Idealistic, Pragmatic, and Cynical Feminists: Who Stays, Who Goes?

by Caroline

After the recent feminist Mormon conference in Claremont (nicely summarized at ZD), Exponent blogger Jana reflected on the feminists who were able to stay and even thrive within the Church, verses the ones who left or were forced to leave. She saw that the more pragmatic and cynical feminists seemed to be able to make it work, whereas the idealistic feminists were the ones that weren’t able to stay.

I thought this was an intriguing framework: the idealistic ones who can’t endure the dissonance between what they know in their heart is right/just and what the Church teaches about gender eventually leave, whereas the pragmatic or cynical ones who see patriarchy as inescapably infusing almost all institutions (universities, corporations, etc.) or who decide to weigh the pros and cons and stay for various reasons including community, family, heritage, and root belief in the restoration tend to be able to make Mormonism work for them.

This gave me pause. Where do I fall in this framework? I would characterize myself primarily as idealistic, but with a strong pragmatic streak as well. I have a deep attachment to principles and it hurts and troubles me when I see principles of equity violated. However, I can and do compromise those principles by operating within a flawed system – the Church – because I hope for a possible greater good that can come from it. Good for my family, good for my immediate community, and hopefully good for myself as I force myself to try to love, serve, and see the good in others whom I disagree with on some important levels. Upon deeper reflection, I realized that I also compromise out of convenience (sad, but true).

Another coping mechanism for the pragmatic feminist, may also be a certain degree of detachment. One can only exist in a world of pain and despair for so long before building up armor for protection. That armor, often in the form of decreased investment or belief, protects. But it also separates and creates some critical distance. I think that transition from painfully believing that God is behind current teachings on patriarchy and gender roles, to believing that some/all such teachings are cultural holdovers from an earlier era is a hugely liberating turning point that many pragmatic feminists eventually experience.

And here’s a tangent….as I was thinking about the upcoming birth of my child, and how much I admire those feministy women who do natural childbirth and home birth because they find it so empowering to have more control over their experience, I was struck by how once again I am willing to compromise principles for convenience. Because for me, when it comes down to it and I’m in intense labor pain, I’m ready to sacrifice some control for the convenience and pain control of a hospital birth. Maybe I’m more of a pragmatist than I thought…

What do you think of this framework? Do you characterize yourself as cynical, pragmatist, or idealistic, and have you chosen to stay or leave?


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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27 Responses

  1. Alisa says:

    Amazing thoughts, Caroline (and Jana). I have never thought about these distinctions in feminism. I would probably need to know more about the cynical type of feminist. So they can stay in the Church, but are they happy?

    I know I definitely fall into idealistic. Intrinsically, I know my equal worth and the equal worth of all human beings. I act that way in my one-on-one interactions. And, when patriarchy comes up, I’m always blindsided by it. Or women seem to be jealous of other women or to tear them down for some flaw, I am completely caught off guard. This leaves me very open and vulnerable. Very fragile. It makes it hard to have the strength and resiliancy required to be right in the middle of an unsafe space or structure where men might have unrighteous dominion and women might act out because they feel the loss of their power.

    As far as the Church goes, yes, I am in. Part of that comes from having a partner in my husband where I feel very much an equal in my marriage. That’s the foundation for me, the safe place, and it makes my religion possible.

  2. Lynnette says:

    That’s a fascinating observation, because I am definitely in the cynical camp. Not just about feminism–about life generally. And yet when I think about why I stay in the Church, I actually suspect it might have to do with some wild streak of idealism, of hope, which runs somewhat counter to my generally cynical outlook. Which leaves me wondering if, at least for me, it’s the combination of the two that keeps me around (the cynicism keeps me coping, while the idealism stops me from leaving altogether.) But I’ll have to think about this more.

  3. Anon this time says:

    This is a really pertinent post for me because I just had a conversation with my husband last night about him leaving the church. He says my feminist critique of Mormon patriarchy is a big factor in his loss of faith. That hurts, but I also believe that faith is highly personal and that I am only one of many factors in his spiritual life. I hope that if/when he leaves the church, that he will own that choice and not spend his life blaming me for it. It’s really hard to be blamed for something like that.

    I think I am cynical, a pragmatist, and an idealist, and I think my husband has all these qualities as well. I think my pragmatism keeps me active in the church (there is truth and non-truth in all religions). I also hope that someday things will change (I’m idealistic, but in a guarded way). I guess my husband is idealistic about the church, and disappointed, so it’s created intolerable tension for him. Funnily enough, though, he’s quite pragmatic about life in general.

    Thanks for providing this framework to think about these things.

  4. CTW says:

    I am like Alisa. I am a cynic which has made floating through Mormonism without a hitch impossible, but my idealism, my hope and my sporadic bursts of optimism keep me from flying right out the door. The church really does need those who think outside the box. Without us, I fear the constrictions will become too narrow for our daughters and their daughters.

  5. Violet says:

    Wow I had never thought it that way! I probably tend to be very pragmatic and have strong idealistic streak in me. Right now I am in what I call spiritual limbo and I am trying to decide what journey I want to take. Part of me wants to stay and another part wants to leave. It’s hard, I go to church and I see some harm and I see some good. I think I am beginning to see a way to work through it all. Detaching has been a big key for me and lowering my expectations has helped a lot.

    I’ll have to think about it some more.

  6. JennS says:

    I like your final analogy — I’ve known two women with three pregnancies between them who started out home birthing and ended up in the hospital, epidural and all. The knowledge that there’s an easier option speaks to our survival (pragmatic?) instincts, methinks. Of course, one of the most admirable events in Joseph Smith’s life was to overcome that instinct – refusing alcohol when undergoing surgery. Was he more of an idealist or pragmatist?

    I’m having trouble with this framework. And I’ve chosen to stay in the church. I have a moral, idealistic imperative to stay believing that patriarchy is not inescapable but can be challenged, albeit very, very slowly. ON a practical level, how will this change within the institution come about if people like me leave?

  7. Shelley says:

    I think I border between a pragmatic and idealist feminist. I’ll make some compromises (like keeping my hand down in Sunday School or Relief Society when someone says something regarding, say, gender roles that I disagree with) but I still believe that one day we’ll all understand that men and women have the exact same divine potential, and our differences are only temporal in nature.

    I believe it is my idealism that keeps me faithful, and my pragmatism that keeps me going to church.

  8. Kim B. says:

    Great post.

    The theory that you lack ideals if you stay within the framework of mormonism is difficult to hear and yet, maybe there is truth in that statement. Maybe I have tucked my deepest feelings away, with an occasional ugly flare up, for the good of the family and the church members I am trying to understand and love.

    I particularly relate to your thoughts on childbirth. My youthful ideals went right out the window once labor started with my first child. With my last two children, I went ahead and SCHEDULED my delivery with all medical intervention possible all the while puzzled by the evolution of myself.

  9. mb says:

    Interesting to contemplate.

    Caroline wrote:
    “pragmatic or cynical ones who… decide to weigh the pros and cons and stay for various reasons including community, family, heritage, and root belief in the restoration tend to be able to make Mormonism work for them.”

    Kim wrote: “for the good of the family and the church members I am trying to understand and love.”

    I like the idea of adding “trying to understand” (ie: compassion) and “love” to the reasons for staying. Commitment to those principles can be empowering in maintaining one’s sense of hope when things are not all right with the world.

    To that list I’d also add a firm commitment to the principle of forgiveness as something that helps one to stay involved. That has been one of the essential pieces in my decision to be a participating member.

  10. Jessawhy says:

    Great post, Caroline.

    One point that I thought was very important from the original conversation with Jana is that some (at least one specifically) idealistic Mormon feminists would have stayed in the church, but were forced to leave because their ideas were threatening to the church leadership.
    When I really began to understand how these women sacrificed their idealism and their church membership to address issues that now seem almost mainstream, I feel sad and hopeful.

    With the resurgence of Mormon Feminism that Mraynes described, I hope that we keep our eyes on the women who went before us who wanted to stay, but were forced to leave. That actually helps me put my membership in the church in a new light.

    Thanks for this post.

  11. Caroline says:

    Alisa, I think of cynical fems as the ones that see patriarchy as just plain inescapable everywhere. They don’t expect the Church to be perfect, because it’s run by imperfect people. I think they have a deep appreciation of the human element at work in the Church. I do think they can be happy. Once a woman just accepts that an organization is fundamentally messed up in some ways, it might be easier to just shrug her shoulders and appreciate what she can about it.

    Lynnette, I too do a strange dance between idealistic and pragmatic/cynical (I think those two overlap quite a bit.)

    Anon, I’m sorry to hear about that your husband is blaming you for his loss of faith. That doesn’t sound fair at all.

    CTW, Amen!!

  12. Caroline says:

    Violet, that’s my experience as well, seeing both the good and the bad. One thing that keeps me connected is seeing how much good the church has done for my husband. He’s wonderful, and he’s indisputably a product of this religion.

    JessS, I love your idealism. I do hope women like you stay and work for change. Like you, I also feel a sense of responsibility to my community to stay – I think the Church needs people like us.

    Shelley, I like the way your idealism is functioning to keep your faith in the goodness and justness of God. I’ve made that leap too – it was very liberating to separate the Church from God in my mind.

    KimB, Well, I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that fems who stay lack ideals. I think I’d say that they’ve shifted those ideals away from the Church and onto God’s goodness. Much like Shelley just expressed. (Does that make sense, or am I talking in circles?) Anyway, I hear you when it comes to that epidural. Give it to me!

    mb, I like those additions – compassion, love, and forgiveness are ideals that do lead me to want to make my relationship with the church work. (Though I affirm those who choose, for the sake of their well-being or out of principle, to sever the connection. I think some people need to leave to find the peace they are seeking.)

    Jess, great point about idealistic feminists being forced out. I don’t get the sense that either Margaret T or Maxine H would have chosen to leave – they were so invested and convinced that they could help the Church change for the better. (And I think they did – how I appreciate the sacrifice they made.)

  13. G says:

    oh! I think this is so true caroline!

    And I think this was my problem at the beginging; I was an idealist. And so the dissonance hit very hard and very personal.
    I think I may have become more of a hardened pragmatist now (well, in my case, I just don’t believe like I used to). The jury is still out as to whether this will allow me to participate (or not participate) without the pain I felt before.

  14. Anna says:

    I am an idealist. I am out. It was just too painful in many way. The chruch was so important, so very important and was just too painful. I never felt good enough and I never felt accepted. After years of struggle trying to accept second class status, I just dropped out.

  15. anon says:

    I’m a somewhat pragmatic idealist, which is probably why I’m still here — well, that and a strong testimony of the fundamentals of the church. I was able to shelve all the female role questions until I married at 29, afterwhich everything just came falling down. Gradually, but down own just the same. I attend, fulfill my callings, and do all I’m supposed to, but all of the joy and most of the spirit is gone. After all of these years of trying to work through the conflicting messages I receive at church regarding women, I’ve actually reached a certain acceptance of the fallibility of a church run by human beings. What I can’t seem to move past, however, and what keeps me up at night, is the thought that this role actually may be what god expects of women. There’s just so little to indicate otherwise.

    So, one thing I really envy about many of the women here is their ability to hope and believe otherwise — and maybe feel something other than anger, disappointment and sadness while at church. Because, right now — gosh, this is going to sound melodramatic — right now, it feels like I’ve got this spiritual cancer eating away at my insides. If it weren’t for that infernal testimony, things would be so much easier!! 🙂

  16. Marjorie Conder says:

    I am a faithful, believing Mormon feminist of the mostly pragmatic type with a streak of idealism. Many years ago (maybe 25) I remember hearing Leonard Arrington speak at MHA. In the Q&A he was asked how he could still be an active member and so overall upbeat when he had just been “taken for a ride” by the institutional Church. He smiled impishly and said, “I keep a journal.” So do I. Recently I have been working on something of a “tell it all” autobiography about my lifetime feminist journey. It will probably not see the light of day(beyond a very small circle) until after my death . But I think some future researacher will find it fascinating. And in the meantime I have a testimony and am an active contributing member of my ward.

  17. Kelly Ann says:

    Who was Leonard Arrington?

  18. Caroline says:

    Kelly Ann,
    Leonard Arrington was the Church Historian in the late 70s. He is admired for opening up the vault, so to speak, and letting scholars have access to materials that were previously kept under lock and key. Some GAs were supportive of him. Some were definitely not.

    Marjorie, your book sounds fascinating. Do feel free to send us snippets as guest posts, if you’re interested in going a bit more public…

  19. Caroline says:

    anon, I know what you mean. My deepest moments of despair were when I thought that perhaps God did look at women as secondary human beings, “help meets” created for men.

    But my reading of Jesus’ ministry eventually made me come to the conclusion that God’s inclusive love and respect for all humans is much broader than our fallible human cultures can even begin to express. So now I place my trust in a God I would want to worship. The other alternative is too frightening and awful for words.

  20. d says:

    I am glad to have discovered this blog. I do not consider myself a feminist (may have some forms of it) but it’s nice to know of how you all feel. I grew up in a home where my mother is more educated and certainly makes more money than my father. That’s the same way with my husband and me too. I don’t think I’m the kind who is humble, meek & submissive either. I work fulltime in a leadership position, only has one child (7 y/o), am finishing up my doctorate degree, an RM, etc. My husband is very active in church, (high council, Bishopric callings, etc.). And I love how I’m being treated at home and at church. Sure, I have my complaints. My family is not perfect. But I just don’t feel like I’m being mistreated or not allowed to blossom as much as I can and want to. I actually feel like as a woman in the church, I’m kind’a like set up in a pedestal. Maybe that’s just me. I love it that my husband has the priesthood and does not feel like a second-class citizen at all. I just feel that my husband and I have different roles but equally important. I’m sure I will have a successful and fulfilling life without him but what we can achieve together (in spiritual, family, emotional, physical terms) is much greater than just me or him alone. I actually think my life here would be easier by myself ‘coz I can just do anything the way I want to (very obsessive & perfectionist). But I guess there is more fulfillment & growth in challenges, compromises, & losing yourself, & therefore (accdg to church doctrine) deserves a higher reward.

    I apologize that I don’t share some of your beliefs. I do not consider myself smart but I do know with a surety that we are not just some 2nd class citizens or “helpmeet” if we wan’na call it that, and maybe this is something you and I both know within our hearts, just not seeing it the same way. It has been said that you can find wisdom & treasures of knowledge in the temple, and that the more you experiment upon the word, the more knowledge you get. I realize that it is true. One treasure I found is a firm assurance that we have a huge part in the priesthood, and by this I do not mean just supporting or benefiting from the blessings of the priesthood. I know that I am of much worth than I can ever imagine, but I have to lose myself first before I can fulfill that. There is endless potential for us women in the exalted realm, but just like any doctrine, we have to understand & go through the depths in order to comprehend and achieve the heights, the same way with our Savior Jesus Christ.

  21. mb says:


    In regards to “helpmeet”; it is a translation of the Hebrew word “ezer”.

    In the 17 times that “ezer” is used in the Old Testament where it does not refer to Eve, it is used in reference to God. Exod 18:4, Deut 33:7, 26, 29, Psalms 20:2, 33:20, 70:5, 89:19, 115:9, 121:1-2, 124:8, 146:5, Isaiah 30:5, Ezek. 12:14, Dan. 11:34, Hosea 13:9

    So, if it’s helpful to you to know, it’s not a word that is used biblically to refer to the role or work of a secondary being.

  22. Alisa says:

    d, I have enjoyed reading your comments here and on other threads. For some women, being put on a pedestal such as the one you find yourself on still doesn’t make us feel all equal as human beings (some of us find that the pedestal is just as confined, that we’re afraid of heights, or that we’d like to choose for ourselves whether or not we’re up there in the first place). There are many brands of feminism, but many of us seek to be given equal sociopolitical and socioeconomical *opportunities* as men (and whether we take or leave them is also our choice, just as it’s men’s choice to take or leave their rights and opportunities).

  23. Kiri Close says:

    “I’m a little bit o’ country, & I’m a little bit o’ rock-n-roll”.

    No, seriously, I can be all three (simultaneously, or @ different times – dependent on sitchee-a-shunz).

    I have chosen to stay in the church (for now, @ least), mostly because this is a culture of what i know & am–for me, it’s not that easy to dismiss (it’s like my trying to leave the Samoan culture–but can’t, ’cause it’s something i know, am deeply).

    But another part of me stays to aid the much needed ‘change’ (hate to use Obama-bot term, but here’s hoping you catch my drift). If I leave, than that’s one less loud-mouth LDS feminist who thinks she’s doing some bit of good.

    Other gals leave, & I have not qualms about them doing so. But if I left, for example, right now while I’m YW prez, I’m afraid our youth girls will continue living in a very fixed, unexposed, unenlightened, unkind church.

    So, I stay to be the big-mouth, book worm, unapologetic LDS feminist big sister to them since their mothers are too afraid to speak to their daughters of their own rule breaking out loud.

    My hope is that I’m giving our Young Women, & fellow Relief Society sisters more sense of freedom they are naturally obliged to, & without the awful guilt performance our church culture inflicts.

  24. d says:

    Alisa, thanks for your comment. I am really treading lightly here because I don’t mean to offend anybody. I know we are all very passionate with what we believe & I don’t want you to feel that I am invading a sanctuary where you find much needed support. I love equal opportunity especially since I belong to a racial minority, but despite that, I do believe that each of us is not afforded the same choices or opportunities. True, men can choose to have the priesthood or not, but they can’t choose to naturally conceive a baby or not too. Now, which of these two rights or opportunities is better than the other? I’d say they’re very different, there’s really nothing to compare. I mean, if men are given something that we can’t have at least in this life as far as we know now, then they ought to have something that they can’t have, right? Though we may regard the priesthood as a social, political privilege and childbearing as more biological, but they are all God-given rights and can be viewed as the same. I am just at peace with the idea that God’s gifts are spread out for the benefit of another. I should lack something to give another an opportunity to give me something. Maybe I’m turning complacent just to oppose my own people who complain a lot about discrimination, or maybe, because I’ve seen the other side of the coin.

  25. Alisa says:

    d, I respect where you’re coming from. I feel you understand my point (yes, I do think biological differences are quite different than social and political rights). And you also understand how important having a forum where I can discuss these things might be to me and others. Thanks for your comments and perspective.

  26. d says:

    I’m sorry, but here I am again. I just want you to know that it is not my object to oppose or in any way try to convince anybody that I am right and therefore you are wrong in how you feel. I came across this website and find many wonderful things but I stepped back and put myself in the shoes of an outsider, and the picture of Mormonism looks like women are mostly mis or under informed, brainwashed, meek, complacent, blindly obedient, etc. I know that is not what you are intentionally trying to spread in your blogs but only comes across that way. That’s the beauty and disadvantage of the Internet. My whole object of blogging is just to let other people be aware that many women in the church are open to criticism, open-minded, have wide perspective, not submissive at all, have some education, etc., but is still at peace with their feminine roles in the church.

    I was born Catholic, parents converted during late childhood to LDS but parents only a little bit later become active, brother baptized in UCC but now LDS, uncle a PhD in Theology & about already 35 years a Baptist minister, cousin a Methodist minister, many relatives belonging to Jehovah’s Witness, Seventh-day Adventist, Pentecostal churches, are Buddhists & Taoist. I’ve had opportunities to live in many countries where I’ve formed close friendships with Anglicans, Hindu’s, Muslims, & agnostics. My family’s library has anti-Mormon literatures mostly courtesy of my PhD uncle and I’ve read them and continue to read anti-Mormon media. I work with and know people who chose to have different sexual orientation. I love learning about history and am aware of the horrific persecutions done to Tyndale and other early Christians or many other faiths and other people endured. I rejoice in diversity, equal opportunity and individuality.

    I’m not saying that I have intensively studied these doctrines and philosophies and found that they’re all wrong and Mormonism is always right. I respect all of them and love the knowledge and information I’ve gained. What I’m saying is that many women in the Church have investigated and have seen how these religions and philosophies are lived, and still chose Mormonism, and still at peace with the idea that women don’t have the priesthood at this time. That it’s not because of ignorance, being a martyr, fear, complacency, perceived social stigma at church, or thought of excommunication that made many women embrace many LDS philosophies, but because we chose to do it from sheer study, prayer, experience and testimony.

    Now, I’ve said my piece. I really thank you all for the respect and opportunity I received from this blog. I know you understand where I’m coming from.

  1. April 11, 2009

    […] I guess I feel bad because I don’t know so much about feminism, and I fear I’ll make the same gross misunderstandings that people make of my ideas if I speak further, but I sense some parallels in some of the struggles. It was interested to read on The Exponent about idealistic, pragmatic, and cynical feminism and its role in the Mormon church. […]

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