Channeling Angelina Grimké at my LDS Ward
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.
Before 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.)
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.
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.