Mormon Women at the Crossroads – Roundtable Commentary and Book Giveaway!
What do you do when a game-changing book comes along? You interview the author and talk about its themes with your blogging friends. Also, you host a book giveaway because you want more people to have a chance to read this book.
And Caroline Kline’s new book, Mormon Women at the Crossroads: Global Narratives and the Power of Connectedness, is a gamechanger. Kline explores how LDS women of color in Mexico, Botswana, and the United States navigate gender norms, but also how their moral priorities and actions challenge Western feminist assumptions.
In this roundtable, blogger Nicole Sbitani discusses the book’s approach to intersectionality and its implications for Western white Mormon feminists; blogger Spunky looks at how the book explores motherhood and how the women’s lives both reflected and challenged LDS cultural messaging on motherhood; blogger Lavender considers how centering the voices and experiences of Mormon women of color can breathe life into LDS moral progression; and Katie Ludlow Rich considers how the book expands the idea of agency and how that can impact scholarship and perspectives.
Look to the bottom of the post for how to enter to win a copy of the book!
Nicole Sbitani on Intersectionality
Caroline Kline’s Mormon Women at the Crossroads: Global Narratives and the Power of Connectedness is a must-read for Mormon women striving to be intersectional. As a mixed-race woman and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS church) with white privilege, I was struck by Kline’s insightfully distilled framework of non-oppressive connectedness as a moral priority for LDS women of color. I’m convinced a better understanding of this concept could help Western white Mormon feminists shift away from white feminist saviorism.
Kline points out that although structural gender inequality is important for understanding female oppression in a patriarchal church and society, it is insufficient to explain many of the higher-priority struggles of women of color around the world. Despite this fact, many feminists have focused on oppression affecting women with race and class privilege. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that my own posts on the Exponent Blog dealing with issues of race tend to receive much less engagement and fewer comments than my posts about gender.
The writer cautions readers against the white savior’s impulse to see global Mormon women of color as helpless victims who need to be saved (usually from men of their culture) by outsiders. We must listen to and center marginalized women, even when they don’t confirm our own views. For example, Kline found that some global LDS women find male priesthood leadership, gender complementarianism, and self-reliance doctrine empowering and liberating. She writes, “When we pay attention to particularities of location, nationality, class, and race, we can see that programs and processes that do not feel particularly liberating for white middle-class American women actually can be liberating for women in different parts of the world.”
The author approaches intersectionality with a humility and open-mindedness that should be a model for all of us. She frequently discusses her goals and how her own limited understanding interfered with her efforts; for example, some of the interview questions she carefully crafted in the United States “might not align with the stories the women wanted to tell [her] about their lives.” She tries to unpack deep, heavy topics such as American neocolonialism in the religious experiences of international women. At the same time, she is aware of how her own identity and social location might interfere with participants’ answers. Throughout the project, she interrogates her intentions and whether she is the right person to share these stories.
Crucially, Kline engages in mutual trust with her interviewees, recognizing that she may fall short but will try her best to do right by them. The world would be a better place if more white feminists did the same: listened to marginalized people, wrestled with their place in a movement for justice beyond their own group, and contributed to the work even when it is challenging and cannot ever be perfect. She demonstrates how we can all move toward exactly the non-oppressive connectedness ideal that the women she interviews value so much.
Spunky on Motherhood
Motherhood is one of the primary components of Mormonism both for men and women. For men, motherhood is inclusive of the assignment given to every woman, often exemplified on Mother’s Day in western societies by giving gifts to unmarried married teen females and childless women, identified as “future mothers.” For women, the position fulfills a complementarian ideal—one that is beautifully presented in this book.
In addressing this complementarian ideal, Kline identifies and explores a kind of “separate but equal” female vs. male role structure that is encapsulated in the global Mormon church. She further identifies the challenge in this as it resulted in “decision-making power accruing to males” as they are “presiding” leaders within family and church units.
Further, Kline addressed the fact that western-style traditional motherhood was rarely represented in the collected histories. This is revolutionary in that this work reflects “real” Mormon women, and not the idealized womanhood that is traditionally included within the classic Mormon library. Within this context, the heartbreaking retelling of the Batswana church member, Naomi as a rape survivor with HIV/AIDS and living as a single mother is astutely represented and analyzed to reflect the conflict and complications of women within her culture. Within Naomi’s cultural context, Kline demonstrates the Mormon “conception of all women as ontological mothers” and its acceptance and reverberation in many Batswana women because of the social, generational, and familiar emphasis on motherhood, whether the women be married or not. (62) It is important to note here that Naomi served as a Relief Society president, and unlike many of her Mormon church-attending peers, ended her long-term, unmarried partnership to include the Mormon law of chastity in her life. (another retelling on page 72 is worth the cost of the book alone!)
Further, the vehicle of Relief Society is demonstrated by Kline as a tool in which Mexican Mormon women improved or created employment. Though the focus was on being better equipped to provide fiscally for the children of the Mormon women, the availability of the Relief Society instruction and support towards financial improvement outside of stay-at-home parenthood demonstrated epistemological shifts of political and policy challenges within the church.
Overall, the book brilliantly exemplifies the integration of global Mormon feminist and demographic perspectives of the lives of Mormon women, whilst skillfully integrating developing and changing attitudes towards motherhood within a Mormon context. It is liberating in this concept, and well worthy of scholarly and social attention.
Lavender on Moral Progression
Melinda Gates, in her book The Moment of Lift, argues that “tradition without conversation kills moral progression.” In other words, for example, traditions organized and written by white wealthy American men without input from or conversation with non-white, non-wealthy, non-American, or non-men keep morality stuck in a white wealthy American male paradigm that marginalizes the rest. I believe this. However, evidence shows that humans throughout history progress beyond their dominant traditions. People absent from the rooms where dominant traditions are made often create personal traditions, small rebellions, and stories that are not reflected in the dominant tradition. In her book, Mormon Women at the Crossroads, Caroline Kline shares the hidden traditions and stories of active Latter-Day Saint women of color in Botswana, Mexico, and the U.S. She gives voice to the marginalized and finds an abundance within and beyond Mormon tradition. I believe these women can change what Mormon tradition is and revive its moral progression.
Many of the women in Kline’s book expressed some form of embracing ambivalence. Embracing ambivalence is the act of allowing two or more conflicting ideas to exist at the same time. Developing this quality is a sign of moral maturity. These women of color create their own spaces, their own traditions where “neither the priesthood ban and the temple ban nor polygamy [is] of God” (122), where “I am the priesthood holder in my house” (127), where Heavenly Mother’s voice “came from the earth” (149), where “we are a dreaming people, so I dream many things” (147), where “you don’t have to be a white person to be a Mormon” (144). These women’s stories are incredible displays of resilience and creativity as well as evidence that tradition is being created even when the dominant, privileged tradition does not premise it.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, embracing ambivalence is not taught in the dominant tradition. In fact, contradictorily, tradition promotes “choose the right,” “hold to the rod,” “follow the prophet,” and “don’t be deceived.” The dominant tradition also reflects ideas and a history that voiced anti-racial marriage, silencing Heavenly Mother, and that Black skin negates priesthood; basically, Mormon tradition oppresses and marginalizes women of color while promoting binary thinking. This is why women of color should be included in the dominant tradition. These women’s experiences are vital for the church to progress. If women of color continue to be left out of the tradition-making conversation, moral progression for the church will be killed.
While reading Mormon Women at the Crossroads, I experienced vivid dreams; dreams of trapped, suffocating women smiling and waving as heavy steal lids were placed over the containers they stood inside. But these women are not trapped or suffocating. These women are already progressing beyond the traditions of the church, creating spaces where they breathe and belong. I think it is the church that is suffocating. Kline has given the church an opportunity to start a conversation with women of color, I suggest they take it.
Katie Ludlow Rich on Agency
In my own work as an independent scholar of Mormon women’s history, I have been influenced by the thinking of Catherine Brekus’s landmark lecture, “Mormon Women and the Problem of Historical Agency” (behind a paywall here). Brekus argues in part that agency exists on a continuum, and that agency is not limited to challenging social structures, but also includes reproducing them. These ideas have pushed me to consider how historical Mormon women have acted with agency even when they support patriarchal men and institutions; it has led me to look beyond the words of powerful Mormon men and focus on the words and actions of women in areas they have been previously overlooked.
I was interested to see Kline’s approach to the issue of agency; she likewise looks to Brekus, but also to other scholars such as Saba Mahmood and Amy Hoyt, among others. Mahmood argues that Western conceptions of agency must move beyond the notion of agency as subversion of authority (7). Hoyt argues that “feminist theory’s emphasis on equality and emancipation shuts out the experiences of traditional religious women who have different understandings of women’s distinct roles and notions of male-female interdependence” (8). My view on gender roles has been shaped by many things, but western feminist theory is a strong influence. Leaning too heavily on my own positionality can cause me to misunderstand and misinterpret women who may have different perspectives, experiences, and moral priorities.
With these expanded notions of agency, Kline recognized the need to identify and focus on the dominant values and moral priorities held by the women she interviewed. Through her interviews and deeply listening to the women, she identified the paradigm of non-oppressive connectedness that drove many of these women’s thoughts and actions. While many white western feminists focus on gender inequality as the greatest evil, Kline saw that the women she interviewed often had a moral priority that emphasized good, healthy connectedness with other people and with God. In this mindset, gender inequality was not the greatest evil, but rather abuse, oppression, and unexamined privilege in policy and theology. Liberation and healthy connectedness were driving moral priorities and were important markers in seeing how these women were agentive in their own lives.
For me, this is an expansive concept that helps me better recognize the limitations of my own biases and moral framework. It gives me tools as a writer and researcher to look at the moral priorities of the people I study rather than imposing my own moral framework on them.
Now, the book giveaway! To enter you must be a resident of the United States. All you have to do to enter is comment below by October 6, 2022 that you would like to win a copy. You can enter a second time if you share this post on social media (honor system! Share then make a second comment). I will assign a number to each entry and will use a random number generator to select the winner. The winner will be announced on October 7, 2022. The winner must email their mailing address to me by October 10 or a new winner will be selected.