History offers few instances of women helping create scripture. Hinduism’s sacred Rigveda may have been partly composed by women, and scholars believe the biblical Book of Ruth was possibly written by a woman, but the evidence for each is wanting. And while Muhammad’s widow was entrusted with the manuscript that would become the Quran, its scribe was a man named Zayd ibn Thabit. The only clear exception to this is the Book of Mormon, which Joseph Smith partially dictated to his wife Emma. The central role of Mormon women in the church was therefore fixed from the start.
In 1842 Joseph Smith organized the church sisters into a philanthropic organization known as the Relief Society. Among other things, the Relief Society sent women to medical school and opened cooperative stores. Operating independently from local bishops, it afforded Mormon women unprecedented independence. In fact the early Mormon Church was a feminist pathfinder. The first Mormon pioneers arrived in Salt Lake City in 1846, and by 1870 Utah Territory became the second place in the Union (after Wyoming) to give women the right to vote—nearly fifty years before the Nineteenth Amendment. But Mormons wanted freedom for all women, and that same year the Relief Society held a meeting in which the renowned poet Eliza Snow entrusted Bathsheba Smith with a mission to travel “all through the South” preaching “retrenchment [restriction of government spending] … and women’s rights.”
In 1872 the Relief Society formed its own publication, Woman’s Exponent, a strident voice for women’s suffrage. But Mormon feminism was by no means restricted to the vote. Brigham Young himself once wrote, “we have sisters here who, if they had the privilege of studying, would make just as good mathematicians or accountants as any man; and we think they ought to have the privilege…” Neither were Mormon feminist legal efforts restricted to enfranchisement. Utah then had some of the most liberal divorce laws in the nation as well as a higher percentage of female doctors and midwives than any other U.S. state or territory.
As Mormon women were empowered, they also pursued their faith more fully. As a result, they soon outperformed men in nearly every area of church activity. In 1906 Elder J. Golden Kimball noted that the Priesthood quorums had “become lax in their work,” while women’s groups had “taken the right of way.” The General Priesthood Committee was therefore conceived in 1908 to bolster male involvement.
During and after World War I, Mormon feminists focused on helping their communities through social projects such as the Relief Society Social Services and the Primary Children’s Hospital. Meanwhile, thanks to the General Priesthood Committee, male authority began to eclipse female independence within the church. By the 1930s, female ordinance work was forbidden and the Mormon community was divided into feminists and those who felt women should primarily be mothers.
The emergence of radical feminism in the 1960s triggered a counter-reaction among the Priesthood Correlation Program; in 1970 the Relief Society magazine was discontinued and in 1974 all Relief Society funds and operations were brought under the control of male leaders. Yet the 1970s also saw a renaissance of Mormon liberal feminism, with the journals Exponent II, Dialogue and Sunstone featuring penetrating feminist thought, and the Alice Louise Reynolds Forum in Provo, Utah providing a place for women to explore those thoughts. Also, in 1978 Elder Dallin H. Oaks, then President of Brigham Young University, and his assistant Dr. Marilyn Arnold, established the Women’s Research Institute (WRI).
However, since then, the church has asserted its opposition to feminism. In 1979 the church excommunicated Sonia Johnson, an outspoken supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which proposed to guarantee equal rights for women. In 1993 Mormon feminist Janice Allred was excommunicated for supporting female ordination. In 1995 Mormon feminists Lynn Whitesides, Maxine Hanks and Lavina Anderson were excommunicated, followed by Margaret Toscano in 2000. In 2009 the WRI was shut down. And in 2014 Kate Kelly, who founded Ordain Women, a group that supports female ordination, was excommunicated. “Paradoxically,” notes artist Page Turner, “as feminism has been suppressed in the church, it has grown and evolved in the larger Mormon culture.” She added that these days, the Relief Society cannot hold a meeting of any kind without a male priest in the room to approve of everything they do.
The story of the Mormon struggle to liberate women, and subsequent reaction against that liberation, is beautifully told in Turner’s latest work, a collection of tableaux entitled ‘Power and Restraint: a Feminist Perspective on Mormon Sisterhood’. Each piece comprises a beehive super (a symbol of the faith) bedded with bittersweet sprigs and backed with white fabric (symbolizing the temple veil) taken from an ancient temple wedding gown once worn to the Salt Lake Temple.
The scenes depict Mormon women in various settings: one displays her holy temple garments, another blesses her pregnant sister (a practice women may no longer perform). This is something of a departure for Turner, whose past work is often mischievously surreal. For example, a bird skeleton, for instance, finely sewn into the plush folds of a Victorian dress, offers us material exuberance paired with a wry memento mori. Such fragments are almost philosophical epigrams. But if her previous work is epigrammatic, her commentary on Mormon sisterhood is fully argumentative.
Content doesn’t outpace form, however, and while the elegance of execution here makes it all seem effortless, don’t be fooled—it’s not. Its visual appeal makes this a work of instant gratification, but its detail and meaning make it one that equally rewards patience and attention. Indeed, everything from the falcon hoods fashioned from a child’s coat to the dolls’ stuffing is as vibrant and suffused with history as the story they’ve been assembled to tell.
All images copyright Page Turner, photo credit: Sean Cuddy
David Volodzko is a former university lecturer and a writer whose interests include religious history, feminism and art. He blogs at Rational Consent and tweets @DavidVolodzko. Some articles of interest include: China’s Attack on Feminism? Not Quite., Feminism With Chinese Characteristics, Gender Equality in South Korea: A Long Way to Go
Page Turner, Roanoke artist, collects items of deep personal meaning to painstakingly create delicate objects that honor the feminine, and the desires, experiences, and roles of women. Raised as a devout Mormon, she looks to the Church and its complex history as inspiration. Her works are informed by the traditional hand-working skills that have been passed down through the generations. In this body of work, Turner explores the divide between righteousness within the faith and women’s personal power; with deep reverence, she pays homage to the original pioneer women of the Mormon Church, as well as the contemporary sisterhood.
Turner’s Power & Restraint: a Feminist Perspective on Mormon Sisterhood was commissioned and exhibited in the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia.
Turner has exhibited widely in Virginia, in North Carolina, in Washington, DC, and in Los Angeles. She was the cover artist for Exponent II- Publishing the Experiences of Mormon Women since 1974, cover artist for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Artemis Journal: Artist and Writers of the Blue Ridge, and has been featured in six issues of Studio Visit Magazine, blogs and other media.