Since the box office debut of the LDS church’s film Meet the Mormons happened, I’ve been thinking I would riff on the theme here at Hyrum’s Daughter. Meet the Mormon Feminists.
The First Mormon Feminists
We first have to acknowledge the efforts of women like Eliza Snow who penned the doctrine of a Mother in Heaven now immortalized in the hymn text of “Oh My Father,” and Sarah Kimball who invented the idea for the World’s largest female organization, the Relief Society, in her living room. (p. 106 Mormon Enigma by Linda K. Newell and Valeen T. Avery) In a proper review of the first Mormon feminists, one cannot overlook Susa Young Gates who was so talented and accomplished that her father, Brigham Young, advised her never to seek fame or neglect her family in her pursuits saying, “but anything you can do after you have satisfied the claims of the husband and family will redound to your won honor and to the glory of God.” (p. 202 Mormon Sisters edited by Claudia Bushman) She founded and edited the Young Women’s Journal and The Relief Society Magazine, she published books, founded the music department at Brigham Young Academy, had a letter writing relationship with Leo Tolstoy, spoke at the International Council of Women in London, had tea with Queen Victoria, entertained Susan B. Anthony and Clara Barton among other feminists, was divorced, and spoke openly about her own doubt and difficulty getting a witness from God.
These women should be recognized for their tireless work towards equality for women. Freeing women for education and voting. They were leaders in the Feminist movement world wide that opened opportunity for civic contribution and social equality after the turn of the twentieth century. Their successes getting women the vote and increasing feminine influence in a man’s world are worthy of commemoration.
When World War II pushed women into the work force and they became invaluable there. Women were no longer necessarily economically dependent on their husbands and fathers. Economic emancipation allowed them to escape abusive marriages and further female independence allowing them to make choices for a future that didn’t necessarily involve men. By mid-century, when birth control methods were in the open market, women began grappling with the freedom to make choices regarding their own bodies. They were no longer held captive during their most productive, child-bearing years. Mid-century Mormon women could be found tirelessly acting autonomously in leadership roles throughout the LDS church.
Belle Spafford and Barbara Smith, led a powerful society of educated and accomplished women into the modern age. The individual Relief Societies were raising their own funds and doing humanitarian work both locally and world-wide.
They were wholly responsible for editing and publishing and funding the widely read Relief Society Magazine, where articles written, edited, and published by women reported on the progress of women within the Mormon organization as well as world wide organizations of women. LaVerne Parmley presided over the Primary organization, published The Children’s Friend, raised the funds to run her independent children’s organization, raised funds for the Primary Children’s Hospital which provided medical services to underfunded children needing medical procedures across the West, and sat on its board of Trustees. These women chose their work without being burdened by oversight of the priesthood authorities. They were not concerned with the fact that they didn’t hold the priesthood because they had the authority they needed to run their own organizations.
Modern Mormon Feminists
Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinham were reawakening women across the globe to their unequal status, encouraging them to vote for the Equal Rights Amendment, a
constitutional amendment requiring such rights for women as equal pay for equal work. Mormon Feminist Sonia Johnson chained herself to the gates of the Whitehouse and spoke out in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. Mormon women were taught at BYU by female mentors like Reba Keele, that getting an education is invaluable for women and an essential first step in attaining equal opportunity to their male counterparts. By the mid 1980’s, well after the Mormon Baby Boomer women graduated, economics nationwide declined substantially and women were required to use their much encouraged education for familial financial support. Now able to support themselves, more women were leaving undesirable marriages and raising families on their own.
Facing the consequences of women gaining ground in the workplace, rising divorce rates in and out of the church, the changing shape of the traditional family, and afraid of the upcoming generation of so called “latch-key kids” raised outside family norms, the Mormon hierarchy pushed back hard. The Equal Rights Amendment was gaining ground across the U.S. and had been ratified in many states. The Brethren sent an order out to women in Utah, urging them to vote against ratifying the ERA. Bus loads of female BYU students went to a convention in Salt Lake City meant to gather support for ratifying the ERA and rallied against the ERA. And then, the Brethren did something unforgivable. They Correlated the Church.
When independent minded and well-educated women leaders like Chieko Okasaki and Allene Clyde assumed their posts at the top of the Church’s female organizations, they thought they would continue in the footsteps of their powerful predecessors. But under Correlation, women had lost control of the funds, the publications, the content of their lesson manuals, and pretty much every aspect of the organizations they led. The Brethren had taken control. The control of these organizations now came under the Priesthood hierarchy we are familiar with today.
The Priesthood hierarchy began dismantling women’s power. They censored women’s voices by putting all the magazines under one correlated priesthood committee. The Relief Society Magazine was usurped by The Ensign. Every article in all the magazines had to be approved by a presiding priesthood authority from the council of twelve. The lesson manuals for all organizations were created by a priesthood committee without even so much as one woman’s input or consultation. The funds for all organizations now came from the central church accounting department, overseen and meted out by priesthood authorities.
The hierarchy promoted only one view on women’s role, a woman’s place is in the home, and having children and raising them became a women’s primary purpose. The traditional family began to hold a place it never held before in Mormondom, the center. Yes, the family became the center of Mormon doctrine and the eternal nature of families created by sealings done in the temple, became core doctrine. Family Home Evening was promoted as a major proselyting tool. If you weren’t holding regular family home evenings in your home, you were not considered worthy. One cannot rehearse this history without noticing what the Mormon hierarchy sacrificed to keep women in their place, what doctrine they displaced to make family the center of Mormon theology.
Because the brethren had successfully displaced the doctrine of Christ from the center of Mormonism, the American religious right started accusing Mormons of not being Christian. Bruce R. McConkie from the Council of Twelve gave a memorable speech telling church members that Christ was not the central figure of Mormonism and was not to be worshiped as such. Because of his talk, references to worshiping Christ were removed from the correlated lesson manuals and church publications. In the same speech, McConkie disgraced Glen Pace, a revered and popular BYU religion professor who wrote and spoke on having a personal relationship with Christ. General Conference talks were no longer focused on Christ or His gift of grace. They focused on the new center of Mormonism, the family.
By the latter part of the century, the entrenchment of the family as the center and the Priesthood as the authority culminated in the creation of A Proclamation on the Family. The church continues to promote the family as a core doctrine of Mormonism and further ensconce their view by making temple marriage and family sealings the highest of Mormon goals. As the first decades of the twenty-first century pass on, A Proclamation on the Family is heard quoted as scripture from the pulpit even though it has never been properly vetted or canonized as such. Correlation has disenfranchised Mormon women and displaced Christianity from the center of Mormonism.
In this environment a group of educated women and men began to notice and activate for change. The modern feminists recognized that patriarchal hierarchy had taken away authority over their own religious lives. With the family and temple attendance at the center of Mormonism, a male authority stood between women and access to the temple where they receive the highest blessings of religious devotion, and where their own children are sealed to them for eternity. Now a woman could not access the blessings of the temple and the eternal family without her worthiness being questioned in a personal interview by a Priesthood authority, in contrast to her pioneer sisters when women were allowed to use priesthood power to bless other women, family members, or as Mary Fielding apparently did, even an ox if necessary.
It was in this malecentric environment that Vickie Muir Stewart asked her local authority if she could hold her baby during the priesthood ordinance of baby blessing. She reasoned that if an unrelated male 12-year-old could stand in the circle during the blessing, she should be able to sit and hold the baby to whom she actually gave birth. She was denied this request.
It was in this time bereft of female voices that Claudia Bushman edited Mormon Sisters, essays by female authors about the power and authority exercised by pioneer women which spiritual practices were no longer allowed by current church authorities. This group of women with the express purpose of giving Mormon women voice went on to publish Exponent II, a continuation of Exponent written and published by women in the early church. Margaret Merrill Toscano, speaking at Sunstone Magazine‘s yearly symposium presented a paper called “The Missing Rib” where she gave ample evidence that women are endowed with priesthood in the temple. Her work and that of other Mormon feminists were published in Women and Authority edited by Maxine Hanks. At BYU where a new Women’s Studies program had evolved, under direction of Cecilia Konchar Farr, a group of enthusiastic students started a group called Voice. Speaking to this group, Margaret Merrill Toscano presented a historical view of Mother in Heaven, the idea that Eliza R. Snow had imprinted on Mormonism so long ago.
Margaret Merrill Toscano, Janice Merrill Allred, and Lynne Kanavel Whitesides organized Mormon Women’s Forum, a place where women could come and speak about the marginalization of women in the church they loved. Lavina Fielding Anderson and Janice Merril Allred published Case Reports of the Mormon Alliance which documented the spiritual abuse being experienced in the church, in an effort to stop abuse of both women and men.
Cecilia Farr lost her position at BYU. Margaret Merrill Toscano, Maxine Hanks, Lavina Fielding Anderson, Janice Merrill Allred, Lynne Whitesides and others supporting these women were excommunicated or disfellowshiped in disciplinary councils where the outcome was clearly predetermined.
It should be noted here that in the process of giving voice to women and men who had been marginalized and often abused in the atmosphere of male hierarchy, it became clear that gender issues in the church were especially negative for gay and transgender members.
Contemporary Mormon Feminists
It was in this atmosphere of fear and concern over being a Mormon feminist that Vickie Muir Stewart Eastman and others started an email list and discussion board. Women were discussing issues in a private forum with like-minded women across the world without worrying about what doing so openly might mean for one’s membership status, comments that they couldn’t and wouldn’t say among their peers in Sunday School or Relief Society classes. This list was replaced eventually with burgeoning internet presence and as blogs began to multiply. The blogosphere proved especially meaningful to young Mormon women.
The internet provided a way to publicly and openly discuss controversial ideas and complaints against Mormon hierarchy with a modicum of anonymity if one chose and therefore keeping church membership in good standing. Dooce, aka Heather B. Armstrong, showed us all how speaking out about the issues of being a young Mormon mother could not only be therapeutic but remunerative. She has one of the most popular mommy blogs on the internet to date. Mormon Feminist Housewives thrives on Mormon feminist controversy and the challenges of being a Mormon mother. Mommy blogs are a staple of the blogosphere in and out of Mormonism, but to this day many of the mommy bloggers are Mormon women connecting with like-minded women, getting and giving support on the internet. At Young Mormon Feminists the younger bloggers take on many kinds of oppression in Mormonism and attempt to activate for feminism inside the Mormon faith. On the internet women have a voice and a lot of people are listening.
Joanna Brookes blogged at Ask a Mormon Girl until her column got added to the popular Mormon Feminist Housewives. She wrote her book Book of Mormon Girl in 2012 about her heartbreak and faith challenges largely spawned by the excommunications in the early 1990’s. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign increased the general public’s curiosity toward Mormon lifestyle and boosted the popularity of this publication. Joanna Brookes’s Mormon Feminism published in 2015 contains the pioneering work of many of the Mormon feminists mentioned here, the work that got many of them into trouble with the hierarchy in the 1990’s. I started this article prior to its publication and news of its printing put this article on hold for a year because the book was a welcome and more professional answer to the same problem, a lack of knowing our own history. Joanna’s latest book, Saving Alex, is the story of a 15-year-old young woman who was forced by Mormon parents into an abusive residential therapy program to correct her same sex attraction.
With the power of the internet to aggregate and embolden women made clear, Kate Kelly went to long time Mormon feminist, Lorie Winder Stromberg from the Mormon Women’s Forum and asked what issue was likely to move Mormon women to activism. The Ordain Women Movement was born. The sedate but controversial actions and public relations of this group got the church’s attention and in June of 2014 Kate Kelly was excommunicated without even being present at her own excommunication court. The hierarchy began investigating others who were activating on the internet also. The actions of the church hierarchy and the way they handled the fallout publicly spawned the writings in this blog.
The church hierarchy has expanded their politically conservative oppression of marginalized faithful Mormons to the LGBTQIA community. The documentation of the persecution inflicted on these members is beyond the scope of this article.
The history of spiritual abuse inflicted by the church hierarchy since common consent practices have been disarmed is my focus, my passion. The power of the men in the hierarchical positions of the LDS church is now completely unconstrained. Their willingness to wield this power and abuse their administrative power without being willing to ask for revelation is in the docket here. Here, as Hyrum’s daughter, I prophesy these Mormon leaders’ lack of faith in the power of the revelatory, prophetic, spiritual priesthood keys they hold captive will haunt them like a General Authority standing in general conference without his dark suit, white shirt, and tie, the sham of their emperor’s new clothing evident, naked for all to see, imposters. And the sorrow of those they oppressed will be like a fiery furnace burning their soft, untried, faithless souls.
They are the modern day versions of the priests of Noah. They are the ones who offered up their daughters to appease the enemy. They are the ones whose souls are at stake. And yet, Jesus will forgive them. Can I?