Sources of Mormon Feminism

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.

2 comments

  1. I am reading The Priority of Love: Christian Charity and Social Justice by the theologian Timothy P. Jackson. I would like to share a few of his arguments and engage some of your points. The author devotes several pages to addressing feminists critiques of Christlike love.

    In his introduction, Jackson makes a case for charity, which he prefers to call “strong agape,” as a “metavalue.” He further calls it “the root of all virtue” and claims “it is the necessary condition to realizing and sustaining other human values in any adequate form.” He cites St. Paul, among others.

    Jackson goes on to present scriptures and other reasons to answer “The Question of Anti-Essentialism.” Are you asserting that everything in the scriptures is equally eligible for and subject to the process of continual reinterpretation? Would you at least privilege the things central to Christ’s mortal ministry?

    The author appears well-read in feminist literature. He takes seriously the contention of many feminists that an ethic of self-sacrifice is utterly incompatible with any women’s movement committed to rights and social justice.

    He also cites a feminist of theological ethics who argues a self-sacrificing charity “is not an appropriate virtue for women who are prone to excessive selflessness.”

    Jackson demonstrates a familiarity with Christian feminists, who he says “are reluctant to extol self-sacrifice as at the heart of Jesus’ gospel, lest this encourages victims of injustice to accept their lot or traditionally self-effacing groups to stifle their moral agency.”

    The good news of the gospel, those Christian feminists would likely say, “is most fundamentally about joy and fulfillment,” as Jackson puts it, “rather than self-denial.”

    Jackson identifies areas of agreement between him and Christian feminists. Self-sacrifice, they each maintain, must always be voluntary and constructive. Jackson adds that “sacrifice cannot be the upshot of coercion, masochism, or mere profligacy.”

    “In the best of feminism,” Jackson asserts, “loving concern, including empathy with and effort to abolish suffering, is upheld and clarified as a human (and divine) ideal.”

    Would you say Jackson is too confident in his ability to perceive the most redeeming qualities of feminism, and that he should instead give equal space to approaches and traditions, as you seem to have modeled?

    Later in his book, Jackson takes up an analysis of gender relations, which he sees as central to the feminist critique of charity.

    Patriarchy expects women to nurture others, often without adequate acknowledgment or compensation. The hierarchy in the home is replicated in the public sphere, where women are either shut out of the major decision-making processes or tolerated as second-rate participants.

    We have a traditional division of labor that forces women to be charitable. “In thus evacuating charity of its voluntariness,” Jackson writes, women are robbed of the chance to “choose whether and how to give of themselves.” As many feminists point out, when virtue is compelled it ceases to be a virtue.

    Modern society has made some concessions, opening new careers to women, but often the women who pursue those opportunities are stigmatized as masculine, placed at a competitive disadvantage within the halls of power or made to feel guilty for neglecting their family.

    Jackson further asserts love is almost always gendered, which he calls a feminist insight, or “understood differently depending on the rights and responsibilities assigned on the basis of sex.”

    Men are allowed, within our patriarchal culture, to divide their love between “social causes, abstract ideas, money, power, and themselves.” Women are expected their confine their affections to love of neighbor and thus “are expected to love differently from men—more passionately, more self-sacrificially, less impartially, less publicly.”

    Jackson remarks “most theories of love neglect gender by glossing over the disparate burdens that love places upon males and females.” Have you seen that trend in your own research and experience?

    One set of remedies to the gender bias is fairly well known: encourage fathers to share in parenting and housework, give mothers greater paid maternity leaves and eliminate lawful sexual discrimination in places such as the military.

    Another remedy, related by Jackson, aims to turn the unjust family crucible on its head. In this feminist perspective, “Whether because of nature or nurture, women tend to be more emotionally invested in their immediate social contexts then men.”

    A woman might subordinate her own well-being to love her kin, and thus experience economic, political and cultural disadvantage. But if you tell her she must act out of unconditional love—a masculine ideal that promotes impersonal benevolence—you will impoverish her in absolute terms.

    In chapter one, Jackson begins his response to those and other feminist critiques.

    Men and women both have the ability to take care of others. Jackson quotes a secular philosopher of love to make the point that “there is nothing inherently gendered about the work of care.”

    More substantively, Jackson takes on feminist understandings of the second commandment, which calls for us to love our neighbors as ourselves. “I do not think that self-love, eros, friendship, or autonomy can have the central place, at least within Christian ethics, that some feminists suggest.”

    Jackson disagrees and cites John 13:34, where Jesus said “love one another … as I have loved you,” as the overriding or final commandment.

    “I would appear that, toward the end of his life, Jesus became convinced that human beings do not normally know how to love themselves. They are so liable to distraction, fear, and malice that they require a concrete model outside themselves,” Jackson observes.

    Do you share Jackson’s discomfort for using natural inclinations as a model for love, given what you have said about the idiosyncrasies of personal revelation?

    Jackson further says self-love and friendship have value but “they are impossible Christian beginnings.” Autonomy “fails as a touchstone for Christian ethics,” because relying upon ourselves leads either to pride or despair. Instead, he argues, charity is the root from which Christianity grows.

    He freely admits women often need autonomy in contemporary society, and the scriptures overlook that need because they were written from a male perspective. And yet he maintains that in the Bible “love of God and neighbor is not essentially gendered.”

    “If Jesus did not found his kingdom on autonomy and self-assertion when his fellow Jews were under the oppressive thumb of imperial Rome would he tell women today anything different from what he told his disciples in the first century?” Jackson asks.

    Jackson returns to the same philosopher, who also happens to be a secular feminist, and finds she aims to “cut through the fiction of our independence.” We all start life dependent on others and almost without exception each of us will leave this life in the same condition.

    Jackson will concede “there can be profound love without a conscious embracing of the rituals and creeds of the Christian church.” But he concludes by implying that we will never fully succeed at loving others, and perhaps transforming society, unless we depend God and rely on his grace.

    Do you think Mormon feminists would see things differently, because our theology places an emphasis on agency and our scriptures tell the Latter-day Saints they “should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness”?




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  2. I like how you’ve laid these approaches out so clearly, Lynnette, and pointed out their strengths and weaknesses. I particularly appreciate your aside about how it’s not just feminists who appeal to a canon-within-a-canon. It’s even the more fundamentalist people who love stuff like Mormon Doctrine and young earth creationism. It’s just that we choose different pieces of our scripture and prophetic teachings to emphasize.

    I also really like your point about how appealing to personal revelation might work well for an individual, but since we don’t have access to each other’s personal revelatory answers, it’s a difficult basis for building any kind of framework that can be used more generally.




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