Spaces We Occupy

While Maria is on vacation, she has commissioned another of her talented friends to write us a guest post. This one is from Kim.

I’m in the process of reading Laura L. Bush’s book Faithful Transgressions in the American West (see also Bush “On Being Single.” Exponent II 18.4 (1993): 5). In 2005, I heard her interviewed by Doug Fabrizio on KUER’s RadioWest. Since that time, I have meant to pick up the book. As a feminist scholar and a Mormon woman, I am intrigued by her take on Mormon women’s autobiographical writing. Bush’s primary interest lies in the oxymoronic nature of these autobiographical acts which sustain a simultaneity that both “affirm[s] and critique[s] … Mormon [women’s] experience” (16), thus the use of the terms faithful and transgression.

In essence, she argues that “[t]ransgressive writing occurs when a Mormon woman writer trusts her individual conscience and expresses ideas or beliefs that resonate within her as being right and true but which she knows implicitly or explicitly violate rules of Mormon doctrine or cultural norms within her faith community” (17-18). True to academic rigor, Bush traces the conventions of Mormon autobiographical writing and its links to the autobiographical traditions of both male and female writers in the seventeenth- and eighteenth- centuries, writers such as St. Augustine, Julian of Norwich, and Margery Kempe. In the text, Bush consistently raises the point that Mormon women autobiographers must “depict [themselves] to be … ‘faithful’ member[s] of the church” while committing oneself to critique official religious authority and rely on one’s own ideas about theology, policy, and practice of the Mormon religion.

In my own Mormon life, I am often stunned by my seeming inability to sustain the paradox of “faithful” and “transgressor.” Rather than sustain the two as a healthy practice, I tend to compartmentalize. I think I’ve grown tired of trying to negotiate the divide, implicit and explicit, in the act of calling oneself a Mormon feminist. I often settle for retreat. In my academic life, I can move more easily between my theoretical work as a feminist and the practical work of implementing activist projects to try to affect change within communities of women. Granted, this work, too, is full of contradictions and unethical links to academic agendas, but I become less frustrated in this world because there seems to be a light. With feminism and Mormonism, the effort seems more futile. But, this of course is contingent on one’s definition of feminism.

To enact feminist change within the practice of Mormonism, things must evolve at the policy level (according to my take on feminism). Policy in the Mormon Church is dictated by predominately white males in Utah. Without access to policy decisions and implementation, Mormon women are left disenfranchised, so to speak. So, in an effort to cope, I have begun to distance myself more and more from activism at the grassroots level in the Mormon Church and have concentrated most of my feminist efforts elsewhere. That said, I am left with the hollow voice of “Is this the only place we can end up as Mormon feminists?” Is the future of Mormon feminism destined to remain printed words in autobiographical texts that never translate into practical policy change within the church? What is the launching point from here? Will we remain relegated to the underground or will the sociology of the church evolve to the point that Mormon feminists will take an active role in shaping policy for the women of the church? Should the words “policy” and “faith” even be invoked simultaneously or does faithfulness demand a separation?

I don’t have answers to any of the questions I pose. In fact, most of the general population of Mormon women I have encountered in my brief, geographically bound experience have articulated overwhelming satisfaction with the state of women in the church. There are few that have openly communicated to me a need to change the policies associated with Mormon women within the church organization. And in an effort to depict myself as a faithful member of the church, I concede that I want these two worlds to merge, but I am skeptical that there is an “accepted’ path.

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  1. AmyB says:

    Kim, this is well-written and thought-provoking. I’m so glad you agreed to write a guest post!

    Is the future of Mormon feminism destined to remain printed words in autobiographical texts that never translate into practical policy change within the church?

    I don’t know what I can say for the future of Mormon feminism, but I do think the blogs are having an impact. Insitituional policy-wise, who knows . . . but for bringing women who have similar struggles together in a safe place they are remarkable. For me personally, this blog was a light in a very dark time. We can make change in ourselves and our relationships with other women within the church, and exercise more personal authority in our own lives without depending on the insitution to okay it, methinks.

  2. Caroline says:

    Kim,

    So much of what you say resonates with me. I agree that there needs to be policy changes. And I think that they will happen, but that it will take a long time. Perhaps another couple of generations of leaders will have to die off before we see real change.

    I too am trying to navigate the worlds of faithful and transgressive. My current modus operandi is to go to church every week, comment occassionally in RS lessons, and do a good job on my calling. But to also speak my mind and not pretend to believe things I don’t. I try to be careful in places like RS, referring occassionally to my complicated relationship with the church. Outside of the church setting, I am very open. I want people to know that you can be a committed Mormon and not swallow a lot of the hooey that’s thrown around about gender roles and priesthood.

  3. Deborah says:

    Fascinating. Thanks you, Kim.

    About autobiography — I think, because of our reverence for personal revelation, narrative has become a fertile ground for Mormon women to explain/explore their choices and convictions. Scholarly pieces that challenge policy receive a different reception than autobiography. I’d wager these are the most popular Dialogue Journal pieces, and narratives are at the heart of 30+ years of Exponent. Segullah also chose a memoir structure for their women’s magazine. Does this marginalize women from having a more active voice in doctrinal discussions? Is this a father tongue/mother tongue divide?

    I tend to view memoir as a powerful rhetorical space, partly because it is the stories of women — more than scriptural exegesis — that has helped me find a path that works for me withing Mormonism. I resonated strongly with this passage from P. G. Karamesines’ recent guest post at T&S: “I want to keep open another narrative pathway for and about people with PWSs, and I wanted to keep my own story open. Because what the world needs, I think, is more storylines to choose from and adapt to their own circumstances, not less.”

    I also empathized with your statement: “I tend to compartmentalize. I think I’ve grown tired of trying to negotiate the divide, implicit and explicit, in the act of calling oneself a Mormon feminist. I often settle for retreat.” I am, quite simply, a much more active feminist voice in my non-church life. But as I’ve recognize that my brand of feminism has been very much influenced by scripture, service, and LDS women I’ve admired . . . well, it’s at least eased the internal tension, the voice that worried that my integrity and spirituality were at odds. I think they are joined together, but are sometimes at odds with church culture and structure. That’s easier for me to navigate than doubting God’s goodness, justice, or mercy.

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