Forging the Thunderbolts: A Report of the ?Women and the LDS Church: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives Conference,? August 24-25, 2012.

By August 27, 2012

Overheard at this weekend’s conference:  ?This could be Mormon women?s Seneca Falls.?

This conference seemed to be riding a wave of attention to Mormon women?s history and contemporary issues, only partly born out of the current media attention to the Church, but mostly due to the public voices of  online Mormon women?s groups, and increasing attention to Mormon women?s history (see my own summary of MHA?s recent women?s history offerings here.)  Most significantly, Neylan McBaine recently presented a talk for F.A.I.R., in which she called for a middle ground of expanding women’s participatory roles in the church, by stretching some of the cultural aspects of gendered separation still present in LDS culture, but without the more radical demands of priesthood ordination.   (See her ground-breaking talk here).  Peggy Fletcher Stack has followed up McBaine?s middle-ground approach by asking for reasonable ideas for broadening women?s inclusion in church practice and governance here.  This conference built upon these ideas by saying, look, Mormon women have experienced past and present gendered challenges and discrimination– which all need to be validated?but are still committed to their faith, and want to explore ways to expand their agency, through conversation, leadership, creativity, and revelation.  This middle-ground approach is attempting to reclaim  discussions of Mormon women’s agency from those who want it to mean exclusively female priesthood ordination.  Joanna Brooks admitted here that “ordination is important for some of us Mormon feminists, and that for some of us questions of decision-making and institutional participation and visibility take priority. I find myself more in the latter camp.”  Saturday’s conference was a resounding answer for those who also seek to work within the framework for greater gendered inclusion, myself among them.

This conference included some of the best and brightest of LDS women intellectuals, including Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Claudia Bushman, Jana Riess, Neylan McBaine, historians Quincy Newell, Susanna Morrill, and Kate Holbrook (who also co-directed the event with Matt Bowman), Catholic religious studies scholar Mary Farrell Bednarowski, English professor Jane Hafen, and popular clinical psychotherapist and author, Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, among others.

The theme of the conference was LDS women?s agency, and especially the notion, as introduced by Catherine Brekus at MHA in 2010 and published in the Journal of Mormon History in Spring 2011, that agency should not be measured by how much women overthrow an institution or a system that supposedly oppresses them.  Rather, agency covers a spectrum of choices that might challenge patriarchy, uphold patriarchy, redefine patriarchy, or to stretch its limits in other ways (my summary).

The first session looked at historical examples of women?s agency.  Susanna Morrill led off with a discussion of Mormon women?s (and one man?s!) relationship to Heavenly Mother, through poetic, musical, and other literary expressions of the characteristics of divine female parenthood.  This topic seemed to get the most audience discussion, especially in regard to how Mormon women might build upon historical explorations of Heavenly Mother to reclaim her in current faith and personal worship.  Kate Holbrook then presented a wonderful backstory on the founding of the Primary, showing that Aurelia Spencer Rogers exercised her creativity and revelatory acuity in coming up with the idea for the primary.  Perhaps most surprising to attendees was how Rogers, a relative “nobody,” proactively sought the listening ear of the general Relief Society presidency to implement a children?s organization. Through them, the idea reached the desk and approval of the First Presidency, after which Eliza R. Snow gave the suggestion to Sister Rogers?s own bishop to call Rogers as the head of the first primary in Farmington.  Sister Rogers?s process of questioning, seeking, and receiving answers is very familiar to Mormon women today, but the notion of a female leader counseling a local priesthood leader might sound a little less familiar.  Quincy Newell offered a more troubling portrayal of one woman?s attempt to navigate the choices available to her in the 19th-century Church.  Conversion to the Church provided African-American convert Jane Manning James much empowerment, through the exercising of spiritual gifts and her participation in Retrenchment and Relief Society. Indeed, these organizations gave Jane ?a way to define her feminine normative behavior that (Mormon) black men didn?t have.?  And yet, when Jane issued numerous petitions to attend the temple and receive her endowments, these were always rejected, undeniably due to the racist attitudes of early church leaders.  Still, Jane remained faithful.  Audience discussion addressed whether a woman can truly exercise agency when the institution that she is supporting is also oppressing her because of both gender and race.

Session Two presented various analytical approaches to women?s agency in the contemporary church.  David Campbell presented some statistics taken from a recent survey of 500 “active” Mormon men and women.  For one, Campbell and his colleagues found no significant difference between men and women in their level of religiosity and devotion to the LDS Church, as well as a very small difference in both group’s support for an all-male priesthood.  And so, Campbell concluded, from a “sociological perspective, patriarchy works, because it keeps men tied to the religion.”  Some feminist bloggers have already jumped all over this as a kind of apologia for unquestioned patriarchy, but Campbell presented other findings indicating more complexity in Mormon women’s reactions to the their religious experiences.  These included women’s much greater preference for personal revelation over obedience to authority, and female emphasis on “helping others” as a mark of faithfulness over men’s emphasis on “sinlessness.”

Mary Farrell Bednarowski presented a compelling comparison between Catholic and Mormon women’s responses to patriarchy, which was a particular audience favorite.  Noting that both groups of women are working within forms of male control, she found a few common areas where women are “creatively responsible moral agent[s],” from Mormon women’s believe in a Heavenly Mother, and Catholic feminists’  attempts to reclaim the “Blessed Virgin” as more than just an obedient and passive figure.  She offered ten areas of shared gendered negotiations for Mormon and Catholic women, including  recognizing our doctrines as “repositories of [both] tradition and innovation,” quoting Jewish scholar Raquel Adler’s descriptions of how some women experience their own patriarchal religion: ?it doesn?t have to be infallible to be infinitely dear, only inexhaustible.?  And finally, Jennifer Finlayson-Fife used her experiences as a psychotherapist with a clientele of 80% Mormon women and/or couples, to examine Mormon women’s sexual agency and sense of contentment in marital intimacy.   In other words, she argued, many Mormon women enter dating and marriage confused by the expectation to both pure and virtuous, while also sexually alluring.   Mormon women have experienced much of the shame and guilt of trying to reconcile these contradictory pressures, but many have also found empowerment in marriage by owning their expressions of sexuality, while also appreciating that the Church’s “Law of Chastity” is technically binding for both women and men, and how it acts as a “communal domestication of male sexuality.”   The recent popularity of Fifty Shades of Gray (“You can pick it up next to the bananas,” she quipped.)  might also find some mileage among LDS readership for its “benign female eroticism.”  Still, Finlayson-Fife summarized some warnings about cultural expectations for women in the Church:  “Men need to stop telling women how to be desirable.”

What was absent?  There was no Manifesto or Declaration, but that wasn’t really the purpose.  Certainly some in attendance  expected more ?radical? demands for priesthood ordination for women or complete overhaul of the system, and except for a few vocal audience members, the conference really didn’t take that tone.  Still, there was a kind of unwritten, unspoken manifesto that threaded the presentations together– how women are negotiating their agency within a patriarchal organization, and continuing to find new (and old) ways of doing so.

In spite of the conspicuous sponsorship by the CHL, various absences were particularly striking and a bit maddening?no current general RS leadership or YW leadership attended, and except for Elder Nash?s attendance at Laurel Thatcher Ulrich?s Friday night lecture, no high male leadership of the Church made an appearance.  There was no visible Mormon Frederick Douglass, there to push the limits of the conversation on behalf of women.  Even the Church?s own media outlet, Deseret News, offered an almost defiantly misrepresentative post-conference coverage here, including this disappointing sidebar summary: ?The subject of the conference was “Women and the LDS Church.” But the big news coming out of the conference had to do with LDS men.?   Really?  REALLY??

On my drive home after the conference, I happened upon the “Showtunes” radio station.   It was playing the famous song from Oklahoma:

?Everything?s up to date in Kansas City!  They?ve gone about as ?fer as they can go.  They went an’ built a skyscraper seven stories high.  About as high as a buildin’ orta grow.”   I couldn’t help but think of the comparison, and all those who might respond by saying “we’ve gone about as ‘fer as we can go.”

Still, the importance of what was accomplished this weekend cannot be underestimated.  A gathering like this, partially sponsored by the LDS Church, and including many women along a spectrum of LDS belief and practice, as well as non-LDS, feminist scholars, male presenters, and international voices, might not have been possible even five or ten years ago.  The tone and the spirit of the conference was both challenging and respectful, critical and faithful, and always dignified– a true model for how all discussions about gender in the church should take place.  My hope is that we can continue to build on these conversations to recognize LDS women’s agency within the Church that they love, but also expand their  involvement in ways that are hopeful and validating for everyone.  As Jennifer Finlayson-Fife declared:  “Women’s creativity, intelligence . . . are not being used like [they were] in the 19th century to become a community of saints.  We have a precedent for this.”

I invite readers of this post, as well as Tona’s reflections on the second half of the conference, to present respectful reflections of their conference experience, observations about what was said, and probing questions to further discussion.



Article filed under Miscellaneous Women's History


  1. […] 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. […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Women and the LDS Church Conference report, Part II — August 27, 2012 @ 11:55 am

  2. I want to clarify that Jennifer Finlayson-Fife’s quip was very much unintentional, which made it all the more funny as it dawned on her what she had referenced, then as she struggled for a moment to keep her tone academic, but then just relaxed and laughed and laughed with the audience. It didn’t take away from her professionalism in the least, imo.

    Comment by EmJen — August 27, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

  3. Excellent recap. I’ll share a few of my scattered notes on some of my favorite presentations:

    Susanna Morrill: We should not look at the historical framing of agency in a progressive and evolutionary pattern. Mormon women’s agency was a moving target, and meant different things in different eras. As such, we must shift our ideas, methodologies, frameworks, and data when looking at different eras. We must also recognize that organizational authority was seen as a spiritual gift.

    Kate Holbrook: Not only must we look at both liberating and oppressed forms of agency, but we must recognize that many viewed institutions that we today find oppressive, liberating. For instance, many LDS women found Mormonism spiritually liberating. How do we interpret their views that they were drivin by a driving spiritual force? Further, women in the 19th century saw separate gender roles as expansive rather than repressive, seeing much room for expansion.

    And here are the ten points of convergences between Mormon and Catholic feminist theologies, as pointed out by Mary Bednarowski (whose paper was probably my favorite of the day):

    1 the acknowledgement that religions are very gendered
    2 Finding creative ways to ask why women’s theological contributions are dissent and not contributions
    3 both traditions experience the unfortunate excesses of our traditions, but still remain. both traditions ask, what’s left? And then move from there.
    4 We have found more “there” there, than we have supposed. A tradition does not have to be inerrant to be emminently dear. It only has to be inexhaustible.
    5 A realism view that religion is a mixed bag. As such, it gives a lot of raw material
    6 There are a lot of unexplored avenues. For instance, Catholics should pay attention to Mormon conceptions of Mother in Heaven.
    7 Because doctrine is significant, the question of what doctrine is and is for is crucial. Is it to represent an unchanging nature of faith and orthodoxy? Or is it swirling depositories of belief and innovation
    8 we are forced to create new understandings of authority in traditions
    9 The move of women’s theology to the organic gives new life to the discipline.
    10 Finding out new ways of belonging to communities and claiming identities. It is not a matter of being in or out. For instance, most learn how to be feminist in religious communities.

    Comment by Ben P — August 27, 2012 @ 12:28 pm

  4. Thanks, Ben– those are many of the nuances that I had hoped to include, but found myself struggling between word count and my own too-detailed editorializing. And I’m glad that you got all ten of Mary’s “ten points of convergences,” because I honestly missed a couple. I LOVED Susanna’s notion about agency not being “evolutionary,” because women’s studies has so often taken the “property-suffrage-reproductive rights-labor emancipation” progressive framework that doesn’t always work for understanding LDS women’s agency. Thanks for bringing that to our attention.

    And I am still thinking about Kate’s notion of Mormon women finding “separate spheres” as “expansive rather than repressive.” Simply because, while 19th-century Mormon women certainly operated in their own realm, there were also many areas of shared gender interaction that were much more reciprocal than some might find today in LDS governance, and maybe this was predominantly among the highest leadership of the church, but it was still there.

    Comment by andrearm — August 27, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

  5. Cristine Talbot’s fabulous JMHarticle last year explored the idea of separate gender roles being expansive, and argued that the collapse of public and private in 19th century Mormonism thrust Mormon women into public spaces forbidden in other cultures.

    Comment by Ben P — August 27, 2012 @ 1:10 pm

  6. Thank you all for your recaps. I was disappointed (and thoroughly annoyed) that I missed it. You’ve all left me wishing I was there.

    Ben- 6 is interesting to me considering the amount of really brilliant work that Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson has done with the feminine divine.

    Here’s the link to Laurel’s lecture for those who missed it: (Forgive me if it was posted, I didn’t see it.)

    Comment by JanieceJ — August 27, 2012 @ 1:13 pm

  7. Nice recaps Andrea and Tona. There was lots to like about this conference! I especially appreciated the great discussion of agency in thinking about Mormon women’s history in the first session; panelists brought out that the absense of a set theology sometimes provided a space for Mormon women’s agency, but so, too, did specific theological beliefs (Mother in Heaven, the Spirit/personal revelation, and polygamy, for instance). I wondered, however, about how Mormon theological ideas about agency itself have shaped women’s agency in the church. What are Mormonism’s theological conceptions of agency? How have they changed over time? Why? (In response to expressions of agency, perhaps.) And what has that meant for women. Do Mormons actually believe in agency? (I’m thinking about the belief that choosing the right is the only true, “free” expression of agency.)How does this add another “layer” as Kate Hollbrook suggested, to Mormon women’s agency?

    Comment by Reb — August 27, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

  8. Thanks so much for sharing! I wanted to go, but didn’t feel like juggling the baby.

    Comment by Emily — August 27, 2012 @ 11:40 pm

  9. Thanks for the recap, Andrea. Wish I could have attended.

    Comment by David G. — August 28, 2012 @ 9:52 am

  10. Nice write up, Andrea. I just want to clarify that I didn’t suggest that “Fifty Shades of Gray” contains “benign eroticism”. I only suggested that it’s popularity among women may be accounted for in part by its story line that is erotic and monogamous — monogamy being a quality that many women desire in their sexual relationships and that Mormonism does a good job of providing. I also said that somewhat surprisingly, “Fifty Shades of Gray” can be found everywhere, including at Costco “right next to the bananas” 🙂 Thanks again!

    Comment by Jennifer Finlayson-Fife — August 28, 2012 @ 3:48 pm

  11. Thanks for the clarification, Jennifer! You’ve illustrated very well the problems I had taking notes by hand while my computer recharged. I should have emailed you for the exact quote. Now I’m going to wonder why I wrote down the word “benign.”

    Comment by andrearm — August 28, 2012 @ 4:11 pm

  12. Thank you for the write-up. I find it tremendously encouraging to see this sort of thing happening. I so wish I could have been there.

    Comment by ZD Eve — August 28, 2012 @ 5:09 pm

  13. I see the link to listen to the audio to Laurel’s talk, but does anyone know if there were recordings made of the Saturday sessions? I would love to listen.

    Comment by Michelle — August 29, 2012 @ 9:05 pm


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