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Monday, September 17, 2012

The Divine Feminine, Mormon Style: Carol Lynn Pearson's _Mother Wove the Morning_, Joanna Brooks, and Faithful Mormon Feminism

Feminist. It's a divisive word among Mormons. When I've told people that I consider myself a Mormon feminist it gets a wide range of reactions, from pleasant surprise from my more secular friends and peers who have a firm idea in their minds that Mormons are sexist and patriarchal; to a not-so-veiled antagonism from more conservative Mormons; to a simple and warm curiosity from moderates on all sides. As consequence of having seven powerful and independently minded sisters; a traditionally minded mother, who was nevertheless a strong and powerful influence in my life; a long list of female friends (generally, I have gravitated much more towards women than men); not to mention a strong minded wife and a spunky, little daughter; I've always had a robust appreciation for the women in my life. They've been a diverse spectrum of personalities, beliefs, and approaches, which have been a hugely pervasive and positive influence in my life.

Thus my feminism, although I may have hidden it from myself under different names in the early part of my life, it has really always been there, even as a young child. People have called me out on it in my writing, even in the time of my life before I really considered myself an "official" feminist. Women were often the key characters, and came in greater numbers in my plays (except sometimes in my historical pieces, like Swallow the Sun... I couldn't help it if C.S. Lewis mainly hung out with men!). As my writing continued, in time, my feminist identity and themes became even more pronounced... sometimes to the discomfort of certain family members and friends.

Unfortunately, in certain parts of Mormon culture, feminism is seen as a sign of unfaithfulness in the Church. With high profile excommunications of Mormon feminists and aggressive rhetoric against feminism from high places in the Church in past decades, a culture of distance was created within the Church from the main body of the Church and the more "fringe" feminists. However, in the more recent Church, in an environment that I call the New Mormon Faithful, there seems to be more tolerance (at least from the higher levels of the Church), and maybe even encouragement, about a kind of faithful Mormon feminism. Recent comments from President Monson , President Uchtdorf, and Elder Cook have showed at least some effort on the part of the official Church leaders to address the needs of the women of the Church, whether they fit the traditional molds or not.

And it's also very encouraging to see some very strong women's voices emerge in the Church. Sheri Dew, of course, has been a very visible symbol of woman's strength in the Church as the CEO of Deseret Book and a former, unmarried member of the Relief Society Presidency. I found Chieko Okazaki particularly inspiring, as a more diverse and particularly insightful member of the Relief Society Presidency. Although some of her first addresses drew ire from Mormon feminists (especially the controversial "Mothers Who Know"_), I found President Julie Beck to be an interesting Relief Society President, as her presidency evolved into what seemed to be a progressive trajectory. She gave some great forward thinking comments about a woman's ability to receive revelation and found her call to have women intimately study the history of the Relief Society particularly intriguing... there are some very progressive aspects to the Relief Society's history, especially Joseph Smith's progressive comments to the Relief Society, which are often censored or ignored.

Of particular interest to me, however, are two women in Mormon Letters who have really touched me with their writing lately. The first, Carol Lynn Pearson, is a Mormon playwright, poet, and vocal feminist who has been a fixture in Mormon Drama and Mormon Letters since the 1970s. The other is Joanna Brooks, perhaps one of our most prominent female voices in the Church. She's a professor of literature at San Diego State University, has been featured on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, is interviewed often by major news outlets, has a popular memoir Book of Mormon Girl published by Simon and Schuster, and a blog Ask Mormon Girl which has become incredibly popular and influential. I think both women are valuable voices in the Mormon Arts and Letters community, specifically, and within the LDS community at large.
I grew up with the VHS version of Pearson's musical My Turn On Earth as a child. It was a pretty constant Sunday fixture in my family's home in the '80s. I remember my mother reading a lot of Pearson's poetry, and as I grew older I became more aware of her other plays. Eventually, I heard of Mother Wove the Morning, Pearson's one woman play which presents a series of women throughout history who describe their experiences with the Divine Feminine, the Goddess, Wisdom, or (as we call Her in Mormonism) our Heavenly Mother.

I eventually bought a copy of the Mother Wove the Morning and, wow, did it's quality surprise me. I had a rather hit a miss track record with Pearson's plays and how I responded to them, but Mother Wove the Morning moved me in a way that I did not anticipate. Each of the women presented, and their connection to our Heavenly Mother, were beautifully written with pathos and passion. She infused an innate spirituality into the piece which made me ache and long for my Heavenly Mother all over again.

Pearson, if nothing else, is a very brave person. Frankly and openly talking about our Heavenly Mother has become a taboo subject in Mormon culture, especially when trying to lobby for an expanded role for her in our lives, despite the origins of the doctrine tying all the way back to Joseph Smith. She even originally presented the play in the '90s, during a period when a number of high profile excommunications came to Mormon feminists who the Church felt had gone too far . Thankfully, it seems like she had a generous open minded bishop and stake president (the advantages of being a California Mormon, I suppose...). But, during this age of the New Mormon Faithful, I think we will find that feminists like Carol Lynn Pearson will have less to fear. At least that is my hope from the signs and indications I think I have seen from the Brethren.

Which brings us to Joanna Brooks. Here is a woman who mentioned the desire of some women to gain ordination in the Church on national television on NBC. This is the woman who talked with Jon Stewart about marching in gay pride parades . But she has done so with a warm faith and hopeful optimism, absent of the stereotypical coldness and bitterness critics try to pin on feminists. She has done so with such love and positive support of Church leaders, even when she disagrees with some of them. She glories in being a Mormon, she supports and lifts all of those around her. She shows that Mormon feminists don't have to have a bitter edge to get their point across, or an antagonistic stance against Church leadership. She leads with kindness, teaches with love, marches towards progress with hope.

People like her, like Carol Lynn Pearson, are showing that it's a new day for Mormon Feminists. Progress is being made, their voices are being heard. And I think we are all the better off for it, for I don't believe Zion can be truly established without real and honest gender equality.

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