WATERtalk Notes: “Mormon Feminism: The Forty Years We Celebrate, The Forty Years Ahead”

Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

Mormon Feminism: The Forty Years We Celebrate, The Forty Years Ahead

An hour-long teleconference with

Joanna Brooks

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

1 to 2 p.m. ET 


WATER spoke with Joanna Brooks for our February 2016 WATERtalk. Joanna is an award-winning scholar and author or editor of eight books about American culture, gender, race, religion, and politics. Her works include Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings (Oxford University Press, 2015) and The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press/Simon and Schuster, 2012). She is a Professor of English and Associate Vice President of Faculty Advancement at San Diego State University. WATER thanks Joanna for a rich hour of conversation about the history and the future or Mormon feminism. A Q&A session followed.

 These notes are provided as a companion to the call’s audio. A Q&A session followed.

*Note about the cover art of the book: the image is of a quilt made by Nikki Hunter, a Mormon feminist in Idaho. The quilt material is from pants and purple items of clothing that were worn to the first Wear Pants to Church Day, a global activist annual event that began in 2012. Read more about this day here.

Joanna opened with her background. She grew up in a conservative, devout Mormon home in Southern California. Her maternal line ancestors were Mormon pioneers, stretching back to her grandmother’s grandmother, and the other side of her family joined the church in Arizona in the 1920s. Growing up, she had no connection with feminism until she found curiosity about ERA – at 8 years old, she was attending the Rose Bowl in California and saw a plane chartered by Mormons for the ERA with a banner that read “Heavenly Mother loves the ERA.”

At Brigham Young University, she discovered the legacy of Mormon progressivism and feminism which tremendously shaped her spiritual and academic life. Her graduate degree is in literature, having had no real option for Mormon studies. She began to write about religion in connection with literature, though not Mormonism. After the birth of her second child, she began to find opportunity as a writer and published intellectual to write more on Mormonism, more dear to her heart, and to engage in advocacy projects about feminism and LGBT equality.

The Book of Mormon Girl (2012) sparked this new anthology (Mormon Feminism, 2015). Younger women reading the memoir – sort of a Mormon feminist coming-of-age/consciousness story – had no real knowledge of Mormon feminist essays from the past. Joanna found there was no handbook, no collection of essays that could be handed to someone to show what it all meant, a history of this conversation. This was the impetus for Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings.

Mormon feminism traces its organized beginnings to the convening of a consciousness-raising group in 1970 in Cambridge, Massachusetts that included Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who coined the famous feminist phrase, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” At her home, a circle of women launched the Mormon feminist movement. In 1970, much of the energy focus was on historical scholarship. Mormon feminists have a long history of activism – from 19th century newspapers by Mormon women explicitly feminist in content to documented pro-suffrage activism by Mormon women – but much has been lost to modern consciousness. Women had participated in priesthood rites, laying on of hands, childbirth rites, etc.

The movement became more political in the 1970s-80s when the Mormon church opposed the Equal Rights Act. In the 1990s, they crossed over to the mainstream with authors like Terry Tempest Williams and Carol Lynn Pearson, and a large wave of campus organizing. 1993-2000 brought institutional backlash, with Mormon feminists excommunicated and fired from church institutions like Brigham Young University.

In the early 2000s, the rise of internet-based forms of activism, especially the blogs like the Feminist Mormon Housewives, transformed what it means to be Mormon. Social media gave rise to new activism, like Global Wear Pants To Church Day.

Now the movement is in a new period and seeing new institutional backlash, including against LGBT people who are partners and their children. “We’re still trying to figure out how to deal with it,” said Joanna – about things like the children of partners of LGBT couples being excluded from baptism. “It is a difficult moment.”

Mormon feminism operates in relation to many contradictions with their own history and their own theology. Joanna noted 4 points of tension:

  • Our faith claims a heavenly Mother. We honor her in principle but in practice she is entirely excluded from worship and ritual
  • Polygamy, though not practiced by the mainstream church, has not been cleared from Mormon theology. Many mainstream Mormons believe that in the eternity, God will expect polygamous relationships.
  • An inherited “arrested restoration” on matters of women and priesthood. Mormonism has positioned itself as a restoration faith, as the revelations to Joseph Smith were supposed to “restore,” but many of the revelatory impulses of Joseph Smith, including participation of women, are not being fully enacted today.
  • Race and racism, Mormonism has history of racist exclusion of people of African descent, both men and women, from full participation. That policy formally ended in 1978, but church still hasn’t reconciled itself or apologized and quiet racist doctrine still fills in that gap.

Joanna outlined some of the challenges in looking forward to the next 40 years.

“One of our challenges, one of our priorities, is that we must continue to do theology.” Mormonism has an entirely volunteer clergy, with no seminarians, professional theologians, or theology schools. Mormon feminist independent scholars have done much work – for example, puzzling out Joseph Smith’s historical vision of women’s priesthood. If theological work is to continue to be done, it is scholars and Mormon feminist scholars who will continue to do it. Keeping this theological scholarship alive is not a goal of the institutional church.

“A second challenge facing Mormon feminism is to nourish Mormon progressive institutions that preserve our legacy and allow us to care for one another.” Mormon feminism doesn’t have an institutional home of any kind. Mormon feminists still can’t count on historically progressive Mormon institutions and still have trouble working with progressive Mormon men. They are underrepresented in major Mormon studies conferences and publications. Women were openly discouraged from pursuing professional religious studies or teaching. There aren’t progressive movements within Mormonism like you might find in other religions (think different movements within Judaism). Many women migrate to other traditions to find homes. Women restricted form leadership positions, and the pushback against Mormon feminism means that few women are willing to make Mormon studies or Mormon leadership their career.

Still, there is a wealth of activism, like on blogs and podcasts. One podcast, on the study of polygamy past and present, was downloaded over 1 million times last year. The podcast’s creator was a woman without a bachelor’s degree: Lindsey Hansen Park. “We are doing our theology and theorizing in the vernacular, at summer camps in the mountains for our kids, hallway conversations in churches, on Facebook,” said Joanna.

A third priority is to de-center historically white forms of feminism and to re-center around a more globally intersectional agenda. There is a new emphasis on intersectional feminism in places like the Feminist Mormon Housewives blog and on the grassroots levels in long Facebook conversations and with the voices of women of color. New spaces like the Feminist Mormon Women of Color blog (FEMWOC) and allied spaces are emerging. Joanna discussed critically reexamining the whiteness of current safe spaces and discovering blind spots in terms of giving sisters of color safe spaces.

A shift in the activist agenda is also needed. There is a need to include womanist voices like Gina Colvin, a prolific Mormon feminist blogger. The women’s ordination movement hasn’t critiqued the hierarchy – it is more eager to join than criticize. The movement also needs to center on global issues, fighting domestic violence and patriarchy.

Finally, the activist approach should be re-oriented towards independence from the LDS institution. The ordination movement is powerful, but essentially focusing making an “ask” of the church. History has shown that asking institutional church for the ability to use more power has led to a diminishing of power. New strategy is needed.

Q&A/Discussion

Q: Are you able to teach a class on the history of Mormon feminism at your university?

JB: No, I’m in the English department so I’ve not been extended that opportunity. It’s more a disciplinary question. I’ve chosen consciously to make a career outside of the LDS institution. I did try to bring a progressive Mormon event to campus, but was told by the religious studies department that they didn’t want to risk reprisal from the local LDS church.

Q: You talked about the ordination movement asking to “be let in” on the kyriarchal church’s terms, a similar discussion that has happened in the Catholic women’s ordination movements. Where do you see things now with Mormon feminism? Are there groups working on different avenues? What insights have you come up with?

JB: This is an open question for us still. We were lucky to have the charismatic, striking leadership of Kate Kelly until her excommunication. If you want updates on the movement, go to www.ordainwomen.org, its homebase site. After her excommunication, it was a moment of strategy for us. One of the projects now is trying to populate the Mormon imagination with images of women passing the sacrament, blessings, baptizing. Our effort is to make these images available to provoke and inspire new lines of questioning and make it visible. Women laying on hands is part of our history, but many don’t know. I think seeing what is possible is important when we’re not sure what to ask the institutional church, if anything.

Q: Are Mormon women’s ritual groups emerging? Where and what kinds of rituals are they doing?

JB: The idea of safe spaces is so important because those with historical memory know that there have not been safe spaces to practice. Since the 1980s, there have been multiple Mormon feminist women’s retreats independently where women give each other blessings. For example, women would circle around a woman who needed the blessing, lay on their hands (on the head, a priesthood oriented gesture, or on their body), offering blessing of healing, each woman using her own power of discernment to sense what the woman being blessed needs. We are a genealogical tradition, so some of the rituals are on behalf of ancestors. We believe salvation is achieved through the generations and know our ancestors are close to us, so sometimes we invoke ancestors. We’ve started naming and blessing babies as well – a Mormon ritual that women want to be able to take part in. More women circles are emerging – even some by phone.

Q: This is Kate Kelly, another Mormon feminist. A lot of the conversations are about what do to do now, how to step out of institutional church. Many feel betrayed by the church when it revealed itself in response to Ordain Women, and many are shocked. So going forward, many say we should just take our power and act outside of the institutional church. What do you think that looks like?

JB: Mormon feminism needs spaces where these conversations are supported, witnessed, and documented. I’m grateful to have this conversation with Kate in a place where it is witnessed. For many, the movement to ordain women was an opportunity for the church to reveal itself, and it did. Now, the LGBT issue is another way it has revealed itself. I’m seeing the church more as a bureaucratic attempt to “manage.” They claim the exclusive power to administer saving ritual, and they claim tremendous resources. For believing members, saving rites are non-negotiable. For me, church rejection of Christ’s welcome to children has been a major issue of conscience that calls into question the church’s authority. I believe if the institutional church continues to conduct itself as it has been, there will be a major contraction of membership.

A second front we can approach is the church’s financial transparency. Women are entirely excluded from billions of dollars of revenue and investment funds. It’s an issue about power divided along lines of race, class, colonization, and gender. There’s nothing theological about women not touching money. We’re not doing it and it’s wrong.

Q: As women, who’ve been socialized to see power as a dirty word, how do we express that need for power in all arenas?

JB: It’s an area where we could do with a bit more theory as we clarify the strategies we’re using. At the vernacular level, we’ve seen a grassroots sense of possibility in the last few years. We’ve done feminist theological work about power (see chapter “Power Hungry” by Lorie Winder Stromberg in Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings). The real divide is about how much power the institution should have. If we deny that the institutional church has power over our salvation, then who are we? Are we still Mormon people?

If we look at parallel religious movements (for me that’s often Judaism) one difference I see is that, historically, when Jewish people rejected rabbis as managing their access to the divine, they were able to establish the Reform tradition, Reconstructionist tradition, and other ways. The deep-rooted Jewish identity was a hedge against assimilation even before these different streams of Judaism took root. We have our identity to anchor us in Mormonism, but it is only a few hundred years old. Institution building is difficult these days – real estate is expensive, it’s a problem for every religious organization, and not many people are starting churches. If the LDS church isn’t the gatekeeper for us, are we still Mormons? People become exhausted, migrate elsewhere, and lose their identification.

Q: Could you say more about your forthcoming book, Saving Alex, and how that is part of Mormon activism going forward?

JB: On March 1 of next year, a book called Saving Alex will be published for which I was mainly the ghostwriter. It’s about a young Mormon lesbian in southern California who came out to her parents and was sent to southern Utah to an unlicensed, in-home conversion therapy. She was held against her will for 8 months and was abused, if not tortured, in an effort to change her sexuality. She escaped in the middle of the night and found a safe space. She was eventually able to fight a court battle to be returned to her family with the guarantee that she would not be sent to conversion therapy again. This is such a brave story, and it highlights the need to outlaw conversion therapy.

It’s also a story about how Mormon communities have “managed” the reality of LGBT lives. The Mormon feminist movement has always been involved in the effort to support LGBT members of the community. Mormon feminists also helped reveal the LDS financial role in the disastrous Proposition 8 in California, among other things. It was an honor to help Alex tell her story, and in a way that didn’t make a cartoon of Mormon people. I hope the book will be an occasion at this painful moment to reckon with the fact that it is not getting better for Mormon LGBT people. I wish this book were arriving at a time when it was an artifact of a past mentality, but I’m afraid it’s not.

WATER thanks Joanna Brooks and wishes her every blessing in the year ahead. The next WATERtalk will March 9, 2016, from 1 to 2 pm ET with Carol J. Adams on the topic “Witnessing Against Violence: 25 Years After The Sexual Politics of Meat.” Register here.