Pulitzer Prize winning historian, Harvard professor, and Mormon feminist, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, recently gave a talk in which she examined the history of the LDS Relief Society, Mormonism’s women’s organization. In her talk she documented the rise and decline of this organization, originally developed in 1842 as a parallel to the men’s priesthood quorums. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, this organization opened hospitals, published its own newspapers/magazines, developed its own curriculum, participated in promoting women’s suffrage, managed the Church’s social services program, and engaged in various economic endeavors. However, as the 20th century wore on, the Relief Society lost much of its autonomy, as male priesthood channels took over many of these endeavors.
As Ulrich describes it, Relief Society history “from 1969 to the present was a history of the disappearance of Relief Society.” She mentions that these last forty years of Relief Society were in some ways an attempt to integrate men and women together, as they both learned from the same (androcentric) manuals, read the same (male-dominated) Church magazines, and more. In contrast, she reflects, “During a period when there was a notion of separate spheres, women… created amazing things,” discussing the temperance movement as an example and saying, “women’s voluntary activity was very powerful” in those days of separate spheres.
The pattern she sees in the 20th century, however, is this:
“…when men and women are integrated and brought together, women tend to disappear, and that’s what happened to the Relief Society in the twentieth century. I’m definitely not arguing for separate spheres and to go back to nineteenth century. I’m simply pointing out that a kind of integration that leaves women unrepresented in the authority structures end up with a continuing invisibility problem. We need to find a way to work together as full partners.”
Ulrich’s claims about the power of separate spheres and the problems that often accompany attempts at male/female integration immediately captured my attention. As a liberal feminist, I have always believed that integration is absolutely key for women’s empowerment, and in the past I have applauded steps that have led to greater male/female integration in the Mormon church. It’s sobering to contemplate the possibility that these integration attempts might have contributed to greater problems with women’s invisibility. My ultimate hope is to see women completely integrated into authority structures of the Church, thus giving women and men the same visibility, power, and ability to help shape the future of the organization.
I do have lingering questions, however. Even if Mormon women are ordained someday and integrated into Church authority structures, would patriarchy still rule the day? Would women be working within male dominated meetings, their ideas and visions pushed aside? Would they be present, but silenced? I fear they might be. Which is why I believe that women’s ordination is necessary, but not sufficient, to eradicate the problem of women’s institutional invisibility within Mormonism.
Ulrich’s talk also made me contemplate the benefits of separate spheres and wonder if sometimes women might be better off with total autonomy over their own organizations, projects, and funding. Maybe women are sometimes better off when the entire focus of an organization is on women and women’s needs. While I lean towards being a liberal feminist integrationist, I do recognize that separate spheres has played a powerful role in my own life. I went to a women’s college and greatly benefited from a school environment that focused so completely on women’s education and issues. There I learned to speak up in my all female classes. There I learned to direct a feminist lens on every text I read.
I would love to know your experiences with separate spheres vs. integration. If you are part of a faith community, do you see patriarchy still infusing your tradition, despite female ordination or other integrationist policies? If you are part of academia, government, or corporate America, do you sense this problem of women’s invisibility? If you gravitate towards a separate spheres orientation, what are the positives and negatives of this approach in your experience?
A Mormon feminist, Caroline is completing her coursework for her Ph.D. in religion with a focus on women’s studies in religion. Her areas of interest revolve around the intersections of Mormon and feminist theology and the study of contemporary Mormon feminist communities. She is the co-founder of the Mormon feminist blog, The Exponent.