This post was originally supposed to be about the women’s history panels at the Mormon History Association last week. It was supposed to be a celebration of the work that has been done and an outline of what remains to be done. The letter that was sent to Kate Kelly on June 8th – the anniversary of the extension of the priesthood to all worthy men regardless of their race – changed all of that. We felt that the Juvenile Instructor could not be the only blog not to post something. Ultimately, Amanda HK, Kris, and Andrea decided that an appropriate response would be to write a history of women’s excommunication in the LDS Church and then to offer their own thoughts.
Although other women were excommunicated before her, Sonia Johnson’s trial in the 1970s was the first disciplinary action taken against a Mormon woman for her political activism and commitment to the feminist movement. Johnson had become infamous by her 1979 trial for her vocal support of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which attempted to guarantee the economic, political, and social equality of women. It do so by attempting to insert a clause into the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing that congress would not pass any laws abridging an individual’s rights because of their sex. Church leaders like Barbara Smith and Boyd K. Packer had openly opposed the movement. In a 1976 issue of the Ensign, the former dismissed the amendment as a “confused step backward in time.” She believed that its passage would dissolve any protective legislation concerning the family, endorse abortion, and lead to the creation of unisex bathrooms. Ultimately, any differences between men and women would be undone. Johnson did not become interested in the ERA until 1977, more than five years after the initial drive to obtain state ratifications. She became, however, the most vocal Mormon proponent of the amendment. In one speech, she accused the LDS Church of engaging in a “savage misogyny” that put women into “gilded cage[s]” that made it impossible for them to develop “physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.” She also famously chained herself to the Seattle temple with twenty of her followers in a demonstration in support of the ERA.
On December 1, 1979, Johnson was excommunicated for apostasy. She was told that she had been excommunicated for accusing the church of misogyny when it taught that “exaltation can be gained only through the love that results in the eternal bonding of man and woman” and for telling investigators not to listen to Mormon missionaries until the church changed its position on the ERA.
Unfortunately, she was not the last woman to be excommunicated. The excommunications of feminists, gay rights activists, and academics that occurred in 1993 have been equally as resonant for people saddened by the disciplinary courts convened against Kelly. Although Johnson’s excommunication cast a pall over Mormon feminism, women continued to speak about feminism at BYU and groups met to discuss their history and feminist issues on campus and in private groups across the country. In 1984, Margaret Toscano presented her watershed piece, “The Missing Rib: The Forgotten Place of Queens and Priestesses in the Establishment of Zion” at Sunstone. The years 1984-1992 were marked by an explosion of works by Mormon women academics and writers including Linda Newell and Val Avery’s Mormon Enigma, Beecher and Anderson’s Sisters in Spirit, the debut of Carol Lynn Pearson’s Mother Wove the Morning, Terry Tempest William’s Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, Jill Derr, Jannath Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher’s Women of Covenant as well as Maxine Hank’s Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism. The sesquicentennial of the founding of the Relief Society in 1992 energized Mormon women who saw its history as a model upon which to base their own advocacy for women’s rights and religious faith.
At the same time, there was a sense that church leadership was becoming increasingly concerned about the potential effects that feminism and public activism might have on the church as a whole. During this time period, the church confirmed the existence of a committee called “Strengthening the Members” which conducted surveillance of Mormon intellectuals, feminists and other progressives. Church leaders began to retrench in their public statements, President Ezra Taft Benson delivered an address entitled, “To the Mothers in Zion” and Gordon B. Hinckley began to address the issue of praying to Heavenly Mother. In 1993 Elder Boyd K. Packer spoke out about the dangers posed to the church by feminists, intellectuals as well as gays and lesbians. Cecelia Konchar Farr was fired from BYU, long-time BYU Women’s Conference organizer Carol Lee Hawkins was removed from her position and in September, six Mormon feminists and intellectuals were excommunicated including D. Michael Quinn, Lavina Fielding Anderson, Maxine Hanks, Lynn Whitesides Kanavel, Paul Toscano and Avraham Gileadi. Janice Allred was excommunicated in 1995 for her writings on feminist theology and Heavenly Mother and Margaret Toscano was excommunicated in 2000.
While the Church insisted that there was not a concerted “purge” associated with the September 6 excommunications and disfellowships, certainly the Mormon intellectual community saw it that way, and continues to read that meaning into it. Whatever the roots of the excommunications, they certainly had their desired effect: For all intents and purposes, Mormon feminist thought and agitation basically entered a silent period following 1993, so much so that in 2004, Peggy Fletcher Stack asked in a Salt Lake Tribune piece, “Where have all the Mormon Feminists gone?” Then in the mid-2000s, the internet helped to embolden a new generation of younger and more technologically savvy feminists. Still, the dangers lurk beneath the surface, as the possibility of church censure remains a line of discussion for many Mormon intellectuals. Even Jan Shipps, who is not LDS, has said it is “dangerous” to do Mormon women’s history because of the feminist theology that flows from it. She even told one of us recently that she refuses to “do” Mormon women’s history. That is a startling caution for a non-member who doesn’t experience the same risk factors as Mormon scholars face constantly.
Although the case of Kate Kelly is different from the ERA or the excommunications of 1993 in its particulars, it has brought many Mormon historians, scholars, and believers back to those moments. To many, Kelly’s case seems to be just another casualty in a long line of men and women who have been disciplined by the church for their feminist activism.
Amanda: When I first received an e-mail telling me that Kate Kelly had received a letter calling her to a church disciplinary council, my response was one of shock. Calling Kelly to a disciplinary council was a public relations nightmare. It would alienate members of the church who considered themselves feminists, push the church away from mainline Christianity and closer to evangelicalism, and promote the idea that the church is anti-woman and anti-feminist. The only reason that I could come up with for the church to act in that way came from Andrea’s comment to a paper that I gave on the ERA last week at the annual conference of the Mormon History Association. She had said that the ERA had remained in the mind of church leaders as a “specter of public feminist dissent.” When Kate Kelly marched on temple square and asked for tickets to the priesthood session, she argued, it brought back memories of women chaining themselves to temple square and refusing to be moved until the church agreed to support women’s equal rights. Kate Kelly’s trial, in other words, is not solely a reaction to her work and her efforts. It’s a reaction to the history of feminist agitation in the church and the sense of men like Boyd K. Packer and others that failure to contain Mormon feminism will lead to another woman testifying before congress and publicly calling them “misogynists.”
As a woman and scholar, the church’s decision to publicly indict Kate Kelly also made me feel as though all of the progress that had been made over the years had been undone. I had believed that the Mormon Church was going to be more and more open about its history. I had believed that it would eventually make positive changes to the way that it treated women. I had believed that no one would be excommunicated for being a feminist again. I was wrong.
Kris: I was shocked when I heard the news of Kate Kelly’s impending disciplinary council. I am a convert to the church and I like to tell people the story of how I became a Mormon and a feminist in the same year; it didn’t seem incongruous to me. That being said, although I studied history, I fled from the Mormon past because I didn’t have the tools to grapple with the difficulties presented by polygamy. Despite my best efforts to avoid it, Mormon history came and found me in 1997, during the sesquicentennial celebration of the entry into the Salt Lake Valley. It came and found me through a woman who tidied her house and left her Nauvoo home forever. It found me through the woman who lay down to die beside her husband when he was too sick to go on, through the young girl who had her toes amputated when she reached Zion and through the women who gave birth in rude wagons. It found me through Claudia Bushman, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Women of Covenant. It found me through Maxine Hanks, Margaret Toscano and Lavina Fielding Anderson. Most of all it found me through women who healed; that priestess of the temple who laid her hands on the sick who were brought to the St. George temple on their beds, those who administered to their children during the lonely night of illness or anointed their sisters for death. I firmly believe we need to come to understand the history of Mormon women, including their priestly roles and what it means for the future. I appreciate how Kate Kelly is asking us to face the difficult questions. Bathsheba Smith wrote as she left her Nauvoo home, “Then with emotions in my heart … I gently closed the door and faced an unknown future, faced it with faith in God.” The body of Christ is suffering – God help us to face our unknown future together with compassion and love.
Andrea: This is difficult for me to do, because I have not yet expressed my opinions about Ordain Women, at least not publicly. My job as historian is to unpack the complicated nest that we call Mormon women’s history, with all of its layers, holes, contradictions, and mess. But in doing so, it’s hard to stay detached from the currency of Mormon women’s history on feminist feeling in the church. I am invested. And as a member of the Mormon feminist community, who range the whole spectrum of ‘radical’ to ‘moderate,’ I have tried to be part of the conversation that has pushed at the limits of those boundaries for women in the Church. Many of us have argued for or drawn attention to structural and policy changes that needed to happen, well . . . yesterday. Still, while most of us were inching along at 20 mph in the last few years, Kate Kelly blew through our ranks and ripped past us at 180 mph, leaving many of us—perhaps even including Church leaders—ill-equipped to deal with the conversations and push back that came from her very public and perceptibly adversarial actions.
So I have kept myself consciously unaligned with Ordain Women, in part because I was not comfortable with the methods, but also because of sheer terror. As a historian, I have taught historical non-violent movements to much celebratory aplomb. We talk of the Civil Rights-era sit-ins, and the students and myself are practically weeping at our desks. I am more than inspired by Gandhi’s Salt March. And yet watching Ordain Women, arguably another brilliantly conceived and carefully executed non-violent action, I haven’t had the same reaction, although my OW friends have earnestly sought my voice of support. Instead, I have silently rejoiced and sorrowed with them. But I have also felt fear, caution, and the realistic assessment of my church culture, which rejects adversarial confrontation of leadership. Frankly, I have felt resentment toward Kate for prematurely putting me in a position to have to publicly confront these feminist/anti-feminist tensions with my local church, professional and personal circles. It was too soon for me: I wasn’t ready to be ‘outed.’
But I was just as unready for Kate to face excommunication. So many of us on the whole spectrum of Mormon feminist circles have engaged in these discussions for so long, and so openly, that it is hard not to see this disciplinary action as being directed against all of us: against our exchange of ideas, the movement, the whole conversation. But, since Ordain Women and the feminist percolation of the Bloggernacle have been so much a part of our internal discourse, however you feel about Kate and OW, it’s difficult not to see this trouble as coming to “one of our own.” Kate is one of our own. And we feel legitimately surprised and personally assaulted, whether we should or not.
So many moderate Mormon feminists, including myself, have found ourselves secretly cheering things that Kate has articulated, or even defending her and OW within our personal and church circles. Not by expressing outright agreement with the public actions, but because she was forcing conversations that needed to happen; she was challenging and debunking and unraveling myths about gendered priesthood restrictions that many of us have tried to unpack for years. But because so many who disagreed with her were trotting out the same old tired folkloric and pseudo-doctrinal reasons against women’s ordination, it was somewhat easy to “take sides,” as it were, against those who critiqued both her methods and her ideas. It was an interesting and uncomfortable place to be in—not joining OW because of some practical disagreement, while also defending them against general anti-feminist prejudice. So, as I sit here with all of you, watching Kate face this devastating action, I feel raw and crippling sadness for her and for all involved, but I also feel for myself, my community, and those who wonder how this has the potential to prolong the silencing of any productive conversation about gender in the church. Will ‘that guy’ in my ward (and yours– you know the one) now use Kate’s disciplinary action as the ‘last word’ about the roles of women in general? Will this become another self-fulfilling warning about what happens to women in the Church who publicly question the effects of patriarchy? I will sit here and watch and listen and think and pray and grieve and hope, and now, probably do so mostly in silence.