Sometimes as a Mormon feminist I get a bad reputation for being critical, negative, harsh, overbearing, and seeing everything as a nail on which to bang my man-hating hammer (Well that last one is an exaggeration, but only slightly).
It’s hard for me to take this criticism because, well it’s sometimes true but I also think, “The message I am delivering is IMPORTANT. Women are people and deserve to be treated equally. Issues such as society’s war on women, mansplaining, modesty, lack of heavenly mother, why it’s not a woman’s fault when she is raped, and countless more add up to death by a thousand cuts.
Still, there are occasionally times when someone, usually a man, tries to engage in our feminist discussion from a different perspective and walks away bruised, at best. I usually don’t have much sympathy for these men (even if it is sometimes my husband or fellow-blogger’s husband). I think, “Maybe that will help them understand what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s world. You’re always swimming upstream and the status quo isn’t in your favor.”
However, sometimes our conversations with open-minded men and women can turn them away from the great cause of feminism instead of enlisting them as allies. This is problematic because we openly acknowledge that the imbalance between men and women hurts us all. It’s not just in women’s best interest for men to strive for greater equality, it’s in every man’s best interest (for example, teams are smarter with women). If we can’t help them see this, what are we doing wrong?
I’ve been pondering this difficulty for a while. It came up recently when I was talking to a friend about responding to Elder Packer’s recent talk that was very upsetting to many women, including me. My friend’s suggestion was that I should be kind in my response, hiding some of the pain and anger I felt over his words so that my opinion would be taken seriously and not dismissed by the bishop or stake president who might read my letter. At first I bristled at his comment, thinking that I had every right to speak my truth, even a duty to tell my priesthood leaders the details of my pain and righteous indignation.
But then I began to wonder, “What if he’s right? What if men (and the women who are typically the gate-keepers of patriarchy) are turned off by this story and others I feel I must tell? Is there a way to enlist these people to my side without sacrificing my integrity?
Today I heard an NPR interview with Nikki Finney, who won the National Book Award for her poetry last November. One of her poems is written in the voice of Rosa Parks about the injustices of racial discrimination in the south. In many ways, the fight for racial equality parallels the fight for gender equality, so this interview really resonated with me.
Here is a stanza from her poem Red Velvet* (I particularly like her mention of women made in God’s image)-
“By 42 your heart is heavy with slavery, lynching, and the lessons of being good.
You have heard 7,844 Sunday sermons about how God made every women in His image.
You do a lot of thinking with a thimble on your thumb.
You have hemmed 8,230 skirts for nice, well-meaning white women in Montgomery.
You have hemmed 18,809 pants legs for growing white boys.
You have pricked your finger 45,203 times, you have held your peace.”
The NPR host points out, “The quiet anger in these lines is where the ‘beautifully said thing meets the really difficult to say thing.'” Finney elaborates on this line by explaining that she grew up in the 60s and 70s, where difficult things were shouted and screamed. She recognized that they were important to hear, but thought there must be another way to say them so they will truly be heard.
As an artist, Finney uses poetry to tell the “really difficult to say things” about civil rights in the South. She uses numbers in a way that speak to an individual’s story, not a disenfranchised group of society.
What is the way that Mormon feminists tell the really difficult to say things? Are we shouting and screaming them? Certainly there is a need for this, we must never be silent to the injustices against ourselves, our sisters, our mothers, and our daughters.
But how do we know if we’re being heard? How do we find the balance to tell the truth so our audience will understand and respond in a way that benefits us both?
*You can listen to her read this stanza at min 3:35 of the interview