Claiming Our Name

Posted by on October 11, 2013 in authority, confidence, feminism, Mormon women, motherhood, women | 23 comments

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.

Melody and Hannah Melody

Melody with her grand daughter, Hannah Melody.

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?

Related posts:

23 Comments

  1. Wonderful reflections, Melody. Your response to that initial person about your birth name was perfect. And I loved your friend Meg’s final reflections about the term feminist. Beautiful.

    I too am happy to claim the name of feminist. Some people I know won’t because they associate negative things with it, but there are many many feminisms. To throw out a whole term just because a few say or do things that don’t resonate with me doesn’t seem necessary to me. And feminism has brought me wonderful things — purpose, friends, etc. My life would be far poorer without it.

    • Thank you for being my friend, Caroline. My feminist friend. I heart you.

  2. I love this, Melody. This is very much what feminism means to me: “an important part of the Lord’s work in mortality is to lift and empower all His children.” I will gladly claim this name and hope that I may be worthy of it. Thank you!

    • Oh, my! Yes. To be worthy of the name feminist. What a lovely idea. Thank you for that.

  3. Melody, your opening story is so powerful. I loved it and love the idea that we can claim the names that describe us and use them to define and direct our lives.

    I’m a feminist, a friend, mom, sister, wife, daughter, teacher, volunteer, employee, homemaker, writer, reader, and disciple. Thanks for asking!

    • Emily, that is a beautiful list. Thank you for taking time to share it – to share yourself here. And thank you for your kind words.

      • That was me. Where’s my gravitar? I don’t know.

  4. I’m me. I self-label as storyteller, mom, amazing wife, personal assistant, daughter, sister, choir director, singer, actor, director, Latter-Day Saint, among other things.

    But I will never adopt the label “feminist.” I am, I guess, one of a minority of women who has been surrounded by good men. I get paid better than my male co-workers – and always have somehow. I have a wonderful husband who recognizes me as Queen of our home. He sees me. I understand the Preisthood and my own motherhood, but that has a lot to do with who my mother is and what kind of mother she has been.

    I do not have anything against women who are working against dumb, chauvinist men.

    But because I have been surrounded by good men, my first instinct is to worry that some women may not recognize or be kind to good men.

    To say that, “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.” Because “Based on this definition, the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is inherently feminist” is misleading.

    The literal definition of feminism is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.” With synonyms like: “the women’s movement, the feminist movement, women’s liberation, female emancipation, women’s rights.”

    You can see the difference. Feminism as a word and as a movement is centered on political, social and economic equalities.

    The doctrine of Christ as taught by the LDS church is not overtly concerned with those aspects AS MUCH as they are the spiritual, emotional and intellectual.

    Feminism as a practice is forceful, imposing, and demanding.
    The teachings of the LDS Church inherently encourage us to know who we are so we can act like who we are and be happy.

    It is literally two different things. By defining the teachings of the Gospel as “Feminist,” you mis-define, and therefore will ALWAYS be misunderstood.

    Why not find a new word, that better reflects the inherent worth and value of a woman equal to the inherent worth and value of a man?

    Not Humanism, because that’s already defined.

    What about “Valuist?” It is literally not a real word yet.

    Value: “the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.”

    What if instead of lauding one over the other (men over women or women over men) we simply VALUED ourselves and each other?

    President Benson warned us against pride saying that it is “Essentially competitive in nature…. It is the comparison that makes you proud.” “The central feature of pride is enmity… toward our fellowmen. Enmity means “hatred toward, hostility to, or a state of opposition.”

    The actual definition, as well as the general practice of feminism, is a state of opposition to bad men doing bad things to women. I do not in any way suggest that women should remain quiet and subservient in times of danger or pain. I do not insinuate that women should all stay home with babies and earn less than a man in the workplace.

    I’m just saying…there is a better way to define ourselves than by a word that carries the baggage it was intended to carry and try to change that definition somehow.

    Let us be something new, because we ARE something different.

    At least, that’s the term I will be using for myself. Valuist.

    I value you, Melody, not only for your strength in regaining your familial name and overcoming abuse, but for writing this so that I was encouraged to think more. Thank you very much for encouraging my mind to think.

    • Hi there Chelsea,
      You are lucky to be surrounded by kind and open-minded men. I think a lot of us are, even those who choose “feminist” as one of our labels. I am also married to a kind, respectful and generous man. We are both active in the LDS faith. However, I had a hard time with parts of your critique.

      First of all, without all the “baggage” of feminism, without women who had the “radical” idea that they should be valued as human beings, with talents, intellect and abilities equal to men, without these varied groups of “radical” women who fought for the right to go to school, to college, the right to vote, the right to their own children, the right to own property, rather than be property, (this is an abbreviated list) you would not be in a position to claim that beautiful list of your own, self-chosen labels at the beginning of your comment. Yes, the word does have some serious baggage and I thank God for the baggage created by those women who challenged conventional thought. Because of them you and I have the space to choose our labels, own our houses with our husbands, we have legal rights to our children and a voice in our system of government.

      Second, Feminism is a historical movement that spans more than a century. It has looked different in different times and been defined and redefined by different social groups of women. For example, Black Slaves, American working class white women, American working class black women, American suburban middle-class white women, French intellectual women, and Mormon women are just a few groups who have distinct schools of thought and different working definitions of Feminism to fit their particular cultural experience. The definition you typed above is reductive and does not accurately represent the volumes of feminist thought that exist.

      Finally, I think it is really great that a woman who thinks of herself in a more traditional way can read and respond so respectfully to a Newey girl’s blog post, but I also think it’s important to have a basic understanding of an idea in order to effectively argue against and reject it. This is not to say you should be a feminist, that would be very unfeminist of me, but only an effort to offer a little perspective on what the word/label “feminist” encompasses.

      • Twila,

        Thank you for your kind and thoughtful response. You are absolutely right that I do not even claim to understand the history of feminism. You make valid points and I am grateful for the education.

        I’m a word person, so the history of the developing idea behind a word doesn’t interest me as much as how that word is current heard and said. Does that make sense? I didn’t mean to imply that I am down on Feminism in its entirety out of hand.

        I am DEEPLY grateful for women who with their courage, ingenuity, power, and work opened up the opportunities that I enjoy. I respect and praise their sacrifices, guessing – but not knowing, because I have not made it an avenue of study – that in many cases their sacrifices were extreme and painful.

        I come from that word place. Where I watch people’s reactions to the word “Feminism.” It instantly and almost invariable incites a dramatic response, from women and men. It has so many DIFFERENT histories, that everyone has been touched by it in some way. And therefore, it means SOMETHING and something vastly different to many people. It is almost like the word “Fascism” or “Communism” or “Democracy” or even “Truth,” “Bad,” “Cool,” “Gay,” “Awful,” or even any number of swear words that were once words used simply for their definition and now are used for something ELSE.

        I don’t seek to disregard the glorious and valuable past of Feminism, but – in my own mind and in the minds those with whom I generally speak – to set my beliefs apart from it.

        Because the basic precepts of Feminism as I know them and as they stand today are not the precepts I find in the Gospel. I almost want to quote Benson again because he makes such a valid point. On a marquee for a business a few months ago it read, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” At first I had trouble with that statement, but after study I recognized its applicable truth.

        And because there are women “in the church” who are seeking for the priesthood and other things that I don’t agree with, who call themselves Feminist, I cannot in good conscience espouse the name myself. The same way I choose not to call myself Democrat or Republican.

        It is BECAUSE the word “feminist” encompasses so much that I personally would choose not to take the label on. It’s CONNOTATION would overpower its DENOTATION and my views would continue to go unseen and unheard.

        Or at least, that’s what I think based on past experiences, limited as they are, with the word “feminism” and other hot words like it.

        Once again, though, let me say that I am grateful for the opportunity to be thinking about this so much and so clearly. I am definitely willing to learn more and will research more of this issue/word/movement on my own as well as listening/reading what is said here.

        Thank you again for your response. It was as enlightening as the original post itself. I sincerely hope that I have not said anything offensive, as that is nowhere near my intention. I am honestly too uneducated in the history of feminism to be a real problem. :)

      • Twila – this is fantastic. Thank you so much for taking time to craft this response. I wish everyone could read this comment.

        Kiss those babies for me, okay? I love you.

    • Chelsea – I love respectful discussions among individuals with differing viewpoints. So, it means a lot to me that you took time to comment here. I also happen to love strong, thoughtful women, which you seem to be.

      I agree with you that “The doctrine of Christ as taught by the LDS church is not overtly concerned with those aspects AS MUCH as they are the spiritual, emotional and intellectual.” However, because the church organization is made up of people who are subject to the current cultural, political, social, economic climate of the day, I feel feminism has a place within every organized religion.

      I could spend a whole blog post explaining how I believe that inequality between the sexes – specifically male domination of female – is a telestial model that was formed at the dawn of time, with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden and the subsequent freedom of Satan to corrupt the divine equality that I believe existed between men and women before the fall. . . and how THIS idea is the foundation for my belief that feminism (which I define as any work which brings imbalanced feminine and masculine persons or entities into greater balance one with the other) is, in fact, part of the work of the Savior, part of the work of his ministry (yet another blog post) and is intimately tied to the atonement. At -One -Ment. [That is among the longest sentences I've written to date. I hope you followed it.] Multiple scriptures address issues of inequality.

      Come to think of it, I did write a blog post about this. Here: http://rationalfaiths.com/toward-a-more-perfect-union/

      You have been blessed with an experience of equality and respect. Despite my painful childhood I have also been blessed with numerous relationships with men who are good, kind, and Christ-like. Interestingly, I would also say that most of these men would call themselves feminists.

      I’m glad that you are at peace without labeling yourself feminist. And I’m glad God gave you the power to access that peace within yourself. God moves in mysterious ways, Their wonders to perform. For me, feminism is one of those ways. Thank you again for your thoughtful comment. God bless you and yours.

      • That was amazing.
        I had to read the long sentence a twice, but I think I got it. ;)

        I deeply appreciate you giving me your definition of feminism. In many of my experiences with “feminism,” (I put it in quotes to say that the definition meant in that instance may not have been the same as yours), my first instinct is much like my first one posted above. Like when all those women were encouraging women everywhere to wear pants to church.

        I heard that story from the wrong people, it would seem. Because when I went to the website and opened my heart with study of the issue, I was given understanding and then only felt love for those women. That’s all I really want to do. Learn, understand, and love. And I know it’s because I want people to do the same for me.

        This has been easily the BEST and most enlightening conversation on this subject I have ever had and as I’ve said before, I look forward to learning more. I am so grateful for all you’ve done and are doing; I’m excited to read more of your blogs.

        Thank you both for taking the time to so kindly lead me to more understanding so I can experience more love. May God bless you, too.

      • You’re awesome, Chelsea. Thank you for being here.

  5. This is lovely, Melody.

    What a powerful moment of insight about your last name. I admire you for the strength of body, spirit and mind to counter such a combative question!

    When I was 12, I won a feminist essay contest. Only my mother went with me to gain the reward, and we didn’t tell anyone at church for fear of the fallout. (I wrote about Harriett Tubman). Its funny- I think when I was 12, I just saw it as a girl thing. At 14, it was a women’s idea. At 16, I thought- through influence at home, church, peers and school—that feminism was irrational, even sinister. I know better now.

    Most phrases about feminism I heard in my youth (and even now at church) start with, “Feminists don’t understand…” and in this, I was fooled into believing that I was smarter than a feminist. In truth, I was the fool, because I did not understand feminism—and how much it had already provided for me in my life. I didn’t understand that I was already a feminist—radical at that- I just called it “common sense.” Because the cause of progressing women’s voice, education, protection, economy and suffrage is common sense to me.

    So I am a common-sense-ist. Which in truth, means I am a feminist.

    • Spunky, Yes! Common sense. That’s exactly how it feels to me. And how fortunate that it came to you at an early age. What a gift and what a wonderful story you shared here. Thank you. I love this.

  6. I struggle with my names, and labels. My names are Sherry Lynn Smith Simmerman Johns. I don’t like Sherry because my parents didn’t say it in love. They only yelled it at me growing up. I don’t like Smith because it’s so common and again, because there was some abuse of my parents toward me as a child. I don’t like Simmerman because I am no longer married to the man who carried that name. I kept it as a middle name when I remarried since I had three minor children and felt I needed to stay connected thru that name. I DO like my new married name – Johns – mostly because few people know me by that name. I was all the other names for so long I feel that person disappeared. As to my “new” name, it is an ugly one, not a pretty old-fashioned name like some are. The when I learned the names are recycled, I felt let down and I don’t like that X knows it, even tho I cancelled out sealing after I remarried. Sometimes I wish I could choose a name that I want, but I don’t know what it would be. I’m a writer/author so I suppose I’ll keep the name i use – Sherry Johns. As for labeling myself a MoFem, THAT I did of my own free will, gladly and proudly. I don;t care a fig what others think of that. I am what I am – a daughter of my Heavenly Mother and Father, wife of a wonderful NOMO who loves me and tenderly cares for me. the mother of nine awesome grown kids and grandmother to twenty-one g-kids, as well as author, writer, speaker and bistorian. And for now, I’m still a Mormon.

    • Wow. Sherry, that is amazing. You told a lifetime of stories using only your names. Beautiful, really.

      When I wrote this post, I did think about my new name from the temple. I happen to like it, but I also feel that the name itself is simply a metaphor for the new heart, the new person we become in Christ. So, regardless of what that recycled “name” is, your true “new name” is known to God, to you, probably to your good husband (and certainly not to your ex-husband.) It is the essence of your soul, grown wise and new through a lifetime of enlightenment. That’s how I see it anyway.

      Thank you for your strong love for feminism and for raising your “voice” as a MoFem here. Huzzah! I like you already. Thanks again for being here.

  7. Great post and thought-provoking comments. I am a wife, mother, grandmother, teacher, writer, friend, political activist, daughter of God, and a person who believes all are alike unto God. I suppose that makes me a feminist, although that label has so many negative connotations in the Church that I cringe a bit when I write it.

    My mother served as a ward clerk for 5 years. My paternal grandmother was set apart to give blessings to expectant mothers before they delivered their babies. My parents taught me to pursue my dreams, to gain an education, and to love myself. I left college with healthy self-esteem, a love for the Lord, and a strong sense of self.

    After years of devoting myself to my family and to the Church, I have seen my self-compassion slip away. In losing myself for the Church, I seem to have lost my ability to truly love myself. As I have valiantly supported my husband in his many Church callings, including bishop and branch president, while I have served as stake and ward RS president (and a host of other callings), I have observed ecclesiastical abuse that makes me shudder. I have observed that our patriarchal culture demeans women, and yet, I wonder, would a matriarchal culture with no checks and balances, become as abusive as well. I suspect it would.

    I do know that unrestricted, unchecked power is a dangerous thing in any organization, whether business, religious, or political. Although I have seen some leaders serve with compassion and kindness, I have observed others literally drive women crazy. I have seen some of my dearest friends institutionalized after years of abuse by their husband/bishop or husband/stake president. During their recovery, I have observed ecclesiastical abuse that would break anyone’s heart who observed it.

    I know Jesus loves women. I know He must weep when He sees His precious daughters suffer so.

    Thanks to all of you who speak of for the rights of women. Some day, when Jesus returns and leads our Church, I know that many wounded hearts will be healed and many broken spirits will be restored. Until that day, I pray that our Church leaders will seek to remember that God loves all of His children and that He longs for us to love one another and treat one another with compassion and kindness, including ourselves.

    • Katie – Your words and your life experience are invaluable here. You have painted a vivid and honest picture of the problems with patriarchy. And I agree with you: it’s not just patriarchy, it’s unchecked-unbalanced power that is the real problem. [D&C 121:39 . . . nature and disposition of almost all . . . unrighteous dominion.]

      I’m profoundly grateful for your clarity in articulating the challenges we face as women. And as men. How do we love and respect each other the way God would have us do it? How do men avoid abusing power? How do women stand for truth and righteousness in the face of ecclesiastical abuse? More food for thought.

      Thank you most especially for the reminder to nurture and strengthen ourselves – as we routinely do for others. Your comment moves me deeply. It makes me feel so good, so peaceful when I read it. A lot of thruth there. Thank you. Bless you.

  8. I say to people (LDS and not): “I’m a Mormon feminist, which means that I can have more than one husband.” Then I laugh (I’m known for my enthusiastic guffaw) and just continue on in the conversation. I claim the “feminist” label and let my actions speak for themselves.

    But I do feel so, so sad – when I speak up against injustice in church settings (related or not related to feminism), I am seen as the enemy and am ostracized by members of the church. Oh, well. All it takes for evil to flourish is for good women to do nothing!

  9. On another note – thank you for writing this post. Your writing is so interesting, clear, and compassionate – even towards those who mis-speak or harm you/others. I felt safe as I read your words.

    • Angie, this is a lovely thing for you to say. Thank you. Being safe for each other is what discipleship is about, as far as I can tell. And, congratulations for fighting the good fight as a MoFem. Great reminder too . . Good women (or men) “doing something” is how every error, every evil has ever been haulted. So, on we go.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting.

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