Mormon feminists, like Christian feminists more broadly, are posed with the difficulty of making sense of the patriarchal aspects of a tradition which they believe to be inspired. One of the most challenging questions for both groups is this: if one is to reject particular aspects of the tradition (for example, female subordination), on what basis can such a rejection be made?
Some feminists have concluded that Christianity and patriarchy are too closely intertwined for them to be ever pulled apart, and have therefore abandoned Christianity. (Interestingly, a similar assumption is made by those conservatives who see Christianity as inherently patriarchal, and therefore argue that real Christians must abandon feminism). However, a number of others have proposed ways to maintain serious commitments to both Christianity and feminism, looking for creative ways of negotiating the tensions. Some propose drawing on contemporary experience, while others look to liberating elements within the tradition. And in an LDS context, I would add the approach of drawing on personal revelation.
In the first approach, which emphasizes experience, one questions the proposition that the tradition is unproblematically normative or definitive, noting that it always exists in the context of an interpretive community. It is misleading to point to some aspect of the tradition and say “this is what Christianity essentially is,” as this varies depending on one’s historical, geographical, and denominational location. The Bible is not a closed or static authority, it is noted, but one which is continually re-interpreted over time.
Contemporary experience therefore becomes a crucial aspect of engaging the tradition. And from this perspective, the tradition should be viewed with a fair amount of skepticism because of the way it has contributed to women’s oppression throughout history. A critical feminist reading of it uses lenses drawn on the contemporary struggle for justice. The idea here is not to supplant the tradition in favor of contemporary experience, but to put the two in dialogue.
The possibility of drawing on contemporary experience for theological critique is sound if one believes that revelation is not limited to a closed canon. It is also important, one might point out, that the Christian tradition actually speak to contemporary experience; if it is completely foreign, there is no point to it. Experience matters for theology. And women have the experience of being full human beings, of being agents. Aspects of the tradition which subordinate them and place them in other roles are therefore problematic.
The danger, of course, is that one will give too much credence to contemporary fleeting cultural norms. Does the fact that we value egalitarianism now mean that God does, or that it is an eternal principle? One has to make this a genuine dialogue for it to be credible.
A second approach is to look for liberating aspects within the tradition itself. This is sometimes called the canon-within-a-canon approach. In Christianity, there is not only patriarchy—there is also a strong message that God has particular concern for the oppressed, and that God is no respecter of persons. These elements of the tradition can be used to critique any suggestion that God engages in favoritism on the basis of sex, or social systems which place women in inferior positions. One finds the liberating elements of the tradition, then, makes them normative, and uses them as a lens to make sense of the rest. (The Mormon version of this might involve appealing to particular prophetic statements as definitive.)
The challenge in this approach, of course, is that one must explain why one privileges particular aspects of the tradition. Why should scriptures which advocate more egalitarian views be more normative than those which talk about women as property, or call for female submission?
It is worth noting, however, that everyone does this—not just feminists. Everyone privileges certain aspects of the tradition and uses them to make sense of others; it is inevitable. No one comes to the tradition without an interpretive lens.
A third possible approach, one particularly cited by Latter-day Saints, is that of using personal revelation to critique everything else. If God reveals to someone individually that s/he does not view women as less than fully human, or approve of female subordination, one can use that as a method for critiquing elements of the tradition which suggest otherwise.
While this can be personally quite comforting, it is generally not helpful in the context of public discussion. The idiosyncrasy of interpretations informed by personal revelation should make us cautious about using it to make generalized statements. We also have to grapple with the problem that our interpretation of personal revelation is quite fallible, and it is far too easy to get the feeling that God is confirming what we already believed, our own cultural prejudices.
So where does this all leave Christian feminists, and in particular, Mormon feminists? If we object to aspects of our tradition, on what do we ground those objections? What reasons do we have to think that patriarchy is problematic—especially when elements of the tradition tell us that it is eternal, or that female subordination is in fact the will of God?
In my own approach to these issues, I find that I draw on all three of these sources: the contemporary experience of women (including my own); the liberating aspects within the tradition; and my own encounters with God. Especially when putting these three together, I have a strong hope that God does not in fact expect female subordination, or see women as less than full human beings. However, like any other individual making her best attempt to make sense of an often conflicting and confusing tradition, I have to recognize that my perspective is limited–and I therefore think it is worth doing our best to articulate our assumptions and our methodology.