Readers of FAR have been treated to a number of posts over the past few months from members of the “Gendering Mormonism” class I taught this semester at Claremont Graduate University. I was fairly apprehensive in offering the course. For one, I’m not a scholar of gender, gender studies, feminist theory, feminist theology, queer studies, queer theology, or anything related—I’m a historian of American religion, and most of my training to that effect was about the white guys in American religion (most of whom, you’ll be shocked to learn, weren’t exactly feminists). I have also spent some time in international peace studies, where I got a crash course in issues of gender justice. But I entered this course as a relative novice. This is one of the fun things about being a member of a graduate faculty—as a professor I don’t have to pretend to be the fount of all wisdom all the time, and I learn a lot from students who are often more expert in a particular field than I am.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but from my perspective the course was an unqualified success. The #1 reason for that: the students (and, to be sure, our TA, FAR’s very own Caroline Kline). Part of what I was apprehensive about was what the classroom climate would be. It will come as no surprise to readers here that Mormonism has plenty of room for critique on gender issues, from the obvious to the more subtle, all of which I feared would be fodder for a semester-long rant against Mormon patriarchy, homophobia, and heteronormativity. To be sure, there was plenty of that, but the conversation was richer, more nuanced, more analytical, and thus more faithful to the complexity and messiness of human experience.
The LDS students, who were all female—betokening a broader problem of male disinterest once the word “gender” is mentioned—were neither punching bags nor mere apologists, but critical examiners of their chosen tradition while also affirming through their own personal experience how Mormonism provides meaning and empowerment in their lives even as it is a source of regular frustration. The non-LDS students, who came from a mix of other faith traditions or no tradition at all, were insatiably curious in learning about the layers and complexities of Mormon theology, history, and practice. More importantly, they asked all the tough questions and made all the damning comments, while also recognizing and to some degree reveling in some of the distinctive (if often suppressed or sublimated) possibilities for gender equality opened up by Mormon theology and practice.
One of the primary goals of the class was to put Mormonism and gender studies in conversation with one another, allowing each one to critique and enrich the other. Along these lines, I thought one of the best comments of the semester came in an ethnographic paper written by a student after visiting a Mormon Sunday service: these are real people—real women! It’s amazing what happens when our analysis leaves the abstractions of the ivory tower and becomes connected to flesh and blood—it’s so much easier to belittle or demonize the imagined other. It was this consistent recognition of the profound humanity of our subjects that imbued the class with a sense of deep engagement rather than the superficiality of most of our public and private (and, unfortunately, too often academic) discourse about religion. Just as they could teach the feminist and queer communities about being open to Mormon humanity, my students could also teach Mormons in the pews a thing or two about recognizing and respecting the profound humanity of feminists, homosexuals, and secularists who all too frequently simply appear as one-dimensional bogeymen.
One of the important aspects of the class was that everything was on the table, including a number of subjects that would make many LDS church members and leaders squeamish. Over the course of fourteen weeks we discussed (and argued and joked and yelled about), among other things, historic Mormon feminism, Mother in Heaven, Mormon feminist theologies, gender identity and difference, women’s roles and experiences, Mormon women and second-wave feminism (with guest lecturer Laurel Thatcher Ulrich), masculinity, priesthood, patriarchy, polygamy, sexuality, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage (including, of course, California Prop 8). Most weeks the conversation was so rich, so engaged, so loud, that we got to only a fraction of our assigned reading and regularly kept the next class standing impatiently outside the door waiting for us to vacate the room. I haven’t seen the students’ research papers yet, but I look forward to essays that will push the field forward—it is a fertile field for study, and as some of the most well-read people on the planet on the topic of gender and Mormonism, my students now have the opportunity to really move the conversation forward in new and exciting directions.
Finally, what did a semester of “Gendering Mormonism” do for me? On one level, I simply learned a lot of stuff. I will forget many of the details in the readings or our class conversations, but what I will remember is the transformational experience of participating in an engaged, honest, safe classroom space where people could talk about tough, and often quite personal, issues at a high level of sophistication and without the fear of being misunderstood, caricatured, or ridiculed. And most importantly, I walk away from this semester a stronger feminist, a more convinced and empowered advocate for LGTBG equality, a more informed and (hopefully) sophisticated scholar, a better Mormon, and a better human.
Not bad for a semester’s work.
Patrick Mason is Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies and an associate professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University. His graduate degrees are from the University of Notre Dame, in history and international peace studies. He is the author of The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South (Oxford UP, 2011)