The Exponent Gets Political: No Kidding, a Feminist Mormon?

by Michelle Beaver*

I’ve never been Mormon. However, in high school my best friend was Mormon and was part of an amazing Mormon family, and with that family I attended everything from young women’s camp and firesides, to seminary and sacrament service. They lived down the street from me and I was the Cousin Oliver to their Brady Bunch. Through my best friend, I met many types of Mormons. I met academic Mormons, I met uneducated Mormons. I met incredibly kind Mormons, and a few jerks. I met Mormons who ranged from hyper to calm and from shy to friendly. There were two types of Mormons, however, that I never met in those years. Out-of-the-closet gays and feminists.

In the 12 years since then, I’ve met with, read about, and interviewed gay Mormons and have learned that they’re plentiful and are finding their voice. Their fellow congregants are paying more attention to them than ever before and treatment is generally improving. Progress is slow, but it’s still progress. A typecast that is also sometimes ignored or mocked, but that is even more hidden than gays, is the feminist Latter-day Saint.  

At a support group for gay Mormons that I started attending a few months ago, our LDS hostess introduced herself as a feminist and I about fell out of my seat. As an impassioned feminist and someone who is a big fan of many Mormons, I thought this was a pretty cool combo.

I was already impressed, but when Emily Clyde Curtis (a Mormon who kept her maiden name, wow!) told me that there’s an LDS feminist publication (Exponent II), my intrigue piqued.

Emily gave me a special Exponent II that focused on homosexuality in the church, and I read it from cover to cover. I expected the stories to be compelling, and they are, but frankly, I didn’t expect the magazine to be so professional and for the writing to be as high quality as it is. My expectations were modest because this is a largely homespun publication. And yet, the material the Exponent II women produce is outstanding.

I know several Mormons who are extremely comfortable with, even proud of, the fact that the LDS Church is male dominated, and they don’t want it to change even one iota. However, Mormon feminists prove that there is diversity in the LDS Church and the fact that their LDS membership is safe and that their projects haven’t been banned shows that the Church is becoming more open-minded.

But to what extent? Would these women be welcome to conduct a workshop on feminism during a Relief Society meeting? Would their bishops or stake presidents welcome suggestions on how women can ascend to more leadership roles? Would church members welcome ideas for how gender stereotypes can be challenged in a way that may benefit everyone involved? For instance, a mother working and the father staying home with the kids, if that’s what works for a particular family?

I look forward to learning more about the goals, conversations and successes of feminist Mormons, and I hope that even the most traditional and conservative of their LDS sisters will give them a chance to share their feminist testimony, and will open their hearts and minds to it.

*Michelle Beaver is a journalist and teaches magazine writing at Arizona State University. She has found a special interest in exploring the LDS Church’s relationship with homosexuality. She’s not Mormon but has several Mormon friends and has attended a great many church events. She’s author of the book, Romney’s Gay America: Mormon Leaders, Same-Sex Rights — Bridging the Gap, which explores how Mormons and gays can improve their often-tense relationship. Her truest passion, however (well, maybe it’s tied with animal welfare) is feminism.

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10 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Michelle,
    It was such a pleasure to read this. I’m thrilled you found Emily. She’s a great representative of Mormon feminism, and I agree that that Exponent II issue on homosexuality was moving and powerful.

    You asked some very good questions: “Would these women be welcome to conduct a workshop on feminism during a Relief Society meeting?”

    No, not as such. However, one could teach a lesson on the early RS and the activities of the leaders, which were very feminist and progressive.

    “Would their bishops or stake presidents welcome suggestions on how women can ascend to more leadership roles?”

    I think many would be interested in ways to increase women’s visibility and authority on the local level, while still sticking to the general structure that is outlined for them by general church authorities. It’s that structure that really inhibits meaningful change.

    “Would church members welcome ideas for how gender stereotypes can be challenged in a way that may benefit everyone involved? For instance, a mother working and the father staying home with the kids, if that’s what works for a particular family?”

    There are definitely LDS families that break the stereotypical gender mold, though they may feel marginalized by Church rhetoric and culture at times. My sense is that there is more and more space for mothers to pursue careers . Stay at home dads? Maybe not as much space, but hopefully that will change with time.

    P.S. I love that animal welfare is a passion of yours. Mine as well.

  2. EmilyCC says:

    Michelle, thanks so much for this post. I wonder–you’re active in these more marginal Mormon communities and knowledgeable about Mormonism–what do you think the role of supporters who have never been Mormon, like yourself, can be in assisting these groups? And, how can we encourage more participation from these kinds of supporters?

  3. Caroline and EmilyCC, thank you so much for your insights, comments and compliments. EmilyCC, I’ve been thinking about your question: “what do you think the role of supporters who have never been Mormon, like yourself, can be in assisting these groups?”

    I’m still figuring it out for myself. For instance, if the Phoenix gay-Mormon support group hosts any kind of conference, I would think my role would be to assist behind the scenes. For instance, if I could help with planning workshops or making fliers or dropping things off, that could be a good way to pitch in without getting inappropriately involved.

    Maybe people like me who are not Mormon but who support Mormons, and particularly progressive Mormons, can make more effort to get involved, perhaps by making more effort to get to know Mormon neighbors or colleagues? If friendships are sparked, that’s the start.

    Your next question was, “And, how can we encourage more participation from these kinds of supporters?” That’s a tricky one. I want to say that you could invite more non-Mormons to events, but the down side to this suggestion is that a lot of people think Mormons wants to convert them, and they might take your sincere and non-convert-minded invite as some effort to hold them down and baptize them. Which, of course, is ridiculous. Maybe the invite could go something like the following?

    “I belong to a group that (explain group here). We have lots of Mormons but would like to include more people who aren’t Mormon so we can get different perspectives, and would really value you stopping by. We might pray or mention the church or our beliefs, but we welcome you to share your beliefs too. We don’t want to make you Mormon, we just want to hang out with you.”

    I don’t know, what do you think, EmilyCC?

  4. Jamie Z says:

    Michelle,

    Thank you for your article and your work in supporting Mormon feminism. I wish to be publicly counted among the Mormon feminists, and I am happy to say that as an editor I am nearly finished with a compilation of essays from twelve Mormon women, all of whom come from various backgrounds—single, divorced, five children, no children, grandchildren, support homosexuality, support feminism, PhD, no college, etc.—and have yet felt pressure to be or act in a certain way. The manuscript is entitled Undefining Woman: A Compilation of Essays by Twelve Mormon Women and we hope to find a publisher very soon now that we have all the essays finished. We desire to break down stereotypes so that women feel more able to pursue their desires without guilt. If you or people like you—those who support or encourage Mormon feminism but who are not Mormons themselves—can promote the breakdown of the stereotype of Mormon women, I think such an endeavor would go a long way. It would help to release women from the guilt that many of us have had in desiring something other than what was expected of us by our church culture.

    I think your example of a non-pressurized invitation to a church function is wonderful and simple and honest. I will be using it.

    Iakwe and Kommol Tata from the Marshall Islands,
    Jamie

  5. Henry says:

    I asked a Jewish woman one time why children are considered Jewish only if the mother is. She it is tradition. I asked why don’t they change it to be more equal. She didn’t like that idea at all.

    • Diane says:

      I’m not sure I’m understanding your point Henry, are suggesting that because some Jewish women don’t want to change things, that Mormon women shouldn’t either?

  6. Henry says:

    She said it is tradition.

  7. Henry says:

    Feminists want things to change but women are every bit engrained in “tradition” as men are.

  8. Henry says:

    Diane:
    Remember in my Jewish example it’s women who hold the upper hand (you are only Jewish if your mother is). Jewish women don’t see the need to change that anymore that LDS see the need to change the status quo.

  9. Naismith says:

    Getting back to the OP, I suspect that the answers to many of the questions will vary from place to place.

    Our RS book club, which was an official RS meeting at the time, did read The Feminine Mystique one month. Many eyes were opened about the pro-family nature of second-wave feminism.

    We’ve had many fulltime dads in my ward, and they’ve been called to leadership positions. Everybody kind of trusts that everyone else has the revelation to know what is best for their own stewardship. However, the thought process that goes into such choices may be EXACTLY the same as a family that has mom at home fulltime, so I hate it when the former are lauded as progressive and groundbreaking, while the latter are obviously mindless sheep following a traditional path.

    Some of the terminology in the OP makes it very clear that this is from a non-LDS perspective. I don’t feel that the church is male dominated. And I am not sure that someone “ascends” to a leadership position. We are usually dragged kicking and sobbing, knowing we promised to serve however but wishing that it could be in a less demanding setting.

    I am a non-feminist because I don’t feel that feminism as practiced where I live supports my goals as revealed to me personally and some of the general principles taught at my church. For example, I was at a meeting a few weeks ago where the feminists talked about how horrible it was for women to have more than one child. In their view, it was bad for the environment and hurt women’s ability to compete with men. Zero respect that women’s traditional contributions were as valuable as what men have done. And if someone is truly pro-choice, then why do they not respect my ability to determine how many children that I should have, even if it is 6 or 12???

    I used to be a feminist and have taken classes in women’s studies; I am on the board of a women’s organization which partners with feminist groups on issues of common interest (take back the night march, women’s equality day, Susan B. Anthony birthday, etc.)

    I don’t see feminist groups where I live supporting issues like respecting homemaking as work, being allowed to claim volunteer positions and accomplishments when qualifying for a paid job, ensuring that mothers can attend college part-time while their own kids are in school. Actually, what I see is the opposite. A feminist provost refused a policy that would guarantee stopping the tenure clock for pregnancy, she is the one who promoted the policy that students must attend full-time.

    I guess what it basically comes down to is that the feminism where I live is male-normative, and all about women doing what men have done. I would like to promote feminine issues that respect what women do. I think the church does a much better job of respecting women’s contributions than many feminists.

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