Archive | March, 2011

Girl-Culture Wars, the Young Women General Meeting, and Sacred Time

29 Mar

I went to the Young Women General Meeting with my mom last Saturday night. I left feeling more frustrated than hopeful or edified. To improve my negative attitude, I tried repeating, “This is a net positive,” to myself. The LDS cultural and doctrinal view is better than many others to which young women are being exposed. The value of experiencing structure and support from a church organization and being exposed to strong female leadership shouldn’t be underestimated.

Still, I was disappointed. The most interesting moment of the meeting was when Ann Dibb, the second counselor in the general presidency, quoted Charlotte Bronte, illustrating Jane Eyre’s integrity. I appreciated the themes of chosenness, obedience to God’s law, temple preparation, and the gospel of Christ being a source of light in darkness. But the messages were not presented in what to me would be a meaningful or thought-provoking way. Continue reading


Conservative Religious Movements and Female Empowerment

20 Mar

Historians who have written about purity movements in the nineteenth century have typically argued that they were repressive capitulations to male power.  Judith Walkowitz, for example, describes Ellice Hopkins’ work on prostitution as failing “to connect prostitution to larger feminist issues” and argues that her work placed at the male patriarch at the head of the family, appealing to him as a father and husband to protect the virtue of dependents.[1] Likewise, Robert Bristow has described such movements as being anti-sex, anti-pleasure, and anti-vice.  He describes Hopkins and Sarah Robinson as “sublimated and suffering evangelical spinsters… driven to do good in unusual ways.”  His text makes clear that the word good should be placed within quotation marks.[2]

In her book A Passion for Purity: Ellice Hopkins and the Politics of Gender in the late-Victorian Church, Sue Morgan reconsiders the purity movement as a whole and the work of Hopkins in particular.  Far from denigrating pleasure, she argues, Hopkins employed the idea that Christ had been God incarnate to develop a positive image of the body that emphasized the importance of sex within marriage while at the same time forcing men to take responsibility for their sexuality.  She also argues that Hopkins challenged Victorian understandings of purity, arguing that the emphasis on purity within marriage and the willingness of the upper and middle classes to delay entering into the institution had forced men to satisfy their sexual desires outside of marriage, sacrificing working class girls to sustain middle class purity.[3]

Morgan’s work raises questions about the relationship between religion and politics.  It cannot be assumed, she argues, that religious politics are always conservative and retrogressive.  If we take them seriously, we may find that what appeared initially to us as conservative and cow towing may have radical import.  Of course, her argument here has implications for the way we think about religion in contemporary contexts.  R. Marie Griffith has written about Women’s Aglow and Anthea Butler on the power that sanctification provided to women in black congregations.  In so doing, they have tried to rethink the relationship between conservative religious movements and the empowerment of women.[4] For them, as for Morgan, the decision of women to join religious movements can be about fulfilling inner needs and finding a space for empowerment and is not necessarily a retreatment from the world.

[1] Judith Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 238.

[2] Robert Bristow, Vice and Vigilance (New York: Gill and MacMillan, 1977), 96.

[3] Sue Morgan, A Passion for Purity: Ellice Hopkins and the Politics of Gender in the Late-Victorian Church (Bristol: University of Bristol, 1999).

[4] R. Marie Griffith, God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000) and Anthea Butler, Women in the Church of God in Christ (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, 2007).

Feminism, Body Image, and Intimacy in Marriage

16 Mar

A few days ago, my Facebook lit up with references to a new poll that said that over 50% of all women feel too fat to have sex. My Facebook friends, of course, were horrified.  Although I would like to say that my response was one of sheer horror, it wasn’t.  I empathized with the women who identified as part of that 40% who turn off the lights or avoid having sex altogether to avoid people seeing their jiggly bits.

Like a lot of women, I hate my body.  I hate my thighs.  I hate my hair.  I hate my stomach.  I hate my nose, and I hate my freckles. I hate the beach because I don’t want people to see me in a swimsuit and realize how I flat chested I am.  I also worry about what my husband thinks about when he sees me without clothes on.  Is he wishing he had married a woman with larger breasts?  Is he noticing that my belly isn’t completely flat?  Does he hate my massive thighs as much as I do?

Such thoughts are ridiculous, I know, and yet they seem to be quite common among women – young and old.  I have never been comfortable with my body.  When I was a kid, I was worried that I was too thin.  Fast forward a few years and I was suddenly worried that I was too fat.  I can’t remember the last time that I wasn’t trying to lose ten pounds or when I could look in the mirror without wanting to turn the thing over so I couldn’t see my reflection.

It was with thoughts like these that I started reading Susan Douglas’ Enlightened Sexism.  Her argument is that images of women on television as empowered, in control, and glib provide women with a false sense of the world.  In spite of the fact that we have had female presidents and senators on television, women as a whole have failed to close the gap between the wages of men and women.  White women still earn only 75% of what white men make, and that the statistics for Latina and African American women who endure “more poverty, brutality, crappy health care, and disease than their white counterparts” are frankly horrifying (20).  Douglas sees images on television as providing women with a sense of accomplishment without acknowledging the real work that needs to be done.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Clueless, and Xena allowed women to enter into a fantasy world in which women kicked butt everyday and offered no apologies.  They sent the message that feminism had completed much of its work and that women had entered into a world of liberation.

There was also a dark side of this entertainment, however.  Buffy, Cher, and Xena were all hot – amazingly so.  They were thin and their bodies were perfect.  One of the messages that television has sent to girls and young women is that it is possible to be hot and a feminist.  As a young woman who identifies as a feminist, I would support this latter sentiment if it were accompanied by a critique of our current understandings of beauty.  In the world of Xena, Buffy, and Cher, it’s still important to be beautiful, to be hot, to be sexy, for it’s ultimately the sexy women in these shows who end up being the ones who are in power and who are able to conquer men.  There’s a subtler argument implicit in some of these shows as well.  By showing women as empowered without showing the real dangers that women face, these shows can offer an argument that feminism’s work is done and end up disempowering feminist politics.  Why be a feminist, why undermine patriarchy, if women are already in power?

The recent studies that have suggested that a large percent of women avoid having sex because they hate their bodies suggest that there’s still a lot to be done.  They also point to the double-edge sword that Douglas has pointed out.  I was raised in a culture in which Murphy Brown could be a single mother, in which Xena could kick butt on television, and in which Drew Barrymore could be a member of Charlie’s Angels, and yet I still can’t look in the mirror and see myself naked without thinking gross.  The question is: What do we do about it?


Ann Judson: A Mission to Burma

6 Mar

Over the past couple of months, I have been reading a lot about the wives of Adoniram Judson, an American missionary who served in Burma.  Their lives were not easy.  Beset with fever, his first wife Ann was forced to appear daily before the Burmese government to petition for the release of her husband when he was imprisoned during the Anglo-Burmese War.  She was nursing a small infant at the time, and the trips undermined her already fragile health.  It was only after he was released that she agreed to return to Amherst, Massachusetts, to attempt to recover her failing health.  Her planned convalescence was not enough, and she died in Amherst, thousands of miles away from her husband.  The lives of his second and third wives would be no easier.  The second, whom he married after Ann’s death, would have eight children.  Those who survived infancy would be sent to the United States to be educated.  His third wife, whom he married after his second died on her way to St. Helena, would only be married for four years before her husband succumbed to illness.

Reading their memoirs and autobiographies, it is easy to feel admiration for such women.  They spent years isolated from the friends and families who had given them succor during their childhood and endured many hardships as missionaries.  In spite of all of this, their letters stressed the fact that they felt blessed and that God had blessed their missions.  On the other hand, postcolonialism and postmodernism have changed the way that we view the mission of these women.  It no longer seems to desirable to seek to change the cultures of people living in Asia, Africa, or the South Pacific.  Their writings can seem shortsighted and myopic.  Ann Judson believed that it was her duty to educate the people of Burma and teach them to be civilized.  This was no less a part of her mission than preaching the gospel.

As feminists, how do we deal with the writings of such women?  Their histories are as much a part of women’s history as those of Emmeline Pankhurst or Susan B. Anthony, and yet, to focus their experiences uncritically would seem to minimize the voice of the men and women who Judson tried to evangelize.  Is it possible to write a history that is sympathetic towards women like Ann Judson and yet takes seriously the narrowness of their vision?

For more information about Ann Judson, see:

Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Mission for Life: The Story of the Family of Adoniram Judson

Dana Robert, American Women in Mission