2014 Religious Trends
Mormon Women, Traditionalists and Feminists: An Evolving Conversation
Editors' Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Mormon community here.
I recently asked a non-LDS friend and scholar of religion and gender, "Which, of all the religions that you study, 'does gender' the best?" She thought for a minute and replied, "Often, the ones who 'do gender' the worst, are the ones who end up doing it the best." I knew what she meant, even before she finished her thought: "Women in traditional religions like Mormonism prefer the order, safety, and security of having carefully and strictly defined gender roles, even if it means giving up a semblance of equality."
Perhaps at no time in the Mormon experience are the competing narratives of gender more pronounced than right now. Attention to women's roles have only intensified since the 2012 announcement to lower the missionary age for women, which has been followed by other small, but significant changes. While Mormon feminists discussed these and other ways that the Church might expand women's ecclesiastical representation, Kate Kelly's Ordain Women movement went straight to the heart of the matter, by seeking to deal with the structure of male-only priesthood ordination. And yet, fewer than 8 percent of Mormon women desire priesthood ordination, according to the much-cited (but problematic) statistical survey by the Pew Research Center. Thus, Kelly's recent excommunication for her actions seemed to answer the question once and for all, being interpreted by some as an ecclesiastical referendum on the issue of female ordination, or at the very least on Kelly's public methods for trying obtain it.
But is the excommunication of an "outlier" feminist the final answer for reconciling gender tensions in the Church? Recent media attention to actions like "Wear Pants to Church," "Let Women Pray," and Ordain Women have exposed a deep rift between two potentially irreconcilable visions. Traditionalists argue that they've never felt unequal, and that any attempt to expose inequalities through public criticism of the Church or its leaders causes pain that is just as equivalent to the pain that Mormon feminists feel at their perceived unequal status, because, "[w]hen you say the Church is manifestly sexist, you're calling [the traditionalists'] entire worldview into question." (This division has been thoughtfully and charitably argued by blogger Eric Samuelson.)
On the other hand, Mormon feminists suggest that the institution itself is built upon a framework of historically-constructed gender inequality, wherein expectations of women's submission to male authority are present at every level, from the family to ward and stake governance, and the highest leadership of the Church. (I have explored a useful framework for understanding why some women prefer patriarchy and some women prefer equality here.) And positioned along this spectrum are self-proclaimed "moderate Mormon feminists" who seek a middle ground of faithful negotiation for changing policies and practices that they consider hurtful to women and girls. These voices are now coming to the discussion in important and productive ways.
Andrea Radke-Moss is a professor of history at Brigham Young University – Idaho and the author of Bright Epoch: Women and Coeducation in the American West (2008).