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.