Thoughts from the Claremont Conference

I spent last Friday at the Claremont conference, “Mormonism through the Eyes of Women.”  It was an amazing experience.  I’ve been to a lot of different Mormon conferences in the last couple of years, and presented at more than one of them, but none of them felt quite as intense to me as this one did.  Perhaps because Mormon feminist theology is a topic which matters so much to me; perhaps because I hadn’t really presented publicly on the subject before (and I have to admit that I had some anxiety about doing it).  But also, I think, because it was so exciting to be in a room full of people interested in talking about these ideas.  I know that Mormon feminism is thriving; I see it on the blogs every day.  But seeing it online isn’t quite the same as interacting live with a group of people who really care about the subject.

The presentations were rich and thought-provoking and left me with an overload of ideas to consider.  I was pretty much riveted; it was a long day, but I listened in fascination to all of the talks, and took tons of notes.  There was an energy and enthusiasm in the audience that I really enjoyed being a part of—and that also made it much more fun to present.  And as always, at least half the fun in going to these things is seeing friends from various places, and I particularly enjoyed seeing some of my friends who’ve ended up at Claremont, and (of course) feminist bloggers.  The Exponent was very well represented, and I was thrilled to get to meet some bloggers whom I’d previously only known online, and to get to spend more time with others whom I’d met before.

One of the questions I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is something along the lines of, what’s the point of doing feminist work?  So one of the things I really appreciated about this conference was that it gave me some new perspectives on that question.  Deidre Green had some fabulous thoughts about why it’s important for LDS women to do theology, and some of the historical precedents for that.  She mentioned in particular the case of Eliza R. Snow, whose ‘O My Father’ poem set out an original theological idea which is now generally accepted by the Church.  I hadn’t really thought about that aspect of the story before, but it’s kind of fascinating (even bracketing the debate over  whether it was her idea, or she got it from Joseph Smith).  Deidre also made the point that since revelatory experience is mediated through embodied experience, and comes up in response to questions that arise from one’s experience of the world, it’s crucial for women to do theology precisely because of the LDS teaching that gender is an eternal aspect of identity.

Another very cool thing was to listen to older generations of feminists talk about their experiences (both in these presentations and in more informal conversations).  Laurel Thatcher Ulrich talked about her experiences being involved with second wave feminism.  One of the things she really emphasized was that Mormon women didn’t just encounter the ideas of second wave feminists and appropriate them; they were actually a part of creating second wave feminism.  She noted that because historians on both the right and the left have tended to assume that religion and feminism are in conflict, the role of religion in encouraging second wave feminism has often been overlooked.  She also talked about the “double bind” in which Mormon feminists found themselves, in which other feminists were suspicious of their commitment to their Mormon heritage,  and other Mormons were suspicious of their feminism, and about the polarization that happened after the ERA and especially the excommunication of Sonia Johnson.

One of the questions that came up after Laurel’s presentation was about the difference between those earlier feminists and contemporary ones, observing that the sense of excitement and joy doesn’t seem to be as prevalent today.  Laurel noted that there’s always a difference between the first generation and later ones, and suggested that while feminists today have many advantages not available to their predecessors, there are ways in which their  burden is heavier.  Though she thought it would be nice if we got some of the joy back.  I enjoyed hearing her perspective; it gave me more of a sense of connectedness to the past, a sense that those of us who are doing Mormon feminist work now are part of a much larger historical narrative.  It wasn’t that I didn’t know that before, but this really concretized it for me.

Margaret Toscano and Loyd Ericson both talked about issues related to Heavenly Mother, and the problems which arise from having a divine feminine who is silent.  Margaret focused on the power of the doctrine of an embodied God, questioning the traditional notion in Western thought that a transcendent God is necessarily superior.  She also commented that on the theoretical level, Mormon theology proposes a balance between physical and spiritual, and critiques that which denigrates the physical—but in practice, women seem to get shortchanged in both arenas (their superior spirituality is cited as a reason for denying them the priesthood and spiritual leadership, and their talents in the physical arena are used as justification to confine them to the domestic sphere).  Loyd looked at Mary Daly’s critique in an LDS context, and similarly noted that while the doctrine of an embodied God and a Mother in Heaven has a lot of potential, and answers some of Daly’s concerns about the ways in which a male God is used to justify patriarchal practice and oppress women, in practice it makes the situation worse, overturning the potential positive effects of the doctrine—given that the silence of Heavenly Mother reinforces patriarchal structures, and praying exclusively to the Father reinforces a sense that he is the one who is really God.

I was particularly fascinated by Margaret’s discussion of Heavenly Mother experiences, which she is collecting.  I have to admit that it’s the kind of thing I haven’t taken too seriously, simply because personal revelation is so widely varied, and I’m all too aware that people are also reporting spiritual experiences which reinforce patriarchy.  But listening to this presentation, I wondered if I’m a bit too cynical, too dismissive.  I may suffer from a theologian’s prejudice, the tendency to focus overmuch on the official doctrine and statements of the Church, and not really engage popular religion.  Margaret pointed out that these kinds of accounts have played an important role in the history of Christianity.  I don’t know what I think, but it at least pushed me to think a bit harder about my own assumptions.

The last two presentations were from Kate Holbrook and Caroline Kline, who also had some good stuff to say.  Kate did some creative work with the term “bishop,” noting that the word meant an overseer, a watcher, a protector, and proposed that we are all called to act in those roles.  She brought in the story of Enoch, noting the interplay of watching and watching over—he observes and then acts—and the more he acts, the more he sees.  She proposed that LDS women have this mandate, and we can find ourselves a “personal bishopric,” and she noted that one can often find more freedom in lived practices than in official texts.  Caroline looked at feminist Mormon blogs, focusing on the notion of religious ambivalence, which involves the feeling of being simultaneously an insider in a religious tradition, and leads to creativity and innovation.  She specifically looked at the doctrine of Heavenly Mother, and selected three posts in particular—one from FMH, one from ZD, and one from The Exponent.  She noted some common themes in the resulting discussions, including fear of repercussion, justifications for our lack of information, personal experience and innovative practice, and yearning to connect, and emphasized the innovative practices and ways of thinking that can be seen in blog posts on this topic.

I’m not going to comment on my own presentation here, because the reactions to it have been interesting and given me a lot to think about, and I want to do another post on that.  But this conference left me feeling remarkably hopeful and enthusiastic.  At one point, in the context of a question regarding what LDS feminists were and are hoping to accomplish, Laurel made a comment along the lines of “let’s not give up on God.”  That, I think, articulates my own hope.  I’m not saying that I think God will simply do what I personally want as far as the institution is concerned.  But in some basic way, I find that it’s that not-giving-up-on-God factor that allows me to be both a Mormon and a feminist.

(Note: I’m posting this because I know there were those who wanted to hear more about it.   But I’d prefer that this particular post not turn into a debate about the merits of various points I mentioned from the presentations, as I didn’t really do them justice in the brief snippets I mentioned here.)


  1. Thanks for the report! I hope to get to one of these conferences myself someday, but until then I’m glad I at least have the chance to read about them.

  2. It sounds terrific, and I wish I could have been there.

    I also noticed your use of “concretized”, and my brain just about explosion-ized. I looked in an online dictionary, but it was no help. Maybe I’ll need to seerstone-ize it in order to understand what you mean.

  3. Mark, if you’ll just be so good as to attend the new Mormon conference, “Peepstone,” all of your questions will be answered.

    Thanks for the report, Lynnette. I wish I could have been there!

  4. English bishop actually derives from Greek episkopos, which is epi “over” + skopos “seer, watcher.” As a missionary I always remembered that by thinking of the episcopal church.

    The etymological relationship gets obscured a little bit in English. I find it useful to delete the first letter and the case ending from the Greek word. So you go from

    episkopos (Greek) to

    episcopus (Latin) to dropping the first letter and case ending:

    piscop, which you can see in OE

    bisceop, which gets modernized as


    I just thought that might be some useful background to the point Kate was making.

  5. The conference was videotaped and should be made available shortly online through the Claremont Library. I’m sure a note will be made here when it is posted.

  6. I was sorry to miss this event, but I am glad that the materials will be available!

    I wish that event organizers for this event and Sunstone West had coordinated beforehand so that people who wanted to attend both could have done so more easily.

  7. Thanks for the post. It was definitely a conference I would have been interested in attending if I had been in the area.

  8. Lynette,
    I am curious as to what blog posts Caroline Kline used. Do you know? Could you link them?

    Could you post your own work as a post?

    I’ve heard nothing but good things about the conference. I really hope they do it again.

  9. Videotape! Hooray!

    And just to echo all the other comments, thanks fir writing this up. I too wish I could have been there.

  10. “Videotape! Hooray! ”

    And there you have it. The strongest statement possible as to why women and men see things differently. Any self-respecting guy would have a digital copy in HD.

  11. I was at the conference and I think this is a very good synopsis. I have been to most of the Mormon Studies conferences and I thought this one stood out because of the audience participation.

  12. I’m slow. Of course you won’t post your own presentation, that would defeat the purpose of an alias, wouldn’t it?

  13. Deidre also made the point that since revelatory experience is mediated through embodied experience, and comes up in response to questions that arise from one’s experience of the world, it’s crucial for women to do theology

    Amen. That is a core to our religion.

  14. Thanks, all! I wish you all could have been there.

    Okay, is “concretized” a word? (I just looked it up, and at least found it in some random online dictionary.) I have to admit that I’m prone in my writing to just using words that sound like they should be words. Sorry for any resulting explosion-ising.

    Douglas, it was too bad it was so close to Sunstone West. There seem to be so many different Mormon conferences these days that it’s hard to have them all at separate times. (I flew back up to the Bay Area right afterward for Sunstone, but it made for a crazy two days.)

    mmiles, I hope they do it again, too! To answer your question, the posts Caroline used were:

    FMH: On Praying to Mother in Heaven
    ZD: Why I Don’t Want to Believe in Heavenly Mother
    Exponent: God He, God She, and God They: Options for Naming the Divine

    I probably won’t post my own talk here, because the conference will be available elsewhere. Element (the journal of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology) is looking at doing a feminist issue, and some of the talks from this might turn into articles for that. Also, as mentioned, the conference will at some point be available online. (Though I’m the kind of neurotic person who is less than thrilled about a video of me out there, so I’m going to pretend it’s not there.) Anyway, if you read ZD regularly, you’ve probably already heard everything I had to say.

    And as for the alias thing—at this point, my name isn’t really all that secret; when Caroline talked about my post in her presentation, she mentioned who I was (at my request). Also, if people were truly curious, it wouldn’t be too hard to look at the program and figure out which talk I didn’t mention in my report, so I’m not exactly going out of my way to stay undercover. So your question was a perfectly reasonable one! Though I’m keeping the alias here; Lynnette is my middle name, and I rather like it.

    Juliann, very much agreed about the audience. I noticed in another thread that you made it to ZD after hearing about it at the conference, which is very cool. Did I meet you? If there was one thing I was sad about, it was that there were so many interesting people in attendance, and I only got to talk to some of them.

    Nice try, Blake, but the first person to use the term “videotape” on this thread was actually a male. 😉

  15. I didn’t meet you , Lynette. One of the most thought provoking lectures dealt with a riveting question: Does exaltation mean the same for women as men? (I was sitting with Richard Bushman and he was awed as well). Does more authority mean more blame and accountability, if so are women less accountable. Women have freedom to follow or not but we do not have agency to act on our own. So are women objects to be valued or subjects that can confer value on others? This of course continues to build in unexpected ways. I think this presentation, more than any other, cries for the need to reformulate our use of the patriarchal system.

  16. Oh, I meant to add that there was this really horrid book in the 70s, I think it was Women and the Priesthood or something. It was a good match with Fascinating Womanhood. Fascinating Womanhood taught women how to manipulate men by playing helpless and dumb to build their man’s ego. (The only thing scarier than what was in it was that it worked. ) There were women’s group formed in church to study the book. Anyway, that Women and the Priesthood book maintained that women were not accountable because they did not have the priesthood. I don’t remember the details but perhaps he deserves credit for coming to what can be made into a logical conclusion.

  17. Hey Juliann. Sorry I didn’t get to meet you. (I was the one who did the presentation on exaltation; I’m glad you found it thought-provoking. I’m planning to blog a bit more about it at some point.) And yes, I know that book–Rodney Turner’s Woman and the Priesthood. My parents owned a copy, and I first stumbled across it as a high school student researching Mormon feminism (yeah, I got into this stuff young.) It was really something, as I recall. We had another great book on Mormons and feminism which explained that the man and the Spirit were the lemons and the water in making lemonade (I don’t remember which was which), but the woman was the sugar who made it sweet. Turner was very much in that vein; the man is the one on the journey, and the woman is there to make the way more comfortable for him. Isn’t he the one who made the infamous women=doormats connection? My mom got rid of the book at some point–an excellent decision–but I think now it would be kind of entertaining to have a copy.

  18. I’m sooo behind in my reading here, but I just wanted to add an AMEN to all that Lynnette has summarized.

    I sat next to her during the conference and she typed furiously through the entire thing (except of course when she was speaking) and I was merely scribbling on some scrap paper with a borrowed pen. Therein lies the vast space between our two brains.

    One of the women at our retreat asked me what I thought of Lynnette’s presentation and I told her it was hard to say because I’m biased. I think Lynnette is brilliant and I already knew her basic perspective on these issues. So, of course I loved it. It was thorough and well-thought out and very articulate. I’m interested to have a discussion on that paper by itself (and maybe you’ve already put it up!)

    Anyway, it was fun to see you again, maybe next year you can make it to the retreat. Too many conferences and not enough retreats sounds like a bad deal.

    Lastly, I’ve only been to Sunstone once, and never to any other LDS conferences, but compared to other (secular) conferences, this one was awesome. It went by so fast because I was really interested in everything. Having been out of academia for so long (7 years), my brain is at a slower processing speed, so I hope to get more out of it when I read it again.

    Thanks to all the presenters for their great work.l

  19. Thanks Lynette. I look forward to reading the talk. I wrote the FMH post. Your post thereafter gave me a lot to think about when I read it previously.

  20. Lol, Jessawhy; you could also say that some people absorbed the experience, and some were too busy frantically taking notes. 😉 But I really enjoyed sitting next to you and G and seeing a whole row of feminist bloggers.

    mmiles, I didn’t know you wrote that post! Cool. I seem to be somewhat known as the Heavenly Mother skeptic, but that was definitely a thought-provoking conversation.

  21. I liked your perspective. It made me think. I haven’t read the other post, and read your’s a long time ago (when you wrote it). It will be interesting to go back and read them all again.
    Anyhow, I wrote that post around 2 years ago. I’ve had kind of a paradigm shift since then, and don’t really see things the same way. My own understanding of my Mormon theology is always evolving, as is everyone’s.

  22. My own understanding of my Mormon theology is always evolving, as is everyone’s.

    mmiles, I am shocked–shocked–that you would say this. I don’t know about you, but my understanding of Mormon theology is perfect, so it has no need to change. 😉

  23. Lynnette, thanks for summarizing the conference. I had been thinking that I should give it a try, but wasn’t feeling up to the task. It was great to meet you!

  24. Thank you for the idea of bishop as being a person who oversees and, i suppose, a person who then takes appropriate action to protect, encourage or assist someone in need.
    Several months ago, in my RS, someone said we report needs to the RS pres so she can assign service. I could only do that if the need was greater than i could meet, otherwise, i see a need, i take action. I am concerned that LDS women are generally becoming passive and reluctant to use their own wisdom, experiences and ability to heed the Spirit, to make decisions and act upon them.
    Your concept of bishop has just warmed my heart.


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