Closet Feminists

by Lorie Winder Stromberg

(originally published in the June, 1976 issue of the Exponent II)

Many LDS women today are closet feminists. They feel a certain affinity toward the women’s movement, yet they are reticient about admitting it. Part of the problem is semantic. Terms like “feminism” and the more derogatory “women’s liberation” are unpopular in Mormon circles generally. We might make the term “feminism” more palatable by defining it as a conviction that women should be allowed the freedom to develop themselves culturally, intellectually, physically, and spiritually, hindered only by their own motivation — not by extrinsic barriers such as culturally, not divinely, derived sex roles.

From an LDS viewpoint, we know that our Father in Heaven is very much aware of each person individually. Whether we as Mormon women like the responsibility greater freedom implies or not, we are autonomous individuals with infinite potential, and the Lord expects us to use our abilities wisely. That we see ourselves as significant members of the human family is not only the essence of the Gospel, but also of feminism as I see it.

The thirty-first chapter of Proverbs beautifully describes a woman’s potential. Unfortunately, we often fail to read past verse ten which states, “Who can find a virtous woman?” Thus we miss the full meaning and impact of the passage. Solomon’s virtuous woman is not a passive, weak, stifled, simple woman prone to the vapors, but rather an intelligent, wise, thrifty, strong, yet kind and charitable human being. She exemplifies the traditional roles of Mormon women:
She worketh willingly with her hands.
She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.
She looketh well to the waye of her household, and eatheth not of the bread of idleness.

But she also exhibits qualities less often commented upon:
She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.
She girdeth her loine with strength and strengtheneth her arms.
She openeth her mouth with wisdom…

The chapter goes on to describe her respected husband and may I boldly add, her helpmate. As a result of her efforts, her family regards her with deference. “Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.” Indeed, “her own works praise her in the gates.”

Thus, there is scriptural support for the idea that the roles of LDS women, beyond childbearing, can be more flexible than is sometimes thought. There is historical support as well. In speaking of the characteristics of the “new woman” emerging in the late nineteenth century, a sister from Provo stated:

A striking feature of the new woman is her willingness to learn. She feels that her safety is in a broad education… She can understand herself better and be infinitely better prepared to face the world, than the old-fashioned girl of sweet sixteen with her baby-face, and alas, too often, the baby mind. Ignorance is not innocence. (Clara Nuttal, Young Women’s Journal, 3 February 1887)

This early Utah article went on to say that “the distinguishing characteristic of the new woman is her intense longing for the same freedom of action that her brothers have.” How very relavant this nineteenth century statement is in the light of today’s women’s movement. Like the “new woman” of the 1890’s, today’s “girl who has led her class in a co-educational college” has no desire to be bound by petty conventionalities… unless they are also necessary for her brother.”

Unfortuantely, the “petty conventionalities” of 1896 and of 1976 are far apart. This is the source, I believe, of the deeper conflict Mormon women have in accepting feminist goals. The modern feminist, like Clara Nuttal’s new woman, “is determined to have the same liberty” as men enjoy. The biggest problem of the women’s movement, in my opinion, is that some feminists are demanding not just the liberty, but the license–an irresponsible use of freedom–to which men in our society often feel they are entitled. Instead of correcting the double standard by raising the moral standards of both men and women, many are reducing their moral values to the lowest common denominator. Thus, rather than becoming truly free, they are ensnared by an unrighteous facsimile of freedom.

I am a feminist in my desire to enjoy the freedom our Father in Heaven intended for each of his children, regardless of sex. Perhaps more Mormon feminists wold come out of their closets if they thought their involvement in the women’s movement might keep this new found liberty from turning into license.

Jana

Jana is university administrator and History professor. Her soloblog is http://janaremy.com/pilgrimsteps/

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  1. Dora says:

    I agree that feminism has a tainted connotation within the LDS community. Probably stirs up memories of the controversy surrounding the ERA movement. This past year, I asked a righteous, active baby bomer earlier this year about why he did not support the ERA. Aside from following the prophet, and concerns about co-ed restrooms and women in the NBA, he could not give me any satisfactory answers. The former is definitely a formidable reason, but the latter … ?

    I think that we are righteous only to the degree that we are able to freely choose to do right. The Adversary’s shackles would have made eternal life meaningless, as do cultural shackles that limit a person’s ability to explore and develop their talents and abilities. Burying one’s talent in the ground indeed.

    As for liberty vs license … I think that is every individual’s choice to make, to their ultimate happiness or misery. Hopefully as more women choose to broaden their horizons and exercise their agency, feminism will be elevated above the “unrighteous facsimile” and approximate the ideal.

  2. Caroline says:

    Hi Dora,
    Yes, it’s amazing how current many of Lorie’s comments still are. I agree that there is still a pretty negative knee-jerk reaction to the word “feminist” in some LDS circles. But I’ve found that once I explain what it is for me (my definition is very similar to Lorie’s)it’s hard for most people to disagree too much with it.

    I like your comment about the danger of cultural shackles hindering our abilities to choose.

    One thing that caused me a moment’s pause was the part of Lorie’s article where she talks about some feminists demanding the license, or the irresponsible use of freedom, that men often feel they are entitled. I wonder what she is referring to… My best guess is promiscuous behavior, but perhaps there’s more to it than that.