Tonight I Mourn for the Woman I Might Have Been by Caroline Kline

A few days ago, as I attended a conference on women in the LDS Church, I realized something about my Mormon feminist community: many of these Mormon women in the audience have felt called to ministry. Many came to this conference because they feel their scope of service and spiritual authority is constricted in the contemporary institutional LDS Church, and they have so much more they want to give to it. Many came to the conference hoping to find strategies to expand the visibility and sphere of action in this church which has enriched their lives in so many ways.

These Mormon feminists display religious ambivalence, a concept religious scholar Mary Bednarowski explored in her book The Religious Imagination of the American Woman. She explains that ambivalence arises as a woman simultaneously feels both nurtured by a tradition which has helped shape her world view, and constrained by it as it denies her leadership opportunities or denies her full personhood in its sacred texts. Out of this place of tension arises an ambivalence which leads to innovation and creativity as she tries to resolve this conflict.  Bednarowski writes:

Ambivalence emerges as a virtue to be cultivated … there is a vitalizing quality to its manifestations. It is a willed ambivalence, a sustained and cultivated ambivalence, an aware ambivalence. This is an ambivalence that requires women always to be vigilant, always to be critical of their communities’ inclinations toward exclusion and distortion and at the same time be open to new possibilities to hold up or reform or transform or dig up, from wherever they have been hiding, their traditions’ most liberating and healing insights.

I love Bednarowski’s description of religious ambivalence. I see it over and over again in the Mormon feminist community, as these women’s ambivalence gives birth to new forums, new projects, new prayers, new language, new organizations, new publications, new rituals and new scholarship. Innovation has indeed arisen from the divided identities these Mormon feminists negotiate.

I realize tonight, however, that while my own ambivalence has generated a creative drive to form communities, write papers, and envision new possibilities for my faith, it has also resulted in some degree of spiritual stagnation. Like many of the women in the audience this weekend, I too have felt called to ministry in a tradition that doesn’t fully want all that I have to offer. As a result, I find it difficult to develop personal devotional behavior that so many other Mormons cultivate. It’s hard for me to pray daily to God when I feel conflicted about the faith that has shaped my view of this God. It’s hard for me to read my scriptures daily when I don’t see myself in my sacred texts.

Tonight I wonder who I might have become if I had been raised in a tradition that had fully embraced me and all that I had to offer. A tradition that had nurtured a woman’s sense of a calling to priesthood. A tradition that would have held women and men up as equal spiritual authorities and church leaders. Would I be a minister or priest somewhere, blessing the Eucharist, praying with the sick, confidently feeling God’s direction and love in my life? Tonight I mourn for the woman I might have been.

Caroline is completing 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.

7 thoughts on “Tonight I Mourn for the Woman I Might Have Been by Caroline Kline”

  1. I identify with your feelings and experience. I grew up in the Presbyterian church and felt a call to the ministry. I was accepted as a seminary student in 1965 after three years as a missionary in Egypt teaching English to Egyptian young women in high school. Graduating from seminary in 1968, I accepted a call to a small inner city church in Atlanta, where I was ordained a minister, one of the first half dozen women ordained by the Presbyterian Church.
    After three years as a parish minister I was accepted into a pastoral counseling training program where I stayed also for three years. Then the next transition to a church job seemed to be blocked, so I sought work in a secular counseling setting and more or less continued that way of employment throughout my working life until I was in my 60’s when I was again called to a ministry to older adults in a church in Florida,so I felt I had come full circle. At 72, I am retired. I have been married twice, once in my 50’s and again in my 60’s.
    By nature I am an introvert and need lots of time alone to think and write. I journal daily and find this a good way to chart my course in life, work out problems and difficulties, and give expression to my feelings. In Atlanta, with a group of other women,we started a counseling center run by women for women, and I had training in various counseling therapies in addition to the pastoral counseling training. I find that meeting women of various faiths to be very helpful in thinking new thoughts about faith and life. I wish you an ever unfolding life full of ways to minister to people in many ways even while waiting for your Mormom Church to discover and afirm you talents for ministry. Liz


  2. I mourn for the woman I was who wanted to teach feminism and religon to graduate students in the field. But I too rejoice in the woman I have become, who got to run for parliament in Greece and to try to open people’s hearts and minds to the need for a green future. Barriers suck!


  3. I struggle with this question all the time – sometimes, it seems impossible to reconcile my feminist identity with other identities. Thank you for sharing this!

    (Also, I posted a link on my blog’s facebook page with credit to you. Hope that’s ok – if not, let me know and I’ll take it down.)


  4. Coming from a Southern Baptist background I have thought similar thoughts many times. I no longer feel that way . . . but I think it is because I have embraced a tradition that DOES allow me to be whole and a priestess. And now I feel the need to mourn the woman I would have been less because I feel like I’m even more than I could have ever been. Thank you for this thoughtful blog. It brings up a lot for me and has helped me reflect more deeply on my present state of being.


  5. I have traveled this road, this beautiful path and I love this blog, today you have brought me back to my humble beginnings. Thank you. I wanted to be a priest, I was born Catholic and loved the church; at the age of thirteen I was given the bad news that I could never become a priest and I was crushed. In my late thirties, I was awakened in mid-mornings every day for three months; it was very peculiar, spiritual lights came to me and awakened my soul. I fell in love with religion, Shamanism, mysticism anthropology and so on. I wanted to learn about God from every path and every way possible. I educated myself and gave my life to the service humanity.
    I became a Priestess and founded a transformational school in December of 2000. I never stopped never looked back, I had found my life’s purpose. Last year I had the wonderful opportunity to work with a fantastic group of women from the Church of Jesus Christ – LDS in my community of Copperas Cove. We bonded beautifully over a score of similarities in our spiritual foundations; we thought we would see opposing factors to our faiths; it was crazy we found we were the same energy of love. We learned that Mormon women were very special priestesses and they were pleasantly reminded that the title was in the heart of love and devotion of every woman in the service of God. It was tense at first; imagine 6 Pagan Priestesses and a roomful of Mormon women and girls laughing and hugging carelessly by the end of the evening.
    *Caroline what strikes me right now after reading your superb blog; I can’t believe that I did not consider myself feminist. I never saw myself as a feminist and I will have to analyze this further. Wow! I just spoke my mind when I saw a need to express my view. Clearly! I’m a FEMINIST! Wow……………….I so get it now!
    *Elizabeth Lee Hill, may God bless you….. Thank you for sharing everyone, Thank you!…….. Rafi


  6. I like the idea of ambivilance in general, and where it can take you. However, I would say, that what I envisioned was what some early feminists called an ‘exodus community.” I used to think this was somewhat of a disadvantage, but now I no longer think this.

    I reguard whatever place we were born and raised in as a tricycle. Whatever family we were born into, that is the tradition we get stuck with. The indoctrination for straight women is more extreme because churches worship the heterosexual family unit, so there is more bait, so to speak, to stay this course in contradiction. But like tricycles of faith, we do not continue to ride tricycles beyond our toddler or early childhood years, we grow up and get on two wheelers, or drive cars.

    Patriarchy is the tricycle men built for women to ride, and male supremacy strives to keep women childlike, disenfranchised and away from true leadership and spiritual power. That is the bottom line of male supremacy, which is global, and part of every christian faith. Sure, there are some countries where patriarchy in religion is vile– Saudi Arabia, but then there is the kinder and gentler version in the Mormon church or the catholic church or whatever male supremacist institution…

    I found the best aspects of these “traditional” faiths about childhood itself. In catholism, we were taught by nuns, who were free of male sexual colonization, and thus very powerful women to a lesbian child. We were exposed to women with a supreme life of the mind, but outside this orbit, the apple looked good, but it was rotten inside. When I got my first pocket knife, I could cut open the apple of patriarchy for myself and see its rotten core. So I could either persist in wanting the apply to be better, or I could throw it out. I could be ambivilant about some paradise apple lost, but I did have a very powerful destination to go to, which was the transcendant power of lesbian feminism itself, and its journey out into the world. I would literally take on the prickers and plug uglies of patriarchy, confronting male supremacists in the streets, and engaging in powerful discussions with my lesbian sisters.

    But we would have nothing in common with heteronormative anything really. We didn’t have to compromise, but we could feel ambivalent about our sisters who so steadfastly remained chained to the tricycles of the faith they were raised in. It was just the escalator they were put on. We shut down the escalator, and found a sisterhood that engaged us on every level; the intellectual, the sexual, the spiritual, the transcendant, the warrior class of women. We’d wait 40 years for another movement of women to take to the streets, but their message remained largely the same, fighting the old battles in the sex with males issues that never go away–abortion, birth control, getting jobs in male dominated places….

    We’d join these young women in the streets knowing what we had known, and at age 55, I am still facing down police on motor cycles, male police everywhere as women march yet again. I would walk down the sidewalks of Los Angeles with the rainbow flag over my shoulder, while males spit on the ground at us, yelled insults in our ears, and continued to abuse us as we simply walked home from the march of the women. We were under no illusion that men were anything at all other than a persistant aggressive species who hated women’s freedom, who hated us just because we were butch lesbians peacefully carrying a flag. This was not ambivilent or some polite get together of hetero women trying to find a place within the system, this was a war and we were in it.

    My ambivilance is with the straight women who persist in believing that an institution can be changed for the benefit of women. It would be insane for me to believe this, but they believe it and feel ambivilant. I wish I had that luxury, but back in the streets again, facing down pornified males who hate women, well…


  7. Thank you for your comments, everyone.

    Elizabeth, thank you for sharing your story. What a rich life you have led with your counseling and ministering.

    Carol, I love that you rejoice in the choices you’ve made and the woman you’ve become (despite mourning the death of other dreams.) It reminds me of lesbian ethicist Sarah Hoagland’s ideas about choice as creation. What we choose is what we’ve decided to create.

    feministlawprof, by all means, go ahead and post on facebook. :) I’m glad my discussion of divided identities resonated with you.

    “I feel like I am even more than I could ever have been.” I love that. Beautiful.

    Thank you for sharing your story. How terrific that you have found such a satisfying spiritual path. And i’m so happy that you had a good experience with those Mormon ladies!

    Turtle Woman,
    While I myself have not chosen the radical feminism route, I can appreciate your articulation of your thoughts. Such a good representation of radical feminism.


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