Why Some Mormon Feminists Stay by Caroline Kline


In my almost two decades as a Mormon feminist, I’ve seen my fellow Mormon feminists come and go. Mostly go. Remaining a practicing Mormon while also embracing feminist principles is for many of us a harrowing and angst-inducing endeavor. While some have ultimately found a measure of peace in our decisions to stay practicing or partially practicing, others find they simply cannot live with the dissonance. As I’ve watched myself and other women around me navigate the huge decision about whether to remain in the Church, I’ve come up with a few theories as to why some of us stay.

First, and most obviously, a Mormon feminist is more likely to stay if she fully embraces Mormonism’s basic truth claims about Joseph Smith as prophet and Mormonism’s exclusive restored priesthood. However, many Mormon feminists have nuanced takes on those questions. They might think of Joseph Smith as an inspired man who tapped into some compelling theological ideas about eternal progression and humankind’s divine potential, but might pull back on exclusivity claims.

Second, a Mormon feminist is more likely to stay if she is drawn to Jesus. This doesn’t necessarily mean that she dwells on the mystical aspects of the atonement, but at the very least, she appreciates Jesus as a teacher, she focuses on his social gospel message, and she appreciates the way in which he reached beyond social boundaries to empower and uplift all he comes into contact with. Additionally she may be drawn to the symbolic aspect of the Christian message–that of transformation, change, reconciliation, and redemption.

Third, a Mormon feminist is more likely to stay if she deeply values the community aspect of Mormonism. Our faith is well known for its tight knit communities who deeply involve themselves in church work and who take care of their own. Because Mormonism doesn’t have a professional clergy, each member is expected to have a church job. These church jobs or “callings” provide unique opportunities to teach, grow, and serve. So even if a Mormon feminist rejects certain aspects of patriarchal practice or theology, she might stay if she truly loves the close community and the opportunities for service it presents.

Finally, a Mormon feminist is more likely to stay if her spouse (if she is married to a Mormon) is invested in activity in the Church. This privileging of relationships is interesting in light of work done by feminist ethicists on care theory. Not every Mormon feminist I know chooses to stay an active Mormon because of her invested spouse, but I know a good share of them who would say that that factor was decisive.

If a Mormon feminist falls into one or more of the above categories, she will find it easier to get something positive out of Mormon worship and practice, even as she rejects or distances herself from patriarchal aspects of Mormonism. While these are the patterns I have seen emerging in my observation of Mormon feminists in my circles, I fully acknowledge that several Mormon feminists won’t fit my theory.

I would love to know if you see something akin to these categories likewise keeping feminist women in other traditionally patriarchal faiths practicing.

Caroline is completing her coursework for a 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.



Categories: Mormonism

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28 replies

  1. I was just about to ask if Mormon feminists left with their husbands or faced divorce. Your “finally” answered that for me. I would suggest a possible alternative wording: Mormon feminists are more likely to stay if not staying would threaten a rift with their actively Mormon husbands. Would you agree? And what do you make of this? Is this “selling out” as our friend “Turtle Woman” might suggest, or is it a valid decison because it is based in love for husband and family? And what is the point where “the truth” trumps relationships? Just so you see that I am not making a judgment from the outside, I could say that my commitment to my “truth” has created a nearly unbridgable and extremely painful rift with my brothers and my father–though it did not with my former husband and I don’t have children.

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    • Hi Carol,
      In think your rewording is fair. Also, in my experience, a Mormon feminist is more likely to leave if her husband leaves. What do I make of this? I think it can be an ethical/good/moral choice — to privilege relationships over principles is something that many feminist care ethicists would affirm. I also certainly think it can be an ethical/good/moral choice to leave because of feminist principles and/or because of emotional/mental anguish. I absolutely affirm that path as well and understand why you have chosen that road. I’ve come close to it at times myself. Personally, I think of it as a costs/benefits question. People line up the positives and negatives of leaving or staying and make individual choices based on that.

      I should make clear, though, that most of the Mormon feminist I know who stay in part because their spouse is invested stay for other reasons as well. They feel like they have something special to add to their communities, they feel like they can help move the tradition along, they want to be there for that teen who is suffering because of patriarchal teachings, and they love parts of their religious heritage. There are parts of Mormonism that they find transcendent and beautiful. Put all that together, and that can tip the balance toward staying.

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  2. So Mormon feminists stay for all the reasons that women stay in any abusive relationship – they don’t want to screw up their marriage (!) or loose their friends, and besides they have swallowed the teaching about their innate inferiority hook, line and sinker.

    There is simply no honest way round it : all the Religions of the Book teach the inferiority of women, and that is the act of faith that women have to make (‘I am less’) in order to stay within them.
    Of course it hurts to leave; of course its lonely and scary to turn your back on the community – what do you expect ?

    But why would any woman (or any half fair-minded man, come to that) want to belong to an organisation that expects her to acknowledge and live out on a daily basis her own degraded status – except as a kind of spiritual masochism ?

    As for Jesus, I don’t believe he thought women were inferior at all – quite the opposite in fact, and those churches that belittle women in his name aren’t genuinely Christian in the first place. Apart from which, I don’t see why you have to belong to an institutionalized religion if you want to follow his teaching.
    Me? I adore my Goddess without any need for priests, popes, mullahs or rabbis to get in the way. So I am free to become all of the woman who is potential in me – how could I do that if I kept having to affirm my own inferiority ? And isn’t the struggle women must engage within the patriarchal religions one which is predicated on the fact that the whole edifice is based on the assumption that women are always and inherently inferior in the first place ? Its like a race in which the female contestants must be hobbled before they are allowed to compete, and then they are told that they are inferior runners because always trip themselves up. Its cruel and unjust, but worse, impossible to change from the inside because the abasement of women is written into the rules through which change would otherwise be effected.

    Let me ask you a simple question: do you yet have daughters ? And if and when you have a daughter, will you instill in her the same self-denying humiliation by which all the women of the book must live their lives? And will you tell her that she must stay in order to be close to Jesus (which isn’t true) or that she will lose her friends and family if she goes (which will only be true if you have brought her up as a Mormon) ?

    Perhaps the deeper reason why women stay within patriarchal religion is that their confidence has been so profoundly damaged that they have no faith in their own ability to survive outside.

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    • Hi June, as a feminist who struggled with my tradition and considered leaving, I can appreciate why you did leave and why you embrace the goddess tradition, which by the way, I have great interest in and appreciation for. However, I find it problematic that you judge feminists who choose to stay. I do have a daughter and I teach her daily about how our tradition and culture DOES support her full humanity. I affirm and encourage her as a female. And I teach that if there is something in life she does not want to give up on, it is worth the fight.

      Our tradition is an important part of our family culture and while there are problematic pieces, there are pieces that are feminist and celebrate women. The bottom line is that the tradition at its core is not sexist, the patriarchal interpretations are. I can make that distinction and I don’t think I should not be supported in that by other feminists because they feel differently.

      I think we as feminists are doing ourselves and each other a disservice by judging one another rather than offering support and encouragement for our choices.

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      • I love your comment about how you teach your daughter, Gina. I do the same. I will teach her to embrace ideas that empower and uplift, and reject the ones that don’t. I will never let her think for a second that she is inferior in any way, and I will teach her to work for change. I’ll do the same with my sons.

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      • Although I see both of your points, I think I struggle with this most when I read posts like this on the blog. It may not be judging but it does come off that way to those that choose to stay in traditions that face an onslaught of criticism from those that have left.

        Often, I feel that if you choose to stay you have to take the good with the (oftentimes more) bad. In many of the cases we read about, women are treated as second class citizens but then held up by leaders of the church at the same time? To those who stay in the church, they find this reassuring that times “are changing” while others on the outside just feel they are scraps given out at the end of the night that no one else wanted.

        I find this to be completely hypocritical and playing to female essentialism that they will “just stay” because they are not only committed via their faith but also their families and communities. Women have more to lose when they leave. Would they want to sacrifice it all? Most likely not. Is it brave to stay? Yes. There is no clear cut answer. I find it braver to go than to stay. It is my own personal experience, that if you family loved you, they would accept this. This is my case with my family and all of my friends. Granted, Mormonism, from all I have learned, is very different in these regards.

        I loved your post Caroline and I constantly am reminded to our excellent class that we had about these issues. Staying or leaving, it all in the end kills the soul.

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  3. Thanks for the wonderful post, Caroline! I am a Catholic feminist and I’ve struggled with some of the same issues being part of such a patriarchal tradition. Like the Mormon feminists you describe, I emphasize the things I love about the church. For me, I am drawn to Jesus as well (his message, teachings, and love). I also love the sense of community in the church. To me, there is a beauty in Catholic worship, which is very communal and interconnected, and in the sacrament of communion which brings to mind the way we all share Christ with each other. This “contentedness” that is inherent in Catholic life also reminds me of the ways I am connected with everyone else in the world and that I have a duty to love and respect others as God does. Like the women you described, I’ve had to let things like women’s roles in the church and some of the more “traditional” teachings go. I have to believe that working within a faith is the best way to help that faith grow and change. I sincerely hope I’m right. Thanks again for sharing!

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    • Lisa,
      I love the way you describe the beautiful things you find in Catholicism, despite the patriarchal problems. And I love that you are finding ways to help your tradition grow and change through your continued presence within the fold. I hope to do the same for my tradition.

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  4. This is very interesting, but I just don’t understand your church at all. Maybe I’ve been too much influenced by Angels in America. Maybe I’ve known too many women who have left your church. Nevertheless, I applaud your strength and courage and persistence. Community is often a good thing.

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  5. Caroline, thank you for this post! I appreciate all you have to say here. As a Catholic feminist, I think we share many of the same ideas. And I want to say, as some feminists stay because their spouses are invested in the Church, my husband who basically had no religious background is committed to Catholicism because of my investment. It is part of marriage to support your spouse in what is important to him or her – if you are able.

    I also want to say that if you didn’t stay and fight the fight, who would? I think it makes sense for some feminists to leave – I was one of those feminists at one point. I wasn’t sure how to stay. But for all the reasons you mention, I’ve come back to my tradition – it is part of my culture, my history, and not something I am willing to give up. So, I think whether feminists stay or leave, it is up to them and whatever their choice, they should be supported. It saddens me when I see feminists judge other feminists for their choices as I see in some of the comments here. Why can’t we support each other and see that all of our positions are needed?

    Again, thank you, Caroline! This post will certainly resonate with many! :)

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    • What an awesome husband! Yes, great point about how it goes both ways. I know my fair share of non-believing Mormon men who stay because it’s important to their wives.

      And great point about working for change. If I were to add another category, I would add that a Mormon feminist is more likely to stay if she feels she can enact feminist change within her congregation or within the faith at large. Once she feels like there is absolutely no hope that her feminist presence will help open others’ eyes and minds a little, it would be very hard to stay. That said, like you, I think there are important roles to be played by feminists inside and outside the tradition. Both are crucial to moving things forward.

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  6. I just came back online to add that I don’t see this as a right/wrong issue. I think hard choices are hard choices and the consequences can also be hard. Probably when it feels like a choice, it is a choice, and in other cases it is not a choice, for example, I could not physically stay in the church because my body would not let me. On the other side, I didn’t even know that my choices to become an independent strong woman who speaks her truths would alienate me from family and some other communities. It is hard when being true to yourself brings you up against friends, family, community, and how to negotiate all of that is never simple. Today for reasons having nothing to do with this blog, I am feeling the sadness of separation from my natal family.

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    • I am struck by your phrase on not being able to stay because your body would not let you. I love that. I think many women from many traditions have likewise felt that anguish and pain and known that staying was simply impossible. You’re right, negotiation of friends, family, faith, and principles is a very complicated process, and there are bound to be deep sadness and deep joy in whichever path a person chooses. I’m sorry you are feeling the heaviness of separation today.

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  7. When it comes to organized religion, I am struck by the reductionism that takes places, as if every aspect/doctrinal statement conspires to subjugate women. Few of us would argue that all the world religions, on a doctrinal basis, are androcentric and in the extreme, abusive to women. Yet, as feminist, many of us live in the in-between space of not feeling fully at home in our church nor able to leave it. Which is why, I suppose, we dig deeper, employ a hermeneutics of suspicion to tradition, doctrine, and structure in order to carve out a space where we experience community and support.

    In truth, I found this navigation more urgent when my children were young. Like Gina, I left the Catholic church until, after giving birth to my 3 children, I desired the community of faith I experienced as a child for them. What I was able to do was stand in a place of both/and while raising my children in the church. My posture of “Take this, leave that” opened up dialogue, furthering their understanding of a loving God while experiencing the sometime fracture of the human condition located in organized religion. We are not called to love our neighbor if they think and act exactly like us, but to extend loving tolerance in community instead of isolation.

    Now that my children are adults, my practice of regular attendance has diminished. What does this say about my core beliefs? That I lived and continue to live in a space of hope for the church, recognizing my voice is needed in order to enact change. Mary Jo Weaver, in her book, Springs of Water in a Dry Land states, “Like many Catholic women I have met, I long for something I cannot name and desire a community of belief and celebration I cannot yet describe” (21). And that, I believe, is what keeps so many of us connected in various forms to the religion of our youth yet committed to change from within.

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    • Cynthie,
      Thank you for your wonderful comment. You are a model for me as I raise my children. I want to do as you did — teach them to love the good and reject the bad. And I love how you phrased this: “I lived and continue to live in a space of hope for the church, recognizing my voice is needed in order to enact change.” Beautiful.

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    • Cynthie and Caroline,
      I guess I’m just an outsider here. I knew at a VERY early age that I was “different” aka gay. I would sit there in Church and hear all the horrible things they said about “my kind” and I, at the ripe age or 9, rejected it and never looked back since. I would sit there and see the people around me, women in particular, struggle as they had to come to terms with being second and merely the gender that gives birth and raises the children. I didn’t understand how, if I could reject all of this nonsense as I saw it at the age of 9, they couldnt’ when they were 18 and being confirmed into the Catholic church.

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      • I think that leaving such a tradition can be an authentic and good choice for many people. But it’s all situational for me. What one person cannot remain a part of, another person can choose to work with. And there are good reasons for doing either.

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  8. Caroline, Thank you for beginning this interesting conversation. Like Carol and Barbara, I couldn’t continue in the faith of my youth. But my youth was a lot longer ago than yours. I left Christianity in the mid-to-late 1960s, when it was so patriarchal that there was no breathing room for a feminist. That’s not as true today. So I think there may be a generational component to this conversation as well.

    Certainly being a Mormon feminist in even in the mid-to-late 1970s was a reason for “excommunication,” as we know from the experience of Sonja Johnson. Espousing the Equal Rights Amendment was her death knell as a Mormon. If things have opened up sufficiently that you can make change among Mormons, than go for it. We need feminists in every part of of society.

    When your Mormon feminist friends find they can’t take it any longer, one place they might find amenable to their spiritual needs is Unitarian Universalism. We have no set dogma, but come together as a group of spiritual seekers to support each other on our individual spiritual paths as we strive to create a better world. Right now we have many more female ministers than male, one indication that things have improved in terms of feminism. It’s not utopia. We still have our feminist challenges. But at least most UUs know that they need to be actively tolerant, and that women should have equal opportunities (at least they “get” that, although they may not “get” the rest of the feminist perspective, something that always shocks me when I see it, because I expect all UUs to be feminist).

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    • I’d love to hear what you have to say.
      Nancy

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    • Hi Nancy, Thank you for your comment. Interesting thought that perhaps some of this is generational. And I do love the UU. I know Mormon feminists who have left to join the Quakers, the United Church of Christ, and the UU. They have found sanctuary there, and I\’m grateful for those traditions that are deliberately and proudly progressive.

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  9. Caroline: I think one reason you may have left out is that a Mormon feminist may feel a strong sense of connection to the history of the Mormon Church. This is the case for my wife, I believe. Her great-grandparents were pioneers and her membership intertwined with her connections to her family. This is something that Joanna Brooks brought up when she was interviewed by Krista Tippet on NPR here: http://www.onbeing.org/program/mormon-demystified/253 (I can’t remember if it was on the unedited version or the edited version). In the interview, she was nearly overcome with emotion when speaking about this aspect of her connection to Mormonism and I was very moved.

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  10. Thank you, Caroline, for this heart-felt and heart-opening post. While I left my birth/family traditional religion decades ago, after reading your article and all the comments (what a great dialogue!), I felt a sudden beautiful shift in realizing that there are some women like you who are strong and determined toward “finding ways to help your tradition grow and change through your continued presence within the fold” … this continual growth process is lovely. We each follow our own nature, do we not? Blessings and much support to you on your path.

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  11. Thank you so much for the interesting insight! Where I reside on the East Coast, there is a small Mormon population, which I am disconnected from. So your post was a completely new perspective.

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  12. I don’t think being married to a man means you have to be married to a church or church tradition.
    You can just say that you want to stay part of the Mormon church, that this is the conformist position, but it isn’t really a feminist position at all. I think we confuse social conformity and feminism. This is where the problem lies. If I had a “gay” marriage, this is just conformity to heteronormativity, it is not a radical position at all, nor is it feminist, for example. Getting married is NOT feminist. Staying in a male owned and operated church is not feminist. You can BE a feminist, but you have to be intellectually honest about this conflicting idea of membership.

    It is hard to just state the truth— feminism is about the liberation of women, it doesn’t matter what church you belong to or what company you work for. It’s why churches want to indoctrinate children, because it means they are much less likely to leave. Heteronormativity is the hallmark of many malestream religions, and hetero women are comfortable with this arrangement. But it is not feminist to be a member of any of these churches at all. Feminism is something else entirely, and has nothing to do with how one “feels” within Mormonism.

    Most of what passes for “feminism” these days is about justification of conformity, and the school of if women do it, it is feminist. I find this point of view plain odd. I would never in a million years describe working for male dominated companies a feminist decision. Feminist work is something that is outside that system entirely, and radical lesbian feminism has nothing to do with “the family.”

    So my two cents—

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  1. LET’S ASK MITT IF MORMON PATRIARCHAL BELIEFS AFFECT HIS VIEWS ON WOMEN’S EQUALITY by Carol P. Christ « Feminism and Religion

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