Good Mormon Feminists vs. Bad Mormon Feminists: The Dividing Line

by Caroline

In a couple of different conversations I’ve had with her, Mormon feminist Lorie Winder Stromberg has proposed that many Mormons commonly perceive two types of feminists within the Church.

The first are the good Mormon feminists. These are feminists, often professional women, who may question gender roles and women’s lack of visibility in texts and leadership, but are on the whole seen as faithful and dedicated to the Church. *

The second are the bad Mormon feminists.  These are the feminists that are regarded as dangerous, apostate, and disloyal to the Church.

According to Stromberg’s theory, the dividing line between these two groups of feminists – the thing that makes the one group good and the one group bad – is the issue of women’s ordination to the priesthood.

If a woman calls herself a feminist, but doesn’t focus on or talk about the issue of women’s ordination, then other Mormons are often willing to regard these women as benign and good, despite their strange feminist leanings. However, if a feminist does reveal her convictions that women should have the priesthood, she is automatically regarded as a threat to Mormon leadership and Mormonism in general.

I think this is a valid theory. Sure, we’re making broad sweeps here and obviously generalizing, but I think there might be something to these ideas. What do you think? Would you agree generally that women’s ordination is a trigger point?  Are there other dividing line issues that function similarly (i.e. connecting to the feminine divine)?

If one accepts this theory, my  follow up questions are these: Why does women’s ordination function as this dividing line? What is it about a woman thinking that priesthood should be available to all humans that makes her such a threat, whereas a woman questioning prescribed  Mormon gender roles or a woman who wants to see an expanded space for women’s action and participation in Church is not such a threat?

I don’t know that I have a great answer to this huge question I just posed, but here’s an initial attempt. I suspect that people aren’t as threatened by women questioning gender roles or women’s lack of visibility in leadership because there appears to be wiggle room on these issues. The Proclamation, which has some of our heaviest prescriptions on men’s roles vs. women’s, does have that line about how individual circumstances may vary. Also, women who want expanded roles for women’s leadership have only to go back to our own Mormon past to see women who were really running their own programs, controlling their own funds, and highly visible in their callings. (How times have changed.)

However, on the topic of women getting the priesthood…. well there’s not so much precedent for that. (Though one can certainly find inspiration and hope from the way Mormon women used to talk about holding the priesthood in conjunction with their husbands, or the way people commonly perceived the endowment ceremony giving women priesthood in some sense.) Women’s ordination is a forward thinking leap into the unknown. Perhaps that’s just scary to a lot of Mormons. And perhaps it also signals heresy because, unlike the questioning of gender roles, it’s a place where so few Mormon women and men are willing to go.

*I originally named a few examples of femininsts who might be considered either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but it was rightly pointed out to me that doing so might reinforce these labels in unfair ways.

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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51 Responses

  1. Jessawhy says:

    Wow, Caroline. By the title, I thought you were going to name names of bad Mormon feminists and I was afraid I was going to make the list.
    But, perhaps by your definition, I do already 🙂

    You ask really good questions, and honestly I don’t really understand why the idea of women’s ordination is such a line in the sand. Perhaps my perceptions have changed so much in the past few years that this concept is no longer blasphemous to me.

    There are other lines in the sand, though. Willingness to stand up to a priesthood leader seems to be one of them. Wearing pants to church may be another.

    I’m going to think more about this and check back to see where the comments go.

  2. ZD Eve says:

    Excellent questions, Caroline.

    It’s interesting that the good-bad divide posited between Bushman/Ulrich and Toscano/Hanks/Stromberg is also a generational divide. Perhaps another factor separating the two groups is the different church contexts in which each came to prominence. Toscano/Hanks/Stromberg emerged during a period of greater retrenchment and hostility between the institutional church and its intellectual critics. (Certainly they also pushed the envelope further than their predecessors, maybe one factor that led to the church pushing back.)

    One issue I’ve recently discussed with my sisters is the question of the feminist lynchpin. What is the one issue on which all other issues hang? From what I know of Toscano’s work, for her that issue is priesthood. (I borrow this observation shamelessly from my sister Kiskilili.) Bushman, I would suggest, doesn’t have a lynchpin; she seems to advocate a general, practical, ground-up, what-can-be-done approach to Mormon feminism. Ulrich’s scholarship also doesn’t seem to advocate for a single defining issue as much as for a deeper, more complex historical understanding of women’s lives. Such approaches are inevitably going to be less threatening to the institutional church. (I’m overgeneralizing horribly about various people here; please forgive me, and please correct me, all you who are better feminist scholars than I!)

    Another thing that interests me about women’s ordination in Mormonism is that, maybe more than any other feminist issue, it has clear analogues in other religious traditions. Women’s ordination seems to be one issue around which churches define themselves on the social landscape. On this we’re over there on the right with the Catholics and Missouri Synod Lutherans and conservative Protestants generally. These social issues are so central to our self-definition I think it would require huge changes in the social landscape before women’s ordination could even become a possibility in Mormonism. (So I guess in that respect I’m sympathetic to the Bushman/Ulrich approach, insofar as there is such a thing.) Ironically, I suspect it’s much _more_ possible for us to change our temple ceremony, which is far more central to our theology, because of the lack of clear analogues on the social landscape. We’re not publicly defining and situating ourselves in terms of what goes on in the temple in the way we are on social issues like gay marriage, the traditional family, patriarchy, etc. Or maybe I just think this because I so want to hope the temple ceremony will change again soon.

    Having typed that last sentence, I’m thinking about something Kevin Barney said awhile ago at FMH to Ruby, who was suggesting that we all write letters and petition and lobby the church to change something or other, I forget now what. He pointed out to her that’s the worst possible way to get the church to change, since it’s so sensitive to the slightest perception of having capitulated to public pressure (and it’s a real conundrum, in a church that we understand to be divinely led–as I believe it is). But this of course creates a real dilemma for people like me who want to see change. Again, maybe the Bushman/Ulrich approach is more practical. On the other hand, sacrificial lambs like Toscano and Hanks and Sonia Johnson also move the discourse forward, raising tough issues people don’t want to talk about, but then pay a horrible price. Strangely, though, it seems as if after the church has excommunicated these people the issues they were ex’d over become more discussable, at least in some circles. Does anyone quiver in fear at the thought of advocating for the ERA anymore? And while Toscano’s (or should I say Margaret’s?) ideas about temple and priesthood remain very controversial, they’re also now part of the landscape, available for discussion.

    To go back to the issue of women’s ordination: personally, I don’t think in and of itself it would solve much. Women’s ordination to the priesthood is, theoretically, perfectly compatible with patriarchy. (If you believe, as some do, that women receive the priesthood in the temple, I offer your conception of this issue as Exhibit A). That’s another practical reason I don’t think it’s worth agitating for. For me, anyway, the bigger problem is patriarchy.

  3. jks says:

    I would say that a Good Mormon Feminist blames the world for the women’s rights issues she cares about. She wants positive changes for women because women might have been overshadowed, or devalued, or abused, or dismissed, etc. by church leaders or church members or church society or our government or the world’s society.
    Once you focus on women and the priesthood, it makes it seem like she doesn’t agree with God. That is what makes a Bad Mormon Feminist seem bad.
    Of course I am speaking as someone who does not want women to have the priesthood. I can get behind many feminist issues (like women being treated as people) but I can’t get behind that.

  4. jddaughter says:

    I think that women who grow up in the church have it pounded into their heads so much that they don’t want the priesthood, with statements saying that it is meant to help those “underdeveloped men” to develop their spirituality, or that the priesthood would be too difficult a responsibility to them, that it becomes part of their psyche, and everyone reacts violently when their sense of self is questioned. If women can have the priesthood, that means they’ve been living a lie their whole lives. This is one of those circular issues to me, where those excuses women are given are a reaction to the policy, and that the policy survives based on the excuses given.

  5. Starfoxy says:

    I see the line in the sand as oddly enough, suggesting solutions to problems, rather than just having problems of any sort.
    Saying “I feel hurt and confused about the content of the Temple ceremony and what it means for women” is perfectly acceptable. Adding on “and I think they should take out [this], [that] and [the other thing].” makes you ‘dangerous.’
    If instead you end with “and I hope that someday I will understand it better.” keeps you non-threatening.

    I can see why the institutional church is leery of people with solutions, there is a clear hierarchy, and someone who steps outside the hierarchy to offer solutions is threatening the structure of the organization (ie they don’t know their place). On the other hand simply having, and giving voice to problems doesn’t threaten the hierarchy- especially when it is framed as part of a personal struggle for testimony or understanding.

    Which brings me to the idea of institutional change that ZDEve mentioned. When I think about when institutional change has been made it has been in response to large numbers of people who just ‘had problems’ with things. When one person has a problem then that problem may be with the person, but when large numbers of people have the same problems then things happen. So Ruby’s suggestion may not have been far off- write letters but instead of demanding change, describe your personal struggle with whatever, and just say what’s bothering you.

    I think it is easy to see women’s ordination as the dividing line because it’s often viewed (incorrectly) as a solution to the inequality of women in the church. Most women who openly discuss their desire for women’s ordination are solution givers.

  6. Blake says:

    It seems to me that the real dividing line is that the good feminists go to Church and still identify themselves as church members whereas the bad feminists don’t and are either totally inactive or have expresslhy joined other churches — like the Gnostic church. The difference isn’t who asks questions about the priesthood — since the good feminists do that too.

  7. ZD Eve says:

    Blake, what a relief! I’m good feminist after all. (Or, as defined by my visiting-teaching stats, at least a fair-to-middling one). Although on second thought perhaps the approbation of the patriarchy eviscerates my claim to feminism. Am I good feminist, or just a chicken feminist?

    So Ruby’s suggestion may not have been far off- write letters but instead of demanding change, describe your personal struggle with whatever, and just say what’s bothering you.

    I think it is easy to see women’s ordination as the dividing line because it’s often viewed (incorrectly) as a solution to the inequality of women in the church. Most women who openly discuss their desire for women’s ordination are solution givers.

    Really good point, Starfoxy. I think you’re dead on about the way to make such messages palatable (the famous fourteen-year-old’s letter to President Hinckley about women’s exaltation is a template of this type of rhetoric, I suppose.)

    Although I think you’re entirely right about the problems of being a solution-giver (as I read you, giving solutions such as women’s ordination makes one a “bad feminist”), I also find the whole structure very frustrating and limiting. I’m all for personal experiences, but if _all_ women can do is speak from our experience, if we can’t advocate for change on that basis or draw any broader conclusions about the institution, we’re stuck in the ghetto of particularity and feminine language, unable to connect the dots between experience and structures of power. And I suspect women’s letters confined to their experiences end up fueling problematic rhetoric from the church. They call men on the carpet for not being nicer to women, and see the problem entirely as a failure of individual men rather than as in any way connected to institutional structures.

  8. Caroline says:

    Hi Jessawhy,
    Well, I would likewise be considered a ‘bad’ feminist if we went by this framework. Likewise, if we went by Starfoxy’s. (by the way, excellent points, Starfoxy). However, according to Blake’s activity standard, I would probably be put on the ‘good’ side.

    Eve, wonderful points. I am absolutely with you on the necessity of changing the temple ceremony. That, I think, is the first crucial step towards establishing women’s full humanity and personhood in LDS theology.

    I agree with you that the root problem is indeed patriarchy, and you’re right to point out that women’s ordination can still exist within a patriarchal framework. I suppose, however, that I see women’s ordination as an important step to crushing the patriarchal framework that works within Mormonism. Once we take away the idea that men preside, administrate, and are ‘hearkened unto’ because they hold the priesthood (this is a justification I often hear), I think we open the door to envision an egalitarian relationship between the sexes.

    Question that just leaped into my mind: can patriarchy be eliminated from Mormonism without eliminating an all male priesthood? My inclination is to say ‘no’.

  9. Caroline says:

    jks, thanks for your comment. I agree that one thing that does seem to make ‘bad’ feminists bad is the perception that they are going against God. But I still wonder… why does a woman who sees an all male priesthood as a cultural remnant from a sexist past any different from a woman who sees prescribed gender roles as a cultural remnant from a sexist past? Why do so many Mormons attribute male priesthood to God, but not gender roles…?

    jddaughter, I think you are right. I was also taught to spurn the idea of women having the priesthood, and it is a big scary leap to finally articulate to oneself that this is something that should be available to all humans. I don’t know if I could have done that without reading about and finding a community of women who were brave enough to do so.

    As I said before, Starfoxy, I love your points. I do think that you’ve put your finger on something huge – the perceived hubris of a person that is willing to suggest a solution to something that person perceives as a problem. I do, however, think that there is space for solutions on some topics. For instance, our stake has been focusing on including singles more, and my perception is that the leadership would love it if people would propose solutions. (After all, it’s not like they have to follow them.) So I guess there are some issues (perhaps more locally driven?) where leaders are happy to hear ideas about ways to fix problems, but other issues where a person can’t go without marginalizing themselves and appearing dangerous.

    I absolutely agree that a hugely important way to invite change is to communicate our hurt and distress about the temple, gender roles, etc. to our leaders. I imagine that’s why we got the softened temple language in 1990. Though I share your frustration, Eve, that this seems to be our best workable option. I too want to connect the dots between the power structure and women’s feelings of unhappiness or subjugation.

  10. Alisa says:

    My thoughts aren’t as articulate on this matter, but the first thing that comes to mind is that a feminist who doesn’t advocate for female ordination seems to support the idea that men and women can be separate but equal. Feeling that men and women have disctinct differences, both spiritual and biological, allows containment for most subversion. Those sexual differences are some of the most important claims to the old guard of the Church.

  11. Starfoxy says:

    I’m right there with you Eve. I also find it incredibly frustrating, and I think that is where the real problem lies.

    The structure of the church is set up so that it retains all the power of defining what is and is not a problem, how to fix it, and who should do the fixing.

    Staying safely within that structure limits women to merely a descriptive role, and even further limits their power to describe only their own feelings. Women who do not challenge that structure stay in the good graces of the organization because, despite their discontent they are still playing by the rules.

    When you step beyond the realm of personal anecdotes then you are claiming institutional authority, and that is what makes one a ‘bad’ feminist.

    If one wants to remain a good feminist then all she can do it describe her personal angst, and hope that enough other women are in a similar situation to create a widespread cry of discontent, and then further hope that the institutional church responds in an effective way. For many that is leaving entirely too much up to chance, because there may not be enough voices for anyone to notice, and the ‘cure’ may be worse than the disease.

  12. Jeff says:

    I have a hard time believe that anybody who thinks women should have the priesthood is a “bad” feminist. There is certainly precedent. Blacks were not allowed to hold the priesthood, but then the prophet received a revelation and they were able.

    President Hinckley has stated that in order for women to hold the priesthood, all that is needed is a revelation. I don’t believe that we know why women can’t hold the priesthood, and I’m not aware of any scripture or revelation saying specifically that they can’t — it’s more a lack of revelation saying that they can.

    I think it’s a shame that control of the RS and other organizations that were started by and run by the women were put under the control of the men a few decades ago.

  13. Parts of this conversation make me uncomfortable because they seem to suggest the only possibility for ‘good’ (read: ‘faithful’) Mormon feminists is to try to get around the patriarchy by the old ‘making it look like it’s his idea’ strategy. Having problems = OK but suggesting solutions = Not OK? It feels inauthentic and unempowered. Not to mention weak and whiny.

    Do you think change can take place in the Church just by women doing what they need to do matter-of-factly? If women just begin to wear pants to church, or if they lay their hands on their children while praying, for example–little things that push the envelope while not strictly apostate, will we see some gradual change?

  14. Ziff says:

    Great questions, Caroline. If I understand what you’re saying, perhaps the Church finds it easy (or easier) to accept people questioning practices where there’s more wiggle room, as you observe is the case with gender role prescriptions, because they’re continuous. By that I mean that they’re made up of lots of little parts and there are lots of possible adaptations that you can make without giving up the language. Hence, as Kiskilili has observed, we have chicken patriarchy.

    But it’s much more difficult to make a parallel chicken male-only priesthood ordination. It’s more categorical where roles are more continuous. Either you’re ordaining women or you’re not. There’s not much wiggle room to create a practice that slides out of line with the rule here and there.

    Of course I guess you could argue that ordination is more continuous than I think. There’s the argument already mentioned by Eve that women are already ordained in the temple. I guess the Church could ordain women here a little and there a little, in specific categories (women whose children are out of the house?), but still it seems to me that that would be a big categorical line to cross, as you’ve outlined, Caroline.

    Eve, you and Lynnette and Kiskilili have successfully convinced me that perhaps ordaining women wouldn’t necessarily bring dramatic change. As someone already observed (here or on another thread) there are Protestant denominations that for a long time ordained women but still were in practice run by men (or maybe they still do that).

    I still do see having women ordained as central, though, because while it may not be sufficient to ensure that women actually have a say in running the Church, I think it’s probably necessary. It seems far more likely that already-ordained women would be included among the General Authorities of the Church than that women would get in another way. In fact, I would guess that at least some resistance to ordaining women boils down to that. Once they’re ordained to be deacons, why not teachers, why not elders, why not high priests, why not seventies or apostles? Once they’re let across one line, it would be harder to hold any other line.

    (Sorry to get so off topic!)

  15. Caroline says:

    Good point, Alisa. I was originally going to discuss the different types of feminisms that allow for separate but equal vs. the types that insist on equal institutional access, but I think I’ll save that for another post.

    Starfoxy, (sadly) I think you’re right on here:
    “When you step beyond the realm of personal anecdotes then you are claiming institutional authority, and that is what makes one a ‘bad’ feminist.”

    I agree, Jeff, that women who think that priesthood should be open to all worthy people shouldn’t be seen as ‘bad’. (I do hope it’s not coming across that I support this characterization.) However, I think that amongst rank and file Mormons, this may be a way people (unfairly) commonly divide feminists into these two different camps.

    BIV, I hear you. Sadly, though, I think that this dynamic is probably often a reality. Rank and file Mormons are, I think, far more comfortable with a woman who expresses pain and stops there than with a woman who expresses pain and then proposes institutional solutions. It is indeed frustrating that the former course (working through the men) may (?) be women’s best option in the Church.

    I love the idea of just taking things into our own hands and then perhaps seeing institutional change follow, but I think there are some issues that don’t easily allow for that. If a woman is convinced that she should hold the priesthood, there’s nothing she can do to to just take that on. She can’t start passing or blessing the sacrament or call herself to a leadership position. She can, like you pointed out, lay hands on and bless, but that would probably be a private phenomenon, and it’s doubtful it would come to the attention of her leaders. (Though I am all for women doing this, whether or not it leads to institutional change!)

  16. James says:

    One way of thinking about it is that “good” feminists (as defined in this post) stick to issues that can actually be addressed – such as awareness of social norms (and I’m sure others). Those can be brought up (and changed) without a global shift in church policies or practices.

    On the other hand, “bad” feminists ranting about women’s ordinations don’t get much sympathy from because there’s almost nothing just about anyone can do about it. Personally, I feel sympathetic to and unthreatened by the idea itself, but it is so far away from my sphere and control I don’t feel compelled to jump on the Indignation Bandwagon, so to speak.

    I’m not suggesting there’s no room for real discussion or frustration on some level, just that most people (including myself) don’t see the issue being worth a great deal of preoccupation in light of the huge net positives that come through the church/gospel.

  17. miles says:

    I think starfoxy is really on to something. I think to say you have “issues” with parts of the church policy, temple, etc. is fine, almost expected from everyone from time to time. It is to be dealt with yourself through patience and faith. The statements about needed changes and heaven forbid, suggestions about how those changes could or should be implemented will that is just too much.

    I had a very positive experience talking about my issues with gender in the church, particularly the words equal and preside within the Proclamation recently during a Temple Recommend interview. It was not something I had done before, but was understood and supported. I talked of generational changes and patience with others, but really kept it there. I wonder how giving specific things I want changed would of been received. Food for thought.

    I think I may be a functional bad feminist.

  18. EmilyCC says:

    Ooh, interesting ideas here! The most radical aspect of my feminist identity is that I do talk about ordaining women in church; I’ve gone so far as to say that I chose my profession (chaplaincy) because I couldn’t be ordained. But, I think my ward would consider me a “good” feminist because even though I have those crazy ideas, I do the work they ask me to do and volunteer often, and I do frame the ordination of women in the context of my own experience–I wouldn’t have identified the latter without Starfoxy’s and Eve’s comments, though.

    BiV, it is discouraging to see that working “within the system” can look like feminists are cajoling male leadership to make it look like the men’s idea. Lately, I’ve been feeling a little more discouraged because it seems like it is the other women in the Church who want the male leadership to legitimize feminist ideals before they’ll accept them. I wonder how often are the men labeling who’s a “good” feminist and who’s a “bad” one and how often are these labels being handed out by the women of the Church who find feminism threatening?

  19. G says:

    I think I’m a bad feminist. better spank me.
    😛

    And good questions caroline!

    If you would ask most of my family they would be shocked at the idea that there could ever possibly be a such a thing as a “good” mormon feminist. However, if the conversation were pursued, they may concede that feminists who are patiently and prayerfully awaiting God to reveal certain changes to the brethren could be considered “good mormons” (though sadly deceived).

  20. hawkgrrrl says:

    What a great post. There are so many excellent points already made. In my own ward, women are very comfortable referring to endowed women having the priesthood and officiating within the temple as well as women in the early church giving blessings. I think your point about the line in the sand is valid, and that it is likely due to the disdain in the church for people telling the organization what to do. My own opinion is that women will not be truly equal in the church until the majority of GAs had mothers who were at minimum empowered and many professional women.
    When an individual has a problem and then gives an organizational solution, it seems self-serving. The church likes to make all decisions through either leadership or committee, at least at the local level. I think the church fears what the men would do if the women got the priesthood. Would they divest? Little thought is given to what the women already do without it because it’s the status quo. Personally, I feel feminists have to divest to some extent. Saying you don’t care about the priessthood is a form of divesting.

  21. ZD Eve says:

    I think the church fears what the men would do if the women got the priesthood. Would they divest?

    I was talking to my sister Kiskilili about this the other night. Among other things, we discussed the fact that the priesthood is constitutive of masculinity in the Mormon world. Those who advocate female ordination are going to have to come to terms with this somehow. I don’t think there’s any chance women will be ordained unless there’s some other definition of masculinity, some other way for men to be masculine. It’s possible, I suppose, but not at all obvious what that other way might be.

    And I actually think that overall the LDS Church does an excellent job socializing men, particularly when I see the alternatives in my 18-21-year-old male students. What I’d like to see is the church get out of scouting altogether and then shore up the girls’ and YW’s programs so that we do just as good a job for young women as we (generally) do for young men. Those kinds of changes seem much more possible and likely to me.

    I don’t know if I’m a good feminist or a bad feminist, but the more I think about these issues, the more I’m convinced I’m a negative feminist. I just don’t see women’s ordination happening within my lifetime. In between the political landscape on which the church has positioned itself and the issue of rites of passage into masculinity, the obstacles are huge.

  22. Kelly Ann says:

    This is a very interesting post Caroline.

    Women’s ordination is probably one of the lines … but I think the difference between good and bad has a lot to do with attitude and tact. Mormon’s don’t like those who make a stink so if you are quietly questioning the gamut of issues than you could be perceived as good. However, if you are challenging the teacher or Bishop, then you would be perceived as bad.

    But one question … I have often thought of writing a letter to SLC CH to express my concern over various practices. Not attacking but with the intent of bringing an issue to the fore-front. I don’t because I don’t want my name to be black-listed. Does anyone know of this method being effective? What is the history of ‘the famous 14 year old’s letter’?

  23. mb says:

    I think Kelly Ann has a good point. It is a well known principle in family relations (parent-teenager, sibling, adult child-adult parent, etc.) that if person A is making decisions that person B thinks are short-sighted and uninspired and person B rags on A and complains to others, and challenges them, acting impatient and annoyed not only will A not listen, but A will perceive B as a royal pain.

    However, if person B approaches A with charity, explains his/her emotions and perceptions clearly, makes requests for change, and then leaves A to exercise his/her own agency freely and patiently respects that agency and does not rail against it, almost always A will be more charitably inclined towards B, and not only that, their mutual relationship will be far more likely to work together positively, and person A, though not immediately inclined to make any changes, will be far more open to them down the road.

    Charity, patience and respect for agency, even when you think the other person is being boneheaded, make a powerful difference in family relations, be they immediate family or church family.

  24. Caroline says:

    Ziff, I would agree with you that ordaining women is not sufficient to ensure women’s equality in the Church, but it is necessary.

    James, like you mentioned, I do think thoughtful discussions of women’s ordination are of paramount importance to moving the Church forward on this issue. It seems to me that God works through people who are deeply contemplating an issue. If there’s no contemplation amongst our GAs, there’s no chance for change. And there will be no contemplation if there’s no conversation.

    miles, I’m glad you had a good experience during your interview. I think times are indeed changing if leaders are listening with sensitivity and understanding to people who are troubled by patriarchal language.

    Emily, I too worry about the role the average Mormon woman plays in holding progressive change at bay. I’ve met far more men than women who don’t care about women getting the priesthood. The most virulently negative responses to the question seem to usually come from women (in my experience).

    hawkgirl,
    What a great ward you have! As for the question of men possibly becoming less active if women were ordained… I would like to have enough faith in men that they wouldn’t pull out just because women are there as well in full partnership. And I hate the thought of the Church leaders pragmatically making the decision to confine women’s opportunities just to make the men feel more important.

    G, you’ve got some extreme family members! Yikes.

    Eve, I agree that priesthood is currently synonymous in some sense with Mormon masculinity. But I have to wonder if we would need to find some other way for men to be masculine if women were ordained. Couldn’t talks and lessons just focus on how to be good disciples of Christ and good human beings in general? Why the need, once women are ordained, to organizationally and/or rhetorically separate women from men? Do you see this masculine/feminine duality as necessary in order to keep the men invested and active in the Church?

    Kelly Ann and mb, I agree that attitude and tact are important. It’s a hard line to navigate though. Sometimes personal integrity requires that a person ‘speak truth to power’ as the Quakers put it. How to do that honestly, kindly, compassionately, but still with integrity and without burying inside oneself all the hurt and pain? I don’t know.

    As for writing a letter to SLC, I say do it! My understanding is that a secretary will open the letter. If he/she thinks is particularly poignant they might send it up the line of command. And in any case, they’ll send it to your bishop and stake president. I don’t think you’d get blacklisted. I think they’d probably just want you to come in to talk to them so that they could try to help you feel better.

    mb, I like your analogy with person A and B in a family very much. And your point about respecting the agency of the other person is well taken. The only place I feel like it doesn’t quite capture the Church dynamic is in the power differential. In a family (at least my family) my husband and I are equals and have to compromise, whether I speak strongly or softly. In a Church setting. the leader really has no imperative to compromise with the person who has the problem, so speaking softly and personally in the hopes of appealing to the leader’s emotions might be seen as the best hope. And then we’re back to BIV’s concern about women cajoling men in power in order to make progress…

  25. merrybits says:

    If any of you have seen HBO’s “Iron Jawed Angels” (a movie about the sufferage movement), you would recognize the powerful case against patience,charity and respect. It got the women nowhere with the president. Only when they made noise and became a “pain”, did change come. It’s interesting that we have read that “Man is not supposed to be without the Women” (or something like that), but what do we see when we watch General Conference or up on the stand at church – men, just men. I don’t believe men w/o women means primarily in a marriage context. I believe it means they labor side by side in all things. My opinion: the Church will never live up to its potential until it embraces women in all things.

  26. mb says:

    I believe there is a great difference between a) cajoling and b) speaking truth and allowing agency. The former is a manner of trying to get someone to make the choices you want them to make. The latter is honesty and respect and the ability to allow others the freedom to make poor choices without feeling like a failure if they do.

    It is disingenuous to speak truth and allow agency and then feel like you have failed because the outcome did not come out as you had wished or the person did not respond as you had hoped. If you do that then you are not speaking truth and allowing agency, you are simply using a method of persuasion (truth speaking)with the hope that it will make someone change and you will get more of what you want. Cajoling is a form of manipulation. I am totally against it.

    My point is that in relations among reasonable, civilized people (I’m not talking about abusers here) even where there is a unequal power dynamic and the person with “the power” feels no compunction to acquiesce to the ideas of the person with less power, there is more to be gained on many fronts by stating truth and allowing agency than there is to be gained by employing acrimonious tactics that reflect frustration and anger (or by cajoling either).

    You ask the very good question “How to do that honestly, kindly, compassionately, but still with integrity and without burying inside oneself all the hurt and pain?” That question cuts to the essence of Christian life.

    For me there are two factors for that in regards to this issue of feminism and priesthood. First, I am convinced that women will officiate in all priesthood ordinances and that such is part of God’s plan, so I’m not worried that it will never happen. I trust God’s timing and his ability to heal in the meantime. I think it would be harder if I felt like it depended upon me and other feminists for it to happen or for all inequities to be made equal. But I don’t. Both will happen no matter what we do or don’t do. I will still speak my mind and engage in the conversation because I believe that, as you point out, both are good and helpful, but I have no illusions that it depends on us.

    Secondly, I am learning to abide in Jesus’ love. Perhaps that sounds cliche, but it’s true. When I am in it the balm and power are tangible and it takes much more to make me hurt than when I am not. John, chapter 15 is real. It has taken me decades to learn that.

  27. Kelly Ann says:

    Caroline, A letter being forwarded to my Bishop or Stake President to me seems like black listing … If I thought they could do anything about the policys, I’d mention it to them directly. To me it screams of look here is a trouble maker to be wary of … But sense that is what my leaders now probably think of me, given my increasing vocal opposition, I guess that is not so bad. Especially because my letter would be pretty mild for me to think that it might have a shot at making it to the GA.

  28. Kelly Ann says:

    And yes, I agree that attitude and tact are a hard line to negotiate. However, I do think they one can “speak truth to power” with tact. After reading so much anti-stuff online, I am not quite sure how to discuss the venom that can exist in regards to some topics. That is what I am referring to avoid. Maybe by tact, I mean neither party should leave a conversation feeling personally attacked, but still I can imagine where that might be perceived even with the utmost care.

  29. Kelly Ann says:

    Sorry for the typo … with “discuss the venom”, I meant “describe the venom.”

    Almost the same point, but not quite …

  30. css says:

    I love this post and agree with many of the discussions here, especially the idea that coming up with solutions is the dangerous measure of “good/bad” feminism. The thing I have a hard time with is that I have a constant, nagging, desire to cause change and I have for as long as I remember. However, as many have said previously, it is difficult in a church where you have no institutional authority OR structure for making change as a woman. Often when I talk to people about these contradictory feelings they respond by saying something like: “Just trust God”, and “We don’t know his timing”, etc.

    This is where my problem begins. I don’t believe I was sent to earth to passively trust that things will happen, or wait or have faith that God will make changes. I believe that God uses people to bring about his works. But according to our original predicament I (as Woman) cannot bring about change on this issue. By that logic does God only use Men to bring about his “institutional” works? If not, what is my role? I feel this passionate about this issue so that I can make a difference, right?

  31. mb says:

    Kelly Ann,
    When the letter is forwarded to the stake president it is simply sent with a note requesting that the fellow contact the letter writer to see if he can be of assistance. Unless your stake president has an automatic, knee jerk, defensive reaction, you shouldn’t get any sort of black listing, and then only in the mind of the stake president. There’s nothing in the communication from Salt Lake that implies it or makes it a black listing.

    But do know that it will be shared, so don’t say anything that you wouldn’t wish to be repeated.

    Mind you, this goes only for letters with concerns about policies or doctrine. I don’t know about other sorts of letters.

  32. mb says:

    On the other hand, if the person who reads your letter feels like it’s something he or she can personally respond to, you may get a personal response. It really depends on what the recipient thinks would be most helpful.

  33. suzann says:

    I am a feminist who enjoys men serving as priesthood bearers. However, I believe priesthood bears the responsibility of encouraging both women and men to develop all their talents, and that real men of God would listen to, and harken to, and take counsel from women as well as men.

    I find it odd that women participate in priesthood in the Temple, only to walk out of the Temple and pretend that nothing special in the priesthood happened.

  34. Kristine says:

    I disagree with the premise that advocating women’s ordination is what gets people labeled “bad feminists.” I think you could get in just as much trouble advocating, say, women’s employment outside of the home, especially if you did it by saying explicitly that the PotF is wrong. On the other hand, if you just get a job and go to work and also keep showing up at church and doing your calling, nobody’s going to bat an eye.

    The real divide, I think, is between practical feminists and idealist feminists–practical Mormon feminism (Realfeminismus, for the German social theory-inclined among you :)) works within the institution for realizable change, while idealist Mormon feminists often find themselves outside of the institution, articulating ideals which cannot be achieved without large structural change. Women’s ordination is one of these ideals, but so are truly egalitarian marriage, a robust theology of Heavenly Mother, an ecofeminist approach to stewardship, and a historiography that regards women’s stories as part of the larger narrative of Church history (rather than a cute sideshow). Advocating any of those ideals strenuously is liable to get you labeled a “bad feminist,” because Mormons generally respond to practical direction rather than the pursuit of theoretical perfection, so that being too theoretical simply seems alien to Mormon-ness in terms of style, and that is ultimately more important than whether the substance of one’s critique is consistent with Mormon-ism.

    Ultimately, the two kinds of feminisms are completely interdependent–the idealists give the realists inspiration and clear vision while bearing a large portion of the burden of institutional hostility. The practical feminists endure the petty frustrations of working in the trenches every Sunday, while making subtle adjustments within the institutional structure–the women being included in the sustaining of the prophet in the Solemn Assembly, the inclusion of more women in Ward Council, empowering the YW through better programs and education, etc. I think recognizing this interdependence would be beneficial to feminists on both sides of the line(s) in the sand.

  35. Caroline says:

    Kristine,
    Thank you so much for your insightful comment. I love your point about about the interdependence of idealistic feminists and practical feminists. I think there’s a lot of truth there, one that is important to articulate, since I think in many ways the perceived divide between the two groups is artificial. Would you agree, however, that in common Mormon perception, the idealistic feminists would be considered ‘bad’ and the pragmatic feminists would be considered ‘good’?

    Your comment also made me wonder about this: Is it possible for a Mormon feminist to straddle both the worlds of idealism and pragmatism and survive within the Church? Because I would say that I fall into both camps – I’m happy to articulate a vision of greater egalitarianism that would entail huge structural changes, but I would also like to try to work on a local ward level for realistic improvements. It makes me wonder – can a person like me help to make those incremental improvements – will I have any credibility with my ward members – if I also am articulating (on blogs and private conversations) an idealistic vision at the same time?

  36. Kristine says:

    Caroline, I do think in practice that idealist feminists get labeled “bad,” and they often find themselves outside the Church. (Although it’s important to note that it’s a two-way street–the very traits of temperament that make people idealists may be the ones that make it impossible for them to accept the inevitable disappointments and compromises of working within the Church).

    I wish I thought you could be both. And maybe it is possible now in a way that it wasn’t a decade or so ago. I still think that a lot depends on what you _publish_–for most of the “bad” feminists of a generation ago, it was the printed word that caused them the most trouble. To a large extent, the internet makes it impossible for the institutional Church to monitor what Mormons are publishing, and I think it’s less likely that we’ll see another purge like that of September 93–the winds have shifted. But I do think that even feminist blogging may diminish one’s credibility in the church, and even private conversations that get (mis)reported can cause no end of trouble.

    I wish it were otherwise.

  37. Lynnette says:

    This is a fascinating conversation. I can tell it’s been on my mind, because I dreamed the other night that my sister Kiskilili called me up to say that she’d realized the only solution was for women to be ordained. Which surprised me, in the dream, because I didn’t think that was her most central concern. (Though perhaps the dream was prophetic. ;)) But it’s a question, as Eve mentioned, that we’ve often discussed–where do different feminists put their focus, and why?

    I talked to Lorie a little at Sunstone, and said that I was a conflict-averse feminist. I don’t think I have the personality to be too provocative; it causes me too much stress. On the other hand, I realize that this hasn’t actually caused me to avoid discussing feminist ideas, both online and elsewhere, so maybe my anxiety about conflict hasn’t influenced me as much as I think. Anyway, Lorie commented that more moderate feminists really need the existence of more radical ones, because they make the former appear less threatening, which I thought was a valid point.

    I’m thinking about Kristine’s observation that it’s the idealists who get in trouble. We talk a lot about how we’re a faith that emphasizes orthopraxy over orthodoxy. But when it comes to feminism, is it possible that heterodox ideas are actually seen as more dangerous than heterodox practices? It’s true that some practices can also get you in trouble, but they seem to be the ones more closely tied to theology (e.g., praying to HM vs. advocating for a larger YW budget–the latter might be criticized, but probably not seen as grounds for ecclesiastical discipline). And while you might make some waves by critiquing the ideal of patriarchal marriage, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting disciplined in the contemporary Church for failure to live that ideal. Is feminism more dangerous in theory than in practice?

  38. Lynnette says:

    Just trying to clarify what I’m saying (which I’m a bit muddled on)–I can see, as Kristine mentioned, that one reason that idealist critique is threatening is because it calls for large structural change in a way that local practical efforts don’t. But I’m also wondering whether there’s a sense that certain ideas are simply spiritually dangerous. I doubt anyone would make the case that an incorrect belief about Kolob would be a serious obstacle to your eternal progress. But what about an incorrect belief regarding, say, the authority or communicative ability of HM? It is telling that discussion of the latter can lead to ecclesiastical sanctions, where discussion of the former is simply likely to cause eye-rolling among members of your GD class. Of course beliefs about HM have implications for current practices that beliefs about Kolob don’t. On the other hand, some ideas about HM–for example, that there are more than one–might be controversial, and even have potential implications for current practice, but are still going to be put in the category of harmless speculation. I find it interesting to see, in a tradition which is so vague on the question of what exactly constitutes official doctrine, which particular ideas get labeled heretical.

  39. Jessawhy says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this thread too, and it occurred to me that “good” and “bad” are not words I use very often. (Parenting books have purged them out of me, I suppose). Thus, I tend to think of behavior in terms of helpful versus hurtful, or confrontational versus non-confrontational, etc.
    So,I like the distinction between practical and idealistic. But perhaps helpful and hurtful are ways that TBMs tend to see feminists, but feminists don’t see themselves.

    I do agree with Caroline that a feminist can be both idealistic and practical (many of the bloggers here are both), but they usually favor one side over the other.

    As Lynnette said, I think of myself as a non-confrontational feminist (except on the bloggernacle, of course). However, I wonder if that butts heads with being an idealistic feminist. It also made me snicker to think of Lynnette being a non-confrontational feminist, but presenting a paper at Claremont about how women may not be fully equal in the celestial kingdom. That seems pretty confrontational to me, in a helpful way, of course. But, perhaps it’s not totally confrontational. The paper wasn’t presented at the church office building for the Q12.
    There must be a sliding scale for confrontation, but Lynnette, I don’t think you’re zero.

  40. Caroline says:

    Lynnette, interesting question – are feminist ideas regarded as more dangerous than feminist practices? I think in a lot of cases the answer is yes. What Mormon feminist is going to get in ecclesiastical trouble for having a full time career, equal parenting with her husband, and co-presiding in her home? However, if a feminist articulates a more egalitarian vision of family life that eliminates gender roles and hierarchy within the marriage, I think she’d be seen as more of a threat – even if she’s a SAHM.

    When it comes to practice vs. theory of priesthood, it might get more complicated. Any action that seems to usurp men’s priesthood role (laying on of hands and healing, for example?) would make most people very nervous – probably just as nervous as someone articulating a belief that priesthood should be open to any worthy human.

    Good questsions about what makes some ideas spiritually dangerous and some simply harmless speculations. I’ll have to think about that more, but I think you’re right – ideas relating to gender seem to generally fall in that dangerous category.

    Kristine, I think you may be right about the inevitable loss of credibility for those who articulate – even if it’s outside the 3 hour block – idealistic visions regarding gender and the Church. Which is one reason why I’ve appreciated Armand Mauss’s advice about being an alternate voice. For those of us with heterodox ideas, he recommends being the first to volunteer, the first to bring meals, the first to help out in any way possible in the ward. That, he says, counteracts some of the suspicions other ward members feel when they learn about your non traditional ideas. Not that I follow that advice very well, but I see the wisdom in it.

  41. Ziff says:

    Caroline, I like your last point. I recall ECS’s husband (can’t recall his online name) making a similar point at a bloggersnacker once. And that kind of reaches back to Blake’s comment early in the thread. I took it as kind of a snark, but I guess there’s truth to it. If you want to be seen as a “good” feminist, then–to a large degree–you just attend and serve in the church. It’s probably the case that people will cut you more slack when you talk about feminist concerns (which I guess would fit in Kristine’s realist group). And I guess that’s true even more generally. We’re more tolerant of one another’s heterodoxies if we serve together more. I know I always find myself less irritated by other ward member’s odd comments when I know them better through doing lots of church stuff together, and I hope that they likewise find themselves less irritated by my odd comments because they know me well.

  42. Lynnette says:

    It also made me snicker to think of Lynnette being a non-confrontational feminist, but presenting a paper at Claremont about how women may not be fully equal in the celestial kingdom. That seems pretty confrontational to me, in a helpful way, of course. But, perhaps it’s not totally confrontational. The paper wasn’t presented at the church office building for the Q12. There must be a sliding scale for confrontation, but Lynnette, I don’t think you’re zero.

    LOL, Jessawhy. You’ve got me there. 🙂 I am perhaps a bit less conflict-avoidant where the subject of feminism is concerned. (By the way, speaking of public presentations on feminism, I hope you’ll be at Sunstone next month!)

  43. We’ve had the women/priesthood issue raise it’s head again (as it does every few weeks or so) on Mormon Momma. And I’ve been feeling a bit out in the dessert for some time on the issue. I almost cried (how girly!) reading so many things on the issue that have been in my head. Thank you all for your thoughts. Especially this week.

    “Once you focus on women and the priesthood, it makes it seem like she doesn’t agree with God.”

    I know exactly where you’re coming from, because it seem very easy to read these lines in the general church. But I’d like to ask where in the scriptures is the explicit statement that precludes women from having the priesthood?

    The letter to president Hinckley is one I’ve brought up many times–this past week included. Why would the prophet be surprised at her question? Sometimes “men” supposedly means all of us, but sometimes it is ONLY men. How do we know the difference? The scriptures don’t differentiate.

    President Holland said he hoped for years blacks could get the priesthood. I know when the announcement was made in 1978, people in my neighborhood (in Orem, Utah) literally came out into the streets shouting the news. We had all hoped for it to happen.

    Why wasn’t that apostate? Particularly in light of the endless stream of very strong prophetic and apostolic statements about blacks never being able to have the priesthood and only qualifying for servanthood, etc.? With all that history, still everyone I knew (and the apostle-to-be as well) hoped the leaders were WRONG. But that’s fine.

    Somehow, however, if women hope to get the priesthood–in the ABSENCE of reams of firm prophetic quotes about women and the priesthood–she is terrifying.

    Sincerely, I do not understand it at all. Maybe that’s because I’m of the weaker sex.

  44. “President Hinckley has stated that in order for women to hold the priesthood, all that is needed is a revelation.”

    I’m sorry this is probably redundant, but I’m going in anyway.

    I wrote about this a couple of years ago in a column called Trusting the Octogenarians. I’m too lazy to link it. Nevermind, I did.

    Here’s the rub. How many revelations came without the HUMAN first asking God? So, statistically speaking, someone has to ASK God if this can happen before it will happen.

    Now, who can get this kind of revelation? Right, only the prophet, who is amazing and wonderful, but he’s also an elderly man. He’s from a generation that didn’t think much of women not voting and he’s never dealt with being excluded from the priesthood.

    So, what are the chances–particularly given that fairly recent public statements on women not having the priesthood have been along the lines of “we don’t know” and “it’s not an issue for our women”–that the one man who can get this revelation is going to take time out of his busy schedule to see if he can get it?

    Remember President Kimball and his YEARS to get the black/priesthood revelation? If President Monson doesn’t think this is an issue, is he still going to spend the possible YEARS to work through this?

    I wonder if it would be an issue if they knew that, like the black/priesthood issue, it was impeding missionary work and the growth of the church? I have been told countless times by women that they’d never consider a church that “treats women like second-class citizens.” How else can it look to a culture that is becoming more and more gender-neutral every year?

    OK. I’m done. I’ll read in silence. I promise. Probably.

  45. Caroline says:

    Allison,
    I’m glad you’ve found some ideas here that resonate with you. Welcome!

    As far as I know there are absolutely no scriptural statements that preclude women from ordination. In fact, if you go back to the early Christian church, there is a powerful argument to be made that women were priests. (Check out the book, “When Women Were Priests by Torjesen.) Junia, an uncontestably feminine name, in the New Testament is actually named as an apostle by Paul.

    I consider the exclusion of women from priesthood policy, not doctrine. Just like blacks and the priesthood, and despite all the after-the-fact rationalizations that have come about in GA discourse since then.

    Your parallel of people wanting blacks to get the priesthood and people wanting women to get the priesthood is one that I have thought about many times. Seems so unfair that the former was considered appropriate, and the latter is considered heretical.

  46. Thank you, Caroline.

    It just occurred to me that in the early 90’s my parents (seriously the most stalwart Mormons you’d ever meet, you know, a bishop four times, etc.) gave me a subscription to this little mag called Exponent II for my birthday. It was kind of a home-bound publication, if I remember, and only arrived very sporadically.

    I had just read part of Mormon Enigma (also a gift from my folks) and set it aside because all the polygamy stuff upset me so. Then I’m reading this crazy, feminist mag and was just SHOCKED at the HERESY. There was an article about women and the priesthood!

    So here I was, a girl who–at my sister’s baptism when I was FOUR–told my mom that I wanted dad to baptize me and mom to confirm me, a girl who had felt sorry that my mom was left out since she was a toddler, and I nearly flipped out because someone WROTE AN ARTICLE that talked about women getting the priesthood.

    I hadn’t even made the connection between this site and that publication, but it fits right into your premise. I had thought about it and wondered about it and even felt that God obviously preferred men–but when someone put in on paper for everyone to see, I thought they were all apostate. And I cancelled my subscription!

    How odd that I would find comfort today in things much more openly addressed.

  47. vinniecat says:

    Thank you for this comment board! I have had so many conflicting feelings about gender rolls in the church and feel like a pariah if I address them in church situations.
    “What I’d like to see is the church get out of scouting altogether and then shore up the girls’ and YW’s programs so that we do just as good a job for young women as we (generally) do for young men. Those kinds of changes seem much more possible and likely to me.”

    This has been something I’ve been trying to get wards to address for years. I feel like it’s an area where I may have some influence and promote change. If women are as important in the church as men, they deserve young men and young women programs of equal quality.

  48. Kiri Close says:

    I am definitely the pariah, dangerous-esque LDS femme fatale kind that traditional, conservative Mormons strongly dislike (actually, would like me murdered).

    But I’m really not trying to be that–it’s just how naturally am and feel, and the cultures of linguistics with their attached meanings have categorized me (enter: my hate for Aristotle) when really, I’m just being myself, honest.

  1. July 7, 2009

    […] to reinforcing stereotypes and norms that limit women? There was recently an excellent post on Exponent II about the difference between “good” feminists and “bad” feminists at […]

  2. October 9, 2010

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  3. December 20, 2010

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