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.