Global Mormon Feminism: Reflections On The 40th Anniversary Exponent II Issue

Exponent II has been such a gift to me.  There is always something there to make me laugh, something that touches the deepest part of my soul, and something that makes me think in a way that changes my perspective.  Gina Colvin’s article in the 40th Anniversary issue of Exponent II does all three, but it especially has changed my perspective.

I’ve often heard people lament that our proudly “global” church seems to act more like an American corporation with offices in different countries than a truly multinational organization.  The church opens branches and wards and gives them the same handbook that is being used for American wards, with American lingo and correlation. American leaders are sent to establish these congregations and to train people to properly administer the church, with a high emphasis on educating people to ensure the upward social mobility of its members.  Often many traditional worship practices, such as dancing or traditional folk music, are discouraged and/or eliminated in global LDS congregations, and American standards of dress and grooming are emphasized in publications like “For the Strength of Youth” without adaptation for members in other cultures or climates. And while I’m aware that efforts are ongoing to incorporate local input and to mediate some of the larger cultural clashes, most of those who make the overarching, administrative decisions still aren’t locals who live in the area in question: they’re Americans who are receiving feedback, and then making decisions for the non-American area.  I would think that Mormon women, and particularly Mormon feminists, would be empathetic to this dynamic of giving input but not ultimately making the decisions that directly affect them.

In her article, Dr. Colvin argues that rather than helping people with this emphasis on education, we’re ignoring the very real barriers to upward social mobility in other countries, such as an increasing gap between rich and poor, hunger, domestic violence, war, and illiteracy, among others.  In our church, we have simply imposed the American ideal for improving quality of life upon congregations in other countries with other cultures, and doing so is not only unhelpful, it’s colonialist and classist. To quote Dr. Colvin’s article,

Unless we radically reframe Mormon discourses that have traditionally sought to constitute the ideal Mormon middle class Global South subject by socializing them through education, we run the risk of colonizing and overrunning local communities with an ideology of American cultural and class imperialism. . . . We need to reframe the way in which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints manages its global mission in order to become institutionally mindful of the particularities of its own culturally constructed religious and spiritual practices.

Dr. Colvin’s article brings up all sorts of questions for me: how am I imposing my narrative and bias upon others in the church?   What things do I assume are easy for others because of my situation?  What issues and/or discomforts am I blind to because of my bias?  What kind of harm am I inadvertently complicit in?  And what kind of questions am I not even thinking to ask myself about that I should be?

I think these kinds of questions are important in every context, but I am specifically interested in them within the context of Mormon feminism.  So often Mormon feminism has been (fairly) critiqued as being a primarily American movement.  What can we do about this?  How am I imposing my American narrative upon my feminism?  What things are easy for me as an American Mormon that aren’t easy for others?  What issues and/or discomforts am I blind to because of my bias?  What kind of harm am I inadvertently complicit in?  What kind of questions should we be asking ourselves (and our readers), but we aren’t?

Are there global issues that we aren’t as concerned with as we should be?  How do issues of racism, domestic violence, sexual abuse, hunger, poverty, abandonment, rape, genital mutilation, access to female contraception, social shunning, child sex trafficking, maternal mortality, illiteracy, and war affect our sisters across the globe?  What about access to education, divorce, political power, and  property rights?  Do we ignore these issues because many of them aren’t “our” issues?  How can Mormon feminism shift to become a global movement, focused on global issues?  And, critically, are we able to let our global sisters take the lead as we tackle these issues? Again, quoting Dr. Colvin:

Furthermore, allowing white American middle-class women to manage and control the LDS response to Global South issues is merely a feminized version of white colonialism. Women’s issues need to be addressed by the women from those places. The conversations, the stories and narratives of our worldwide sisters, and the language to empower local female leaders to problem-solve at the point of trouble is utterly essential. These Global South women leaders need to be honored, listened to, given resources, supported, and respected by the Global North Church.

I am a firm believer that we can – and should – do better to expand our community to reach beyond our borders.  We have so much work to do, and Gina Colvin’s article is a fantastic reminder of how we can best work with our global brothers and sisters to work towards a model of inclusion, not imperialism.  I encourage you to subscribe to Exponent II if you haven’t already – it will enrich your life, expand your horizons, and inspire you to do more good in the world.  Additionally, we need your voices!  We cannot get global perspectives without hearing from our global sisters.  We are always looking for global perspectives both on the blog (email us), and for Exponent II (see the call for submissions for the Summer 2015 issue here).

How can we change our attitudes and actions to better support our global sisters?  What blogs, books, or articles do you recommend that feature the voices of our global sisters?  What resources are you aware of that support women worldwide?  

Liz

Liz is a reader, writer, wife, mother, gardener, social worker, story collector, cookie-maker, and hug-giver.

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8 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Love these reflections, Liz, and I can’t wait to read Gina Colvin’s article. Such important points.

    So here’s an idea I’ve been thinking about. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could set up an organization that matched a RS in the global north with a RS in the global south? I don’t know exactly what this relationship would entail — letters? emails? sharing of oral histories and experiences? maybe microloans if that was something that both parties were interested in? I don’t know what the outcomes would be or how exactly it would all work out — but I like the idea of connecting with women around the world in meaningful ways and having my American notions challenged and my perspectives broadened. I also like the idea of side-stepping male church structures to form these connections between women.

    • Rachel says:

      Caroline, I love the “sharing of oral histories and experiences” ideas, and similarly “like the idea of connecting with women around the world in meaningful ways.” Which is to say, a loud “Amen.”

    • Liz says:

      I really, really love this idea. Even just setting up some sort of sister-organization where we can partner with each other and share letters/emails/spiritual experiences/oral histories would be amazing. Even just setting up something like a pen-pal system could be so fruitful.

  2. Rachel says:

    Everything about this is so important. Thank you, dear Liz for your good reflections. Thank you (in advance), dear Gina, for what is surely a remarkable article.

  3. Spunky says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post and the comments for a couple of days, trying to decide if I should comment or not. I think my discomfort comes from the 2nd paragraph of the OP, because it isn’t reflective of *all* of the experiences of non-North American church members, though it does have value.

    What is absent is the recognition of church members who are very grateful to the church because of the free dental/ medical / education offered to those who are church members… or not. In addition, we all know missionaries who “teach” English abroad as a part of missionary work. Though the purpose is often to make contacts for “discussions”, *at least* the service of teaching English is offered and often financially valuable to the student. In addition, this English lesson service is imperative if such a thing as a pen-pal system was to develop. But therein lies an issue for Mormon feminists– being critical of the organization that is responsible for your survival creates a dichotomy of biting the hand of those who feed you, and caution from being raised in a place that might lack the freedom of speech might cause one to be paranoid of sharing any perceived or real oppression within the group to which your family is indebted.

    Because of groups like the LDS dentists, there are those who feel generationally indebted to the church, and thus, feel adamant in defending the church against anything that appears to challenge it, even from within its borders. For them, it is not a matter of fair or feminist: it is a matter of health, education, employment and survival. In this, there is loyalty to the American church as a matter of religious devotion. The thought of separating the position of church and state does not come easily in non-American settings, even though it is an American concept and a part of “the” American church.

    But how do we address this? I think that the biggest lost in these communities is that of autonomy without correlation. Missions and Mission presidents have largely defined what is culturally acceptable in local practice. Prior to 1958, and before the global church reorganization, Mission President’s wives were automatically called as Regional Relief Society presidents. In most groups, women are the ones who add culture and character to an organization. Searching classic Relief Society magazines one finds recipes from New Zealand (Pavlova!), Italy, Mexico in addition to nationalistic poetry from Australia, the UK and so on. This is how a global sisterhood developed! But the loss of the autonomy of the Relief Society as an organization in general, and the death of the Relief Society magazine at the hands of the church has created a global cultural crisis within the church. Culture dies as women’s voices are silenced, especially when only allowing those who speak the speech of American Mormonism.

    Though this pre-1971 Relief Society position of slightly better autonomy was still imperfect, there were at least English-speaking Mission President’s wives who would learn some local language and culture to share with the church. Often “religious tourists,” these women were enamoured with, and engaged in, local cultural traditions that welcomed a degree of local nationalism and flavour– things that are now dying as the church becomes more global. In this, members could be nationalistic to their country and culture, yet patriotic to the church.

    In the end, (as I could go on for quite a while- and already have-), the removal of Mormon women’s autonomy by over-correlating the Relief Society, and the increased masculinity of the church and church websites in positioning a single view as pious (when was the last general conference where no one mentioned World War 2?), therefore forces local leadership, especially those under the governance of a Mission President, into a “we’d better do it *exactly* this way or the church will kick us out” mind frame. Fear of being outed from an organization that has been the source of spiritual and emotional health, and quite often has provided medical, dental and educational care to its members is very real, and needs to be considered by the church and Mormon feminists if we hope to achieve the global sisterhood that we seek.

    I’ve not read Dr. Colvin’s article, but I look forward to it, very much!

    • EFH says:

      I really liked the points you bring up. What if we are to provide the platform for an unofficial RS magazine? Simply a magazine where women from all over the world share recepies, advice on education and careers, poetry etc,. We don’t always have to connect on feminist issues but we can find a lot of insight and common ground on our female experiences.

      • spunky says:

        You and I think alike, EFH, I think an unofficial RS magazine that shares exactly what you suggest, and more, would be brilliant. I love the idea of more independence of thought rather that utter piety– which is to say, I like the model shown by the Exponent because it does not segregate those of us with inactive or non-mormon families into a “project” category. But the Exponent is still far too American, though I love LOVE love the Exponent with all of my heart. (and I feel wicked saying that, because I would give my life for the Exponent and any of the women I know through the Exponent.)

  1. April 24, 2015

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