Channeling Angelina Grimké at my LDS Ward

April Young Bennett LDS General Conference

Me, arriving at Women’s Session of LDS General Conference

My local Relief Society teacher posted some pictures on the board and asked the class to contrast them: Mormon women at the Women’s Session of General Conference on one side, protestors at the Women’s March on the other who, I am sure the teacher assumed, were certainly not Mormon.

The first response was exactly what I would expect from other Mormons. The women at General Conference were living models of the 13th Article of Faith: virtuous, lovely, of good report, praiseworthy.  The women at the Women’s March seemed angry, so they must be bad.

I didn’t hear the other responses because I fled the room.

The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women's Rights and AbolitionBefore church that day, I had been reading The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women’s Rights and Abolition by Gerda Lerner. (Excellent book! Highly recommend!) I was at chapter six, which describes 22-year-old Angelina’s abolitionist awakening. (Angelina would go on to have a feminist awakening as well, about a decade later.)

April Young Bennett Women's March Park City

Me, arriving at the Women’s March in Park City, Utah

Surrounded as she was by a family, government and religion that supported slavery, I wonder how Angelina developed opinions so different from those of the people around her.

Sometimes I wonder how I came out so differently from most of the Mormons and Utahns I know.  Why didn’t the conservative, patriarchal culture that raised me stick to me?  But for Angelina the question of how she became different was even harder to answer. I have access to other ideas through television, Internet and radio—media that did not exist in Angelina’s time.

As a young adult, Angelina sometimes thought about escaping “this land of slavery,” but she hoped to make a difference among her own people. “I feel that I am called with a high and holy calling and I that I ought to be peculiar,” she wrote in her diary.

My philosophy is similar to Angelina’s in many ways.  I stay with my people, where I am conspicuously peculiar. I try to make a difference among Mormons—the patriarchy I am most qualified to resist.

Angelina was not popular in her community. Neither am I.

Angelina wouldn’t have been proud of me for fleeing that room and I wasn’t proud of myself, either.  I should have held my ground.  I could have raised my hand and explained my unique perspective, as a woman who had attended the march.

Some days I do better than others. The day after the Women’s March, I was sitting in the church foyer when other Mormons started a loud conversation, mocking the marchers.

I interrupted. “I participated in the march. If you have any questions about it, I would be happy to answer them.”

But a few weeks later, during that Relief Society lesson, I was just too tired. Being that one peculiar person in a community is exhausting.

Angelina seemed to have more energy than I do, at least at first.

An actor portrays Angelina Grimké in the PBS documentary, American Experience: the Abolitionists

She pressured her minister to preach about the evils of slavery. When that didn’t work, she approached members of her church individually and tried to convert them to abolitionism one by one. When her family and friends vented about the people they were enslaving, Angelina would ask, “What makes them so depraved?” She won no converts, but her efforts were occasionally rewarded with small victories, such as when she convinced her brother to stop beating one of the men he enslaved. Even so, persistently nagging her own acquaintances was hardly a strategy for large-scale, systemic change, and 22-year-old Angelina was too principled—and perhaps too immature—to choose her battles.

“It is very hard that I cannot give my children what food I choose, or have a room papered, without being found fault with,” complained her mother. “I am weary of being continually blamed about everything I do. I wish to be let alone. I see no sin in these things.”

Angelina was making a nuisance of herself and her community reciprocated with equal obnoxiousness. A rescue committee from her church came to her home to helpfully inquire about her sanity and question her righteousness.

“They may love me with a feeling of pity but all respect for and confidence in me is destroyed. Such love is calculated to humble rather than gratify me,” observed Angelina.

Most Mormon feminists can relate.

When her co-religionists finally gave up on saving her, they excommunicated her instead.

The kind of energy needed to rebel against her own family and community on a daily, hourly basis was not sustainable. Within two years after her abolitionist awakening, Angelina “exiled” herself and fled North to find strangers who understood her better than her own lifetime neighbors.

Since I became involved in the Mormon feminist movement about six years ago, many of my first Mormon feminist mentors have exiled themselves from Mormonism, much in the same way that Angelina exiled herself from South Carolina. New people have stormed onto the Mormon feminist scene with the energy of a young Angelina Grimké, only to storm out of Mormonism altogether about two years later.

I often wonder how long I can keep this up. I try to pace myself. Rather than waging war within my local congregation, I focus my efforts on churchwide policy. I see no point in protesting locals, especially local women, who have no power to bring about policy change.

Even so, I see value to some gentle pushback against the perceived homogeneity of our local wards.  If Mormon feminists like me were more open about our views at church, our fellow worshippers might think twice before they mock feminists in the foyer, or put up pictures of feminists as bad examples during Relief Society lessons. Instead of waiting for new feminists to have awakenings that seem to arise spontaneously out of nowhere, young Mormons could be raised surrounded by mentors who openly espouse a diversity of views for their consideration. Maybe fewer Mormon feminists would need to exile themselves if they didn’t feel so isolated in their views.

On the other hand, maybe even more of us would be excommunicated.

In the North, Angelina had hoped to meet people who shared her passion for abolition, but for years, she encountered only apathy. Like her new neighbors, once she was freed from the daily horrors of witnessing slavery first-hand, Angelina’s abolitionism went dormant. But after a half decade of rest, she started fighting slavery again.  There were advantages to fighting from afar. She found advocates and lawmakers who would listen to her. She had allies. She was working within a coalition with a strategy, instead of in isolation, and she was particularly valuable to the movement because of her first-hand experience with slavery—but that experience was in the past.  She never again worked from within the South.

Modern Mormon feminists don’t have to work in isolation, even if we are alone in our local congregations.  We have means to communicate with each other that did not exist for Angelina. Theoretically, we can also channel the support of the wider feminist movement, although, like Angelina, I have found that most people outside our community don’t care about our issues. (But I think they should!  Religious people run businesses and elect lawmakers; the sexism they learn at their churches affects everyone.)

After I fled that Relief Society lesson, another woman found me in the hall.  She said that after I had left, other women in the room had defended the marchers.  Over the next few weeks, other women from my Relief Society approached me, too. And that very afternoon, the Relief Society teacher who had put those pictures on the board came over to my house to apologize and ask me what the Women’s March was all about.

These women aren’t my enemies. These are my people, and for now at least, I’ll keep being peculiar among them.

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is an advocate, mother, professional, lover of the arts, hater (but doer) of housework and seeker of truth. Twitter: @aprilyoungb

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18 Responses

  1. Emily says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I needed it.

  2. Violadiva says:

    Gosh, I really relate to this post. Sometimes “Persistering” is wearing me out. I want to be that brave woman who speaks out confidently when Patriarchal nonsense is being spewed, but sometimes I worry that I would spin into an angry frenzy and become the “Angry Feminist” people think of when they imagine the trope. It takes measured, calculated, compassionate responses to maintain social credibility in church settings, and sometimes I am just fresh out of all those…..
    Like you, I too, wish that it didn’t matter if I was my crazy feminist self at church, and that the people there would just love me anyway.
    But I’m too afraid of being excommunicated.

    • Yes, I don’t think that Angelina would have been excommunicated by her church if she had lived in our time. Our church is quite unique in that we continue to excommunicate people for their opinions.

  3. New Iconoclast says:

    I can’t imagine this happening in my Minnesota suburban Ward RS, but it might, or it might be simmering under the surface. (I’m getting a lot of family history done in that Sunday school class, since I left Gospel Doctrine to escape the thinly-veiled gay-bashing.)

    Either more of us are with you than it seems, and eventually will have the courage to emerge, or it will be a long road. But the Grimkes are great role models; they wore out their lives in the service of righteousness.

  4. EFH says:

    What I have learned from my experience of being stuck in an environment where I was perceived peculiar is that if you approach people as a friend or with an intention to be a friend, they learn to like and listen to you. If you approach people as a feminist or any other identity, they resist more because they do not know you yet. You have to let people get interested in you and invested in you before you discuss matters that are sensitive. It is very tiresome and very lonely for sure.

  5. Alliegator says:

    I really appreciate this post. I speak up in relief society sometimes- to try to gently present different perspectives. Sometimes I’m too tired to say anything.

    I also feel a bit alone in the Mormon feminist movement as so many dear friends are putting their energies elsewhere and can’t sustain Mormonism anymore.

  6. Rachel says:

    Loved this post. May I recommend “The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd, which focuses on Sarah Grimke’s experiences, and Angelina is highlighted as well. They are inspiring sisters for all the reasons you mentioned, and I love the parallels you have found to our modern efforts.

  7. Ziff says:

    I so admire your persistence, April. I’m sad when Mormon feminists leave Mormonism. I totally get why so many do, but it makes me sad because I selfishly hope for more pushback to come from within the church against its patriarchal rules and norms. I’m glad for your conclusions. I’m glad to hear that maybe there are more people who might speak up against the demonization of feminists at church than we might fear.

  8. Coastgirl says:

    Thank you for this post. It may be just what I need to go one more Sunday. I struggle with how much to say, and constantly feeling like I’m not saying enough. I don’t want to sound angry, but I AM angry. Finding the balance is exhausting, but hearing how others continue on is an energizer for me; thank you!

  9. Cynthia says:

    This was a great post, thank you. I’m glad to hear you say that sometimes you just feel weary, because I don’t feel that I’m as brave as you and I usually stay quiet in class and internally suffer. Sometimes I feel brave, but most of the time I just feel alone.

  10. Tania Rands Lyon says:

    This resonated deeply with me. Especially this: “I stay with my people, where I am conspicuously peculiar. I try to make a difference among Mormons—the patriarchy I am most qualified to resist.” Yes! I am fluent in Mormon language and culture and so this is the patriarchy I am most qualified to resist.

  11. Liz says:

    I kept holding off on reading this post, but I’m so glad that I did and that I read it today. I have had this idea in my head about a way to speak up in my ward that requires me to be brave (and also probably be rejected) and my commitment to it was wavering. This has given me the push I need to go forward.

    Also, for what it’s worth, I think you’re just as brave as Angelina. I always think of you as somebody who stands up and pushes for things, in a brave, honest, and kind way.

  12. GARY COOPER says:

    can anyone explain to me what mormon feminists are fighting for?

    • Olivia says:

      There are literally hundreds of thousands of posts answering this question all over the bloggernacle. Don’t ask women to do your homework for you–if you actually want to know and aren’t just looking for a fight–go READ and find out for yourself. We are busy. We are tired.

  13. Jen says:

    Thank you for this post. I am not leaving, and when my feminist friends leave I feel loss every time. Hooray for those who stay and push back in whatever ways they can. Never give up. Never surrender!

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