Guest Post: The Future of Mormon Feminism
This past Saturday night, I was delighted to speak alongside one of my idols, Claudia Bushman, at the Exponent II 40th Anniversary Speakers Series outside of Washington, DC. I was asked to speak on the future of Mormon feminism and what follows is an abbreviated version of my remarks. I would be very glad to hear from Exponent readers about what the future of Mormon feminism looks like to you. I hope you’ll leave a comment below.
In the Winter 2014 issue of Exponent II, Helen Claire Sievers contributed an essay titled “What Mormon Women Have Lost in My Lifetime.” Reflecting on her 70 years as a Church-member, Helen Claire catalogued the opportunities Mormon women experienced pre-correlation that she argues have diminished over time. Here are just a few of her examples: an expansive international Relief Society General Board which provided more opportunities for direct access to Church leadership; control over assets, money and travel; direct access between the General Relief Society Presidency and First Presidency; control over the content of Relief Society, Young Women’s and Primary manuals; innovation and experimentation with Primary, Youth and Relief Society organizations; the Relief Society Magazine and more.
Though nostalgia may leave a rose-colored tinge (freedom from fundraising, in particular seems like a valuable gain earned through correlation), the losses Helen Claire outlines have come as shocking revelations to two generations of post-correlation Mormon women who have never heard of or experienced the dynamism and ambition of pre-correlated women’s work in the Church. In our correspondence as we edited her essay, Helen Claire noted that she “tell[s] people I missed the entire women’s movement because it was so exciting to work in the Church back then.” This statement made me gasp in front of my computer screen. For women like me, who have only experienced Relief Society as a mandatory Church program under the direction of the priesthood, the notion of choosing to join Relief Society, of paying dues, or reading from magazines and lesson manuals written by women for women is entirely foreign. Rather than a dynamic body of its own, I, and every generation after me, have only experienced the Relief Society as an “appendage” whose movements are dictated by the head, of which we are not a part. I believe that, among many factors, the dissatisfaction with these institutional limits placed on post-correlated Mormon women bears responsibility for bringing us to this particular Mormon feminist moment.
In 2012 EXII Founding Mother, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, delivered an address which Caroline Kline thoughtfully discussed in a previous blog post. The basic premise of Laurel’s argument was that the “last forty years of Relief Society were in some ways an attempt to integrate men and women, as they both learned from the same (androcentric) manuals, read the same (male-dominated) Church magazines, and more. In contrast, Laurel reflects that ‘During a period when there was a notion of separate spheres, women…created amazing things. . . women’s voluntary activity was very powerful.’”
While many Church members express that they are satisfied with things as they are, Mormon feminism recognizes that the current correlation-as-integration model is untenable if we want to see women having more voice, visibility and authority in Church matters. In my view, the notion of strengthening “separate spheres” or fully completing the “integration” models Laurel outlined, will continue to shape the conversation Mormon feminism will be having in the coming decades. Are Mormon women better off when they are “integrated” into the larger church body, or does finding full expression in “separate spheres” offer the greatest potential for development? Or can there be something in between? The following are three modes of thought that are currently under debate and will, I think, continue to give shape to Mormon feminist discourse in the coming decades.
On the side of complete integration we have seen the emergence of an energized and passionate movement to ordain women to the all-male priesthood. Ordain Women (OW) calls for women to be fully integrated into the ecclesiastical and administrative structure of a currently all-male hierarchy. And they have chosen to do this publicly, rather than quietly work through back-channels by “put[ting] ourselves in the public eye and call[ing] attention to the need for the ordination of Mormon women to the priesthood.” OW relies on a revelationist strategy–a public appeal to those in power to ask for revelation that would move the Church toward the ordination of women. Such activism challenges a frequently held belief that revelation happens from the top-down and has provided ammunition for many OW detractors. Yet it’s precisely OW’s model of public activism which has in part galvanized a movement (particularly among post-correlation born feminists). OW has created something which feels exciting–which feels like work akin to the excitement Helen Claire described experiencing as she worked for the RS in a previous era. For some women, the opportunities for action that OW offers, replaces something what has been missing since correlation went fully into effect. OW rightly contends that a women’s organization under the direction of an all-male priesthood leadership is not the same as full integration, and is successfully converting an increasingly diverse cross-section of women and men into their ranks. Whether or not they are successfully converting those in leadership is another question which deservedly receives a lot debate among Mormon feminists.
On the other end, are those who advocate for a robust “separate spheres” argument which would include a fully-fleshed out model of Priestesshood. Pulling from aspects of the temple endowment and historical practices among Mormon women, these proponents believe that a parallel Priestesshood that employs the unique qualities of women must compliment an all male Priesthood. In the upcoming ordination issue of Exponent II, Elizabeth Hammond argues for a kind of Priestesshood that “is practiced outside of oversight, without a script, without rules, and without specific forms. There are no statistics to keep and no hierarchy to navigate. The Priestess is an individual agent, guided by the Spirit alone, who is her companion by right. Outside of supervisors and institutional limitations, the Priestess practices with pure intent.” In addition to drawing on a restorationist argument that emphasizes early Church practices when women were set apart to bless and heal, proponents of Priestesshood are eager to see the Divine Feminine have greater presence in our culture and Church practice, that women may have a divine model that can model this feminine order of Priestesshood. Rather than being incorporated into the existing hierarchy of the Church, many advocates of Priestesshood envision an autonomous, parallel organization which would operate independently but share one ultimate cause.
Among more mainstream Mormon and “moderate feminist” circles, recent attempts have been made to find a middle ground between these two poles which simultaneously aim to focus on expanding and reinvigorating the separate spheres that Mormon women already inhabit, while making them more visible within the greater structure of the Church. Neylan McBaine recently articulated this notion in her widely-read paper presented at the 2012 FAIR conference titled “To Do the Business of the Church: A Cooperative Paradigm for Examining Participation Within Church Structure.” She suggests a separate spheres/integration approach in which the Church might make moderate changes to Church policies that would increase women’s visibility without challenging a notion men and women’s roles are divinely ordained differences, or that the way things are currently structured are doctrine rather than policy. Neylan and others make the case that barriers for female leadership can be removed where specific priesthood offices or keys are not required. For example, some would like to see the Relief Society president of each ward participate in bishopric meetings, or create opportunities for girls to be given visible ward responsibilities when turning 12 that parallel the visibility of their 12 year old priesthood bearing brethren. They want to see women’s work receive greater respect and influence but foundationally believe that men and women have different work to do. Women having the priesthood neither advances their cause nor fits into the currently gender-divided system that many see as divinely ordained.
The Church seems to be hearing some of these critiques and has made recent efforts to increase the visibility of its women. Unfortunately they might be taking the notion of visibility a little too literally–displaying photos of the auxiliary presidencies in the Conference Center for the first time or placing those same presidencies very visibly in the middle of the stand in the most recent General Conference may be “good optics,” but it doesn’t fool many Mormons who recognize the difference between good optics and an optical illusion.
There is a sense that we are standing at a fork in the road where institutional revelation and social change could combine to set us on any one of these paths or one far better (or worse) than we can foresee in the next century. As Mormon feminists, we are tasked with taking the long-view. For me personally, I believe that we all must grapple with current questions being raised around women’s ordination, but I see the current conversation around ordination as only one manifestation of a deeply felt, deeply believed, deeply practiced and deeply troubling doctrinal teaching–that the Mormon woman is profoundly invisible when it comes to the eternities and all that she is is “unto” her husband. While I hesitate to open the Pandora’s Box of having Heavenly Mother revealed to us (I tremble to think of the domestic goddessthat we might find!), we have no clearer indication of our fate or our status as Mormon women than when we look in vain for our Heavenly Mother’s image. These larger cultural and doctrinal underpinnings must be addressed and I hope that as Mormon feminists we will be able to move forward creatively, wisely and harmlessly so that at the 80th anniversary of Exponent II 40 years from now our daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters might be able to sing the Exponent II anthem, “Woman Rise,” and stand on shoulders which have helped to raise them higher than ever before.