Anne Hutchinson, Sor Juana, and Kate Kelly: Reflections on Equality and Excommunication by Erin Seaward-Hiatt


Erin-Close-Up-BW On June 11, 2014 the New York Times made waves in the world of Mormondom with their breaking news that two members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) are facing excommunication on the grounds of apostasy. Active Church members Kate Kelly and John P. Dehlin both received letters from their local church officials in early June summoning them to participate in scheduled Church hearings to discuss their so-called heretical public activism. By many accounts, this appears to be Dehlin’s first notice of formal disciplinary action for his faith-mending work with Mormon Stories, but Kelly has been under official fire from the LDS Church since late May for her efforts in founding and operating Ordain Women (OW)—a pro-women’s ordination group of active believers—more than a year prior. The excommunication threats came on the heels of a church-wide trend that preaches acceptance and diversity among members and beyond, but sends a mixed message to those who, like Kate Kelly, find themselves asking sincere questions only to be either silenced or rejected by their Church and cut off from communal worship of their God.

Ever since the New York Times story broke, the web has seen a swarm of responses in the form of news, interviews, blog posts, and social media discussion; watching everything unfold has been a fascinating study in feminist thought. Kelly herself responded publicly to her disciplinary letter here, saying that she had been transparent about Ordain Women with her bishop from the group’s inception and that not once had she been called in to discuss her work. The formal letter came only after Kelly had moved across the country, and the disciplinary hearing is scheduled to occur with or without her on June 22, 2014. On June 23, Kelly received the word that the trial had resulted in her excommunication.

As I’ve read through the slew of ideas and arguments surrounding what amounts to Kate Kelly’s spiritual fate, I can’t help but notice a strong underlying theme of patriarchy at work in squelching what Kelly believes are sincere questions about the lives of Mormon women. Commentators have tried hard—in classic anti-feminist fashion—to discredit Kelly’s work with Ordain Women, making certain that readers see her as a disingenuous religious deviant worthy of silencing. Throughout the spill of voices about Kelly’s Church standing the underlying point seems to be that as a Latter-day Saint she has no right to contest her Church’s doctrine or its patriarchy, that she is imagining inequality into the Church, that the Church’s discipline will be for her own spiritual good, and even that her group, Ordain Women, is lying in its claims about inequality.

Photo by Katrina Barker Anderson from Ordain Women website

Photo by Katrina Barker Anderson from Ordain Women website

While the web is certainly alive with voices that sustain Kelly and her work, I have encountered far more backlash from the Mormon community than support. In putting all my readings on Kate Kelly’s excommunication threat together, the first thing that stumps me is why, in 2014, we are still hauling smart, actively religious women to patriarchal disciplinary hearings because of their well-argued position on women’s spirituality. I am certain that, if we float back to the seventeenth century, Anne Hutchinson would weep for Kelly while being expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for heresy, at the hand of John Winthrop, who took pride in men remaining judges over women. Jump forward a few decades from there, and we find Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a highly educated nun writing about women’s strength and worth from a Mexico City convent, saddened and shocked to find that all the obstacles set before her by her bishop and the Inquisition would still, centuries in the future, silence women who have their own thoughts about their place in God’s kingdom.

Anne Hutchinson and Sor Juana are sad cases even for women living so long ago, but sadder still is the fact that the tactics have changed little since the seventeenth century. In 1691 Sor Juana wrote to her bishop—who had lambasted her rebellious ways under the feminine pseudonym Sor Filotea—about the opposition she faced as she wrote in support of women’s intellect:

More than any others, the most noxious and hurtful to me have been not those who have persecuted me with their open hate and malice, but rather those who have mortified and tormented with their love and well-wishing. And they would repeat: “This studying is not fitting for the holy ignorance that is our duty; you will surely lose your soul; you will surely fade away in your haughtiness due to your own shrewdness and wit.” (Repuesta a Sor Filotea)

This quote reverberates through the years and rings loudly in relation to the case of Kate Kelly in several ways. First—and most dangerously—Sor Juana points out here what the world of social media has to say about Kelly in 2014, that the LDS Church is threatening to erase her spiritually because they love her, because they fear for her soul and want her to return to Christ. This is evinced in the posted letters from Kelly’s bishop, from the coverage of Kelly by groups that support the Church’s patriarchal status quo, and from a storm of splintered discussions across the web. For faithful women like Sor Juana and Kate Kelly, the threat of excommunication comes with a pang of grief and an insult handed down not from God but from males acting in his name. These are intelligent women who ask sincere questions that affirm their deep dedication to their faith. Yet instead of the patriarchy seeing these women as worthy sparring partners in all things doctrinal, they see them as victims of ignorance and objects of pity in God’s eyes. The LDS Church’s calculating reaction is to couch its disciplinary language in terms of love and concern, reducing Kelly to a wayward woman rather than confronting her as the intelligent and autonomous person that she is.

Further, when, like Sor Juana, Kate Kelly points to a multiplicity of well-researched history and doctrine in support of a more equal Church (for more on those points, read Margaret Toscano’s FAR guest post on Caroline Kline and women’s ordination here), many commentators respond that Kelly simply doesn’t understand what she is talking about. In the wake of the New York Times article, LDS-owned Deseret News reported the headline “Two Mormon activists say they are facing Church discipline” while the independently-owned Salt Lake Tribune reported “Founder of Mormon women’s group threatened with excommunication.” The Mormon-controlled news apparatus portrays Kelly’s excommunication threat as a speculative, hazy thing that has to do with how she perceives what’s happening to her (insinuating quietly that it’s all in her head), while the Tribune portrays this threat as a direct action toward Kelly on the Church’s behalf. Further, in the blogosphere, a particularly obtuse male commentator mansplained in a now well-circulated blog post that not only is Kelly mistaken in her points, but that she is outright lying about them. Ignoring the wealth of primary and secondary sources posted on Ordain Women’s site, the author moves into mis-reasoned attack on Kelly’s ideas. A cursory reading of his article reveals a profound dearth of logic and an obvious twist of words, as Feminist Mormon Housewives’ contributor Rune expertly retorts in her “A Response to 13 Lies.”

To any pragmatic person stacking up the two arguments, the skewed ideas expressed in 13 Lies become painfully apparent, and the reader learns that the writer of 13 Lies has contorted Ordain Women’s message with faith that few LDS believers will go to the primary sources for clarification, for fear of challenging their deeply ingrained belief system. Instead, the author is banking on the LDS trend of dismissing outright any argument against its “called of God” patriarchy—even when his counter argument amounts only to a specious “nuh-uh!” to Ordain Women’s well-researched and undeniable points of scholarship and doctrine. In a separate post, the 13 Lies author notes that Ordain Women supporters cite Joseph Smith’s support of women’s priesthood gifts from an 1843 written record and—without qualifying why—responds with, “I don’t buy it.” What chance does Ordain Women stand when its opponents won’t even acknowledge that its sources exist?

This denigration and finger pointing comes down to one simple fact: LDS believers are told their Church has prophets called by God, and to disagree with those prophets in any way amounts to being a bad Mormon. Believers think that if they agree with Kelly, no matter how clear and sound her arguments might be, they are disagreeing with the patriarchy and therefore God—in truth, many active members show all over the web that they aren’t interested in hearing her side at all. Or, they hear secondhand about Kate Kelly’s work from their favorite pro-Mormon-patriarchy source and decide that they know everything they need to. In this way, so many members turn a blind eye to the facts and arguments set forth by intelligent women like Kate Kelly and choose, selectively, to read, believe, and hear only what Church-approved discourse tells them. (I say this as a former active member and observant neighbor to thousands of active Mormons.) If the author of 13 Lies can call himself a member in good standing with the Church and Kate Kelly cannot, then she loses her credibility to LDS believers, and her argument—while sound—doesn’t stand a chance in the void of apostate silence that her excommunication threat has created. All of this is not to say that everyone should agree with Ordain Women, but rather that believers should follow Joseph Smith’s encouragement to understand the issue and prayerfully study it out for themselves. To understand Ordain Women and intelligently disagree with it is brave, but to dismiss it without that understanding is short sighted.

Jumping back to Sor Juana’s words, the other idea that stands out to me is the timelessness of patriarchal tactics in silencing women. In the 1690s Sor Juana’s bishop wrote about her under a woman’s name in an effort to further discredit her ideas about a woman’s place. In 2014, we see that kind of sly damage control at play in the LDS church. When Ordain Women notified the Church of their intent to peacefully protest a male-only meeting on Salt Lake City’s Temple Square, the Church was careful to respond discouragingly to their letter via a female PR representative to quell any notion that this was a sexist or patriarchal move. Further, while John P. Dehlin was also slated for a disciplinary hearing for apostasy on almost the exact timing as Kate Kelly, his hearing was later deferred indefinitely. My more suspicious side whispers that maybe Dehlin was dragged into this mess not for his activism (which has gone uncontested by the Church despite his highly public exposure) but to be certain that nobody could claim that Kelly’s excommunication is a sexist move. Their solution has seemed to be to target Kelly, rope in a male who could be seen as apostate, and then slacken the rope around him, leaving Kelly on trial and Dehlin somewhere in the “we’re watching you” realm of informal Church action.

The final irksome point that arises with Kate Kelly’s case in general is that an excommunication and drawn-out trial feels in no way productive, Christ-like, or charitable. While the LDS Church claims that disciplinary councils are a blessing and an invitation to come back to the straight and narrow, the mood they convey is markedly pejorative. The language may center on love and repentance, but the true message is that if you rattle cages, you will be put through an ordeal that will erase your intellectual credibility, your family and social bonds, and a lifetime of saving ordinances. Kelly was told that she was encouraged to change her public behavior and to remain in the Church, but that the only way to do so would be to remain silent with her questions unless speaking in confidence to her forever-male bishop. All over the public discourse and counsel from LDS leaders are statements to the effect that not all truth is useful to the gospel, that speaking out against injustices in the Church actually hinders the dialogue (which evidently is meant to be a one-sided conversation starring men). To disagree is to be made wrong in the eyes of God, and to stay in silence is—in Kelly’s words—to live inauthentically.

Such a choice to obey the patriarchy or remain faithful to her convictions was, of course, up to Kate Kelly, and to everyone who finds herself in Kelly’s shoes moving forward. Sor Juana chose to cease her inflammatory writing in exchange for eternal salvation, and Anne Hutchinson was cast out for her unwillingness to turn her back on her convictions. The problem that prevails throughout time and eternity seems to be that women are asked to make that choice at all. And though many of Kelly’s supporters within the Church remain silent and disempowered by their patriarchy—told time and again that they are either wrong or imagining things—Kelly maintains that it is worthwhile for those voices to keep trying, to push forward in hope for the day when, like black males receiving priesthood ordinances once forbidden to them, practicing Mormon women will see the light at the end and rejoice in the practical fruit of their righteous activism. A few simple words conclude Kelly’s heartbroken response posted June 23 on OrdainWomen.org: “Stay, and make things better.”

Erin Seaward-Hiatt is a graphic designer, writer, and part-time graduate student with a flair for social justice and all things bookish. Among her favorite study topics are Mormon feminisms, Islamic women, religious texts, and Charlotte Brontë. Her essay on Mormon faith and feminism appears in the book Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions. She lives in Utah Valley with her screenwriter husband—and partner in creativity—Neil Hiatt.

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Categories: Abuse of Power, Activism, Christianity, Church Doctrine, Gender and Power, General, In the News, LSD Church, Media, Mormonism, Patriarchy, Sexism, Women in the Church, Women's Ordination

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25 replies

  1. LDS believers are told their Church has prophets called by God, and to disagree with those prophets in any way amounts to being a bad Mormon.

    This is one of the roots of the problem.

    Revelation not understood to be filtered through situation, history, gender, class, culture or any other variable.

    The other of course is the core “revelation” that patriarchy is ordained by God.

    What will happen?

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    • Agreed. I think the LDS Church puts too much emphasis on things that are sort of tangential to the gospel of Jesus Christ (their central doctrine), and one of these is the idea that priesthood holders must be male. I think that if they emphasized their doctrines and eternal truth claims more than things like gender, sexuality, and women’s (im)modesty, then the Church would operate more like what Jesus Christ would have advocated. (The Nag Hammadi texts on Jesus’s teachings clear up a lot of that trouble, but many Christian groups aren’t aware of those because of the Romanization of Christianity and its subsequent standardization and misogyny. The Mormons do attempt to “correct” bad doctrine from Christian history via modern scripture and revelation, but I feel like they miss the mark on women and gender.)

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  2. Preach Carol! Although I was saddened by this news, I was not shocked. I remember when another blogger on this site, I think it was Caroline or another individual, who wrote about the Ordain Women movement and Kate Kelly and the only thing that I couldn’t get out of my head was how fearful I was that excommunication was coming for her or the other leaders in the group for speaking up. Sadly, that fear came true.

    If memory serves me correctly, someone who is excommunicated, can be let back into the Mormon Church, correct, if they atone for their sins? I thought we discussed this during one of my many classes on Mormonism that I took while I was still in coursework.

    Great (but heartbreaking) post Erin!

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    • Yes, that is true, John. You can always go back, but that is problematic because the LDS repentance process requires you to meet regularly with your officials and undergo what usually amounts to an ordeal in order to be re-baptized. Even then, for certain transgressions you may have an annotation on your record or even be restricted from certain life-saving temple blessings forever. To me, having a permanent blot on your eternal salvation defeats the purpose of the atonement of Christ, but of course it’s up to each believer individually to decide if reinstatement is a) worth the ordeal, and b) not a violation of his or her conscience.

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  3. thanks for sharing Erin..

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  4. What if the bravest of those women and men who posted on Ordain Women took an oath that one by one they would take over leadership from Kate and then from each other, forcing the church to excommunicate all of them, one by one? What if this resulted in hundreds of excommunications and more and more joining Ordain Women? Then what would happen?

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  5. Another point that I feel is important to the discussion is that I support LDS believers who understand and genuinely disagree with Ordain Women and Kate Kelly, as a matter of their own conscience. To understand something and disagree with it is brave and fair, but to disagree in ignorance is where I locate the problem.

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  6. It’s fairly obvious that there’s a Mormon Inquisition at work against Kate Kelly. Is there a Mormon Taliban yet? A Mormon Boko Haram? When will they come galloping out of the desert around the Great Salt Lake and turn their church into Iraq? I’ve been to Salt Lake City and met some really nice Mormons and other people. There are even pagans there. I’ve met some. I’m sure they would welcome Kate Kelly, and then she’d have a spiritual home filled with women and men who would listen to her and respect what she says. I also hope Kate goes to visit Sonia Johnson. They’ll have a lot to say to each other. Thanks for writing this blog.

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    • Thank you for commenting, Barbara. Unsurprisingly, Mormonism has been party to Talibanesque groups (the Mormon militia in Nauvoo comes to mind, and the original ideas about sending “home teachers” to check up on members to make sure no heresy was happening in private homes), harems (mainstream Mormon polygamy pre-Edmunds-Tucker Act, and the modern Mormon sects who still follow polygamy), and as you mentioned, the Mormon Inquisition that comes up every few decades (there is actually an official LDS group that monitors the academy and the web to call for disciplining members who write/speak/publish against the Church). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has some fascinating history, some of which makes me cringe (see above), but on other fronts, it’s actually a neat faith system to dig into. The early woman Saints who went to Utah actually had a prominent voice in the North American first wave of the feminist movement, and as Ordain Women points out, there is a lot of forgotten or ignored doctrine that is very kind to female members. I remember being impressed with how the Salt Lake Mormons handle Eve and the Fall, making her appear to eat the fruit because she wanted to be able to choose rather than to blindly obey. I would definitely take a second look at staying Mormon if we had the freedom to explore and celebrate things like this on a Church-wide level.

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  7. Thanks, Erin, for this work. I think situating this event in the larger trajectory of patriarchy within the church is really helpful. It doesn’t make things feel any better, but it helps us understand how deeply this goes and that we are not alone. There is strength in knowing we have never been alone in the struggle!

    On another note, Joanna Brooks, a long time Mormon feminist, expressed her concern on Facebook for younger Mormon girls and women and how Kate Kelly’s excommunication is impacting them. She then posted on her Facebook that “if you’re a young mo fem, please know that a) whatever you’re feeling is healthy and normal; b) i will cook you dinner if you are in so cal and need someplace to crash; c) this is not a good time to get a new piercing. trust me on this one. love you all. our community can take care of each other.”
    Now if you look on her facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/joanna.brooks.71), her post is followed by so many responses from other people likewise making themselves available. I think this is beautiful and powerful. Women rock!

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    • Yes! There are some great responses going on within the Church. The Latter-day Saints do a great job of creating a community, for sure, so it’s heartening to see when people use that community for love rather than for hating on one another or automatically dismissing “heretics” for their views. After all, the Christian core of Mormonism calls for a WWJD approach to our brothers and sisters, and it’s neat to see this in action.

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  8. Erin, thank you for such a brilliant post. Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz is truly one of my heroes. What has astounded me about her story is that she was persecuted for calling out for education of girls. That’s all. She could have been persecuted for her torrid lesbian love affair, but wasn’t. She could have been persecuted for being one of the most brilliant minds of the era, but wasn’t. She could have been persecuted for holding a salon at the convent, a salon of intelligentsia who came from the entire western hemisphere, but wasn’t. She could have been persecuted for her extensive Biblical knowledge, but wasn’t. There are many things that Sor Juana could have been persecuted for — she was a woman way ahead of her time. But the Church chose to persecute her because she advocated education for girls.

    It is deeply saddening that the persecution of brilliant, devout women still exists so widely. If there is one glimmer of hope, it is that we can now share the stories that were silenced for so long.

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    • Thanks for commenting, MaryAnn. And yes—it’s odd that her writings on education were what got Sor Juana under such heat from the Inquisition rather than all the other juicy details about her life. I adore her and am surprised that I hadn’t discovered her sooner. Have you read the novelization of her life, Sor Juana’s Second Dream, by Alicia Gaspar de Alba? It’s pretty fabulous (I’m about 150 pages in) and so far pretty faithful to history.

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      • Erin, I have not yet read “Second Dream”. Thank you — it sounds wonderful!

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      • Erin, I have now read “Sor Juans’s Second Dream” and I would not recommend it to anyone. It is anti-lesbian, suggesting even that Sor Juana became lesbian due to a childhood trauma (no one becomes a lesbian due to a childhood trauma). It denies that the Marchesa returned Sor Juana’s love, something that Sor Juana’s own poetry contradicts. It assumes that all nuns obeyed the rules of the convent, something that has likely never happened in the history of convent life. It suggests that there were two “Marcheses” that Sor Juana loved, suggesting that Sor Juana would only fall in love with someone in power, a very harsh and unwarranted characterization of her. The characters are one sided and very predictable. I could go on and on. It is, simply put, a lousy book. It may be faithful to the history of the time, but it does a serious disservice to Sor Juana herself. She was so much more than this book suggests.

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  9. Patriarchal structures in the world’s religions leave out half of our humanity in so many ways. As women find their voices and learn how to articulate our women’s theology more and more as we all do here, then the walls of a one-sided structure will crumble more than they have already.
    The courage of these women in their challenge to this one-sided, all-male structure in Mormonism that dictates to them that they need to fall back in line, will begin to develop into a double line where women will walk alongside the men — even with them, equal with them. Our theology has always been there, but now it is being written in louder and louder voices and actions each day.
    Our expansive ideas about God, Christ, Mary, the Trinity, and the retrieval of the Goddess is threatening because it appears to these structures that we are attempting to REPLACE theirs, but that is not the case. We want it alongside theirs so that all may have life and have it to the full as our religions tell us.
    All those women who have gone before us are part of our tradition, are part of our theology – a part of all theology. We walk alongside these women as the new priesthood, new prophets, new believers with a renewed faith because we have found within the structures and also without the structures a new theology that was born of the silent old ones that are now being expressed again and again in every church, synagogue, temple and sacred space around the world.
    We are walking alongside patriarchy as equals, not as blind sheep in the shadows of those patriarchs that would try to re-silence us and try to put us back in a single line. The single line is gone, it is now a double line which is stronger, and more resilient.
    In solidarity we stand with our Mormon sisters and enlightened brothers.

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    • But feminists do want to “replace” the notion that patriarchy is divinely ordained, and following Erin, we may also wish to “replace” the notion that specific groups of people have been granted “divine revelation” which is not affected by standpoint in any way. I am not sure we want to “live and let live” with those who would deny the full humanity of other women and girls–to the detriment of women and girls.

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      • Yes, Carol, correct, but as women articulate their theology, the replacement will happen. I am not denoting a ‘live and let live’ strategy, but one of a theology of equals. Curtailing sexism immediately would be wonderful, but unrealisitic, people do not change that quickly. We live in a society of those who deny our humanity, that is also a reality, but we must work with our courage and empowerment to change them by our very presence existing side by side, then the sexism will end and we all can dwell in our own ‘revelation of the divine’ which is reserved for no one and for all.

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      • I think that when it comes to whether feminist theologians seek to replace doctrine or to run side by side with it deals with whether you are willing to use the father’s tools in the father’s house or proclaim that you do want to radically replace the existing systems. I feel like sometimes it’s more effective (especially with highly “traditional” audiences) to engage a little in using the father’s tools, but it does bother me to have to tiptoe around a call for radical change as I conform to rules that have been set up by my opponent. A lot of active Latter-day Saints are saying that Kate Kelly should have done more of this kind of “acceptable” activism, like meeting with higher-ups rather than protesting and circulating pamphlets. I think they would have gone easier on her, but I personally doubt it would have gotten much of anything done. Usually whenever someone in the Church raises a feminist concern, the Church capitulates by releasing some “pro-womanhood” talk or book that affirms how incredibly smart and talented women are and that they should use all that cleverness and skill to continue to fulfill their callings as mothers and nurturers. So I completely understand being fed up with using the father’s tools when it comes to religion and going straight to dismantling everything.

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      • My favorite quote in this regard is from Rosemary Matson, a Unitarian Universalist feminist. She writes, “We do not want a piece of the pie. It is still a patriarchal pie. We want to change the recipe!”

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  10. Reblogged this on Journaling Out of Fundamentalism and commented:
    Unfortunately, too many religious groups are still steeped in sexist thinking. This needs to be curtailed immediately!

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  11. It is hard to know where to begin to dismantle patriarchy. All of our current mainstream religions are patriarchal. Do we need to re-design them to include women, create new religions, or just get rid of religion entirely? I’d like to hear some answers to the question: “Why do we need religion?” Is there another way we could achieve our goals? And there’s another question: “What is the goal of religion?” What are religions trying to accomplish? As I enter my “elderly” years, it seems to me that the only goal of value in life is to help those who are worse off than ourselves. The rest is just “fluff.”

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  12. Sor Juana was just an amazing poet and writer, and her great love of women outclassed all the bishops of that era. Really, we can read all that these women have written as wonderful and inspiring sacred texts. That’s their beautiful legacy to us outside patriarchy and outside the control of the fathers.

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    • Yes! She ruled. Anna Komnene is another of my favorites. She’s another great example of women going literary despite a push for them to remain subservient. Her Alexiad is a pretty cool read if you’re interested in historical writing from a woman’s perspective, written about a thousand years ago.

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  13. I often wonder why women can’t pay attention to the activism of a previous generation of women. Why do we have to do the Sonia Johnson excommunication waltz yet again in 2014 when this all happened before in 1978? We have the information, we know male church is religion and about male domination and the worship of male supremacy, that’s really all its about. The spiritual power of women has yet to be fully realized.

    I’d have to say this is a special kind of idiocy to expect change, when it has already been proven a complete waste of time. Sonia Johnson’s newest book “The Sisterwitch Conspiracy” is truly a revelation and a delight to read. Too bad more women don’t know about her.

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