Scene from the Life of a Mormon Feminist

Last semester in Claudia Bushman’s class called “The Spiritual Autobiography of the American Woman,” our final project was to write our own autobiography. In one chapter, which I called ‘Scenes from the Life of a Mormon Feminist,’ I starkly described seven distinct episodes of my life, episodes that were seminal moments in my feminist journey.  In the following weeks, I plan to post a couple more.

Here is one of the earlier ones.

Scene 2

I am fifteen years old. I try to distract myself during dullish Sacrament Meetings by looking up ‘women’ in the topical guide of my scriptures. I am directed to several verses, but the ones by Paul particularly stand out. I am baffled by his inexplicable statements about women not braiding their hair, not wearing gold, not speaking in church, and being subject to their husbands. I am distressed. I have been taught in church that the Bible is the word of God. I believe this.

When we get home from church, I ask my mom what she thinks of these verses. She isn’t disturbed since she doesn’t take them seriously. “Caroline,” she says. “Paul was probably a short, hairy, ugly little man that women wouldn’t give the time of day to. No wonder he said these unflattering things about them. He was probably just bitter.” I find it disconcerting that Mom is so easily able to slough off these misogynistic Bible verses, but I also find it comforting. I realize different Mormons have different ways of approaching the Bible.

Years later, I remember my mom’s response and find it delightful, hilarious and oddly similar to my own approach to the problem. I wouldn’t put it quite like she did – I would go more in the direction of Paul being a product of a cultural climate that devalued women, and how on earth could we expect him to be able to shake that off, etc. etc. – but I am tickled that our approach to the problem is essentially the same in that we each try to locate a very human and fallible Paul in his social context

Do you have scenes that stand out in your mind as seminal moments in your own spiritual journey?

And on a completely different note, how do you deal with Paul’s problematic verses?


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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11 Responses

  1. Shelley says:

    What a great project; I’m looking forward to reading your other experiences.

    As for the first question: one Sunday during my freshman year at BYU, my stake president came to Relief Society. Somehow we got on the topic of marriage, and one girl asked why men are able to be sealed to more than one woman, and not the other way around. He said, flat out, that that’s because there’s going to be polygamy in the Celestial Kingdom. I had never heard this before, and absolutely knew that had to be false. I ended up calling my mom after church, and she pretty much told me that my stake president was an idiot and didn’t know what he was talking about.

    I think it’s interesting that both of our experiences involve our mothers making a pretty strong opinion about men we generally take to be unquestionable authorities.

    As for the second question: the 8th article of faith.

  2. mb says:

    Paul’s problematic verses? I used the contextual, social climate reasoning that your mom and you did and then I read “What Paul Really Said About Women: An apostle’s liberating views on equality in marriage, leadership and love” by John Temple Bristow which was not only a fascinating treatment of the culture Paul was writing in but also of the etymological foundations of the words that were used in the original Greek.
    Excellent reading that added whole new layers of understanding. Way too much in that book to outline here, but I highly recommend it.

  3. Caroline says:

    That’s awesome. I love people like your mom who just call it like they see it. Good for her. And how obnoxious of your stake president to be so definitive on the topic. Polygamy in the afterlife is clearly a topic that Mormon leaders past and present have various ideas about.

    mb, I’ll have to check that book out. Sounds to me like it might relate to Carrie Miles’ work on Paul. Have you read her?

  4. mb says:

    No, I haven’t, but our local library has a copy of her book. Looks interesting. I’ll go get it. Thanks.

  5. D'Arcy says:

    I have many moments, but I remember every time I was asked to give a visiting teaching lesson in college about the priesthood how SO many girls would say “Oh I do NOT want that responsibility” and they shrugged it off. I thought to myself that they must not really understand it, but then again, why so quick to say that they didn’t want it, almost as if the wanting it was a very bad thing. I’ve always wanted it 🙂 Who would want the power to bless others and serve others and do God’s work?

  6. D'Arcy says:

    On a different note, my mother always said she didn’t want it to and her entire life has been devoted to trying to fit into the perfect LDS women-mold. We’ve had a rocky relationship and I always wonder if I’d be totally different if my mother had been more of a feminist.

  7. Erin says:

    You mom is awesome. I don’t know if I could have come up with an answer like that right away. I’d probably go all intellectual and talk about how Paul was a product of his times and how the Bible has been edited a lot.

    I am a feminist who became Mormon too. About a year before joining the church I stumbled across Feminist Mormon Housewives and thought to myself, “Is that even possible? To be Mormon AND feminist? To be a housewife AND a feminist?” Answer: Yes. Yes, it is.

  8. Marjorie Conder says:

    Another vote for “What Paul Really Said about Women.”

  9. ECS says:

    I remember realizing something was wrong when I asked a YW leader why the boys were off boating at Lake Powell (ostensibly for Scouts) while the girls stayed home and baked bread (in the shape of teddy bears!) for a Festival of the Trees fundraiser. The answer to my question was “you’re such a trouble maker. why do you have to always ask so many questions?”

    The real trouble was that I thought the something “wrong” was me. Why did I ask so many questions? What was wrong with me? I wish I could travel back in time and give that 13 year old me a big hug.

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