As Sisters in Zion: Mormon Feminism and Sisterhood
Twenty years ago at BYU I took a class I'll never forget: English 352, Contemporary Literary Criticism. Each week a different group of students gave a presentation based on a major text in the field. When it was my group's turn we faced our audience from the front of the room, the four of us representing the four different strands of feminism described in Alison Jaggar's tome, Feminist Politics and Human Nature.
By way of introduction, we took turns summarizing our assigned persona's point of view. Buffy, the liberal feminist dressed in full 1970s regalia, pulled a bra from her pantsuit pocket and set it aflame with a cigarette lighter (which, thankfully, didn't trigger the sprinkler system). Tiffany and Cami, the Marxist and socialist feminists, decried the misogyny of capitalism and the alienation of the female proletariat. And as the radical feminist, I twanged a dissonant chord on my acoustic guitar and called for an end to patriarchal hegemony, announcing (among other things I'd best not repeat) that "the future is female."
Thus ended the tidy turn-taking. Students fired off questions about feminist philosophy and practice and we endeavored to answer, sometimes talking all at once, often contradicting one another. Not fighting, but definitely arguing, like a bunch of sisters who are best friends and worst enemies. A few students complained about the incoherence. How could they know what feminism was if the feminists themselves didn't agree? We replied that they were missing the point: by definition, feminism resists definition. Our professor (a feminist herself) applauded in agreement. Feminism, she said, does not and cannot fit into tidy boxes. At its very essence, feminism is a conversation.
This conversation, which has waxed and waned for over a hundred years, recently intensified in the wake of Sarah Palin's claim to be a feminist. Likewise, prickly questions of feminist identity have arisen again in LDS circles as a new wave of Mormon feminism gains momentum and visibility. Five-plus years of dialogue in the bloggernacle on sites like Feminist Mormon Housewives preceded the current burst of activity, which features the birth of the feminist organization LDS WAVE and the rebirth of the feminist publication Exponent II. NPR's Radio West recently aired an interview on this topic with Mormon historian Claudia Bushman and scholar Joanna Brooks (who, uncannily enough, was a classmate of mine in English 352). "Mormon feminism," Joanna declared in a related post, "is back."
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?
The questions only intensify for Mormons, who are already committed to one weighty belief system and therefore run the risk of divided loyalties when committing to another -- particularly, a progressive movement relating to gender roles and family structure. Given feminism's ties to Mormon hot-button issues like abortion rights and working mothers, some may question if it's possible to be, as the FMH tagline claims, "feminist and faithful."
In fact, the biggest difference between two Mormon women invested in gender issues might be their willingness to call themselves a feminist. Hear the dilemma in this snippet of online conversation (which I continue to quote throughout this article):
Says Becky: The feminist label conjures up the embarrassments of feminism: the man-basher, the radical, the selfish mom, the "feminazi." So while I cherish certain ideals of feminism, I don't want that label.
Says Kylie: I'm not a bra-burning feminist, but I do consider myself a feminist -- sort of a worried-about-stereotypes-and-rigid-roles, hate-being-penalized-or-pedestal-ized-just-because-I'm-a-woman, and fairly-sensitive-to-gender-issues type of feminist.
Says Mara: I consider myself a feminist without a "but." I'm not ashamed or embarrassed of that title. And I'm a SAHM and "traditional" wife in many ways. I think women, the unique woman's perspective, and the tale that only women can tell is supremely important.
Says Emily: Despite my gratitude for the opportunities feminism has blessed me with, and my general outspokenness on women's issues, I find it hard to self-identify with this movement. Feminism today seems to be about freeing women from the things that will bring us joy.
Says Michelle: I don't like to call myself a feminist because there is so much negative stigma associated with it, and I don't want to be associated with the negativity. I'd rather just be passionate about women's issues without someone automatically assuming they know what that means for me. The relative nature of feminism gets hard to deal with.
Says Dalene: Yes, the term is relative. But I prefer to define it by my own beliefs and actions rather than allowing someone else to define it and therefore me according to their own biases.
And so it goes. Dalene's strategy might solve the problem if the conversation of feminism was only between a feminist and herself, or only between herself and other feminists. But internal dialogue, however vital to feminism, is not its end. Any successful feminist agenda will require effective communication and cooperation with a wide variety of people, some of whom stop listening as soon as the "f-word" is mentioned -- and these are often the people feminists most need to reach. Ironically, as Claudia Bushman noted on Radio West, a feminist label on a given organization, project, or person might actually preclude the positive change it hopes to effect, especially among Mormons.
This is unfortunate, given the obvious benefits feminism has afforded all of society, including members of the Church. Sharlee points out:
For most of history, women have been treated as lesser beings. It is, in large part, thanks to the courageous voices and actions of feminists that we now have the right to own property, the right to vote, any claim at all for custody of our children in the case of divorce, access to university education, maternity leave, advances toward equal pay for equal work, protection against domestic violence and sexual harassment, and on and on. We owe a tremendous debt to women such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Fanny Wright, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Emmeline Wells, and Simone de Beauvoir. Heck, we even owe a lot to Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem! We may not agree with them on many issues, but we certainly enjoy the fruits of their efforts.
Indeed. But Mormons tends to see the good in feminism only in hindsight, if ever. We may comfortably laud the victories of suffragettes and other early feminists -- our own sisters among them -- and these days, nobody tells Mormon women they shouldn't wear pants. (Except when attending church. Or the temple. Or working at the Church Office Building. Hmm, I take that back.) Yet we're reluctant to admit that, as Mara says, "It's not just pants-wearing and vote-demanding feminists that have helped us all." Even those Mormons who gratefully acknowledge this debt may shy away from contemporary feminism, despite its commitment to worthy goals like securing relief for women and children in poverty, supporting single mothers, and fighting gender-based violence in our own nations -- not to mention advocating for basic human rights for women worldwide.
It seems Mormons are squeamish about contemporary feminism for at least three reasons. One is our culture's overall resistance to any progressive social or political action. We blanch at relatively new concepts like the stay-at-home-Dad, perhaps forgetting that status quo measures like birth control were cutting-edge controversies just a few decades ago. Another reason is that successful feminist agendas tend to lose their feminist label as they're absorbed into society at large. Domestic violence, for example, is no longer considered a "feminist" issue -- it's a human issue, one that no Mormon worthy of the name would dismiss, and one we can (and should) thank modern feminists for pioneering.
A third reason is that for most Mormons, the fruits of feminism -- especially contemporary feminism -- are a mixed basket at best. We may see more harm than good in the current trending away from traditional gender roles and family structures. We may agree in a general sense that women's voices should be heard, yet find feminist voices threatening to our values as individuals and as Mormons. Even ardent feminists among us can't deny that a feminist utopia -- meaning the gender-blind society idealized by liberal feminists, or the gynocentric society idealized by radicals -- is a far cry from Zion, despite the shared emphasis on equality. To decrease the polarization of feminist and non-feminist Mormons, our ongoing conversation must include due criticism of feminism as well as due credit.
Yet as we acknowledge the duality in feminism, we must take care not to overlook its ultimate gift: the opportunity for women to exercise their power of choice. So says Angie, who no longer considers herself a feminist -- "I don't see the overall direction of the movement as anything I want to be associated with" -- but sees this critical benefit nonetheless:
The biggest thing I appreciate about feminism is that in opening doors and expanding freedoms for women, it has given me the opportunity to know by my own experience that being a wife and mother is what I really want to be doing. I'm not doing it only because I have to -- I am exercising my agency. It seems to me that that is as it should be.
She goes on to say:
What I hate is that I see it becoming increasingly difficult to make those traditional choices, both on a practical level (i.e., our economy is increasingly geared for dual income families) and on a social/cultural level (i.e., women feeling pressured to "be more" than a housewife. Or in my case, never having been presented with that as a viable option). Is it possible to have one without the other?
Angie's question underscores the connection between the mixed basket of feminism and the Mormon belief that choice is essential to righteousness, and opposition is essential to choice. Feminism may affect society in ways many Mormons deplore, but there is a greater good to consider -- and it's found not by weighing pros and cons of specific freedoms on a feminist agenda, but by weighing the value of freedom itself in the context of moral agency. Perhaps surprisingly, this value is most evident when we consider the gender roles and family structures that Mormons champion and feminists allegedly undermine. Before feminism granted women the opportunity for financial independence, they were compelled to marry for economic survival -- and therefore could not choose marriage as free agents. Likewise, before feminism made female contraception widely available, a woman could not choose whether to become a mother, and thus could not "prove herself therewith" (Abraham 3:25). Indeed, without the rights and freedoms afforded by feminism, Mormon women could not freely choose many of our most valued roles within and without the domestic sphere, and therefore could not merit the earthly and heavenly rewards of doing so.
Perhaps this realization will help Mormons spooked by feminism to understand why some of the faithful among us are pleased to carry on this movement despite its controversies. Mormons are, after all, no strangers to the concept of loyalty amidst opposition. Deborah describes the parallel:
I claim the word Mormon as a self-descriptive, even though it is met with skepticism and cynicism by many in our society, even though I do not feel comfortable with some of the cultural aspects of the church, even though the church has had distinct "waves" in terms of doctrinal emphasis, and even though there have been prominent members whose beliefs and behaviors bother me. Why? Because Mormonism -- and not just the Gospel -- has been incalculable force for good in my life.
I claim the word feminist as a self-descriptive, even though it is met with skepticism and cynicism by many in our church, even though feminism has had distinct "waves" in terms of political and social emphasis, and even though I do not feel comfortable with the writings or actions of some prominent activists. Why? Because when I think of the opportunities I and my students have been afforded on the backs of our foremothers, I want to weep. And when I look at the state of women around the world who still struggle to be afforded basic rights and regard, I still want to weep.
Of course, such parallels cannot remove the tensions inherent in being Mormon and feminist -- or, for that matter, being Mormon and anything else. The stresses of double loyalty lead Church members of all stripes to exaggerate connections between our faith and our other beliefs -- as witnessed when we suggest or even insist that God endorses a particular political party or secular economic system or any other philosophy of man (or woman). And feminists are not exempt from this temptation. While I appreciated her boldness, I couldn't agree with the sister in my long-ago BYU ward who proclaimed in a sacrament meeting talk that "Jesus is a feminist" -- as if a human construct can circumscribe God. Similarly, I hesitated when Joanna Brooks on NPR labeled elements of Mormon theology, such as our belief in a Heavenly Mother and our approach to Eve, as "pro-feminist." I'd argue that, if anything, these are examples of feminism being pro-Mormon, not the other way around.
But results of reckoning aside, the issue of primacy is unavoidable for those who are Mormon and feminist. Despite the overlap between the two belief systems, points of conflict make it necessary at times to compromise the values of one for the other. This becomes most evident when we turn a feminist eye to Mormonism itself.
"Mormon feminism is not an oxymoron," maintains Joanna Brooks. "Or an oxymormon, for that matter." (Rimshot!) Yet irreconcilable differences lie at the heart of Mormon feminism, making it even more complex than feminism at large, even though its scope is smaller. As the WAVE website states:
Mormon feminism is a strand of feminism that primarily concerns itself with how feminist thought and practice intersects with the doctrine and organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. . . . Overall, Mormon feminists are committed to working for greater gender equity, both inside and outside of the LDS church.
Sphere of action marks the difference between Mormon feminism and the wider feminist movement, and from a Mormon perspective that's a very big difference indeed. It's one thing to apply feminism to government of the people, by the people, for the people. It's quite another to apply it to the kingdom of God on the earth. (Notably, the only feminists whom Mormons are likely to cheer -- the suffragettes -- targeted the legislature, not the church.) When it comes to secular politics, Mormons agree that it's kosher to stage protests, hold marches, sign petitions, write letters, mobilize grassroots forces, and make bold calls to action. In short, if our conscience dictates we can, and should, fight city hall. But what about the Quorum of the Twelve?
I hasten to add that most Mormon feminists are duly sensitive to this tension (see, for example, the Exponent Blog's posts on "good" vs. "bad" feminists, and the connection between feminist style and continuing activity in the Church). And even motion-oriented groups like WAVE don't seem interested in fighting anyone, especially priesthood leaders. The goal of their first "call to action" is a compilation of quotes by authorities and other prominent members of the church that highlight gender equity in Mormonism. Hardly a revolution -- in fact, one Mormon feminist from a prior wave has criticized the group as too "nice." If such moderation becomes the new norm, which seems likely based on current trends, boat-rocking feminist activism in the Church may be a thing of the past.
But no matter how reasonable the aims and how gentle the approach, any overtly feminist gathering will raise suspicion among the leaders and mainstream members of the Church. It's telling that Claudia Bushman, a veteran of the movement, advises the new wave of activists that they'll "get more attention if they do not confront, but talk quietly" -- a decidedly unfeminist tactic. Which brings us to the core conflict in Mormon feminism: by definition, feminists challenge male authority; and by definition, Mormons defer to it.
This conflict causes an obvious dilemma for Mormon feminists -- resist patriarchy and you're a bad Mormon, embrace patriarchy and you're a bad feminist. It also leads to frequent and frustrating conversational disconnects between Mormon feminists and other Mormons regarding the dynamics of authority in the Church. Non-feminists point out that all Latter-day Saints, male and female, are expected to sustain and obey priesthood leaders without resistance; therefore, this can't be a gender issue. Feminists counter that since every Mormon authority figure is male, this can't not be a gender issue. And round and round it goes, opposite arguments centering on the same point: in a patriarchal church, it's impossible to separate women's submission to man from women's submission to God.
Given the conundrum, and the highly individual methods of managing it, Mormon feminism is practiced on a spectrum so wide that some fellow feminists hardly seem to be fellows (to wit, compare this Mormon feminist manifesto to this one).  "There's no right way to be a Mormon feminist," reads the WAVE website, which nonetheless offers a tentative list of points of agreement. Joanna Brooks likewise notes that while Mormon feminists used to be centralized and easily identified, today's wave is a much more diverse movement. "We're everywhere," she says, "and we have many different approaches about how to make our tradition work for us."
These varying approaches reflect the two versions of gender equality that divide feminist philosophy: equality through integration and equality through empowering separation. Joanna herself envisions a church structure that reflects the dual-gender leadership of a family and asks, "What if our church incorporated, in its basic decision making, the talents and resources of women who have lots of experience, lots of education, even in the business world?" Likewise, WAVE sets aside the matter of priesthood ordination for women and invites Mormons to "talk about other ways we can bring women's talents into the operational chain of command." On the other hand, Claudia Bushman regards the Mormon army of devoted male workers as one of its "great glories" and says, "I don't think we should try to infiltrate the priesthood [referring to church administration]. I think we should build up organizations of our own, build up collectives, build groups of people where we work together on projects that empower everyone involved."
So which is the better approach? Claudia's recipe for change, "rise with the masses, not from the masses," is more harmonious with expected behavior for Church members and therefore may be more effective. (This is one reason why I favor organic growth, myself.) Yet direct methods, such as opening respectful communications with institutional leaders, might also have their place; after all, the Lord himself encourages us to ask, seek, and knock, and His purposes have often unfolded in response to earnest questions. Hopefully today's Mormon feminists will find effective ways to interact with Church administration. But it remains to be seen whether those who speak up will find a willing audience -- and members at large will continue to disagree whether they should.
In any case, Mormons who categorically view feminists as power-hungry insurgents are misinformed at best. Your friendly neighborhood Mormon feminist is hardly Sonia Johnson -- note, for example, the recent post on FMH highlighting "easy, non-doctrinal" ways to affect the Mormon balance of power, such as requiring equal budget allotments for gender-segregated youth programs and permitting women to pray from the pulpit in General Conference. Further, some Mormon feminists set issues of power aside to focus on other feminist essentials such as the validation of women's voices, while still others don't have any power-related bones to pick with the Church unless there's a clear abuse of authority.
Yet such distinctions, as important as they may be on an individual basis, should not be allowed to fragment the heart of Mormon feminism or distract its opponents from its central purpose. "All of us," emphasizes WAVE, "want to help improve the lives of women." And, to bring us full circle, I emphasize that this desire is certainly not limited to Mormons who identify as feminists.
"To Cheer and to Bless In Humanity's Name"
The four women sat at the front of the room, facing the audience that had gathered for the Mormon Women's Project's debut salon event, a panel discussion titled "To Everything There Is a Season." As cameras rolled, MWP founder Neylan McBaine introduced the panelists and invited them to share their individual perspectives on Mormon womanhood. Bonnie spoke about earning a Ph.D. in the ‘60s and becoming a mother through adoption in her middle age. Karen, a mother of eight, related her struggle to return to school to finish her bachelor's degree. Debra talked about surviving an unusual life of financial reversals, drug-addicted teenagers, and a family mission in Cambodia. Ariel shared her perspective as a professional international performing artist and mother of one. They were as similar and as different from one another as the four feminist personas in my English 352 presentation (although no bras were burned, and Marx was never mentioned).
After the individual statements, Neylan asked each panelist in turn to describe the challenges and rewards of living lives true to the faith, yet out of sync with the cultural ideal of Mormon women as demure, domestically gifted "helpmates." As I listened, I considered how the actual lives of the women I know vary so widely from that stereotype, and how its persistence as a standard causes so much unnecessary guilt, insecurity, and self-doubt that hampers Mormon women from filling the measure of their creation. I wished all members of the Church might benefit from hearing a wide variety of clear, strong, faithful female voices, and wondered how this might be accomplished.
Then I thought about Segullah's first-ever community writing retreat, where dozens of Mormon women gathered to strengthen their individual voices through creative writing. And I thought about Claudia Bushman's oral history project to collect and preserve diverse life experiences of Mormon women. And I thought about the wide spectrum of women's profiles on the new Mormon.org, and the multitude of voices on the Mormon blogs, and the increasing number of other forums where Mormon women can speak and be heard. Some of these outlets focus on influencing the church as an institution; others focus on influencing church culture. Some are overtly feminist; others, including Neylan's and my own, refrain from such labeling as we promote women's voices and perspectives. But all of them are expanding the paradigm of Mormon womanhood in positive and courageous ways. This is true grassroots action; this is true "revolution from within" (hat tip: Gloria Steinem). None of us need permission to be the woman God inspires us to be.
We'd do well to remember that such inspiration may vary widely, and that while agreement isn't required between sisters, charity is. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declares, "There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women." And certainly, if we don't respect each other, nobody else will. The motto for Exponent II -- Am I not a woman and a sister? -- reminds us that every Mormon woman's personal experience is legitimate, even if it's very different from our own. And these differences may hold increasing value in generations to come. To stay strong in the faith, our increasingly diverse young women need to see as many vibrant versions of Mormon womanhood as possible; they need to see evidence that the sisterhood has room for them.
For these reasons, I'm excited by the upsurge of energy among Mormon women who care about gender issues. I don't hear any twanging guitars or zealous prophecies about the future being female, but I do hear promising dialogue, and I'm pleased to see a cooperative effort forming among the leaders of several organizations to discuss Mormon women's identity in an atmosphere of mutual respect and goodwill. "It's a good time to be a Mormon feminist," says Joanna Brooks. I would add that it's a good time to stop worrying so much about who's a feminist and who's not, and instead focus on how women who care about gender issues can better cooperate by emphasizing similarities and respecting differences. Like feminism, sisterhood is a conversation. Our common faith won't preclude disagreement, but it will provide the motivation needed for the conversation to continue -- and, I trust, the inspiration needed for it to flourish.
 Previous waves include the fight for women's suffrage in the late 1800s, the ERA battles of the 1980s, and most recently, the Mormon feminist intellectual and theological controversies of the 1990s, which peaked during my time at BYU.
 The Salt Lake Tribune ran stories about Exponent II and about the resurgence in general. And the "Future of Mormonism" series on Patheos.com included a post titled "The Next Generation of Mormon Feminism."
 I'm not saying that all feminists are, or should be, strident activists. But whether publicly or privately, whether in ordinary or extraordinary ways, a feminist does what she can to address gender issues that come to her attention.
 Nora Ephron says no. Many (but not all) feminists would agree that one's position on abortion rights is a litmus test for feminism -- not because feminists must approve of abortion, but because they must disapprove of a male-dominated government having legal control over a woman's reproductive life.
 It could even be argued that since marriage was not a choice but a necessity, and since sexual relations in marriage were likewise a necessity, women were compromised in their ability to direct their own sexual behavior, and thus were compromised in their practice of virtue and chastity. Bertrand Russell made this chilling observation of women's status at the turn of the 20th century: "Marriage is for women the commonest mode of livelihood, and the total amount of undesired sex endured by women is probably greater in marriage than in prostitution."
 To be fair, this antagonistic post is not representative of typical content on the Exponent Blog. For a more accurate snapshot, see these posts abou posts about the role of faithful feminists and how feminists can contribute to the Church.
 The term "helpmate," a common and unfortunate misquotation of the biblical term an help meet, is a perfect token of the damaging cultural baggage regarding Mormon womanhood -- but I'll save that discussion for another article.
 This group will include myself (Segullah), Lisa Butterworth (FMH), Neylan McBaine (MWP), Chelsea Shields Strayer (WAVE and Exponent II), and Saren Eyre Loosli (The Power of Moms). Look for our roundtable discussions, moderated by Mormon Times columnist Emily Jensen, here on Patheos.com in 2011.
Read responses to Kathryn Soper's article here
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.