As Sisters in Zion: Mormon Feminism and Sisterhood
So is the attending debate. In the secular realm even conservatives like Sarah Palin are eager to call themselves feminists, but since LDS tradition holds feminism -- "the f-word," Claudia Bushman quips -- in deep distrust, even Mormons who support basic feminist ideals may hesitate to claim the label. Rather than asking "Who gets to be a feminist?" we're asking, with suspicion, "Who among us is a feminist? Can you really be a faithful Mormon and a feminist? What do Mormon feminists want?" The cultural friction of the dialogue smolders like Buffy's burning bra. And the strongest conflicts arise amongst Mormon women themselves -- notably, women who call each other "sister."
Feminist and Faithful?
The complexities of being Mormon and feminist begin with the complexities of feminism itself, which is even harder to define now than it was twenty years ago, partly because of its increasing variability (it's said there are as many kinds of feminism as there are feminists) and partly because its most obvious tenets have been absorbed by popular culture. Slogans like "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people" look good on t-shirts, but (thanks to feminism) such thinking now belongs to the realm of common sense. More practical are definitions of feminism as a movement as well as a philosophy. "Feminism is the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men," quotes Jezebel.com founder Anna Holmes, and "a feminist is anyone who believes in and acts upon the concept of gender equality for all" (emphasis mine). It can be argued that feminists don't just desire equality -- they work to effect and maintain it. But don't expect all feminists to agree.
Don't expect them to agree, either, on what equality looks like. While feminism at large is dedicated to the proposition that all men and women are created equal, the movement splits along two opposite visions of fulfillment. The first (old/liberal/equity feminism) centers on the sameness of men and women and seeks to reform society by removing gender segregation and privilege within existing institutions. The second (new/radical/establishment feminism) stresses the difference between men and women -- indeed, considers them to be separate political classes whose interests essentially clash -- and seeks not to reform but to fundamentally reinvent society by abolishing its current institutions (which are considered inherently sexist) and establishing new ones.
Thus feminism is a slippery term encompassing two mutually exclusive ideals, not to mention a wide spectrum of degree. And this leads to many perplexing questions regarding feminist identity. Are you a feminist if you want equal pay for equal work, but don't want women to be drafted in wartime? Are you a feminist if you want fierce prosecution for rapists and fierce protection for fetuses? In short, should you call yourself a feminist if you identify with parts of the movement, but not the whole?
Kathryn Soper is wife of one, mother of seven, memoirist, essayist, editor, nonprofit CEO, practicing Mormon, depression survivor, Down syndrome advocate, Greek-blooded American, WordTwist addict, and Radiohead groupie (not necessarily in that order). She is the founder of Segullah and author of The Year My Son and I Were Born (Globe Pequot Press, 2009), and makes random appearances on her personal blog.