“We began as a group of women talking about our lives.” So begins the collection of essays that comprise Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings (in the words of Claudia Bushman). And so begins feminism in general, for certainly this is how women shared their experiences and talked about their struggles. There’s something powerful about a group of women talking about their lives.
Like any good anthology, this one is organized mostly chronologically, and while it isn’t comprehensive, it samples from a diverse array of perspectives. Co-editors Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik and Hannah Wheelwright do a noteworthy job pulling it all together into one comprehensive tome. All anthologies are subject to the criticism of what is (outrageously) left out or what is (mysteriously) included. Yet this one does a pretty good job, in my opinion, of bringing together different women’s voices and experiences, spanning generations and paying appropriate homage to our fore-mothers as well as our contemporaries.
If you haven’t read it, it’s truly a must read. As another reviewer, Caryn Riswold of Patheos said:
Mormon feminists experience what most feminists of faith have heard at some point. Utter dismissal of the possibility of their existence. . . . In response, scholars, activists, and writers within each tradition have had to document their history, make their theological case, and engage their scriptures as robustly as any conservative traditionalist would. In order to achieve meaningful institutional change, unimpeachable work and confident testimony is required.
While Mormon Feminism doesn’t attempt to prove that Mormonism is a safe haven for all feminists, which is demonstrably false, in presenting these essays in one volume, side by side, it amply demonstrates that not all feminists are the same, have the same aims, the same approaches, or the same conclusions, although at core, we all want to believe the promise from 2 Nephi 26:33:
he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God
The book is divided into 4 parts, chronologically: Foundations (1970s), Lived Contradictions (1980s), Defining Moments (1990s) and Resurgence (2000s). There were some gems in the introductory chapter that might have been parlayed into its own 5th or possibly 5th and 6th parts. Examples of pre-correlation feminism are clear and a stark reminder of how much we’ve lost in understanding women’s roles in the church and how much women have lost in terms of community involvement, influence, independent oversight of our curriculum and budgets, and freedom to use spiritual gifts. Most of these losses stemmed from the correlation movement, although some pre-date that.
Why is this book so important? Many reasons. First, it’s important to record that these are thoughts of women engaging with our common faith, Mormonism. That we exist. That we think. That we envision our role in the kingdom of God, and as we engage with and wrestle with that, these are some of the things that we have wondered. So often in history, women’s voices have been silent or at least unheard. This book ensures that some of what women have thought and felt in connection with Mormonism will live on.
Secondly, as a missionary minded person, I’m always impressed with the importance of how our books will be perceived by outsiders. Are we putting messages out there of inclusion that attract people of quality into the body of Christ, people who are not necessarily like-minded, but people of heart, might, mind and strength who will push us to grow and improve as a people? To me, the existence of an anthology of this type (as well as the diverse writings to be found in the bloggernacle) performs a valuable service in demonstrating that ours is a living faith. We aren’t mindless drones or automatons. We are each of us striving to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. We are, in essence, uncorrelated, messy and sincere. The sisters whose thoughts are represented in this book illustrate very capably that we aren’t all painted with the same brush. If we could get them all in a room together, it’s doubtless that would be a noisy, spirited, and glorious discussion.
As an example of the importance of this type of illustration in making Mormons more accessible, I’ll quote from one of the essays by Judy Dushku called simply “Feminists”:
In a letter to the editor dated August 1877, a Philadelphia woman confessed that until she read the Women’s Exponent she had not looked upon “woman suffrage in Utah as worth a fillip.” Under polygamy, she had assumed, “each man has not merely his own vote, but just as many votes as he owns wives, and that each woman is either an oriental doll or a domestic drudge, with neither impulse nor impetus towards an individualized existence.” The outspoken feminism of the Exponent changed her mind and she acknowledged that “the women of the States have jumped at very unjust conclusions in regard to their sisters in Utah.”
On a personal level, I found the explanation of the church’s inexplicable opposition to the ERA both illuminating and unsettling. I was young when it happened, but given my understanding of the church at that time as very socially progressive (you youngsters will scoff–read the book) and pro-equality, I was surprised and confused by this rabid opposition to equality for women arising very unexpectedly. It is one of many things that sparked my own feminist thinking. I was too young to be aware of the tactics used to oppose it and of the animus behind those tactics, both of which are still mostly incomprehensible to me.
There are sisters who left Mormonism represented here as well as those who remained or remain in the church. Reading Sonia Johnson’s essays left me unsurprised at the outcome of her disciplinary council. I felt that while everything she wrote contained truth, it also contained too much irreconcilable difference in it. No feminist Mormon anthology could be complete without including her, though. Likewise, Kate Kelly appears in the final chapter, although I prefer her “Romantic Paternalism” essay to the one presented here.
The spiritual essays were interesting, and some were more compelling than I expected. I’ve never had a specific interest in such things as women blessing each other, although the initiatory is to me far more appealing than the endowment for this very reason. But blessing a soon-to-be-delivered mother resonated for me as something so obvious and beautiful. We truly have lost a large measure of sisterhood through correlation. When the men write the women’s programs and curriculum with input from women only as an afterthought, this is what we get.
As when it first came out, I was still unconvinced by Janice Merrill Allred’s views on God the Mother being the Holy Ghost. I found two essays on scriptures particularly intriguing: Lynn Matthews Anderson’s “Toward a Feminist Interpretation of Latter-day Saint Scipture” in which she asks which scriptures are just written for men and which for women also, and Carol Lynn Wright Pearson’s “Could Feminism Have Saved the Nephites” in which she very clearly points out the bloodlust and materialism that historically go hand in hand with patriarchy. Perhaps my favorite essay of all was the shortest (so it always is with me), Lynn Matthews Anderson’s “I Have an Answer: Questions to Gospel Answers” pointing out the odd descriptions of women that sometimes are batted around that bear no resemblance to our lived experience and seem determined in their gender essentialism to make us members of another species entirely.
Some of the feminist conclusions of the 1970s are aligned with E. Oaks assertion that women use priesthood in our callings and in concert with our husbands. It’s an interesting idea, if not fully fleshed out yet. Some women feel equality will not be achieved until women have the priesthood and are fully integrated in church governance. Others feel the priesthood must be changed to a more inherently equal structure, not a hierarchy, rather than just adding women into its existing structure. There are many different schools of thought in this book, and as we continue to see changes that go beyond window dressing and pictures hung in the conference center, it will be interesting to watch it unfold.
As Neylan McBaine points out in her fantastic piece “To Do the Business of the Church: A Cooperative Paradigm for Examining Gendered Participation within Church Organizational Structure” there is a crisis in the church right now relative to feminism: 47% of men and women who left the church in 2011 cited “women’s issues” as a significant reason for their departure. (Results for women were even higher at 63% and for single women at 70%). These are figures that can’t be ignored for long. Feminism is not the problem; it is an integral part of the solution.
Other essays that were favorites for me were Gina Colvin’s punchy “Ordain Women, But . . . : A Womanist Perspective,” and the entertaining interview between Greg Prince and Chieko Okazaki. But there are too many to mention. Some perspectives I didn’t like or didn’t feel were my own, but others resonated or broadened my own thinking. A quote I will refer to time and again was from Cecilia Conchar Farr’s essay “Dancing Through the Doctrine: Observations on Religion and Feminism”:
We . . . are determined not so much to change the church as to change the world, because when we change the world the church will follow. Instead of locating ourselves in the church, we located the church in ourselves–and ourselves in the world.
All in all, as I read, I couldn’t help but think of the Sylvia Plath poem “Mushrooms”:
Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.
Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.
Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,
Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We
Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!
We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,
Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:
We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.