Exponent II Classics: Feminism and Mormon Women Today

Posted on February 16, 2010. Filed under: feminism | Tags: , , |

author Lael Littke

In this excerpt from a 2006 Exponent II article, author Lael Littke reflects on her life as a Mormon feminist. Most recently, Lael co-authored  The Company of Good Women series, which follows the lives of Mormon women.

I grew up on a farm in Mink Creek, Idaho. One of my daily tasks when school was out was to take the cows to a summer pasture. I herded them along, making sure they all stayed together ans that none of them wandered off to follow her own fancy and then funneled them all through the gate to the same destination.

I mention this because I used to ponder life as I rode along on my horse, and one day it occurred to me that, as a Mormon female, I was being herded along, too, to the same “pasture” as all the other young women I knew. That “pasture” was called “wife and mother.” It was obvious from what we were taught that this was the only acceptable destination.

I had nothing against going there. I wanted to get married. I wanted children. But I wanted to visit other pastures first. I wanted to find out what I could do with whatever talents I had. I wanted to get an education.

The conventional wisdom coming down from the pulpit, in my ward at least, was that women should seek an education but only to make them better wives and mothers. As far as going off to see the world, that was dangerous. Dark things were lurking out there. As for fulfilling my destiny — developing my talents — that was selfish unless it contributed to my being a better wife and mother.

When I was a Beehive girl, one Mutual night our teacher asked the six of us girls in the class what we wanted to be when we grew up. The other five obediently said, “Wife and mother.” I said, “I want to be a writer.”

Sister Anderson blinked. “Don’t you want to be a wife and a mother?” She asked.

“Of course I do,” I said. “But I also want to be a writer.”

Many years later, when I was engaged to be married, I remembered that Beehive teacher, and I wondered if I could really be a good wife and mother if I followed my own fancy like those old cows used to try to do. When my fiance George and I went home from Denver to meet each otehr’s parents, I made an appointment with a former Institute teacher I had especially enjoyed. I spoke with him, laying my dilemma out for him and telling him how much I wanted to become a writer. He leaned back, steepled his hands, smiled beatifically, and said, “Oh, Lael, when you hold your first baby in your arms, you’ll forget all about that stuff.”

Out of that remark, a feminist was born. I became a woman’s advocate. I have never put down being a wife and mother because I believe that is where the great warm heart of womanhood is. But for many of us, there must be more. Contrary to what that Institute teacher said, I did not forget all “that stuff” when I held my baby in my arms. I loved her as completely as any mother ever loved a child, but I also knew that I would continue to pursue a writing career. And I would encourage other women who had dreams not to abandon them.

I spoke my mind for the twenty-two years that I taught Relief Society. Then I was released and asked to be a counselor in the YW. The bishop said he wanted me there specifically because I was the kind of woman I was.

I’ve learned to accommodate. I’ve learned to be a Mormon on my own terms. I’ve learned to love the people of the Church — not only the women, but also the men, especially those who are like my husband was — not the problem but part of the solution.

I think things are better these days. At least women are allowed to pray in Sacrament Meetings! Young women are told to “be everything that you can be.” In her article “Where Have All the Mormon Feminists Gone?” Peggy Stack quotes President Hinckley as saying, “…study your options. Pray to the Lord earnestly for direction. Then pursue your course with resuloution. The whole gamut of human endeavor is now open to women.”

I have always felt empowered, maybe because I took whatever power I was given and “magnified my calling,” not always staying within the prescribed boundaries but never being shrill about it. A good friend told me I got away with it because I did it gently. Quietly.

I have had both a lovely family life and also a career as a writer. Nobody gave me permission. I just did it.

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Essential Reading For Mormon Feminists

Posted on February 10, 2010. Filed under: feminism | Tags: , , , , |

by Caroline

One of our readers recently emailed and asked what the most important books were for Mormon feminists to read. Here is my list, but please, readers, contribute your own ideas.

I have ranked these books. Three stars means most important, one star means less important.

Readings on Mormon Feminism

1. Women and Authority: Reemerging Mormon Feminism by Maxine Hanks. *** This is a collection of essays that addresses just about every topic you ever thought about as a Mormon feminist. I highly recommend the first chapter about Mother in Heaven, and I also love the excerpts from Exponent II.  This book is completely online, but I recommend buying your own copy.

2. All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir by Ulrich and Thayne. *** This is a gentle, thoughtful collection of essays and poems from a couple of our best thinkers in the Church. Whatever you do, make sure you read the essay, “Lusterware.”  If you’re ever feeling discouraged and wonder if there’s a place for you in the church, read it. You’ll be renewed with fresh hope.

3. Sisters in Spirit by Beecher and Anderson. ***A great collection of essays. I remember particularly liking Newell’s one on gifts of the spirit.

4. Strangers in Paradox by the Toscanos*** Fascinating ideas about women and Mormonism.

5. Mormon Enigma by Newell and Avery. **If you’re interested in Emma Smith, this will blow you away. What an amazing woman. And how messed up polygamy was.

6. The pink Dialogue issue from 1971. **The first women’s issue, put together by the wonderful ladies of Exponent II.

7. Mormon Sisters by Claudia Bushman. **Who knew those early women of Utah could be so empowered?

8. From Housewife to Heretic by Sonia Johnson * You’ll learn details here about the Church’s underground work against the ERA that will blow you away. She’s a powerful writer. But you might find her over the top anti-patriarchal rhetoric a bit tiring.

9.) The Exponent II publication. **Started in the 70’s to explore the intersections of faith and feminism, this publication has been publishing wonderful essays and articles for over 30 years.

10. God the Mother and other Theological Essays by Allred. ** Here she proposes that the Holy Ghost may be God the Mother.

Books on Feminism and Religion

1. When Women Were Priests *** by Torjesen. A powerful argument that women held priesthood in the early Christian church.

2. Womanspirit Rising by Christ *** A collection of seminal articles on feminism and religion, from a variety of traditions.

3. Sexism and God-Talk by Reuther *** The best book I know about patriarchy, feminism and Christianity.

Please add to my list!

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Scene from the Life of a Mormon Feminist

Posted on October 21, 2009. Filed under: authority, feminism | Tags: , , |

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?

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

Posted on April 8, 2009. Filed under: Belief, feminism | Tags: , , , |

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?

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Radical Mormon Feminist Manifesto

Posted on February 17, 2007. Filed under: feminism | Tags: , , , , |

I really like the ideas that Caroline and others have recently proposed. Such feminist assertions are heartening, and are evidence of a growing activist consciousness that’s quite encouraging.

I’d like to take this one step further by posting this Radical Mormon Feminist Manifesto that’s I’ve been drafting with some fellow feminists. For now, I see this document as a work-in-progress. I hope that you will comment on whether or not you agree with its assertions, or you will suggest edits. It is my hope that this document can become a “proclamation” that will speak for many Mormon women who are invested in social change.

We are Radical Mormon Feminists. We are men and women, gay and straight, white and of color, of varying ages and abilities, from many nationalities and economic backgrounds. As such, we write this proclamation to assert our needs and our agenda for those oppressed by the church’s stand on issues of gender and sexuality.

We affirm that as the LDS Church moves into the 21st century, it can no longer ignore and reproduce the multiple oppressions of sexism, racism, and ableism that are endemic in its patriarchal hierarchy.

As such, we assert that we will no longer passively submit to secondary status within the church for ourselves or our friends and family who are members. We subscribe to the tenet that our “God is no respecter of persons,” and that God looks upon and understands the motives of our hearts as no leader – priesthood or otherwise – can. We embrace a Savior who reached out to all people regardless of their sexuality, gender, national origin, or ability; and commit to striving to reach out to all in the same way.

Additionally, we reject church teachings about the eternal nature of traditional gender roles and will not sustain official proclamations from the church leaders that reify such notions of women and men conforming to specific narrow roles such as submissive wives, full-time mothers, bread-winning fathers, traditional family members, head-of-household males, and priesthood-leading husbands. Instead, we sustain expansive acceptance of equal partnership between two adults in marriage; co-parenting by natural and adoptive parents; community support for single parents whether natural or adoptive; equal career encouragement and opportunities for both genders; and family teams that head households together in love and togetherness.

We believe that God ordains both men and women to have spiritual power for blessing, healing, and leading and desire women to be recognized in such roles. As radical Mormon feminists, we call for women and people of color to be included in all levels of leadership and where homosexual, intersexual, and transgendered people participate in full fellowship and temple ordinances.

While we affirm the free agency of each individual to make their own choices about Mormon belief and practice, as radical Mormon feminists we take a stand and assert our unwillingness to support patriarchy and the gendered hierarchy and oppression that results from it. We recognize the many righteous, well-meaning men who preside as faithful and loving leaders. We do not wish to remove them from their leadership roles. We only wish for the opportunity to join them as we work as one people to build the peaceful Zion community imagined and sought after by our ancestors. We do so with millennial fervor, calling for the day that all children of God are welcomed equally into the Mormon fold.

We acknowledge that large changes seldom happen overnight. We suggest the following as beginning steps to achieving the goals discussed above:

1) Call couples to serve in bishoprics together. Allow women to interview and hear the confessions of other women.
2) Jettison boy scouts and create the same youth programs for girls and boys.
3) Drop the “preside” language about marriage. Focus on co-equal partnerships.
4) Make priesthood ordinations optional and/or given as a young person desires it–sort of like a patriarchal blessing. Allow both girls and boys the same opportunities for ordination.
5) Let women learn their husbands’ new names at the temple veil.
6) Allow same-sex couples to be sealed in the temple, even when local laws don’t allow legal marriage.
7) Let women plan and speak at their own RS Conferences w/no men involved.
8) Allow women to preside over official meetings, such as sacrament meeting
9) Turn the focus from bishops making the callings to self-callings – let both men and women volunteer and seek out roles they are interested in (even if men want to be in primary or women want to be in leadership)

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Mormon Feminists at Sunstone

Posted on July 22, 2006. Filed under: feminism, Uncategorized, women | Tags: , , , |

If you’ll be in the Salt Lake City area during August 10-12, please consider spending some time at the Sunstone Symposium. The preliminary program can be found here. IMO, the lineup of this year’s program looks quite good!

Especially, please consider attending the following session on Thursday at 11:15:
The appearance of a popular new blog, “Feminist Mormon Housewives,” signals the rise of a new wave of feminism within mainstream Mormonism as another generation of Mormon women confronts the problems of gender inequity within the Church. How is blogging—with its capacity to reach large numbers of people without requiring anything of them but Internet access, along with its ability to provide both the security of anonymity and the power of the personal voice—affecting the possibilities of feminism within the LDS Church? Will open Internet communication help Mormon women be more aware of the problems of gender inequity in the Church and enable them to meet these challenges without being forced to choose between Mormonism and feminism?

I will be speaking in the Blogging session, and would love to see you there, so please come up and introduce yourselves! Also, on Thursday and Friday I’ll be at the Olio restaurant (on-site at the Sheraton) for the “Meet & Greet” lunch. It would be so fun to get a group of X2-ers to join in!

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