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.
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.