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: https://dialoguejournal.com/archive/issue-details/?in=23)
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.