay in the church?  There are obviously limitations to free agency.  We do not consider murder, rape, or stealing to be legitimate choices, but how we do determine what those boundaries are for something as personal and intimate as sexuality and domesticity?  To ask these questions is in some ways to open a can of worms, but they lead logically from the questions being asked in the 1970s in this article.

The articles were current in other ways.  Although there has been a lot of work done on women’s history within the L.D.S. Church, such scholarship has not permeated the general membership.  I think the interesting question is not about the fact that many young girls and women are not versed in this scholarship but is about the circumstances that have led them to be so.  Why are feminist scholars still able to tell stories about young women who approach them after lectures to say that they – at the age of twenty-two, twenty-three, or twenty-four – had not realized that Mormon women had been involved in the movement for women’s rights in the nineteenth century or that Eliza Snow had been so important in early Mormonism?  Why when many Mormon students are challenged about the position of women within Church do they rarely cite the existence of the Woman’s Exponent in the 1870s or the development of Mormon feminism a hundred years later in the 1970s?  Why has the influence of feminist scholarship on Mormon women been limited to a small circle of church members?

I have a couple of possible answers that I may share later but I would like to hear the thoughts of others.


18 Responses to “The Pink Issue of Dialogue, Part I”

  1. symphonyofdissent July 28, 2010 at 2:47 pm #

    Great post Amanada!

    You may perhaps disagree with this, but I do see signs of improvement in the church at least in regard to pre-defined roles for women. Look at the new videos posted on containing member interviews. About half are female and I think only one was merely a stay at home mother. One had retired from a high profile career in Journalism in order to raise children, and two were artists that worked from home. The rest were professionals ( one a professional surfer!) that worked out of the house including one in a high profile NGO position. These may be the exception in Mormonism but the fact that they are being profiled on the church’s official site for investigators in pretty significant. Also, I’ve noticed many Mormon women out east pursuing graduate or PHD level study in many different fields.

    As to your question about the impact of feminist scholarship, I think that a confluence of factors worked together to give feminism a bad name among mainstream Latter Day-Saints. Thus, many will not look at anything that hints of feminism.

  2. Neylan July 28, 2010 at 4:51 pm #

    Excited to see this site!

    The Mormon Women Project is confronting this paradox you discuss: how can we make personal choices while working within the framework of a divinely-appointed gender role? For too long, the Church as told women what prioritizing motherhood should look like, instead of what it should feel like. I am confident this is changing, and EP is helping with that discussion. Thanks Elizabeth!

  3. Ardis E. Parshall July 28, 2010 at 6:14 pm #

    (psst — you may want to correct “Joanna” Brooks to “Juanita” Brooks)

    You say you felt distant from the personal issues discussed by the women in this issue. I often feel distant from the IMpersonal, we-speak-for-all-women aspect of most of the (admittedly little) feminist writing I’ve read. Do you think that the personal/universal aspect is something that really divides Mormon feminism from the broader discussions, or is that just an unimportant peculiarity of this particular instance?

  4. ep July 28, 2010 at 6:42 pm #

    Thanks, Neylan!

    Amanda, your questions are right to the point. Where do young Mormon women learn about women’s history? And why aren’t they being taught more of it? I can think of any number of answers that may be the core of the problem. But, for one, we have at the heart of Mormonism a deep ambivalence about females and authority, represented by the Mormon historical vacuum of mentions of Eve and the current eagerness to interpret her correctly. Even though our discourse has come to extol Eve for her role in the fall, she is still the figure used to represent the epitome of motherhood and goodwifeliness–a delicious paradox, the ultimate dissenter and the ultimate conformer. And, although Eve is a doctrinal cornerstone, her agency is not always the main emphasis. Theological agency is the province of Mormon men–Adam chose to fall with Eve; Adam is the custodian of priesthood authority and original covenants with God. Women have not traditionally been the generators of doctrine, neither are they its official custodians (never mind that childbearing and rearing in Mormonism is theologically paramount). And since Sunday School and Young Women’s and Relief Society and sacrament meeting have become the place to teach doctrine and the parts of historical narrative that are selectively doctrinally relevant, the history of women has suffered.

    Brigham Young’s shadow looms large, in my mind, as part of the reason for the beginnings of this trend–curtailing the Relief Society and then reinstating it? It’s too bad there wasn’t an insurgency (although perhaps there was and the record has been hidden). The state of women’s history in the church may have been different. But, women’s history in general has changed, I think, from the time of the pink Dialogue. Women putting together a “Compendium of Household Wisdom” today would probably not quote Brigham Young as the historical authority on household wisdom but rather the words of early Mormon female housekeepers.

  5. DLewis July 28, 2010 at 7:02 pm #

    I like your phrase, Elizabeth, “theological agency.” I’ve thought a lot about differences between Mormon ideas of agency and philosophical ideas of freedom, and I think we’re blurring distinct concepts to say that my “agency” is curtailed because of male or female gender roles. Your freedom might be, and that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and change things, but we can chock up every choice or issue of freedom to agency.

    And to get back to Liz’s point, “theological agency”–choices affecting doctrine, priesthood, church governance, etc.–have certainly been centered on the men primarily. Along with Brigham Young, the correlation and stream-lining of church organization/teaching amplified this, I believe. To be completely honest, I cannot think of the last time a woman’s decision in church matters affected or pertained to me directly. It is a significant gap.

    To get back to Amanda’s question, is the ignorance of female scholarship in the church much different from the general ignorance about any scholarly work being done in Mormon studies? It seems like they go hand in hand and are not necessarily determined by perspectives on gender, IMO.

  6. Christopher July 28, 2010 at 7:22 pm #

    A solid post to get things started here at Scholarista. Nice work. I look forward to your collective efforts.

    EP, I’m intrigued by your thoughts on Eve in response to Amanda’s questions. Has there been anything written on the place in historical Mormon thought and culture? Seems like it’d make a great dissertation topic.

  7. Kristine July 28, 2010 at 7:37 pm #

    Don’t forget the link!

  8. amanda5245 July 28, 2010 at 10:47 pm #

    Thanks for the comments everyone!

    Symphony of Dissent — I must confess that I hadn’t looked at the new site until you mentioned it in your post. I do find it encouraging that there are a diversity of experiences present, but I think in order to answer whether or not the L.D.S. Church as a whole has become more accepting of varied gender roles we need to ask what the frame of comparison is. In some ways, the church is less accepting of varied gender roles than it was in the nineteenth century but is probably more accepting than it was in the 1950s or 1960s. I don’t think we can make an argument that the church has become progressively more feminist. Rather there seems to be periods of flourishing and activity followed by periods of retrenchment. I also wonder about the women’s stories who aren’t accepted for inclusion in the site. If the rumors I’ve heard are true and the site is an edited one, what has been determined to be outside the bounds of orthodoxy and orthopraxy? Who is determining whether individual women’s experiences are worthy of being published and used as models?

    Ardis — Thanks for pointing out the typo. I’m reading her book on Hamblin right now… so it’s a little embarrassing that I didn’t catch it!

    I think that the question you raise about distance is an interesting one and is present within the pink issue of Dialogue itself. In her introduction to the issue, Claudia Bushman writes they read many militant feminists as part of their discussions but did not claim affiliation with them and some of the members were shocked by their antics (5). I think that there is a sense that traditional feminism didn’t reflect their experiences or values and that they needed to create a feminism that is compatible with Mormon beliefs and interests. The pink issue of Dialogue is an attempt to create that kind of feminism, and as such, is in many ways an insider text. I think the distance that I felt was a sense that I was intruding on a conversation meant for other ears.

    I do think that you are right to point to a difference in the rhetoric that Mormon and non-Mormon feminists use. Although a lot of non-Mormon feminists do reference their personal lives in their scholarship (I am thinking of Carolyn Heilbrun’s “Writing a Woman’s Wife” or Carolyn Steedman’s “Landscape for a Good Woman”), they do so in a way that is different from the way that Mormon feminists write. Mormon feminists tend to highlight their families. I think the book jacket to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir” is a good example. Few works published by non-Mormon presses would reference how many grandchildren a Pultizer Prize winning author has.

  9. ep July 28, 2010 at 10:57 pm #

    Dallin, you make a very good point about general ignorance about scholarship among church members and it not being strictly tied to gender–Mormons are reserved about intellectualism in general. I would say that generally the number of men who speak in Sunday School often exceeds the number of women who speak (I’ve been in countless classes where this is the case. The same is true of college classrooms, so I can’t make this an entirely church-related point.), which might support the idea of official male custodianship of theological knowledge carrying over into settings where Christian egalitarianism should be prized.

    It’s a good question, Chris, and deserves to be looked into. You may see that as the subject of a future post. A BYU scholar spoke about a literary history of A&E a couple of years ago on Thinking Aloud (, and I don’t know if he talks about their perception in Mormonism….

    Thanks for the link, Kristine!

  10. amanda5245 July 28, 2010 at 11:36 pm #

    Dallin — Thanks for your interesting comments.

    Re: Feminism — I think that the effect of neglecting feminist scholarship is different than that of ignoring scholarship in general. As Symphony of Dissent points out, many Mormons still see feminism as being incompatible with Mormonism (and I say “many” for a reason, Liz, Kristine, etc. prove this is far from being complete). Not talking about the existence of The Woman’s Exponent or highlighting the work of Claudia Bushman or Jill Derr means denying women a usable feminist past. It also means denying women role models after which to pattern their lives. If women don’t know about the many female doctors, authors, lawyers, and activists who came before them, they end up reinventing the wheel and beginning anew each time rather than building on the accomplishments of those before them.

    I also think ignoring this work has consequences for the “intellectual prospects of Mormonism” — to borrow a phrase from Richard Bushman. Most historians ignore the work of Mormons because they don’t think that it can speak to the questions that they are asking about colonialism, race, or gender. De-emphasizing feminist works (and in this case I do think we can broaden out here to include the more general academic work of which you speak) means reinforcing the stereotype that academics have about work done by Mormons about Mormonism, and the leads to the further marginalization of Mormonism within the academy.

    Re: Agency and Freedom — I think the point you make about the distinction between agency and freedom is an interesting one, and one I need to think more about. As a historian, I have thought a lot about the difference between agency and power but not a lot about the difference between agency and freedom. I can make guesses about what the difference is but what do you see them as being?

    Liz — I second Christopher that I would love to see you do more work on Eve. The snippet you gave here is absolutely fascinating.

  11. Chris H. July 29, 2010 at 12:11 am #

    There are some cool people in that issue. I have met Dixie Huefner. Her husband was in the political science department at Utah when I was getting my BA and MA there (she is a prof in the special ed department). I mentioned my Mormon Studies interests to them, long before I started blogging. I did not realize that Dixie had published in Dialogue.

    They are among the many Salt Lake liberal Mormon who no long associate as active members. What a blow the ERA saga must have been…sigh.

  12. Chris H. July 29, 2010 at 12:13 am #


    “I often feel distant from the IMpersonal, we-speak-for-all-women aspect of most of the (admittedly little) feminist writing I’ve read. ”

    You and I do not read the same feminist writing.

  13. Molly August 2, 2010 at 5:10 pm #

    I hope somewhere within it’s noted that the pink cover is a deliberate satire of the “and it’s pink!” declaration from the new Personal Progress intro video:

  14. amanda5245 August 3, 2010 at 1:10 am #

    Molly — Oh man! I hadn’t seen the video until now. It’s so saccharine and patronizing. I could almost see it as a Saturday Night Live Skit.

    I tried looking up the meanings of pink among feminists in the 1970s when the Pink Issue of Dialogue was published and had little luck. I know that third wave feminism has accepted the color pink but I’m not sure if it was a reclaiming or if pink was embraced by second wave feminists as well. Does anyone else know?

  15. Tracy M August 3, 2010 at 7:46 am #

    Is there any chance at all we can talk Dialogue into reprinting this? I’d be all over it- I know I can read it online, but I like holding them in my hands and writing in the margins and falling asleep while I read… I’d love love love a reprint.

  16. ep August 3, 2010 at 11:34 pm #

    🙂 I don’t know, Tracy. If you’re in the SLC area, however, Sam Weller’s Bookstore reportedly has some copies, so you could purchase an original for $10.


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    […] Summer Seminarian and PhD student at the University of Michigan, has put up the inaugural post, an intriguing retrospective of Dialogue‘s Pink Issue. She concludes by asking: Although there has been a lot of work done […]

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