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.