A Love Letter to Mormon Women on the Anniversary of the Relief Society, from a Mormon Historian and Feminist

By March 17, 2015

On this, the anniversary of the founding of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo on March 17, 1842, I come out of a long and silent hibernation from blogging to write this, a love letter, to my Relief Society sisters, for each one of you, whether in the church or out of the church, whether fully active or barely hanging on. My sabbatical from the online conversation has not been for a lack of things to say, but because I have been waiting, watching, processing, refocusing, and teaching. I have felt sublime transcendence as I have been nursed back to health by good friends and spiritual renewal, but I have also felt at times as though I hit my emotional and spiritual low. If I heard one more person righteously insist, “Some Mormon women just don’t understand their divine nature!” my head might explode. I have watched as friends and acquaintances have left the church in part or altogether, one by one. I have wept with close friends—in person or across miles, with tears falling on our messages and texts; I have counseled with innumerable students, in hallways, in my office, in class, after class, in my home and even on field trips; I have confided to a select few trusted souls my own doubts, faith, and hope. I have even responded to total strangers.

Increasingly, I have felt the loneliness of being a “faithful Mormon feminist,” –one who chooses to stay in the church, while also navigating the complexities of gender roles in a cultural and theological patriarchy. I watch and mourn as so many of my contemporaries and friends struggle to remain where they feel unequal; I also see the anger and frustration of those who reject feminist critiques of their religious foundation. And I can only imagine how my colleagues and friends outside of my faith community perceive my persistent adherence to a patriarchal religious tradition, while trying to be a feminist scholar. Indeed, I am treading in some pretty lonely waters.

Last fall, I lost the acquaintance, or social media ‘friendship’ of one high-profile Mormon feminist. This event bothered me to some extent, mainly because it exposed the frustrating internal tensions that have plagued feminism since the 19th-century, and that continue to prevent us from uniting our voices. Within the same week, literally within days, I was then publicly confronted by another friend, a “traditional” Mormon woman, who asked me “Why are you so “anti-motherhood?” Making assumptions about what she believed feminism means, and the perceived threats to her worldview, she took out her frustrations on me. I returned home absolutely devastated—because she was a friend—by her wrong attributions, and I wondered how many others held such a negative opinion of me. The fact that I experienced rejection by the opposite ends of the feminist spectrum became a striking and useful metaphor for Mormon women as a whole: caught in the current forces of transformation, some of us are more strident for change, and some of us are more resistant to it.

So here I find myself situated deeply in a community torn between very different responses to the roles of Mormon women. I am not the only one here.  And as someone who has been a vocal feminist historian and sometime blogger, I know that I am probably pitied, misunderstood, and perhaps even despised by some for critiquing the negative effects of patriarchy. I know that I am undermining the very foundations of the institution that many women love. I understand 100% why many women feel anger and resentment at the public feminist critiques of the Church. I get it. And frankly, one of the failings of some Mormon feminists has been the inability to empathize with the pain of those on the other side of this discussion. As one ward friend earnestly declared to me, standing on the sidewalk after church: “But ‘those women’ don’t speak for me! I speak for me.” Condescension can come from both sides: Ex: You don’t really understand how oppressed you are! Ex: You don’t really understand how empowered you are!

I know many people wonder: What makes a Mormon woman turn into a feminist anyway? For some, it has come out of real and raw ecclesiastical abuse, hyper-vigilant modesty culture, and domestic and sexual violence and marital inequality that have gone unaddressed. For others, like me, it came through higher education and my study of Mormon women’s history, and was intensified by too many examples of condescending and sexist attitudes, rhetoric, and practices. And still for others, they see their feminism as absolutely linked to their Gospel belief and identity here. For a long time, I had mostly felt okay with benevolent patriarchy, until the last fifteen years or so, when I really started to see sexism in the Church as institutional, rather than as just some isolated actions of a “few.” I know that will bother some of the audience I am reaching out to, especially because you probably see the sexism as only isolated actions of a few, rather than an institutional problem. And I know that Mormon feminists all along the spectrum have different responses to either individual or institutional sexism. Some want no change at all, because they see the institution and its leadership as near-to-perfect and as protecting of  women and womanhood. Some want incremental changes that address minor visible and fixable issues, but that don’t upset the order of the Church. Some want increased awareness and sensitivity instruction for male leaders. Some want major changes to cultural and religious practices in the Church. Some want a combination of these here. Some want to go back and reclaim early practices that Mormon women already enjoyed in the past, like healing by the laying on of hands, greater autonomy for female leadership, and greater visibility of women in leadership roles and the doctrine of female deity. Some want theological changes like reinterpreting or even removal of particularly sexist doctrines and passages of scripture. Some want complete overhaul of the portions of temple worship that involve female submission to men. And still some want full ordination of women to the priesthood. Some want institutional change from the top, and some want step-by-step change from the bottom. I have friends and loved ones in every single category that I have listed. So, considering such a diversity of approaches to women’s issues in the church, how do we possibly find unity and love, in this Relief Society, and to avoid bitterness and resentment? That is a toughie, but here are a few suggestions to get us started:

Be patient and humble as the historians do the hard work of figuring out the complexities of Mormon women’s history. For those of you on the side of greater equality in the church, be hopeful but cautious in your reading of Mormon sources. For those of you on the side of maintaining the status quo, also be patient and humble in your reading of Mormon women’s history. It is neither a tale of complete oppression, nor is it an uncomplicated story of female empowerment. Please remember that our history is fully enmeshed in some pretty oppressively patriarchal stuff: polygamy, marital submission, underage marriages, racism, the feminization of poverty, and the marginalizing of women. But it is also full of love and friendship, sacrifice, humor, parties and food, quilts, suffrage activism, children and family, great humanitarian work, Relief Society leadership, and the faithful actions of wives, mothers, sisters, unmarried and childless women, leaders, followers, and yes, even a few egalitarian marriages and some feminism. See it all.

Try to understand feminism and what it really means. Don’t assign to all feminists some pernicious motives that simply might not be true. Read the many useful resources out there, but especially this one specifically targeting a more traditional Mormon audience.  Let’s change how we address women; let’s admit that while gender should mean something, it doesn’t have to mean everything.   Also, let’s be more careful not to claim that Mormon women are equal, when we might really mean that women are cherished. There is a difference. Being pedestalized is not the same as being equal, and being equal is not the same as being the same.  And remember:  Feminists are not seeking to take away your children, turn you into men, keep you away from the hair salon, or shoot your dog.

Love and sustain our leaders who are grappling with these issues earnestly (and they are!). The Church is not moving as fast as many of us would like, but it also moving at a blistering pace for others. Can we have charity for both? Both speeds come with great discomfort for those on the journey. Let us keep in mind the metaphor of the Body of Christ. We all must move together, or we will break apart.

Recognize that, while we sometimes think that our faith tradition has produced the worst men and women, it has also produced the very best. The Priesthood structure of the Church has made some men unapologetic sexists, but it has also made some men sublime, and I am proud to know many of them. And maybe the Relief Society has among its ranks some of the shallowest and most submissive of women, but it also claims the most amazing and powerful women I have ever known. Love them all.

Finally, hold on if you can. Or hold onto me, or someone else. I am choosing to stay and claim my faith, as imperfect as it is, while working for change from within. I recognize my vulnerability: I sometimes feel as though I am dangling from a bridge, holding on with one hand, but with my other hand, I am holding onto others that are depending on me. HangingYou might not know personally people who have crippling pain over gender equality, but I do.  Maybe it’s being a professor, an academic, and just being in those circles, but my pool of Mormon feminist subjects is proportionally larger than most. However, I can still promise that every one of you knows at least one person who is hanging off a bridge in their faith and feminism.  And unfortunately, some of us on the bridge are stepping on fingers, either accidentally or on purpose, while others are reaching out trying to lift us up. Still others might be choosing to let go altogether, because they just can’t do it anymore. We need to learn how to love all of us, and to do it better. I live in a situation of constant negotiation between hope and despair. Some of the pain is like what Valerie Hudson once described as “feeling like my skin is being rubbed raw by sandpaper.” But it is MY pain, my struggle. I own it as one of the great challenges of my life. Perhaps you cannot minister to me, but allow me to still minister to you. Allow me to find joy and Christ and service, while also rejecting what is unfruitful.  I want to look forward to the time that my son will get to be a Scout and be dressed in a uniform and draped in badges, and honored at his own banquet, even though my daughter will get none of that. I want to be excited for when my son will get to do all of the great responsibilities we expect of our Aaronic priesthood holders, while knowing that my daughter will get none of that participation. I want to not feel physical, soul-crushing pain about it, but honestly, I probably will. This pain is not yours, and I don’t need you to fix me, or correct me, or pity me. Please don’t tell me that I “don’t understand the divine roles of women.” Frankly, none of us do . . . yet. All I need is like what a member of my stake presidency said to me at one interview, “I know that the gender inequality is hard for you, but you are a good woman and a faithful saint. I have nothing to tell you, except to be patient and try not to let it consume you.”

So, just as I expect others to listen and love, I will try harder to listen and to love. And when you feel like you are being personally attacked, I will mourn with you, repent of my pride, and soften my earnest indignation, and maybe we can learn together and find sanctification. I honestly don’t know why some of us see the inequalities and some of us don’t, or why some of us are bothered by the gendered differences in our religious practice, and some of us aren’t. I have some ideas, as I have articulated here. But I cannot unsee the inequality I see, even if I wish I could. I know I should feel content with the benevolent patriarchy of Mormon gender roles. I wish I could return to the innocent acceptance of that framework prior to my feminist awakening. In the meantime, let’s keep trying to love each other, to understand one another, to strengthen the Body of Christ, and to brighten our sisterhood across differences.  Hear me when I say “I am a feminist, I am a Relief Society sister, and I am a Mormon.”  Happy Anniversary.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Gender Reflective Posts Women in the Academy Women's History


Comments

  1. I wish I had something better to say than “wow” and “amen” but that’s all I can think of at the moment. Thanks, Andrea.

    Comment by J Stuart — March 17, 2015 @ 7:11 am

  2. Beautiful.

    Thank You for writing this.

    Comment by Katherine — March 17, 2015 @ 7:27 am

  3. Thank you, Andrea. The Church–the world–is a much better place with people like you in it.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — March 17, 2015 @ 7:52 am

  4. Beautiful, Andrea. Many thanks for sharing with us.

    Comment by John Hatch — March 17, 2015 @ 8:09 am

  5. “We all move together, or we break apart”
    Thanks for writing this. And thanks for being so thoughtful and inclusive of the entire body of Christ. And Happy Anniversary RS in all of your complexity.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — March 17, 2015 @ 8:31 am

  6. Thank you for your call for unity, patience, and love, Andrea. If we are to apply the Priesthood as intended by our heavenly Parents, and not as just another form of patriarchy, I believe that those principles must be central to our efforts.

    Comment by Michael Reed Davison — March 17, 2015 @ 8:36 am

  7. Beautiful, Andrea!

    Comment by Max — March 17, 2015 @ 8:45 am

  8. Timely, poignant, AND uplifting. Thank you.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — March 17, 2015 @ 9:01 am

  9. Thank you, my friend, for pouring out your soul here.

    Though I think contentment is a complicated thing, I am not sure you need to be content as you’re describing it–that might sound like Mormon guilt. (But I’m definitely not telling you what you should feel. 🙂 ) I believe there is purpose in our different experiences and our contribution as members of the body of Christ. Though your life might be easier, I’m not sure if you were content you’d be doing everything you’re here to do.

    Comment by jjohnson — March 17, 2015 @ 9:18 am

  10. I can’t think of anything that would honor our foremothers more than this letter on this day. As mormon women we do, indeed, need each other.

    Comment by Kristine A — March 17, 2015 @ 9:20 am

  11. This is true and beautiful and good. Thank you, Andrea!

    Comment by Jason K. — March 17, 2015 @ 9:30 am

  12. Thank you Andrea! So much of this resonates with me.

    Comment by Nancy Ross — March 17, 2015 @ 9:37 am

  13. Andrea, I’ve listened to a few interviews of you on podcasts, and I have total respect and admiration for you. This post has put to words exactly what is in my own heart. Thank you for showing your vulnerability, because it helps me realize that someone as strong and smart as you still struggles on such a deep, personal level. This helps me feel like I am not so alone in my struggles. Thank you.

    Comment by Corrina — March 17, 2015 @ 10:07 am

  14. Thank you, Andrea. Although I am one of the “others [that] might be choosing to let go altogether, because they just can’t do it anymore,” I still appreciate your struggle. And even though I feel a renewed sense of self worth now, I still sometimes wish I could be back there, holding on, being the change I wish to see inside the church.

    Comment by Jason W — March 17, 2015 @ 10:10 am

  15. Thank you, Andrea, for sharing your most poignant feelings and articulating those of so many women around you. That takes profound courage–one of the many, many qualities I’ve always admired about you. I honor your life’s journey and hope you find peace and joy in it. I am always here, my friend.

    Comment by Barbara — March 17, 2015 @ 10:16 am

  16. Once in awhile a blog post comes along that becomes essential,; referenced time and again in conversations and shared with those who seek better understanding of a sensitive topic. I predict this post will become one of those.

    Comment by BrianW — March 17, 2015 @ 10:25 am

  17. Thank you for putting words to many feelings in my heart. My feminist awakening came as remembering, I’ve always been a Feminist and I’ve always felt weighty tendrils connecting me to the Divine, and I’ve hungered heartily for sisterhood and I’ve found in all the places in abundance, and one of those places has been in my Relief Society. Truly ministering and providing relief to my soul. An oasis amongst many here on this traipse, where I can be refreshed and find rest and renewal and hopefully provide it to others as well on their way.

    Comment by Dovie — March 17, 2015 @ 10:40 am

  18. that was poignant and beautifully written. Thank you.

    Comment by Lindsay — March 17, 2015 @ 10:45 am

  19. Thanks, Andrea, for sharing with us.

    Comment by Saskia — March 17, 2015 @ 10:53 am

  20. I celebrate and mourn with all my sisters. Thank you for so eloquently expressing the borderlands where we exist.

    Comment by Dell — March 17, 2015 @ 11:18 am

  21. Aces, aces, excellent way to mark this day.

    Comment by Le — March 17, 2015 @ 12:03 pm

  22. I feel like making copies of this post and handing them out in Relief Society next week. Thanks for making me feel as though I am not alone after all.

    Comment by Betty Johnson — March 17, 2015 @ 12:42 pm

  23. THANK YOU! coming from someone who’s fingers ache from being stepped on, THANK YOU! I will be sharing this with my sisters, literal and otherwise.

    Comment by Sarah — March 17, 2015 @ 1:24 pm

  24. The love, the nuance, the honesty, and the vulnerability of what you wrote makes my soul feel so expansive. I agree. I appreciate. I hope to one day meet you the next time I’m visiting a mutual friend of ours in your neck of the woods. 🙂

    Comment by Victoria — March 17, 2015 @ 1:38 pm

  25. This spoke peace and energy and hope to my soul. Thank you, Andrea.

    Comment by James E — March 17, 2015 @ 3:00 pm

  26. Well said, Andrea. Thank you.

    Comment by Kylie — March 17, 2015 @ 4:33 pm

  27. Amen. And thank you.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — March 17, 2015 @ 5:24 pm

  28. Thank you. I posted this on Facebook today and received many wonderful comments. Many of us needed to hear it.

    Comment by Bonnie Flint — March 17, 2015 @ 5:53 pm

  29. Andrea! Andrea! Andrea! I love you. That is all.

    Comment by Melody — March 17, 2015 @ 6:20 pm

  30. I am very fortunate to live in a ward that is very different from yours. We have our Courts of Honor for our Eagle Scouts and there might be refreshments but no dinner. Our Young Women are recognized in similar meetings as they complete their requirements towards they Young Womanhood award. Our young men are recognized in Sacrament meeting for advancement in the Priesthood and the Young Women are also recognized as they progress from Beehive to Mia Maid to Laurels. They are also recognized in Sacrament meeting when they receive their Young Womanhood award. After summer camps the Young Women have their own Sacrament meeting and so do the Young men have their own meeting. I am our Ward Historian and it is wonderful to document all these great events!!

    Comment by Marianna Pugmire — March 17, 2015 @ 6:42 pm

  31. I am 69 years old, and a VERY slow convert since 1971. I TREASURE your words. Thank you.

    Comment by Marilyn Lunf — March 17, 2015 @ 7:31 pm

  32. Marianna: Thank you for your comment. Those are, indeed, great examples of a ward trying to show the same regard for the achievements of Young Men and Young Women. But I’m guessing that our wards really aren’t too different in the area of Cub Scouts and the Deacons’ various duties, which is actually what my post referred to. Since Cub Scouts is the standard program of the Church for boys, your ward probably has a Blue and Gold banquet for boys but nothing equivalent for the girls. If your ward is doing a banquet for its Achievement Days girls, or has some kind of awards nights for the girls to receive badges on a uniform of some kind, I would love to know about it– that would be fantastic if it was happening somewhere.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — March 17, 2015 @ 7:31 pm

  33. I freekin love you. Thatisall.

    Comment by Shannon — March 17, 2015 @ 7:52 pm

  34. Amen, amen, AMEN.

    Comment by Clean Cut — March 17, 2015 @ 8:14 pm

  35. You beautifully articulated so many of my thoughts and feelings–can we be new besties? I’m serious!

    Comment by Becky — March 17, 2015 @ 9:20 pm

  36. Love this, Andrea. Thank you.

    Comment by Christopher — March 17, 2015 @ 10:33 pm

  37. Well done Andrea,
    giving voice to the excruciating feminist limbo between different positions, oppositions. Reading your pain is cathartic, and empowering against intolerance on all sides.

    People are not ok with different POVs, which is the problem. Conformity and condemnation afflict all sides, so anyone with a different POV is verbally stoned to death. We’re killing ourselves, not realizing it’s our different POVs that save us, reveal our wholeness.

    Something is wrong when honest women, on any side, feel beaten down, into silence, depression, defeat, despair. We live in pointless pain and unreal isolation. I have felt caught between colliding tectonic plates.

    You speak my mind —
    “I sometimes feel as though I am dangling from a bridge, holding on with one hand, but with my other hand, I am holding onto others that are depending on me.”

    “This pain is not yours, and I don’t need you to fix me, or correct me, or pity me.”

    “Hear me when I say ‘I am a feminist, I am a Relief Society sister, and I am a Mormon.’”

    Amen.

    Comment by Maxine H. — March 18, 2015 @ 12:18 am

  38. […] of Nauvoo (March 17, 1842). Andrea Radke-Moss (a professor of history at BYU-Idaho, my alma mater) has a great piece up today at the Juvenile Instructor blog with her “love letter to Mormon women.” It. Is. Awesome. From a discussion of current […]

    Pingback by The Cultural Hall (A Mormon Show in podcast form) – Mormon News Report, 18-March-2015 — March 18, 2015 @ 7:01 am

  39. I resonate with so much of what you have said here. You are not alone!

    Comment by Rachel — March 18, 2015 @ 11:47 am

  40. Thank you, thank you! Well done! I am right there with you: I am a feminist, I am a Relief Society sister, and I am a Mormon.
    I have one question about this statement: “I know that I am undermining the very foundations of the institution that many women love.” Do you perhaps mean that some people might perceive this, or are you saying it about yourself? I hope not the latter. I know you love and respect the Church. I do too. I’m not leaving. We are not undermining the Church by our discussion of feminism. The Church offers us a future brighter than is offered by anything else in this world. I am not afraid to ask, Does that future mean that I may someday be a creator or savior, have authority of my own, and could current culture please acknowledge that? What does God really think of my potential? Such discussion does not undermine but rather it strengthens the Church. It helps us stay the course.

    Comment by Beth — March 18, 2015 @ 12:00 pm

  41. LOVE. ***hugs***

    Comment by Luisa Perkins — March 18, 2015 @ 12:06 pm

  42. I certainly wasn’t expecting such a gift as this when I awoke today. A million thank-yous. Maybe now I can hang on just a little bit longer.

    Comment by hilary — March 18, 2015 @ 11:11 pm

  43. […] hilary: A Love Letter to […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Feminism and Religion From a Distance: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Heritage and History,” JMH 50th Roundtable — March 19, 2015 @ 6:04 pm

  44. Balm of Gilead. Thank you Andrea.

    Comment by Sherrie Crawford — March 20, 2015 @ 11:28 pm

  45. Thank you, Andrea. This beautifully articulates so many of my own thoughts.

    And I want your closing line on a T-shirt:

    “I am a feminist, I am a Relief Society sister, and I am a Mormon.”

    I’d be proud to wear it. Maybe it would invite conversations I’m afraid to initiate.

    Comment by paulathequeen — March 21, 2015 @ 12:07 pm

  46. My dear sister Andrea. Thank you. Oh, thank you. You have written the thoughts of my heart and expressed them with such eloquence. A hundred thousand thanks.

    Comment by J H Stanford — March 22, 2015 @ 8:58 pm

  47. Finally got time to read this. Thanks so much, Andrea.

    Comment by BHodges — April 9, 2015 @ 3:58 pm

  48. Fantastic post! I kept thinking, “Now this is the type of Mormon feminist that I wish could be more represented in the media and blogging community.” I’m a conservative LDS woman (I’m a part of Mormon Women Stand, LDS Women and FairMormon), to name a few) and I really love the faithful, moderate discussions I’m seeing within all of these groups. In these and in your post, I’m not left feeling like my soul and spirit has been destroyed as I do if I stumble upon posts by Feminist Mormon Housewives, BCC (at times) and Young Mormon Feminists, Ordain Women, etc. I think we can find more common ground together and have more thoughtful discussions. I’ve seen the more conservative groups trying to reach out to people like you with open arms, and I think there is good progress being made.

    I guess I’ve never looked for things (because once one starts to look for things wrong with their faith, they will find them magnified daily). And yet I’m so glad that you have expressed your feelings in such a lovely manner. I would love to sit down and chat with you any time, Andrea!

    It would be fantastic if you felt the need to branch out into the more conservative networks, and see how you can help those faithful more moderate feminists link arms with the conservative ones. You might be pleasantly surprised at how open and sincere we are in wanting to help with improvements. It’s not that we don’t like change and are all about the “status quo” like is so often parroted by Ordain Women and FMH. It’s not that at all, and we are misunderstood and mischaracterized severely in this regard. It’s simply that we don’t want to (and can’t) sacrifice the doctrine and undermine the Brethren in order to facilitate positive changes in culture and policy. I know for a fact that there are women in these conservative groups who have been trying and will keep trying to reach out to women like yourself 🙂

    Just hang in there. The gospel, in its simplicity asks us to have faith, keep praying, keep studying the Book of Mormon and the words from General Conference and watch and wait, and look for the goodness the Church has to offer 🙂

    Comment by Gina — April 14, 2015 @ 12:56 am


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