Idealistic, Cynical, and Pragmatic Mormon Feminists: Who Stays, Who Goes


One of my Mormon feminist friends once made an observation to me about feminists who were able to stay and even thrive within the Mormon Church, versus the ones who left or were forced to leave. She saw that the more pragmatic and cynical feminists seemed to be able to remain practicing, whereas the idealistic feminists were the ones who didn’t stay.

I thought this was an intriguing framework: the idealistic ones who can’t endure the dissonance between what they know in their heart is right/just and what the Church teaches about gender eventually leave the Church, whereas the pragmatic or cynical ones who see patriarchy as inescapably infusing almost all institutions (universities, corporations, etc.) or who decide to weigh the pros and cons and stay for various reasons including community, family, heritage, and root belief in core Mormon teachings tend to be able to make Mormonism work for them.

This gave me pause. Where do I fall in this framework? I would characterize myself primarily as idealistic, but with a strong pragmatic streak as well. I have a deep attachment to principles and it hurts and troubles me when I see principles of equality and justice violated. However, I can and do compromise those principles by operating within a flawed system – the Church – because I hope for a possible greater good that can come from it. Good for my family, good for my immediate community, and good for myself as I learn to navigate a tradition that despite its problems nourishes and sustains me on some fundamental level, and as I learn to love, serve, and see the good in others with whom I disagree on some important levels.  Upon deeper reflection, I admit that I also compromise out of convenience (sad, but true).

Another coping mechanism for the pragmatic feminist may also be a certain degree of detachment. One can exist in a world of pain and despair for only so long before building up armor for protection. That armor, often in the form of decreased investment or belief, protects. But it also separates and creates some critical distance. I think that transition from painfully believing that God is behind current teachings on patriarchy and gender roles, to believing that some/all such teachings are cultural holdovers from an earlier era is a hugely liberating turning point that many pragmatic Mormon feminists eventually experience.

And here’s a tangent….as I was thinking about the upcoming birth of my child, and how much I admire those feminist women who do natural childbirth and home birth because they find it so empowering to have more control over their experience, I was struck by how once again I am willing to compromise principles for convenience. Because for me, when it comes down to it and I’m in intense labor pain, I’m ready to sacrifice some control for the convenience and pain control of a hospital birth. Maybe I’m more of a pragmatist than I thought…

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Categories: Feminism, Mormonism

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9 replies

  1. A very interesting framework indeed and I do think that cognitive dissonance (i.e., how much of it one can handle) is doing some work here. There’s much more I could say, but let me just add two cents re: childbirth. I, too, understand and appreciate the various reasons why some folks are choosing homebirths, waterbirths, etc. but for the record, I didn’t think twice about delivering my two children in a hospital and I also didn’t think twice about asking for an epidural (in both cases) to manage the pain. :)

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    • “I also didn’t think twice about asking for an epidural (in both cases) to manage the pain.” Me too! Though I began questioning this a bit when I talked to my cousin, who is a natural child birth guru. She has had her own feminist awakening in the last few years, and fascinatingly, it stemmed from her work with natural child birth. She started to view medicated hospital births as this system that removed women’s control and that robbed women of this realm that used to be theirs. Because she started seeing patriarchy in medicine, she was able to turn that lens onto the Mormon church and see patriarchy there that she had never seen before. So she found feminism through the body. So interesting given that I had a totally different journey.

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  2. I think the question of feminism and “the church,” or “the synagogue,” or what have you is always an interesting question. I have definitely experienced my feminist discomfort with many Jewish teachings, and I continually search for communities that are more aligned with my feminist ethos. However, the more I search, the more I realize, that I am a “pragmatist,” as you describe it: those “who see patriarchy as inescapably infusing almost all institutions (universities, corporations, etc.) or who decide to weigh the pros and cons and stay for various reasons including community, family, heritage.” I don’t think we’ll change our institutions if we don’t take part in them, but I completely understand how the patriarchal of some institutions are simply too much, and life gets in the way.

    I tend to think that if you are a feminist, you are by definition at least somewhat of an idealist, and it is finding that balance between change and compromise that keeps you going. The last thing to do is give up on feminism. I personally feel that if you live your feminism, that no matter what context you are in you tend to influence people. Maybe that makes me an idealist :).

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    • ” I continually search for communities that are more aligned with my feminist ethos.” This is something that I envy about other traditions. It seems like there’s a lot of freedom in Judaism or other Christianities to find and attend a congregation whose teachings resonate with one’s worldview. In Mormonism, one is assigned to a congregation based on geography. There’s no freedom to choose a different one that is not within the geographical boundaries. So you’re kind of stuck. Which is why informal communities on the internet are so important to feminist Mormons. It’s one of the few ways we like-minded liberals can congregate.

      “I personally feel that if you live your feminism, that no matter what context you are in you tend to influence people.” I hope for that as well. One of my happiest moments recently was when I was asking my husband how he felt about some topic that related to male priesthood, and he replied that my brainwaves had permanently invaded his when it comes to this subject, so he couldn’t help seeing it the way I did to some extent. That was one of the most lovely things he’d ever said to me. :)

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  3. Caroline, your post is great. It got me thinking about how such tensions play out in various contexts. Although my ideals and/or pragmatic concerns have never come into conflict with a church’s teachings (seeing that I do not identify as religious and therefore do not attend, say, church), I have come into conflict with family over similar matters. Not being religious, I tend to put my faith in my family; this is where I have received my teachings, learned about what is right and wrong, found my sense of community, etc. So it surprised me when my “apparently feminist” leanings came into conflict with those who taught me much of what I know.

    I first realized that my ideals did not match up perfectly with my parents’ when I told them that I planned to ask my partner to marry me. We apparently had very different conceptions of marriage in mind. They wanted to set a date, plan the details, and make a guest list. I didn’t care about those things – well, I guess I cared, but in a way that was antithetical to their expectations. The biggest bump in the road was when I realized that my mom assumed that Debbie, my now fiancee, would be changing her name.

    We were having lunch at Panera Bread in San Diego when she said something like, “Debbie Murico; that sounds good.” Or something to that effect. I quickly responded, telling my mom that I would never expect her to change her name and I would never dare to ask her to do so. I could tell that my mom was hurt, but I didn’t understand why. I have thought a lot about it and I think it comes down to the power of tradition. Be it a religious group, a family, or a sports team, people do not always think rationally. They have expectations and any kink in the chain can cause real damage.

    So when I hear a story like yours (and so many others who struggle to find comfort in their own tradition), I remind myself that it is not easy to leave “on principle.” Sometimes principles fall behind the attachments we’ve made, the lives we’ve affected, and stories with which we’ve become familiar. Or sometimes they will come into conflict with each other.

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    • Jeff, I loved reading about your experience with tradition and principles and balancing out ideals with family expectations. Funnily, I had a similar experience with my husband’s family. I think they were hurt when I didn’t take my husband’s name, and particularly when I unthinkingly commented that I wished I hadn’t agreed to let my kids have my husband’s last name as their last name. That struck them as a personal affront, I think, though really it was just about me wanting to form a partnership that was equal — and names are a powerful symbol of equality to me.

      “I remind myself that it is not easy to leave “on principle.” Sometimes principles fall behind the attachments we’ve made, the lives we’ve affected,” That’s been my experience exactly. But on the other hand, I do admire and affirm anyone who puts those principles and truths ahead of other attachments.

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  4. I am an idealist, speaking my truth and standing up for justice for women and others has alienated me from my family, my religions of origin, and probably kept me from teaching graduate students in my field. I don’t really understand how others can compromise though many of my friends have done so to one degree or another, because for me to compromise would have meant shutting down my body and the truths that bubbled up through it.

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    • Carol,
      The world is a much better place for having people like you who do stand behind principles at great personal cost. Many of my friends have done the same, and I delight in their various spiritual paths and life journeys. So much personal and social good can come from those choices — I love seeing people live the life they know they need to lead.

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  5. Today I am feeling very alone with my “choice” which was not really a choice for me. It seems to me that all of you have reasons that made you stay “in” and not very many women on this blog have had reasons that led them leave, so your words of comfort are helpful today. It is horrible to feel isolated in a community I helped to create, but “the powers that be in academia” and the churches have helped to shape the community of feminist scholars in religion so that it would not reflect the community of feminists in religion at large; they are the ones who have made it difficult for women to study or get hired if they are not affiliated with one of the “great” (patriarchal) religions–and in so doing limited our community.Thanks for your words.

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