Continuing discussion of Women and the LDS Church: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives
Aug 24-25, 2012 Tanner Humanities Center, University of Utah and the LDS Church History Library
Organizers – Kate Holbrook and Matt Bowman
The perfect cap to my summer, which included more writing about Mormon women and their history than was usual for me, was attending both days of the “Women and the LDS Church Conference.” On a personal note, it gathered many scholars I either knew or wanted to know, including nearly a quorum of the JI permabloggers, and I was thirsty to be part of the conversation and soak up some Western sunshine. The conference featured incredibly high-quality presentations and honest but never rancorous audience participation, and a warm Salt Lake welcome both at the gorgeous City Library and in the sandstone brick building of the Fort Douglas Officers Club on the University of Utah campus. Like a pilgrim to Lourdes, I came away with a vial of sustaining water. I hope we will be talking and thinking about what happened at this conference for a very long time.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s keynote plenary has already been liveblogged and commented upon over at BCC. I would just reiterate that her characteristically meticulous–and often funny–talk was not only, as she put it, a “romp through the sources” she’s currently working on for her forthcoming book on women in nineteenth century Mormon households, but a primer on the level of scrutiny we should give to existing sources. She meditated on the claim that the people in the past have upon us (“us” in her words, “anyone with an interest in ending the invisibility of Mormon women”) to remember, preserve, and reconstruct their lives with tireless fidelity and compassion. She related a harrowing tale of how close we have come to not having even the few women’s papers we do have. As one example, Zina D. H. Young’s effects were handed haphazardly from person to person, stuffed into log cabin walls, and languished in a trunk, which speaks volumes about how women’s sources were too often scattered, uncollected, or neglected, and how there is a crying need for greater institutional funding and scholarly attention to the female aspects of our collective past. What was created by the women Laurel searches out (letters, diaries, legal affidavits, minute and autograph books, as well as objects like samples, quilts, and memorial wreaths) often speak with startling directness to their future readers, entreating us to remember them, and thus know ourselves better as latter-day Mormons.
Andrea wrote about the first two sessions of the Saturday conference, so I’ll pick up the story after lunch, with roundtables on popular perspectives and the international experiences of Mormon women.
The popular perspectives panel featured Claudia Bushman, Jane Hafen and Neylan McBaine, moderated by Jana Riess. Each of the presentations, in some way, touched on the power of storytelling to shape lives and on the wide-ranging possibilities inherent in being a Mormon woman. Claudia, blunt and cheeky as ever, reminded her listeners that Mormonism is full of choices. “If Mormonism is oppressive, that’s a choice we have made.” She related some of the themes she’s seeing in the Claremont oral history project collecting women’s stories that have turned out to be “full of this kind of expansive talk” and marked by “doctrinal freethinking” among committed church members.
Jane Hafen, member of the Taos nation and professor at UNLV, related her own deeply personal story about growing up with the church. Her Mormonism initially provided stability and a life pattern, but a series of events undermined that sense of safety in small incremental steps, including the excommunication of Elder George P. Lee and the coming out of a family member as gay. She spoke eloquently of learning to love and persist with the church’s core values in situations of genuine turmoil. Her conclusions: “my voice is my own regardless of church power,” and “I know the power of silence,” especially when church members pass unwarranted judgment upon her. In the end, she considers hers a hopeful story, one of nourishment and centering and expansive love; it was beautifully written and powerfully delivered.
Neylan McBaine (who is having a sort of “Neylan Moment”) likened the female experience in the contemporary church to being given a blank page. Rather than express bewilderment and frustration with not having the same kind of “instruction manual” that men do, women can choose to fill that page with good things of their own choosing. Through grassroots efforts, church members need not wait for new programs or policy changes to achieve greater gender equality across the church. “Nondelineation” opens a space for creative, purposeful lives, which she sees in abundance in the women she’s interviewed.
Audience comments seconded the notion that gender stereotyping damages spiritual progress but questioned the boundary McBaine had drawn between unassailable doctrine and malleable policy. Laurel pointed out that she had grown up in a church where a priesthood ban was doctrine that turned out to be policy, to which Claudia quipped, “I say we define doctrines we do not approve of as policies and act accordingly.”
By the last session of the day, on women outside the United States, the audience had thinned a little but the energy remained high. Carine Decoo, a social scientist who divides her time between Belgium and Utah, presented results of a small survey of active LDS women in a several European countries. Her findings showed that her respondents reflect their country’s gender norms & lifestyle choices; they are more “Mormon Europeans” than “European Mormons” and their priority is survival as a minority faith with dispersed congregations. Notably, Latter-day Saints who live in nations with socialized family leave policies feel they are highly compatible with Mormon values regarding the family as an important social unit and with the social and emotional investment that good parenting requires. In that regard, culture reinforces faith.
The opposite was true for Matt Heiss, a Church employee specializing in international growth, who drew on his experiences in West Africa, particularly Ghana, to argue that the church brings revolutionary ideas that make “the meaningful exercise of agency possible” for female converts through literacy, sisterhood, an open invitation to all, and respectful gender relations. His was a helpful reminder that LDS views of marriage which sometimes look “traditional” or “old-fashioned” in the United States are new and transformative in cultures that have traditionally devalued women’s education and personhood. Domestic violence, dowry systems that amount to little more than the sanctioned sale of women, marital abandonment, and lack of access to basic services are the tragic norm for too many women around the world, and the church’s teachings strongly counter these by giving women dignity and options.
His statements were forcefully confirmed by the personal account of Miriama Kallon, a convert from Sierra Leone who radiated joy and gratitude for the church for lifting her from a war-torn country and a life with radically constrained choices (enduring sexual molestation in order to get an education, for example) to a place of self-esteem and empowerment. Mormonism offers her and her fellow West African converts a religious life that lets her speak directly to God, have a unique set of responsibilities and an expectation of being treated equally in a marriage, and a feeling that she now has options in her life.
For me, one of the conference’s most moving moments was during the comments portion of the last session, when someone asked about Kallon’s experiences with war – which seems very distant and abstract for most Americans. She pulled out a Ziploc bag from under the table and explained it was a Humanitarian Services hygiene kit she had been given in 1997. When the house she was living in caught fire, she escaped with two things: her scriptures and that bag. She ended up in a river with other burned-out refugees. While waiting for long-delayed assistance, she blessed 25 women for three weeks with the contents of the kit. For me, it was a marvelous metaphor for how women (and particularly historians of women’s experiences) stitch, construct and cobble together lives of meaning and beauty from the fragments of a broken world. Many people can be helped from whatever bits of the past we can manage to salvage from the scorching of time, decay and indifference.
Overall, the conference was what I hope will be the first of many successes to come from the keen mind of Kate Holbrook, the Church History Library’s new Specialist in Women’s History and kudos to her and to conference co-organizer Matt Bowman for putting together such a strong lineup of presenters and a wide array of academic sponsors.
What were my takeaways from this conference?
–Both the need and a clear sense of momentum for writing careful women’s histories AND for saving the stories of today’s Latter-day Saint women to ensure they are responsibly archived (including emerging born-digital texts) and accessible to scholars.
–It is both theoretically and emotionally profitable to reinterpret Mormon women’s lives not as “lesser and lacking,” measured solely by what they do not have (priesthood, institutional authority, etc) but rather as enriched by possibility; that Mormon women have, and can continue to, use their agency (which always exists, albeit shaped by specific and very real historical and doctrinal circumstances) to craft meaningful paths, build the kingdom, shape theology, and profoundly impact the form and substance of the church. Women’s efforts along these lines need, likewise, to be redefined not as “dangerous dissent” but as “faithful participation.”
–Diversity of all kinds (global, gender, cultural, political, intellectual, economic) is the church’s strength, not its weakness. Mary Bednarowski said it well: “gender is not a problem to be solved but an unfolding mystery of human experience.”
–Finally, a rekindled hope that we are now at a point in time where we (as a church, and as a scholarly community) can have substantive and honest discussions about women in the LDS church from multiple perspectives. I saw it happen this weekend. There was a palpable feeling of cooperation in the room, an openness, maybe even some of the awe you feel when you see something hatching before your eyes. It was a remarkable thing.