Do Publications by and for Mormon Women Still Matter?
Our sisters ought at least to be able to keep up one journal exclusively for their own benefit, when the brethren maintain so many publications.
So says an editorial of the Woman’s Exponent in May of 1880. The Woman’s Exponent ran from 1872-1914 and was the primary publication by and for Mormon women.
The editorial argued for the value of publishing women’s voices:
The Exponent has been instrumental in removing much of the prejudice which has existed in regard to the condition of women in this Church. Through its columns the sisters old and young have spoken to the world, as they could not have done in any other way; giving free expression to their views and feelings in a simple and untrammeled manner that could not fail to give evidence of their liberty of thought and action, and their religious sincerity. They have also told the story of their own hardships and persecutions suffered in consequence of the bigotry and superstition that is always opposed to the dawn of new light.
When I encountered this 1880 editorial, reprinted in the Fall 1979 Exponent II, I had to pause and ask, is this still the case? 150 years after the start of the Woman’s Exponent and nearly fifty years after the start of its spiritual descendent, Exponent II, do Mormon women still need a dedicated place to publish their voices? Certainly after all this time, women have gained an equal voice in the church and in society, right? Ha!
Some things have changed. Our collective understanding and language for gender have expanded and Exponent II now seeks to be a place for women and gender minorities along the Mormon spectrum (including both members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and others with connections to Mormonism). Indeed many beliefs, church doctrines, social conditions, laws, living conditions, and more have changed so that one would not expect to read a blog post or magazine article today and think they had fallen into the 1880s. One could not pick up a copy of the Ensign and be able to confuse it with a nineteenth-century LDS periodical, and one should not expect that here. And of course, no one publication can or should attempt to speak for all Mormons, women, or gender minorities. No one publication can speak for all modern Mormon feminists. No one publication is sufficient.
But despite vast changes in society, the imbalance of voices, influence, and power in the Church remains skewed, with women having fewer opportunities to make decisions, speak, and publish. Women’s representation in general conference has grown since the nineteenth century, yet women remain a small minority of the speakers (and gender minorities lack any visibility). President Oaks made it clear that even in the women’s session of general conference, the speakers and music are designated by the all-male First Presidency. Cis-male leaders have ultimate control over Church communications and publications, and the Church does not sponsor a publication by and for Mormon women and has not since 1970. It seems that even in 2022, Mormon women still need a space of their own to give “free expression to their views and feelings in a simple and untrammeled manner.”
I’m reminded of an editorial that Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote in the December 1976 Exponent II in support of this budding publication:
First, it is our conviction that the writing of Mormon women matters, that it touches some of the deepest and most important issues in the Church today. One of the unfortunate consequences of the traditional put-down has been the reluctance of our brightest and best female writers to confront women’s topics. As a result, many of them have been unable to follow the most basic advice given to any aspiring author: ‘Write about what you know.’ This is changing. Women’s traditional concerns can no longer be dismissed with a paternal pat.
The writing of Mormon women matters. And Mormon women are competent and willing to discuss the issues that matter to them. Exponent II is primarily a place to share stories about our lives and experiences. In sharing and listening, we help carry each other’s burdens. We expand our understanding. We learn we are not alone. We gain the courage to work towards equality for all people.
Like in 1880, we still need places for Mormon women and gender minorities to tell their stories. Exponent II is far from being the only important venue for the voices of marginalized Mormons. And we need more still. This issue should be addressed with a mindset of abundance, not scarcity. More voices. Always.
Lori LeVar Pierce, president of Exponent II, invited reflections on the Woman’s Exponent’s 150th anniversary. Her challenge led me to consider this editorial and its relevance today. We are still seeking guest posts about the Woman’s Exponent, as well as any other topic relevant to Mormonism and feminism. We need more voices to “bring the dawn of new light” in order to share one another’s hardships and dispel bigotry (including our own bigotry and systemic inequalities—motes and beams). We need to support these voices. One way to do that is to subscribe to Exponent II magazine. And in the comments, I’d love to hear about your favorite publications, blogs, or social media pages that share the voices of marginalized Mormons.