“A Pink Life Raft in a Blue Ocean”: Feminist Studies of Mormonism– An Interview with Maxine Hanks, Part I

By April 5, 2013

This is Part One of my interview with Maxine Hanks,Maxine-Hanks who edited and published her well-known feminist anthology, Women and Authority: Re-Emerging Mormon Feminism, with Signature Books in 1992 here. Maxine was one of the “September Six” scholars who were excommunicated from the Church in 1993. She has spent the last couple of decades at various stages of spiritual exploration and discovery, as described here.  In February 2012, Maxine was rebaptized into the LDS Church, and has since been on the lecture, interview– and now blogging– circuit, sharing thoughts about her path away from institutional Mormonism and back again.  We have invited Maxine here to discuss her continuing work in feminist scholarship, Mormon women’s history and contemporary issues for women in the Church.   While Maxine’s and her fellow authors’ work continues to provoke debate, discussion, and even disagreement, there is no question that Women and Authority opened the way for greater application of feminist theory and feminist theology to the study and discussion of the Mormon past.  It also made less-well-known and even taboo subjects more readily available for public consumption; and largely due to Women and Authority, topics that might have been shocking in 1992 are now commonplace conversation in classrooms and graduate seminars, social media discussion threads, blogs, podcasts, and perhaps even a Sunday School or Relief Society discussion here and there.  Indeed, few scholars of Mormon women’s history, theology or sociology today can say that they have not, in some way, been challenged by Maxine’s ideas about feminism, priesthood, feminine deity, women’s associations, and cultural life in missionary work, marriage and motherhood. It is with great pleasure that we give a warm J.I. welcome to Maxine Hanks.

AR-M:  What brought you to Mormon Studies? What drew you and where did you start? Who was influential for you?
MH: At Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho), my mentor Ruth Barrus hired me as RA for her magnum opus, “The Music Heritage of the Upper Snake River Valley? here.  We researched the history of music in every major community from St. Anthony to Pocatello, collecting primary documents, photos, histories and interviews from the 1860s through 1970s. We presented a slideshow history to each town about their heritage.
I also found Mormon feminism, via Exponent II on library shelves, introducing me to Laurel, Claudia, and Judy, feminist subversives, who led me to Mormon Sisters here.  I met Carol Lynn Pearson, who signed my Daughters of Light. And, I co-chaired Women’s Week, a nascent feminism where I first heard public discussion about Mother in Heaven.
I landed at BYU in 1980 as tensions in “the new Mormon history” manifested, the Church Historian’s Office closed and Leonard Arrington returned to BYU. In 1981, Elder Packer valued faith over scholarship in “The Mantle is Far Far Greater Than the Intellect” here,  and Mike Quinn responded, defending scholarship here.  We stayed up all night at Seventh East Press debating our headline, “Historian Responds to Apostle” here, and Newsweek picked it up, putting Mike and Elder Packer in the national media.

AR-M: Did this tension inform your approach to studying Mormonism?

MH: Yes, scholarly tests of faith were testing Mormon studies in the 1980s-90s. I began meeting and reading Mormon historians like Dean Jesse, James Allen, Mike Quinn, Ron Esplin, Tom Alexander, and especially women’s historians Maureen Beecher, Jill M. Derr, and Carol Cornwall Madsen, who were gracious, encouraging. I read Women’s Voices.

I met Linda Newell and Val Avery, read Mormon Enigma on a trip to Nauvoo. I read BYU Studies and Dialogue, began attending MHA and Sunstone, met Peggy Fletcher and Susan Staker. Mormon studies was a “brave new world” and feminist work blew me away. That’s where my interest focused.

I was on my own, coming from a working-class, anti-academic, anti-feminist background.  I used employment and experience, along with education for training.  Linda Hunter Adams mentored me in scholarly editing and publications. I studied media and edited manuscripts for BYU professors.  I studied rhetorical analysis and textual interpretation with Arthur Henry King while working as his RA and TA.  I edited for Philosophy Dept. learning from Dennis Packard and Jim Faulconer, Dave Paulsen, Camille Williams. I learned from Tom Rogers who put me in his plays, and LaMond Tullis whose history of Mormons in Mexico I edited. Avraham Gileadi taught me Kabbalah while I edited his Isaiah material.  Actually Mormon studies was my default; I preferred ancient history with Hugh Nibley and gnostic texts, but I couldn’t fund classics studies. Mormon studies were cheap, they were all around me.

My passion was women’s studies, but they were seen as marginal, soft scholarship, ghetto.  I felt I had to prove myself on masculine topics first.  I studied philosophy, then Mormon history with Dean May, a kind mentor. I dived into research at LDS Archives, as a regular fixture from 1986-96, researching the Mormon Trail, Ephraim Hanks, Danites, the 1857 War, and sundry topics for other historians and archeologists who hired me to avoid the rules.  I assisted Mike Quinn, Allen Roberts, and George Smith with research for their books, which gave me invaluable mentoring. Allen and I worked on archaeological digs, historic architecture, and Sanpete County, co-authoring papers and books. At archives my mentors were Bill Slaughter, Randy Dixon, Ron Watt, Ron Barney, Steve Sorenson, all valued friends.  I also craved historic sites, crawling inside Liberty Jail, sitting on the Temple Lot visualizing new Jerusalem, sampling vineyards at Nauvoo, tracing the Mormon Trail and Pony Express routes.

AR-M:  What compelled you to study Mormon women?  And who were the scholars in women?s history and feminist theory that influenced you? 

MH:  I was a frusrated feminist drowning in male discourse. That’s how I found my niche.  I took women’s studies in 1989 with feminist professors Steph Pace, K. Stockton, Deb Burrington, Mel Cherry, and Vella Evans. Women’s perspectives in dominant discourses were muted, invisible, we lacked tools and language. Gender studies gave me both, which gave me an approach to Mormonism.  It was a pink life raft in a blue ocean.  I studied feminist history, feminist theory, feminist research methods and social science.  I majored in women’s studies while working as an editor at the U.U., and researching Mormon history which veered into women’s history, feminism, and theology. As TA for Dr. Evans’ courses, we co-taught “Women in Mormon Culture” from 1989-98.  I also worked with K. MacKay on Utah women’s history.

I read feminists…Wollstonecraft to Woolf, Gilman to Friedan, Lorde to Steinhem, who I met twice. I read theorists and historians Sandra Harding, Gerda Learner, Sara Evans, Joan Scott, M. Hirsch, E. Keller, J. Donovan, R. Tong, M. Belenky, C. Gilligan. I read French feminists Cixous and Irigaray and post-modernists, deconstructionists Foucault, Derrida, Lacan. I read women of color and womanists–hooks, Walker, Moraga, and Gloria Anzaldua who I met. Yet my home was with religion scholars, Mary Daly, Elaine Pagels, R.R. Reuther, E.S. Fiorenza, Carol Christ, J. Plaskow, R. Eisler, J. S. Bolen, Neumann, Campbell.

AR-M: What led you to compile Women and Authority

MH:  In Vella?s course we used Mormon Sisters, and Sisters in Spirit, plus Warenski’s Patriarchs and Politics.  I chafed at Warenski’s claims that Mormon women weren?t feminists but “puppets.? I knew Mormons were real feminists, in their own right, “in their own behalf.”  I began gathering proof that Mormon women were feminists for a book on the topic we could use in class.

It was time.  I saw the signs of Mormon feminist arrival and the need to finally own it and validate it.  Groundbreaking scholarship on Mormon women had been appearing in the 1980s, which needed to be available to a wider Mormon audience, and a new wave of feminism arose.

However, women’s studies itself was recent on university campuses, so women’s studies of Mormonism were nearly unknown.  We had Mormon women’s history, sociology, and literature, but few women’s studies, feminist theory, or feminist theology. Even the word “feminism” was taboo in Mormon culture (post-Sonia 1979), so using it to analyze Mormon women was unthinkable. Yet I had no choice, if I was going to disprove Warenski.

AR-M:  What was your process of choosing and collaborating with other feminists and scholars?

MH: I read women’s publications?Relief Society Minutes, Woman’s Exponent, Relief Society Magazine, Exponent II, Sunstone, Dialogue, MERA, MWFQ. I interviewed feminist groups, past and present.  I excerpted Mormon feminist writings from each time period (19th-century first wave feminism, 20th-century second wave feminism, and 1990s third wave feminism) revealing that Mormon feminism was typical within those waves.  I selected or commissioned scholarly articles that explored feminism, discourse, theology, organization, priesthood, and blessings. I surveyed women and men about Mother God, receiving myriad responses.

I was amazed by the number of feminist voices and texts in Mormon history, culture, and publications. I had enough material for three books demonstrating Mormon feminism?s own tradition of spirituality and authority located within LDS history and theology.

AR-M: What were your goals in publishing Women and Authority?  Was it primarily historical, or did you hope to influence change in the Church?

MH: My intent was using a scholarly lens and framework for evaluating Mormon feminism and theology. Female identity and roles in Mormonism are complex, yet Church discourse oversimplified them, and scholarly work specialized them. Studying Mormon women requires multiple approaches–history, sociology, literary and discourse theory, feminist theory, and theology, religious studies. Women studies is interdisciplinary, so it allowed me that. I knew Mormon feminism was relevant within other fields. Studies of Mormon women were legitimate for their own sake, not a ghetto topic.

The Preface and Introduction briefly outlined approach and methods. Historical approach was the grounding, foundation. Discursive approaches valued voices, texts, identity, and the larger discourse that emerges from them, women’s own tradition. Theoretical approaches helped articulate or name Mormon feminism and feminist theology, emerging from our own voices, experience, texts, and discourse. I identified Mormonism’s own feminism and feminist theory, describing types, examples, waves and backlashes. I identified Mormonism’s own feminist theology, describing types and examples emerging within our unique religion. It was just a start, there was so much more.

I was reading Mormon women’s history in new ways, between the lines, reevaluating women’s and men’s words, seeing signs of women’s agency, authority, self-definition, self-direction, resistance and empowerment, and noticing men’s responses as signifiers of these things.

AR-M:  What parts of the book did you anticipate would be the most controversial at the time?

MH: 1) Eliza R. Snow’s commentary on “The Relief Society was designed to be a self-governing organization.” 2) My survey of “Emerging Discourse on the Divine Feminine” or personal visions of the Mother God.  3) Mike’s article on women’s priesthood via the temple.

AR-M:  Are there any portions of the book that you would edit or write differently if you had to go back?

MH: Yes, I?d finish my Introduction and Sister Missionary article (first drafts went to press). I?d include excerpts and articles I had to cut?the R.S. publications, chapters on R.S., suffrage, priesthood, theory and feminism, and more visions of Mother God.

AR-M:  What else would you do differently? Would you approach the topic or project differently today? 

MH: My approach and the material were solid, the research and texts were compelling. The book came together with a life of its own. Even the R.S. Presidency used the book. Looking back, I?d tone down some of the confrontational language.

However, my approach with the Church was flawed. For example, Women and Authority and Women of Covenant came out the same year, containing some of the same information. Yet the Church reviewed and approved WC, while it didn’t even know WA was coming. So leaders interpreted WA as oppositional, when in reality it was supportive. My approach defeated the texts themselves.

[AR-M:  For a fair and relevant side-by-side comparative review of Women of Covenant and Women and Authority, see Mary Stovall Richards’s review here.]

AR-M:  Can you elaborate on that tension?  What went wrong? What went right?   

MH: I saw WA as a textbook, not dissent. It was intended for women, students, scholars, the public. I failed to recognize male Church leaders as my audience and the effect of my book on them. I should have let them know about it, cooperate rather than compete, collaborate rather than confront. I was working ahead of the church, out of sync, the church leadership wasn?t prepared for the material.

AR-M:  What did you learn from this?

MH: Know your audience. This matured my approach, sensitized me. Public discourse is a two-way conversation, not simply about my need to publish or share information. It’s about my relationship with audience, the quality of our dialogue. Don’t shock your audience, have sensitivity.

AR-M:  Coming Soon:  “‘There and Back Again’:  Feminist Studies Post-Purge”–Interview with Maxine Hanks, Part II. . . . .


Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Gender Historiography Miscellaneous Reflective Posts Women's History


  1. This is terrific, thanks to Maxine and Andrea for both being gracious about sharing backstory, growth of consciousness, and scholarly approaches here. We are fortunate to have this interview and Maxine’s perspective; looking forward to Part II (this ends on rather a cliffhanger!)

    Comment by Tona H — April 5, 2013 @ 11:22 am

  2. I absolutely loved this, as it is not only Maxine “coming of age” story, but a lens to view the evolution of the field and culture.

    I’m on the edge of my seat for Part Two!

    Comment by Ben P — April 5, 2013 @ 12:40 pm

  3. Maxine, I always love hearing about the experiences of the historians and scholars who came before me. How do you think Mormon women’s history has changed since you originally became interested in the topic? Do you think Mormon history as a whole is more interested in women’s history? I ask partially because there seems to have been a lull in critical feminist work focused on Mormonism after the early 1990s and that such work is only now bubbling up again. that perspective, however, is limited by my own youth and lack of historical perspective on the issue.

    Comment by Amanda HK — April 5, 2013 @ 1:25 pm

  4. Fascinating! Women and Authority is part of my personal canon. Love hearing the back story. Thank you, Maxine and Andrea.

    Comment by Rechabite — April 5, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

  5. Thanks also for the link to the Richards review. Devouring that now.

    Comment by Rechabite — April 5, 2013 @ 1:27 pm

  6. Love this. Can’t wait for part 2. Thanks to A-RM and MH for their time and effort.

    Comment by J Stuart — April 5, 2013 @ 1:33 pm

  7. Amanda: You’ve raised some fascinating questions that we hope to address in Part II. I’ll let Maxine answer you more specifically, but I see a similar chasm between the foundations that were laid in the early 1990s and where the field is today. Perhaps it was the excommunications that kind of “halted” feminist scholarship for a while, especially among the believing scholars– as a sound warning against those who might have pushed the discussion even further. When you’re dealing with the deconstructions of patriarchy, which scholars are going to do it? Those “outsiders” like yourself (sorry), who have little invested in the ramifications? Or those of us insiders (sorry) who have to maintain a tricky balance between critique and faith?

    Comment by andrearm — April 5, 2013 @ 2:21 pm

  8. Yes Amanda, and Andrea, incisive points. I touch these questions in part 2 (could spend pages on both parts 1 and 2 ;-), but the simple version is yes, the “purge” discouraged work, changed lives, and lost a generation of scholars, leaving a gap of knowledge, mentoring and progress. Feminist work has been slowly recovering. I blame myself…I damaged feminist relations with the church in 1993, because I wasn’t collaborative or cooperative, while other feminists were (Jill, Maureen, Claudia, Laurel). I was in a bubble, disconnected from the church, which resulted in endless fallout for too many people. I learned the hard way, and have a great deal of healing to help foster now.

    Comment by Maxine Hanks — April 5, 2013 @ 2:38 pm

  9. I really enjoyed reading this interview. I especially like how I can’t ascertain an inch of bitterness over the misunderstanding that occurred after the publication of WA. There appears to be none. What a gracious tone Ms.Hanks takes regarding the past situation.

    I have a question regarding the word “ghetto” in the interview. Am I understanding this right that she is using the word in the casual sense that you often here others use or this a term of art for something that I am not aware?

    And good interview questions also. It takes me back to your Women’s History Course at BYU-Idaho.

    Thanks again. This was my first time on the Juvenile Instructor. I look forward to reading more on this site.

    Comment by Skinny Kinny — April 5, 2013 @ 3:04 pm

  10. Maxine’s definitely a treasure!

    Comment by Gary Bergera — April 5, 2013 @ 4:54 pm

  11. Andrea, I assumed that the excommunications had influenced Mormon feminism but didn’t include it in my original comment because I wanted to tread lightly around the topic. I wasn’t sure how touchy of a subject it was for Maxine and whether or not she was comfortable talking about the effects of the purge on Mormon feminism in this setting.

    I’m torn on the last question that you ask. On the one hand, I think that the insider/outsider question you ask points to a useful distinction between Mormons and non-Mormons in terms of scholarship. No matter how much a non-Mormon cares about the Mormon community they can’t be excommunicated and don’t have to worry about being excluded from their church. On the other hand, I’m not sure that it’s a distinction that can hold any water. I object to the idea that I have little invested in what happens. I grew up in Idaho. I have immediate family members – my father, step-mother, and sister are all Mormon. My grandmother and cousins are Mormon. Whatever happens in the Mormon Church affects me. I don’t consider myself a Gentile. I have too many Mormon ancestors and family members for that. I would prefer to be considered an apostate or jack Mormon. Most of the people who I know who aren’t Mormon who follow Mormon blogs or engage in Mormon women’s history are in similar positions. Our investments aren’t the same, but they aren’t nonexistent or minimal.

    Comment by Amanda — April 5, 2013 @ 5:26 pm

  12. Great interview. Thank you.

    Comment by Chris — April 6, 2013 @ 12:31 am

  13. No worries Amanda, ask any question you wish. There’s so much to be understood and healed regarding the “purge” – inquiry for the sake of understanding is always good. And it’s true that semi-Mormons are invested in and affected by work and relationships with the church and members. We don’t talk about that enough.

    Skinny, thank you, I was bitter for a year or two but that faded when I followed my bliss into ministry. I used ?ghetto? as code for feminist complaints of “ghettoization” or isolation of women’s/feminist scholarship. I rarely use the term, prefer others, since ghetto is specific to unique circumstances or suffering of specific minorities. The women?s history course I co-lectured was at the U.U.

    Comment by Maxine Hanks — April 6, 2013 @ 1:14 am

  14. Very interesting interview so far. Having known Maxine since about 1987, I know all too intimately her story since then, so it was great to learn more about her background from before then. As the Quakers say, out of simplicity, Friend Bergera speaketh my mind.

    Amanda – I believe the proper feminist term is Jill Mormon, not Jack Mormon! 😉

    Comment by Connell O'Donovan — April 6, 2013 @ 11:52 am

  15. Thanks for your responses. My quib about the Women’s History course was aimed at Professor Radke-Moss. Sorry for the confusion.

    Comment by Skinny Kinny — April 6, 2013 @ 2:55 pm

  16. Thanks for this Maxine — it is always enlightening to listen to you. I am glad you are my friend.

    Comment by Blake — April 6, 2013 @ 6:24 pm

  17. Whoa! So many names who also guided my feminist path. So many times our paths “almost” crossed. Vella Evans gave me a copy of WA at the close of the RS sesquicentennial exhibit, of which I was the curator. It changed my life! Thank you! I still wish our lives might cross IRL instead of always, just “almost”.

    Comment by Marjorie Conder — April 7, 2013 @ 9:40 am

  18. This is wonderful. Thanks, Maxine, for participating and Andrea, for interviewing.

    Comment by Christopher — April 7, 2013 @ 6:08 pm

  19. Thanks, Andrea and Maxine.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — April 7, 2013 @ 6:33 pm

  20. Marjorie, I remember your name, so nice to reconnect 20 yrs. later. I saw Vella last summer. Let’s do lunch and compare stories about the R.S. exhibit. 😉 uwimATjunoDOTcom

    Connell, thank you elf-friend. It’s as if no time has passed since you left SLC 1994-2012. So good to have you back in Zion.

    Blake, a godman, as always, enlightening my life.

    I feel a little awkward, all this praise, I was expecting theoretical, theological, and historical arm-wrestling over feminist studies of Mormonism…I realize I missed all the WA critiques when I was gnostic, but where are J. and Kaimi ? 😉

    Comment by Maxine Hanks — April 8, 2013 @ 8:33 pm

  21. What a fantastic interview. Who is this Maxine person? I should read her book some time. 🙂

    W&A is such a vital piece of the Mormon feminist canon. There is really nothing like it, even 20 years later. Maxine knows, I tell her all the time, that this is a terrible shame. Really, we should be on the fifth revision and seventeenth printing by now. Where is this information, if not in W&A? (Um, nowhere.) And what are the Mormon feminist texts that have sprung up in the two decades since?

    I sometimes hear critics say that W&A is “uneven” or the like. And I always point out, _where is the rest of the Mormon feminist canon_? I don’t think that W&A should be seen as a comprehensive treatise on Mormon feminism. It was an opening statement in a conversation which was immediately and unfortunately shut down by the institutional church. And we need to pick up and continue that conversation.

    Comment by Kaimi — April 10, 2013 @ 12:09 am

  22. Kaimi, you’ve been such an energetic consumer of the book’s information and relevance, thank you. Many people (students, professors, readers, nonmembers) share your feelings about wanting a reprint, in addition to the on-line version.

    Yes, exactly, I saw it as catalyzing the conversation, not definitive or complete by any means, but as a continuation of _Mormon Sisters_ and _Sisters in Spirit_. Unfortunately, it set us back, instead.

    I’d like to know more about the “uneven” critique–is that about different types of material (excerpts, personal voices, scholars, articles, essays)? Or does that speak to my approach? or the quality of scholarship? That’s useful feedback.

    Comment by M.Hanks — April 11, 2013 @ 4:21 pm

  23. I don’t have this cloud of Fems and MoFems around me as others do. There are only two MoFems in me directing my spirit. Maxine is one and the other is Daughters of Light. Well, there is another. Max does not mention the connection she has with my wife’s family. She did us good, sub rosa. I love her even more for that.

    Comment by Robert Rey Black — April 16, 2013 @ 8:39 pm


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