I first saw the Star Wars movies when I was eleven, shortly after my parents purchased our first VCR. I was an immediate and enthusiastic convert. My siblings and I watched the movies over and over—in the days before we owned them, we used to check them out from the library every week (my mother would ask, are you sure you don’t want to try something new? and we would inevitably answer, no). I can divide up my life into Before Star Wars, and After.
By contrast, I was first read The Lord of the Rings at such a young age that I don’t remember a Before LOTR. It feels like I’ve always known the basic storyline (though there were a lot of plot points that I didn’t really grasp until I was a teenager.) Frodo and Sam have been as familiar of characters in my life as Nephi and Sam.
I’m always interested to hear Mormon feminists talk about their history with feminism. My own history is closer to my experience of LOTR than of Star Wars.1 I’ve had a lot of feminist crises, but not a Feminist Crisis of the kind that turns your world upside down and leaves you a different person, that gives you a clear Before and After. My story is rather more meandering.
The first time I remember posing a feminist-type question in church was when I was in primary. I wanted to know why women didn’t have the priesthood. Remembering what I was like as a primary kid, it was probably half an honest question, and half a desire to cause trouble. My teacher’s response was to ask what women could do that men couldn’t. I responded, quite sincerely, with the first thing that came to mind: wear dresses? (The teacher, of course, explained that women got to be mothers. I don’t remember being particularly persuaded by the answer.)
When I turned twelve and moved into Young Women’s, I was given a pamphlet of a talk by President Gordon B. Hinckley. In it, he expressed his confidence that God loved his daughters as much as his sons. I found that reassuring, but also troubling in a way that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. (In retrospect, I think I was reacting to the fact that such reassurance was necessary.) When I asked questions about women and the church, I pretty much always got the “separate but equal” answer. I wasn’t happy with it, but I didn’t have the language to articulate why. How could I have objections, I was asked again and again, when women had such an important role, when General Authorities had said so much about the equality of the sexes? I was frustrated at my inability to respond. It’s crazy-making to see something that everyone around you is telling you isn’t real.
By the time I was in high school, I was pretty obsessed with the subject of Mormon feminism. I decided to write a paper on the topic for my sophomore English class. I read the Deseret Book-published Woman, composed of talks by General Authorities, with titles like: “No Greater Honor: The Woman’s Role.” (The cover, which includes the title Woman, followed by the names of 14 men, is already classic.) The talks praised traditional gender roles and warned that the movement for female emancipation and independence was Satan’s attack on the family. I read Mormon Doctrine, and Bruce R. McConkie, of course, was no chicken patriarch: women, he asserted flatly, were to be subject to their husbands. I read an extremely cheesy book called Mormons and Women, in which the female authors explained that a marriage was like lemonade. The Holy Ghost and the man were the water and lemons (I don’t remember which was which), and the woman contributed the sugar. And I read Patriarchs and Politics: The Plight of the Mormon Woman, by Marilyn Warenski, which (as the title suggests) portrayed the church as being harshly oppressive to women.
(A fun tangent here. My older sister Eve was in college at the time, but she happened to be visiting one weekend when we went to the library. I was returning a stack of books, including the Warenski one. She noticed that and said to me, are you interested in this stuff? I said, yes. I don’t think we talked about it further—Eve and I weren’t at all close at the time—but it was an early realization that we had some common interest in this subject.)
The paper I wrote argued this:
Many religions look upon women as inferiors, and the Mormons are no exception. The LDS Church clearly discriminates against women. Women cannot develop their talents, be feminists, or be single, and their position is greatly inferior to that of the men.
It makes me both cringe and laugh to look back at the paper now; the tone is more than a little melodramatic. My teacher critiqued it (fairly) for making a lot of generalizations, and not clearly citing my sources.
The summer before my senior year, I went to Sunstone for the first time (with Eve). I loved it. Not only did I get to hang out with Eve and her cool college friends, I was blown away by the exciting atmosphere. I wrote a friend, “I absolutely loved the symposium. It was incredible. I feel like I have finally found my place in Mormonism. I have never been around so many people that think like I do, and that aren’t afraid of ideas and questions.” I heard critiques of the pat answers I’d been hearing all my life when I raised questions about the place of women in the church, arguments for female ordination, and speculation that Heavenly Mother could be the Holy Ghost. I didn’t agree with all the ideas, but I couldn’t believe that people were talking so openly about these questions.
During my senior year of high school, I decided to do another paper on LDS women, this time for a world affairs class. But I wanted to be a little more nuanced this time around. I carefully quoted only statements of church leaders (no vague generalizations), tried to be more balanced, and noted how church teachings about women had changed over time. But my conclusion was still pretty bleak:
The role of women in the LDS Church is a very complex one. Although their position has improved in the last century and a half, they are yet formally subordinate to the men and denied the priesthood. Whether they are indeed equal, as church leaders state, is an open question. But if it is true, as Joseph F. Smith stated, that “The patriarchal order is of divine origin and will continue throughout time and eternity,” there seems to be little hope for change—now or ever.
For this paper, I also did a survey in my predominantly Mormon high school. I asked, “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” To that question, 75% of the males and 63% of the females answered negatively.2 Many saw feminism as too radical, or trying to set women as superior to men. Typical comments included:
I believe that women are treated poorly in our society, but I don’t see the entire male species as the enemy.
Although I believe in the equality of men and women, the “feminists” have gone overboard
If I was a feminist, I wouldn’t be content with my life. I would believe that I was better than men. I don’t. I’m equal to men.
Another of my questions was whether the LDS role for woman was inferior to that of men. I got the same percentages: 75% of the males and 63% of the females said it was not.3 “Children are the future of our society, and a woman has a very important job in raising them,” said one female. Another wrote, “It is an honor for women to enforce and support the work of the Lord. This role is in no way demeaning to me.” Only a few dissented, such as a female who wrote “I think it is very wrong and prejudiced.”
I already had a lot of feminist angst, then, as a teenager. I remember reading D&C 132 and wanting to throw my scriptures at the wall. When the boys in my high school class read from Paul about the need for women to be silent at church, to be subordinate to men, I felt intensely frustrated that—although they were teasing—I didn’t have a comeback. No matter how much my seminary teachers tried to explain it away, it was all too clear that the scriptures were sexist. Even more troubling, I noticed how I’d internalized patriarchal values. When I was honest with myself, I was uncomfortable with women having final authority. I didn’t have a lot of role models of that happening.
I read whatever I could find about Mormon feminism: the pink issue of Dialogue, Sonia Johnson’s From Housewife to Heretic. Eve gave me Sisters in Spirit one year for Christmas, and I read it multiple times. I wavered between wanting to give up on the church altogether (for a variety of reasons, though feminist issues were prominent ones), and thinking that I wanted to stick it out. The best answer I ever got about women and the priesthood came from a former bishop who simply said that he didn’t know. It was a relief to hear someone say that, after all the explanations I’d heard that made me feel worse. I also read essays by Eugene England that gave me hope, especially his rejection of polygamy in the next life.
And despite everything, I ended up going to BYU . . .
(to be continued)
- I realize there is some irony in my using Star Wars and LOTR as examples, given the serious dearth of female characters in both of them. But they were my favorite stories nonetheless. [↩]
- 8% of the males and 17% of the females answered “yes”, and 8% of the males and 17% of the females said “maybe.” [↩]
- 17% of the males and 13% of the females said it was, with the rest saying that it depends. [↩]