I get it. When you hear the term “Mormon,” your mind conjures up a vision of a magic underwear-wearing people who operate as a hive mind and may or may not have (or be) multiple secret wives. So the phrase “Mormon feminist” sometimes leaves outsiders scratching their heads. Isn’t that an oxymoron? Can one really be a Mormon and a feminist?
I won’t lie. Our wholesomeness can be confusing, and sometimes downright creepy. We are a peculiar people, full of industry and conviction. Utah, the hub of Mormonism, and its headquarters in Salt Lake City is a Pinterest-themed nightmare: chevron patterns, bright-white teeth, hair bows, minivan stickers, and cute fonts for days. We give our kids names like Mersadie, Maddix, and Jaxsyn with a “y.” Mormon women are so entrenched in this culture that we’ve taken over the mommy-blog universe, and you can thank us for making social media sites like Etsy as popular as they are.
But if you think that’s the sum total of Mormon women, then you’re missing the honeycomb for the bees. Mormon women are as diverse as their secular counterparts, and we are more than able to be feminists within our religion, thank you very much.
That said, being a feminist in our culture isn’t easy. The modern Latter-day Saint (LDS) church isn’t exactly known for its emphasis on women’s equality: The church lauds it “patriarchal order” as the divinely inspired pattern of the heavens. At the highest levels of the church, we have an all-male leadership. And even in the 21st century, much of the administration structure of the church (think financial matters and legal decisions) are tied to that all-male priesthood. In Utah, the dudes in white shirts and black jackets hold most of the political and religious power.
But even within a very male-centric church, a vibrant feminist movement has persisted over the centuries. Nineteenth-century Mormon women like Emily S. Richards, Sarah M. Kimball, Zina D. H. Young (who was a plural wife of Brigham Young), and Emmeline B. Wells were all were influential suffrage leaders in their day, and their agitation and activism helped win American women the right to vote. Since that time, Mormon women have been involved in initiatives both publicly and religiously exploring theological possibilities toward gender equality within the faith.
Take the following magazine excerpt as an example. Mormon women have a history of writing and publishing independent magazines that focus on religious and cultural life for other women in their community. Originally published in the Jan. 1880 version of the Exponent magazine and reprinted in the 1976 version, Exponent II, which set out to examine the lives of Mormon women through a feminist lens, it shows how the message of Mormon feminists has remained steadfast over time.
“[A] Woman’s voice should be heard in defense of her rights, those of her family, and of all she holds dear. A true patriotic spirit and feeling should actuate her to do good in any and every sphere, though she may be derided under the appellation of “female rooster.” There are some of the opposite gender who would intimidate us and try to make us believe we do not know anything but to wash, scrub, make or med for the whole household. Do not be daunted, my sisters, in raising your voices in the cause of truth and justice; we have immortal souls, and have a right to think and act according to our honest convictions and aspirations.”
The 1970s and 1980s ushered in a period when Mormon feminists were pushing back against the patriarchy alongside their secular counterparts. “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History” was a popular phrase of the time that was used to empower women and challenge societal norms, and it still appears on T-shirts, magnets, mugs, bumper stickers, and greeting cards throughout the country to this day. The phrase has become so famous that it’s been incorrectly attributed to Marilyn Monroe, Anne Boleyn, and Eleanor Roosevelt. But its real author is a Mormon feminist and Pulitzer Prize-winning professor of early American history at Harvard University, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
During this era of women’s liberation, Mormon feminists found themselves in sticky territory with their ecclesiastical leaders. At a time when the Western world saw an explosion of feminist movements, the church headquarters in Salt Lake City was trying to curb it within their own congregations.
In a strange contradiction to the equality-seeking initiatives of the Mormon foremothers, the LDS church took an active stance against passing the Equal Rights Amendment in the early 1980s, and put money and political effort into convincing other Mormon women to do the same. Not all LDS women followed the admonitions of their male leaders. Feminist activist Sonia Johnson, for example, was famously excommunicated for her role in trying to get the amendment passed. Johnson, a Mormon mother of four, chained herself to the gates of the Mormon Temple in Bellevue, Washington in protest of the church’s position against the amendment.
The public nature of this stance would open up a new era of religious and political sanctions for Mormon women. For us, obedience isn’t just a virtue—it’s a requirement, and to protest the church is a sin. Johnson’s actions shed public light on Mormon women criticizing their church leaders, and many saw this as heresy.
Her excommunication didn’t stop Mormon women from speaking out; rather, it inspired further pushback. More women became emboldened to explore other issues surrounding women’s rights, including feminine theology, questioning how religious leaders handle sexual abuse cases, ecclesiastical abuse, and patriarchal scripts. Feminist scholars like Margaret Toscano, Maxine Hanks, and Lavina Fielding Anderson were excommunicated from the LDS church for exploring these issues.
More women became emboldened to explore other issues surrounding women’s rights, including feminine theology, questioning how religious leaders handle sexual abuse cases, ecclesiastical abuse, and patriarchal scripts. In 2013, a Mormon lawyer named Kate Kelly, along with other activists and scholars, started the Ordain Women movement, which calls for the ordination of Mormon women. Dressed in their Sunday best, they arrived at the gates of Temple Square in Salt Lake City and asked to be admitted into an all-male meeting, to which they were denied entrance. Kelly was excommunicated the next year for what church leaders described as an “aggressive effort to persuade other Church members to [her] point of view, and that [her] course of action has threatened to erode the faith of others.”
Kelly’s excommunication was disheartening for many Mormon women, but we have continued to address issues of inequality in the church. Ecclesiastical punishments were not enough to stop the growing brood yearning for divine and earthly parity.
The rise of the internet-fueled blogs, podcasts, and social media groups such as The Mormon Women Project and Aspiring Mormon Women have allowed women to openly discuss issues of inequality in the LDS church. Ordain Women also continues to educate and organize actions to agitate for equality, including organizing actions and an art display that highlights the inequity in the all-male priesthood. We are addressing the same issues our secular feminist counterparts are addressing, including abortion and LGBTQ issues, and there are also intersectional Mormon voices including FEMWOC (Feminist Mormon Women of Color).
As communication expands in the modern world, LDS beliefs about traditional gender roles are beginning to dissolve. But change isn’t coming fast enough for some. While many women Mormon continue to try to make sense of the conflicts between their personal beliefs and their religion, more and more women are simply leaving the church and taking their feminism elsewhere.
But others are intent on building a more equitable future for all Mormons. Like our faithful pioneer ancestors, Mormon feminists continue to write, organize, and agitate faithfully to God, our church, and to our community to recognize us equal partners. We remember that well-behaved women seldom make history.