Sister Saints: Pain, Feminism, and Anti-Feminism

By January 16, 2019

Anne Braude once wrote, “American women’s history is American religious history.” The quote, to me, it meant that historians must listen to women, tell their stories, and understand the gendered contexts in which they lived. Women’s history is more than recovering voices. It is telling a more complete history.

I considered Braude’s statement a lot as a I read and re-read McDannell’s new book, Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy. There are so many aspects of McDannell’s work that deserve praise—her archival work, her accessible writing, and her knack for finding fascinating characters to make her arguments for starters. However, I think as much as anything, I admire McDannell’s ability to recreate Latter-day Saint women’s pain. While she shows how and why Latter-day Saint women shaped their chosen faith, and how and why they succeeded or failed, she always manages to capture the ways in which sorrow accompanied every debate.

McDannell’s ability to convey the frustrations faced by both sides of the feminism debate operates as a sort of diptych to her other work on twentieth-century religious women. In The Spirit of Vatican II: A History of Catholic Reform in America, she examined how Catholic women lived their religions before and after the Second Vatican Council. She documents how many women felt a sense of loss or separation from their Church and in some cases from their fellow practitioners. She presents their pain and explains how and why they arrived at their feelings. Recapturing the ways that women thought and felt, no matter the historical subject, is vital to historical research not only because women’s voices are important but because women’s history is religious history is American history. If we fail to ask how women felt we cannot learn how and why many women lived their lives.  

McDannell’s chapter on feminism and anti-feminism (“Not All Alike”) in the 1970s and 1980s illustrates this point well. In her analysis of the division caused by the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), makes the personal political, and the political personal, explaining the ERA’s stakes for individual Mormon women. She perfectly captures the ways in which feminists didn’t understand how their fellow practitioners, particularly their “sisters,” could oppose women’s rights and supporting women. As one woman wrote of feminism and the ERA, she wanted to “be an individual again” and to interact with broader society (88). On the other hand, she distills the anti-feminist position as well, revealing the ways that those women and men who felt no need for feminism were quite comfortable following counsel to oppose the proposed amendment. These Latter-day Saint women and many of their Church’s leaders viewed feminism as “a fundamental threat to the plan of salvation.” Feminism became a catchall term for a “bad Mormon woman” (88).

After recounting the histories of Mormon women attaining higher education after World War II, McDannell spends considerable time discussing correlation, the process by which Church materials and organization were systematized and spread throughout the world. In that process, the LDS Relief Society lost its financial autonomy. Amidst these changes, women were not given explicit directions, though, about how to fulfill their gendered roles as women in the Church. Some women, like Helen Andelin (see Julie Neuffer’s award-winning book), fully embraced complementarianism. Other women, like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Claudia Bushman, embodied a feminist model for Latter-day Saint women, re-launching a nineteenth-century Mormon women’s publication as Exponent II and contributing to new intellectual endeavors like Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.

It soon became clear which path the Church’s leadership favored. Feminism became a hiss and a byword, labeling women who identified as feminist as less-than-faithful, anti-family, and anti-church. As McDannell writes, “a line had been drawn between ‘us’ and ‘them,” that is to say, the feminists and the anti-feminists (103). Prominent female supporters of the ERA like Sonia Johnson were excommunicated. The Utah legislature in Salt Lake City and Utah’s Senator Orrin Hatch fought the amendment and led to its defeat. This was fine for women “who felt satisfied with their positions at home, in society, and in church.” It caused gut-wrenching decisions for those who did not (108).

McDannell’s writing and research highlight how difficult it was for each side to speak to the other. Though each claimed membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the different camps interpreted feminism quite differently. Feminist Latter-day Saints, though, found it difficult to prove their faithfulness if they supported the ERA. They received suspicion and raised eyebrows for their political activity. Anti-feminists also participated in politics (oppositional politics) but had the fortune of having Church leaders support their stance. This meant they could define their politics as faithful, even faith-promoting. Feminist women desperately wanted to convince their co-religionists that women’s rights were supported by Church history and the belief that all people are equal in the eyes of God. Anti-feminists encouraged obedience to modern church leaders rather than nineteenth-century ones. Both sides, in the end, came out of the fight for the ERA bloody, bruised, and often divided. It is a history that still echoes throughout Latter-day Saint communities.

Sister Saints is not Latter-day Saints history, alone. It is American religious history at its finest. Which is also to say, it is American women’s history at its finest.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews State of the Discipline


  1. I find it frustrating beyond measure that we still see women’s history (or women’s anything, actually) as something different, something not-male and thus not universal, and I’m glad that books like this exist to bring women’s stories into the broader discourse. Particularly a book like this that is nuanced but doesn’t pull its punches.

    Comment by Saskia — January 16, 2019 @ 10:17 am


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