Why I am a Mormon Feminist

This quilt hangs in the Relief Society room in my ward’s building. To me it represents Mormon feminism.  It was made by many hands, including some of the original attendees of the Midwest Pilgrim’s retreat–women who are died-in-the-wool Mormons who also deeply value connection with other feminists.

I’m not a historian or sociologist, but I’ve noticed something about civilizations.  They always seem to think they are more special than other civilizations.  It’s not important to my purpose here to name names, but so many groups have had a superiority complex of one kind or another that I wonder if a need to feel more special is written into human DNA.

There may be biological explanations for why people draw distinctions and make rankings for each other, but I’m going to speculate about a psychological or spiritual one.  I wonder if this hunger for superiority stems from a lack of security about one’s value as a human being.  The first temptation of Christ started with the words “If thou be the son of God…” and if we are to believe Christ’s temptations were real it means that even Jesus must have, at least momentarily, been able to question his identity.  He was tempted to believe the lie that he was not who he knew himself to be.  We mere mortals experience that temptation not infrequently, and unlike Jesus, we sometimes succumb to it.

One strategy people have for dealing with insecurities about their identity is to artificially elevate themselves above others.  As in, if I’m not special at least I’m more special than (fill in the blank).  This has caused so much pain and injustice.  And regardless of culture, time, or place, women seem to always be on the losing side of this equation.  I remember taking a class in college from political science professors Valerie Hudson and Donna Lee Bowen in which someone asked why women in traditional societies and in poverty seem so particularly oppressed.  The reply surprised me.  It was, imagine you are a man at the lowest rung of society.  You are poor, powerless, and humiliated, but you can at least always feel superior to one person.  That person is your wife.

For whatever biological, cultural, sociological, and historical reasons, the lowest position in nearly every society is reserved for a woman.  People use race, nationality, genealogy, religion, orientation, education, wealth, and many other things to rank each other.  But after those things, there is always one more division that can be made, and that is gender.  Which is why feminism is so important to me.  I am subject to the common temptation to believe I am less than I know myself to be, and this is compounded by the fact that I am a woman in a patriarchal church.

Which is ironic because in large part the good things I believe about my identity come from my church.  The Christian teaching that all are alike unto God is a pillar of my faith, and the Mormon doctrine of eternal progression gives me an expansive view of my potential.  But my Mormonism also presents me with things that tempt me to believe the lie that I am less than what I know myself to be.  If my husband presides over me, what does that say about me?  If temple rituals contain covenants that are asymmetrical with respect to gender, what does that say about women?  Am I as fully an inheritor of divine potential as God’s male children?  Of course the answer is yes, but each time I’m faced with the Church’s patriarchy I feel I must defend myself against the implicit question “If you be equal to men…”  The question is a constant invitation to believe a lie.

There are many things I love about Mormonism.  The doctrine laid down in 2 Nephi Chapter 2 about agency and opposition is the best explanation for the theodicy problem I know of.  The Mormon idea of God being inside the universe and organizing it rather than being outside of it and creating from nothing seems very true to me – I like that Mormonism embraces the material world.  I think Mormons do well at creating caring communities for each other.  And I’ve felt small miracles take place in my heart that I think only Jesus could have worked.  But I do not love the patriarchy.  And in order for my faith to survive constant contact with it, I need feminism.

For some reason Christ’s radical notion that everyone is a person didn’t fully sink into Christianity.  And the twentieth century’s radical notion that women are people has not radically changed Mormonism (yet).  Brigham Young loved to say Mormonism embraces all truth, and in my mind it does.  But until the Church sheds the patriarchy it inherited and still embraces, I will let feminism be my guide in reminding me that in God’s creation no person is more special than another.


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21 Responses

  1. Rolf says:

    Reminds me of what Engels’ said in “The Origin of the Family, Private Property & the State”: “Within the family, [the husband] is the bourgeois, and the wife represents the proletariat.”

  2. EmilyCC says:

    Love the quilt and the post, Emily.

    When I think of the heart of Mormonism and the gospel of Jesus Christ, I can’t understand why we don’t talk about scriptures like Galatians 3:28 more often.

  3. MDearest says:

    I’m not an off-the-cuff scriptorian, so I had to look up that scripture in Galatians 3. It’s v. 28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”

    If someone is adept at ignoring the problems presented by male privilege, they’d be pretty good at ignoring a scripture buried in Galatians.

    • Emily U says:

      We all pick and choose which scripture to focus on to some extent. But a good friend once told me how she decides which are most worth her attention. She said the scriptures are like a tapestry, with threads brought by many authors, over a long period of time, woven together by many hands. Not all threads are equally beautiful and true, but there is a red thread moving through the work, which is God’s true message, and as she reads she looks for the red thread. When she reads a passage, she compares it to the rest of the tapestry, comparing its texture, weight, and color. If that comparison fails to produce many threads like the one she is holding, she puts it aside, but if it is representative of a larger theme, she holds onto it.

      I think that verse in Galatians clearly stands out as part of the red thread when compared with Christ reaching out to those Jewish society put beyond the pale, his sermon on the mount, and his defining disciplehood as those who love one another.

      But of course, that doesn’t mean people have to pay attention to it.

    • EmilyCC says:

      Good point, Mdearest!

      The link didn’t show up (I only know if because it’s one of my favorites).

      • Alisa says:

        Love this post and this comment, Emily. Beautiful metaphor. So much of what you said resonates with me.

  4. Carolinec says:

    Wow, Emily. This is just lovely. Your last line resonates deeply with me. “But until the Church sheds the patriarchy it inherited and still embraces, I will let feminism be my guide in reminding me that in God’s creation no person is more special than another.”

    I love your tapestry metaphor too.

  5. Edward says:

    As long as you’re in the cafeteria, could you grab me a bagel?

    • April says:

      Luke 6:37, Edward. (I am sure that someone who knows conference talks well enough to use them for passive aggressive purposes, knows what I mean by citing this scriptural reference.)

      • Edward says:

        Nothing passive about it. That is clearly the cafeteria approach. Take what you like. Pretend you can discard what you don’t. Ironically, call it a matter of “faith.” I think 1 Timothy 4:1 is more appropriate reference.

        But of course, only liberals get to judge and condemn, right? Must be nice.

      • Emmaline says:

        Edward – what exactly does the poster say she’s discarding because she doesn’t like it? She says that, since the church brings her in constant contact with patriarchy (which she finds testing and damaging), she uses feminism to help buffer it.

        So maybe I missed it. Can you enlighten me? What is she discarding or ignoring, based on this post?

      • Emily U says:

        Edward, I’d be happy to share a bagel with you any time.

        Although I know you mean “cafeteria approach” to be pejorative, I really don’t mind the term. Although probably not as you would define it. I think I do use a cafeteria approach to my religion in the sense that I feel responsible to thoughtfully, humbly, and prayerfully examine each aspect of it before I fully claim it. It’s a continuous process, and along the way I have set aside parts of Mormonism that to me are not part of the red thread, or are practices out of synch with core doctrines as I understand them.

        Another way to approach religion is to embrace the whole thing without necessarily carefully examining each aspect of it. I think this is also legitimate. Both approaches require faith. What is not OK is to hold others in contempt because of their approach.

        But back to your definition of cafeteria approach – you say it means I deceive myself into thinking God smiles on my self-justifying rejection of doctrines that I find inconvenient. That is not what I’m doing, and you certainly lack sufficient information to make the judgement that I “depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils.”

    • KaralynZ says:

      Easy for you to condemn the cafeteria approach if you’re one of the lucky people who don’t have a severe allergic reaction to what’s on the “fixed menu.”

      Check your privilege.

  6. Caroline says:

    The best thing I ever did for my Mormon spirituality and identity was adopt a “cafeteria approach.” Doing so has allowed me to embrace the best of my tradition. Doing so has made me able to go to church every Sunday without feeling overwhelmed by anger and pain. Doing so has made me a kinder, more peaceful person. I no longer feel that soul-deep despair of thinking that God has purposefully placed me and my sisters in a subordinate, secondary position. I thank God for the “cafeteria approach.”

    What I find annoying is when other Mormons throw that term at others pejoratively. As if they don’t make their own choices about what to embrace and what not to embrace, about what to focus on and what not to focus on. Please. I’ve yet to meet a Mormon who does/believes/embraces everything Mormon prophets have told them to.

  7. Suzette Smith says:

    Thank you, Emily, for sharing your thoughts and experiences in such an open and interesting way.

  1. February 19, 2013

    […] in  a Gospel Doctrine podcast.  And I’m realizing that in addition to needing feminism (see Part I), I also need the concept of revelation to help me be a Mormon.  (As an aside, you should check […]

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