“Mormon Women and Modernity” at AAR San Francisco

By November 19, 2011

It’s a gorgeous sunny day in San Francisco – where’s that fabled fog?? I’m sporting the already-ubiquitous free red tote bag and lanyard as I stroll between the hotels in and around Union Square downtown. This my first AAR/SBL and yes — it is a BIG conference. I’m being remarkably restrained in the book exhibit although there’s lots to drool over (I was tweeting some of the more notable titles, feel free to follow my conference tweets @tonahangen, and the conference hashtag is #sblaar).

Saturday morning I headed over to the session sponsored by the Mormon Studies Consultation. Colleen McDannell was presiding (really, that’s the way it’s printed in the AAR program) over a session on “Mormon Women and Modernity.” The modernity part wasn’t really evident – all four papers were concerned with either contemporary practice, lived religion, or history of the very recent past. It looked like a panel of graduate student papers, primarily concerned with exploring aspects of Mormon women’s boundary negotiations written by young non-LDS scholars.

Ann Duncan (Goucher College), in “The Mommy Wars, Mormonism, and the ‘Choices’ of American Motherhood” discussed a study she’d conducted among active Mormon women about their family planning decisions and parenting, and noted a remarkable lack of distress, angst or cognitive dissonance about those choices. In the end of her paper she argued that there needs to be room in feminist discourse to accommodate the experiences of women like these who are clearly choosing a traditional paths – in line with Catherine Brekus’s notion that female agency shouldn’t be only defined in terms of resistance, rebellion, and subversion of dominant paradigms but also supporting, building, and reinforcing those paradigms.

Jennifer Meredith (University of Utah) presented a paper that in the program was titled “Western Pioneer Mythos in the Negotiation of Mormon Feminism and Faith,” but was really a historical narrative of the founding of MERA (Mormons for the ERA) by Sonia Johnson and the role of writing — specifically the writing of poetry — as therapy and community-building within the Mormon feminist movement of the mid 1970s. The “pioneer” part was that Johnson and her fellow MERA members drew on both the rhetoric and the example of the Women’s Exponent writers from the pioneer era (it may be something of a misnomer for her to call the late 19th century the time of the Mormon pioneers, but I’ll grant some leeway there for a newcomer to Mormon Studies) in the way they built their movement and articulated it as an inheritor of an older womanist heritage.

Jill Peterfeso (University of North Carolina), in “Scripting, Performing, Testifying: Giving Faithful ‘Seximony’ through the Mormon Vagina Monologues” explored a few of the 18 monologues from a 2001 Sunstone session that frankly explored women’s sex and sexuality through personal narrative. Peterfeso argued that the session participants’ narratives boldly resisted, but in the end could not be disentangled from, specifically Mormon practices including giving testimony and receiving personal revelation.

Lastly, Doe Daughtry (Arizona State University) profiled 2 women in Arizona Mormon “secondary markets” (I wasn’t sure what she meant by that term) who have syncretized aspects of New Age and paganism with their Mormon identities, including channeling, tarot card reading, and other heterodox practices, sparked by an interest in the esoteric teachings of the documentary film “What the Bleep Do We Know?” and a book/study group that sounds like nothing I’d ever heard of in a Relief Society.

All four papers contained a lot of vivid, local detail, but none of them successfully linked these compelling transgressive or boundary-breaking/boundary-making women with larger trends either in Mormonism or in American religion, so I was delighted to see that the respondent was R. Marie Griffith, director of the Danforth Center Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University of St Louis. She did the four presenters a great service by noting the strengths of the presentations and — more importantly — also noting that the arguments being made weren’t particularly innovative or new and should be better situated in the existing secondary and theoretical literature. “Women’s agency,” she noted, “has long been located in diverse conservative religious traditions in the US and around the world,” she noted, and so the fact that Mormon women do the same is not that surprising. The panel did the lab science equivalent of replicating known results rather than making pioneering new discoveries — a criticism I felt was dead on. She pushed each of them to be more precise and connect their work to larger discourses in the history of American religion and in religious studies more generally. It was deftly done; I felt like giving her a standing ovation.

Ideas that came up in the comments: (I wasn’t taking notes, so this is impressionistic)

–in the same way that we have to be precise about multiple feminisms, so we should also be precise about the multiple patriarchies they challenge

–should the 2 papers which observed Mormon women asserting themselves without negative consequences (both of which dealt with Mormon women now) be contrasted against the 2 papers in which Mormon women were generating friction with Church hierarchy (in the 1970s, and in the early 2000s) by suggesting that there has been in very recent times an increasing openness and space given for Mormon individual expression, exhibited e.g. by the “I’m a Mormon” campaign and that this needs to be understood in context of changing Mormon history since the period of 1970s/1980s when gender, family and patriarchy were much more problematic fields for contention?

Other attendees – please weigh in with what you heard & thought. I’m off to find some Asian noodles for lunch. Red bag here, over and out.

Article filed under Conference/Presentation Reports


  1. I’ve always wanted to go to SBL, but its timing in late November (my field gets busy towards the end of the year) makes that impossible. So I appreciate hearing notes from the field.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — November 19, 2011 @ 6:43 pm

  2. red bag lady, Marie Griffith was excellent. It was good to see you there.

    Comment by smb — November 19, 2011 @ 7:48 pm

  3. Very interesting, thanks for the report!
    I *love* SBL, especially the books. It really does take restraint not to go nuts there, like a kid in a candy shop.

    Comment by Ben S — November 19, 2011 @ 9:15 pm

  4. In the end of her paper she argued that there needs to be room in feminist discourse to accommodate the experiences of women like these who are clearly choosing a traditional paths ? in line with Catherine Brekus?s notion that female agency shouldn?t be only defined in terms of resistance, rebellion, and subversion of dominant paradigms but also supporting, building, and reinforcing those paradigms.

    I’ve long wondered if some of the strongly negative views by women in the Mormon community towards feminism isn’t tied up with this. Seriously especially in Utah many (most?) women get riled up at the mere mention of feminism. Admittedly part of that is a definitional issue but there is a feeling among many I’ve talked with that feminists oppose their choices. (I’m not saying this is right, but it’s definitely a perception)

    Comment by Clark — November 19, 2011 @ 11:19 pm

  5. Of course those perceptions are entrenched in the Mormon community, Clark–the Church’s anti-ERA campaign relied a great deal on demonizations of feminism, as does current rhetoric about worldly dangers to the family. None of that rhetoric is calibrated to the actual amount of anti-homemaking sentiment in contemporary feminism(s); instead, the few traces of those attitudes are grotesquely amplified for effect.

    Comment by Kristine — November 20, 2011 @ 1:50 pm

  6. The African-American Islam session was fantastic. I wonder whether Mormon Studies could take some pointers from that subspecialty.

    Comment by Smb — November 20, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

  7. This was excellent, Tona; thanks.

    smb: can you share any particular observations from the Islam session?

    And yes, we can definitely learn from most other subspecialties. Mormon Studies is still in its infancy.

    Comment by Ben Park — November 20, 2011 @ 4:02 pm

  8. I love AAR/SBL. Books galore!

    Comment by SC Taysom — November 20, 2011 @ 4:20 pm

  9. Refreshing, non-confrontational discussions about complex relationships among different constituent groups, attention to the power of concepts/theological images within a social context. Most importantly, people were able to maintain respectful distance. People liked the groups under study and were glad to study them, but no one was proselytizing one way or the other. People were aware of and invoked theorists but did so without the sort of superficial reverence that is so common when people quote Foolcault or Derridum in a totemistic way. I think I’m going to start going to the African American religion sessions more.

    @SCT: holy cow, there’s a lot of books. Sort of overwhelming.

    Princeton just published a good history of Scientology. Not perfect, but very useful. And some great looking stuff from Yale, Oxford, and WJK.

    Comment by smb — November 20, 2011 @ 9:00 pm

  10. Dinner with Mogget, books, chatted briefly with Cornel West, about to hear from Judith Butler. I am loving AAR/SBL.

    Comment by Chris H. — November 20, 2011 @ 10:16 pm

  11. Kristine, I don’t doubt some of those perceptions go back to the 70’s. But some I think arise out of feminists themselves. I remember during the whole nastiness within the BYU English department a lot of the women I talked with who came away with strong negative views of feminism did so based upon the assigned readings of feminists by feminist professors. One can and probably should qualify how representative of modern feminism such figures are. But I think some don’t realize that it is the thinkers themselves who turn people off.

    The problem is that now there’s a strong overreaction. I remember back in my single days how dizzy I got trying to switch from dating women from back east and women from Utah. The entire language of appropriateness was radically different. (To give one superficial yet frustrating example young 20 somethings in Utah wanted to be called girls because women were their moms. 20 somethings from back east found the term girl offensive.) My wife constantly goes on about how she’s not a feminist as a point of pride. I know some here think I’m a conservative reactionary against feminism but honestly I think compared to the typical member I’m much more in the feminist camp.

    Comment by Clark — November 21, 2011 @ 4:41 pm

  12. To add, I’m also not sure this reaction is just amongst Mormons. I think if anything Mormons are fitting into an over kind of conservative feminism that rejects the term feminism. If true then, as in so many things, Utahns are more characteristic of a western social change.

    Comment by Clark — November 21, 2011 @ 4:43 pm


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