Where have all the Mormon feminists gone?
By Peggy Fletcher Stack
The Salt Lake Tribune
No banners proclaiming "Mormons for ERA" will be soaring over the
LDS General Conference this weekend as they did in the 1970s. No Mormon
women will be picketing the semi-annual meeting or praying to their
Mother in Heaven over wardhouse pulpits, as they did in the 1980s. None
will be speaking out on women's rights on the steps of the state Capitol
or on TV, getting themselves fired from Brigham Young University or
excommunicated from the church as they did in the 1990s.
In other words, Mormon feminists are awfully quiet.
The Mormon Women's Forum, established in Salt Lake City in 1988, can
scarcely draw a crowd to its annual fall conference. Exponent II, the
Boston-based quarterly for Mormon women, which led its readers "gently,
gently towards feminism," is still publishing nearly 30 years after it
was launched. But it is more likely to take up issues of grief, aging
and being single in a married church than the question of priesthood
These days, Mormons feminists are less likely to publicly cut their
ties to the church than to quietly slip into inactivity or simply go
underground, nursing their concerns in private.
Feminism as a movement within Mormonism "is dead or dying with our
generation," says Claudia Bushman, an LDS historian who teaches at
Columbia University. "Feminism is such a potent word, it's been expunged
from our vocabulary."
But does that mean there are no independent, free-thinking women in
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Or that all women's
issues have been resolved? Or that they no longer care about the
questions that remain in a church which excludes women from its top
The answer to all three is no, says Jill Derr, managing director of
BYU's Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History.
Young Mormon women today "take equality between men and women on a
personal and professional level as a given," she says. "It's not even a
Young scholars are more well-rounded, more disciplined and less
scarred by the experience of overt discrimination, Derr says. They
expect to balance family and career and presume the church's approval.
"They did not live through the polarizing era that was such a marked
part of our lives," she says. "They can look at our history through a
more nuanced, complex lens."
It may be just the term "feminism" that makes people wince.
For some, it carries too many negative connotations derived from
past battles and is synonymous with a confrontational style or hostility
to motherhood. Or they feel it has been co-opted by those who define it
solely in terms of reproductive rights or competition with men.
One BYU professor says "feminism" has been dropped from women's
studies discourse almost entirely, replaced by the more neutral term
Besides, the church has changed a lot since the 1970s.
Issues that electrified earlier activists have slowly declined or
disappeared, Bushman says. Female participation and visibility in the
church are on the rise.
At this weekend's conference, at least one woman will likely speak
in nearly every session (except tonight's priesthood session, open only
Women can preach and pray over ward pulpits as often and as
prominently as men. They sit on ward councils, serve as presidents of
women's organizations such as Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary.
They officiate at some women-only temple ceremonies. More and more of
them are serving full-time missions for the church, becoming just as
well-versed in Mormon scriptures as their male counterparts.
On the home front, the church has stopped pushing big families and
talking about birth control. Mormon leaders still see the nurturing of
children as the most important thing a woman can do, but are more
sensitive to the needs of working women. They encourage couples to make
family decisions prayerfully, based on individual situations, not on a
Last summer the Smith Institute hired Bushman to direct a seminar
for graduate students on LDS women in the 20th century. Organizers had
to choose qualified fellows from among dozens of applicants. They
settled on eight women from Harvard, Yale, Brown, the University of
Utah, Claremont College and BYU. Some were married with children, some
without children, some single. At least half had served LDS missions.
"They were all very ambitious, very able and very devoted to the
church," Bushman says. "When I was that age, you could not have
assembled a group like that."
They spent eight weeks in Provo, researching topics ranging from LDS
participation in the National Council of Women from 1888-1987, the
history of the church's stance on birth control, rifts among LDS women
created by the Equal Rights Amendment, and the relationship between
patriarchy and contentment.
"We tend to tell our story by jumping from event to event, mostly
negative," Bushman says. "We wanted a better way of looking at it."
Back to the future: Whenever Derr goes to academic conferences, she
encounters people who say, "I know the history of Mormon women. They had
a lot of power. Now they've lost it."
That's not the way she sees it. But there's no question that the
institutional roles of LDS women fluctuated throughout the faith's
In the 19th century, many Mormon women did feel a stronger sense of
their partnership with the priesthood. They were outspoken leaders of
their own female organizations, especially the Relief Society.
Ironically, polygamy and the church's outsider status in America
gave Mormon women some freedom from the reigning Victorian ideals of
domestic life. Leaders like Eliza Snow spoke openly of their spiritual
powers and being the offspring of heavenly parents -- one of them God
Mormon women were early suffragettes, forming alliances with
national leaders such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony,
who spoke in Utah. They were the first in the nation to vote and among
the first to pursue professional careers in medicine, business and law.
State Sen. Martha Hughes Cannon was the first U.S. woman to be elected
to a legislature.
These women owned their own buildings, organized a hospital and
published a newspaper, Woman's Exponent, which was edited by Emmeline B.
Wells, a plural wife and mother of five daughters, from 1877 to 1914. In
the newspaper, Wells and women like her promoted female education and
But when the church gave up polygamy in order to gain national
acceptance, its women struggled to maintain their independence.
"The image of Mormon women as docile homemakers, a la June Cleaver
serving Jell-O to a smiling family in a 1950s sitcom, is just one of the
many things Mormonism adopted from conservative American culture," wrote
Margaret Toscano, who was excommunicated on Nov. 20, 2000, for her
Perhaps the biggest loss to Mormon women in the early 20th century
was the spiritual gifts they had enjoyed, including blessing the sick, a
rite now performed only by men.
Then came the 1970s movement to add an Equal Rights Amendment to the
U.S. Constitution, which the LDS Church helped to defeat.
Some Mormon women were for the amendment and some against it, and
that conflict erupted bitterly in 1977 at a meeting of the International
Women's Year in Salt Lake City. Organizers planned for 3,000 women, but
10,000 showed up after getting marching orders from church headquarters.
The nearly hysterical mob voted down every proposal.
Next came activist Sonia Johnson, who sparred with U.S. Sen. Orrin
Hatch over the ERA in Senate Committee hearings and exposed the LDS
Church's behind-the-scenes opposition to the amendment. She was
excommunicated in December 1979, and her case became a cautionary tale
to Mormon feminists everywhere.
In the 1980s, women again began talking among themselves about a
Heavenly Mother -- a concept that for decades had lost its potency --
and some acknowledged praying to her. Church leaders swiftly condemned
any public display of devotion to her.
And women speculated about the possibility of being ordained to what
has always been a male-only priesthood.
"There doesn't appear to be much interest in the priesthood question
anymore," says Nancy Dredge, editor of Exponent II. "It's been talked to
Derr says young Mormon women still want to explore their
relationship to the priesthood, but they raise the issue with family and
in private settings.
"The questions haven't changed," she says. "Just the venues for
Woman vs. woman: One issue that still percolates in the church -- as
it does in the rest of American society -- is the importance of having a
full-time career versus staying at home with the kids.
On Feb. 22, 1987, LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson sounded the
battle cry with his speech, "To the Mothers in Zion." He told Mormon
women in no uncertain terms not to postpone having children or curtail
the number of children for "personal or selfish reasons." He also said
unequivocally that mothers belong in the home, not the workplace.
The speech had an immediate and overwhelming impact: D ozens if not
hundreds of Mormon women quit their jobs, believing that was what their
prophet wanted, while others felt guilty for ignoring that mandate.
And the church tried to implement institutional policies that would
enforce women's role. For a long time, women were forbidden to teach at
LDS Institutes of Religion, but now they can be hired -- as long as they
have no children under 18.
Nor can women with children under 18 be temple workers to assist
with rituals, but they can volunteer in the laundry.
Since ascending to the LDS presidency in 1995, however, Gordon B.
Hinckley has presented a more variegated stance.
The work of raising a family should be tantamount in a woman's life,
he says, but it is up to individual women (with their spouses) to decide
when and how best to accomplish that. Education is important for women
and so is self-respect. Simple ideas, maybe, but in a Mormon context
Last spring Hinckley told the church's 12- to 18-year-old girls to
"study your options. Pray to the Lord earnestly for direction. Then
pursue your course with resolution. The whole gamut of human endeavor is
now open to women."
He described meeting an LDS nurse who was raising three children
"There is such a demand for people with her skills that she can do
almost anything she pleases," 93-year-old leader said. "She is the kind
of woman of whom you might dream as you look to the future."
Of Hinckley's speech and emphasis, Bushman says, "That's the new
model. I like it."
Emphasis on education, formal or self-selected, seems to be working.
Thousands attend BYU's annual three-day Women's Conference each
spring, where many of the speakers are female scholars, writers and
thinkers. And now Deseret Book, the church's publishing arm, is taking
some of its writers to one-day seminars for women across the country. So
far they've been filling gymnasiums and stadiums in cities from San
Diego to Orlando, Fla..
The number of women faculty at BYU has steadily risen from 13
percent in 1983 to more than 20 percent today, says spokeswoman Carrie
Jenkins. More Mormon women are graduating from college and professional
schools than ever.
Elizabeth Harmmer-Dionne, a Boston attorney and mother of three
young children, is one such woman.
Harmmer-Dionne graduated from Wellsley College where she says she
constantly got the standard question: How can you be in that patriarchal
Her reply was her life, she says. "A lot of what I am, I owe to the
church. If feminism is empowerment, so is the gospel."
In her Cambridge ward, Harmmer-Dionne sees a lot of female graduate
students. Many of them feel a strong sense of mission about their
"It comes out of their sense of personal revelation," she says.
"That is the quiet story of feminism no one notices."
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