I was recently recommended to a facebook group for Feminist Mormon Housewives (fMh) by a friend of mine, following a number of posts about women and authority in the LDS church.
Some days I really appreciate the sisterhood of the fMh page and sometimes I wonder what I’m still doing there.
There are still many of the liberal leaning (or out-and-out political progressive), pro-choice, anti-gender role, angry, my-way-or-the-highway feminists in this world. There are many of them in Mormon Feminism. Many of the topics that come across the fMh feed are very liberal. It also can be very blunt, black-and-white and unforgiving. You think there’s an evil patriarchy or you’re not a feminist. You support a woman’s “right” to chose an abortion or you’re not a feminist. You don’t think Motherhood and Priesthood are equal and if you do you’re not a feminist.
It’s not always a very friendly place to be and sometimes I feel a little like I’m in the lion’s den. I regularly feel out of place, but that’s pretty par for the course everywhere I am (both online and in “real” life).
One of the things that comes up from time to time in our feministy conversations is about how we know people who are actually feminists but won’t claim the title. It frustrates many people while others have expressed a sort of “wink nod” superiority about knowing their friends are feminists even when their friends won’t admit it.
The truth is that even when you (collective) get beyond the stereotype of what a feminist is, there are still legitimate reasons people reject feminism. Instead of describing what these reasons are, some of which can be overcome by feminists and some of which we have no control over, I’m going to provide a few suggestions on how Mormon feminism (and strictly Mormon feminism, although some suggestions do apply across the board) could provide a more inclusive environment for those who are seeking to understand women’s issues in the church today.
1. Drop the phrase “The Patriarchy”
This is a term used differently by Mormons and the rest of the (feminist) world. In Mormonism, there is talk about the Patriarchal Order, about the great patriarchs, about Patriarchal Blessings and all of these things are good things. Patriarchy in the world, however, is a mancentric environment that shows a preference to men while subtly (and not so subtly) oppressing women. It’s a really hard juxtaposition for people to reconcile.
In general, I actually hate the phrase “the patriarchy” anyway because I don’t think the system in place actually benefits men. It just harms everyone. It’s not “patriarchy” when we assume that all men are rapists and pedophiles. It’s not patriarchy when we assume that young women need to dress modestly so that young men can control their thoughts. It’s not patriarchy when we assume a man and a woman can’t serve in a presidency together (with at least one or two other people) because they might develop feelings for each other. None of those are patriarchy, but they are the system the world calls patriarchy. These attitudes aren’t real patriarchy but they are really harmful.
By abandoning the word patriarchy as the descriptor of our concerns about the church, we can remove a significant barrier to recognizing there are concerns we would like addressed in the church.
2. Quit diminishing motherhood.
I’m sure this will ruffle some feathers. However, I see this phrase a lot in feminist discussions: “Mother does not equal Priesthood. Motherhood equals fatherhood. Priesthood equals priesthood.” Although I am certain it is not the intention, this statement’s de facto result is not lifting up fatherhood. It’s lessening motherhood. In a church that claims to put motherhood right at the top of all callings and responsibilities possible, it’s hard for mainstream Mormons to understand that you might want “more” because wanting more makes motherhood less.
Further, Mormon feminists often make statements that come across as critical of not only the motherhood/priesthood comparison but also of the motherhood as a calling attitude that many women in the church hold.
Instead, Mormon feminists should embrace motherhood as the pinnacle of Earthly and eternal callings. We should also lift up fatherhood, explain how difficult it can be on families and on motherhood when fathers spend excessive time outside the home fulfilling Priesthood callings, and address training and policy concerns in the church before seeking for Priesthood ordination as the missing link to equality. Feminists should realize we don’t know everything about Big-M Motherhood. We must know the doctrine on motherhood and understand why leaders hold it up as equal to Priesthood. We should understand that when the church leadership talks about Motherhood they are perhaps talking about something different than childbearing. We should strive to know as much as we possibly can about Heavenly Mother.
When we have done all that and can articulate it, we should be able to tell others that we love and appreciate their calling to bring spirits into the world and that we feel as though there are other things the Lord would like us to take on. Not more, but other. We should point out that there are times and seasons for certain things and that a woman’s childbearing little-m motherhood years will be comparatively short. We should point out that historically women in the church ran their own businesses, studied as midwives and doctors, served in political office, gave blessings by laying on of hands, managed the Relief Society as an independent and full organization (which included hospitals, it’s own budget and magazine) and fulfilled church callings all while still being good and faithful mothers to their children and wives to their husbands.
If Mormon feminists can help others understand that what we want is what our foremothers had and that none of that demeans motherhood or contributes to the worldly attack on women, we have a greater chance of coming to the table with soft and open hearts.
3. Separate feminism from liberalism
This is incredibly hard. Many feminists, even Mormon ones, are very politically liberal (progressive even). Feminism naturally has a soft spot for issues like gay marriage as both women and homosexuals have traditionally experienced inequality and oppression. However, by hitching the feminist wagon to politically progressive issues, feminists effectively exclude anyone who does not agree politically. If, instead, feminism can “stay on track” and address the social and legal reasons for inequality, we can address real issues instead of getting sidelined by other things that divide us.
3.1. Abandon abortion as a feminist issue
Ok, this one might be a dream. Abortion and reproductive rights are almost a holy grail of feminism. It’s also possibly the single most divisive issue in all of the modern sociopolitical sphere. I think most Mormon feminists – and many feminists outside of Mormonism – will say at the very least that abortion is not ideal. Abortion is especially offensive in Catholic and Mormon spheres where life begins at or before conception respectively and being born is incredibly important.
If Mormon feminism could completely abandon abortion as an acceptable solution to an unwanted pregnancy, and to do so vocally, it would make feminism much more palatable for those taking tentative first steps towards feminism. Moreover, Mormon feminists could lead out by focusing on alternatives (all of them) and by focusing on making men equally responsible for the unborn (and then for the birthed) baby, creating potentially legitimate non-abortion solutions for women outside of both Mormonism and feminism.
4. Focus on the (small) stuff we want
A lot of times feminism is seen as a negative, angry movement. Sure, there are things that we get angry over. That’s human nature. However, sometimes I think Mormon feminists come across as complainers. Instead, we should focus on what positive things we would like to see. I would love to see one lesson a month from the manual Daughters In My Kingdom. I would love lessons that focus on Heavenly Mother, Eve and Mary. It would be amazing to have a Teachings of Emma Smith manual or from Eliza R. Snow or from other LDS women leaders. I would love to have a Relief Society magazine or a whole section in the Ensign just for women (more than the page for the Visiting Teaching message). I’d love to have the RS General Board speak in General Conference or at least know who they are and occasionally hear from them in firesides or the Ensign. These are small to moderate changes but they would make a huge difference for many women.
4.1. Celebrate the small victories
Sort of a subpoint to the previous one, there was a lot of skepticism and actual hurt feelings on fMh when the portraits of the women presidencies were put up in the Conference Center. Small victories are often met with scoffing and even offense. I get it. It also seems like adding insult to injury. However, instead of rejecting them, we should celebrate the little step forward. Change is hard but one small change opens the door for another which opens the door for several more. Many small changes make larger changes possible. It takes time but we should celebrate them instead of feel insulted that they are so small and slow coming.
5. Be educators not just agitators
In the context of this post, agitating means primarily public advocacy in a blunt, straight forward or forceful way, especially an attempt as a group to get a question or issue addressed in the public domain. Of course there is a time when agitating for something is absolutely the right course of action. I won’t fault anyone who, after careful study, meditation and prayer, decides that our Heavenly Parents want them to agitate for an issue. I, personally, am no stranger to agitation on many topics.
However, whenever a person or group agitates they also educate. If the agitation-based education creates a negative perception of a group or individual, that group has actually worked against themselves.
Sometimes, we need to take a step back from our agitating and take control of educating. There is SO MUCH about women in the LDS church that we as a church don’t know (thanks, correlation). Daughters In My Kingdom addresses some of that ignorance and there are amazing things taught in the Relief Society Minutes available from the Joseph Smith Papers project. However, if we’ve preconditioned our brothers and sisters in the church that we will “accept nothing less” than what we are agitating for, we have already alienated them from any future conversations. Getting some of what we want is going to take quiet, assured, well-studied education and we have to lay the education foundation before it will even be possible to get some of the big things we want.
There’s something to Proverbs 15:1 when it says “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grevious words stir up anger.” Sometimes, we need to step back from fighting and speak softly. There are times for both agitation and education, but we cannot forget that education is how you win hearts and minds. Agitation is a secondary, but less effective, tool. Sometimes because it feels more productive, we choose agitation first. Education is always more effective.
6. Never, ever demean or diminish someone else’s experience.
Every one of us is going to have a different experience. Some women really do feel completely comfortable with their position in the church. They do not see themselves and unequal. We have to respect that. Some women have a point or two that frustrates them but are generally content with the structure and hierarchy in the church. We have to respect that too. Just as we hope that no one will diminish our experience, we must never use phrases like “gilded cages” or “flaxen chains” when it comes to our sister’s experiences in the church.
Instead, we should completely own our own experiences. We must not ask that our sisters and brothers accept our world views, only our experiences as real and valid.
I am not a typical Mormon feminist. I’m sure there are some who will take issue with my suggestions. I also know that some both within and outside feminist circles I may be criticized for claiming the term feminist at all. However, I am neither ashamed to be a feminist nor to be one who doesn’t fit in the feminist box. My perspective can help bridge the gap between those who struggle with women’s roles in the LDS church and those who are completely comfortable in them. We can’t reach everyone, but we can alienate everyone that doesn’t fit in the box. By considering our approach, ridding our language of buzz words and non essential ideologies that create barriers and sharing our stories and our history, we will create a more inclusive environment that will help us achieve greater equality and unity in the LDS church.