Sunday after church, my children occupied themselves by making paper airplanes with scraps of paper while waiting for my meeting to finish. Monday morning, while tidying up, I found one of their airplanes, made from a copy of the First Presidency’s invitation to the General Women’s Meeting later this month.Read More
Several years ago someone made a surprising and hurtful remark to me. This person was aware that I was working through painful memories of childhood sexual abuse perpetrated by my father. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, because she had previously implied she did not believe these horrific events really happened. On this particular occasion, she said, “It seems if it were as bad as you say it was, you wouldn’t want to keep your father’s name.” I had legally taken back my maiden name a few years earlier after divorcing my husband. So, indeed, I carried my father’s surname. I still do.
After recovering from the initial shock of her remark, I responded by saying, “I wasn’t the one who sullied this family’s name. I am not the one who corrupted its value in the world and made it into something ugly. In fact, I am reclaiming the name and cleaning up generations of familial destruction perpetrated by a long line of abusers. So, actually, I deserve to bear this name even more than my father does.”
This experience empowered me, not only because I declared the truth of my life to someone who wanted to deny and invalidate it, but also because I claimed my name – with all its sordid history—and, by so doing, I transformed it into something beautiful and ennobling for me and for my children.
Feminism (the name and the cause) has been made to seem ugly by those who are not comfortable with the intent and meaning of feminist efforts. For many Latter-day Saints, feminism equals selfishness, un-womanly-ness, unrighteousness, or simply “Not The Lord’s Way.” My own opinion is that even the most radical of feminists have been and are working to ennoble and uplift women. For me, this is an important part of the Lord’s work in mortality–to lift and empower all His children.
I may be preaching to the choir, but perhaps there are those among our readers who are uncomfortable calling themselves feminist, uncomfortable with the word itself because of negative connotations. I can understand this. I kept a safe distance from the word for quite some time. Until I remembered how it felt to claim the truth of my family name—the truth of who I am and where I come from.
My four sisters and I call ourselves The Newey Girls. Our daughters are Newey Girls too, as are our granddaughters–regardless of their surnames. They are part of a legacy of courageous work that we, their mothers, have done for ourselves and ultimately for them and for their brothers. By stating this fact clearly, firmly and without apology, we bring beauty and honor to a name that might otherwise be held in derision. I have a secret hope that many more LDS women will find the courage to bring their particular goodness to the name Feminist. What a wonderful, powerful, legacy this could add to the already rich history of the LDS church organization and to the community of saints whom we love.
Last week I linked via social media to an essay written by Neylan McBaine. I highlighted this:
If you care about the spiritual, emotional and intellectual development opportunities available to you, your wife, your sister or your daughter, you are a feminist. Period. Based on this definition, the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is inherently feminist . . . - Neylan McBaine
One of my friends, Meg, responded as follows:
You know, I’ve stopped calling myself a feminist because of the unwanted (by me) baggage of the word. Its true definition and the definition assigned by other people are often so at odds. Perhaps when we reclaim its real meaning (and understand that is an umbrella that covers so many different schools of thought), I will begin to use it again. Until then, I guess I am a child-of-God-ist. All of us together, male, female. No patriarchy, no matriarchy. Just united in true equality. It happens in my house…so it can happen in the world at large, right? Maybe? Someday?
My response to her:
Meg, I love your thoughts. I’m a feminist
As a result of this brief interaction, Meg reflected on her negative associations with feminism and wrote an essay about a shift in her perspective. I think her words may help Exponent readers who are reluctant to fully acknowledge their feminist heart. Here is the essay. And here is one quote I particularly love:
It is not owned by any one person, any one ideology, any one movement. Feminism belongs to every girl that hoped to make her life better. It is the birthright of any woman that has looked into the night sky and felt the heat of the stars reflected in the chambers of her heart. It belongs in holy places and in the workplace and around kitchen tables. It isn’t radical. It is right. – Meg Conley
The act of naming ourselves is an act of empowerment and self-respect. We are Christian, we are Daughters of God, we are Mormon (a name reclaimed by our religious community).
My name is Melody Newey. I am a kind, compassionate, courageous, hard-working, nurturing and maternal, morally sensitive disciple of Christ.
I’m a feminist.
Who are you?
What are some of your names?
If you have felt to call yourself feminist, can you do so now?Read More
In her response to Elder Christofferson’s Saturday morning talk from the recent General Conference, Neylan McBaine begins by saying she’s aware of the reasons she’s not supposed to like the talk, but nevertheless it worked for her in both tone and content. While it’s not for me to question the “warmth and authenticity” she felt through the talk, for me his approach was more condescending than warm. When men in positions of authority speak about how women fit into the big picture of society, and of their place in the context of church and family, they take the position of someone with a view larger in scope than the women they refer to. This point of view is inherently condescending. Perhaps that is not necessarily bad, but it should come with an acknowledgement of the speaker’s lack of experience as a woman, and that was missing. Obviously Elder Christofferson has not lived life as a woman, but it becomes necessary to state the obvious in talks like his because of his taking the position of an authority on being female and of having inside knowledge of women’s internal worlds with respect to their moral authority. It is an affront to women to do this without any admission of his particular view as a man.
Neylan wrote that the term “moral authority” is a fresh description of women’s role in society, church, and family. But as my co-blogger Em pointed out, the term is not fresh but in fact quite old. In the nineteenth century women were said not to need the vote because they had moral authority and that was enough. It was the topic of conduct manuals, essays, and private correspondence, with the consensus being that tangible authority was unnecessary and unseemly when women’s moral authority could be manifested in private. Neylan is not wrong that Elder Christofferson’s use of the term is novel to modern Mormon discourse. But in my view his talk harkened back more to the private moral authority of the past than toward a new gender paradigm.
This is a separate discussion, and I’m interested in learning more about what Neylan means by a purpose struggle, but in my view Mormon women do not lack purpose. Mormon men can check the boxes of passing the sacrament, giving blessings, and attending bishopric meetings and Mormon women can check the boxes of doing visiting teaching, fulfilling their callings, and attending Sacrament meetings. What the outlets for women’s spiritual growth lack is not delineation, it is scope. What women lack is not purpose, it is authority.
While Elder Christofferson did not explicitly make this comparison himself, Neylan sees a parallel between “moral authority” and priesthood authority. She calls it semantic parity, with an administrative (priesthood) authority paired with a ministerial (moral) authority. I completely agree with her that the way we talk about things matters, but only if the words we use refer to real life. And the reality is that no holds were lifted in this season of General Conference that would give new ministerial authority to women. The comparison Christofferson did make came at the end of his message when he fleetingly referred to the moral authority of men. He did not expand on it, but said that men should cultivate their own “companion moral authority.” He did not offer any explanation on what women’s counterpart to priesthood might be.
I agree with Neylan that “moral authority” is an improvement over the word “nurture,” which as she says has the disadvantage of sounding like a personality characteristic that not all women have. In addition, Neylan writes that “Women as nurturers is hard to disentangle from women as mothers, which is of course a vital identity for many of us, but may not satisfy the search for purpose by our single or childless sisters.” Again, I agree that the term moral authority is less limiting in that it can encompass areas outside the home and outside of mothering. However, this rhetorical subtlety is almost surely going to be missed by many people who hear Elder Christofferson’s talk. I think Neylan is expecting too much when she says women can be expected to re-frame their role in the Church based on Christofferson’s use of the term “moral authority” in place of “nurture.” Especially when Christofferson offered no real explanation of what “moral authority” means. In addition, it is a significant leap to go from hearing the words “moral authority” to carving out new outlets for ministerial work, and to put the onus on women for making that leap is, I think, unreasonable and unfair. There is a big difference between saying something is not forbidden and giving the support and resources needed to make that thing possible. Finally, Neylan mentioned administrative and ministerial work the Relief Society performed in the past, specifically grain management, training midwives, and managing welfare. As April wrote in a recent post, these are things that were removed from the ministry of women by priesthood leaders! How do women claim new outlets of ministry when priesthood authority always has the final say?
But the biggest problem with Elder Christofferson’s talk is that it is a rhetorical shift, and nothing more. Moral authority is merely a new color of wrapping paper in place of the pale hue of nurture we are used to seeing on the package of womanhood. And that, in my view, is nothing to celebrate.Read More
If you thought you heard the words “Some feminist thinkers view homemaking with outright contempt, arguing it demeans women, and that the relentless demands of raising children are a form of exploitation,” during general conference, be reassured: you aren’t losing your mind. You did hear them. Elder D. Todd Christofferson said them in the Saturday afternoon session, and USA Today will back you up. But when you go to read the talk in the Ensign, the words “feminist thinkers” won’t be there.
They’ve been edited out of the official transcript.Read More
The question has been asked, “Was there ever a time when there were no learned women?” To this query we reply, No! never since the creation of Eve, our first mother, down to the present, when the cause of women’s social and political rights has become a distinct national question; we admit there has been an unusual intellectual activity for the last twenty years, both in Europe and America, and that there has been advancement and progress in this respect within the last decade, but we are apt to felicitate ourselves, and perhaps are too indiscriminate on the progress achieved in female education.Read More
General Conference is around the corner, and one of the things I can always count on during that weekend is at least one talk lamenting the unprecedented wickedness of these last days we’re living in. Things have never been worse, and the accelerating wickedness will surely hasten the end of the world. To these speakers change is hardly ever good, it’s the wheel that rolls the world toward it’s inevitable destruction.
I hate these talks. Not only because they’re depressing, but also because I don’t think the world is getting worse. I think there is awful suffering and perversity in the world, but that is not new. Maybe we recognize it better now, with our advanced communications. But sunlight is the best disinfectant, and by shining more light on the ugly things of the world I think we start to turn them around, bit by bit.
So given that I don’t think the world is on a perpetual decline, I like this talk* by Craig Harline, a historian at BYU. He talks about change, how early Christians would have been shocked at our acceptance of everyday things like using the word “Sunday” or lending with interest. He shows how opinions on slavery, interracial marriage, evolution, and women’s suffrage have changed, with examples of things like the fact that in my mother’s lifetime women couldn’t even play full court basketball because it was thought the sport would harm their fragile bodies. Yes, we are shocked at the narrow mindedness of our ancestors. But Prof. Harline says some historians theorize that younger generations don’t reject the older generation’s values, but rather extend those values into new territories.
This is where things get really interesting to me. At the end of the talk Prof. Harline refers to Edward Kimball’s BYU Studies article about his father’s revelation extending the priesthood to all worthy men. I had heard the story of Spencer W. Kimball making almost daily visits to the temple to seek divine guidance on the topic, but references to that story always implied (at least to me) that he was seeking a “yes” from God. As in, “I feel that it’s right and good for all worthy men to be ordained. Can this be? Do you, God, approve of it?” But according to Edward Kimball’s article that isn’t the full story. Apparently President Kimball wasn’t going to the temple to seek revelation in this way, but to get over his assumptions.
President Kimball said this: “I was very humble. I was searching. I had a great deal to fight. Myself, largely, because I had grown up with this thought that negroes should not have the priesthood and I was prepared to go all the rest of my life until my death and fight for it, and defend it as it was.”
I find this stunning. Prof. Harline says that President Kimball was a hero not in the traditional way we think if religious leaders – as one who fights for his convictions – but because he was willing to reconsider them. How much harder is it to search your soul and ask which of your convictions may need reconsideration than is it to cross your arms in front of your chest and insist nothing you believe is wrong? Much, much harder. But much, much more enlightening. I hope to have the courage and humility that President Kimball had in my life.
And I hope that our current prophets will as well. I think the story of President Kimball’s trips to the temple is paradigm changing. That might sound hyperbolic, but I really think it is. I’ve usually thought of prophets going to the mountaintop to see visions of what God has in store for humankind. And it probably does happen that way sometimes. But what about the times they go to the mountaintop to ask God for different eyes, so that they see the world differently?
* The whole talk is great and fun to listen to, but if you only have time for the bit about Spencer W. Kimball, fast forward to 47:00 and listen to the end (it’s a 5 minute segment).