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. You 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.