Do Women Disappear When Women and Men Integrate? A Mormon Case Study by Caroline Kline

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.


11 thoughts on “Do Women Disappear When Women and Men Integrate? A Mormon Case Study by Caroline Kline”

  1. I agree with Alice Walker that separation can be useful occasionally and for health. When members of an a oppressed group choose to separate in order to hear their own voices, I think this is a definite good. This is why I lead Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete for women. If men were along, too many of the women would spend their time caring for them and making sure they didn’t feel disempowered when women spoke of the Goddess. I think that even when separation was a result of female disempowerment, it had its good sides. My mother and her mother had garden clubs and women’s clubs that gave them a sense of community with other women and times in their lives when they were not devoting themselves to men. I believe they passed the strength they found in those separate times on to me. And I do think that often integration means accepting the dominant values of a an androcentric culture. So I take a both and approach. I live most of my life in an integrated society, but I need spaces like this one where female voices are not always subordinated to male voices and where we don’t have to fight to make ourselves heard.


  2. i really like your connection between former eras women’s garden clubs and other women’s clubs to the need for women only space today–in terms of the usefulness of occasional separate space…i think we often forget that as my students say ‘back in the day’ the sexes were often separated and women had much needed alone time –with each other. this space allowed for voices to be heard that aren’t heard in the dominant culture– and then to be heard when the cultures come bck. this is how we knew eventually that many of us had “a different voice.” the need for women to be alone, if they so choose, has been so ciriticized– but we forget that it was not only happening often, but deemed needed in such a larger degree than anyone naturally does it today…


  3. My research field is medieval women’s theology, which in many way bears out your hypothesis. There were some laywomen or beguines (religious women who lived in the midst of the world) who were able to study and write but a major locus of female education and empowerment and theological productivity were the convents. It was no accident that though the Reformers claimed to be freeing women from oppression in forcibly shutting down these communities (some women, like Katherine von Bora Luther, did leave freely and play a role in the movement) they actually silenced women’s theological voices, for the most part, for several centuries. (Though they eventually moved ahead of the Catholic church in the 19th and 20th by admitting women to theological study and ministry).


  4. I would like to see a similar study done on the liberal wing of the Religious Society of Friends, because I do think eventually with integration (Friends had separate women’s meetings in the early days) it’s possible to come out the other side and be integrated. The 70’s and 80’s were times of real struggle and the struggle isn’t absolutely over but it is to a large extent.


  5. In the Baltimore area, the Mt. St. Agnes Theological Center for Women is doing a very nice job of providing a (usually) women-only space for continuing education, discussion, prayer, and spiritual growth. (Their programs are women-only by default, but some are marked “men invited”… who rarely come, anyway.)

    A distinctive feature of their programs is that they often incorporate “table hospitality”, with a meal offered as part of the gathering for learning and prayer. I like their “Cinema Teologico” series of dinner, movie, and discussion.

    Since I started grad school, I don’t have time to get to MSA much anymore, but I cried when I found them on the net. The experience of being in a women-only space and able to discuss women’s experience and use inclusive or feminine language without feeling I had to defend or explain myself was healing and liberating.


  6. I’m not a liberal feminist by any means, but I do know this, it is heaven to be in a room full of lesbians, it is a bore to have to deal with men. You can’t add women and stir, that is the problem with “integrating” women into men’s structures. It just doesn’t work, and women will get erased again and again and again. This, of course, is the cross for hetero women to bear, it is the one thing that keeps women in chains. Women are the only oppressed group worldwide that are actually encouraged not only to “integrate” with the oppressor but also to marry them, have their children. Since patriarchy is a 5000 year old system, I think we have to get way way out of that box to see what is in the best interest of women.

    At this time, if women devoted more energy to the cause of women, and less to the care and feeding of men, we would see a dramatic change.

    It is a shocking difference to see the lesbian feminist institutions vs. liberal feminist ones. The energy is so different. The strongest feminists that come out of the woodwork do indeed have educations at all women institutions. This should tell you something.

    I don’t see the point of integration, in terms of building a powerful women’s movement, and in creating the greatest number of powerful women possible. Why bother with men? Women are half of the world, and all that oppression would end very quickly if women stopped bearing children, stopped feeding boys, stopped doing all the unpaid work in service to the class that oppresses us.
    All other tactics of appeasement fail, we know this, and yet, we still don’t know this.

    It is the compromise of heterosexuality itself that is the problem, and I don’t have an answer.
    I do know that men don’t energize me and inspire me the way women do, and I know that hetero women are very loathe to give up the crumbs that patriarchy feeds them. It just is.

    The liberal solution is really not going to work, and we all know this.


  7. Carol, i like the way you describe your perspective. A “both/and approach.” That resonates with me. While I personally want integration in various channels (government, business church), I also have found much sustenance in women-only retreats. Those have been wonderfully healing.

    Marie, Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Your comment and Carol’s brought up a question in my mind. I agree that women-only spaces can be very important. Are they important for men too? While I have positive feelings about women-only spaces, I become uncomfortable when i think of men-only spaces. Maybe I associate them with the ‘old boys’ club’ where real decision making power resides…

    Rev dr Laura, Thank you for relating this idea to women in convents. That’s a great point — that those women-only spaces actually often served as bastions for women’s intellectual/theological development.

    Nancy, Thank you for your comment. From what I know about them, the Friends are a wonderful example of integration done well. Not surprising since they have been at the forefront of advocating for rights of the oppressed for centuries.

    What you said about your women-only space made a lot of sense to me. “The experience of being in a women-only space and able to discuss women’s experience and use inclusive or feminine language without feeling I had to defend or explain myself was healing and liberating.” That’s how I feel when i go to some Mormon feminist retreats. It’s such a relief to not have to explain or justify my word choices or my thoughts.

    TurtleWoman, Thank you for sharing your perspective as well. You’re right — it’s a complex question for women who want to live with, love, and inhabit the world alongside their husbands, brothers, sons, male friends, etc. I’m glad that you yourself have found those healing women-only spaces.


  8. It’s interesting to me that just because an institution is “all woman” does not mean it will do very much to advance the status of women. I was raised Catholic and attended an all-girls Catholic high school. It was there I found my voice and got a great education, but in the end, most of my friends grew up to get married to men in their early 20s and somehow lost the sense of who they are along the way.

    My only thought about this is that we don’t exist in a vacuum. Even if we work/are educated in all female institutions, we are still a product of our society (for me that’s American society). As a lesbian, most Americans already see me as outside the norm, so continuing to operate in that space as I plan my wedding, hang out with friends and work daily at my job with a business newspaper.

    It gets lonely sometimes though. because I am “outside the norm,” I tend to be left out of conversations and spaces. While I don’t take quite the hard-nosed approach that Turtle Woman does, I do agree with her in that “You can’t add women and stir, that is the problem with “integrating” women into men’s structures. It just doesn’t work, and women will get erased again and again and again.”

    I would love to go find an encampment of all lesbian-identitfed women and stay there forever. I get so energized when I spend a week or so at a women’s music festival that I never ever want to leave. But that’s not reality and truly, it seems a bit self-serving to me. Burying your head in the sand for the same of being comfortable is no way to live.

    So I don’t know the answer. I don’t believe you can add women to men’s systems without getting erased, but you also can’t always exist outside the norm and expect to make much change either.


  9. Why is it that when hetero families go move out to a suburb, they aren’t burying their heads in the sand of heteronormative separatist communities? However, I have yet to meet a woman who went to Michigan who didn’t come back longing for more– we don’t use our 51% majority position well as women, but we could. The threat of feminism to men, and it is a threat to them, is just this— they fear the day when women pull the plug on male supremacy, when women refuse to go along with it.
    I see men often fearfully taking feminism more seriously than most women–they know what will happen.

    As for male only spaces, I say fine. I find men crashing bores, I’m sure a lot of men have nothing in common with women. However, they can’t own territory that affects me–the supreme court, the congress etc. They can’t own the nation. But they can own their own rituals, practices and golf courses. Anything involving women, and our right to a just income, safe sexist free space etc., has to be seriously challenged by women to gain ground. If men would just be honest and say the catholic church is a male only place, and women got a parallel universe type church, it would be honest. The men could worship together, the women would have churches, land priests etc. But no, what men do is steal women’s labor. That is what I have a problem with– the constant theft. Call them on it, and suddenly they wake up, but don’t expect a man to ever volunteer to PAY for anything, you have to hold their hands over the flame first.

    To me, the power, the healing, the anger, the rage— all great feminist tools for liberation— that is what lesbian nation is. It really doesn’t include men at all, and more and more it seems on some level they cease to exist.

    We need to know that meer reform does very little, that’s why women being added to the status quo breeds colaboration, but not change. And we know from history, that we are always looking for the women of the past who have been erased, and I think women collude in the erasing process. It’s something we have to do something about. As for Mormons, well, the greatest Mormon that broke free was Sonia Johnson, but I really would question being in a church that has done so much overt damage to lesbian rights in the state of CA. The money, the power all in service to patriarchy at its most blatant. But of course lesbian rights are expendable always.


  10. It is remarkable to me that the LDS Relief Society was founded in the 19th century as a Mormon women’s organization that’s ultimate goal was to improve the aspects of women’s lives at the time. The strong root patriarchy has in Mormonism, makes it clear that something needed to be done in order to improve the lives of women, but primarily in the private sphere. The integration of men into the LDS resulted in a disturbance of the primary focus; women. While women and men have different issues, I think it is an important point that you bring with regards to men and women’s integration and the pros and cons of such action. Although often times it’s beneficial to bring women and men together within organizations and movements, it can also be risky as you mentioned. Women erasure is all too prevalent within integration actions; I think this is especially true for religious organizations who often time reinforce male-domination. As you mentioned women are frequently “present, but silent” which does not serve the real purpose of integration and the conjoining of spheres. It seems as though organizations must state that they are a “women’s organization” in order to prevent women’s erasure and sustain their female-centered mission. The issue of integration is so important and the connection to religion, especially Mormonism is in need of further attention. The LDS definitely represents numerous organizations that have had a similar result once the focus is shifted towards men’s involvement.


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