Is Mormon Feminism a Zero-Sum Game?

A sometimes charged little threadjack discussion has been going on in Julie’s latest book review, over a statement by Adam. Adam’s initial statement was “In my experience, the more sympathy and prominence paid to feminists, the more excluded people like my wife feel.” Adam’s reasoning is, I think, a good example of a broader phenomenon which I think deserves closer scrutiny, and which I will (with Julie’s permission) focus on in this thread. That is the argument that any movement towards feminism in the church necessarily demeans or diminishes Mormon women who do not consider themselves feminists.

If this argument is accepted, that every step forward for outspoken Mormon feminists is a step backward for often silent Mormon women who are perfectly happy the way things are right now. This is a serious consequence, and that makes an examination of Adam’s assertion important. Is Mormon feminism really a zero-sum game?

(Note — this thread will focus on the question of whether Mormon feminism is a zero-sum game as regards Mormon women. It is a separate question whether it is a zero-sum game as regards male-female relations).

It seems to me that there are several possibilities. Without making any claim to answer the question definitively, I think it may help to discuss the ways in which we could answer the question:

Yes, Mormon Feminism is a Zero Sum Game

A. Attacks on traditional women.

It seems possible that Mormon feminism is zero sum because feminist arguments invariably devalue other women. That is, our Mormon feminist, Justine,* cannot make her argument (“Mormon women ought to have a greater role in church administration,” for example) without taking gratuitous swipes at her traditional-Mormon counterpart, Danielle.

In addition, Danielle may feel insulted by the implication that Justine believes that Danielle really ought to be a feminist, and that if she knew what was good for her, she would adopt a feminist position herself.

B. Devaluation of traditional roles.

Similarly, it seems possible that Justine is capable of making her arguments without personal attacks on Danielle, but that her arguments devalue things which Danielle holds dear. If Justine asserts that “gender roles are all sexist” and this argument becomes more broadly accepted, then perhaps Danielle, a believer in gender roles, may feel that her beliefs have been devalued.

C. Derivative effects.

Perhaps Justine’s arguments, if accepted, will result in a less robust social network for Danielle. Perhaps some of Danielle’s friends will themselves accept Justine’s views. Perhaps support for what Danielle views as important traditional women’s roles will dwindle, and Danielle will suffer. All of these effects may not be Justine’s direct goals, but they may nonetheless turn Justine’s gains into Danielle’s losses.

D. It’s zero-sum and that’s good — a feminist argument.

The argument can be raised that Danielle is only feeling what Justine has had to deal with for some time. That is, the distribution of contentment among LDS women has been vastly inequitable, with Danielle receiving large shares of contentment and Justine receiving very little. Thus, a distributive justice argument can be made that the zero-sum nature of the process is exactly appropriate.

E. Political or theological consequences.

Danielle may believe that Justine’s arugments, if accepted, will have profound political or theological consequences. She may believe that advocacy of a pro-choice position will result in more abortions; that advocacy of women working will result in more adultery, and so forth. Thus, Danielle may view it as her duty to fight Justine to prevent those broader issues. Danielle may believe that the consequences of Justine’s arguments will affect her family directly — her own children are more likely to become sinners, for example.

Danielle may also believe that it is theologically dangerous to examine certain subjects.

F. Feminist troublemaking results in rollbacks of gains achieved by less ostentatious non-feminists.

This is the argument that many of the gains sought by feminists could be better achieved through quiet resistance on an individual level. By openly challenging church heirarchy, Mormon feminists actually harm other women as the inevitable crackdowns result in rollbacks of gains acheived by quiet nudges of non-feminists.

No, Mormon Feminism is Not a Zero Sum Game

A. A rising tide lifts all boats.

One argument is that Justine’s gains will translate into gains for everyone else, including Danielle. Justine will be happier, and that happiness will be passed along to others. Danielle need not begrudge Justine her gain; the trickle-down to Danielley will compensate her for any loss.

B. Danielle just doesn’t know what’s good for her.

There is a paternalistic argument that Danielle may simply be repressed, and not know it. This argument is that every woman is a closet feminist, even if she doesn’t know it. This is an argument which is deeply disrespectful of Danielle’s current beliefs. However, if valid, it does give the result that Mormon feminism is not a zero-sum game.

C. There’s room in this tent for all of us.

In addition, it can be argued that Justine’s gains need not come at Danielle’s loss. Justine can gain further participation in the church for herself and for other feminists, while Danielle may be free to stay at home and raise her children and stay out of the fray entirely.

D. Feminists actually protect non-feminists.

This is the argument that strong feminist women will stand up for the rights of women everywhere, and that non-feminists will benefit from the gains forged by feminists. This argument may be somewhat condescending to the extent that it assumes that non-feminist women are unable to take caref of themselves.

Those seem to be some possibilities, though I’ve almost certainly missed other arguments. (Which ones am I missing?).

A number of these ideas came up on Julie’s thread. For example, “this tent is big enough for all of us” seems to be the theory of Julie’s comment 6, Julie’s comment 41, Julie’s comment 46, Melissa’s comment 60. “Feminists gratuitously insult traditionalists” seems to be the theme of Adam’s comment 7, Minerva’s comment 13, Minerva’s comment 18, Minerva’s 27, Christina’s comment at BCC, Nate’s comment 43, Elisabeth’s comment 44, Melissa’s comment 60, Rosalynde’s comment 73. Devaluation of traditional roles was a theme of Ivan’s comment 38, Rosalynde’s comment 73. “Feminists protect us all” is reflected in Melissa’s comment 17, Nate’s comment 43, Melissa’s comment 60, Kris’s comment 61, Brian Jeffries comment 96 (where the idea is criticized). Mark Martin’s comment 95 focuses on derivative effects.

While some of these thoughts have been addressed in the comments to Julie’s thread, they’ve been intermingled with discussions of a dozen other things that came up in her book review. So hopefully we can use this separate thread to focus on the single issue. Is Mormon feminism a zero-sum game? I don’t know that we can answer that question definitively, but it sure sounds fun to try.

*Note: I ran an early draft of this post by the permabloggers, and there was some discussion about the names I had originally used and whether they implied that one position was better than the other. In the current iteration of the post, I’m trying to avoid use of any names that would seem to privilege one position over the other. To do this, I went to a random name generator. That is, I picked the first two female names from my spam e-mail this morning; I determined the order of the names ex ante as well. Our two participants thus became Justine and Danielle.

51 comments for “Is Mormon Feminism a Zero-Sum Game?

  1. A. Greenwood
    March 31, 2005 at 4:13 pm

    I will not be participating in this discussion. It’s something I feel too raw about to discuss in the abstract. But I think Kaimi’s done a fair job of laying out the various possibilities.

  2. Matt Jacobsen
    March 31, 2005 at 4:40 pm

    Kaimi, if you’re trying to be all-inclusive in the possibilities, why didn’t you mention the case where gains in feminism could have a net negative outcome? Your list in ‘Mormon Feminism is Not a Zero Sum Game’ assumes that non-zero can only be positive.

  3. March 31, 2005 at 4:50 pm

    Here, here, Matt.

  4. March 31, 2005 at 4:53 pm

    fun post Kaimi. You sure know how to pick ’em. Couldn’t you follow Nate’s example and post about turpentine and sugar beets?

    As to your post: I think the idea of a zero-sum game is hard to apply to interpersonal relationships, human rights, and equality. These intangibles are difficult to quantify and measure. What’s more, the impact of feminism and possible negative or positive results are tough to establish — how can you show adequate causality?

    At the end of the day, God is no respecter of persons, nor should we be — but like any other commandment or injunction, only the personal yardsticks will do.

  5. March 31, 2005 at 4:53 pm

    p.s. Matt, Paul — Kaimi wasn’t trying to be all-inclusive, so get over it.

  6. Ivan Wolfe
    March 31, 2005 at 5:00 pm

    Steve –

    It seemed Kaimi adopted a rhetorical position of “trying out all the possibilities” whether he meant to or not.

    So it is fair game to mention it.

    I’ve also noticed that you’ve gotten a bit more acerbic lately, and less tolerant of criticism directed towards positions you agree with/have sympathy for. Lighten up!

    (Not that I’m an angel in this, but that’s why I didn’t post anywhere in the bloggernacle for a week. I needed to lighten up – I still do in some respects).

  7. March 31, 2005 at 5:13 pm

    Ivan: wrong, WRONG, WRONG. When someone says in their post, “Without making any claim to answer the question definitively…” ain’t that the clue that maybe we should think he’s not trying to put down any definitive answers?

    As for my ascorbic acid, too much citrus is the cause. That, and more knuckleheads have been coming out of the woodwork lately. It’s fatiguing to play the whack-a-mole game constantly.

  8. March 31, 2005 at 5:18 pm

    But I thought whack-a-mole is all you [[evil law firm]] guys are good fer.

  9. Ivan Wolfe
    March 31, 2005 at 5:27 pm

    Steve –

    Just because someone disagrees with you does not mean they are a knucklehead.

    And I never said Kaimi was trying to come up with definitive answers – that’s a bit of rhetorical equivocation on your part. One can explore all (or almost all) possibilites without coming up with any definitive answers. The criticisms were fair and given without rancor – no one was attacking Kaimi.

    But you seem to be attacking all who would dare disagree with him.

    As I said – Lighten up. It’s all good.

    [Do you think you could have added one more “wrong” to your list? And put it into a bigger font as well?]

  10. Jim Richins
    March 31, 2005 at 5:38 pm

    Excellent post. I reserve the right to change my mind after I think about it some more. I have a long way to go before I catch up to Kaimi and others on this issue.

    However, I am leaning toward feminism being zero-sum. Many of Kaimi’s “Yes, Mormonism is a Zero-Sum Game” points resonate with me, while the same is not true of the opposing list.

    Steve’s argument about relationships and equality being unquantifiable is a good one, but at the end of the day, we’ve only had a finite number of minutes within which to interact, influence and teach, or learn from others. If a substantial portion of those minutes are devoted to a (sometimes contentious) discussion of a small subset of Gospel issues, there are fewer minutes with which to deal with other issues, such as substance abuse of all different kinds, observing a proper fast, or (like Jonathan Max Wilson) memorizing scriptures.

    Nevertheless, I don’t want to suggest that gender issues are a minor concern. I agree with the point made in Julie’s original book review, which is that gender issues are fundamental to the Gospel, and are therefore critically important to discuss.

    This does not imply, however, that the manner in which “Mormon Feminists” sometimes attempt to initiate discussion is the most effective. In this case, “Mormon Feminist” generically refers to the more liberal, anti-establishment discourse that is dismissive of the arguments of “Traditional Mormons” and expressly seeks to change Church hierarchy, practice, and even doctrine. Obviously, there are many flavors of feminism, at least one of which I identify myself with – just not these extreme and/or militant ones.

    In other words, I think the militant flavors of feminism probably fail to achieve their goals precisely because their strategies assume a zero-sum playing field. I don’t think gender issues necessarily HAVE to be zero-sum, and that gender issues likely can be better discussed within a non-zero-sum paradigm.

  11. March 31, 2005 at 5:44 pm

    So what is a Mormon feminist, Dworkin or Paglia? Neither. I hope that a Mormon feminist is whatever they believe they are. Lisa, Heather, Steve, Julie, Kaimi, me. We can all be feminists and disagree on gender issues. As a consequence, feminism is not the cause of negative fallout. The negative fallout results from perspectives and actions of individuals.

    Yeah, I think that the latter second wave feminists were offensive and resulted in their isolation from the average woman. I think that the sex positive folk have done some great things at the same time as being too far overboard. I think that the same mistakes that some have made in politics could be made in the church. But, to reiterate, it is not feminism that made the mistakes, but the individuals who have raised its banner.

  12. March 31, 2005 at 5:49 pm

    I should have read Jim Richins’ comment before posting, you raised several point that I did a poor job alluding to.

  13. March 31, 2005 at 5:55 pm

    Jim Richins — former enemy — now dearest friend. A great comment.

    Ivan — lighten up? man, I’ve never been lighter, believe me.

  14. Kristine
    March 31, 2005 at 6:28 pm

    Jim, for women, issues about how women are regarded in the church are not “a small subset of Gospel issues.” Your male privilege is showing.

  15. danithew
    March 31, 2005 at 6:37 pm

    Feminism is one thing. On a more practical or day-to-day plane, I think that many women perceive the decision to work or be a stay-at-home-mom as a zero-sum game. Perhaps human beings in general become doubly invested in the decisions they make for themselves. I have simply observed that some stay-at-home mothers perceive women who work as a threat and the opposite is sometimes true as well. There seems to be a feeling that some of those who choose to stay at home have tried to make “the righteous decision” or to “put family first.” Consequently, when they see those who make a different decision, particularly those who are also members of the Church, they find this threatening or ominous in some way. And again, women who choose to pursue careers, get advanced degrees, etc. may look at the stay-at-home-moms in a scathing light as well. Even if these feelings aren’t always articulated with a phrase like “zero-sum game,” that seems to be the de facto gut reaction. At least for some.

  16. Julie in Austin
    March 31, 2005 at 6:42 pm


    I think that we might avoid some of the fireworks we’ve seen recently by defining feminism.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s easy to do. Like the word ‘environmentalism’, it just means too many different things to to many different people. Do I have to chain myself to redwoods to be an environmentalist, or does separating my recyclables count? Similarly, with feminism, several of your points would play out quite differently if feminism means;

    “I think we should choose to use more scripture stories about women than we normally do when we teach, and I think we sure be sure that with a loaded term like ‘preside’, we are very careful to stay close to what the Brethren have taught instead of allowing worldly notions to interfere.”


    “I think we cannot claim to be the true Church until women hold the priesthood.”

    (Incidentally, #1 is the kind of feminism to which i subscribe. #2 makes me roll my eyes,)

  17. March 31, 2005 at 6:50 pm

    Kristine, if I were able to somehow abandon my male privilege, how big a part of the gospel would women’s issue be? How much should a woman’s approach to the Savior and his message be as a woman, and how much as a disciple? (I imagine the question works when transposing ‘man’ in the formulation as well).

  18. Julie K
    March 31, 2005 at 6:55 pm

    Strange. I was thinking along those exact same lines.
    A definition of Mormon feminism would really help clarify things for me. Thanks for yours, Julie.
    Anyone else?

  19. Kristine
    March 31, 2005 at 7:05 pm

    Ryan, of course one’s approach should be 100% about being a disciple. But when one is female, figuring out what that means immediately brings up gender issues–Jesus blessed the sick, I’m not (currently) allowed to do that; is bringing soup the same thing? Jesus organized a church and all of the leadership we know much about were male–if I’m not to be just a passive recipient of the blessings of the gospel of Christ, but an active participant, how do I write myself into that story? Jesus invited the apostles to the last supper–where were the women, what were they doing? How did they learn about the sacrament?

    I’m not sure it’s possible to explain how this constant negotiation, trying to figure out where I fit, affects my understanding of the gospel. Most women do it pretty much unconsciously, but it is there. My sons’ understanding of how they relate to the Savior through the sacrament is already conditioned by the fact that they know they will someday bless and pass the sacrament–virtually every aspect of church participation (which is not the same as discipleship, I know, but is sometimes our best approximation) is subtly mediated through gender. Of course one can let those small and sometimes frustrating questions become snares, but I don’t think it’s possible to entirely escape them either.

  20. March 31, 2005 at 7:16 pm

    I agree that one’s paradigm, if observant, must inevitably be influenced by the issues you raise, Kristine. And if we’re talking about paradigms– the way we view and interact with the gospel, I think I largely agree with you.

    But I took you to be saying something more radical– that these issues are not just a procedural facet of dealing with the gospel, but an actual substantive part of it, and no small one at that. I would have a difficult time accepting that. Unless I hear otherwise, I’ll assume you meant the former.

    However, on reading your comment, it occurs to me that it might be irrelevant for you to know what the women were doing during the last supper. Could it be that their activities have been left out of the gospel record not as an oversight, but as a specific way to shield today’s women from being put in the same place as the women of that day? In other words, let’s assume the women were out washing dishes and preparing and serving dinner. How would it help us if that had been included in the record? Wouldn’t that just give some moderns more reason to prescribe that today’s women ought to be fulfilling the same roles as those in scripture? Could this be one small answer to the question of why the scriptures aren’t chomping at the bit to tell us what all the women were doing all the time? Why import those more patriarchal cultures, via some normatively powerful narratives, into a modern culture where women enjoy very different, more advanced roles?

    By the way, I’m not sure about the healing power of bringing soup, but I can endorse the magic of showing up with bags full of presents!

  21. Julie in Austin
    March 31, 2005 at 7:17 pm


    Women most certainly were at the Last Supper. This is another good example where worldly traditions (darn you, Da Vinci) have infiltrated most LDS thinking.

    This is not meant to take away from your larger point, which I think is very true and very important.

  22. Taylor
    March 31, 2005 at 7:19 pm

    Picking up on Ryan and Kristine’s discussion of non-gendered discipleship, Paul taught that in the Gospel there is no “male or female” (Gal 3:28). But this doesn’t seem to be true in the church. All of our experience in the church teaches us very different ways of being a disciple. Is Ryan’s ideal of non-gendered discipleship possible or even desirable? Can issues of gender really be set aside when one enters into the larger category of disciple? Or does gender persist and pervade the very definition of disciple as Kristine suggests, but then backs away from?

  23. March 31, 2005 at 8:45 pm

    In an effort to be snarky here, I have to ask: when picking these puportedly “random” names, Kaimi, did you have to pick “random” names that have such obvious masculine overtones? I mean, really. Justine and Danielle? That’s so totally not zero-sum!


    You may now return to your regularly scheduled intellectual discussion.

  24. MDS
    March 31, 2005 at 9:00 pm

    “All of our experience in the church teaches us very different ways of being a disciple.”

    I don’t believe this to be the case. My experience certainly hasn’t taught me that. I find my efforts to follow the Lord mirror those of my wife pretty closely. I observed the same with respect to my parents. My experience in the church has taught me about some differences between the genders, but those differences seldom touch on actual discipleship.

  25. Ivan Wolfe
    March 31, 2005 at 10:15 pm

    Julie in Austin –

    But I read The DaVinci Code! He did show women at the last supper! Right? ;-)

  26. March 31, 2005 at 11:07 pm

    Alright, here is the thing that I don’t understand about the whole feminist vs. non-feminist part of the post. Why does someone being one mean that the other needs to feel offended?

    I am a traditional woman, I believe in gender roles, I think a woman can be fullfilled without a career…ect. However, I am not offended at the fact that other women feel differently than I do.

    The only time when I can see a problem arise is when the attacks become personally directed at an individual. I have seen it happen, but overall what I see is more of just general statements about the subject. I don’t see why it has to be a lose-lose situation if we are respectful to one another’s agency while disscussing the topic.

  27. Rosalynde Welch
    March 31, 2005 at 11:20 pm

    Kaimi, this is interesting and fruitful. But the basic premise is one that, I think, doesn’t hold: namely, that feminists and non-feminists can be easily and cleanly separated from one another. Sure, certain women will self-identify as feminists, some will disavow feminism, and most will probably fall somewhere in the middle, with a shifting and uneven relationship to feminisms (I consider myself in this class). The situation is further complicated by lifestyle choices, which, in my experience, are often poorly predicted by ideological identification, particularly in the Mormon community: one might expect feminist women to work outside the home, and non-feminists to stay at home with their children, for example–but this pattern, in my observation, is not carried out. (Julie, Kristine and I are all stay-at-home moms, for instance.) So if feminists’ objectives threaten the lifestyles of non-feminists, then I, presumably, would be working against my own choices! Zero-sum games can only be played out between opposing monoliths, and I don’t think there are two such monoliths among the women of the church.

    Various forms of feminism have been among the several disruptive social forces that have transformed much of family and community life in the past half-century. These changes have been good for some people, and they have been bad for other people; some of the emerging effects are positive, some are negative. Each of us finds ourself on various sides of the divide at various moments, whether or not we consider ourselves feminists.

  28. Taylor
    April 1, 2005 at 12:26 am

    MDS- perhaps my experience is different than yours, but I have never once asked to do anything like these events that our RS Enrichment night has done recently:

    “We will be decorating and filling Birthday Piñatas to donate to a local Homeless Shelter. We’re looking for any donation that is birthday party related i.e. crepe paper, candy, party hats, and small party favors. We’re also looking for people willing to bring their favorite Dip and dipper i.e. bean dip and chips, Veggies and veggie dip, Yogurt dip and fruit etc. If you are willing to donate any of these items please e-mail me and let me know.”


    The classes that night include:
    sewing help
    family and organizing
    an excercise class
    cooking class (menu planning, shopping etc.)

    I am dead serious! None of these things have ever come up in Priesthood meeting. Now, perhaps we disagree on the definition of discipleship, but I think that it will be hard to defend that in practice we do not have very different expectations of righteous living for the genders.

  29. April 1, 2005 at 3:38 am

    Paul isn’t exactly the go-to guy for gender-blind discipleship lessons. Today I listened to the New Testament on tape (well, 1st Corinthians through 2nd Peter) and I learned that I should be silent in church, that I shouldn’t teach or supervise men, that men were made to please God and that women were made for men, etc.

    I’m glad the Church doesn’t insist on all of that being taken literally, because it’d be a real downer for me. ^_^

  30. Kaimi
    April 1, 2005 at 7:34 am

    Interesting comments from everyone.

    I personally agree with Julie that this could be helped by a good definition of feiminism, and with Rosalynde that the world is not so easily divided into two camps.

    That said, if the goal is to address existing concerns, then I think that one must take those concerns as they are. And the sentiment which I’ve heard expressed (and which, I believe is exemplified by Adam’s comment, though I won’t put words in his mouth) is that (a) there _are_ different groups of feminists and traditionalists; yes there may be some overlap, but one can still distinguish between Mormons with feinist beliefs and those without such beliefs (and Rosalynde, you’re a feminist); (b) yes, there are a range of definitions of feminism, but we don’t need to classify it down to the nth detail to notice the problems; they are evident based on any number of common, widely held definitions.

  31. Elisabeth
    April 1, 2005 at 9:22 am

    I agree with danithew and Kaimi – you have to make the word “feminist” more concrete in order to have a productive discussion about gender issues.

    Instead of talking about feminists and non-feminists, I think the main problem in the Church today regarding gender roles is that women are not allowed to use all their talents while serving in the Church.

    Women who are skillful at and enjoy making crafts, taking care of children, cooking and organizing the home, are generally more satisfied in the Church than are women who are not good at or do not enjoy these things.

    I know I feel completely useless at Enrichment Activities, but I go to support the leaders and to forge relationships with sisters in the ward (when I do go, that is). I feel jealous when I look at the beautiful wreaths, scrapbooks, and other homemaking crafts that I could never do. And perhaps other women feel jealous that I have a career, but these women can feel comforted and secure that they are fulfilling their divine roles as mother and wife as the Church has asked them to do (i.e., by not working outside the home).

    For example, I don’t see how women who are leaders in their careers being able to use their leadership skills in, say, the role of Executive Secretary or Sunday School President, would detract from the enjoyment and fulfillment of women who appreciate the way things are done today in the Church. But that would assume that we are all unselfish, mature and compassionate disciples of Christ.

  32. kris
    April 1, 2005 at 9:33 am

    As Rosalynde has acknowledged I think we need to be talking in terms of feminisms. While I define myself as a Mormon feminist, I have different views about gender essentialism, the Proclamation, and women and priesthood as expressed by Lisa,Rosalynde, Kristine, Steve and many others. Right now, my personal definition of feminism is derived from the work of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Ann Braude. Braude defines feminism as the “movement to liberate women and men from internal and external assumptions about limits on women’s abilities or potential”. In an essay called, “Border Crossings”, Ulrich states,

    “When I say that I am a feminist, I identify with women across the centuries who have had the courage to claim their own gifts … Mormonism rejects the Calvinist notion of predestination as well as the monarchial notion of a great chain of being in which each person is subordinate to the one above. Listen to Lehi: “And because they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon” (2 Nephi 3:26). Lehi’s formulation is surprisingly close to the modern distinction between subject and object. That each person be free to think, speak and act for herself is both a feminist and a Mormon dream.”

    She goes on to say, “Yet my commitment to the Church of Jesus Christ pushes me beyond a mere concern for “rights”. As a feminist I know that structures matter, that formal authority makes a difference in the way people think as well as behave, that institutional arrangements can lock in prejudice, yet I also know that legal protection is hollow without without spiritual transformation and that the right spirit can transform a seemingly repressive system.”

    Perhaps, Braude’s definition could be seen as offensive to some because of the word “liberated” — women who are content with the status quo would certainly not see themselves as needing liberation. I would never want to imply that someone just doesn’t know what is good for her.

    I think that Mormon feminism will remain a zero-sum game for as long as we keep speaking in binaries and quite frankly, being a hyphenated Mormon, makes you automatically suspect. If you look at Kaimi’s post, there are terms like “outspoken Mormon feminists” juxtaposed against “silent (happy) Mormon women”. Also defining feminists as “troublemakers” who are taking “gratuitous swipes” is a misleading characterization, which is common.

    I prefer the “there’s room in the tent for all of us” theory and don’t necessarily agree with the idea that feminists “protect” non-feminists. Instead I think that all women can benefit from many of the things that feminists have advocated for — think education, etc. However, I believe that we need to go further than just making room and make sure that everyone is at the table, not just tucked into some corner of the tent. For instance, I have never really felt a need to pray to Heavenly Mother, but reading some of the thoughts of women who have or have sincerely wondered about this has been enlightening and has brought them to the table for me. Similarly, being reminded of the possible devaluation of “traditional” women (however that is actually defined) is important too.

    In some ways, I wonder if the discussion is moot. I cannot help but feel that no matter what change of consciousness women and men may advocate for, no matter how egalitarian my marriage is, in the strictest dictionary definition, within our most deeply held beliefs and ordinances, it seems that women are supposed to be subordinate to their husbands and by extension their male Church leaders.

  33. Jim Richins
    April 1, 2005 at 9:44 am


    Did you accuse me of male privilege before reading the rest of my post?

    Note, I am not pretending to be immune from male privilege, only wondering if I was not clear enough when I said that gender issues are at the core of the Gospel.


    A minor quibble: zero-sum does not require exactly two exclusive monoliths. True, we usually watch basketball games with exactly two opposing teams, but this shouldn’t bias our understanding of discourse. The many flavors of Feminism may compete or cooperate with each other (and with other ideologies), but the question is whether the “prize” – the score, capital, power or influence, is finite.

    In terms of time spent talking about issues, it is undeniably zero-sum. There are no more than 1,440 minutes in a day.

  34. Taylor
    April 1, 2005 at 9:48 am

    Speaking of definitions of feminism, I remember in the fall in my class with Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, one of the foremost feminist biblical theologians, she gave a pithy one line definition : Feminism is the radical notion that women are people. I wrote this down and thought– ooh, that is a nice definition. I was pretty annoyed when I saw it as a bumper sticker on her car the next week! Don’t you think that if you are going to quote a bumper sticker you should warn people?

    Anyway, Sarah, Paul is difficult to figure out. His egalitarian vision in Gal 3:28 is contradicted by 1 Cor. There are several explanations: 1) Paul changed his mind. The women prophetesses in Corinth had gotten out of hand and he abandoned his principles. 2) The passage in 1 Cor in a later interpolation by 2nd c. Pauline schools, perhaps the same schools that produced the Pastoral epistles. 3) Paul’s qualification in Gal 3:28 of “in the Lord” refers to an eschatological ideal which is not yet in practice. In any case, feminist theologians have looked to that passage as a peek into early Christian egalitarianism.

  35. Kristine
    April 1, 2005 at 10:06 am

    Jim, I guess I’m not sure why you talked about a “small subset” if you also want to agree that gender issues are not part of that subset. And I’ll confess to not having read carefully enough once my somewhat hypersensitive “but-the-gospel-is-so-wonderful-and-there-are-so-many-great-things-to-learn-that-you-should-overlook-a-little-bit-of-sexism” button got pushed. Sorry.

  36. Jim Richins
    April 1, 2005 at 11:13 am

    I was moving from general to specifics. The real problem was that I included the adjective “small”.

    Rosalynde… I’m afraid I came off a little condescending when I was talking about biasing discourse. Of course, I know that you are fully aware of the multi-faceted nature of discourse, particularly feminist.

    Steve… What is that about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer?

  37. Julie K
    April 1, 2005 at 11:21 am

    The label ‘feminist’ seems to be accompanied by pride in the fact that one can be identified as such.
    My curiosity is piqued.
    What are the benefits of wearing the label ‘Mormon feminist’?

  38. kris
    April 1, 2005 at 11:27 am

    Julie K — I’ve been wondering what the “benefits” are this week as well. As far as I can tell, there are none. :)

  39. Frank McIntyre
    April 1, 2005 at 11:32 am


    That button Jim pushed is flowing over into the sidebar. You need to put spaces on your buttons. Also, I get out of breath reading your hyphenophillic comments.

  40. Kaimi
    April 1, 2005 at 11:52 am

    It’s true, Frank — nobody weilds a hyphen quite like our Kristine.

  41. Elisabeth
    April 1, 2005 at 12:18 pm

    For a beautifully written, personal account of what it means to be a “feminist” Mormon, you should read “Border Crossings” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Volume 27, Number 2, Summer 1994, p. 1-7.

    A link to the article is currently on the Feminist Mormon Housewives blog.

  42. Julie K
    April 1, 2005 at 2:08 pm

    Thanks for the reference.
    Mormon feminists are being true to themselves?
    That’s who they are?
    That’s the benefit?

  43. kris
    April 1, 2005 at 2:34 pm

    Julie K — that’s probably a better way of putting it. I guess what I am saying is that in my own experience there are few external benefits.

  44. Elisabeth
    April 1, 2005 at 3:15 pm

    Julie K. – I didn’t read Thatcher Ulrich’s essay in terms of costs and benefits as such, and I think she was trying to go beyond the current definition of “feminism” or “Mormon feminists” to find a deeper meaning that resonates with the gospel.

    That said, if we ARE looking for a more concrete definition of a “feminist”, I think this statement sums it up nicely:

    “I deplore teachings, policies, or attitudes that deny women their full stature as human beings, and I have tried to act on that conviction in my personal and professional life.”

    Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
    Border Crossings

  45. Rosalynde Welch
    April 1, 2005 at 3:18 pm

    Julie K.– Calling oneself a “feminist” carries the same benefits and risks that affixing any label to oneself does. Labels work as shorthand identifications, indicating general attitudes, values and positions. It’s a lot quicker to say “I’m a feminist” than to say “I’m familiar with and concerned about the conditions of women’s lives presently and across history, I believe that some of the ways in which we talk about gender are inaccurate and harmful, and…etc etc etc”

    Of course, the advantage of labels–their ease and quickness–are also their greatest risk. Because “feminist” is such a drastically reduced way of identifying oneself, it can’t possibly entail all the particularities of my own brand of feminism, my own combination of attitudes, values and positions about gender. As a result, unless I’m careful to communicate otherwise, other people will (naturally) freight “feminism” with their own understandings–and severe miscommunication, even real offense, can occur.

    Both the benefit and risk of using the label “feminist” is dependent on the context in which it’s used: does the “interpretive community” have the resources to make sense of the label? does the rhetorical occasion add a particular gloss? I would not insist on my feminism when conversing with my grandparents, for example; nor would I label myself a feminist when speaking in sacrament meeting. But in some contexts, I judge that the benefits of the label outweight the risks, and so I describe myself as a “feminist.”

    Surprisingly, in all my life the most hostile response to that label has come right here at T&S–probably because of the lack of other social context in which to interpret the label. If you could see my home, my family, my manner, my lifestyle, perhaps the word “feminist” would not seem so threatening, because it would be tempered by other (I hope) reassuring clues to my fundamental commitment to the gospel and the church. I think this might be so because most other church members with whom I associate–even those to whom I identify myself as a feminist–do not react with the alarm that some here do.

  46. Rosalynde Welch
    April 1, 2005 at 3:23 pm

    Incidentally, I’ve often wondered whether the order in which we affix labels to ourselves matters much. For example, Kaimi used the formulation “Mormon feminist” or “Mormon feminism” in his post–quite naturally, since that’s how it’s usually put. But that makes “feminist” and “feminism” the substantive, and “Mormon” the mere modifier. But that’s not how I understand myself. I see myself as a “feminist Mormon”: Mormon is the substantive–the concrete thing–and “feminist” the dependent (and optional) modifier.

    I doubt, however, whether those who object to “Mormon feminist” would be much more open to a “feminist Mormon”!

  47. Elisabeth
    April 1, 2005 at 3:42 pm

    On a lighter note, I saw t-shirts online a few weeks ago for sale that said “No One Knows I’m a Feminist Mormon”. This website also had t-shirts for sale that said “No One Knows I’m a Liberal Mormon” – those are on Clearance now for $10. Guess there’s not much of a demand for these.

  48. Julie K
    April 1, 2005 at 3:55 pm

    I agree completely that labels are problematic. I have always wondered why anyone would purposely limit themselves by labeling themselves as a Mormon feminist. A truly free thinking woman can think and do whatever she wants-which includes advancing the cause of women by raising their visibility and stature-all without the baggage of the label of feminism.
    That said, I am gratified and relieved to find that we all have more in common than was evident in the gender war threads. Thank you for your responses. It’s been a pleasure.

  49. kris
    April 1, 2005 at 4:21 pm

    Thank you, Rosalynde, for your more in-depth and articulate explanation. I also appreciated your idea of understanding each other within a social context. Of course, Mormon feminist, is only one facet of ourselves which is revealed on-line, which I think could speak to Adam’s idea of playing the one key on the piano. I guess I could identify myself as Mormon environmentalist, Mormon cross-country skier, Mormon canoeist, etc. but I don’t. Perhaps, choosing to link the terms Mormon and feminist is merely to qualify our commitment to a certain type of feminism like radical feminism or Marxist feminism which is grounded in a particular worldview.

  50. Matt Archer-Beck
    April 1, 2005 at 10:33 pm

    This has been a very interesting discussion. I agree with those who have challeged the premise of the original post because it failed to properly define or take into account the variety of feminist thought. However, if we take the fairly broad definition of feminist suggested by Ulrich, I think that Mormon feminism is clearly not a zero-sum game. If feminists are people who think that gender equality is not where it should be in the hearts of church members and in certain church institutions and that in many areas of the church the fruits of the “equal partnership” spoken of over the pulpit need to be more apparent in the lives of church members, then feminism will not hurt the church and will not hurt those who believe that there is no reason to change the status quo. For example, I think so-called “difference feminists” have much to offer the so-called “traditionalist.” Believing that there are differences between men and woman, difference feminists insist that the problem is when we discount those things associated with women. This has clear application to the gospel, where Jesus values above all else the traits traditionally associated with women–compassion, caring, meekness. While strains of feminism that insist that ALL societal institutions basically serve to subordinate women are not that helpful to a traditionalist, these extreme forms of feminism are (in my experience) rare in the church. I think most feminist Mormons (or Mormon feminists) are acting in good faith to promote a greater sense of gender equality in the church and they do not harm more traditionalist women (nor are they heretical).

  51. Julie K
    April 2, 2005 at 7:24 am

    I’m not sure how to preface these remarks.
    My hope is that they are illuminating rather than inflammatory.

    Last week Kaimi posted “The Silver Ring”.
    As I read the piece I was spiritually moved.
    A distraction appeared in the comments.
    It diminished the quality of my experience.

    I have the honor of belonging to a church with Divinely-mandated doctrines and practices.
    Men are appointed to administrate and give counsel.
    Members are expected to be loyal and follow.
    Some choose otherwise.
    It creates a distraction.
    It diminishes the quality of my experience.

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