Mormon Feminists: OxyMormons?

With the current focus on Mormon women on some blogs, and recent, um, rather intense discussions about feminism, I’d like to visit an essay entitled “Border Crossings”(which was originally going to be entitled “Confessions of an OxyMormon”) by a contemporary notable Mormon woman, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Following are a few short exerpts:

In the tradition of my Mormon heritage, I am a feminist. I deplore teachings, policies, or attitudes that deny women their full stature as human beings, and I have tried to act on that conviction in my personal and professional life . . .Yet my commitment to the church of Jesus Christ pushes me beyond a mere concern for “rights.” As a feminist I know that structures matter, that formal authority makes a difference in the way people think as well as behave, that institutional arrangements can lock in prejudice, yet I also know that legal protection is hollow without spiritual transformation and that the right spirit can transform a seemingly repressive system. My daily experience as a Latter-day Saint confirms the words of Margaret Fuller, a nineteenth century feminist and contemporary of Joseph Smith: “Were thought and feeling once so far elevated that Man should esteem himself the brother and friend, but nowise the lord and tutor, of Woman—were he really bound with her in equal worship—arrangements as to function and employment would be of no consequence.” I have tasted equal worship in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Unfortunately, I have also observed the smug condescension of men who believe they have been called as lord and tutor. Against such behavior I assert both my Mormonism and my feminism.

To claim multiple identities is to assert the insufficiency of any one label, including Mormonism (. . .) A true oxymoron is “an expression in its superficial or literal meaning self-contradictory or absurd, but involving a point.” The phrase “Mormon feminist” can work that way. Those who assume that Mormonism is inherently hostile to women or, conversely, that feminism undermines faith, sniff at the phrase. But when confronted with a real person claiming to be both things at once, they are forced to reconsider their assumptions. Feminism may be larger than they imagined and Mormonism more flexible.

As biologist Stephen Jay Gould has written, “We must categorize and simplify in order to comprehend. But the reduction of complexity entails a great danger, since the line between enlightening epitome and vulgarized distortion is so fine.” The Boston Globe crossed that line when it described The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as “quintessentially misogynist.” But when anxious Church leaders denounce feminists they compound the distortion. Each group reduces the other to its own worst nightmare, and the war is on. In such a climate it is tempting to run for shelter, saying less about feminism among Mormons and less about Mormonism everywhere else. But a silence based on fear is no solution. As long as the issues are there, unacknowledged and unresolved, the anger and hostility will remain. I think it is better to gently but consistently tell the truth. I am a Mormon and a feminist.

These are only a few tidbits of a very compelling essay. I highly recommend reading all of it if you have access. I believe that the church institution needs feminists, just as it needs many other types. There needs to be a push and pull, a yin and yang in order to create balance. From Emma’s questioning that lead to the Word of Wisdom to the questioning of large part of the membership and President McKay that led to Blacks receiving the priesthood, questioners have helped bring about positive change in the church. Feminism, while it has its pitfalls (as does current church policy), helps keep us from falling prey to the “myth of the given .” That is, it keeps us from assuming that the way things are—or the way we think things are—is the way things should be. Mormon feminists add to the dynamism of the living church. We are a church that believes in eternal progression. Part of progressing entails challenging the status quo and pushing to be something better.

So in the thoughtful Mormon Feminist tradition of those like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, may we be gentle truth-tellers and refuse to be silenced by fear.

*Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. “Border Crossings” Originally printed in Dialogue, vol 27, Summer 1994; Reprinted in All Gods Critters Got a Place in the Choir.

**Artwork is a photogram by Georgia O’Keefe

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  1. Eve says:

    Thanks, Amy, for the snippets from the Ulrich essay. Very apropos.

  2. Caroline says:

    I loved this essay as well. Her remarks on equality, function, and employment made me sit back and think a bit. I don’t know if I personally have tasted equal worship in our faith. For me the very structure impedes it. But I’m very glad to hear that she can transcend that structure and experience equality.

  3. AmyB says:

    Eve- you’re welcome!

    Caroline, that quote made me think a bit too. It seemed to me the point was that “arrangments of function and employment” really do matter, because we’re human. I agree with you that the structure seems to impede equal worship. To be honest, I’m not sure how much longer I can stick it out. Every time I read thoughtful essays like Ulrich’s the possibility of staying in the church and finding my own way to navigate it seems almost within my grasp. Unfortunately, that feeling doesn’t always last very long.

  4. Cris says:

    Where can I find this essay?

  5. Caroline says:

    Cris, see the footnote at the bottom of the post. You can find this essay at the Dialogue website. Just google Dialogue, Journal of Mormon Thought. Then on the Dialogue website just type in the search space Border Crossings. It should be the first thing to pop up. Alternatively, I HIGHLY recommend her book All God’s Critters…. Lot’s of fabulous essays like this one in it. You can find it on Amazon.

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