Mormon feminists experience what most feminists of faith have heard at some point. Utter dismissal of the possibility of their existence.
We know several variations:
You can’t be Christian and feminist.
There’s no such thing as a Catholic feminist.
You can’t seriously be Jewish and feminist.
You can’t possibly be Muslim and feminist.
To be Mormon and feminist? Preposterous.
In response, scholars, activists, and writers within each tradition have had to document their history, make their theological case, and engage their scriptures as robustly as any conservative traditionalist would. In order to achieve meaningful institutional change, unimpeachable work and confident testimony is required.
The new volume, Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings, edited by Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, and Hannah Wheelwright is destined to be a new core text on the subject of whether and how one can (and should) be a Mormon feminist. It combines history, theology, memoir, poetry, collective statements, and personal essays from generations of women who refuse to let the tradition that gives them life be defined by those who would exclude them from its most venerated spaces. The authors claim voice, define space, and deconstruct arguments with the boldness required to be part of this distinctly American pioneer religious tradition.
Joanna Brooks’ introduction alone makes a clear case for Mormon feminism, while naming key aspects of doctrine and practice that “offer mixed or contradictory messages about gender, equality, and power.” And, rather than being merely a defensive argument or an apologetic case, Brooks constructively connects Mormonism and feminism on matters of substance and vision:
Many of us identify as feminists because the feminist’s movement’s hunger for justice and positive change aligns with our own religious feelings as Mormons that the purpose of life is to work for the betterment of humankind, the creation of a Zion community of equals. … Both Mormonism and feminism value struggle or work as necessary to growth.
This point is echoed in a later essay by Valerie Hudson Cassler, who says in a 2010 piece “I didn’t join the Church because I was a feminist, but I stay in the Church because I am a feminist.” Cassler goes on to review key points of doctrine that she says “make this a revolutionary religion from a feminine perspective.”
The volume starts its documentary history with a timeline dating to the 1940s, and essays from the 1970s. I was initially skeptical of this choice, since so much groundbreaking women’s activism in the Mormon tradition took place in the nineteenth century upon the religion’s founding. When I started reading, however, it became clear to me the ways that those women’s lives and work are ever-present in the writing of twentieth and twenty-first century feminists. Brooks points out that the editors chose to focus on these most recent decades because that is “when Mormon women consciously elected to use the term ‘feminist’ to characterize their perspectives on their faith and organize together for change.”
And there is plenty to cover in these decades anyway. From the ERA activism of the 1970s to the excommunications of scholars and feminists in the 1990s, Mormon feminism of the twenty-first century finds resurgence in the Ordain Women movement as well as in responding to the Church’s leading involvement in the 2008 “Yes on 8” campaign against gay marriage in California. As it moved online with Feminist Mormon Housewives and the Exponent Blog, Mormon feminism continued to engage political events as well as theological ideas like the Heavenly Mother, the history and practice of women holding the priesthood, and close study of Mormon texts like The Book of Mormon as well as Doctrine and Covenants, and writings on women from the Prophet Joseph Smith.
For all of its distinctiveness, Mormon feminism is so familiar to anyone who has studied and taken seriously feminist engagement with any religious tradition. Even the waves of women moving from exuberance to anger to exhaustion to accomplishment to inspiration though backlash and activism into academic study, with lament and celebration are palpable and common.
The final section of the book reveals a religious feminism come-of-age, one reckoning with the intersection of race and class with its particular brand of patriarchy. As womanist writer Gina Colvin puts it:
Mormonism is without doubt a patriarchy. But simply naming it a patriarchy ignores its additional features – because it’s not just a patriarchy. It’s a colonial patriarchy. It’s a white patriarchy. It’s a class-based patriarchy. It’s an Americentric conservative patriarchy bound to a particular economic and political order that is nearing its ‘use by’ date.
These are insights that also took feminism more broadly, and Christian feminism more specifically, time to articulate. They are insights that each is presently wrestling with in its calls for inclusion and equalities.
In short, Mormon Feminism is a must read in feminist studies in religion, and it a key contribution to Mormon studies that demands respect. The concluding words from Kate Kelly’s speech at the Ordain Women action in 2013 can also summarize the documentary history of Mormon feminism:
“We were brave.
We showed up.
… … … …
Caryn D. Riswold, Ph.D., is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She teaches religion and gender & women’s studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, and is the author of three books, the most recent of which is Feminism & Christianity: Questions and Answers in the Third Wave. She blogs and tweets regularly at @feminismxianity.