Zelophehad’s Daughters

In Defense of Negative Feminism

Posted by Lynnette

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.

18 Responses to “In Defense of Negative Feminism”

  1. 1.

    Ah, those poor, oppressed Mormon women…

  2. 2.

    Lynnette,
    Thanks for this very articulate explanation.
    I mentioned in the email that a few of us discussed your presentation at the retreat (now called Sophia’s Gathering) and I was trying to explain your perspective and did a very poor job. Thus I’m glad to read this here. I’ll forward it on to the women.

    Acknowledging the issues in the texts and the hurtful experiences of women is a good way to help women deal with their pain. I also agree that we need to embrace the parts of the church that support and help women, so we’re not too lopsided in our approach.

    The only thing I would really love to see would be a reaction from the LDS church to your presentation, or even to the post here. Richard Bushman posed a question to you about the chain of presiding, but it struck me that he didn’t really “get” the problem that women see with presiding.

    I’m glad you’ve articulated more the issues and why you’re discussing them. I hope more people read (or listen) to this stuff and really try to get it. Even if they don’t agree, I’d like to see people try to understand more and dismiss less.

  3. 3.

    LYnette,
    I attended a few full presentations at this conference, and unfortunately, your’s was not one of them. Although, I did attend enough to understand what you mean by the ‘negative feminist’ tone in your paper. I didn’t think it was gloomy or negative, but rather just a good feminist critique of the issues. Claudia Bushman would be right in saying it’s more “productive” to focus on what we can do, if your project was to be pragmatic. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I didn’t think that was your focus. So much of what we do in academia is not pragmatic or productive ;) It’s critiquing and dissecting and being fabulously gloomy. Incidentally, who are you reading in feminist scholarship?

    Wasn’t your project also to expose the contradiction in LDS theology towards women as agents on the one hand and silenced subjects on the other? This is a tough contradiction to sort through and jumping into solutions in a 20 min. presentation is, well, unpragmatic.

    I’m glad to have met you, btw, even if it was a brief chat on your theology program.

  4. 4.

    Great post! Here’s where I think the value of negative feminist theology lies:

    If I understand the enterprise right, “positive” feminist theology operates from the perspective of at least two assumptions: (a) women are full human agents and thus their experiences should be validated and their opportunities should be broad, and (b) historically, women have not been treated appropriately in accordance with proposition (a).

    So as I see it, in order to go about constructing a positive feminist theology in a methodoligcally sound way, we’re obligated first to examine these assumptions themselves. What’s our basis for asserting that women are people, or that women should be valued, for example? (This is of course what your recent post on feminist methodology treats. In Mormon epistemology it’s not clear that one’s private musings on or even revelations concerning Heavenly Mother, women and priesthood, etc., have any legitimacy for the community’s theology–and a parade of excommunicated feminists attests to this fact. So we need to think about the kinds of theology that are legitimately Mormon and how we go about them and what the basis is for our ethical critiques.)

    And secondly, what are the contours of the gap we see between our feminist ideals and our practice? What are the properties of the problems we propose to remedy? Because if we never investigated those problems, how will we ever know whether we’ve solved them? In other words, how can we really do positive feminist theology unless we’ve done negative feminist theology first? The positive assumes the negative.

  5. 5.

    A thought that occurs to me, reading Kiskilili’s comment is the varied starting points.
    Positive feminism starts from a feminist viewpoint (women are full agents, of equal importance value self-determination and power) and then bends the doctrine to fit it (presiding obviously doesn’t mean that men are ‘in charge’).
    Negative (LDS) feminism starts with an LDS viewpoint (the church teaches X, which means it is important to know and think about) and then asks what those teachings say about men and women.

    This is interesting to me because many of the critiques I hear say that by looking at doctrine with a feminist lens is a bad idea because it leads to misinterpretations and bad feelings and if you assume the teachings is true then you won’t have such bad feelings. In reality it is *because* I assume the church is true that I have such bad feelings.

  6. 6.

    Starfoxy,
    Excellent point.

  7. 7.

    Brilliant.
    thank you lynnette.

    I mostly get tired when I hear/read attempts to re-interpret the doctrine in a female positive way. I just don’t have the stamina for the mental back-bending and hoop-jumping required.

    It is refreshing to have a spade called a spade.
    Thank you for doing it so succinctly.

    and for being able to keep that balance between seeing the spades and still believing.

  8. 8.

    Well said, Lynnette. That was a point I tried to make in my paper. I labeled you as doing negative feminist theology, but I tried to make clear (which I probably didn’t do since I ended up skipping most of your section) that what you do is important creative work. To critique, find gaps, and point out contradictions is to open up space for more progressive doctrines and ideas.

    Loved those quotes from Bel hooks, etc. And also loved the way you put your finger on the painful dissonance of leaders telling women that what they experience as painful and degrading is actually wonderful and loving.

    Starfoxy, I like that distinction.

  9. 9.

    Great post, Lynnette. I particularly like this point:

    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.

    This is a great point, I think, because this is such a common response to expression of feminist concerns. “Oh, that’s not really an issue.” Or “As I’ve interpreted the temple/scriptures/Conference talks they’re actually saying XYZ.” It’s really frustrating to the person having the concern to have it redefined into non-existence. Which is, I suspect, at least part of the reason that people (traditionalists) often respond this way. It’s perhaps not a consciously chosen option, but it does have the effect of shutting people up when they’re expressing disruptive concerns.

    Kiskilili, I also really like the point you made about not being able to have any criterion for success when you don’t start by stating the problem clearly. If we can just redefine sexism out of the Church, then why bother hoping for any change? The whole approach of bending Church teachings to match feminist ideals seems to serve traditionalist ends more than feminist ones because it conveniently obviates the need for feminist angst without having the Church changes its practices or rhetoric one iota.

  10. 10.

    I also wonder if your negative approach isn’t actually more in keeping with Claudia Bushman’s focus than a positive approach would be. If you take the positive approach, then there’s little need to try to do anything new, because Church teachings can be reinterpreted to match egalitarian outcomes. If you take the negative approach, though, you first identify mismatches between Church practices or teachings and egalitarian ideals, and those gaps are ripe for the kind of doing that Bushman advocated. But if you don’t do the negative work first to identify the gaps, you wouldn’t have a sense of what good things women might push for being able to do in a Church context that they currently don’t.

    (Sorry, I’m probably misrepresenting the positive approach. I didn’t get to attend the conference, unfortunately.)

  11. 11.

    Good point, Starfoxy. I think there are actually several different starting positions–one might start with feminist assumptions and (a) bend LDS doctrine to fit them or (b) critique LDS doctrine. Conversely, one might start from doctrine and (c) bend feminism to fit or (d) critique feminism.

    In reality it is *because* I assume the church is true that I have such bad feelings.

    Exactly. If I’d never invested so intensively in the Church, emotionally and intellectually, I never would have given it the power to wound me so deeply.

  12. 12.

    “If I’d never invested so intensively in the Church, emotionally and intellectually, I never would have given it the power to wound me so deeply.”
    yes, kiskilili!
    and that reminds me a little bit of what caroline said about idealist vs pragmatic feminists.
    many similarities to positive vs negative feminists perhaps.

  13. 13.

    First, I think it is the word “feminist” that will get the wild-eyed response no matter what is attached to it. Some terms just need to pack their baggage and go away. Unfortunately, I don’t know what to replace it with. When it comes to the Mormon church which is accustomed to circling the wagons for good reason you have to establish yourself as trustworthy to be heard, I don’t see any way of getting around that. But I don’t think that is hard to do and academics provides a useful shield. Something like this is very reassuring to my conservative side

    (An interesting sidenote here–for all my feminism, I actually get annoyed when condescending liberals talk about those poor, oppressed Mormon women.)

    I can now be assured that you are looking at this from both sides instead of one. Those not familiar with the literature do not know that there are “feminists” standing by their orthodox beliefs. I think that is a powerful and necessary lesson because most see that as an impossibility, again because of the word “feminist”. But when it comes right down to it you just have to do what it takes to get the job done. I think that the Proclamation on the Family has some semantic problems that could have been avoided had there been more awareness of what negative feminism can spotlight with precision.

  14. 14.

    Nothing to add except: great post and comments.

  15. 15.

    Thanks for the thoughts, everyone. I’m still sorting out some of my ideas about this, and I appreciate the discussion—it’s helping me clarify what I see as the issues involved.

    Ah yes, Kevin, we are indeed poor oppressed Mormon women. Maybe we could run television spots, and you could send a monthly donation to help save us from our oppression.

    Thanks, Jessawhy. I’m glad to have sparked some interesting conversation, even if I haven’t convinced everyone to accept my gloom-and-doom approach. ;) I’ve been thinking a bit more about why I might tend to over-focus on the negative, and one analogy which comes to mind is that if I broke my leg, it would be hard for me to focus on how much I appreciated the fact that my arms were healthy—no matter how often people pointed that out to me.

    (I also have to admit that sometimes I do probably overstate the case, indulge in hyperbole— because I get frustrated with the sense that my concerns aren’t being taken seriously, and it makes me want to ratchet things up. It’s not usually productive, but sometimes it’s hard to resist.)

    You raise an interesting question about the possible response of LDS leaders. My sense is that they are at least somewhat aware of feminist concerns, but they interpret them as problems arising from abuses of patriarchy. The result is that the men get called to repentance (again). Also, in my experience, it’s quite unusual for LDS men to be aware of things like the gendered temple language that distresses a lot of women, unless they have women in their lives (sisters, wives, daughters) who object to it—and I would imagine the same is true of Church leaders.

    I’m glad you came by, Jenn. And you’ve totally pegged me. I’m an academic, and totally unpragmatic. I love the phrase “fabulously gloomy.” And you’re also right that it’s hard in the space of one presentation to point out tensions and propose solutions. Maybe someday I’ll try to produce a Part II.

    As far as who I’m reading—feminism isn’t actually my specialty in my academic theological work (I do more with grace and sin and salvation, though obviously feminists have contributed a lot of useful perspectives on those topics). I’m familiar with the basics, and with thinkers like Rosemary Radford Ruether, Mary Daly, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Elizabeth Johnson, Sallie McFague, Catherine Keller, Rebecca Chopp—but not in great depth, I must confess. Though if I want to keep on doing LDS feminist theological work, it’s occurred to me that it might be fun to dig into this stuff a bit more.

  16. 16.

    Thanks for spelling out the issues so clearly, Kiskilili. I think your premise (a) is pretty much the ground of most contemporary feminist theology—but tellingly, it’s required either a serious reinterpretation of sacred texts, or (more commonly, I think) an appeal to women’s experience. I don’t necessarily object to either of those moves, but as you’re saying, I think we at least need to articulate a basis for making them.

    Excellent point, Starfoxy. It’s often the reading that tries to avoid exclusive use of a feminist lens, and takes other possibilities seriously, that is really the depressing one. (Some might say that my problem is that I’m not feminist enough.)

    Thanks, G. I think my primary concern with too much reinterpretation is that it closes off any possibility of change—in other words, if our texts/teachings/practices are all egalitarian once you interpret them correctly, then there’s no reason to change anything.

    And on a bit of a tangent, that’s an interesting observation about the balance of doing this kind of work, and still believing. I keep meaning to blog more about this, because it’s a question that really interests me—I don’t know to what extent belief is volitional. At least in my case, I can’t claim any particular virtue for it, because I don’t feel like I chose to believe. For some reason, I just do. Much of my angst is an attempt to figure out what to do with that.

    Caroline, I enjoyed your analysis of my post, because it hadn’t actually occurred to me that posts like the one I wrote on Heavenly Mother—which was largely just an attempt to articulate my frustrations with the doctrine as we have it—could also be seen as having creative and constructive elements.

    Thanks, Ziff. You touch on a question I’ve found myself grappling with repeatedly over the years (especially the years of blogging!)—to what extent is it possible to seriously listen to other people’s concerns when they make no sense to you? I think it’s probably important for me do my best to understand and take seriously someone’s concern about, say, reconciling evolution with the Bible, even though I don’t personally care all that much. It’s not a major problem for me. But it’s a bit presumptuous for me to conclude that it therefore couldn’t really be a problem for anyone else, either–though I’m unfortunately guilty of doing that kind of thing at times. I also like your point that positive approaches are necessarily grounded to some extent on negative ones.

    Juliann, I agree that the word “feminism” has so many connotations and baggage that it sometimes seems to have the power to shut down conversation before it can even begin. I have to admit that after several years of feminist blogging, I’ve gotten a bit desensitized; it sounds perfectly normal to me to hear someone call herself a Mormon feminist. I forget that many Mormons and many feminists still hear the combination as something strange indeed.

    Thanks, BrianJ; I’m glad you enjoyed with conversation, even with its fabulously gloomy elements!

  17. 17.

    Hi Lynnette! This is Katya’s friend Katie that you met at that Boston conference a couple months ago. I just wanted to thank you for these thoughts. Especially this part:

    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).

    You articulate exactly why I am struggling so hard against the idea that God is some sort of creep-o. I obviously don’t want it to be true. But then sometimes I start believing what people tell me about how I should feel, like that the things which make me feel sort of awful are actually beautiful, even though my own experiences (with painful concepts) speak to something different. It is difficult for me to believe otherwise about God, but I just still hope that God is good. Hopefully I convey these ideas clearly.

    Anyway I’m not sure I have anything else to add except gratitude for you and your work! It matters to little transportation engineers in Boston and probably lots of other people.

  18. 18.

    Hey Katie! Thanks for the comment. That’s very much my struggle: to hold on to my own experience, my own voice, my own sense of things–even in contexts where it seems that others are attempting to re-define it for me, to tell me that’s not really what I feel. I think the only way I can have any faith in God is if I can trust him to respect the integrity of my experience–even if his perspective is quite different (which it undoubtedly is), I need him to take mine seriously, to not dismiss it but to acknowledge and engage it, because I don’t think a genuine relationship is possible without those elements. That’s a crucial part of what it means to me to say that God is good. And in some basic way, that’s my hope–that God sees me as a person, as opposed to a kind of cog in a celestial machine who needs to be properly brought into line, and whose thoughts and feelings are irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. I’m kind of sleep-deprived, so this might be somewhat incoherent. But it was very cool to meet you, and I’m glad you came by.

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