1972: Can We Talk? — Looking for Spaces to Share by Lisa Clayton

“Why do you care what God says?”

““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[1] 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.

[1] At the “What Is Feminism?” tab on the Feminism and Religion website.

Categories: Feminism, Mormonism

Tags: , ,

9 replies

  1. Thank you Lisa for your invitation to talk and share. As a Hindu pantheist and panentheist, I am supportive of feminist issues and feel attracted to join the conversation. However, as you mention, the undertones of derision are still present. And in my experience will take much more than having a conversation among feminist on topics about religions. But, I wonder if inviting other women to the conversation means that the subjectivity and diversity of issues that other women have had to bottle up are welcome here.

    I have not found it fruitful to have a deeper conversation with feminists from a pagan or empiricist, or process theology epistemology because I am aware that such attempts would be like speaking Martian to an English speaking person. Key words have very different meanings from one religion to another. I chuckle when I hear Western women say that Hinduism is a religion, it is not. Western historians did not know what to do with India’s philsophical systems of mysticism and innumerable spiritual ritualistic practices, and named it Hinduism. This is one example of a word which has no meaning in its original context, but has been assigned meaning in the academe. Other examples of words that have very different meanings from one religion’s episteme to another are: liberation, enlightenment, son of god, Goddess, self, ego, teacher, mind, death. Just a few.

    However, and apart from Feminism and Religion, I do not consider myself a feminist yet, because I believe that there is a fundamental element to women’s dignity missing in feminism in the present. I am not blaming feminists, I am grateful and indebted to the struggles and contribution of many of my teachers. Still, I struggle for not having articulated the issues with more clarity, immediacy and abiltiy to convey to women activists the urgency of this matter, as I see it. Here I am because I believe that this is undoubtedly a feminist issue, and because I hope to contribute to a discussion which may lead to what I feel is sadly missing.

    What I consider that is missing in feminism is a vision of:

    1) Addressing the ways in which women are still colluding in the perpetuation of our own oppression from the Bronce Age to the present.
    2) Empowered by identifying the ways in which internalized patriarchy has divided many women against one another (in most cases competing for a man), how can women today recover the solidarity needed to recover the primacy and epic importance of the position of motherhood in the creation of a new world vision: a return to an egalitarian society?
    3) Why is it the “job” of feminists to return dignity to the work of mothering?
    4) Why so many mothers fail without sufficient support from feminist groups, and why is there no training on how to mother better? Since this is the first labor of love.
    5) Why should instituting university courses on mothering be a sacrosanct feminist theologist endeavor.
    6) Why should courses on the stages of mothering be a must in all Women Studies programs.

    I undesrtand that some feminists are not interested in the topic of mothering perhaps because they did not have a positive relationship with their mothers, and some are more involved on other feminist issues and are not planning to be mothers themselves. But I believe that until feminists address the need to bring courses on Mothering into academia young mothers will miss the opportunity to learn mothering and access women solidarity directed to educate (at home) the sons and daughters who will manifest an egalitarian society. Feminist or women’s solidarity cannot emerge if we do not care about education for mothering. An egalitarian society can re-emerge from feminist or women’s solidarity. Until then, young mothers are living in a sick society and raising sons and daughters under psychopathological pressures which lead to toxic environment in all relationships.

    In Western societies where most women still believe that the Creator is a man, and a majority of men abuse women, the cycle of abuse includes the absence of a dignified identity, and the absence of dignity to the office of mothering. No doubt, I believe that bringing courses on Mothering, ideally from the senior year in high school to more rigorous and detailed in graduate Women Studies programs is a serious topic that feminism has ignored at its own peril. I look forward to reading other comments on this talk, on this topic or any other.


    • Vrinda, your words stayed in my head all day, and I tossed and turned all night mulling them over. It was a relief to me to hear something positive about motherhood. Thank you.(but tonight I just want some sleep!)

      Lisa, your post also gave me much food for thought.


      • Thank you for your kind and dynamic response Lori-Ann. As a woman who appreciates the importance of being inspired and keeping inspiration going, I value your reply. What can I say about motherhood to rescue my lost opportunities for having done so much better while doing the best I could? What inspires me most now is to share with women like you that motherhood is Creation, and that as such it deserves the highest priority in feminist studies, passions, and kind hearts. (Having these thoughts, I don´t know how I sleep. Goddess knows!) Enjoy the sweetest, restoring sleep!


  2. Lisa,
    Great post and contribution and how wonderful you are continuing your education. So very different at this stage of life, no?
    Question: During your time teaching did you (or others) run up against doctrine in the LDS that did not resonate with your self-identity as a feminist and how did you address this discord?

    A powerful and important comment that I believe should unfold into one, maybe two conferences. The dissonance among feminist with regard to epistemology and language is crucial to the larger umbrella of feminism. You raised essential components of this discord that I feel require a deeper conversation without the reflex of self-protection and the guarding of ones own turf. Identity politics within feminism, critical to its composition, also must be strong enough to withstand a critique on exclusion and essentialism.

    The importance of motherhood is where the dividing lines emerged within second wave feminism, continuing today as a very, very misunderstood component of feminism. If you approach the topic from a transnational perspective, motherhood serves as the way in which women self-identify and find their dignity. This has somehow been abandoned in the US context of feminism, but I believe is emerging and taking root. I’d very much enjoy an extended conversation between us on both of these topics, (cjbond25@yahoo.com).


    • Cynthie thank you! How wonderful to hear you resonate with me on the need to step up the topic of motherhood and mothers in feminist academics conversations . Whenever I bring up the issue of women uniting to have mothering courses in Women Studies or Women’s Spirituality graduate programs, with the exception of very few brave feminists, some seem almost uncomfortable about it. As a graduate student in the Women’s Spirituality Program at the California Institute of Integral Studies, I feel confident that we have so much to offer, and more keeps appearing. I am writing you an email now, and look forward to hearing more about your suggestions on such an important topic for all women. I am thrilled!

      (webmaster: sorry, this may need to be deleted in the space below. I meant to write here.)


  3. Lisa, thanks for this post. How terrific that you were able to create that space you needed to discuss women’s issues. That’s one thing I love about the internet today — I see so many spaces — like this one — opening up online for women to come together and discuss their burning questions.

    That quote by Rosemary Ruether is a great one. One of the most exciting things for me over the past few years as a grad student in women’s studies in religion is seeing how women in various religious/cultural contexts have worked to create more opportunities for women. Some Christian or Buddhist feminists might go about it differently that some Muslim or Mormon or secular feminists, and that’s just fine. I find it enlightening and exciting to learn about the diverse ways these feminists of all sorts approach their faiths and their lives.

    While I really enjoy reading feminist theology and thought from women outside my own tradition, I admit that sometimes it’s harder for me to be that open minded and generous with feminists within my own tradition with whom I disagree. Some things hit so close to home that it’s difficult to take a step back and appreciate these feminists for what they are doing.


  4. Cynthie thank you! How wonderful to hear you resonate with me on the need to step up the topic of motherhood and mothers in feminist academics conversations . Whenever I bring up the issue of women uniting to have mothering courses in Women Studies or Women’s Spirituality graduate programs, with the exception of very few brave feminists, some seem almost uncomfortable about it. As a graduate student in the Women’s Spirituality Program at the California Institute of Integral Studies, I feel confident that we have so much to offer, and more keeps appearing. I am writing you an email now, and look forward to hearing more about your suggestions on such an important topic for all women. I am thrilled!


  5. Lisa, I am so grateful that you brought up the difficulties associated with being both a feminist and a person with a strong religious faith. This is a complicated place to be for women, who feel as though they must defend the different parts of their identities. Within the classroom spaces, I fear that nonreligious feminists feel the need to defend their secularity whereas as religious feminists feel the need to defend their reasons for being religious. Within a feminist atmosphere neither group should feel the need to do so nor that are they under attack by the “opposing” group. This undoubtedly creates a gap in conversation and in consciousness, one that I myself have witnessed. Most feminists are fully supportive of intersectionality and having multiple aspects that make up an individual’s identity. Yet when it comes to the religious or secular factor of a feminist’s identity, it is met with hesitation and at times resistance. I never want religious women or feminists to feel as though they must justify their religious beliefs or their identity. I appreciate you bringing up such a controversial and unexamined issue within feminist and religious spheres.


  6. Rhianna, thank you for exposing the possible blocks to conversation. I sincerely hope that within our passionately experienced spiritual diversities we can talk within what may even appear as oppositional epistemic identities. I ran to the opportunity that Lisa presented, from repeatedly experiencing that my mere presence was the end of the conversation–perhaps my name tells something about me… I appreciate the openness and freedom that you affort the conversation by mentioning that neither one woman nor another should “feel as though they must justify their religious beliefs or feminist identity.” However, I ask myself, isn´t precisely in the spirit of the thrill, and eager to share our distinct, unique subjective religious belief and identity with other owmen that we seek to come together in conversation? I hunger and thirst to hear the religious experiences of women Muslim, Christian, Catholic, Wiccan, Jewish, Santería, Buddhist, Yaruba, Hindu women, and of any other form experession, and to know more about how their spirituality makes them radical or revolutionary feminists, mujeristas, womanist, deep ecologist and where we embrace the naive essentialist dream to contribute for a better world–What is a better world for you and for others is very important to me? Maybe my idea of a better world interferes with the plans of your concept of God… I have encountered even that in my own spiritual tradition.

    What I did not expect was that an invitation to talk would be an invitation to only talk about a circumscribed set of issues… And perhaps the open question led me to come too naked into what I am passionate about. I would love to hear/read your passion for your spiritual tradition(s). I would not define myself as a feminist until I am sure that I speak within a spiritual community of women who welcome intersectionality. But, I am very concerned about the divergent epistemes that separate us. For example, the cultural dissonance that arises between East-West epistemology around key terms like liberation or salvation, consciousness, self, ego, spiritual ethics or dharma, abnegation…

    I hope that we can discuss these epistemic obstacles in the process to achieving a more open and inclusive discussion. Otherwise feminists could come together to talk and end up being self-referential, and everything is okay. I thought feminism is about inviting sisterhood, challenges and even women from the margins to help us identify what stands in the way of women’s solidarity and intersubjectivity.


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