JohnR has an excellent and touching entry at FMH on the lack of male feminists in the church. While I am not convinced that not claiming the label “feminist” means that one supports wife-abuse, date rape, eating disorders, or sex trafficking (I thought that Mormons opposed all of those things regardless of whether or not they were feminists…), nor do I think that the Vagina Monologues ritual is really all that great for anybody, I am sympathetic to the sentiment of the post. However, the lack of “male” feminists is not symptomatic of a lack of interest in justice, but a product of the very divisive politics of second-wave feminism.
Second-wave feminism located its ideology in a kind of gender essentialism, where men were men and women were women. Women were uniquely valuable as women. The comments in JohnR’s post are filled with these views. Don’t get me wrong…this kind of strategic essentialism was incredibly powerful politically and perhaps will remain so for a long time. No doubt there is still a lot to do in the second-wave agenda. However, French Feminism managed to be just as successful as American feminism without appeals to essentialized gender, so I am not convinced that essentialism is necessary for a political agenda.
The problem with essentialism is that it is not descriptive of any reality, but a construct that produces certain kinds of gender binaries. The critiques of this essentialism have become increasingly vocal. Voices from different races, the Third World, lesbians, trans, and intersexed persons noted more and more that “feminism” was not made for them. It had a preconceived notion of who was a “woman” that excluded many others. I suspect that the lack of many male voices in the feminist movement is because of the gender essentialism which excludes their experiences a priori. Third wave, post-feminism, queer theory, and other movements fractured traditional feminism and it is in many ways still trying to find a central voice again.
As it relates to Mormon theology, second-wave feminism posed a number of important challenges to institutional Mormonism. However, it is interesting to note that on the theoretical level of gender essentialism, Mormonism and second-wave feminism are actually quite compatible. The issue simply becomes one of working out what makes up the essential female identity. Many Mormons today are able to inhabit both worlds quite comfortably now. This reconciliation is made possible, I think, because of a shared ideological backbone. Sadly, both still exclude the voices of lesbian, Third World, other races, and others.
If ever Latter-day Saints start paying attention to the challenges of third-wave feminism, it will have to grapple theologically with the central tenant of essentialized gender. The ramifications of such an examination are yet to be seen. Since Mormonism survived second-wave feminism with relatively minor bruising, perhaps it can survive third-wave feminism unscathed as well. However, at least in the academy, second-wave feminism was dealt a powerful blow. If traditional feminism couldn’t survive, can traditional Mormonism? For now, we will just have to stay tuned…
Update: JohnR has added a much appreciated post on the varieties of feminism.