Review: Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings

Mormon FeminismI enjoyed reading Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings (OUP, 2016), a 300-page collection of articles and essays on Mormon feminism spanning the 1970s to the present. That I enjoyed it says a lot, as feminism isn’t really my thing. The editors (Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, and Hannah Wheelwright) did a great job not only selecting the articles and essays to include in the volume but also paring down the size of the excerpts of longer articles so more pieces could be included in the volume. They also penned very helpful introductions to each piece. Consequently, a reader like myself who has not really lived the LDS feminist drama of the last two generation or two can still appreciate the context and contribution of each of the 60 or so articles. Joanna’s 20-page introduction heading the volume also helps bring every reader up to speed. This is truly a volume that everyone should read — this issue is going to be around for another century (my sense of how long it will take the Church to catch up with the rest of society) and you want to be one of the informed people, not one of the blissfully ignorant.

There are four sections to the book, each with its own mini-introduction, providing the best of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s. The articles from the 70s seems as relevant today as when they were first written, evidence perhaps of how little has changed in the Church in the last forty years. In the wired, blogged, and social networked era we live in now, it’s almost hard to believe any sort of grassroots movement could get started with nothing more than typed (on a typewriter) manuscripts, a journal or two, and informal get-togethers in somebody’s living room. How do you even set up a meeting without email or texting? Indeed, the movement faltered during the 90s. The introduction to the final section covering the 2000s asks, looking backwards, “Where have all the feminists gone?” Feminist blogs brought the movement back to life: “[T]he advent of the Internet created new spaces where Mormon men and women with questions about faith and gender could find one another, form communities, dialogue, share resources, and learn, often with the protective cover of anonymous online identities” (226). More directly, “From the blogs came a resurgence in Mormon feminist organizing and action” (226). So, dear reader of blogs, you aren’t just a reader or commenter or contributor — you are part of the story. You weren’t just productively wasting time blogging, you were making history. Amazing that simply having candid public discussions in a universally accessible medium was all it took to get the pot boiling. Welcome to the 21st century.

I will quickly note a few things I like about the book before briefly discussing each section.

  • As noted, the editors kept each selection short and to the point through judicious editing.
  • I appreciate the decision to start in the 1970s rather than the 1870s — the whole Susan B. Anthony era and Eliza R. Snow poems and LDS pioneer women heading off to medical school with Brigham’s blessing are just not that relevant for most readers.
  • The final section included essays by Valerie Hudson Cassler and Neylan McBaine, moderate feminists working within the LDS hierarchy rather than as outside voices, which provides some nice balance to the overall volume, at least more balance than you’ll find in mainstream LDS publications.
  • Finally, some of the meatier articles take on the scriptural and theological basis for the role of women in the Church and in ecclesiastical roles, the kind of detailed discussion that the Church so desperately needs on this and other issues. It’s easy to think the Bible or early Christian experience or early LDS experience supports the distinct gender roles that typify the recent Church when you haven’t actually delved into the details.

So here are some highlights from each section of the book, with links when the articles are also available online. The first section, “Foundations,” covers the 1970s, which were overshadowed by the jarring fight over the Equal Rights Amendment. This section includes Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s essay “The Pink Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and Beyond.” The essay was published in Dialogue in 1981; the Pink Dialogue itself was Vol. 6, No. 2, the Summer 1971 issue. Thatcher is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. Her observations and reflections on Mormonism ought to carry the same degree of relevance and interest as Richard Bushman’s.

The second section, “Lived Contradictions,” covers the 1980s. This was sort of the Prague Spring of Mormon feminist scholarship before the hammer fell in 1993. This section includes Nadine McCombs Hansen’s “Women and Priesthood” and Margaret Toscano’s “The Missing Rib: The Forgotten Place of Queens and Priestesses in the Establishment of Zion.” Here’s a short quotation from Hansen’s article:

Deborah and Huldah were prophetesses (Judges 4, 2 Kings 22), but these women have rarely been held up as examples for LDS women to emulate. In fact, their existence as prophetesses is problematic to official Mormon commentators. The Bible Dictionary in the new Church-published Bible lists Deborah simply as “a famous woman who judged Israel …” with not a single word about her being a prophetess. … Huldah, whose influential prophecies both proved correct and were twice accompanied by “Thus saith the Lord,” was omitted completely in the new LDS Bible Dictionary! (120)

The third section, “Defining Moments,” covers the 1990s. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Selections included in this section range from Lavina Fielding Anderson’s direct challenge for reform, “The LDS Intellectual Community and Church Leadership: A Contemporary Chronology,” which reprints her short narrative conclusion that followed the 50-page chronology up to December 1992, to Carol Lynn Pearson’s gentler “Could Feminism Have Saved the Nephites?” Here is a suggestion found in Pearson’s article:

First, I suggest that we teach the Book of Mormon in an expanded context, that we teach these stories with an acknowledgement of what they say about women and a clear statement that that message about women is not the message God wants us to have. And, in fact, that the Nephite view of women may have been one of the many things that led to their downfall. In the hundreds of talks and lessons on the Book of Mormon I have listened to in sacrament meeting, Relief Society, Primary, seminary, firesides, stake and general conferences — from men and women alike — I have never once heard the Book of Mormon approached with a sensitivity to what it says about my femaleness. Occasionally there has been a jest about the lack of women in the book, but never has there been a serious acknoledgment of what this means to all of us.

Finally, the last section is titled “Resurgence.” That’s us, the first wired generation, Millennials with smartphones and Gen-Xers with laptops. Some of these selections you probably read online as they were posted, such as “The Trouble with Chicken Patriarchy” and its 226 comments and pingbacks at Zelophedad’s Daughters. Others you have heard about but not perhaps contextualized, such as Kate Kelly’s short October 2013 speech, “Equality Is Not a Feeling.” Joanna Brooks published a report of the events of that day, the first Ordain Women direct action, at Religion Dispatches. Here is her account of Kelly, first in line, asking to be admitted to the LDS priesthood meeting:

Kate Kelly approached first. “I understand that all men, even men who are not members of the church and have no investment in Mormonism, are permitted to attend,” she said. “I am a returned missionary and a faithful Mormon woman, and I would like to listen to the prophet in person.” Kelly was not permitted to enter.

And you know the rest of the story.

So that’s where we are today. Feminism isn’t the only issue facing the Church at the moment (see gay marriage, faith crises and the Gospel Topics essays, the exclusion policy, LDS preppers, and so forth), but it’s here to stay. Regardless of where your views fall on the LDS spectrum of opinion about women in the Church and Mormon feminism in particular, you will be better informed if this book is on your shelf.

4 comments for “Review: Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings

  1. I’m confused by your statement about the Church “catching up” to society. Why should it?

  2. Great review. I am in the middle of this book and enjoying all the gems. Pearson’s poetry is my favorite part.

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