Mormon Feminists: Caught in a Double Bind?

Posted by on December 18, 2013 in women | 23 comments

knotFor the past eight years that this blog has been around, I’ve been pretty open about my desire for change in the LDS church. I’d love to see more women blessing their babies. I’d love to see women in more positions of ward, stake, and general leadership. I’d love to see Heavenly Mother acknowledged as God far more often than she is. I’d love to see temple language change. Heck, I’d love to see women ordained. I’ve never been quiet about the structural inequality that is the lot of Mormon women, even as I fully acknowledge that individual Mormon men can be terrific about respecting individual women and treating them as partners.

I’ve never regretted being open about these things within my Mormon world. I believe our Mormon community is only strengthened by a diversity of ideologies and opinions. After all, the more types of people that the Mormon Church has as members, the more types of people it can help.

An experience in a feminist (non-Mormon) forum recently made me pause for a second and rethink my stance toward openness about the gender problems in Mormonism, particularly as I write for non-Mormon audiences. I’ve come to realize that there are risks to being open in non-Mormon forums, risks that non-Mormon audiences will sneer at Mormons in general and dismiss Mormon feminists as fools who are only working to shore up what is ultimately and irredeemably a patriarchal structure. Depressingly, I’ve seen this happen in a feminist forum, as some radical feminists accuse Mormon feminists of being “masochistic” or “misogynistic” for trying to work for change within the LDS Church.

Seeing these kinds of reactions from my non-Mormon feminist sisters is like a knife to the gut. I now feel like I can’t necessarily trust my  fellow feminists to not dismiss and discount me, my Mormon feminist sisters, and the work we do.  This makes me feel like I’m caught in a double bind. If I don’t critique the problematic aspects of official Mormon rhetoric on gender roles and the problematic nature of women’s structural near-invisibility, my silence perpetuates a damaging status quo. If I do critique, and if I am honest about my hopes for change, I open myself and my people up to sneers and disgust from non-Mormons, and thus am seen by more orthodox Mormons as a betrayer. I am too feminist for the Mormons and too Mormon for the feminists.

This situation reminds me of what Shahnaz Khan says about her own experience as a Pakistani-Canadian feminist, caught in a double bind. If she doesn’t critique Pakistani laws that are unjust to women, she allows injustice to reign unchallenged. If she does, members of the Pakistani community accuse her of betrayal. After all, the Western world has been known to use gender issues as an excuse to invade Muslim countries. She writes, “I am aware that criticism of third-world cultures often serves to further demonize and stereotype third-world people, reinforcing a view that … seeks to free brown women from brown men” (2018). Likewise, if I publicly criticize Mormon rhetoric and policies about gender, do I demonize and stereotype my Mormon people? What is the best way forward for a Mormon feminist working not only for change within the church, but also for outsiders to view Mormon women as thoughtful, agentive people making reasoned decisions to stick with a patriarchal faith? How best do I tell my truth – that I am both constrained and nurtured by this faith and this community?

I have no real answers yet, but I do think that that phrase “constrained and nurtured” will be key for me moving forward. There are reasons I stay within Mormonism, reasons that resonate with my feminist worldview – Heavenly Mother, enlightened Eve, divine potential, direct access to God, strong service-oriented community, etc. I want to highlight those things – and thereby contextualize much of the constraining policies and ideas at play within contemporary Mormonism – as I speak and write about Mormonism and gender. I also want to discuss the ways that Mormon women of all stripes and ideologies carve out spaces for themselves for action and influence, even as certain structures and ideas work to constrain them.

Do you feel caught in a double bind when it comes to talking/writing about your experiences as Mormon feminists?Do you feel too feminist for Mormons and too Mormon for feminists? How do you deal with inhabiting this no-(wo)man’s land? Do you worry about instigating outsiders’ negative feelings about Mormons when you critique the gender role status quo?

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23 Comments

  1. These are difficult waters to be in, Caroline. I started thinking about the questions you have raised since my undergraduate experience at BYU as I took gender courses and on to my graduate work. I too have felt that I do not necessarily fit well in any of the groups (Mormon and feminist groups). This was my struggle for a decade. Then I realized I don’t have too.

    The people that are showing negative feelings about Mormonism are the ones that would have judged the mormon community anyway. Same applies to feminist circles. People, regardless of what circle they belong too, generally believe that there is only one way and/or definition to something. They are dead wrong. Reality of feminism and mormonism comes in all kinds of hues. If they prefer to be blind and not see them that is their problem not yours.

    It is ok to love a church and/or community and/or a country that is not perfect. Aren’t we all proud/happy of where we come from? Countries, families, communities? And yet these circles are never perfect.

    You need a thicker skin and you will develop one with time. Don’t worry too much about this detail. It does not reflect you but them.

    Where I come from, we have a proverb that says “Let the dogs bark. The caravan always goes forward.”

    • EFH, thank you for this great comment. I love your perspective.

      • oops, somehow I submitted that before I was finished. I was about to quote.

        “People, regardless of what circle they belong too, generally believe that there is only one way and/or definition to something.” That is what I found so disheartening in this feminist forum. For them there was only one way to be a true feminist — totally disavow Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. And I’m totally uninspired by this type of black and white thinking.

  2. I really feel like my feminism is becoming more of a bridge than a barrier – yes, it causes conflict with my Mormon friends because they don’t like feminism, and my feminist friends because they don’t like Mormonism. I’m not supposed to exist by everyone’s standards, so I make both groups uncomfortable. But if I play it right, I can use that discomfort to make them think about things they don’t want to deal with – like the compatibility of Mormonism and Feminism. A few people have written me off altogether, which used to be my worst fear, but not so much anymore. Now my biggest fear is slipping and not representing either school of thought well – losing my temper and looking like an angry man-hater, or copping out and using patriarchy as an excuse not to take responsibility for my actions.

    I’m also a [fledgling] vegetarian, and I ALWAYS get caught on the rare occasions I take my kids to McDonald’s by people who know I’m a vegetarian. It’s kind of the same thing. I’m an anomaly, so I’m being watched very closely. There’s no room for hypocrisy, which makes it really hard for me to find my new identity within any of these new spheres. It makes it really tempting to just go back to the path of least resistance. I could give up feeling the need to explain myself to people, but then I’d miss out on those educational, bridge-building opportunities. For me, that’s the hardest part of the Mormon Feminist tightrope walk.

    • Pepper,
      Thank you for this comment. This resonated so much with me. “I’m not supposed to exist by everyone’s standards, so I make both groups uncomfortable.” That’s right. It’s so hard for so many people on both sides of the fence to wrap their heads around Mormon feminism. I love what you say next. “But if I play it right, I can use that discomfort to make them think about things they don’t want to deal with – like the compatibility of Mormonism and Feminism.” That’s what I need to work on — how to productively move forward with that discomfort that I inspire in others.

  3. ” I am too feminist for the Mormons and too Mormon for the feminists.”

    That captured your situation really well. I haven’t had that experience, probably because I don’t interact with academic feminism very much. When I’ve told my non-Mormon friends about OW and this blog they’ve been interested and supportive. One commented, “well, it’s only about 100 years behind the politics,” without any sarcasm at all. She studies language, history, and culture, so from her perspective I guess it’s just part of the long process of making progress toward equality.

    I think going between these worlds for you may just require being selective about what you share. I don’t think that’s inauthentic, it’s just being mindful and meeting people where they are.

    • Thanks, Emily U. Yes, I think that you are right — I will need to be selective. Which I’m ok with. I choose which sides of myself to present to people almost every day. I had hoped that among feminists I could let my guard down more, but that is not to be, unfortunately.

  4. My non-Mormon feminist friends have been very supportive and several of them sent me messages of support just before Pants. But I see the conflict that you describe play out in the media and even in more academic discussions of Mormonism. When I wrote papers this past summer on Mormon feminism with Jessica Finnigan, I was surprised to see that a lot of the literature on Mormonism and Mormon women misunderstands us. Those who study religion and decide to dabble in Mormonism think that we’re pretty much the same as every other group of religious conservative women without understanding the challenges of being Mormon. It was very frustrating to read.

    I would like to see religious feminists from many different faith traditions work together to promote and give a bigger voice to religious feminism. I would like to see all of us tell the world that we are fighting one of the biggest battles of feminism: patriarchal religion. But that is hard when your supposed feminist allies aren’t really allies to your cause.

    • Amen.

    • Nancy, I would love to talk to you more about the misconceptions you’ve seen in academic literature about Mormon women. That’s exactly the sort of stuff I like to write papers on. If you don’t mind, I will email you privately and perhaps you could point me toward some of the articles you were reading.

      Thanks so much for the comment.

      • Caroline – I would be happy to discuss this further! ([email protected])

  5. I think this is so unfortunate, Caroline. I wonder why that happens in some circles and not others. When I did my graduate work, I felt so accepted by the other feminists in the program. There was a group of older pagans (who were also lesbian) feminists who were so kind to me. Perhaps they sensed my trepidation, having never worked closely with pagans or lesbians. But, they worked to understand were I was coming from and thought our concept of Heavenly Mother was fascinating. I wish I had some insights into how our group was able to achieve that. Maybe it was just luck.

    • Emily, I’m so glad you had that great experience with pagans. I’ve had very good experiences with some feminists of other traditions too — particularly Catholic and Muslim. They’ve been very open and excited about Mormon feminism. But for some (definitely not all) secular feminists, it’s become clear that they regard me and Mormon feminism with a great deal of suspicion/disdain. Depressing.

  6. I am anything but a feminist, but I think this post is spot on accurate. I see an unresolvable tension between the church as an authoritative priesthood organization and the activism which is at the heart of feminism. This, I think, is why we see so many members against feminism, so many feminists against the church and so many feminist members, caught in the very pickle that you describe. I personally don’t think that a harmonious compatibility between the two can be found, but I am more than open to being wrong on this point.

    • I like the interesting juxtaposition of your assertion that there can be no harmonious compatibility of Mormonism and feminism with Carolines description of her relationship withthe churchas one that “constrains and nurtures.” Taken together, the two comments remind me of other mutually beneficial dichotomies: fertilizing and pruning plants for example. Its not the best example, but it reflects this idea that two very different approaches can be beneficial.

      It is in the tension between dicotomous points of view that I tend to find my richest insights. For example, I do everything I can to protect my preschool-aged son. Yet, yesterday I met with a surgeon to ask him to remove a part of my son’s heart. This will be extremely painful for myy son. Or, during the week I teach evolutionary biology to college students and on the weekend I teach primary. I don’t know that there can be a harmonious compatibility between these two viewpoints: for me, the tension between my dedire to protect my son and my responsibility to get him the best possible medical care (even if it will be painful and destroy his ability to participate in childhood activities) has destroyed my cognitive functioning for the past few months.

      Nevertheless, I have found great richness in exploring the tension between these positions: trying to determine which aspects of each position are most useful at any given juncture.

      • I love your response to Jeff, Jesse. Mutual beneficial dichotomies. I’ve never used those words before, but I very much like your examples and what you describe. I’ve tended to think of it in terms of paradox, and cultivating a tolerance for paradox. A Mormon studies scholar I know once said that the hallmark of a religiously mature person is the development of a tolerance for paradox and contradiction. I don’t know if that’s true, but I certainly am stretched in trying to accommodate my multiple loyalties.

    • Jeff G, I do hope that for my sake and for the sake of my thousands of Mormon feminist sisters and brothers, you (and I) are wrong. I think my main optimism lies in the idea of an open canon. I love the idea that God is waiting there, ready to pour down greater light and knowledge.

  7. Perhaps borrowing a line of thinking from Jimmy Carter would help in both cases, namely, religious tenents and texts can be interpreted either to liberate or subjugate. The interpretations we choose have significant implications for those inside and outside of our faith. In other words, religion matters to all of us.

    There are many reasons women remain in traditional religious communities–belief, cultural identity, family ties, political and societal influences, to name just a few. My hope, like yours, Caroline, is that our discussions and our activism will ignite a conversation about maintaining what we value in our religious traditions but transforming them–and, by extension, the wider society–into more equitable communities.

    • Lorie, I too return to that Jimmy Carter quote often. It was brilliant. And i love your focus on transformation. I can’t give up that hope that change is possible — particularly in our Mormon faith where the heavens are open.

  8. Like Emily U, I haven’t encountered extremes in feminism as you have. However, as a Utah County Mormon Feminist, I feel very much “on the fringe.” Among certain other Mormon feminist groups, I’m too “orthodox.” Here’s the thing: I like where I am. I don’t mind a little discomfort at either end of the spectrum. (Granted, I am not subject to the sort of harassment you have had to endure, which is awful for you and I’m sad you have to deal with that.)

    I’m in my fifties age-wise and it’s amazing how little I care about what other people think of me. This is a gift of aging that people don’t tell you about. It’s FANTASTIC! (I just had to shout that.) I want to understand my sisters and brothers on the planet. I want them to want to understand me. But I am free of most of my concern about how they feel toward me. I can love them regardless. I credit God with much of this. I’m good with God and S/he’s good with me. I wish I had something concrete to offer besides “God will bear you up.” But that’s what I have to give. I believe it.

    You’re doing amazing things here. This essay alone has moved me and given me pause. Thank for doing what you’re doing.

    • Melody, thanks so much for your words of support. I think I’m getting closer to that “I don’t care what others think of me stage,” but I’m not quite there yet. I do look forward to it! I love how you balance that confidence that you are right with God with interest in understanding and loving others. You are a spiritual role model to me.

  9. There’s a strong argument religious communities are good for people and families. If we got rid of all the sexist, racist, homophobic religions…….. hmmm….. there wouldn’t be many left.

    Don’t feminists HAVE to work within existing power structures (religions, companies, countries) to effect change?

    Mormon feminists are those courageous enough to fight the patriarchy. We can all agree it would be SO MUCH EASIER to leave it all behind. We deserve respect!

  10. Yes, this is pretty much why I am not a feminist. You talked about feeling this way when interacting “on a forum.” Because I serve on the board of a women’s organization, I work with feminists on a regular basis.

    I don’t see that the benefits of identifying as a feminist outweighs the many, many costs. It is a distraction that only detracts from the real work, work that can be done by hands who belong to all kinds of groups and wear all kinds of labels.

    I stuck with the “feminist” label longer than I was truly comfortable. Partly because people told me I was not one, and I figured they didn’t have a right to say. And partly because I thought that feminism was the only way to fight against sexism.

    But at least in the reality of where I live, there are lots of organizations doing great work against rape, in support of mothers, encouraging girls’ education–various causes that I support and care about, often working shoulder-to-shoulder with feminists. So no, I don’t have to be a feminist to work on those things. And at the same time, I see feminists doing great harm to many women by promoting gender-neutral policies (e.g., no right for female faculty to stop the tenure clock for pregnancy, force mothers to attend college fulltime, don’t allow consideration of volunteer work when applying for a paid job.)

    But of course the greatest variation is among the particular people that you meet, no matter what the label.

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