Feminist Trajectories

Carmella is a devout Mormon who would describe herself as conservative. She is highly critical of feminism, worrying that it focuses on the wrong things, devalues the important contributions of women, and potentially leads to apostasy. However, over time, small things begin to bother her, and she starts dipping her toe into feminist waters. She notes that all the women’s organizations are presided over by men, and wonders why women can’t pray in General Conference. She becomes more concerned with the gender roles outlined by the church, and more skeptical of the priesthood/motherhood equation. She wants to know more about Heavenly Mother.  She becomes more and more aware of the ways in which patriarchy is destructive. Her belief in the church slowly wanes, until she describes herself as agnostic at best, and she is uncertain that she can continue to be part of the church and still have integrity.

Carmella’s sister, Ernestine, by contrast, has spent much of her life committed to feminist ideals. She blogs regularly about things she sees as problematic, such as the temple, gender roles as outlined in the Proclamation on the Family, the lack of women in scripture, and the lack of female voices in church leadership. But over time, she becomes increasingly concerned that feminist ideals are not in harmony with the gospel, and she starts to wonder if they simply stir up unnecessary discontent. As she ponders the matter, she comes to appreciate the value of church teachings on gender, as she sees how they have blessed her life. She suspects that feminists don’t truly understand the importance of their role in God’s plan, and she eventually rejects the label of feminist altogether.

Both Carmella and Ernestine see the other as just going through a phase. Though they do their best to remain kind and civil to one another, each is convinced that her path is one that leads to greater enlightenment, and that with time and increased maturity, her sister will come around to her point of view.

The preceding paragraph describes one of the tendencies that drives me the most crazy in discussions of feminism—the idea that, in essence, the person who disagrees with you is a less developed version of yourself, and will eventually catch up to your advanced level of understanding, whether that means leaving the church or more fully embracing it. It often gets expressed in a kind of condescending patience: I’ll benignly tolerate you because I’m sure you’ll eventually get past this misguided phase. It leaves no room for the possibility that someone else’s experience might actually be radically different from your own.

In addition, shoehorning people’s experiences into tidy narratives inevitably glosses over the messiness and inevitable contradictions of life, and the complexity of lived religion. People negotiate feminism and religion in all kinds of ways, ways that frequently cannot be reduced to a simple rejection or acceptance of either feminism or the church. Even on this blog, where feminism is the norm, the permas have some very different approaches to it, not to mention a wide variety of relationships to the church. I find it frustrating when the paths of Carmella and Ernestine are held up as normative or inevitable, because I don’t identify with either one (and I imagine I’m not alone in this).

This isn’t to say that respecting and doing one’s best to understand other people’s experience—which I do see as vital—means retreating into a position where all beliefs are construed as equally valid and immune from critique. To be clear, I am not talking about telling people that their experience could not have taken place and should therefore not be taken seriously, as that’s simply ridiculous. But I would hardly spend this much time advocating for feminist ideals if I didn’t believe that there was something to them, that many feminist critiques of the church are valid and important. In other words, I’m making truth claims—and obviously, there are people who strongly disagree with them. And I would hope that instead of appropriating other people’s experiences to fit our own trajectories (assuming that people will “get over” their false notions, just like we did), or glossing over differences in an attempt to create some kind of superficial harmony, we could respect other people enough to examine their ideas on their own terms, and take them seriously enough to articulate disagreements in thoughtful and non-dismissive ways.


  1. Hear, hear!

    Can we make this into a banner or something?

    (and although I haven’t been following the FB controversy closely, where were you with this about 4 days ago?)

    What’s most interesting to me, is that I identify a little with both sisters. My attachment to feminism and the church changes daily.

    Accepting that people mean what they say, and have the experiences they claim is a huge part of understanding. It took me a while to give the women in my RS that courtesy, but I want it extended to me, so I had to give it.

    I hope you put this in a resource folder somewhere. It’s a really good guide for ettiquette on blogs.

  2. Thanks, Jessawhy!

    What’s most interesting to me, is that I identify a little with both sisters. My attachment to feminism and the church changes daily.

    That describes me, too; my feelings about feminism and the church aren’t static, but keep changing.

    BethSmash, I don’t to want to get into that here, but you’re welcome to send me an email (lynnette.zd AT gmail.com).

    Thanks, nat!

  3. Related, but not really feminist-ish.

    Almost everybody I know really likes Fowler’s Five Stages of Faith, but it drives me nuts, mostly for the reasons you outline here. It is arrogant to assume that eventually everybody will arrive at the same point you have reached. Faith transitions don’t all have the same destinations, and it is possible that the same set of experiences which takes one person completely out of the church will cause another to become more committed to it. People are incredibly and wonderfully, beautifully complex. They will surprise you all the time.

  4. Thank you! This is totally the solid version of things that had been running through my head lately.

  5. Thanks Lynette, but I think I’m gonna stick with janeannechovy’s advice. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. right?

  6. Also this, “the idea that, in essence, the person who disagrees with you is a less developed version of yourself, and will eventually catch up to your advanced level of understanding” is SO TRUE. And something I need to work on in lots of areas, particularly political ones.

  7. Mark, I totally agree with you; I can’t stand Fowler,especially as his faith-stages get correlated with age. Like, you’re not really growing up if you’re not experiencing exactly the type and mode of angst described by stage-number-whatever. If you get through most of your life without a serious faith crisis, are you just infantile or what?

    Thanks for this super great post, Lynnette! I feel less like I’m on a feminist trajectory than on a feminist ferris wheel, going in circles around the same issues over and over. Or maybe a feminist roller coaster, with lots of slow climbs and raging plunges and an occasional dizzying loop-de-loop through the breathtaking newspeak of General Conference . Or maybe a feminist funhouse! (I’m not sure these analogies are doing anything for me, except that evidently I feel the church should be an amusement park.)

  8. BerkeleySatsuki, fMhLisa, Bethany—thanks! It’s good to know this resonated with people.

    BethSmash, lol! There are definitely times when ignorance is bliss. And the not seeing people as less developed versions of yourself is something I need to work on as well. I’m glad you liked the post!

    Melyngoch, I’ve always wanted to try out a feminist ferris wheel. I often think of myself as revolving door Mormon feminist, but a roller coaster is a much more exciting analogy.

  9. Where did you com from?! Seriously. This is brilliant.

    Today on facebook a very conservative friend of mine (a woman who is like a sister to me -I’m closer to her than I am with some of my biological sisters) responded to a quote I posted about what a ridiculous idea it is that Heavenly Mother is unavailable to us because she is being “protected.”

    I read my dear friend’s comment about how grateful she is that our Heavenly Mother is held within our hearts and not put out in the world for the adversary to discredit and defile and how that sort of thing would certainly harm our daughters and I thought, “One day she’ll get to where I am with all this. . .”

    I’m an idiot. Also, this post is a balm to my soul. Thank you.

    I also vascilate between apparent poles of traditional LDS faith/following and progressive/feminist LDS faith/following. It’s a wild ride. I’m thankful to be in such good company.

  10. Lovely piece! As I read Carmella’s journey all I could think was “that’s me!” Lol. I’ve been trying very hard to not fall into the trap of judgy-ness that you describe but it occasionally happens. Just the other night I was sitting with several of my single TBM girl-friends and caught my self mentally rolling my eyes at some of the things they were saying. Thinking “I can’t believe I used to be like that!!” It’s not a nice thing to do. Thanks for so succinctly describing how we can all try to be a bit more understanding of differences.

  11. Thanks, MB!

    Natsy and Melody, I’ve found myself doing that, too. It can be a real challenge to disagree with someone without assuming that their basic problem is that they aren’t as advanced as you. Definitely an area where I could do better; this post is a reminder to me as much as anyone. Thanks for the kind words.

  12. Unless we’re willing to grant each other a mature atheism, a mature belief, a mature traditionalism, a mature feminism (etc.), we’re nowhere. We all repeatedly encounter the inadequacy of our maps of the world and find that our sustaining principles have become too small for our lives. In such cases it’s entirely possible to mature out of beliefs, and it’s equally possible to mature the beliefs themselves.

    I’m with Kiskilili, Mark, and Melyngoch on the stages of faith. My faith has never seemed to fit within a stage opposed to a later stage of doubt. To put it another way, I’ve been having the same faith crisis, on and off, since I was nine years old.


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