““Don’t you want to be liberated?”
“How can you be serious about being a Mormon?”
Those were a few of the questions I fielded the year I, a devout Mormon, worked as an intern at the University of Utah’s new Women’s Resource Center. As I studied at the “U” in the early 1970’s I encountered second wave feminism and its brand of secularism that challenged the prevailing Mormon-centric environment.
I was introduced to feminism in workshops at the newborn Resource Center, and as an intern I helped plan and put on its inaugural women’s conference. The women there were excited and exciting. They were exploring feminist ideas during a very heady time for college women.
I learned a great deal at the workshops and in classes, and enjoyed the association with other women at the Resource Center. There were occasions, however, when my religiosity became the issue, trumping the planned topic of discussions in classes, workshops, or casual conversations. That I sought to find ways to pleat new feminist ideas into my spiritual life and religious foundation was at times an irritant in those gatherings. Many of these women had found in a thoroughly secular feminism a home and a place of empowerment and acceptance. They often felt little need to nurture belief in the religions of their youth. They questioned why I stayed in any organized religion at all. As stated on the About page of this blog, a “flowering of research in the 1970’s and 80’s into the study of women and religion arose within the academy.” Cultivating the study of feminism and religion had just begun and the fruit of this flowering was not yet ready for local consumption. We didn’t have the benefit of decades of research and we hadn’t learned how to talk with each other.
The impact of secularism on the feminist movement included a willingness to render the religious feminisms of the 19th and early 20th centuries invisible. I did not want to be invisible. I spent uncomfortable months looking for opportunities to discuss feminist issues and how they related to my religious faith. On campus I found little support and some derision, and in Sunday church services no opportunity. What to do?
I went to the head of the LDS Institute (the off campus center for religious instruction) and–as a 20 year old undergraduate–told him that “The Institute needs a class on Women’s Issues. Students need a place to discuss these things.” He agreed, and asked me to outline what should be covered in such a class and come back to meet with him again. I did. He read my course outline and asked me if I would teach the class. As I was an undergraduate, I had a sponsor in a friend and instructor, who came to class the first week of each quarter, introduced the topic, introduced me, and then left us alone for the rest of the term.
I taught the class at the LDS Institute for several years–through my graduation, marriage, and up to the birth of my second child. It was a powerful experience to share and process with women from within a context of common faith. We could dialogue without having the conversation turn into a defense of our core beliefs. In that safe space we could look at new ideas and share our life experiences. It was an experience not easily available on campus at that time.
That was almost 40 years ago and now I’m a gray-haired lady earning a graduate degree in religion at Claremont Graduate University. The intervening years have brought me an increasingly mature devotion to the doctrines of my religion and a profound appreciation for the paths it has encouraged me to travel.
I like to think of my time at Claremont as a continuation of the dialogue, now with space on campus and in classrooms to discuss both our feminisms and our religious beliefs. I agree with Dr. Radford Reuther’s assertion that “…differences do not negate one another, unless some feminists make the mistake of thinking that their feminist context is normative. Rather this diversity is precisely the wonderful richness of feminism, its capacity and necessity of being articulated in many contexts and cultural locations.”
Let’s keep talking, it’s bound to be fruitful.
Lisa T. Clayton is a graduate student at CGU. After 30 years she is semi-retired from her primary career as mother of four daughters and a son, and she relishes grandmothering. Her emphasis is the 20th Century L.D.S. woman’s experience. As the current director of the Howard W. Hunter Mormon Studies Oral History Project, she works with volunteers to gather LDS women’s histories.
 At the “What Is Feminism?” tab on the Feminism and Religion website.