Mormon Feminists: Caught in a Double Bind?
For the past eight years that this blog has been around, I’ve been pretty open about my desire for change in the LDS church. I’d love to see more women blessing their babies. I’d love to see women in more positions of ward, stake, and general leadership. I’d love to see Heavenly Mother acknowledged as God far more often than she is. I’d love to see temple language change. Heck, I’d love to see women ordained. I’ve never been quiet about the structural inequality that is the lot of Mormon women, even as I fully acknowledge that individual Mormon men can be terrific about respecting individual women and treating them as partners.
I’ve never regretted being open about these things within my Mormon world. I believe our Mormon community is only strengthened by a diversity of ideologies and opinions. After all, the more types of people that the Mormon Church has as members, the more types of people it can help.
An experience in a feminist (non-Mormon) forum recently made me pause for a second and rethink my stance toward openness about the gender problems in Mormonism, particularly as I write for non-Mormon audiences. I’ve come to realize that there are risks to being open in non-Mormon forums, risks that non-Mormon audiences will sneer at Mormons in general and dismiss Mormon feminists as fools who are only working to shore up what is ultimately and irredeemably a patriarchal structure. Depressingly, I’ve seen this happen in a feminist forum, as some radical feminists accuse Mormon feminists of being “masochistic” or “misogynistic” for trying to work for change within the LDS Church.
Seeing these kinds of reactions from my non-Mormon feminist sisters is like a knife to the gut. I now feel like I can’t necessarily trust my fellow feminists to not dismiss and discount me, my Mormon feminist sisters, and the work we do. This makes me feel like I’m caught in a double bind. If I don’t critique the problematic aspects of official Mormon rhetoric on gender roles and the problematic nature of women’s structural near-invisibility, my silence perpetuates a damaging status quo. If I do critique, and if I am honest about my hopes for change, I open myself and my people up to sneers and disgust from non-Mormons, and thus am seen by more orthodox Mormons as a betrayer. I am too feminist for the Mormons and too Mormon for the feminists.
This situation reminds me of what Shahnaz Khan says about her own experience as a Pakistani-Canadian feminist, caught in a double bind. If she doesn’t critique Pakistani laws that are unjust to women, she allows injustice to reign unchallenged. If she does, members of the Pakistani community accuse her of betrayal. After all, the Western world has been known to use gender issues as an excuse to invade Muslim countries. She writes, “I am aware that criticism of third-world cultures often serves to further demonize and stereotype third-world people, reinforcing a view that … seeks to free brown women from brown men” (2018). Likewise, if I publicly criticize Mormon rhetoric and policies about gender, do I demonize and stereotype my Mormon people? What is the best way forward for a Mormon feminist working not only for change within the church, but also for outsiders to view Mormon women as thoughtful, agentive people making reasoned decisions to stick with a patriarchal faith? How best do I tell my truth – that I am both constrained and nurtured by this faith and this community?
I have no real answers yet, but I do think that that phrase “constrained and nurtured” will be key for me moving forward. There are reasons I stay within Mormonism, reasons that resonate with my feminist worldview – Heavenly Mother, enlightened Eve, divine potential, direct access to God, strong service-oriented community, etc. I want to highlight those things – and thereby contextualize much of the constraining policies and ideas at play within contemporary Mormonism – as I speak and write about Mormonism and gender. I also want to discuss the ways that Mormon women of all stripes and ideologies carve out spaces for themselves for action and influence, even as certain structures and ideas work to constrain them.
Do you feel caught in a double bind when it comes to talking/writing about your experiences as Mormon feminists?Do you feel too feminist for Mormons and too Mormon for feminists? How do you deal with inhabiting this no-(wo)man’s land? Do you worry about instigating outsiders’ negative feelings about Mormons when you critique the gender role status quo?