Zelophehad’s Daughters

A Cafeteria Feminist Manifesto

Posted by Eve

In the spirit of fostering further discussion, I’d like to gently unravel several issues from the tangled skein of Seraphine’s Separate but Equal thread below and give each its own consideration. One of these is a fundamental difference in the role authority plays in Mormonism and feminism and the differing degrees of skepticism and partial embrace thus consistent with each.

The various forms of monotheism, and possibly the various forms of all religions, constitute total systems whose various truth claims and sources of authority are profoundly interrelated and mutually entailing. In the Mormon view, a true understanding of Christianity entails the Restoration, and the Restoration, truly understood, enacts Christianity in its fullest earthly expression. The Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the prophetic authority of Joseph Smith and his successors, and continuing revelation are essential components of Christianity, as Christianity is an essential component of these additional scriptures and of the priesthood. And because of our embrace of contemporary prophetic authority along with scriptural authority, there is a sense in which as a Mormon I stand answerable both to the entire canon of scripture and to all the words of the modern prophets. (Of course, difficulties proliferate exponentially as various aspects of this system come into conflict, and that’s an enormous issue I won’t address here except to say that it’s hardly a new problem; even if we limit ourselves to sola scriptura, the Bible is notoriously riddled with disturbing passages and outright contradictions.). It’s not that I feel duty-bound as a Mormon to believe everything Brigham Young ever wrote in the Journal of Discourses–far from it–but rather that I feel a need to justify my rejection of certain Journal of Discourses claims in terms of the Mormon system itself. (Or I would if I ever bothered to read the Journal of Discourses. Ahem. Not a budding Mormon historian or theologian, here.) As a Mormon, I am, in some sense, responsible to all the scriptures, all the prophets, all the words of the General Authorities, if not to agree with every word, an impossibility in any case, then to study, weigh, consider, and seek their truth by the Spirit. Thus “cafeteria Mormon” is a term of denigration.

Feminism is not a religious system in this way; like its cousin philosophies and social movements that trace their pedigrees to the Enlightenment, it confers authority on the individual, and thus there can be no parallel responsibility upon its adherents to every word ever spoken in its name. To be cafeteria feminist is, in a sense, the true spirit of (liberal) feminism, as it is not the true spirit of Mormonism. While I disagree with Paul about the silence of women in churches and their subjugation to their husbands, and while I have now spent a couple of decades wrestling, on an off, with his words, I also recognize and even honor the claim of those words upon me in my very consideration and rejection of them. I consider myself to owe Leviticus, Paul, and Joseph Smith an ongoing responsibility of engagement which always renders even my rejections provisional.

Feminism is different; it is not a system that claims revelatory authority for its most prominent proponents, and thus I feel no particular obligation to accept or even acquaint myself with their words. While feminism has clearly informed my Mormonism (as have, inevitably, the Enlightenment, modernism, post-modernism, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer), my version of feminism is ultimately an expression of my Mormonism and of my hope that God is no respecter of persons. For that reason I’m unlikely to own the term “feminist” without attaching it to the term “Mormon.”

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m no feminist scholar, and my acquaintance with various feminists is minimal at best. There are many forms of feminism which interest me little, Marxist feminism, eco-feminism, radical feminisms that advocate separation between men and women, difference feminisms (“Women for Peace,” at least some of Gilligan, whom I confess I don’t know at all thoroughly) that simply seem to encourage preening oneself on a postulated innate feminine superiority (egads, ladies, I can get that in General Conference if I want it. Which I don’t, preening being antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to mention nauseating to witness.). I haven’t glanced through Ms. in years, and when I did, I found it somewhat polemical and shrill and inadequately self-critical. And I find contemporary feminisms that embrace power through flaunted sexuality very disturbing (you, too, can stick it to the patriarchy by… being a porn star?? Uh-huh.) For the record, let me add that in my occasional forays into the feminist landscape, I’ve also encountered subtle, nuanced, engaging feminist thought (Martha Nussbaum, for example), and that I consider the feminist melange of the insipid, the downright simplistic, and the profound an inevitable state of affairs in any human philosophy or social movement.

But the point here is this: I consider my critical rejection of various feminisms a profoundly feminist stance, in a way that I could not consider critical rejections of key Mormon doctrines a profoundly Mormon one. For all his misogyny, I owe Paul something I can never owe Gloria Steinem. I would suggest that efforts to make feminists responsible for every statement made in feminism’s name is to fundamentally misread feminism as a religion. (Which, I concede, it may be for some. All I can say is that its not for me.)

And in any case, it’s also worth pointing out that we don’t consider even Christians or Mormons responsible for every word spoken in the name of Christianity or of Mormonism. I doubt many of us would feel we have to answer for the proclamations of David Koresh, Warren Jeffs, or Ervil LeBaron.

16 Responses to “A Cafeteria Feminist Manifesto”

  1. 1.

    I just saw the post over at Ex II entitled “A Radical Mormon Manifesto,” and I thought I’d better clarify that this post is in no way intended as a response to that one (which raises lots of interesting issues about which I’m still thinking and to which I’m afraid I have no coherent response at the moment). But this post is meant as a response only to issues recently debated hereabouts.

  2. 2.

    Eve, this post is a milestone. I agree with every jot and tittle, almost. I guess this makes you a liahona feminist, huh?

    As one who has recently debated these issues hereabouts, I want to let myself off the hook, if I can. I make no attempt to say that feminism and Mormonism make similar authoritarian claims. I want only to point out what I consider to be the folly of attacking Mormonism from a feminist perspective, since feminism itself has most of the same problems. You are certainly not responsible for every word that Steinem ever said, but we do need to acknowledge that the scope of her influence is so broad that her opinions define mainstream feminism. As Ms. Mag goes, so goes feminism. But you have done a pretty good job here of setting yourself apart from the mainstream.

    The reason Mormons don’t feel bound by every word spoken by Ervil LeBaron is because our authoritarian structure draws some clear lines. Some crazy person on this blog a few months ago suggested that in the absence of a strong central authority, the need is even greater for Mormon feminists to have some robust debates and draw some clear line themselves.

    For that reason I’m unlikely to own the term “feminist” without attaching it to the term “Mormon.”

    I think, but don’t know for sure, that this makes you unique. In any case, this jack-feminist appreciates the thoughts you have expressed here.

  3. 3.

    I will also add that almost all of us are cafeteria Mormons, too. We all give different emphasis to things like temple work, food storage, cub scouts, choir, and so on.

  4. 4.

    Mark, uh oh–we’ve reached agreement! This intimates either the brilliant morning of the truth that we will see eye to eye when they bring again Zion–or mass delusion. I dare not speculate as to which.

    You are certainly not responsible for every word that Steinem ever said, but we do need to acknowledge that the scope of her influence is so broad that her opinions define mainstream feminism.

    Indeed they do. My only point was that insofar as feminism finds its roots in the Enlightenment, there’s a (theoretical, to be sure) sense in which placing oneself squarely in the mainstream of feminism simply because it happens to be the mainstream is profoundly unfeminist–and we can’t say at all the same thing of Mormonism. Practically, of course, mainstreams and social influence are fundamental to every human institutition, as well they should be; we’re incapable of achieving complete intellectual independence of one another. Thank goodness.

    But I actually don’t think I’m at all rare in these parts in my rejection of various mainstream feminist propositions. (For example, I’m thinking of FMHLisa’s excellent discussion of abortion several months ago, one of the few Bloggernacle discussions of abortion I’ve ever found enlightening and one very much outside of the mainstream feminist embrace of reproductive rights.) Life as a Mormon housewife SAHM is going to make certain forms of feminism necessarily impossible–and it is quite likely going to make other forms absolutely necessary to one’s continued sanity.

    At the very least, I can say with some authority that I’m not at all unique on this blog in my rejection of various aspects of mainstream feminism.

    Your point about cafeteria Mormonism is an excellent one, and it suggests at least one of the points at which my distinction between Mormonism and feminism breaks down. The practical inevitability of cafeteria Mormonism is a topic I think several of us have had in the hopper for a while, and someday perhaps one of us will get around to posting on it. I here confess some of my particular cafeteriaism: in addition to my feminist issues, the spirit of Elijah has passed me by. (Maybe I forgot to leave out that empty chair and the glass of wine.) I dearly hope to escape spending the entire Millenium engaged in temple and family history work. After watching my brother Ziff endure it miserably, I’d very much like to see the Church and the Boy Scouts part ways forever. And I have a deep, abiding, hungry and sleepy testimony of the possibility of the two-hour block.

  5. 5.

    I’ve come to a few different conclusions, though I think it has more to do with my positioning in feminism rather than because I disagree with the basic sentiments of your post.

    I do think you are right to point out the fundamental difference between social movements and religion (or feminism and Mormonism). However, I take a different position than your following statement:

    Feminism…is not a system that claims revelatory authority for its most prominent proponents, and thus I feel no particular obligation to accept or even acquaint myself with their words.

    I do feel an obligation to acquaint myself with feminist thinkers (though I don’t feel an obligation to accept their conclusions), though I think this is because I identify as a feminist in contexts other than Mormonism. I study feminism in the academic world, I teach it to undergrads, and I identify myself as a feminist outside of Mormon contexts, so I feel an obligation to familiarize myself with the movement and its prominent figures. I do feel a certain sense of loyalty to and involvement with mainstream feminism, so while I do reject some of its conclusions, I do so in a more conflicted way.

    Still, I really do like your basic point that feminism, as a liberal social movement, does not require acceptance of all the conclusions of feminists everywhere.

    (One other side note: I generally find Nussbaum annoying–we should try to find some other nuanced feminists for you to read). :)

  6. 6.

    Seraphine, thanks for your perspective; I’m really glad you’ve joined the conversation because–it goes without saying!–you know so much more about feminism than I do, and you bring a critical perspective to this issue that I can’t. And I can absolutely see what you’re saying, that your extra-Mormon and academic relationship with feminism does give you a responsibility to acquaint yourself with its most important proponents and tenets, even if you don’t wholeheartedly embrace them all.

    I have to confess I’m not very well acquainted with Nussbaum; I just read some of her work on patriotism and the introduction of a recent book for a philosophy class last spring. I very much liked her rigorous approach, which I thought held up well philosophically. But I’d be very interested to hear your criticisms of her, Seraphine, as well as any reading recommendations you have. (You know me–my favorite thing in the world is when people tell me they like a writer I don’t, or don’t like a writer I do. I find few things more fun than the chance to consider another perspective on lit or philosophy.)

  7. 7.

    I consider myself to owe Leviticus, Paul, and Joseph Smith an ongoing responsibility of engagement which always renders even my rejections provisional.

    I think this is important. Some Mormon feminists seem to reject outright the authority and inspiration of prophets and unequivocally declare them mistaken. It seems that there should be a line beyond which you’ve just got to drop the “Mormon” from your “feminist.” I’m not going to decide for anyone else where that line is but the line has got to exist.

    (Regretfully) necessary disclaimer: I’m not saying we should never question prophetic authority or that we should accept their direction blindly, just that if we have little regard for and little trust in that direction, to me it stops making sense to be a part of the Church that they head.

  8. 8.

    Some Mormon feminists seem to reject outright the authority and inspiration of prophets and unequivocally declare them mistaken.

    Tom, as you note, this is the question. But it’s worth noting that this is a problem hardly confined to feminism; it’s a problem inherent in the concept of a divine but inevitably culture-bound and fallible human authority.

    As I understand it, your statement itself seems to stack the deck by confidently asserting “the authority and inspiration of the prophets” when that authority and inspiration are, on whatever the controversial question is, precisely what’s up for debate. (Was Paul inspired when he told women to cover their heads and maintain silence in church?) Just as you complain that others are “unequivocally declar[ing] them mistaken,” so you are unequivocally declaring them unmistaken. A modicum of the modesty about the strength of our own conclusions for which you called on the other thread might be in order here.

  9. 9.

    It goes without saying (or, it should–don’t I start getting the benefit of the doubt sometime soon?) that that’s what’s up for debate and that good, honest people come down on different sides of the debate. Given everything I’ve written here, it’s quite unfair to read me as unequivocally declaring the leadership unmistaken.

  10. 10.

    And, yeah, it’s true that it’s not just feminists. But at this point I’m not aware of another group that is publicly challenging the leadership from within the Church. Polygamist groups crossed the line I talk about long ago, unequivocally maintaining that the leadership is grossly mistaken. While they keep the Mormon name, they clearly maintain no ties to the SLC Mormon Church. They are now critics from without, not within. I’m not saying that any or all feminists should follow suit–like I say, I can’t draw that line for anyone else–I’m just proposing that the line should exist. I know that it exists for me.

  11. 11.

    Tom, definitely people can sincerely disagree. I’d take that as a fairly fundamental principle of the Bloggernacle’s very existence. But I wasn’t reading you was unequvically defending the leadership unmistaken in general, any more than I think you were saying the others to whom you refer are

    unequivacally declaring them mistaken

    in general.

    I was simply a little taken aback by with the confidence with which you asserted your position, given your radical critique of such confidence in earlier discussions. That’s all.

  12. 12.

    uh oh, we’ve reached agreement! This intimates either the brilliant morning of the truth that we will see eye to eye when they bring again Zion, or mass delusion.

    Could be, Eve. Could be. Or maybe it is just proof that small minds think alike, (wink, wink).

  13. 13.

    My only position is this: It seems that there should be a line beyond which you’ve just got to drop the “Mormon” from your “feminist.”

    I might not have made myself clear on the other thread but I tried to explain that there are questions that can confidently be answered and there are others that by their nature require that we acknowledge uncertainty in our conclusions. If that sounds like I’m saying we should never confidently assert anything, then I have not communicated well.

    I’m annoying myself with this conversation about a conversation so I’ll stop.

  14. 14.

    Another great post. I never thought of myself as a feminist at all until I started thinking of myself as a mormon feminist. I haven’t read much mainstream feminist thought, and I was never very interested in the feminist movement. (Ungrateful wretch that I am – having benefited from women who went before me!) I haven’t had the personal opportunity of being discriminated against much at all in the “real world” – socially or in business – and I suppose that informs my general lack of interest in real world feminism. Mainstream feminism has so many different facets, and so few of them seem relevant to my life. I strongly feel the inequity of my position as a female in the mormon world however, and that drives my interest and concern.

    “Some Mormon feminists seem to reject outright the authority and inspiration of prophets and unequivocally declare them mistaken.”

    Tom, I realize we’ve covered this ground previously, but from my perspective as a “mormon feminist,” I am not declaring prophets mistaken as much as I am recognizing (or perhaps hoping) that not all words spoken by prophets are prophetic. That may sound heretical, but it’s the only way that I can figure out how to reconcile what seems right and moral and true with words that prophets have spoken previously that seem – not so right, not so moral, and not so true. A process of reconciliation, of trying to sort through it. Recognizing that things that seemed previously unjust HAVE changed in the social fabric of the church, and hoping that other troublesome things will continue to change. I’m probably not expressing that well at all. I’m just rambling, so I will stop.

  15. 15.

    I get it and I sympathize. I’m not talking about all feminists or all people who may find certain policies hard to understand or accept. That sentiment is a far cry from declaring unequivocally that the prophets are wrong on points A, B, and C and they need to do X, Y, and Z in order to be in line with God.

  16. 16.

    This has gotten me thinking about my own history as a feminist Mormon. Though it would probably be a better story, there wasn’t anything like a point at which I declared my commitment to feminism, signed the blood oath of allegiance to all feminists everywhere, and from that point on decided to view the Church through a feminist lens. Rather, it was somewhat the reverse. I noticed things that bothered me in the Church, and then I noticed that others who raised similar concerns did so using the term “feminism.” This led me to conclude, “Aha! This is a handy term I can use to talk about my concerns and find others who share them and have thought about them.”

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