One of the things that most struck me at the recent Claremont conference was the extent to which I was doing what I might call “negative feminism.” I’m using “negative” both in a kind of netural, descriptive sense (in academic theology, there’s a tradition of “negative theology” which emphasizes what we don’t know about God), as opposed to more constructive work which puts forth new ideas–and “negative” in the more usual sense of the term, in that I was in fact painting a rather negative picture of LDS teachings regarding the eternal status of women. The reactions I got were varied; some liked it, but others found it excessively gloomy. This has gotten me thinking about possible dangers with this approach, but also why I think it’s important.
The first potential danger I see is that this kind of focus can lead you to overlook the positive. I think this is a legitimate concern; because I tend to focus on the aspects of the Church that I find problematic from a feminist angle, I’m likely to say less about the aspects of LDS teaching and practice which I really do think are positive for women. I perhaps don’t mention that enough. And I would like to move beyond the either-or debate in which the LDS tradition is framed as either oppressive or liberating for women; in my view, there are clearly aspects of both, and one doesn’t cancel out the other. When I critique things I see as problematic, I’m not meaning to deny that there are other positive elements, because I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive. (An interesting sidenote here–for all my feminism, I actually get annoyed when condescending liberals talk about those poor, oppressed Mormon women.)
Claudia Bushman said something about how it’s more productive to focus on what we can do than what we can’t, and especially on a pragmatic level, I think there’s something to that. I also enjoyed the more constructive work done by many of the presenters, who mined LDS texts for egalitarian ideals, and creatively engaged the tradition in feminist ways. I think such work is tremendously important, and I’m glad people are doing it; I actually hope to contribute more in that vein myself at some point.
One of the reasons why I tend to be more negative, I’ve realized in thinking about this, is that my focus is generally on official texts, teachings, and liturgy. To some extent, I think (as I mentioned in my other post on the conference), this may be a theologian’s bias; I’m more interested in official teachings than in on-the-ground, actual religious practice. It’s not that I don’t think the latter is relevant, and I will readily concede that LDS practice is often far more egalitarian than LDS teachings. But I still think the teachings matter, and are worth examining.
I also have to admit some wariness about feminist attempts to re-read problematic texts. It’s not that I don’t think some coherent, plausible work has been done along those lines. But I also think there’s a danger in trying too hard to redeem the text, to get it to mean what we want it to mean. In many instances, I think it makes more sense to simply acknowledge that certain texts promote patriarchal ideals.
But this leads me to the second potential problem I see with negative feminism. It can lead to hopelessness, to a sense of–okay, our tradition really is this problematic. So where do we go from here? Why not just give up? I think I can see why people might have that reaction. But I see the situation very differently, and I want to see if I can explain why.
When people encounter teachings and practices which they find personally painful, I think one of the most unhelpful responses is to not to take them seriously, to explain why things really aren’t that bad, or that what they’re experiencing as hurtful is in fact something positive and wonderful. It leaves people without any way to talk about their concerns. For me, at least, it’s difficult enough to deal with teachings about female subjection, but to be told that this requirement is actually something positive, even something made out of love, makes the situation much, much worse. It leaves me with an image of a God to whom my experience is irrelevant, who is going to impose his definition of “happiness” on me even if it doesn’t mesh at all with my sense of it. How do I know that my experience of being devalued isn’t what God defines as an experience of being loved? (Once you open the door of saying that God’s definition of certain terms might be substantially different than human definitions, I don’t see how you can avoid that possibility).
In the history of feminism, I see all too many instances of women being told that the restrictions placed upon them were actually for their benefit—you’ll be happier staying in the domestic sphere, not getting involved in worldly matters like (for example) voting—and I think in some ways, framing the problem in that way is actually more toxic than the restrictions themselves. And I think it’s because of this that I find myself with a desperate hunger to name what I see as problems. I need a language to explain why patriarchy troubles me, a way to articulate my sense of dissonance. I have spent too much of my life being bombarded with the message that teachings which cut me to the core are actually positive and affirming. I am reminded of a comment from bel hooks: “I came to theory because I was hurting—the pain within me was so intense that I could not go on living. I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend—to grasp what was happing around and within me.” Or Adrienne Rich: “I need a language to hear myself with / to see myself in.” For me, the language of negative feminism has often been that language.
And this is why I don’t see addressing the problematic aspects of our texts as leading to hopelessness. This is why I find what I am calling negative feminism to be liberating, rather than despair-inducing. I do not think that theological work should end there, and not go on to explore other possibilities. But I do think it is a vital part of feminist work.
I might also add that I see hope in talking about the problems and tensions because I think it makes space for change, for the possibility of something different. Jessawhy and I had a bit of an email conversation about this issue (which is part of what inspired this post.) And I found that in thinking about this, in the end the best way to explain why I maintain hope is that despite my frequent cynicism, I am still a believer. I really do believe in God, and I really do believe in continuing revelation. That’s the ever-present (but, I realize, often not explicitly mentioned) background to my thinking. And it’s in light of that perspective that I keep going.