I was recently re-reading an article in Slate that talks about why some women refuse to refer to themselves as feminists, even when they clearly believe in equality for women and men. They aren’t giving up the right to vote. They believe women should have the ability to leave an abusive marriage. They believe women should have birth control options available to them. They believe women should be able to get college degrees and drive cars. They believe that women and men who are equally qualified should be paid equally to do equal work. But they don’t claim the label “feminist” for some reason, despite holding these feminist positions. Why is that?
I was partly curious about the article because disclaiming feminism is something I’ve heard fairly commonly at church. Mostly I think it’s misunderstanding what feminism is, assuming that it includes positions that are not necessary to all feminism, a strawman version of feminism. I’ve previously done a more comprehensive primer on feminism here.
My daughter was telling me about a “Meninists” group at her high school. It’s a group of boys who band together to oppose feminism and boost “men’s rights” awareness. I was reminded of that MRA wing-nut who was serial-killing women due to his sexual frustration. I said to my daughter, “Steer clear of those guys.” Her reply warmed this mother’s heart: “Obviously! I’m not an idiot.”
Many years ago, when I worked at Amex, one of my white male colleagues (who happened to be a Mormon) was lamenting all the diversity clubs. Amex is big on diversity, one of the best things about the work culture in my opinion. He said cynically that there was no “White Males” club. While the company would not have opposed the formation of such a group, preferring inclusion, I and several other leaders found his comment unsavory. It reminded me of children complaining about Mother’s Day and Father’s Day whining, “But when is it Children’s Day?” And the obvious answer is, “Every day is children’s day.”
When I lived in Singapore, a friend in Relief Society once introduced me as a feminist, which took me aback. I laughed and said, “Yes, of course I am, but so are you!” (she was). “And I assume we all are, right?” I pointed around the room. “We all believe in equal rights for women, don’t we? We all believe women should be paid equally for doing equal work, right?” They both agreed.
Elder Oaks is also a feminist. When he visited our stake in Singapore, he spent probably half his remarks talking about the importance of equal pay for women, and providing equal educational opportunities. I was actually somewhat surprised by the focus of his remarks for two reasons: 1) it was in the wake of the Ordain Women movement when women’s rights were at the forefront of conversations in the church, and 2) women are on the whole paid and educated equally in Singapore, at least they were in my experience at a professional global company. We had more women in high level leadership roles than men, and I was at the time the highest ranking in my work group in the country. While E. Oaks may not embrace the ordination of women, in supporting equal pay for equal work, he meets the basic definition.
Common misconceptions about feminism:
- That it’s anti-men. While there are perhaps some feminists who bash men (just as there are some men who bash women), that’s not a feature of the movement as a whole. One bad actor doesn’t spoil the whole movement. Most feminists care about equality, not supremacy, seeing equality as a partnership, not a zero sum game.
- A belief that it’s already been achieved. While Virginia Slims cigarettes proudly tout that “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby!” (yay! now women can also get lung cancer!), there’s still more to be achieved. Even if no living person today is a sexist (which we know is not the case), the systems and infrastructure that exist were built by a sexist culture. That’s one reason work place benefits are not structured to support either men whose wives work or women who work.
- That men’s rights will get lost in the shuffle. This comes in two flavors. Some men see the erosion of their privilege as a loss of basic rights, which is patently ridiculous (deserving of ridicule). For example, a man who left Star Wars: The Last Jedi remarking that “Any more men can’t be in leadership roles in the the movies,” is being deliberately obtuse. Just because ONE movie out of hundreds of thousands features women in leadership roles doesn’t mean that men are now oppressed. Get over yourselves. The other type of men’s rights’ complaint which is more valid is that patriarchy hurts men as well as women by pigeonholing them in ways that don’t always serve their interests. But it’s a strawman argument because many feminists DO care about these issues and push for parental benefits (not just maternal benefits).
Those who really don’t want women to be equal:
- Religious extremists. Usually this refers to people who interpret their religious texts as requiring women to remain in an inferior or subordinate role to men. For example, I was at a dinner with couples considering a business opportunity. One of these was an Evangelical couple from the south. Everyone was going around the table and introducing themselves. When we got to the wife of this couple, she didn’t make eye contact and bowed her head saying that as a wife it was her role to submit to her husband so he would do the introduction. I looked at her husband in alarm half expecting him to laugh because it had to be a joke, but instead I saw that his chest was puffed out with pride like a toddler who had just pooped in the potty all by himself.
- Men and women who benefit from women being inferior to men. From the article: “this could include women who want to be financially supported, and men who want to feel valued because of their financial support.” The Trump-voters who proudly proclaimed themselves “deplorables” may also fit into this group.
- People so opposed to abortion and pre-marital sex that they see any steps toward women having choice create a risk to be avoided. While it’s certainly possible to be against abortion while being a feminist, some will reject feminism on these grounds. The majority of feminists (but not all) would put these choices in the hands of women rather than the state.
Some dislike specific byproducts of feminism:
- Divisions between the sexes. Sure, pointing out the inequities that exist can bring those divisions to light (more than say 51% of the population quietly accepting the inequities while 49% enjoy their privilege in obliviousness), but addressing them will overall lead to better empathy and partnership, stronger marriages and communities.
- Women being portrayed as victims. There are some valid ways in which women have been oppressed or victimized by people or systems, and yet, ignoring this doesn’t empower them either. We can’t legislate or regulate disadvantages if we don’t acknowledge that they exist. For example, some like to think that marriages were stronger before it became so easy to get a divorce. For those who think that, consider the analogy of a cell phone contract. If you can leave at any time without being locked in to a multi-year contract, the company has to constantly re-win your business, providing better service, not treating you like crap knowing that you can’t leave. Which way is better for everyone?
- Being opposed to specific issues. There are too many of these ticky-tack issues to list. I will only add that you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and feminists don’t have to all be on board with every thing every other feminist cooks up. There’s diversity of thought in the movement.
- Wanting equal focus on men’s rights. Most women support equality, not supremacy. It’s just that there’s more ground to make up for women to be treated equally, so the focus is there.
- Bigger problems in the world. Yes, world hunger is important to solve. Hopefully, we can address all areas that need improvement. We need to be able to walk and chew gum, not to be complacent about the progress to date.
- The belief that women have it “pretty good” in the western world by contrast to some areas. Granted that FGM and bride burnings are not generally an issue in the US. Most feminists recognize that countries have different levels of oppression toward women. That doesn’t get us off the hook on working toward equality. But likewise, it’s important that the women in more privileged circumstances don’t overlook the issues faced by other women in other countries.
While the above are issues that people in general might have with feminism, even if they are at core feminists, there are a few aspects to church cultures that create some church-specific disincentives to claiming the term:
- The church’s stance on the ERA. This one surprised me at the time because I had assumed that the church would support equality. The reasons for the opposition seemed tied up in a desire to keep women out of the work force (to retain male advantage for single income families), and in opposition to abortion (and specifically a fear of elective abortion), and also a (now discarded) opposition to birth control.
- SAHMs as preferred. President Benson’s talk to the Mothers in Zion created a regressive effect for women, encouraging them to forego careers in an increasingly dual-income economy. Some who support a single breadwinner model also believe that paying women less for equal work will encourage them to stay out of the workforce, although this means that women who must work are disadvantaged and creates other downstream negative impacts (e.g. leave policies that disproportionately punish women, leadership gaps, hostile work environments, and the inability for single or divorced women to support themselves or their children). Women who sacrificed their own dreams and independence to become a SAHM may be hesitant to support equal pay and rights for women.
- Anti-abortion views. This is an interesting one because the church is actually less anti-abortion than nearly every other conservative religion in the US, and yet many of our politically conservative members don’t realize this. Abortion is allowed when the health of the mother is at risk or for rape or incest. These caveats put us doctrinally in the pro-choice category comparatively. You can read more on this here. We also
- Polygamous roots. Interestingly, Mormon polygamists were at the forefront of fighting for the rights of women: to vote, to have a career outside the home, to divorce if they chose. Yes, it’s true that marriages with multiple wives and one husband can never truly be “equal,” mathematically, but having extra wives oddly gave women more choice than monogamy did. Yet we don’t typically remember this aspect of polygamy, instead focusing on the man as the Lord to his many subservient wives, more of a 1950s version of monogamous marriage.
- Heavenly mother’s downplayed role. While the existence of a Heavenly Mother should bolster the role of women in the church, our complete lack of knowledge about her, including not mentioning her in lessons and talks, means that there’s an unstated assumptions that she’s not a God like her husband or that she’s one of many subservient passive baby-farm wives.
- “There’s no agitation for that.” Pres. Hinckley claiming to Larry King that “there’s no agitation” for women’s ordination was behind the Ordain Women movement. There is agitation for women’s equality; there just isn’t much tolerance for it among the very conservative rank and file or leadership of our church. Agitation is a tool of progressives and liberals more than it is of conservatives.
- Patriarchal leadership. The fact that the church considers the term “patriarch” to be a positive makes things difficult since “patriarchy” is the system that has created advantages for men and disadvantaged women throughout history. Gender studies certainly don’t consider it a positive term, and neither do most people these days, given its history. Still, it’s a term that has lost favor over centuries, and the church is loath to drop traditions.
- Silence among membership. Too often, people not talking about equality means that people assume that nobody is for it. Some assume that it’s a political matter, others that it’s already been achieved, and some think that clearly [everybody/nobody] is for it anyway. Without speaking up, silence supports whatever belief people already have.
Let’s see what you think:
- Do you think Mormons have a harder time on average claiming feminism? Why or why not?
- Are there aspects of feminism that make you uneasy?
- Do you consider yourself a feminist?