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.