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Hope in Feminist Sisterhood


sisters.jpg

Originally uploaded by Hi, I’m G

by mraynes

I was sitting at my desk in the Smith Institute for LDS History back in the days when it was still at BYU, reading through a newspaper article that one of the professors I worked with had been interviewed for. And I remember feeling so alone. The article was entitled “Where Have All the Mormon Feminists Gone?” and it basically asserted that the Mormon women of my generation had no use for feminism. This was in the days before Feminist Mormon Housewives, back when VOICE at BYU had died a quiet death and a year before its softer re-incarnation, Parity, was born.

But I had a primal need for feminism; feminism was in my blood and in my bones and I felt isolated and assumed that I was alone in my concern for women’s space within a Mormon context. I had professors, both female and male, who nurtured my burgeoning feminism in the academic sphere but there was no one at that time, to gently lead me into the lonely road of being a feminist and a Mormon woman.

If somebody had told me then. that five years later I would be holding my baby girl at an academic Mormon feminist conference, I’m not sure I would have believed them! I, like so many others, thought Mormon feminism was silenced and dead, or at least softer. And maybe this was so for a while but it is certainly not the case anymore.

I have felt the ground shift and have seen the swell of excitement, creativity and thoughtfulness. Patriarchy, beware! We are making history just as Eliza and Emmeline, Laurel, Margaret and Claudia did before us. Mormon feminists are not just passive actors in our theological history, we have been a vital force from the very beginning.

Of course, Mormon feminists today experience a very different church from the one 2nd wavers influenced during the 60’s and 70’s. There is so much distrust and many open wounds still left unhealed. My feminists sisters are also probably less optimistic that things will change. But this new feminist movement has reignited in only five years; think of the change we can accomplish in ten years, twenty!

Being a Mormon feminist is inconvenient and lonely. Other members of the church will think that you are crazy or sinful/prideful/power-hungry/deluded. You will have hard questions left unanswered. You will think really painful things about your community and God. But there is room in Mormon feminism for optimism.

Even if the church does not change or the questions go unanswered, you will always have sisters at your side. They will be there to teach you how to crochet and giggle with you late into the night. They will be there to help carry the burden, to mourn and cry with you. They will be there to walk down the long road with you.

I have posted before how I worry for my daughter’s future as a Mormon woman. But today, I don’t worry because I know that she will have mothers and sisters who will always be at her side. And that is enough.

(So what do you think about the future of Mormon feminism? Is there room for optimism?)

Mraynes

Mraynes lives in downtown Denver with her husband and four children. She spends her time lobbying at the Colorado Legislature, managing all the things and preparing Gospel Doctrine lessons.

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26 Responses

  1. Kim B. says:

    I so relate to your crazy or sinful/prideful/power-hungry/deluded comment. People stare with pity or anger or incredulity. Very rarely do I find someone who can accept without judgment that I am a woman seeking truth and understanding.

    Whether it is naive or not, I still have hope for the future of mormon feminism. I believe that great change can and will come. However, I do not know how far we will come in my lifetime.

    In the meantime, I find myself longing for this sisterhood that you talk about. I am hungry for close relationships with women that understand my perspective as it relates to the oppression and ill-treatment of women. The havoc I have caused for the people around me is not only painful to others, but to myself as well.

    I find myself more careful with my words, bringing up topics with unanswered questions less often. This road through feminism is not for the faint of heart and I find myself trying to protect others from it. If they cannot find the road themselves, this is a journey they probably should avoid.

  2. holder86 says:

    Mormon feminism? Why does it have to always be about women? Why can’t there be Masculinism? Feminism is what women use to feel superior to men. There is no need to be superior. Accept that men and women have different roles for a reason. Mom’s and Dad’s. Dad works and Mum looks after the children. This is the Mormon Culture. You can’t change the culture. You don’t like the culture then be a feminist in another religion. There are many talks by Apostles about how there is to be no feminism in the Mormon Church. Leave political beliefs to politics and leave religion to religion. Be a feminist in politics if you want some action but not in a religion…especially the Mormon one.

  3. Shelley says:

    holder86- I’m sorry, I was unaware that feminism meant being superior to men. When people assume that I hate men because I’m a feminist, I answer that I’m not a feminist because I hate men; I’m a feminist because I’m tired of people hating women. I disagree most with your idea that we can’t change the culture. We can and should always be questioning our culture to make it fit more with our doctrine, not the other way around.

    But anyway…

    Being a student at BYU and a feminist has its challenges. My major is in a very male-dominated department and field of study where feminism is the other f-word. I feel like I constantly have to prove myself to professors and the other TA’s I work with. Luckily, being a women’s studies minor, I have my safe spaces where I feel free to be a devout, faithful Mormon and a feminist. The two in my mind are so mutually inclusive that it doesn’t make sense to me not to be a feminist and a Mormon.

  4. Caroline says:

    I think Holder is sadly misinformed (and sadly unchristian in his attitude). I believe that feminism is not about putting women over men – it’s about lifting up all people so that everyone can realize his/her potential, and questioning artificial culturally constructed limits for men and women. I firmly believe that patriarchy hurts men as well as women.

    Mraynes, I think things will change. They will. As awareness grows, I believe more effort will be made to include women’s voices in the hierarchy. However, it will take a lot of time, I think. I’m not expecting vast improvement in the institution until after I’m dead.

    In the meantime, however, I’m heartened by women who work to create more space for themselves beyond the institution. Women who insist on equality within marriage. Women who pursue their passions (career, or whatever) as they raise their families. Women who commune with divinity in ways that nourishes their souls.

  5. Margaret says:

    One of the great things about this church is that it can change. I have enormous hope for a feminist culture change in the church. If I gave up on that hope, I don’t see how I could justify raising my daughter in the church. But there are so many signs around that things are changing, even if the word ‘feminism’ remains taboo. The women that I talk to in my ward recognize problems, even if they don’t want to say the f-word.

    This is somewhat on the surface, but I was pleased that in the priesthood session of conference on Saturday one of the speakers encouraged men to learn how to cook and sew. The church has increasingly moved from husbands and wives working in separate spheres and living parallel lives (inside and outside the home) to having a working relationship. In practice, I find even more leniency, with people being understanding (if sometimes surprised) by whatever moms and dads decide, as long as both have a primary commitment to healthy family relationships and a spiritual home.

  6. Mr. mraynes says:

    I guess holder86 has highlighted the uselessness of the term feminism. It’s not useless because of its ideals, but because of the way a few have used it at times to push a female superiority agenda. And the word itself does smack of such a doctrine. But that is not its true aim!

    Holder86, were I to extend your logic to its conclusion, I could argue that our church does in fact practice “Masculinism”, better known as patriarchy. Men run this church, especially its public face. I mean, it is 2009 and TWO women share talks at General Conference alongside dozens of men. Am I the only one who finds this ridiculous, especially when we already have an entire session devoted to the priesthood? Couldn’t we at least hear from one woman at each of the four general sessions?

    At its core, feminism is no different than the set of teachings we call the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Feminism, like the Gospel, espouses the fundamental (spiritual) equality (rather than equivalence) of all souls, both male and female. We all have the same value in the eyes of our divine Parents and especially our Savior. All deserve love, respect, and happiness. Unfortunately, no one thinks of such values when they hear the term feminism. Any ideas out there to correct this?

  7. Maria says:

    I think there is a lot of room for optimism. Within my own feminist paradigms, I believe that feminism one of the great catalysts that has brought necessary change and greater equality of both gender and race in the past and will continue to do so in the future. If we believe the tenets of the LDS Church, we believe the world will be reclaimed to its paradisiacal state… both in physical and spiritual terms. Adam and Eve were equals in the garden, they had the same responsibilities and the same commandments. It was not until after the Fall that designated responsibilities were given. Gender is eternal, gender roles are temporal. I believe part of building and achieving Zion and paradise will be returning to a true equality, that existed in the beginning. I am optimistic that we are getting closer… because of feminists.

  8. Debra says:

    Amen, Sisters!!! and MR MRaynes, thank you for your thoughtful, well-spoken response to holder86.

    Yes, I too, have great hope and optimism, even in my very male-dominant traditional ward!

    I feel strongly that Zion will not come until there is true equality, respect, inclusiveness in the functioning of the INSTITUTION of the church. I feel this so strongly because my personal experience with our heavenly Parents and the Savior has ALWAYS been one of respect, inclusion, and equal treatment. I believe they are “feminists” in the best use of the word. Because I feel so secure in this with THEM, it has only been in the last 10 years, that I have seen the gender bias in the church.

    Just as we believe in continuous revelation, and open communication with Heaven, so the restoration is not done. It will not be “done” until the equality of women and men is recognized and is genuinely in place in the structure of the organization, and such things as the jarring absence of women speakers or women praying in general conference is a thing of the past, and a non-issue.

    btw, I finished my last degree at BYU in 1988. What is Parity, and what academic conference re feminism are you referring to??

    I too, would love more sisterhood with other feminists in the church.

  9. mraynes says:

    Thanks for the comments, I’m so glad that many of you share my optimism.

    Kim, I’m so sorry that you have had some negative experiences with fellow church members; that is so painful. I think you bring up a good point, we have to be careful who we share our struggles with, not only because it might be damaging to us personally but it can also hurt the people around us. Like you said, being a Mormon feminist is not for the faint of heart and not all people are strong enough to live with that amount of complexity in their lives. It behooves us as Christians to be thoughtful of other people. That being said, I hope that people who do struggle can find a safe place where they can be loved and supported. I hope that the Exponent can be one of those safe places for you.

    Shelley, I’m glad to see another BYU Women’s Studies minor on this board! I too found a lot of safety and support at from the WRI and I’m glad it is still there to help women like you. I love what you say about your feminism and Mormonism being mutually inclusive; I feel exactly the same way, I could not be a feminist without my Mormonism and I could not be a Mormon without my feminism.

    Thank you, Caroline. I agree, a patriarchal system is damaging to everyone, not just women and children. I do think things are slowly changing, whether the general membership wants to attribute them to feminism or not. The church has backed off of birth control, working mothers, and leadership marriage. It is only a matter of time until we see more egalitarianism in the structure of the church as well. However, I think it remains to be seen how our increased progressivism affects our doctrine and we may not see that in our lifetime.

    Margaret, I think it is so interesting that women in your ward recognize there are problems with gender in our church. That inspires hope in me, even if those women don’t claim the term feminists. I’m glad that you have been able to experience this and wish you good luck in raising your daughter in this church.

    Thank you for commenting, Maria and Debra. I like both of your ideas that we as a people are steadily working to get back to the original equality between man and woman that God set up in the garden. This is the Zion we are working towards. And I believe you are right, we could not get there without the work of feminists. Even though mistakes were made, it was feminists who highlighted some serious problems concerning equality in the Mormon church, and today, many of those problems have been addressed. The general church may be resistant to feminists, but they desperately need them as part of the body of Christ.

    For those who don’t know, “Parity” is the feminist group that replaced “VOICE.” You can read about it here: http://nn.byu.edu/story.cfm/54523

    The conference I referred to took place March 20th. Here is more information about that conference: http://rsc.cgu.edu/cmssa/events/conferences/2009-womens/

  10. Kiri Close says:

    Yikes, shmolder86!

    Is your post a belated April Fools joke?
    ‘Cause it’s really uninformed, illogicall, unspiritual, & over the top ridiculous.

    Okay, now, schmolder86–post a REAL comment now.

    Waiting…

  11. Kiri Close says:

    Yes, we are still wading in the dire modes of patriarchal alpha male grouping (e.g., really bad postings on Exponent Blog here by uber confused males who type thoughtless knee-jerk reactions out of fear & dysfunction).

    However, I feel sheer hope–both with feminist, race, & class issues within the LDS context that I know, hate, love.

    How nice it is to have a group such as Exponent to enhance my concerns! This group is one of many sure examples of what I would call hope.

    That I blog here is what I would call a sample of my optimism.

  12. mraynes says:

    I don’t mean to segregate our male commenters but I think they present an interesting illustration as to what is going on in the church today.

    Holder on the one hand, takes the traditional point of view and thinks that feminism is damaging and sinful, at least in a religious context. He believes that Mormon culture is just as true as Mormon doctrine and any questioning of that culture is an affront to our way of life. Unfortunately for Holder, those who hold his opinion are dying out. His understanding of marriage and the relationship between men and women is rich in its immaturity and lacks a complex world view.

    Times are changing and I would venture to say that a large part of the church cannot follow the “Dad works and Mum looks after the children” paradigm, especially now in this time of economic crisis. In fact the apostles themselves have distanced themselves from this paradigm by using the convenient word, “primarily.” The previous paradigm was stifled in immaturity; women remained dependent and men were trapped in a dogmatic system. So yes, I believe culture can change; culture is no excuse for not becoming all that we can be. We are here on this earth to become like our Heavenly Parents and any step towards equality is a step towards them. The apostles and prophets are nothing, if not pragmatic and they understand that most men and women today expect equality. The fact that they have endorsed this kind of existence says to me that our leaders now expect men to be more mature and women more assertive. Though they may not explicitly use the word feminism, the apostles have increasingly turned to the rhetoric of equal partnership and shared housekeeping/childrearing responsibilities…all of which are primary tenants of feminism.

    Mr. mraynes, on the other hand, recognizes the potential danger of feminism (like any ideology, it can be taken too far) but realizes that the true ideal of the word is something that is very much backed up by our doctrine and by the leaders of our church. You can find the gospel mr. mraynes espouses in our scriptures and in the words of our prophets. There are more and more men who recognize that there are inequities in our church structure and are open to ideas on how to make it better (mr. mraynes came up with a fantastic idea!). And there are more and more men like my husband who truly do want to be equal to women…Who want to be equally present in the home and to fully share in beauty and complexity of life with their partner. The good news that I see in this illustration is that it is men like my husband, feminist men, who are going to rise up and make the changes with women by their sides.

  13. Andrea says:

    Exponent friends, please beware of the immature, age-old game played by people like holder86. I believe his post is aimed at winding us up. His comment is extreme and he probably doesn’t even believe his statements. If we fall for this trick, we will spend way too much time and energy. Attempts to debate or inform such antagonists are futile. They are looking for attention.

    When I was in VOICE at BYU, we had antagonists show up every week to sabbotage our meetings and discussions. Hopefully our feminism has liberated us from needing to be nice to everyone. I say — IGNORE the jackasses!

  14. CatherineWO says:

    I too believe there is reason for hope. Sometimes the progress is made with one step forward and two backward, but I have seen positive change in my more than forty years of adulthood.
    Like many of you, I have learned to choose carefully what I say and where I say it. I cannot thank you all enough for the information and discussions on this blog. Clicking on Exponent is like walking into the safety of my own home–sometimes better.

  15. Margaret says:

    I also want to point out that American culture in general has lots of problems with women as well as many people who are feminists but afraid to call themselves that, and yet has made enormous improvement in just 30-40 years. When my husband tells people inside OR outside the church that he fully intends and wants to be a stay-at-home dad when the time is right for us, he gets stares and rude comments. Every institution needs change and working for and hoping for that change is powerful and wonderful.

  16. Lydia says:

    I am new to understanding Mormon feminism and was wondering if someone could better explain it to me. What exactly characterizes a Mormon feminists, what kind of things do they believe, value, question, strive for, etc. I know you mentioned that being a Mormon feminist is inconvenient and lonely, that others will think you are crazy, sinful, prideful, power-hungry, and deluded. In what specific ways does this happen for you? You also mentioned that being a feminist Mormon will cause you to think really painful things about God. Why is that? What kind of painful things does a feminist think about God? I hope all my questions don’t seem to much, I just sincerely am curious about what it means to be a Mormon feminists. Thanks for having a place where I can ask these questions.

  17. Caroline says:

    Lydia,
    I think there are probably several different versions of Mormon feminism, but one I use is simply the desire for an enlarged sphere of opportunity for women. This might mean a desire for less strict gender roles and distinctions. It might mean the desire for more ways to serve in the institutional church. It might be the yearning for more female role models in scripture and leadership. It might also mean, more generally, the desire to lift gender constraints for all humans, since men can suffer under patriarchy as well.

    As for why feminism might lead a person to have painful feelings for God – well, that might result for some people when there’s a dissonance between what they know in their heart is right/fair and what God is apparently commanding and teaching. For example some women find the temple inordinately painful because they think the hearken covenant teaches them that they are less important or worthy than men. This could make a woman wonder if God is inherently unfair and sexist. That’s a very painful place to be in.

  18. G says:

    Awesome!
    well done mraynes!

    I do have a strong hope for Mormon Feminism because that I believe that the church changes with the times. A little behind the times, true that, but still changing. Or in other words, living.

    Therefore, just like there are now priesthood leaders of color, eventually there will be priesthood leaders of the female gender, and also priesthood leaders of alternate sexual orientation. (and as past church leader’s statements about race are currently whitewashed from the annuals, so will the current sexist/bigoted stances be viewed with equal embarrassment)

    Does this sound too optimistic? Hold your horses, I am thinking this will not take place in our lifetime. Maybe our grandkids lifetimes? Great grandkids?
    anyhow, these changes will come both from within and from without.
    From the courage of the lonely feminists/activists within, the courage of the feminists/activists who leave [so as to not be so lonely?], and the courage of the [lonely or not] feminists/activists whose contact with the church is nominal but who’s impact on society in general cannot be denied.

    heheh… well, there’s my $2 worth on the topic.

    Oh, and ditto on the amount of power felt at that conference. It was refreshing beyond belief.
    🙂

  19. Ellend says:

    I am a BYU student and a member of Parity. While we don’t always have a steady amount of people who show up for meetings, I feel that there is a strong underground current of feminism and people leaning towards feminist tendencies at BYU. From what I have seen, this is not concentrated in one single feminist group, but I see it in many other ‘progressive’ groups at BYU such as ‘Students for International Development’, ‘Amnesty’, ect. However, when I mention that I am a feminist, I get defensive and dismissive responses from fellow Mormons. I share the same feelings with Shelley, that it is a challenge to explain my feminist feelings that are so natural to me. While the group of people who share feminist ideas is very small at BYU, I also see the feminism grow and become more accepted over time, especially with people of my age group (college students). I have a feeling there is a strong future for Mormon feminism.

  20. Dora says:

    Wonderful post mraynes!

    I was so invigorated by the CGU conference, and I left feeling spiritually and intellectually fed, with a newfound optimism that I haven’t felt in quite a while. Yes, we need LDS female theologians. Yes, LDS theology supports women and men being equal in the sight of our Heavenly Parents. Yes, we need to learn from our foremothers. Yes, men can be liberated by stepping outside of preconceived notions of their gender as well. Yes, we need to foster a community of inclusion and think more Big Tent Mormonism. Yes, yes, yes.

    Throughout the conference, and especially as Claudia Bushman was articulating the women’s history projects she intends to launch, it struck me how differently men’s and women’s histories have been valued and recorded. In ages past, women have had to tiptoe around the men in their lives, using soft power to accomplish their means. And still, to this day, feminists in the LDS church have to work their way around those with preconceived notions on how women should behave. My hope is that someday, we will be able to act according to our best talents, with integrity and honesty, as opposed to acting according to our gender.

  21. Jessawhy says:

    Mraynes,
    Thanks for this beautiful piece. Your writing always amazes me with it’s clarity and emotion.
    I loved the conference, too.
    I don’t remember if you linked to it, but Lynnette did a good job of summarizing it at Zelophehad’s Daughters.
    http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/2009/04/02/thoughts-from-the-claremont-conference/

    For me, the best part of the new hope I feel for myself and other Mormon feminists, is being united with those of older generations.
    I’m really excited that we’ll have some of these older women blogging here soon. Their experience with the church and feminism gives me hope and a broader perspective that I couldn’t find anywhere else.
    So, for your daughter, it will be wonderful to know that we held close to the generations before us that worked to help women in the church find love and peace.

  22. Lynnette says:

    Thanks for this post, mraynes (and it was great to meet you!) I can relate to a lot of what you said. I wasn’t much involved with VOICE during my time at BYU, but I at least knew it was there. I owned Sisters in Spirit and Women and Authority, and I’d been to Sunstone. So I knew Mormon feminism was out there, at least. But it seemed that people got more nervous after the September Six, more hesitant to say much about the subject. And after I graduated from BYU and left Utah, I kind of quit following what was going on. I remember reading that “Where Have All the Mormon Feminists Gone” article and thinking wow–has Mormon feminism really died off? Is what I saw in the early 90s all I’m ever going to see of it? So it’s pretty amazing, only a couple of years later, to see it thriving, both in the online world and at places like the Claremont conference and Sunstone. As I said in my ZD post, I left the CGU conference feeling remarkably excited about being both a Mormon and a feminist.

  23. Violet says:

    This post is just beautiful. I spend a lot of time (probably too much) worrying about my daughters’ futures in the Mormon church (not to mention my own future). It has been a struggle at times to be a mormon feminist, as you say it cane be lonely. But it doesn’t need to be and it isn’t thanks to blogs like this one.

    One of things I love most about this blog is I don’t feels so isolated. That I am not alone in the my struggles to understand feminism and how it relates to my church. Someday I hope to make it to a retreat or something just so I can meet some of you wonderful ladies in person.

    As far as the future of Mormon feminism, I don’t see it going away anytime soon. I think it’s here to stay it needs to stay and definitely there is some room for optimism, sometimes I am less so than others. Although after reading this post I think yes there is lots of room for optimism.

  24. EmilyCC says:

    Shelley and Ellen (and any other college-age feminists), I hope you’ll consider submitting a guest post to The Exponent. Like Jessawhy, I’m excited about having an older generation of writers join our blog, but we also need the voices of the younger generation, too!

  25. mlebenton says:

    You are eloquent as always, mraynes. Thank you for your post. I too am (cautiously) optimistic about the future of Mormon women, mostly because of the bonds I’ve been fortunate to realize among like-minded women. The ability of the internet to connect and codify the sometimes disparate parts of Mormon feminists is encouraging to me as well.

  1. November 5, 2009

    […] have written before about how lonely and isolated I felt as a young feminist at BYU. But that was before I found the […]

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