Zelophehad’s Daughters

Thoughts on LDS Feminist Theological Work

Posted by Lynnette

A question which has been on my mind recently, as I have been contemplating some of the theological questions involved in LDS feminism, is that of methodology. In particular, what are the sources of authority which might be used in feminist approaches to the tradition? Too often, I think, LDS feminists—including myself—have a tendency to simply import norms and values from the varieties of feminism which are prominent in contemporary secular discourse, and then measure the Church against them. This inevitably leads to the criticism that feminists are advocating “worldly” values, and these are irrelevant in the realm of revealed religion. For example, popular terms like “rights” and “equality” may have deep resonance when invoked in the context of Western liberal democracy, but some question the usefulness of these terms in a Christian context.

I certainly do not want to argue that those grappling with religious questions have nothing to learn from anything outside the tradition. From an LDS perspective, I think one can in fact make a strong case for seriously engaging the insights not only of other religious traditions, but of secular scholarship as well, based on things like scriptural statements about God revealing truth to all people, the notion of some kind of universal revelation implicit in the “light of Christ” teaching, and the optimism about human ability seen in both rejections of certain versions of original sin, and an LDS theological anthropology which closely links humans to divinity. Nonetheless, I think it is important for LDS feminists to find ways to explicitly ground our work in LDS teachings.

What might this look like? One popular—and very Mormon—avenue of appeal is that of personal revelation. This obviously plays a crucial and irreplaceable role in the faith life of individuals, in the ways in which people personally negotiate doctrines or practices which they find challenging. I do not wish to downplay its importance—for me (as for many of the LDS feminists I know), it is ultimately the basis of my hope that God is not, in the end, misogynist. However, in the context of theological conversation, such appeals are problematic. These experiences may have overwhelming significance to the individual, but they have no claim on anyone else. And the sheer variety of such experiences raises difficult questions. One person reports a personal revelation about the divine feminine which has inspired her to pray to Heavenly Mother; another reports a revelation which confirms the Church position that we are not to pray to her. One person has a revelation that seemingly problematic temple language has in fact a deeper egalitarian meaning; another has a revelation that such temple language is merely cultural baggage; another has a revelation that the temple language does in fact reflect gender relations as they exist in the eternities. And so on. Personal revelation may be unmatched as a source for dealing with personal challenges, but it has limited value in theological work.

A more promising approach for LDS feminist theology, I think, is to consider the potential implications of particular LDS doctrines for feminist issues. For example, I would like to look more closely at the meaning of “personhood” in LDS teachings. What are the characteristics of persons? Does personhood have to do with conscience, with the ability to distinguish right and wrong? Is it about relationality—in particular, perhaps, existing in a certain relationship with God? What about agency, which is clearly a crucial aspect of the LDS view of human beings? One might also take a teleological view, and argue that persons should most fundamentally be understood in the context of what they have the ability to become. There are a variety of directions which theology might go with this. My point here is that such work in theological anthropology can also function as a source of ethical critique. That which diminishes the personhood of individuals—perhaps by curtailing their agency and regarding them as objects rather than agents; or by propagating distorted relationships; or by limiting their ability to realize their divine potential—can be questioned. And this can be done not on the basis of secular values, but on the basis of LDS teachings themselves.

In doing this, I realize that I am privileging particular doctrines. Developing my argument above, I might, for example, argue that the doctrine of the imago dei, that all humans are in the image of God, conflicts with teachings about female subordination, and critique the latter on the basis of the former. But why should I assume that the former is more normative? The debate about which teachings should be seen as more central, and which as more peripheral, is an ongoing one—especially, I think, in Mormonism, where official doctrine is so hard to pin down in the first place. However, this is hardly a problem exclusive to feminists. Inevitably, everyone privileges certain aspects of the tradition and uses them to make sense of others. This is not to advocate a kind of nihilism in which we throw up our hands and say that everyone has their personal interpretation and there is no way to judge among them; on the contrary, I think we have an obligation to evaluate competing interpretations and make critical judgments about them. But as we do this, I think the conversation will be more productive if we do our best to articulate our assumptions regarding which aspects of the tradition we take as most normative.

I realize that such theological work will not solve debates about feminism. In just the few ideas I have floated above, there is plenty of room for theological disagreement. But I do think that arguments which frame questions in this way spark more productive conversations than the tired exchange of “I don’t like patriarchy; therefore, it must be wrong” vs. “the prophet/God advocate patriarchy, so who are you to question it?” As Latter-day Saints, we have a rich, complex, multi-vocal tradition. As a feminist, I am all too aware of the aspects of that tradition which I see as potentially harmful to women. But I want to think more (in dialogue with the insights of other religious traditions and of secular disciplines) about ways in which it can also serve as a resource for feminist thinking.

12 Responses to “Thoughts on LDS Feminist Theological Work”

  1. 1.

    I think your comments about personhood is important. I think though that a lot of people are looking there. However I confess I don’t see how that is particularly feminist. (Which isn’t to say that there aren’t unique feminist views about what constitutes a person – just that he broader issue is highly thought about and not particularly feminist)

  2. 2.

    Hi, Clark. I agree that the issue of personhood is widely discussed, and not just by feminists. My point is simply that that I think it’s an issue with a lot of potential for feminist discussion. In other words, here I’m less interested in unique feminist views about what constitutes a person, and more interested in what unique LDS views about what constitutes a person might mean for feminist theology.

  3. 3.

    Ah. OK. That makes sense. So you’re less looking at a feminist understanding of Mormonism than a Mormon understanding of feminism.

  4. 4.

    Great post, Lynnette. I really like your suggestion that we attempt to ground Mormon feminism in Mormon concepts. Among other goods, your avenues of inquiry might also open up ways that uniquely Mormon (or perhaps uniquely Christian) concepts could contribute to feminist understandings.

    I’d love to add more, but I’m being paged by Tiny Pin! I’ll be interested to see how the discussion unfolds.

  5. 5.

    The trick seems to be about a certain amount of “creative conformity”. How can feminism (or various kinds of feminisms) be depicted such that it looks like a natural extension of the tradition?

    I’ve thought about this kind of question, although not in relation to feminism, and have struggled with the ethical issue of how to go about this with an attitude better than that of “we just need some sugar to help the medicine go down.” In this light it becomes a kind of instrumentalization of the tradition, IMO, and I can’t help but feel manipulative to a certain extent.

  6. 6.

    Smallaxe,

    I can see what you mean about being manipulative, and it is certainly true, at least from one perspective. But I don’t think it necessarily needs to be that way.

    If we consider our doctrine of agency and the ways we have understood it over the years, it is clear that the way we speak of and understand agency now is more compatible with the various strands of feminism that it was 75 years ago. Much of our official discourse from that time states forthrightly that a woman in transgression is probably there as a result of male chicanery, since she is naturally so good she would never voluntarily make a wrong choice. An attitude like that robs a woman of full personhood because she is apparently unable to choose good or evil on her own. So by addressing this attitude through explication of our doctrines of agency and the fall, we strengthen the church, and provide an ancillary benefit to feminism.

    As we put more meat on the bones of our doctrine of eternal progress, I imagine it will also break down some of our gender stereotypes. If being Godlike means having a fulness of all good things, is there still room for saying that one sex is better than the other in attributes of character such as bravery, nurturing, or compassion?

  7. 7.

    This is a great topic, and I really like the way you’ve outlined the issues.

    It does seem that we’re all forced to choose which aspects of the tradition we emphasize or find meaning in, and the Church as a whole has of course elevated different principles at different times. I wonder whether it’s helpful to articulate what we perceive as the underlying basis for choosing to regard one particular principle as normative–personal revelation about that principle, the perceived status of the text, personal experience of God, etc.

    Of course as a hermeneutical aside, the (mostly) gendered language of our scriptures really cripples us in this regard. “This is my work and my glory–to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” Is God’s business the eternal life of males, or of humans?

    Secondly, there’s the related, knotty problem of what
    constitutes “doctrine.” It seems likely that, among other influences (such as the more ultimate roots of liberalism), first- and especially second-wave feminism valorized “equality” and stimulated the introduction of the term into our rhetoric (i.e. “equal partners” in the FamProc, etc.). Is it fair to say that equality is now a Mormon doctrine? We could no more extract Western liberalism from Mormonism than we can extract hellenism from the New Testament. But every discussion of the authority of the Church’s claims seems to lead us deeper into the labyrinth. At this point there just may be no way out.

    I guess I’ve always spent my energy on this topic on, hmm, let’s call it “negative feminist theology”–exploring the tensions in different claims or the problematic implications for what the Church teaches, rather than “positive theology”–attempting to go down and make a woman-friendly system out of the materials floating around, as it were.

  8. 8.

    I’m amused that we have to reach for “personhood” in our religion. Those priviledged persons who, by having the superior gender features, rule this church in a boys club style, rule against respecting all souls as having equal worth.
    It reminds me of the many reasons given, in 1954, that only white males could drive the Alabama bus that Rosa Parks rode as a paying passenger. It also rings of the sad reasoning why white males should be given privilede to be the only ones suitable to drive the bus, or sit in the front of the bus, as they held onto the idea of priviledge. They allow us to ride the “Church” bus, only on the premise that we sit in the back and not disrupt their peace by voicing our concern about the obvious inequity. Separate but equal in the same church bus doesn’t ring true. We can drive the bus too.
    It doesn’t have to be a separate bus. God bless the bus and our church. I wish we would set an example to those people in Saudi Arabia that think women should not drive their busses or cars, as in their religion and culture, only men can drive. Ignorance looks the same, worldwide, when we cannot treat each other as equal souls. Wake up and just don’t accept slave mentality. It worked for India in ridding itself of the caste system. Lets follow that example.

  9. 9.

    I know I (rudely) disappeared from this discussion a while ago, but I’ve been thinking about some of the observations you all have made. Thanks for chiming in, Eve and Jo. SmallAxe, I think that’s an excellent question–I’ve similarly wondered how far you can go with doing this kind of thing. The risk seems to be that if you radically re-interpret the tradition to incorporate those elements you’re trying to fit in, you risk losing whatever is meaningful about having a tradition in the first place.

    But I think Mark also makes a good point about the internal pluralism which exists in our history and theology. Quite frankly, it’s in that pluralism that I find my hope. (Though it’s often also the source of my frustration–if the Church clearly, definitively, and monolithically indicated that women were lesser beings, I could simply leave without much ambivalence.)

    Kiskilili, I like the phrase “negative feminist theology,” because that’s mostly what I feel able to do with the available resources. I can examine theological problems which arise, for example, from our lack of any information about Heavenly Mother–but I don’t really know where to go from there. This is where continuing revelation is both a blessing and a curse for would-be LDS feminist theologians, I think. On the one hand, it means that we at least theoretically aren’t bound to scripture and tradition in quite the same way that other Christians might be–real change is possible. On the other, when this change doesn’t come, we end up perhaps even more bound to our existing texts, because it’s assumed that if God wanted anything different, he would tell us.

  10. 10.

    Okay, so I’ve been thinking about your post for a while and I came up with an example and was wondering if it fits what you’re talking about.

    You remember how Mormon has some pretty strong words about how little children don’t need to be baptized, in a letter to Moroni, in Moroni 8? It sounds to me like what he’s saying is that baptizing little children isn’t wrong because it causes them some harm or anything, but because of what it suggests or implies about them, namely, that they can sin and need repentance.

    I realize this is far from a central doctrine of the Church. But it seems like you might apply this line of thinking to arguing why it’s wrong to exclude women from Church leadership positions. It’s wrong because the exclusion suggests that women have nothing to contribute or that they’re not capable of taking on such roles. Of course, as you noted in your post, there are lots of other bases we can come up with from outside the LDS tradition for critiquing the exclusion of women from leadership positions. But this one, if I’ve framed it correctly, actually comes from within the tradition. Which is I think what you were getting at.

  11. 11.

    Great point, Ziff #10.
    “It’s wrong because the exclusion suggests that women have nothing to contribute or that they’re not capable of taking on such roles. Of course, as you noted in your post, there are lots of other bases we can come up with from outside the LDS tradition for critiquing the exclusion of women from leadership positions.”
    It becomes a matter of where women need to put their energy, if they have something to offer in the larger world. Should they put time and energy into a church that disrespects their education, talents, and experience, and then ask them to polish windows. It doesn’t make sense to put an accountant on cleaning duty, and someone without any experience on finance.
    Parents have learned to encourage their children to pursue a skill that they can offer to the world, computers, engineering, medicine, teaching, and hone that skill. That is why so many of our talented young women are choosing to work as that is a place to channel their God given gifts. The Church has a glass ceiling and women can only advance through their husband. I’m a professional and I spent years washing those windows and watching others do a poor job of mediation and even teaching. They could retain members, if they learned to treat them with respect and allowed women to help with the work that we are educated to do. School performance and graduate school rates prove that women can attain and perform admirably, when allowed to do so. It would benefit our Church to allow us to help, where we can. I think we may have learned that men of color were a benefit to our church, once we stopped discriminating against them and allowed them full participation. Can we generalize that learning to women’s participation in the Church.

  12. 12.

    My late Husband – a bi of a feminist Himself and an Elder – thought that the reason women don’t get the priesthood and certain other roles in the Church was because MEN needed to learn the things that women naturally know – like nurturing. Now i am not a theologian and both of us are converts. But i thought it was an interesting “take” on it- whether it was original or not, i don’t know. He did have a PhD in religion – but from His prior faith.

    glad i found this site j/L – Matrika

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