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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Faithful Mormon Feminism, Part One: An Introduction

When I use the word "feminist," I get a range of reactions within my Mormon faith community. Some have gathered to the word with me, having felt the strain of living with it in a patriarchal culture themselves. Many people have been struggling with their faith, seeing a disconnect from the principles of the Gospel taught in the scriptures; seeing the progressive example of Jesus in how he interacted with women; reading examples in the scriptures of an expanded women’s role (such as Deborah in the Old Testament, Abish and the Lamanite women in the Book of Mormon, or Mary Magdalene in the New Testament, to name only a few); reading statements from early Mormon leaders such as Joseph Smith’s comments to the early Relief Society, where he said he was “going to make of this Society a  kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day— as in Pauls day.”[1]

However, some have called me an apostate, one person comparing people like me to the Amlicites who marked themselves as enemies of the people of God in the Book of Mormon (see Alma chapters 2 and 3). By affixing a title like "feminist," does that automatically make a person "marked" for evil? If so, similar markings such as "Republican" or "environmentalist" or "architect" or "doctor" or "professor" or "Trekkie" could be equally as dangerous. But then how will we differentiate our particular views from each other, even among the "faithful" in the Church? And we DO have different views (put a Mormon Libertarian and a Mormon Democrat in the same room together and see the fireworks. Or one who strongly believes in breastfeeding and one who doesn't. Or a Mormon BYU fan and a Mormon Utes fan. Etc.). 

Even Mormon leaders have had different views, such as Pres. Hugh B. Brown's opposition to Elder Ezra Taft Benson's views on politics and race[2]; or President David O. McKay's objections to Elder Bruce R. McConkie's book Mormon Doctrine[3]; or Brigham Young and Orson Pratt’s spat about the Adam-God theory (among other issues)[4]; complete unanimity in the Church, among its members or even among its leadership, has never happened in a modern context. Not on a cultural level, not on a political level, not even on a theological level. There is always going to be distinguishing differences between the Church’s various members. So when people start questioning each other’s faith because of various principles others believe in that are different than their own, I find that alienating and disrespectful.

There have been many “righteous” men and women who have disagreed with each other, the highest level of the leadership of the Church not excepted. If people are not allowed to disagree in the Church, even occasionally on a theological level, then such a stringent line would break apart the Church, including the leadership. No two leaders, not two lay members, no two people have the exact cultural, political, or spiritual worldview. There is no “single” interpretation of the scriptures… rather The Book of Mormon encourages us to “liken the scriptures”[5] unto ourselves, indicating that there is a personal interaction with the scriptures and the Spirit, in addition to the institutional interpretations.    

I have also read the unflattering comparison of feminists to apostates extend to the example of Hiram Page, who was receiving his own false revelations separate from the Church from a seer stone, claiming that it was binding on the Church (see the LDS Doctrine and Covenants section 28). The thing is, though, I don’t think I have ever met a Mormon feminist who thought they were receiving revelation for the Church. The policies and procedures of the Church belong to those leaders of the Church who have been given those keys.

However, that said, citing the very same Doctrine and Covenants, many, many of the early revelations given to Joseph Smith came into response to a question, often asked by an outside source to Joseph Smith. Like Zelophehad’s daughters[6] in the Old Testament who petitioned Moses for female property rights, revelation often comes to those who ask (and thus receive), knock (and thus have it opened unto them). The scriptures seem to criticize the thinking of those who expect revelation without an inquisitive nature. As the Lord told Oliver Cowdery in the Doctrine and Covenants, “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.”[7]

So that default position some people take, immediately associating feminism with apostasy, deeply troubles me. It seems so judgmental and reactionary in a Church that is becoming increasingly compassionate in its rhetoric and diverse in its membership (isn’t that what the Church’s “I’m a Mormon” campaign is all about, showing how diverse Mormons can be?).

The last grouping of Mormons who react to my use of the word “feminist,” which is probably the largest grouping, are those who ask me, “What do you mean by feminist?” And that is a great question. The word has been used by so many people for so many different worldviews. For example, I’m passionately pro-life, except in cases of rape, incest, or the mother’s life being in danger (which, by the way, is the Church’s current official position, too). So those who overly associate feminism with Roe versus Wade do not understand my personal meaning of the word. There are so many kinds of feminists, from different backgrounds, different religions (or lack of religion), different political beliefs, different social contexts, different worldviews…it’s a diverse set.
Within those groupings I think there are various kinds of faithful Mormon feminisms…feminists who believe in the Mormon ideas of modern prophets and of continuing revelation (personal and institutional). Faithful Mormon feminists who believe in Jesus Christ and the Restoration and the Book of Mormon. Some faithful Mormon feminists are praying and hoping (and even advocating) for female ordination, while others are simply wanting to see certain cultural assumptions among the Church’s leadership that aren’t based in the scriptures or modern revelation evaporate. I know a number of Mormon feminists who simply aren’t as interested in the ordination issue, but have other issues (breast feeding, being allowed to non-priesthood callings such as ward clerk, prayers in general conference, issues with female missionary services, funding for the Young Women’s program, etc.). I think the various kinds of Mormon feminists should have voice in the Church and that there should be no stigma attached to their faithfulness, whether their particular brand of feminism aligns with mine or not, just as I believe those who don’t believe in any kind of feminism should have no stigma attached to them either. I don’t want to call into anyone’s faithfulness for not believing “The Gospel According to Mahonri.” I don’t think it is a moral obligation for people to believe what I believe.

So in this series of posts, I’m going to address what I mean by “Faithful Mormon Feminism,” and why that is not an oxymoron. I’m going to look at Jesus’ relationship with women, the role of women in the scriptures, the history of the Relief Society, our relationship with our Heavenly Mother (or lack thereof), spiritual gifts practiced by women, our attitudes and misconceptions about feminism and gender, feminism in the modern Church, my personal experiences on the topic, among many other interesting and spiritually important topics. I don’t know how many posts I’ll write or when I’ll stop. They will be scattered among my others posts of different topics.

But this is the beginning, where I reach out to my fellow faithful Mormon feminists (no matter how they individually define the term); where I challenge those who would equate feminism with apostasy; and where I begin my dialogue with those honestly inquisitive folks who have asked me how I define my own brand of spiritual feminism. And, as I have seen many people make similar statements in print, on the internet, and face to face, I whole heartedly encourage others who are interested in the topic to seek their own definitions, with study and with prayer, and to join the conversation either here, or in their own blogs, papers, books, conversations, or communications with Deity. Especially being a man, I obviously have a limited perspective on the subject, which I recognize. So I would love to hear feedback and differing points of view. This should be a conversation that's had among diverse people of all sorts of backgrounds and personal beliefs.

[1] “The Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book,” The Joseph Smith Papers,
[2] D. Michael Quinn, “Ezra Taft Benson and Mormon Political Conflicts,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (Summer 1993).
[3] Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism: p. 49-53.
[4] John G. Turner, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, 172-173, 234-236, 330-333, 335-336.
[5] 1 Nephi 19:24
[6] Numbers 27
[7] Doctrine and Covenants 9:7


  1. I get to leave the first comment? Cool! :)

    I really appreciate the tone you're setting for this series, Mahonri. The term "feminist" is a loaded one steeped in so many assumptions that I hesitate to use it as a descriptor for myself. And that works both ways -- some who loudly proclaim themselves feminists would renounce me as one for many reasons, while at the same time I've both walked out on meetings and directly challenged my local church leaders regarding some of the sexist things they'd said.

    It would be an improvement in the world if saying "I'm a feminist" was seen as an invitation for conversation. Looking forward to the rest!

    1. Hillary! So good to see you here...

      Yeah, I'm trying to be very careful with my definition(s) of feminism and with the tone being set up here. It's an obviously touchy subject these days (has it ever NOT been?), but the relationships between men and women and God is a lifelong fascination for me. There are so many things with "feminism" so-called that I deeply connect with. But I've found that so many people are so afraid of the word, and that they have very SPECIFIC conceptions of it, that may or may not have much to do with what I actually believe, that I often have to qualify what I mean by it...

  2. Excellent post, Mahonri. I've started self-identifying as a Mormon feminist myself, but so far no one has yet told me that this endangered my soul. :-)

    I'm looking forward to the next piece!

    1. Oh, just you wait, Nathaniel...
      Or maybe you won't get the same response because you live beyond the Book of Mormon Belt. ;)

  3. I love that you are approaching this topic! Excited to hear more. :)

    1. Won't lie... a little nervous. But it's a topic I'm passionate about. :)