Confident and Proactive
A few months ago, I mentioned to a friend that a reporter had asked me whether the Mormon Women Project, a digital library of interviews with Latter-day Saint women that I founded, was "feminist."
"Well, of course it is!" my friend interrupted, before I had the chance to tell her of my response to the reporter. "You believe in strong women!"
The curiosity of this scene was that I had in fact told the reporter that the MWP is not a feminist effort, and my friend's reaction underscored to me the broad spectrum of understanding we women have of our own advocacy movement. To me, feminism has a much more nuanced definition than simply believing in strong women. I grew up in New York City in the 1980s, attending an all-girls private school for twelve years, and in that environment "feminism" meant one thing: acting upon political, social, and economic powers on behalf of the sameness of men and women, or, as Kathryn Soper describes in her article, the "first" or "old" vision of equality. On this point, I wish Soper had been more forceful: feminism is more than a conversation; it is a struggle for power.
At church and at home, individual women's examples shaped my sense of self more than any proscribed religious/cultural expectation or social pressure from my powerful school. I was the only child of a single, professional mother, and Claudia Bushman was in my ward, among a host of other multi-faceted, confident women. It was through their examples that I learned to hold in my own hands the paradox of Joseph Smith's revolutionary gift to the world: the preeminence of free agency in our personal lives and in the epic narrative of the world, and the orderly, hierarchical restoration of the priesthood line. Soper refers to this conundrum and the "highly individual methods of managing it." Indeed, in my personal experience and from my observed effects of the Mormon Women Project, finding an individual method for managing the paradox is, in fact, the only way to happily and faithfully manage it.
What is the definition of success for the Mormon feminist movement? Something measurable, such as being able to say a prayer in General Conference? Or something subjective that touches each Mormon woman in a different way depending on her local community, such as eradicating the patronizing language and style used plentifully by local male leaders? I have a feeling that if the goals of a mainstream Mormon feminist movement were clearly delineated, Mormon women generally would be surprised at how closely the answers line up with their own ideals, even if we still disagree on how to achieve them. However, the application of the "feminist" term -- in my opinion, both passé and overly loaded -- prohibits us from creating that widespread teamwork that contributed to the success of the broader national feminist campaigns.
The national women's movement has historically been most successful when it has gathered women under a common umbrella to target specific, agreed-upon goals: suffrage, abortion rights, equal pay, the fight against domestic violence. However, the Mormon feminist movement seems unwilling to define unified aims, which Soper confirms by pointing readers to highly varied manifestos from By Common Consent and Exponent II.
If, as Joanna Brooks has stated, "There is no right way to be a Mormon feminist," why use the term at all? If a "Mormon feminist" can be everyone from someone who believes in "strong women" to someone who, as the Exponent II manifesto states, advocates for women to serve in bishoprics, doesn't the term lose its ability to describe a specific movement? Why not just redefine the Mormon woman as a confident, proactive contributor and avoid the labels? Or, as Soper aptly suggests, at least stop worrying about them.
For more responses to Kathryn Soper's As Sisters in Zion, click here.
Neylan McBaine has been published in Newsweek, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Segullah, Meridian Magazine, and BustedHalo.com. She is the author of a collection of personal essays -- How to Be a Twenty-First Century Pioneer Woman (2008) -- and the founder and editor-in-chief of The Mormon Women Project. She blogs at neylanmcbaine.com.