Mormon Feminism: Old Wine in New Wineskins

The recent conversation and Patheos about Mormon feminism is an excellent read. It features a diversity of voices, some old and some new. There are many excellent and thought provoking things worth discussing, but I want to focus on just two of the things that stood out to me. First, the way that we sometime talk about the presumed tensions between feminism and Mormonism, and second the sometimes not-so-subtle resistance to to “theory.” Both of these are issues that matter to me so I thought I would offer some thoughts and reflections.

First, the tension between Mormonism and feminism is precisely the issue that is the occasion for these reflective essays. Soper’s inaugural essay correctly notes that the conversation about who gets to be a feminist in contemporary circles is quite different from the Mormon question of whether you can be a feminist and Mormon. But what is presumed in this tension is that we all already know what feminism and Mormonism are and that the tensions are obvious. Soper spends a grew deal of time explaining the various forms of feminism that she sees, suggesting that two types ultimately exist: those that see women as equal to men, and those that see women as fundamentally different from men. But all this effort to nuance feminism, to see its multiplicity, still imagines a fundamental conflict: “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.” The attempt to nuance (or demonstrate incoherence?) ideas of feminism comes to a crashing halt when speaking about Mormon feminism: “irreconcilable differences lie at the heart of Mormon feminism.” Here, both Mormon and feminism are taken to be stable terms, the definitions of which we already know, and the conflicts as already irreconcilable.

The tension, she argues, is the way that feminists communicate. Feminists, “stage protests, hold marches, sign petitions, write letters, mobilize grassroots forces, and make bold calls to action.” These options, she suggests are okay for city hall, but not the Quorum of the 12. She even goes so far as to say that Claudia Bushman’s advice, “that they’ll “get more attention if they do not confront, but talk quietly” is “a decidedly unfeminist tactic.” Here, Soper reifies a particular stereotype for how feminists are supposed to behave, despite having early attempted to reject the idea of feminist stereotypes. Soper insists on a particular normative view of feminism that is confrontational, boat rocking, and protesty, and any other approach is “unfeminist.” In Claudia Bushman’s response, she recommends that “writing” is the most effective feminist activity. Except for letter-writing, Soper doesn’t include scholarship, rhetoric, fiction, or other forms of writing in the realm of feminist activities, which is all the more surprising since Soper herself is a writer and publisher. Nor is Bushman’s other idea that “we model feminist behavior” on Soper’s list of things feminists do.

What is lacking here is not only a failure to take seriously the variety of feminisms, but also the variety of Mormonisms. Mormonism, like feminism, is not some static entity to which one must either conform or not. While Soper admits that “feminism resists definition,” opting instead for the formulation that “feminism is a conversation,” she misses that Mormonism too resists definition and is also a conversation.

Though sympathetic, Soper criticizes other LDS feminists for often going too far.

“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.”

Here, “God” and “Mormon” are terms which imply fixity, stasis, and “priority,” while terms like “feminist” are taken as “human constructs.” Even where the divine seems to point in feminist directions, the ontological priority of the divine realm over the feminist (human realm) is maintained. Soper’s view that some kinds of language and Mormonism itself reside someplace outside of “human constructs” is perhaps the first assumption that must be critically investigated, and may be done even from within Mormonism, perhaps with reference to all those scriptures that repeatedly insist that the “divine” language we have is always already mediated through the human.

To suggest that in Soper’s analysis of a fundamental conflict in which only compromise is possible the rules of the game are rigged is not to suggest that there is some Mormon-friendly version of feminism which is perfectly compatible with Mormonism as it exists today. Rather, it is to suggest that the rules themselves be subject to critical scrutiny, that we acknowledge the fungibility of Mormonism, and that the points of “overlap” are not restricted, as Soper suggests, to a vague belief in the value of agency. Such overlaps are forged, not found, as creative, critical, and constructive “conversation” continues.

Soper’s assumption of an “irreconcilable conflict” between Mormonism and feminist points to the still early stages of LDS feminist thought. Haglund notes the problem: “the discussion among Mormon women makes it clear how much work must yet be done to find a Mormon voice that can meaningfully participate in feminist conversations.” She critiques Soper on this point about the presumed irreconciliability of Mormonism and feminism as a foregone conclusion, and the choice of “primacy” as one that must be made inevitably. Haglund acknowledges that this task of rethinking these boundaries is a lonely project, which requires deep work, but notes, “the alternative to this work is stagnation in the shallow pool of recycled American feminist and anti-feminist political discourse.” Amen, and amen.

The second theme that I wanted to comment on from these essays was the occasional resistance to theory. We have already seen the ways in which Soper suggests that the quintessential feminist activity is protesting, not reflecting. LDS feminists who seek to shed the image of the protesting feminist, however, do not necessarily embrace critical reflection as central to what they are about. Instead, they offer euphamisms, as Edmunds puts it, “advocacy” instead of “activism,” (whatever that means) all the while complaining about how philosophizing prevents “getting things done.”

Bushman’s argument for a scholarly form of feminism as both strategically more useful and intellectually more responsible, is not alone. We have seen how Haglund too calls for greater engagement with feminist thinkers outside of standard political discourse. Kline insists that the quintessential feminist activity is “raising questions.” Yet, this kind of work is difficult.

McBaine laments, “the Mormon feminist movement seems unwilling to define unified aims,” as if the “movement” were an agent capable of defining itself, or there were some centralized, normative body of Mormon Feminists,(TM) who, if they could only get their act together, could just tell us what they really wanted! McBaine sees in the label “feminist” the root of the problem for the lack of an agreed upon agenda, and advocates dropping it. How exactly dropping the label would resolve the deep theoretical and pratical tensions in the thought around Mormon women is not explained. The problem is not, as is suggested here, a nominative one that can be resolved by changing the labels.

Rather than seeing the problems attendant to Mormon feminism either in the issue of names or activism, Mormon feminism remains in need of some deep theoretical engagement. Proctor offers an important critique: “Mormon feminism is most easily tolerated if a woman meets other LDS cultural standards.” Here, she begins to uncover what is often taken as the universal of Mormon feminism, that is for middle aged, married, educated, women. These women worry about women’s leadership because they see themselves or others like them as qualified for such leadership. To see women’s leadership as an issue that universally affects women is to ignore that leadership is already an elite institution to which many will never have access. Such a goal is a goal for privilege, pursued by a certain privilege. This doesn’t mean that it is not a worthy goal, only that it is often pursued without any awareness that such a goal is not for “women,” because “woman” is not a single category, but rather one that is intersected with race, class, education, sexuality, age, and other forms of networked power. The productivity of such a critique of the universal category of “woman” not only functions to provide greater awareness for feminists about the diverse issues women face, but also works to critique the LDS discourse of gender as a fundamental category.

As second area worthy of further critical analysis is in the understanding of feminist goals as centered on equity and choice. Soper’s somewhat stunning analysis of pre-feminist culture is concluded by this accolade: “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.” Here the main goals and accomplishments of feminism is “rights and freedoms,” understood as the voluntary entrance into marriage. Soper sees the choice to marry won by feminists as providing the soteriological conditions offered in marriage alone.

Welch most perceptively picks up on this key argument about choice and freedom as the ideals and achievements of feminism, which she calls, “a startling theological claim.” Welch identifies (and conflates) the third wave of feminism with the “choice feminism” which validates the variety of women’s “choices” so long as they are (or are discursively framed as) “freely chosen.” The problem with this undertheorized notion of “choice,” Welch notes, is that “subjectivity, even if it were miraculously liberated from ideology, is always already constrained and dispersed, distorted and diminished by everything from geopolitics to neurology.”

In uncovering the liberal subject at the heart of so much of feminist theory, the subject which freely thinks and acts, a mythical subject in political discourse, even though history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and psychoanalysis all tell us doesn’t and never will exist, Welch calls into question the very goals and ideals of this type of feminism. Though I disagree with her that “third-wave feminism has been hampered by the theoretical weakness of its model of ‘choice,’” and instead see the third wave as impressively engaged with this question for the last 20 years since Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, the critique of “choice” and “freedom” and even “equality” for Mormon feminism stands.

The critical investigation of the terms of feminism and Mormonism recast in terms of the analysis of subjectivities may not always operate along the lines of either prudent or strategic “political” action with respect to the situation of women in the LDS church, both those for whom LDS culture presents considerable pain as well as those for whom the experience is quite different. But to some extent, the decoupling of the political and the analytical can provide the space for a productive tension wherein new forms or modes of engagement can emerge. Feminism and Mormonism are both prescriptive projects, but to judge either solely on the terms of the other is to foreclose the opportunity of a genuine encounter with the Other, one that is fundamentally transformative. Saba Mahmood’s recent book, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton, 2005), concludes with the following sentiment that I share completely:

This attempt at comprehension offers the slim hope in this embattled and imperious climate, one in which feminist politics runs the danger of being reduced to a rhetorical display of the placard of Islam’s [or Mormonism's] abuses, that analysis as a mode of conversation, rather than mastery, can yield a vision of coexistence that does not require making others lifeworlds extinct or provisional.

Let’s continue the conversation that both feminism and Mormonism afford.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    I think your reference to Butler highlights the challenge…feminism does not just disagree with tradition conceptions of gender…it totally deconstructs it. Butler in particular, but also Chodorow and other, challenge us to totally reconsider how we view and conceptualize gender.

    While I largely still cling to a liberal conception of all things, my liberalism has been heavily influenced of contemporary feminism. Their critiques are too important and hard hitting not to acknowledge them in some way.

    Love the post. Thanks.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    I also think the the reconsideration of the liberal subject also requires us to reconsider agency. That may be more painful than the deconstruction of gender, but it is surely needed.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Sorry folks who read an earlier version which was sorely in need of editing, including cutting whole paragraphs that didn’t belong. I guess in my own tension between theory and practice I hit “publish” in the rush to get done for the day!

  • Enoch

    Superb and oozing brilliance; thanks for this. I especially liked this part:

    “the rules themselves be subject to critical scrutiny, that we acknowledge the fungibility of Mormonism, and that the points of ‘overlap’ are not restricted, as Soper suggests, to a vague belief in the value of agency. Such overlaps are forged, not found, as creative, critical, and constructive ‘conversation’ continues.”

  • http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ Stephen M (Ethesis)

    Here, both Mormon and feminism are taken to be stable terms, the definitions of which we already know, and the conflicts as already irreconcilable.

    Ok, that is the reason I found the article/post flawed from the premises. I’m glad you spotted that as well.

    What is lacking here is not only a failure to take seriously the variety of feminisms, but also the variety of Mormonisms.

    Amen.

    here, she begins to uncover what is often taken as the universal of Mormon feminism, that is for middle aged, married, educated, women. These women worry about women’s leadership because they see themselves or others like them as qualified for such leadership. To see women’s leadership as an issue that universally affects women is to ignore that leadership is already an elite institution to which many will never have access. Such a goal is a goal for privilege, pursued by a certain privilege

    Yes, which is why in some circles, being a feminist is seen as a social plus, a sign of superior status. It is a badge of virtue or elitism.

    You made some excellent comments (though, my enthusiasm is perhaps more of a sign of how much you agree with my analysis in spots), and I think the conversation is finally getting started.

  • http://juvenileinstructor.org Ben Park

    You pragmatist. Well done.

  • Aaron R.

    Excellent, a really outstanding addition to the discussion. Thank you for sharing.

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    All this talk of a New or a resurgence in Mormon Feminism is cute. The truth is that there was a “war” between Mormons and Feminists, and Feminists lost. All that is going on right now is a bunch of people who don’t know the war is over talking amongst themselves. There was a time when Feminists were very active with staging protests, holding marches, signing petitions, writing letters, mobilizing grassroots forces, and making bold calls to action. In the end those Feminists either left the LDS Church or were ex-communicated. The status quo pretty much stayed the same so far as the Feminist goals related to the religious institution. The last time there was any “action” taken was after Beck’s now famous talk.

    Some roses were sent to LDS Church headquarters and the newspapers filed a report. The repsonse from the intended target? A courteous thank you.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    Ahhh. How sweet. Jettboy, I think you are cute, too.

  • http://www.keepapitchinin.org Ardis E. Parshall

    “Here, [Jettboy] reifies a particular stereotype for how feminists are supposed to behave. … [Jettboy] insists on a particular normative view of feminism that is confrontational, boat rocking, and protesty … What is lacking here is not only a failure to take seriously the variety of feminisms, but also the variety of Mormonisms.”

  • http://www.kathrynlynardsoper.com KLS

    TT, this critique does indeed ooze brilliance, and it helps me see more clearly the limitations of my approach, which are considerable. I’m not a theologian, theorist, philosopher, or even a beginning intellectual, so I can’t expect this article to appeal to a wide swath of readers interested in Mormon feminism. I have a question for you, though: in your opinion, might the article be at least somewhat successful in persuading a non-academic, misinformed, and suspicious audience to consider the possibility that feminists aren’t daughters of Satan? Because that was the purpose of the article.

    I realize in retrospect that this purpose was obscured for a number of reasons. One was the title of the series, another was the individuals selected as responders (a very distinguished group–and that backfired), another (and the most important one, I’m sure) was my failure to state my purpose clearly. But with that purpose in mind, how might your reading change?

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    “What is lacking here is not only a failure to take seriously the variety of feminisms, but also the variety of Mormonisms.”

    What is lacking is the belief that there is such a variety and therefore no need to take the idea of a variety seriously. You can clack and write blogs and papers all you want. However, there is a history of Mormonism and Feminism. As the article implies, unless there has been a sea change in the definition of Feminism and Mormonism, then there isn’t much more left than bloviated self-contained nods to a movement that no longer has any power within Mormonism. Its ship has sailed. Its history has been written. Not sure what new chapters everyone is talking about.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    Jettboy,

    You do not seem to grasp what is being discussed here. Walk away.

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    Chris H. no problem. I’ll walk away. Doesn’t change the fact that Feminism as a practical application in Mormonism is dead. Not that I am complaining about that :)

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    KLS,
    Thank you for popping by and reading! We’re honored to have you. And you are far too kind. Be sure, I really enjoyed your reflective essay and would happily refer people to read it who are either unfamiliar with feminism or are veterans. I wouldn’t feel that the essay missed it’s purpose at all. Rather, the clearly interested set of responses it has engendered perfectly illustrates your point about feminism being a “conversation.”
    I think your question to some extent is about the relationship between high level feminist theorizing and introductory essays. This does indeed warrant some consideration. I hope, perhaps too optimistically, that my recommendations are not in conflict with that goal of making feminism more understandable or palatable, but in service of it. Thanks for the inspiring essay!

  • http://juvenileinstructor.org Jared T.

    Great stuff, TT.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    I think what KLS produces in her essay is a form of public intellectualism. Her essay seemed informed by engagement with femiiniist theory (with a reference to the great Alison Jaggar). Heck, Judiith Butler is not high philosopy. Most importantly, I think the essay (and many of the responses) represents something similar to the essays found in the Pink Issue of Dialogue.

    There is much to be done.

  • http://www.kathrynlynardsoper.com KLS

    Thanks for your generous reply, TT. I get a bit bristly when readers criticize the article for its shallowly normative takes on feminism and Mormonism (cue Pee Wee), and while I can’t argue that all its flaws are intentional devices, I appreciate the pat on the head I was looking for. Here’s my next question: do you think simplifications like those I used do more harm than good in the effort for mutual understanding and cooperation among Mormons invested in gender issues? Further, do you think that effort is futile, or worse, counterproductive?

    Some context: in one of our discussions this week, a favorite feminist of mine likened Mormons debating gender issues to lobsters crawling over each other in a pot, and noted that nothing productive can happen until the powers-that-be take the lid off. (50 points for that metaphor). I think Church leaders are less likely to open a shaking pot than a calm one, although I can see how the opposite may be true. In any case, lobster control is my skill set. I recognize it has limited value, but do you think we’ll actually boil longer if we join claws and sing? It’s a theoretical question–not many of us are in a singing mood, and perhaps for good reason.

    Speaking of theory, I agree that the apparent conflicts between feminism and Mormonism will increasingly diminish as feminism and Mormonism (and feminists and Mormons) mature, and I can see that the theorizing you and others call for has an important role to play in that maturation. I’m delighted there are so many amazingly capable minds on the task, although I’d warn that focusing too tightly on theory–particularly the highly academic variety–makes the integration of feminism and Mormonism into the very sort of privileged pursuit you’ve rightly spoken against. (Think: Vulgate-reading priests.) I think the key is for each participant to recognize the need for many different kinds of contributions to this conversation. And I’m glad you do.

  • http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ Stephen M (Ethesis)

    Thanks, this and an essay at FMH really gave me some perspective. I know people who are strongly for women’s right to choose education, pursue what they want, and seek their own balance, with equal opportunity and pay. They really quail at suggestions that they and feminists might have something in common.

    On the other hand, I’ve met a fair number of people whose feminism is really a badge that is intended to display the message that they are superior.

    All in all this really crystallized things I had not necessarily verbalized until I started reading the essays you reference and http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/?p=3389.

    I think reflections like yours are necessary for people to air out their presuppositions and make real progress towards equal partnership.

  • http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com chanson

    Soper spends a grew deal of time explaining the various forms of feminism that she sees, suggesting that two types ultimately exist: those that see women as equal to men, and those that see women as fundamentally different from men.

    I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating this divide in feminism, and I think a slightly more nuanced way of looking at it is this:

    Many roles, traits, qualities, and tasks are commonly seen as “female”/”feminine” and are also perceived as bad — or at least are seen as inferior to corresponding male/masculine roles, traits, qualities, and tasks.

    For a given item on this list, it may be better to stop seeing the item as bad/inferior. For another, it may be better to stop seeing that item as particularly female or feminine.

    Women who have (and like) a given item tend to think it’s more “feminist” to break the first link. [Stop saying this beautiful female thing is bad!] Women who don’t have (or don’t like) a given item tend to think it’s more “feminist” to break the second link. [Stop saying this limiting/insulting thing is female!]


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