Yes, really. Actual fun–even laughing. With feminists!
Like good Mormons, the panelists lined up according to seniority. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich spoke first. She said she had been surprised to read the headline question of Peggy Fletcher Stack’s article, since she and the Mormon feminists she knows haven’t gone anywhere. Still Mormon, still feminist, still very much here. She acknowledged that some of the big questions of Mormon feminism(s–it hasn’t ever been monolithic) of the 70’s–the divine feminine, ordination for women–have gone unanswered or been answered no. However, she felt that those may not have been the most important questions to Mormon feminists, even though they got the most airtime. Questions about equality within marriage partnerships, opportunities for women to pursue interests or careers outside of housewifery, fairness in hiring and compensation were all very important to Mormon feminists, and those questions have been answered with a ringing yes. It may be that younger Mormon feminists are quiet because they take the achievements of the feminism of the 70s as a given–they feel free to finish their education, to pursue all kinds of careers, to space their children using birth control, to work as equal partners with their husbands in creating a family life that balances the needs of all its members.
Gently pressed on the issue of women and priesthood, Laurel said that she has “complex feelings” about this issue, and that she really believes that, as promised in the 9th Article of Faith, God “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God,” including with respect to women and the priesthood. She told a story of a friend who chose not to convert to the Church, even though her friend felt the spirit and loved the Church, because her friend could not stomach the thought of bringing up her daughters in such a patriarchal church. We will eventually need to more fully live up to the ideal of men and women as equal partners in order to effectively spread the gospel. She concluded by expressing appreciation for the power of priesthood service to help men grow into the full expression of their goodness, calling the priesthood a “brilliant system for socializing men.”
Maxine Hanks echoed Laurel’s sentiment that feminists are not dead yet (cue the Monty Python sketch), although the word “feminism” may be. (By this point, I was furiously crossing things out in my notes, as Laurel and Maxine made every point I had thought of more cogently and articulately than I could hope to do. However, I did have one line I was sad to let go, about the muddling effects of the word “feminism.” Here it is, a T&S exclusive: “When I hear the words “Mormon feminism,” I usually think of Claudia Let’s-Do-a-Musical! Bushman, while General Authorities of a certain age hear “Mormon feminist” and conjure up an alarming image of a hairy-legged, Birkenstock-clad protester demanding immediate ordination. It’s hard to have much of a conversation once those competing preconceptions get invoked.) Maxine asserted that many, maybe most, young Mormon women are feminists in all the ways that 70s feminists hoped for, despite the fact that they eschew the label–they pursue education in many fields, they expect their husbands to contribute to household work, they are aware of methods for family planning. The goals of “Second Wave” feminism are mainstream, even taken for granted by today’s young women.
Maxine suggested that things have changed in the church in part because the church is conscious of ways in which being perceived as too anachronistic will impede the progress of missionary work. If the disjunction between what women are allowed and encouraged to do outside of the church and inside, then the careful balance of being in, but not of the world, is upset, and fewer people will be able to choose membership in the church. She noted that it is in part because of women she called “independent feminists,” those who are no longer working within the church structure, that the perception of anachronism is sharpened. While those within the church tend to discount the voices of those who have “voted with their feet,” over the long term those voices do matter a great deal to perceptions within the church. The benefits of feminism are now mainstream in the church partly because of the work and sacrifice of those who have found it necessary to work from outside the institutional structure. We should acknowledge their contributions and work towards fuller cooperation.
I was next. Sadly for you, gentle readers, you get a fuller version of my remarks than the others, because, darn it!, I’ve already typed them. If you’re getting tired of reading, though, skip down and read my summary of Kate’s remarks–they’re much more interesting.
I chose to address the subject obliquely, by flipping the question and asking “Where do Mormon Feminists Come From?” Broadly, they can be born or made. I was born feminist–there was nothing in my family to particularly encourage feminism. My rather traditional mother has spent her life variously gnashing her teeth and rolling her eyes at my uppity antics. (I related one incident I remember from the ERA era, when, on reading Rex Lee’s catalog of horrors that would befall the nation if the ERA passed, I pointed out to my mother that we had a unisex bathroom in our house and there had been no notable consequences of this lapse in family morality.) I mentioned fMhLisa as another example of one of the kind of feminists who seem “born,” who, without training in feminist theory and without much input from others, just have a sense that there’s something unfair about the way women are treated in the world and/or in the church, and who come to articulate that sense of injustice in ways that eventually are labelled “feminist” by them or others.
Other feminists are made. There are several mechanisms by which this happens, including:
–broad societal upheaval: I think this largely explains the Mormon feminism of the late 60s and the 70s–changes were afoot in the U.S., and some fraction of Mormon women were caught up in that change and sensed the Church’s similarity to other institutions that were being scrutinized by Second-Wave feminism in the broader culture, and sought to apply some of those critiques (as well as some distinctively Mormon ones) within Mormonism
–life. There are many, many Mormon feminists (or “not a feminist, but…” feminists–hereafter NAFB Feminists) who, for one reason or another–divorce, financial necessity of working, or (heaven forbid) strong desire to pursue a career other than homemaking, even something like having a handicapped child for whom they had to advocate in a voice raised above acceptable Relief Society levels–find themselves outside of the expected pattern of Mormon womanhood and suddenly at odds with an institution and a culture they had previously taken as constitutive of their identity. Putting together a new sense of self that incorporates the changes they’ve made requires a renegotiation of how they fit into the institutional framework, and often involves a critique of the institution, either explicit or implicit in their way of living and functioning in the church.
–motherhood (see also, Life). I know many, many women who become feminists, or, more often, NAFB feminists, on behalf of their daughters (or, more rarely, their sons). These are women who have been relatively content with Mormon ideals of womanhood for themselves but who find themselves suddenly willing to roar like mother bears in defense of their daughter’s right to go kayaking instead of learning to crochet in Achievement Days, or insisting that their sons can learn to play violin or to sew and not be mocked for it by their scout leaders at church.
–connection with other women. I don’t think this is often a primary cause of feminism, but it can be a necessary component in cementing a sense of feminist identity. The change in the dynamics of Mormon feminism can be clearly seen in the dominant modes of connection. In the 70s, there was Exponent II–very faithful, careful, focused on personal experience and only obliquely on political issues; Mormon Women’s Forum–a little bolder in tone, more political; and Dialogue and Sunstone–scholarly (and pseudo-scholarly), still largely dominated by male discourse with occasional nods to “women’s issues.” All of these (except MWF??) still exist, though mostly with decreased readership. However, there are new, more immediate means of connecting–listservs (Mormon-L, ELWC) and, obviously, blogs and online publications: fMh, T&S, BCC, Exponent II’s blog, mommywars, Segullah, and others. None, except fMh, is explicitly feminist, but all have regular and ongoing discussions of women’s lives, women’s interests, women’s contributions to Mormonism. These are both more and less “ghettoized” than previous modes of communication–there’s more self-segregation, largely along “conservative” and “liberal” lines, but there’s less gender segregation and less “pink issue-ing”: questions about gender, gender roles, etc. come up as part of larger discussions and not only in separate fora provided by generous male hosts. There still aren’t enough “tech-y” women, but we can manage the technology well enough to publish our own stuff and be full members of the community (my affirmative action hire at T&S notwithstanding :)).
–believing the gospel, following advice from church leaders: As long as we continue to teach that “… there is neither bond nor free, neither male nor female…, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus,” and “the glory of God is intelligence”, as long as we encourage girls as well as boys to “get all the education you can,” as long as we allow the anarchic influence of personal revelation, there will be Mormon feminism. Whether the institutional church will embrace its uppity daughters and find ways to celebrate their gifts, or marginalize and disown them, remains to be seen.
Kate Holbrook, batting cleanup, hit the ball out of the park. She also noted problems with the term “feminism,” not just that it has such uncontainable and divisive connotations, but also that it asserts too strongly that men and women face different problems and should have different agendas. Particularly within the church, we have to work together, because the problems facing us are bigger than “women’s issues,” and will be solved only as we work effectively together. [One interesting example of a problem facing both men and women is the pervasive consumerism and overconsumption and the related (I was going to say “consequent,” but I’m pre-empting Frank’s objection!) need for ever-increasing productivity and longer and longer work-weeks. This is a huge threat to family life, to children, to marriages, etc., and the more simplistic versions of equity feminism (women should be allowed to be just as overworked as men!) do nothing to address the problem, and exacerbate its negative effects on children.]
She noted several instances in her experience where priesthood leaders had worked hard to include women and women’s voices in leadership councils without changing the fundamental structure of the church.
Kate said that she also appreciates that young women are taught that they have a direct relationship with God. But she says that the culture of our Church can make women feel that they need to wait around for a man to ask them to marry them, instead of using their own agency to determine what they want to do with their lives. This “waiting” can become a pervasive tendency, and can contribute to women’s overreliance on priesthood authority for direction in areas of their lives that they can and should manage with their own inspiration.
One example of women learning to wait: men don’t have to think about how their wives’ careers may affect their careers, but women plan their careers and lives (which they can and should control) around getting married and having children (which, ultimately, they can’t effectively plan or control).
There were lots of great questions from the audience, and a lively, somewhat hopeful discussion. Rather than try to summarize that discussion, I want to just offer the two emotional impressions that have stayed with me from that discussion.
1) We’ve GOT to figure out a way to include single women in the life and leadership of the church. I’ve thought about this as an intellectual problem before, but (I’m embarrassed to confess) it has never struck me with such emotional force before. There I was, in a roomful of incredibly bright, articulate, fabulously well-educated and capable women, many of whom struggle with the feeling that the church doesn’t need or want them. What a waste, what a stupid, shameful waste of talent and devotion that all the church leadership can manage toward them is an occasional pitying nod and a promise that “someday” you’ll be married and valuable, if not in this life, then the next. NO! They are valuable now and whole and complete and worthy. It is not enough to have one Sheri Dew; it is not enough to promise “someday”; it is not enough to publish the occasional stupid Ensign article on “How to Include that One Pathetic Single Sister in Ward Activities.” There’s only one because all the others read the signs on the wall (y’know, the wall where we frame and hang the Proclamation on the Family instead of the Proclamation on Jesus Christ) and left. To the extent that we do not value or appreciate single sisters, we do not value any of the women of the church–single women force us to confront them as individuals and not as soft-focus Hallmark gender-roles (wife, mother), and WE FAIL THE TEST.
(I did warn you it was an emotional response).
2) Although there are many ways to improve women’s situation at local levels, and lots of hopeful anecdotes about working individually with the fabulous men socialized by the great institutional structure of the priesthood, there is not much individuals (or even groups) can do to change the church at the general level, at least not in any of the ways we usually think of effecting organizational change. The horrible, painful, difficult, wonderful truth is that the only thing to do is to believe and live the gospel, right now, where we are. We can claim the power of our personal connection with God, live by the inspiration of the Spirit, and sustain our leaders by our righteous lives and by fasting and praying that God will pour out his Spirit on them. And that’s it. After that, it’s all about patience and enduring to the end. No letter-writing campaigns, no sending Exponent II subscriptions to President Hinckley (hey, have we tried that? we still should!), no public protests, no mass deliveries of white roses–it won’t work. Institutional boundaries are too entrenched, too impermeable.
This is both the bad news and the best news of all: Mormon women are free–“because of the covenant which [we] have made [we] shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters. …under this head [we] are made free”, and “the power is in [us] wherein [we] are agents unto [our]selves.” There is good work to do, both within the established church and in the world that waits for Zion. We who are blessed to have been taught that we are daughters of heavenly parents, reborn as daughters of Christ, have all the tools we need “to bring to pass much righteousness,” with or without institutional permission or blessing.