One purpose of reviewing a book is to answer the question: should you read this book? As you’ll see, I’ve got a lot more to say on the new collection of posts titled Were We Must Stand: Ten Years of Feminist Mormon Housewives, but I’ll start by simply answering the question. Given the length of this review, I’ve tried to make it bullet-pointy/boldy/italicizy, and divided it into five distinct sections so that the short attention spans of the bloggernacle can quickly skim through it. But reading and reviewing this book was a weighty experience for me, just as participating in FMH has been a weighty experience for its authors and many of its participants; and some of that weight shows up here.
I. WHY YOU SHOULD READ THIS BOOK
In brief, my answer as a reviewer: yes, you should read this book. Here’s a quick list of reasons why I think that:
- This is us. It captures a significant portion of our sisters and brothers in the church. One of the most conspicuous features of the book is the use of the authors’ real names—many of the authors used pseudonyms on the blog site “to feel safe from prying eyes.” (Ross 7) The phenomenon of the bloggernacle generally and FMH in particular reveals to us the diversity of thought and experience in our ranks, even if the space of discourse at church is largely dominated by a catechismic choir of orthodoxy. This books offers voice to the sisters and brothers who just brought you a meal after helping you move in all morning and who you’ll hear bear testimony next Fast Sunday, but who may or may not comment in Sunday School on issues that your Sunday School teacher likely won’t ever raise.
- This is us: It offers something universal in the experience of belonging and alienation, self and community, seeking for reconciliation. “All of the checklists: earrings, haircuts, underwear, the temperature of our drinks, the mission, and the temple marriage and never expressing (and barely admitting to) doubts about truth. Can I be Mormon without all of these things? Can I be a Mormon with doubt? Can I be a Mormon who skips church? How about a Mormon who loves being Mormon some days, and other days doesn’t want to be Mormon, but can’t help but think and act like a Mormon 90% of the time anyway? Can I be a feminist Mormon who loves my mother church at the same time I am angry and hurt by so much that is broken here? Can I be a Mormon when they don’t seem to want me, the real me, the feminist me?” (Butterworth 4)
- This is us: It’s Mormon on every page, manifesting Mormon warts and Mormon glory. The book and what it gives voice to is one of the ways that Mormonism has engendered social bonding and community. Perhaps the most powerful line of the book—and the most powerful expression of what Feminist Mormon Housewives is—comes from Lisa Patterson Butterwoth (founder of the blog) on page 124: “If you want to be comfortable and have people agree with you, you are in the wrong place. You can go to Sunday School for that. You can go to a secular feminist blog for that. They both serve important purposes. But we can’t be that here. If you are full of certainty, you are in the wrong place. But having said that, this is a community. A real community full of people who love each other, and who care, and who want to understand and help each other. Even when we disagree.” That sentiment, experience, and striving strikes me as being as culturally and theologically Mormon as anything in this dispensation.
- This is us: It communicates an important voice in perhaps the most significant grass roots element of Mormonism in the last half century. “in every generation of mormon women, women have asked and will continue to ask the questions kate kelly and others have bravely raised. the questions continue to come up because our doctrine and practices around gender are contradictory and incomplete.” (Brooks, 286)
- This is us: It’s a love letter to our people. “To Mormon women of all kinds, feminist or not, living or dead or still to be born. You are my people.” (Hanks 3)
- This is us: It reveals the fact that we haven’t changed much. Rereading the issues of 2004-2014 isn’t much different than getting a summary of how the issues stand in 2018. “Power Hungry” by Lorie Winder Stromberg in 2005 could’ve been written for posting tomorrow. These posts are relevant today in a general sense (really, can women hold the priesthood? can they govern in the church co-equally with men without the priesthood? why aren’t they already doing so? what exactly is the doctrine or revelation on this point? what is the meaning of our ever changing history with regard to women’s roles in the Kingdom?). They are also relevant with cutting specificity: “I had narratives of repentance for sexual sin. I had no narrative of recovering from sexual violence. . . . Why don’t we make it perfectly clear, for 11-year-olds to 99-year-olds, that our bodies are not the receptacles of other people’s shame? That if someone hurts me, I ought not be embarrassed but ought to feel like I can demand help until I get it? That sex in the wrong context is bad, but sex in a violent, coercive context is infinitely worse?” (Baxter, 280-1)
In the end I’m left with the immensity of these writings. They are immensely profound and articulate. Immensely painful and beautiful. Immensely intimate. This—perhaps more than anything—here is a group of women who made the most personal and intimate aspects of their selves and spirituality public for a decade, and now public in this book. Having slowly read every page, without any reservation, my recommendation is: read the book.
II. MY CRITICISMS OF THE BOOK
That said, the book has what I believe are significant weaknesses. I’m quite cognizant of the fact that I’m a white, cisgendered, heterosexual man writing this book review, but: 1. I believe my criticisms are substantive and relevant without caveat; and 2. Even if they’re idiosyncratic to myself or my (very common within Mormonism) intersectional identity category, I think they’ll be valuable and worth considering by the editors and authors who I know are interested in seeing positive movement in the church on the issues they raise.
Again, in brief, here are my criticisms:
- In terms of overarching narrative the book is incoherent. Since I believe the main point of the book is merely to publish in book format a selection of ten years of FMH posts, this is perhaps not a terribly significant problem, since the blog itself is certainly not aiming for coherence. And Sara Katherine Staheli Hanks acknowledges this fact in her editor’s preface (pages 1-3), that ultimately what drove the selection and editing was not a specific vision or narrative or historical interpretation, but rather the editor’s gut. And despite the incoherence of the book’s structure and narrative, it is a good glimpse of the function of the blog: community gathering, educating, bonding, exploring, ranting, whining, supporting, intellectually developing, lobbying, grieving, group-therapy-ing, opening up a space to be feminist Mormon housewives (or just women). So perhaps my criticism really is:
- They might have accomplished this goal (publishing favorite posts) while doing a great deal more. They occasionally gesture at this more (the year synopses/introductions, and the reflections at the end of the book), but it’s both minimal and marginal. A related, or perhaps simply another way of voicing this criticism:
- An important part of publishing a book, particularly a retrospective one like this, is to prescind away from the noise and chaos of the play-by-play and offer a narrative, helping the reader to abstract and identify key variables, questions, and insights, as well as an understanding of what has taken place. Instead, this book merely throws the reader back into the chaotic melee. While a few posts attempt to take stock, the book itself does not.
- The problem is that a best hits list tends only to attract those that already buy in to these as hits. And perhaps the authors really don’t care about doing more. But if that’s so, it’s significantly at odds with the rhetoric of the posts themselves, which are looking for a way to flourish and overcome with/as our community.
- Reading a blog or even two in a day—particularly as they swirl in the fleeting currents of contemporary context—can be exciting. Reading through a whole book of blog posts is tedious. Again, a stronger editorial hand would’ve ameliorated this difficulty.
- The brief history of the blog that is given upfront notes its evolution and recent renewal on the axis of social justice and inclusivity. If exploring the intersection of both “feminism” and “Mormonism” is unwieldy, then exploring the intersection of “contemporary, radically self-conscious social identity” and “Mormonism” is much more so. The problem of course is not that attending to an ever expanding and intersecting set of social identitites is awkward or difficult; if we want Zion to work, we’re going to have to figure out how to attend to the needs and tensions that arise out of the proliferating (and real, even if socially constructed) axes of human diversity. As an intellectual project, however, the risk is that the more broad and inclusive our focus, the more watered down our treatment. Rather than standing as an example of how to cope with this dilemma, the history of FMH that arises out of this book is an example of the risks of becoming intellectually impotent as one wades through the morass. (Note: this is a perplexing struggle that impacts everyone who seeks to overcome the endemic ills of exclusivity and identity-based oppression and not a special failing of FMH. I ought to be clear that an even bigger failing is when we ignore these difficult issues altogether.)
- Particularly without editorial contextualizing, something that shines throughout the collection is an Enlightenment-style radical individualism. (Can I point out without mansplaining that such individualism is at the heart of androcentricism and patriarchy? I’ll just note that there’s nothing in here that makes me think the authors were attempting to avoid this radical individualism, which frequently clashes with the gushing expressions of praise for the FMH community.) I’m both personally and philosophically uncomfortable with the false dichotomy of either affirming oneself or affirming one’s relationships as constitutive (i.e., I’m anti “Career as Personal Progress” pg 16-17 and the similar chords struck throughout this work), and I wonder if either the lack of self-awareness on this point (or perhaps an awareness but unwillingness to confront it) significantly limits the potential reach of the FMH critique.
- Similarly, what a remarkably poor and tone-deaf note to end on (“I Lost My Faith but Found My Voice” 312-314). In addition to being an extremely poor choice for the book’s final word—which on account of its placement skews the rest of the work (goodness, why not stick this one in the middle of the end reflections?), it lends credence to a very real and very live worry concerning radicalism: Martin Luther eventually got everything he asked for, but only after war. And after a war and its inevitable tragedies, the original terms are never enough. I think the only positive reading to this final reflection is as a somber note of warning regarding how one goes about faithful discipleship at the margins (these last two points demand a great deal more, but this review is already bloated).
One note to put my criticism here in context: I can’t imagine reading a bare selection of ten years worth of Times & Seasons posts (or any blog’s) and not having similar criticisms.
III. MY SUGGESTIONS FOR A FUTURE BOOK(S)
Again, I think that these issues are significant. And, having volunteered for the pompous and self-indulgent role of reviewing the book, I’ll go further and offer some advice regarding any potential successor book, sharing some of what I was hoping for but didn’t get:
- I suspect that one result of publishing a book is a more significant historical impact than merely writing a blog. Blogs are by their nature transitory, much like a news broadcast on the day’s current events. A book enters a more permanent historical record, and I think it was a good move to publish this one. Since the blog with all of it’s archive already exists, something like a shorter, curated book makes sense. The difficulty already noted above with Where We Must Stand is that the curation not terribly helpful. The posts do almost all the work themselves. Even a much more carefully curated and interpreted work, however, would still be limited because the thrust of the content remains as blog posts. And again, there’s already the blog—both its content and its experience (which is critical). On the other hand, there are already books a plenty that are more scholarly and substantive, treating nearly all the intellectual themes of the blog in a more rigorous manner (one of the delights of the book is watching the way that many of the authors discover and incorporate the broader feminist and historical literature). The difficulty with this scholarly material, however, is the limited nature of its reach and the fact that it doesn’t (directly) help to tell the story of the FMH world. I think that a book taking a much more interpretative approach, a meta-reflective analysis of the blog, could synthesize the strength of the blog and its experience in a more permanent and accessible manner. At the end we get a glimpse of what this could look like with the bloggers overall reflections (this was my favorite part of the book)—scholarly in substance but bloggerly in tone, readability, and accessibility. My suggestion is to build on this approach for the next book—which I greatly look forward to.
- Here’s one way in which we as a people have failed: institutionally we no longer ask and seek to answer Nibley’s “Terrible Questions;” and consequently, our members have to go outside of Mormonism to take part in serious dialogue on these issues. Sometimes our members feel obliged to leave Mormonism all together in order to seriously pursue these questions (like “The [Retrospectively Ironically Named] Faithful Dissident,” 303-304). Could we have a concentrated focus on the intersection of the Terrible Questions and specifically Mormon Feminism? This would meet a clear need and be a book that I would line up to buy.
- There’s a huge opportunity within the archives of FMH to distill practical, ward-level advice. Do this work for us so we don’t have to go searching to find it. Give us both a list and a reasoned discussion justifying do-able, ward-level action and change that could help us create local Zion, even as we wait for the institution to figure out how exactly to pitch the tent. So much of the criticism lobbed in these posts is aimed at Mormon theology and practice and culture and the church’s institution at large. But so much of the pain and heartache experienced in these stories stems from the arena of the bloggers’ own ward. Ultimately, we need significant institutional and cultural (and perhaps even theological, though that’s a much thornier issue) change. Since any such change is dramatically unlikely to be forthcoming quickly, a focus on the local has great potential. I would love to see the collective passion and creativity and brilliance of the FMH bloggers trained on advice to women for how to make positive ward-level and personal-experience level and my-group-of-friends-and-family level changes.
IV. A WORD FOR THOSE WHO WOULD PREFER TO IGNORE THE BOOK
Before ending, I would also like to offer some criticism of those who I think will pass on reading this book—not for logistical but for reasons related to the books content: I think you’re avoiding the deep wounds that mar this church and consequently mar the project of the Restoration, and it’s precisely this marring that prevents our healing. Critical to repentance, critical to opening ourselves up to the atonement, critical to our being empowered by the atonement, is our willingness to candidly face up to our mistakes. Along with whatever sins we might be collectively committing in our treatment of women (which we ought to think deeply about) is our sin as individuals in ignoring or dismissing women’s petitions. Commonly, we do so because it ruins an otherwise perfectly good occasion. This is the image of the feminist Killjoy—there we are, enjoying our Sabbath feast, feeling the spirit, and the feminist Killjoy leans over and whispers in our ear: “Do you notice that we’ve had 20 young men taking part in this sacrament service and not a single young woman at all?” Often our response is: “Argh! Why did you have to go and ruin a perfectly good sacrament meeting?” There is something deeply troubling with this response, with the labeling of the feminist as the Killjoy. The fact that what stands out to us in such circumstances is the killjoy-nature of the feminist dialogue and not the problem being pointed out is the clearest sign that something is undeniably rotten in Denmark. Even when we disagree with the analysis or conclusion (which I frequently did as I read through these posts) we simply cannot ignore it and thrive—individually or as an institution. To think we can is simply jejune. Here’s why:
- To begin with, so much of what gets articulated in this book is common sense! Take completely traditional, highly conservative Mormons, remove them from the polemics of our contemporary discourse, deprive them of the knowledge that there are “sides” or that there are internal “threats” like feminists; then describe the scenarios and variables mentioned in these posts, as well as the proposed solutions, and ask them what they think ought to be done. If placed in such circumstances, the traditional, conservative Mormons I know would almost always choose the “feminist” options (a member of my Stake Presidency recently did just this in his active lending of support to the Young Women serving as ushers during the ordinance of the sacrament; as he put it in a conversation we had on the subject, “I wouldn’t call myself a feminist, but…”). By writing a feminist blog in a culturally polarized context, however, it all gets screwed up and that which is good is called evil, that which is evil is called good. This isn’t the fault of Mormon feminists—though at times they exacerbate a bad situation. We have clearly cursed ourselves and followed our cultural context to play the fool in our own house.
- Coping with these problems—even hearing about all of it—is exhausting. This may be the book’s biggest liability, and it takes a toll on the authors as well as the readers: “It’s not just church, either. I’ve pulled back somewhat from my involvement in online Mormon feminist communities—because, dangit, I’m tired. I find myself scrolling right past most of the blog posts and tuning out of the Facebook conversations. I’m tired of processing the anger and frustration and disillusionment over and over again. I’m tired of trying to scrounge up some optimism about ‘how far we’ve come!’ and so forth.” (Hanks 297-298) Similarly, I had to step back from the book for a while; after plowing through 200 pages and writing a dozen pages of notes, I was emotionally exhausted. But if this is our excuse for not hearing and heeding the common sense messages, then we damn ourselves and fail our dispensation. We leave our sisters to bear all alone the burden of what are collective problems. In fact, our refusing to confront the issues raised in this book creates a much bigger burden for our sisters to bear: “Once you notice the inequality and the injustices, you can’t un-notice them. And sometimes, noticing them over and over while people around you are blissfully unaware can make you feel all sorts of stabby. Noticing them when other people don’t can make you feel alienated from people who used to be your friends, because it’s hard to not be understood. It’s hard to have friends think, ‘Well she went off the deep end.’ I didn’t go off the deep end, I just noticed some stuff that I can’t un-notice. And it’s lousy. It ruins all sorts of formerly good books and movies.” (Roberts, 298) Noticing is hard on the soul. Refusing to notice is just as much a canker and makes life harder for the noticers.
Overall, “Where We Must Stand” helps to answer the question “Where must we stand?” ‘We’ in this case = feminists in a conservative church that refuses to discuss much less recognize its significant disenfranchisement of women (note: triumphal rhetoric about how equal or maybe even superior women are does not equal enfranchisement). And this really is the key question and the whole question of the Feminist Mormon Housewives blog and other liminal spaces carved out by those who cry “All is not well in Zion.” What’s more, “Where must we stand?” is inevitably a two-way question. Are the bloggers who take their stand, flouting the dominant culture (if not the articulated policies) of the institutionalized church, actually able to create a space where they can nonetheless stand faithfully with the community of saints? And is the institutional church—with its theological and practical currents striving toward unity—capable of parting round the rock of these women (as opposed to spewing it up onto the banks and out of the current of the church)?
Far from academic, these questions are deeply existential and concern all of us—not just our sisters and their supporters who have so chosen to stand. I deeply mourn the loss of my dear friend Dane who began by “Agitating Faithfully” (pg 138) and ended with neither faith nor agitation. Risa ends the book with her reflections on losing faith but replacing it with something else she finds precious. And what rending, awful loss we experience as a community when these our sisters and brothers choose to leave, what loss we as individuals experience when those bonds meant to last for eternity are no longer able to hold our dearest ones in time. This book is meant as commemoration and celebration, it’s meant to run the gambit of rich emotion and diverse experience shaped in the FMH community over its inaugural decade. My primary experience in reading it was a horrible sadness and loss as I’m reminded in each post of our individual and collective failures to build Zion and make a heaven for ourselves.
But I had one other overwhelming emotion as I read: gratitude. Not an abstract, general sort of gratitude. But a deeply personal gratitude and experience of love for the women so willing to sacrifice their hearts and lives and occasionally their membership in order to help build Zion.