I know that “Gendering Mormonism” is true.

It is summertime now, and the living is (relatively) easy, but I still find myself thinking about a recent course I took called (you guessed it) “Gendering Mormonism.”

On both the first and last days of class we went around the circle. The first: to introduce ourselves and briefly share our conceptions for what the class would entail. The last: to share our final feelings on the class (i.e., how it touched us, what we learned, found meaningful, etc.).

It really did feel like a testimony meeting of sorts, and really was powerful, in the way a good testimony meeting can be. This is most likely because the course itself was powerful, as well as the subjects we discussed for three hours at a time, on Thursdays.

What made the class so powerful? Namely a thoughtful professor who was committed to creating an environment of respect (both for the academy and the religion), a TA (exponent’s own Caroline!) who taught me more about the history of the Relief Society in a short time than I had previously learned in my entire LDS life, a syllabus full of balanced reading material, presenting many, many perspectives, and classmates with real faces, experiences, and voices, to do the same.

This last point was actually one of the most important things for me, because it meant that everyone was at the table, presenting their own opinions from their own mouths. It is hard to vilify gays, or Catholics, or Pentecostals, or Evangelicals, or Latter-day Saints more conservative or liberal than you, when they are sitting around a table with you week after week, sharing their experiences, beliefs, and practices and asking you questions about your own, in a very sincere way, and when you are all reading the same challenging, inspiring, and sometimes depressing material.

Further, every student, LDS and not, was required to attend a three-hour block of services, to see the faith in practice and write about the gendered aspects of our worship.

Together these things resulted in genuine conversation, which was more than mere communication. There was asking for explanations when there existed a lack of understanding. There was peace in the way the French philosopher Levinas hoped for, that he believed could only happen when we see the other person as a human being, as a face, and as we enter into a real dialogue with them, of responsibility and response, where we are present to defend ourselves, and the other also.

So what topics did we cover—that I am so amazed that we were able to discuss reasonably and respectfully? Most of the things you might imagine, including every hard thing you can imagine. As my professor reflected,

One of the important aspects of the class was that [in addition to everyone being at the table] everything was on the table, including a number of subjects that would make many LDS church members and leaders squeamish. Over the course of fourteen weeks we discussed (and argued and joked and yelled about), among other things, historic Mormon feminism, Mother in Heaven, Mormon feminist theologies, gender identity and difference, women’s roles and experiences, Mormon women and second-wave feminism (with guest lecturer Laurel Thatcher Ulrich), masculinity, priesthood, patriarchy, polygamy, sexuality, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage (including, of course, California Prop 8).

This same professor later told us that he intentionally held some of the most sensitive topics to the end of the semester, because he hoped by that time that we would be able to trust each other enough to speak openly, honestly, and respectfully. It happened, which helped make participation in this course an immensely beautiful and enriching experience.

For these reasons, and others, I do know that this class is true (and that it is possible to discuss difficult things in an environment of learning and respect). With every fiber of my being.

How do you bring up (or engage in) difficult conversations that need to be had, in a constructive way?

What insights have you discovered in discussing such sensitive spiritual topics peacefully? What about when there are disagreements? 


Rachel is a PhD student in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University. She co-edited _Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings_ with Joanna Brooks and Hannah Wheelwright. She is also a lover of all things books and bikes.

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16 Responses

  1. ashmae says:

    This class sounds like such an incredible experience. I’m glad you got to be a part and I hope you keep the conversation going where ever you go.

  2. Caroline says:

    I love reading your reflections on this class. And you are too too kind to me.

    This is great:
    “It is hard to vilify gays, or Catholics, or Pentecostals, or Evangelicals, or Latter-day Saints more conservative or liberal than you, when they are sitting around a table with you week after week, sharing their experiences, beliefs, and practices and asking you questions about your own, in a very sincere way”

    This rings true to me. I might have a very different conception of what is right or good than others, but if I spend any amount of time with them, I usually learn to appreciate them and their good motivations, even if we end up in different spots. I’ve had some good firsthand practice with this outside of class. My husband is more orthodox and more politically conservative than I am. But his good heart and respect for me shines through everything he does and says, so I am learning to be at peace with our different journeys.

  3. Sherry says:

    WOW – where was this class? Is it available online? How can I find out more about it? THANKS!

  4. galdralag says:

    This sounds so great! Can you share the syllabus with us? I’d love to learn more, too. 🙂

  5. Patrick Mason says:

    Rachel is being very kind here, but it was an incredible class, thanks in no small part because of her considerable input. I don’t have the syllabus posted online, but would be happy to share it with anyone who e-mails me at patrick.mason@cgu.edu.

  6. Marlene Block says:

    This is a wonderful tribute to what must have been a really wonderful class! I wish that all professors (and students) would work to create the same sort of space for discussion and learning as professor Mason did here.

  7. Jessawhy says:

    Great post. It makes me dream about what Sunday School could be like.


    • Rachel says:

      Me too. That really should be the perfect place to have these discussions. I am the Gospel Doctrine teacher in my ward right now, so I try as much as I can to encourage real speech and real questions/make a point to testify of Heavenly Mother. Every Sunday.

  8. EmilyCC says:

    This is impressive! I had something like this happen in a feminism and religion graduate seminar I took. We were different feminists from a variety of religious traditions. Though we were on different ends of the liberal/conservative spectrum, we bonded over our common commitment to feminism.

    I’m thinking that you all didn’t have an easily identifiable bond (it doesn’t sounds like everyone in the class was committed to Mormonism as a cause 🙂 ). Besides good facilitators, is there anything else you think that may have contributed to this excellent class?

    • Rachel says:

      I have been trying to think very hard about what some of the other factors might have been, and it might just come down to good facilitators and good students–meaning smart students, but also meaning students who wanted the conversations to be open and honest, but also respectful. There was A LOT of pushing back, and A LOT of the phrase, “I have to push back…”, but there was also a willingness to listen to other sides, and when things really came head to head (whether between LDS and not-LDS, or between LDS, etc.) there was always Patrick Mason, restoring the calm and adding some new detail or insight imploring us to be more charitable. It nearly always worked.

      It was also an environment where it was okay to disagree. I wonder too how much of it had to do with the fact that there were those who were invested in the faith and those who were removed personally from it. The class probably would have been different if it were all LDS, or all not-LDS, though I am not exactly sure what those differences would have been. In Sunday School people are not always willing to vocally disagree with what else is being said. A lot can be gained when people are, in a thoughtful and charitable way.

  9. X2 Dora says:

    This sounds like it was a fabulous experience. It reminds me a little of the history seminar that Jana put together with Mike Davis so many years ago. This ability to have small, thoughtful, and open discussions is so key to actually exchanging ideas and learning from each other; as opposed to having a yelling match over the Internet. Thanks in advance to Professor Mason for being willing to share the syllabus!

  10. Nate C. says:

    Thank you for this post Rachel. And to Caroline and Patrick – well played. You continue to do what I hope uncorrelated Mormons everywhere will do.

    Rachel, as to you questions two that are very near and dear to me.
    “How do you bring up (or engage in) difficult conversations that need to be had, in a constructive way?”

    When talking to a group of people I don’t know, the first thing I do is say things that will make them comfortable. “I believe in the church, I have testimony of X…” I then move on to bring up a couple of neutral, but little-known facts about the subject in order to get their interest. For example, this last Sunday I gave the lesson on revelation in the elders quorum. I recapped some of the lesser known facts about George Albert Smith. He was legally blind and probably never read the scriptures after he was made an apostle. He fought lupus his entire time as prophet and eventually died from the disease. He was the first truly world-wide prophet, he flew over 1 million miles in his tenure as prophet.

    With a foundation of trust and friendship established, I then broach the more difficult subjects like. Last Sunday I asked the class, “is everything a prophet says revelation?”

    That led to a very vigorous and constructive conversation among the quorum where we concluded that prophets do screw up, and that it is our obligation as priesthood holders and/or followers of Christ to receive personal confirmation about any revelations that the prophet discloses.

    I wanted to then take the lesson to Prop 8 and 102 (in Arizona), and challenge them to pray specifically about the guidance concerning those directives from the church, but decided that I had pushed far enough for one day.

    A member of the stake presidency happened to be in the quorum that day. At the end the EQ president asked him if he had anything to add. He got up and I thought for a moment that I was about to get reamed. But instead, he shared his testimony that asking for personal confirmation about anything our church leaders tell us is the pattern and system established by God.

    In summary:
    1) build trust
    2) start soft
    3) know when to stop

    This process has worked well for me as I try to pry open the beautifully logical and inquisitive minds of brothers and sisters in my ward.

  11. Diane says:

    This is a great post and has lead me to wonder what it is about Mormonism *In particular, that makes other Mormons cry Anti_ when difficult *but true information arises?

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