Mormons and Feminism – An Outsider’s Somewhat Confused POV

4 Dec

Usually, my posts and thoughts on Mormonism are pretty sympathetic, but the conversation on Mormon feminism has left me feeling a bit tired.  I mean the following post to be somewhat sympathetic and generous but I also wanted to express a bit of my tiredness and frustration.

I never considered myself a feminist as a kid, because I believed that feminists were angry women intent on disrupting families and free sex.  I became liberalized, if not radicalized, bit-by-bit.  In college, I read Simone de Beauvoir and Virginia Woolf and realized that the loneliness and alienation I felt as a smart girl who liked to read and envisioned herself as a future intellectual was not just me.  De Beauvoir had felt it.  Woolf had felt it.  As had scores of other women.  After college working in an inner city school in Las Vegas as a Teach for America corps member, I realized that feminism was not just limited to the concerns of white women but needed to include those of African, Latino, and Asian women as well.  It had to think about poverty and about domestic abuse.  And, in graduate school, I realized that my views of feminism were quite conservative and I needed to think about my views on sex and gender identification.

Many of my Mormon friends could tell a similar story.  There’s one major difference, however, between my story and theirs.

I never had to engage in any hand wringing about what it meant to be a member of my church and a feminist or if such a dual identity was even possible.

If I wanted to find a feminist who self-identified as evangelical or Protestant, all I had to do was think back to my high school textbook.  I had both Beecher sisters, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Anne Hutchinson as forebears.  My own mother had told me that the Bible had been written by men and as a result, said some nasty things about women that God and Jesus had never intended.  If I had questions about what it meant to be a woman, Christian, and feminist, I could just ask my female pastor.

As a result, all the hand-wringing concerning feminism in the Mormon Church seems a bit odd to my Protestant ears.  Part of me just wants to say, “Come on.  Be feminist or don’t.  But, if you are, let’s get on with the work.”

Another part of me realizes that do so would be a bit cruel and misguided.  There is the real threat of excommunication or censor and all the pain that brings.  Women who announce that they are feminist can’t just switch to another church or ward the way that I could if my beliefs were met with chilly stares.  And, there is skepticism among feminists about Mormons that I as a Christian don’t have to face.  Although some feminists don’t believe in God and are skeptical of religion, the campaigns of the United Church of Christ to include homosexuals in the Christian community and the writings of radical feminist theologians like Mary Daly have bought Christian feminism some purchase within the feminist community.  The Mormon Church, on the other hand, is seen as inherently anti-feminist and patriarchal.

I can understand why the conversation happens, even if it seems a bit odd to me.  This doesn’t mean that conversations about Mormon feminism don’t still sometimes leave me scratching my head or feeling exasperated.  I try to approach as something I can never quite get as a non-Mormon and thus, have to approach with a sense of compassion and a recognition of my own outsiderness.

One thing I will say, though, is the conversation about feminism within Mormonism sometimes seems a bit insular.  It focuses on the issues that women face within the church – whether their talents are being fully utilized and whether it’s a radical act to be a mother.  These are important questions and I don’t want to suggest they’re not.  But, I wonder if there is also a place within Mormon feminism to discuss intersectionality and the particular difficulties that black women might face in the church.  I wonder if there is room for a discussion of the fact that the overwhelming number of single mothers and their children are poor.  The discussions come up – sometimes – but they do so far too infrequently.

And, one final thing, accepting and building spaces for queer men and women is an important part of modern feminism.  Any Mormon feminism that is going to be taken seriously by the outside world is going to have to deal with that issue and that – rather than anything else – may be the final sticking point.

12 Responses to “Mormons and Feminism – An Outsider’s Somewhat Confused POV”

  1. Chris H. December 4, 2010 at 10:09 am #

    I have more to say, but I want to leave a quick comment now. I think that many of the Mormons I know are still at the Betty Friedan stage of feminism. This is not bad, but it is the feminism of the middle-class woman. It does not reach much beyond their own experience. However, it is their experience.

    Feminism has also been a discussion within feminism about the meaning of feminism. I am hoping that some of these recent writings can be the start of not only Mormonism, but also Mormon feminism.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. amanda5245 December 4, 2010 at 12:27 pm #

    Chris,

    I think Betty Friedan feminism is a good way to describe what’s going on. And your comment is also a good reminder to be humble and to respect others’ experiences. I guess I just get frustrated because the conversation seems so disconnected from feminism as a whole. Reading feminist literature written by Mormons in the 1920s and 30s as well as from the 60s and 70s has reminded me that the groups used to be interconnected. Susa Young Gates was friends with Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Emmeline B. Wells knew and liked Susan B. Anthony. I wonder when the disconnect started to grow.

    Best,
    Amanda

    • Emily January 10, 2011 at 11:20 pm #

      Where have you found feminist literature written by Mormons in the 20s and 30s? Can I find it on line? I’ve been thinking about this the last couple days — influence of feminism on Mormonism or, rather, how Mormon theology fits within feminist equality viewpoints — also end of the 19th century era. Suggestions?

      I’m excited to look at your Women in Relig. History links. Thanks!

  3. Chris H. December 4, 2010 at 3:00 pm #

    “I guess I just get frustrated because the conversation seems so disconnected from feminism as a whole.”

    Me, too. But I think this is because Mormonism is not only patriarchal as a religion…it is also overtly anti-feminist is its politics. This has been evident is recent behaviors related to gay marriage. Of course, the LDS Church played a major role in undermining the ERA. We have taken anti-feminism beyond that of most religions. In this context, it makes sense that we, even as feminists, are a bit behind the feminist curve.

    The essays that appeared in Patheos gave me hope…or reminded me of hope…something like that.

    Emmeline Wells was awesome. I think that Mormonism is quite different from that day and age. Not necessarily for the good in all way, but for the good in others.

    I was impressed by the way that you used feminist methodology and theory in your Bushman seminar paper presentation.

  4. aliquis December 4, 2010 at 3:36 pm #

    This is the only piece of black Mormon feminism I can contribute thus far:

    (ahem)

    One Fast Sunday, our Primary President, who is black, was bearing her testimony about missionary work and mentioned that almost all her friends who ask about the church also ask her what she thinks about polygamy. She replies:

    That was before black women were joining the church

    As a matter of interest, the last year in our predominantly white ward has seen a black Relief Society President and Primary President.

  5. DavidH December 4, 2010 at 4:07 pm #

    Amanda, I understand the difficulty, from a general Protestant standpoint, in identifying with LDS women (or men) who struggle to harmonize a nonsexist view of the universe in a hierarchical church with sex-based customs. Are there the same difficulties in identifying with Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Islamic, or Orthodox Jewish women (and men) who face the same challenge? Or do you think it is unique to Mormonism?

  6. Kiskilili December 4, 2010 at 4:32 pm #

    I appreciate the post and commend any effort to bridge feminists of different backgrounds. I too found the discussion tiresome, but for different reasons–I think the pressure toward orthodoxy encourages coyness that often inhibits discussion because it inhibits authenticity.

    I can understand the frustration that broader feminist theorists have long since moved beyond their own parochial concerns and have set a new feminist agenda around pluralistic and multicultural values, a feminism big enough and flexible enough to legitimate and incorporate women of diverse backgrounds with experiences that may not reflect the needs of middle-class white women in North America. But given this fact, could we not turn the question about why Mormon feminists are insular around? Feminism is (supposedly) now attentive to and inclusive of the experiences of minorities; is it big enough to embrace even the experiences of Mormon women?

    Every Mormon exists in a state of detente vis-a-vis patriarchy. Every Mormon supports, in at least some small measure (if nothing more than by maintaining membership), an institution in which androcentrism and sex discrimination govern every aspect of one’s participation, experience of the community and experience of the divine. Because Mormonism purports to provide access to cosmic reality, the situation presents Mormon feminists with a unique set of challenges. (Or maybe not unique so much as medieval.) One site at which this is evident is the struggle for Mormon feminists to craft a rationale for feminist advocacy that appeals to Mormon epistemology; secular rationales such as the good of promoting “full human flourishing” don’t necessarily transpose easily into a Mormon key.

    Maybe the project is fatally compromised by its Mormonism. If it’s not, I suspect personal experience is going to play a key role in crafting that rationale.

  7. aliquis December 4, 2010 at 4:48 pm #

    It’s lonely world for Mormon feminists. Their church community looks upon them with suspicion and their would-be sisters outside look upon them with confusion and exasperation.

    • Dolly December 5, 2010 at 12:52 pm #

      I so get that response. It is becoming an increasingly lonely place.

  8. amanda5245 December 4, 2010 at 6:37 pm #

    @ Chris — Thanks for the complement. I had the hardest time making all the arguments into a single paper and I still haven’t figured how to get at the intersection between race and gender, but I’ll get there.

    @ Aliquis — Thanks for the quote from a black Mormon feminist and for the info about black women being called to high ranking positions within the church.

    @ David H. – Personally, I don’t have as much difficulty sympathy connecting with Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox Christian, or Orthodox Jewish women (and men), but I think that may have to do with my own personal hang-ups and history than anything else. I have spent most of my life surrounded by Mormons (I grew up in Idaho in a small town dominated by seminaries and LDS churches), and as such, I have a much more complicated relationship with Mormons than I do other religious groups. I find it much easier to approach the other religious traditions with an open mind. I find Muslim arguments that there’s nothing inherently liberating about exposing a woman’s body and that covering it can be an act of feminism by refusing to allow men to objectify female bodies, and I like the communalism of kibbutzes. When I approach Mormonism, I bring my own personal experiences to it. I tend to think of my friends who got married at 19, already have 3 or 4 kids, and never finished their educations as a result. Or, of my friends and family members who endured horrific marriages and physical abuse because they didn’t think that divorce was okay.

    My friends who grew up in other areas of the country have different hang-ups. Many of my friends who grew up in the Bible Belt have harsher words for evangelicals than they do for Mormons (although they have plenty of venom for the latter), and my friends who come from Reform Jewish traditions sometimes balk at Orthodox Judaism.

    @ Kiskilili – Thank you for your excellent points and questions. I’m not sure if I have any good answers. I do wonder what a Mormon epistemology would look like. Is it different from a general Christian epistemology that also believes it has “access to a cosmic reality”?

  9. http://tinyurl.com/scothawe51515 January 16, 2013 at 8:36 pm #

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Mormon Demystified: Joanna Brooks | Gender and Communication 2012 - September 10, 2012

    […] This post on Scholaristas, a women’s religious history blog, briefly explores the challenges Mormon feminists face and why Protestant feminists can’t relate to them. It also raises some issues the Mormon church tends to overlook regarding feminism. […]

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