The Many Faces of Mormon Feminism: Part One – The First Wave
(Quotes in this post were taken from Vella Neil Evans outstanding article “Empowerment and Mormon Women’s Publications” found in Maxine Hanks’ edited volume, Women and Authority.)
Due to Jana’s recent post, I’ve spent the last few days thinking about the many faces of Mormon feminism. From the radical to the moderate, from the social to the ecclesiastical, from the political to the theological, Mormon feminism has always had different strains.
Many of you won’t be surprised to read that Mormon feminism (or at least what can now be interpreted as feminism) started with the presidents of Relief Society. In 1872, the women leaders of our church published the Women’s Exponent newspaper. While those early issues advocated good housekeeping, polygamy, and loyal church service, they also defined women as independent, assertive and strong. According to Evans, the Women’s Exponent “promoted a wide range of ecclesiastical, secular, and domestic options for women that male church leaders ignored or rejected…”
In the Exponent, Eliza R. Snow told her readers that any faithful, endowed Mormon woman was worthy to wash, anoint, and lay hands on the sick for the restoration of health. In the Exponent Relief Society President Emmeline B. Wells observed that women in the temple were “officiating in the character of priestess.”
In the Young Women’s Journal, which the women of the church were also entirely in charge of, Lucy B. Young was described as a woman whose “words of inspiration and personal prophesy” flowed “like a stream of living fire.” This Journal also reported in 1896 that “the Seventy’s wife bears the priesthood of the Seventy in connection with her husband, and shares in its responsibilities.”
Mormon women’s outspoken assertions extended beyond priesthood authority, prophesy, and healing gifts and into the political realm. From 1880 to 1919, Mormon women leaders lobbied for national women’s suffrage, earning attention, friendship, and visits from America’s leading feminists in the east. When the 19th amendment was passed, local Relief Societies held victory parties and the women’s publications rejoiced that women had finally achieved “equal rights before the law, equal opportunities, equal pay for equal work, equal political rights.”
Early Mormon women leaders likewise advocated an expansive social role for women that was not often mirrored in male church leaders’ discourse. Although male church leaders were consistently mandating motherhood for all women, the Exponent in 1873 printed the following: “If there be some women in whom the love of learning extinguishes all other love, then the heaven-appointed sphere of that woman is not the nursery. It may be the library, the laboratory, the observatory.”
The late 1800’s marked perhaps the strongest and broadest era of feminism in the Church. With Relief Society leaders themselves promoting an expansive and empowered view of women politically, socially, and ecclesiastically, the ideals of women’s empowerment touched many LDS women’s lives.
On a personal note, whenever I read excerpts from these old Mormon women’s publications, I become so proud of my Mormon heritage. These early Mormon women endured unspeakable deprivation and hardship, and their feisty, fiery spirit and indomitable will reach out through the old publications and buoys me up. I love these powerful, spiritual Mormon women of old, just as I love my contemporary Mormon feminist friends, in all their diversity of perspectives.
Ideas to consider:
- I define these old presidents of Relief Society as feminists since they seem to fall in line with the dictionary definition of feminist: those advocating ‘social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.’ Do you agree that they were feminists?
- Many of these early Mormon feminists were polygamists. Do you have difficulty reconciling their feminism with their polygamous status?
- Why do you think the early Mormon women leaders were so outspoken and interested in women’s rights, compared with Mormon women leaders today?
My next post will discuss the 2nd wave of Mormon feminism.