Issues in Mormon Feminism

In 1993, high-ranking LDS leader Elder Boyd K. Packer famously warned that feminists, intellectuals, and homosexuals were the three “dangers” to the Church.  A decade later journalist Peggy Fletcher Stack asked, “Where Have all the Mormon Feminists Gone?” (Salt Lake Trib. 10/04/2003).  Twenty years after Packer’s warning, and ten years since Stack pronounced them extinct, Mormon feminists have made a roaring comeback and these days regularly make national news.  There are stars like Joanna Brooks who was featured in just about every media outlet imaginable last year, and new feminist blogs and organizations are popping up all over the last few years.   The “Wear Pants to Church Day” in December 2012 was the largest mass action by Mormon feminists in history.  Not since the 1970′s has Mormon feminism been so visible and active.  

The focal points of Mormon feminism have changed only slightly over the past five decades.  Today, Mormon women rarely argue that it is okay for women to work outside the home or for birth control as they once did because these issues are largely taken for granted (despite the persistence of anti-feminist treatment of these issues).  Mormon feminists have won a number of other minor victories, like having women speak in General Conference, permitting menstruating women to participate in baptisms for the dead, getting the Church to ease up on its anti-birth control stance, and allowing women to offer opening prayers in church meetings. Still, the range of issues today are largely consistent with the past, based on concerns for fairness, equity, and equality.  There is no single, agreed upon agenda.  Mormon feminist concerns might include relatively minor issues, such as making sure that the budgets for the Young Women’s and Young Men’s programs are equal, up to the “radical” idea that women could exercise their capability to perform blessings, ordinances, and hold positions of leadership and authority as bishops, high counselors, or apostles, for instance.

For the most part, Mormon feminists tend to focus their attention on issues relating to Church policies or the domestic sphere.  Widely accepted Mormon feminist issues include validating motherhood, equitable divisions of labor at home, and making women more visible and audible in Church.  Sometimes the issues of single and divorced women come up, but often those who speak out on Mormon feminist issues most successfully are those who conform to Mormon norms (married, with children, heterosexual, well-educated, middle class or higher). Mormon feminists are rarely activated on issues dealing with violence, poverty, race, or non-heterosexuality.  In some ways, Mormon feminism can appear anachronistic and parochial to outsiders, though these criticisms do not take account of the ways that Mormon feminism remains largely in its first wave of concerns.

The reemergence of Mormon feminism has also laid bare some of the tensions with Mormon anti-feminists and between Mormon feminists themselves.  Anti-feminists have issued stern warnings using lots of scare quotes, moralizing, and boundary marking around who can be a good Mormon woman and what kinds of practices are acceptable.  These approaches leverage the space between “feminist” and “Mormon,” framing the two as incommensurable.  Those critical of Mormon feminism do not sympathize with the way that most Mormon feminists feel that they are not a contradiction in terms, or that they must privilege one identity over the other.  For most Mormon feminists, the conflicts are not the core elements of either Mormon or feminism, believing that the two are fundamentally compatible. The disagreement between Mormon feminists and their opponents is over what is essential to Mormonism and what can withstand revision.

Among anti-feminists, the idea that Mormon feminists want to make women into men or erase the differences between men and women  remains a pervasive argument and continues to be put forward not only by those who do not know better, but even by some conservative Mormon intellectuals.  Whatever this “sameness” means, it is almost always asserted as self-evidently condemnable.  In many ways, Mormon feminists are still confronting the idea of natural sex roles as the primary intellectual argument of their opponents.  The question of what the differences are, how they are discursively essentialized, and how the discourse of difference is mobilized to enforce certain norms that privilege some positionalities, remain the most pertinent theoretical issues in Mormon feminists ideological criticism.  Mormon feminists do not believe that men and women are the “same,” any more than the categories of “man” and “woman” are stable.  Rather, to varying degrees they argue that the differences do not warrant the hierarchy of men over women, the normative roles enforced upon them, or the categorical assignment of men and women to different responsibilities within the church or the home (especially when those responsibilities are not distributed on any other basis than sex). The question is what is the same, what is different, what forces have produced these performances and perceptions, and what the ethical and cultural implications of those positions are.

Though Mormon feminists are united in their disagreement with interpretations of Mormonism that privilege maleness, between Mormon feminists, numerous perspectives exists.  The diminished taboo on the “f-word” has meant that many educated, conservative Mormon women have even adopted the term, resisting the critiques of their more liberal counterparts.  These women differ over the degree and nature of the problem in Mormonism for women (or in some cases whether there is a problem at all), and how far to go.  For example, many Mormon feminists sat out of the “Wear Pants to Church” day either because they disapproved of the method for creating change or because they could not agree completely to the list of things being protested.  Those who have taken the risks to be critical occupy an extremely tenuous space not only among anti-feminists, but Mormon feminists as well.

The future of Mormon feminism will continue to wrestle with the theoretical questions of that have animated broader feminist concerns, confronting the nature of sex as a category and difference as a feature of that category.  One popular Mormon feminist position holds that men and women are complementary pairs, equal but different parts that together make up a whole.  Many Mormon women point to the increasing prevalence of the rhetoric of complementarianism (parents are “equal partners” instead of “husbands preside”) to describe marriage as a space for equality.  One problem with Mormon feminist focus on domestic space has been a lack of attention to how the models of difference and equality in those spheres might translate in other contexts. Rarely is complementarianism used as an argument for women as co-leaders of congregations, let alone in secular spheres like education, business, or politics.  While equality (whatever that term might mean) might be applied to marriage and the home, complementarianism still limits equality to primarily private spaces, while public spaces are not expected to conform to complementarian ideals.  For this reason, and others, many Mormon feminists are also skeptical of complementarianism as a starting point.

The tensions between Mormon feminists actually point to the healthy conversations that are occurring, and clarify the issues that remain to be addressed.  The divisions between Mormon feminists point for the need of serious theorizing about gender, difference, and equality.  Whether the next two decades will look like the yo-yo of the last two decades, and whether the same issues will endure at the heart of Mormon feminist concerns remains to be seen.

  • ji

    Rather, to varying degrees they argue that the differences do not warrant the hierarchy of men over women, the normative roles enforced upon them, or the categorical assignment of men and women to different responsibilities within the church or the home (especially when those responsibilities are not distributed on any other basis than sex).

    I think that Mormon feminism will continue for as long as some women are unhappy that only men are ordained to the priesthood, because it is that matter that is the underlying basis for the arguments you describe above.

    • AuntH

      Agreed. And while I personally support priesthood equality, it would be a serious doctrinal reversal, more fundamental even than the church’s position on gay marriage. Unlikely that church authorities would even consider it.

      • JohnH

        Actually it wouldn’t be nearly as fundamental as gay marriage. Consider for instance Priscilla, Junia, Phoebe, Deborah, Miriam, and Huldah from the Bible. Tradition from the writings of the early Christians holds some of those as Apostles, some are referred to in the exact same word as used elsewhere for priesthood offices, Deborah was a prophetess-judge in Israel, Miriam was a prophetess, and Huldah was a prophetess consulted by the King and Priests. Also further consider the sermons by Joseph Smith on the founding of the Relief Society, that Sisters used to give blessings, and the Temple if you have been through it. There is a place for women in the priesthood and women have and use the priesthood in select circumstances currently. For reasons on which I could speculate, perhaps relating to feminism, God has not seen fit to further reveal the particulars of women roles in the priesthood.

        Gay marriage on the other hand has the Law of Moses condemning those that practice anything like it to death, Paul repeatedly speaking on the subject, violates the commands given to Adam and Eve, violates temple ordinances and covenants, ignores the premortal genderness of our spirits, and ignores what is said of the post-mortal purposes of God. Rather then being less fundamental then women in the priesthood it appears to be more fundamental, and more fundamental then a lot of other things I could think of.

  • WI_Member

    Why is it righteous for a man to desire to hold/use the priesthood to bless others, but if a woman desires to participate in the same way she is regarded as power hungry?

    • Cory

      WI_Member,

      The issue is not what women want, or what men want, or what any person thinks is best for the church. The question is “what does the Lord think is best?” and “do I believe that the General Authorities, Apostles, and Prophet are called of God and that they receive revelation for the Church?” If we believe that they are and do, then lets have some faith that they will do what God wants.

      Also, your statement implied that women’s ability in the church to bless others is hampered because they do not hold the priesthood; this is not true. Women do bless others; often in ways that men cannot because of the particular spiritual gifts that are given to women. (See the Family: A Proclamation to the World and “The Influence of Righteous Women” By Elder Unctdorf at http://www.lds.org/liahona/2009/09/the-influence-of-righteous-women?lang=eng). They don’t need to be holders of the priesthood to do so. There is nothing stopping women in the church from feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, teaching the gospel, and helping see to the temporal and spiritual welfare of others. Indeed, this is the central purpose of the Relief Society. This is the real work of the church; or “pure religion” as it is called (James 1:27). The administration that is carried out under the direction of the priesthood is (this is only my personal opinion) a necessary evil done to enable others to minister.

      Lets not get hung up on things like this. It is not up to you or I to tell God what to do. That is why a woman who wants the priesthood could possibly (I do not mean to either offend you our stereotype others when I say this; not women who desire the priesthood fall fall into this category) be considered “power hungry;” the power to determine who get’s the priesthood and who does not belongs to God and no one else. To say that we know better than God would be to try and take His power away from Him and put it in the hands of imperfect people.

  • http://www.facebook.com/christian.cardall Christian Cardall

    “Mormon feminists have won a number of other minor victories, like having women speak in General Conference, permitting menstruating women to participate in baptisms for the dead, getting the Church to ease up on its anti-birth control stance, and allowing women to offer opening prayers in church meetings.”

    These are all positive developments to be sure, but calling them “victories” “won” suggests a fundamentally adversarial orientation. Three questions: (a) Is such an approach the most fruitful way to bring about change? (b) Can you identify the adversaries? (c) Did these changes really occur because of competitive, combative, or contentious means?

  • http://www.conservativemormonmom.blogspot.com E B

    I am a Mormon woman, though not a feminist. I do appreciate the Mormon feminist movement, however, because I feel it drives us to realize the distinctions between gospel, Church, and Mormon culture. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ – all divine truth – which never changes, and on which our testimonies rest. The Church teaches the gospel and may change policies to best meet that objective. Mormon culture is a mere product of a whole bunch of Mormons in near proximity and while much of it is good, there are many parts (like judging each other) which have absolutely nothing to do with gospel. These are important things for members of the LDS Church to understand.

  • LMA

    The author loses credibility in the first sentence by misrepresenting what Elder Packer “famously” said in 1993. He didn’t say that feminists, homosexuals and intellectuals were the three dangers to the Church. He just didn’t. It is wrong to mischaracterize his remarks in that way. He said, with perfect accuracy, that members of the Church were being led away from it by “social and political unrest.” He identified two “movements” as sources of that unrest, based on the tendency of those movements to assert claims that would be inconsistent with the scriptures or doctrines of the Church. It should not be surprising that a Church leader would oppose claims that themselves are in opposition to Biblical teaching. He argued that despite criticism from those sources, the Church should keep its attention on eternal truths, and not be tempted to shade those doctrines in response to movements. Third, Elder Packer said that there are ever-present challenges from “so-called” scholars or intellectuals. It is clear from context that he regarded those “so-called” scholars and intellectuals as demonstrating something far less than scholarly or intellectual objectivity. And he reiterated the importance of prophets and apostles in declaring doctrine.

    This is much more nuanced than treating him to have said that feminists, homosexuals and intellectuals were the three dangers to the Church. He didn’t say that and should not falsely be claimed to have done so. Particularly on a blog that presumably takes the Ninth Commandment as meaning what it says.

  • jmf

    Total TOTAL mischaracterization of Packer’s quote. It is a shame when an author of an otherwise interesting article (even if I don’t agree) loses his or her credibility in the first paragraph. Hey Author: how about some fair play?

    • Taylor Petrey

      Since now two people have accused me of misrepresenting Elder Boyd K. Packer, I think I should probably reply. Frankly, I do not understand the nature of the misrepresentation that I am supposed to have made. That there is some distinction between feminists and the feminist movement? (He does not always make this distinction, nor am I sure what the significance of such a distinction would mean.) That Elder Packer does not mean all intellectuals, only “so-called” ones? (He does not always make this distinction in his speech either). In any case, the speech may be read in its entirety here: http://www.zionsbest.com/face.html

      The relevant portion of the speech, which I summarize in my opening line, is this:

      There are three areas where members of the Church, influenced by social and political unrest, are being caught up and led away. I chose these three because they have made major invasions into the membership of the Church. In each, the temptation is for us to turn about and face the wrong way, and it is hard to resist, for doing it seems so reasonable and right.

      The dangers I speak of come from the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement (both of which are relatively new), and the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals. Our local leaders must deal with all three of them with ever-increasing frequency.

      • JohnH

        Taylor,
        The moments are not dangers to the Church but to members of the Church. The Church is the Church of Jesus Christ or it is nothing, if it is Christ’s Church then there are no dangers to the Church, if it is nothing then speaking of danger is irrelevant.

        It is mildly amusing that you can read his speech and then write this article and at the same time sustain him as an Apostle and Seer.

        • Taylor Petrey

          JohnH,
          I think I see what you are saying now. You believe that I had mischaracterized Elder Packer by saying that he considered these three things to be dangers to the institution of the Church, when he believed that these were dangers only to the members of the Church. Is that right? Perhaps that is a minor point of clarification, but is mostly a distinction without a difference–the Church is an institution made up of members.

          • JohnH

            If the Church is an institution made up of members then how was there an apostasy? The members remained and we have institutions made up of an unbroken line of members from those early Church members. Somehow it must be possible to have members of the Church remain but the Church be taken because those members have fallen away from Christ and stopped listening to the Apostles and Prophets; Otherwise there could be no need for the First Vision and the choice is between the Tiber and the Bosphorus.

          • Taylor Petrey
  • http://www.imediasalesteam.com Josh

    Hey Taylor! you are becoming a superstar here on Patheos congrats. I think you need to write something about your MMA experiences “Mormons and Mixed Martial Arts!” Give me comedy, action, violence, and real controversy! Let’s generate some real traffic. Best Wishes to the fam. – Josh


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