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.)