I didn’t plan to go to BYU. In fact, I planned to go anywhere but BYU. As a teenager, I was determined to get out of the state of Utah. But when my senior year rolled around, and BYU offered me money, and I looked at the financial realities of my situation—it made sense. So in the end, I gave in.
I have ambivalent feelings about the experience I had there. On the one hand, I feel like I got a good education. I double majored in history and psychology, and found good faculty in both departments. But the religion classes, which in general were not at all academic but were instead reminiscent of seminary (of the variety taught by the CES), made me crazy.
I started at BYU in the fall of 1993. This was a tough year to be a feminist. The excommunications of the September Six took place that fall. And BYU itself was embroiled in issues involving the firings of feminist teachers. It was painful to watch. It raised a lot of hard questions for me about my place in the church. I also remember reading about totalitarian states, and seeing sinister parallels to the church. If you disagreed with anything, the rhetoric suggested, it meant that something was wrong with you–there was no possibility that the institution could have flaws.
However, my anxieties about these issues didn’t prevent me from expressing my opinions. My freshman roommates once observed that while overall I tended to be quiet and reserved, and tentative about speaking up, I was a whole different person when the subject of feminism came up. I had strong views on the subject, and I felt surprisingly confident in sharing them.
One of the religion classes I took was Teachings of the Living Prophets. It was in essence a primer on prophetic infallibility (though of course it wasn’t described in those terms). We were required to memorize Ezra Taft Benson’s 14 Fundamentals. And we were assigned to write papers which consisted of nothing but lists of GA quotes. (I am not making this up). I chose “women” for one of my topics, and put together a collection of fairly blatantly sexist quotes. The professor responded that he didn’t think they were representative of the church’s real view of women.
In the last religion class I took at BYU, the professor told us that women were eternally subordinate to men because of Eve’s transgression. (I asked whether if Adam had taken the fruit, men would be eternally subordinate to women. My teacher replied that this was a meaningless question, because God had known in advance that this was how it would happen and had arranged things accordingly.) I walked out of class crying in frustration, and I decided to go see the professor privately. We talked for quite a while. But although he was kind enough and tried to listen, I do not think he heard me, and perhaps I did not hear him, either. He could not understand why I felt his views were sexist and demeaning to women, and I could not understand how he could see this as a fair situation. It was as though we were speaking entirely different languages.
On a more positive note, I did encounter some fellow feminists. I worked as a research assistant for a history professor one summer, and one of the other people who frequented the computer lab was writing a paper on the history of VOICE (the BYU feminist organization). It was great to find someone that I could talk to about this stuff.
I also had some amazing professors, who managed to create classroom environments which didn’t shy away from hard questions. As a history student, I was particularly interested in intellectual and religious history, and I inevitably ran into issues that were also relevant in the LDS church. One year, for a class I particularly enjoyed, I wrote a rather cynical paper arguing that the BYU administration used Machiavellian tactics in suppressing dissent. I also wrote a more personal piece grappling with problem of “faithful criticism,” in which I talked about my sympathy for Erasmus, who remained loyal to the Catholic church even as he criticized it—and was accused of being an enemy of the church and facilitating the Reformation. The issues at stake were familiar to me:
This issue is relevant to me on a more personal level as well, because I have seriously struggled with certain aspects of the LDS church. Doubtless my biggest objection has been related to its position about gender roles. The problem of sexism disturbed me before I was old enough to get out of Primary, and I am still troubled by how the church discriminates against women. This problem more than any other has bothered me enough that I have seriously considered many times leaving the church over it. And there are other characteristics of the church which trouble me as well. One is the extreme emphasis on obedience, even to the point of blind obedience. I do not like that the church at times seems determined to quash independent thought, and I do not agree with platitudes such as “when the prophet speaks, the debate is over.” I have also had a difficult time with recent excommunications and a seeming crackdown on intellectuals. In addition, there are political positions the church has taken which I do not agree with.
Given problems like these, I have often questioned whether I can really be a loyal Mormon. The conflict has created a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance for me, as I have tried to reconcile my voluntary membership in the church with the things I have a very hard time accepting. If I am to have any integrity at all, I sometimes wonder, shouldn’t I either get with it or get out of the church? But when it all comes down, there are many, many positive aspects about the church, and I doubt whether the negative things are enough to make me leave. I know the feeling of being caught in the middle, as I have caught flak from both my liberal friends, many of whom have left the church and wonder why I stay, as well as more conservative ones who consider me to be somewhat of a heretic. The whole issue of faithful criticism is thus one that greatly resonates with me, because I have struggled a great deal with it in my own life, and I have yet to resolve my own feelings on the matter.
Professors who were open to this kind of conversation were fabulous. But overall, BYU wore me down. In addition to the ridiculousness of the religion classes, I found that the attitudes of the other students were the most difficult aspect of being there. I remember in particular a home teacher who told me flat out that my feminist concerns were petty and unimportant. I also remember reading a comment from the president of the Dittohead club (Rush Limbaugh followers) saying that liberals and feminists didn’t belong at BYU, and should move to Berkeley. I unexpectedly found myself crying. It wasn’t that much of a surprise that this person would say such a thing, but it still felt like a slap in the face.
And when I left BYU, I was burned out enough that I decided I was done with the church. Why stay, I asked myself, in an organization that acted totalitarian and promoted patriarchy, one that didn’t seem to have room for people like me?
I’d been planning on grad school, but I decided that I wanted a break first, so I took a year off before applying to grad programs. I got a job doing data processing. And since I was still in Utah County, most everyone I worked with was Mormon. I quickly fell into my usual pattern of having long conversations about the church and feminism, and was happy to find an ally in one of the other women who worked there.
I went to Counterpoint that year, the conference sponsored by the Mormon Women’s Forum. I wrote in my journal, “It gave me a lot to think about, and I enjoyed meeting some other feminists. There was a lot I didn’t agree with. I think I’m basically just not a mystic, and I have a hard time taking some of the mystical stuff very seriously. Sometimes feminism actually drives me crazy. And, like Sunstone (or Education Week), there was a lot of pretty out-there doctrine . . . But I still enjoyed the conference tremendously.”
It turned out that I was one of those people who could leave the church, but not leave it alone. I took a class from Eugene England, who by then had moved to Utah Valley State College (back in the day when it was still called that), and found that it was a place where I could seriously talk about feminist questions. I got Women and Authority for Christmas that year, and felt more hopeful about feminist ideas making a difference. I still read my scriptures on occasion, listened to conference, and talked obsessively about religion. And after about a year and a half of inactivity, I decided to come back.
Shortly thereafter, I finally left Utah, and moved to the Midwest to start a graduate program in history. I was in a singles branch there, and my church experience was radically different from anything I’d experienced before. It didn’t matter how unorthodox I was; people were happy that I came. I also was lucky enough to encounter a group of academically-oriented women who were supportive both when I wondered if I could survive grad school, and when I brought up feminist questions. (I met my close friend and current co-blogger Seraphine during this time.) I started to think that maybe it was possible after all to be a Mormon feminist.
Things also became somewhat less black and white for me. It was harder to see the church as nothing but a monolithic, oppressive institution when I was having positive experiences with it, when I felt like there was room for me. I was also having more mixed feelings about feminism; I thought that some of the feminism I was encountering in my classes was a little crazy. I once emailed my brother Ziff:
Speaking of gender, I just read this article for my English class that was too much. All discourse is patriarchal, so we have to find new ways of communicating that escape the patriarchy and blah blah blah. You know, in a Mormon context I feel very strongly about feminism (as you know), but in the world of academia sometimes I can’t stand it. I have a hard time with this idea that trying to persuade someone of something is an act of violence, so we need to get away from all arguing. Or how about a quote like this: “Cixous, then, presents this nameless pre Oedipal space filled with mother’s milk and honey as the source of the song that resonates through all female writing.”
But I also really liked some of the academic feminism I encountered. I took a class I particularly enjoyed on gender and religion. One of the papers I had the most fun writing was a comparison of Hildegard of Bingen and Anne Hutchinson. The paper began:
Throughout the history of Christianity, women have repeatedly struggled to find a voice for themselves in strongly patriarchal settings which tend to silence women’s voices. In a system in which authority is hierarchical and male, how can a woman possibly claim the authority to speak? One answer to this dilemma is to subvert the earthly hierarchy and claim authority straight from God.
I noted that this had been a more effective tactic for Hildegard than for Hutchinson, at least in terms of the reaction of the ecclesiastical hierarchies with which they were dealing. And, of course, it made me think about ways that Mormon women could claim a voice in a patriarchal religion.
Reading contemporary feminist work also made me realize that LDS feminists were still grappling with very basic issues and questions, ones that most feminists tended to take for granted as resolved. From an email I wrote to Eve during this time:
Yes!! yes!! I know what you mean about feeling like Mormon feminism is still fighting 19th century battles. Honestly, I roll my eyes when I see a lot of contemporary feminist stuff. And maybe it is because it isn’t even relevant for me, because I am still struggling in a tradition that has yet to decide that women are even equal . . . when I belong to a church which states that men preside over women, that like you said, is still functioning with a separate but equal view of gender? It is definitely exhausting.
As evidenced by emails like this, my siblings were a great support system. I knew I could talk to them when I was frustrated about various church stuff, and count on a sympathetic audience. That made a big difference in maintaining my sanity.
A lot of good things happened during this time, particularly in terms of the people I met, but gradually it became clear to me that I was in the wrong field. I liked history, but I didn’t love it enough to work through the grueling process of getting a PhD. And I’d realized that what I particularly enjoyed in my historical studies was the theology. It felt like jumping off a cliff—I only had a vague idea of what theological studies would consist of—but I decided to apply to theology programs.
(to be continued)