This Great Social Upheaval
Nineteenth-century Mormon women developed a body of thought informed by the first wave of American feminism, but ultimately quite independent of it, and quite distinct from it. They claimed suffrage, but upheld patriarchy (and polygamy!); they did not seek to emancipate Eve, but to celebrate her redemption; they wrote suffrage songs, and set them to the tunes of their beloved Mormon hymns. It seems to me that 21st-century Mormon women must undertake a similar project. It will take earnest work to become informed about the theological issues at stake, and to articulate them in a way that makes sense to Mormon women with widely varied political and ideological commitments, and then to stay engaged in the conversation which will inevitably be painful.
It will be lonely work for self-identified Mormon feminists, who will find themselves in a no-woman's land between their Mormon sisters who readily identify with the American political right and their feminist sisters who regard patriarchal religion with hostility. But the alternative to this work is stagnation in the shallow pool of recycled American feminist and anti-feminist political discourse. Not articulating a theologically-informed feminism leaves Mormon women with two options: arguing unproductively over the contours of women's participation in the history of the church and what such an impossibly-fraught historiography might tell us about contemporary practice, or arguing unproductively about whether (or to what degree) a politically-informed and/or activist feminism is in tension with Mormonism.
If we are willing to claim the legacy of our foremothers, and engage our contemporary feminist sisters with respect and rigor, Mormon women have more reason for hope about feminist possibilities than anyone -- we may rejoice that, as Apostle Orson F. Whitney said more than a century ago, "This great social upheaval, this woman's movement that is making itself heard and felt . . . [is] one of the great levers by which the Almighty is lifting up this fallen world, lifting it nearer to the throne of its Creator" (Jean Bickmore White, "Women's Place is in the Constitution: The Struggle for Equal Rights in Utah in 1895," Utah Historical Quarterly, 42 [Fall 1974], 359).
For more responses to Kathryn Soper's As Sisters in Zion, click here.
Kristine Haglund is editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Her current research interests include Mormon aesthetic theory and practice, history of Mormon women's publications, including blogs; Mormon women's and children's history, and Mormon hymnody and children's songs. She lives in Massachusetts with her three children, and blogs at bycommonconsent.com.