On gender equality and Mormon feminism
Editor’s note: This is the first part in a multi-part series (although we don’t know what “multi” means at this point…).
Recently a post about Mormon women and feminism (“Jesus Was a Feminist and You Should Be One Too“) left me wanting to write some of my thoughts on Mormon feminism here at Mormon Women: Who We Are. The author begins her post by saying:
I was recently interviewed by a student doing a project on Mormon women. During our interview she informed me that of all the LDS women she’d spoken to, I was the only one who identified as a feminist. I was shocked and felt betrayed by my fellow LDS women. How could they be active members of the LDS church and not believe in gender equality?
She also expresses in the comments that she hopes that the word feminist can be reclaimed. I explained that
Yes, gender inequality exists today, and I think it’s good to talk about — to a point. I’m not convinced that equality should necessarily be an end goal in all cases. For example, I think one reason why some [Mormon] women reject the label of feminist is because many feminists insist that you can’t be a feminist and be ok with [the structure] of the Church, and that can feel threatening. I personally think that such focus [on organizational "equality"] can miss the mark.
Let me be clear here: I’m not advocating running in fear from discussions about ‘women’s issues’ in the context of the Church [or elsewhere, for that matter]. I just don’t think ‘equality’ as feminism defines it is a necessarily always a good measure for what we should be aiming for. I think feminism defines equality in a way that can sometimes be too narrow vis-à-vis our doctrine. Our doctrine is so much more expansive than just an organization chart or men vs. women job/opportunity list (which is often how ‘equality’ is measured). [I repeated myself a bit there, but I guess that makes my point!]
This is a long (and old) quote (using old quotes is not my usual MO), but it explains much better than I ever could what I’m trying to get at. I think his insight is both timeless in principle, and timely in our world of PC-driven dialogue. [Besides, I'm such a fan of Neal A. Maxwell's use of language!]
Secularism often seizes upon a single, true principle and elevates it above its peer principles. This act of isolation does not make the principle seized any less true, but it strips that principle of its supporting principles. One can be incarcerated within the prison of one principle.
For instance, “peacemakers” are precious commodities, but peace-making must be tied to other principles or it can easily become peace-making at any price. Candor is an important attribute, but it must not be separated from genuine concern for those who will feel the consequences of candor. Paul’s counsel is to be sure that we are “speaking the truth in love.” (Eph. 4:15.) Love and truth need each other.
Charles Frankel observed of those who would currently subordinate everything else to “equality”:
“The fallacies of the new egalitarianism come largely from having ripped the notion of equality loose from its context. The result is to turn it into a principle vagrant and homeless, and identifiable in fact only if a quasi-theological context is unconsciously imported.” (“The New Egalitarianism and the Old,” Commentary, Sept. 1973, p. 61.)
Elevating any correct principle to the plane of religion is poor policy. Just as one person makes a poor church, one principle makes a poor religion!
In a sense, principles can become “prodigal” as well as people can! Principles can have the equivalent of estrangement and of a “journey into a far country” and be “spent,” with little to show. These “prodigals,” too, must return to and be reunited with the “family” of principles.
The doctrines of Christ need each other, just as the disciples of Christ need each other. It is the orthodox orchestration in applying the gospel of Jesus Christ that keeps us happy and helps us to avoid falling off the straight and narrow path, for on the one side there is harsh legalism and on the other syrupy sensualism. Little wonder that man needs careful and precise help, the guidance of the Spirit, in order to navigate under such stressful circumstances. -Elder Neal A. Maxwell
THAT kind of discussion, where we avoid either “harsh legalism” (often, imo, found in feminism or other -isms) or syrupy sensualism (I imagine we [Mormons] can all think of times when Mormon culture has had this kind of feeling) and can address hard issues with a willingness to engage “the whole,” the doctrines of the gospel, the context of the plan of salvation, the repeated counsel of prophets? THAT is what I get excited about. In my mind, that transcends feminism. To me, feminism is limiting, even as some of the principles do fit into the whole, imo. And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way.
But in saying that, I hope you can not feel alone in your desire to talk about these issues, because you aren’t. I’ll talk about it any day, and I know many women who would!
I have more thoughts on gender equality and Mormon womanhood that I plan to include in future posts. We’ll also be sharing some perspectives from other Mormon women that capture how other Mormon women feel about questions people sometimes have about Mormons, feminism, and why women choose to be Mormon. I’m certainly not trying to speak for all Mormon women here…just sharing my own response to the question above. There are Mormon women who do identify as “feminists.” I think every woman who does use the label of “feminist” ends up probably meaning something a little different. To me, the label is too charged and too limiting, although some might call what I do feminist: I do love to talk about and ponder the way women fit into Mormon doctrine, gospel teachings, scripture, and more. My hobbies over the years have focused on ‘women’s issues’ in religion, family life, education, and business.
And do I believe men and women are equal before God? Oh, yes. More on that soon….