Nikki Hunter’s beautiful “Sunday Morning” quilt (“The Pants Quilt”) adorns the cover of the new Oxford Press Publication Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings edited by Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, and Hannah Wheelwright. The quilt is accompanied by this note: “On December 16, 2012, Mormon feminists around the world took action to raise the visibility of feminist issues by wearing pants to local LDS Church Services….Although not officially prohibited, pants-wearing by women at Sunday services jarred with deeply held gendered dress customs in many Mormon communities around the globe.” (xi) Women who participated sent their trousers to Hunter, who created a material sign of their community. The front cover encourages us to begin to think about Mormon feminism in terms of female identity, activism, and the place of community on a global scale.
I was in Leicester, England, in 2012 and though most women in my LDS ward wore skirts and dresses, there were usually some women wearing trousers to church on any given Sunday. (Always trousers—though there were lots of jokes that Sunday about hoping everyone was wearing pants [underwear] to church.) A friend who often wore trousers to church remarked to me that she wanted to make sure she wore a dress on that first “Wear Pants to Church” Sunday, she didn’t want her trousers to represent anything more than they ever did—they were not a statement.
I now reside in Rexburg, Idaho. A local friend of mine wore trousers to church that second “Pants” Sunday in 2013 (in the American turn of phrase). She posted a photo of herself in her trousers at church on her blog and wrote a post about her experience. She saw wearing trousers as a sign of making church a welcoming space for all. In contrast to my previous residence, Rexburg was most definitely a place with “deeply held gendered dress customs.” (xi) A reporter for the local Rexburg paper talked to my friend and then quoted liberally from her blog post as she became a local front-page new story—photograph and all—and then the subject of anxious letters to the editor for two weeks.
Thinking of the wide disparity of these experiences reminded me of the difficult nature of creating something that comprehensively reflects a wide-ranging movement or a feeling or a way of being. Since the nineteenth century, women’s rights activists have contended with representing the whole spectrum of women with feminist ideals. Feminism has consistently struggled not to be exclusively a movement of upper-middle-class white women. Mormon feminism at times reflects and at times refracts skirmishes within the larger Western culture. Though certainly not the only history to have this problem, the title Mormon Feminism reflects a presumed comprehensive work; the subtitle, Essential Writings, is an essential limit on its comprehensive claim. However unintentional, at the same time the subtitle imbues those that made the cut with hierarchical superiority. Timeline, inclusivity, and place all become important elements in the editorial work of Mormon Feminism.
Let’s start at the very beginning….
Which is a very good place to start (if you can decide where to put it). While LDS women of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were very concerned with the status of women and fighting for women’s rights, they would not call themselves feminists. The word feminism rose with progressive ideals of the 1910s. The beginning of Mormon Feminism is in alignment with the generally accepted second wave of feminism. The editors here chose the pink issue of Dialogue in 1971 (edited and written by women for the first time) and the founding of the magazine Exponent II as their beginning. However, despite this decision, the foundation of nineteenth-century feminist ideals is not lost. A significant aspect of Mormon feminism is a retrieval of the past through the present. Many of the writings establish contemporary feminism by recapturing that earlier history—both Restoration and biblical. The writings included here cover four and a half decades—1971 through 2014.
As the authors have discussed elsewhere, their most difficult task was choosing sources representative of the Mormon feminist movement as a whole (and making it short enough for Oxford to publish it). Regrettably, though logistically understandable, some essays have been excerpted. Surely, many arguments will be made as to just who and what are missing. No other editorial team would make the exact same decisions—perhaps these editors wouldn’t do exactly the same thing a second time. Whittling down an original thousand-page manuscript was no small feat. Their essential collection of documents provides academic source material for history, religious studies, and theology. However, the goals here never seem to be purely academic; this is also an intimate work of devotion, activism, and solidarity.
In her introduction, Joanna Brooks defines a Mormon feminist “as anyone who identifies both with the Mormon movement and with the centuries-old struggle for women’s equality, dignity, well-being, and full participation.” (2-3) She then turns to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich to also define the oft-considered oxymoronic label of Mormon feminism (as she crowns Ulrich a feminist foremother):
A feminist is a person who believes in equality between the sexes, who recognizes discrimination against women and who is willing to work to overcome it. A Mormon feminist believes that these principles are compatible not only with the gospel of Jesus Christ but with the mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (3)
She builds on these basic definitions with others: Claudia Bushman, Mary Stovall Richards and Kent Harrison, and more recently Neylan McBaine to argue for the compatibility of feminism with Mormonism. I think it is an argument that could be compelling for anyone—though some Mormons will struggle to rid themselves of the perceived political baggage of the word feminism. Regrettably, the title of this work alone is enough to turn away many who might benefit from a more nuanced understanding of the scope of Mormon feminism and how their lives have been benefitted by the work of feminists.
After establishing compatibility, Brooks then juxtaposes the harmony with different locations of contradiction and conflict between Mormonism and feminism. Though Terryl Givens has argued for the paradoxical nature of Mormonism in general, this tension seems even more ontologically central to much of the Mormon feminism presented here.
This is (almost) exclusively a collection of women’s voices. (Greg Prince’s questions to Chieko Okazaki are the exception, 231-237.) The editors’ work to include a variety of voices, perspectives, and relationships to the institutional church is clear. Some voices present new arguments, some turn the reader to collective history or scripture, some point out essential contradictions of one’s own lived experience, and others seem to be present because they were argued against. Importantly, this includes womanist perspectives from several women of color and some expansion to international voices. None of the voices is identified specifically as liberation theology—arguing from the perspective of the poor. Considering liberation theology originated in Latin America, this is a significant and fascinating absence in a church with a majority of Spanish speaking members.
The editors introduce and contextualize each essay. At times, the introduction is longer than the essay or the text itself. They also at times provide references for further reading. The wide spectrum of essays validates the lived experience and voices of women. It likewise offers the reader an opportunity to determine how they would define Mormon feminism or where on the broad continuum of Mormon feminisms they might locate themselves.
One of the most interesting elements of this collection is the location or the place of these expressions and their change over time. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Latter-day Saint women’s ideas about woman’s rights, identity, responsibilities, and theologies were often worked out and published in official church publications, such as The Woman’s Exponent. These late twentieth century efforts can initially be found in journals, magazines, and a few scholarly monographs. The re-birth of the Exponent—Exponent II—recreated an exclusive space for women’s voices. However, this time, it was without the imprimatur of the original. In the last section—“Resurgence: Mormon Feminism in the Early 2000s” we see the rise of the Bloggernacle and its effect on Mormon feminism documented. While there are still articles in traditional journals and magazines, the blogosphere creates a new location of feminist work—imminently accessible and focused on forming communities. Perhaps, it is has become the heart of Mormon feminism in the last decade. Moreover, the editors have also done some clever social media marketing as they encourage readers to post selfies of themselves reading their copies of the book with the hashtag #wearemofem. The act of reading the book itself becomes a signal of membership in the community of Mormon feminists.
As a historian who sometimes gets to work on women’s history, most of the published works were familiar to me; yet there is value in bringing them together in one location. They provide a foundation that should not be lost or forgotten and is not always easily accessible. My blogosphere reading is always somewhat limited so some of the essays were new to me. Some will feel reverence for the shared history, others will see the location of their own feminism sharpened, others might take advantage of the possibility to see their Sisters (and Sistas) in Zion more clearly. The tendency within Mormonism (as well as many conservative movements) to Otherize women advocating for change is countered by an opportunity for the reader to hear those voices and judge for oneself. As former General Relief Society Counselor Alieen Hales Clyde comments, this book offers the opportunity for “reflection, reference, and discussion.” (dust-jacket) Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings gives us an opportunity to come and see for ourselves. And then talk about it.