Mormon Feminism: Essential Reading

I think I ought to say here that I received a copy of Mormon Feminism from Oxford University Press in exchange for a fair review.

When I was in graduate school, far from the heart of Mormonism, one of my favorite pick-me-up-after-a-long-day-of-thinking hobbies was to swing by one of the many used bookstores near the university and hunt for treasures. One day, to my surprise, I found Brigham Young: American Moses on the Religion shelf. On another visit a few weeks later I found Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, and then during yet another visit Sisters in Spirit—somewhere in my secular liberal town, someone was reading and discarding Mormon history, and I was the lucky beneficiary.  I read my way through the Mormon history canon then, starting with my lucky finds and eventually going to Amazon to pick out specifics for myself. The books still stand on my shelf, where they mean much more to me than the thrill of good scholarship, cheaply obtained: my years in graduate school were hard on my faith—the standard crises of young adulthood, newly freed from BYU’s ecclesiastical endorsements and immersion in the heartland of the Mormon world, plus my first temple experience and California’s Proposition 8—and the books connected to me the Mormon intellectual world I desperately craved. Their provenance felt like, to steal a cliché, a tender mercy: the voices I needed to hear, the minds I needed to see, the people I needed to meet, the stories I needed to tell myself about myself, reached me through this tiny coincidence. Quite honestly, I’m not sure how I would have stayed in Mormonism without that scholarship at that time.

My copy of Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings didn’t reach me so serendipitously—its presence was all over my Facebook feed from the time it was just a twinkle in Joanna Brooks’s eye—but, like those other books long ago, it means something more to me than just the words inside it. I’ve been evaluating and re-evaluating my church activity recently, thinking again about what it means to me to be a Mormon, about whether I have the courage, faith, and stamina I need, and this book is like a hand reaching out of the boat to pull me in. More than just a book about Mormons and feminism, for me this was ultimately a book about community, a book meant to understand, to explore, to explain, but most of all to connect.

Because a review should contain some mention of the actual contents of the work, let me say that, even weighty symbolism aside, this is an excellent collection. Fitting for a book with the subtitle “Essential Writings,” nearly every poem or essay included here is iconic or paradigm-shifting, and it didn’t matter that I had read many of them before: encountering them here, surrounded by the other giants of the Mormon feminist movement, made them worth reading again, and seeing in a slightly different light. Reading Joanna Brooks, Valerie Hudson, Chelsea Shields Strayer, Meghan Raynes, and Neylan McBaine all right in a row, all on a rainy commute one early morning, made me more forgiving, somehow, more able to articulate my disagreements while still pulling them all into a circle of sisterhood in my mind. This also made me realize that, as an inhabitant of the Internet Age, I had missed a generation, and my reading had skipped straight from the founding of Exponent II to the world of blogs; I now relish the chance to pull Cecilia Konchar Farr and Lynn Matthews Anderson into my mental circle of feminist sisters.

As an introduction to Mormon feminism, then, I can’t say enough good things about this: for those people you encounter, either inside or outside the church, who question whether you can really be a Mormon and a feminist, here is the volume, proudly wrapped in bright pink, that you can shove at them and say “I can! Oxford University Press says so!” This is the introduction to our past and to our foremothers we didn’t know we had been waiting for.

It’s easy to say the above, though, to point to the book as our grand statement of existence to the world, but it’s more than that. Talking about “the world” makes me edgy: who are these supposed outsiders who might need this book shoved at them? Do they exist or are they just rhetorically convenient counterpoints? Aside from some feminist activists and scholars of religion, I doubt many people in “the world” spend much time thinking about Mormon feminism, and I suspect that even as I write things like “those people you encounter” and “the world,” I really mean “me” and “us.” This book isn’t just a statement to the world of our existence, it’s a statement to us. Like any canon, it does double-duty, legitimatizing outside the community and teaching, creating, and connecting within the community. The importance of the Book of Mormon to Nephi and his family wasn’t just so they could shove the golden plates at doubting outsiders, it was to connect themselves to a meaningful past, to show themselves and their descendants who they are. Mormon feminists of the world, unite: we exist.

I’m excited about this, of course, but even in my enthusiasm I must point out a danger of canonization: exclusion. One volume can’t contain everything, and I think the editors chose wisely and well, but by elevating some essays, these essays, to the status of “essential,” by putting the official stamp of an editor’s note and loud-and-proud pink cover and an Oxford University Press imprimatur, the editors—and by extension, all of us–have declared our loyalties. And so the issue of who is here and who is not here is more fraught, more weighty, more urgent, than just the question of representation in the Bloggernacle or in Facebook groups (though that matters too). This is a statement of Who We Are as a community, a declaration made official for insiders and outsiders alike, and honestly, from this collection, We Are Not Whole. If this collection is a mirror held up to us, we are mostly American, mostly from or living in Utah, mostly white, mostly female, mostly trained academics.

That’s not the Mormon feminist community as a whole, I know, but it’s uncomfortably close. If I had found this book in a used bookstore in grad school, looking for that hand reaching out from the boat, would I be able to see myself in the community? Would it make me feel connected or alone? Now what if I were in Mexico? Or France? Or Samoa? Or Ghana? For Mormon feminists, this is a brilliant book, one that captures and represents our intellectual tradition and the paths forged by brave women before us and around us, and it should fill us with awe, but also with obligation: in one year, in five years, in ten years, in twenty years I hope we can update this book with more voices, more perspectives, more languages, more backgrounds, for a wider circle of sisters in our canon. Essential writings, we have got essential writings, and we need more essential writings.

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