“A Pink Life Raft in a Blue Ocean”: Feminist Studies of Mormonism– An Interview with Maxine Hanks, Part I
This is Part One of my interview with Maxine Hanks, who edited and published her well-known feminist anthology, Women and Authority: Re-Emerging Mormon Feminism, with Signature Books in 1992 here. Maxine was one of the “September Six” scholars who were excommunicated from the Church in 1993. She has spent the last couple of decades at various stages of spiritual exploration and discovery, as described here. In February 2012, Maxine was rebaptized into the LDS Church, and has since been on the lecture, interview– and now blogging– circuit, sharing thoughts about her path away from institutional Mormonism and back again. We have invited Maxine here to discuss her continuing work in feminist scholarship, Mormon women’s history and contemporary issues for women in the Church. While Maxine’s and her fellow authors’ work continues to provoke debate, discussion, and even disagreement, there is no question that Women and Authority opened the way for greater application of feminist theory and feminist theology to the study and discussion of the Mormon past. It also made less-well-known and even taboo subjects more readily available for public consumption; and largely due to Women and Authority, topics that might have been shocking in 1992 are now commonplace conversation in classrooms and graduate seminars, social media discussion threads, blogs, podcasts, and perhaps even a Sunday School or Relief Society discussion here and there. Indeed, few scholars of Mormon women’s history, theology or sociology today can say that they have not, in some way, been challenged by Maxine’s ideas about feminism, priesthood, feminine deity, women’s associations, and cultural life in missionary work, marriage and motherhood. It is with great pleasure that we give a warm J.I. welcome to Maxine Hanks.
AR-M: Did this tension inform your approach to studying Mormonism?
MH: Yes, scholarly tests of faith were testing Mormon studies in the 1980s-90s. I began meeting and reading Mormon historians like Dean Jesse, James Allen, Mike Quinn, Ron Esplin, Tom Alexander, and especially women’s historians Maureen Beecher, Jill M. Derr, and Carol Cornwall Madsen, who were gracious, encouraging. I read Women’s Voices.
I met Linda Newell and Val Avery, read Mormon Enigma on a trip to Nauvoo. I read BYU Studies and Dialogue, began attending MHA and Sunstone, met Peggy Fletcher and Susan Staker. Mormon studies was a “brave new world” and feminist work blew me away. That’s where my interest focused.
I was on my own, coming from a working-class, anti-academic, anti-feminist background. I used employment and experience, along with education for training. Linda Hunter Adams mentored me in scholarly editing and publications. I studied media and edited manuscripts for BYU professors. I studied rhetorical analysis and textual interpretation with Arthur Henry King while working as his RA and TA. I edited for Philosophy Dept. learning from Dennis Packard and Jim Faulconer, Dave Paulsen, Camille Williams. I learned from Tom Rogers who put me in his plays, and LaMond Tullis whose history of Mormons in Mexico I edited. Avraham Gileadi taught me Kabbalah while I edited his Isaiah material. Actually Mormon studies was my default; I preferred ancient history with Hugh Nibley and gnostic texts, but I couldn’t fund classics studies. Mormon studies were cheap, they were all around me.
My passion was women’s studies, but they were seen as marginal, soft scholarship, ghetto. I felt I had to prove myself on masculine topics first. I studied philosophy, then Mormon history with Dean May, a kind mentor. I dived into research at LDS Archives, as a regular fixture from 1986-96, researching the Mormon Trail, Ephraim Hanks, Danites, the 1857 War, and sundry topics for other historians and archeologists who hired me to avoid the rules. I assisted Mike Quinn, Allen Roberts, and George Smith with research for their books, which gave me invaluable mentoring. Allen and I worked on archaeological digs, historic architecture, and Sanpete County, co-authoring papers and books. At archives my mentors were Bill Slaughter, Randy Dixon, Ron Watt, Ron Barney, Steve Sorenson, all valued friends. I also craved historic sites, crawling inside Liberty Jail, sitting on the Temple Lot visualizing new Jerusalem, sampling vineyards at Nauvoo, tracing the Mormon Trail and Pony Express routes.
AR-M: What compelled you to study Mormon women? And who were the scholars in women’s history and feminist theory that influenced you?
MH: I was a frusrated feminist drowning in male discourse. That’s how I found my niche. I took women’s studies in 1989 with feminist professors Steph Pace, K. Stockton, Deb Burrington, Mel Cherry, and Vella Evans. Women’s perspectives in dominant discourses were muted, invisible, we lacked tools and language. Gender studies gave me both, which gave me an approach to Mormonism. It was a pink life raft in a blue ocean. I studied feminist history, feminist theory, feminist research methods and social science. I majored in women’s studies while working as an editor at the U.U., and researching Mormon history which veered into women’s history, feminism, and theology. As TA for Dr. Evans’ courses, we co-taught “Women in Mormon Culture” from 1989-98. I also worked with K. MacKay on Utah women’s history.
I read feminists…Wollstonecraft to Woolf, Gilman to Friedan, Lorde to Steinhem, who I met twice. I read theorists and historians Sandra Harding, Gerda Learner, Sara Evans, Joan Scott, M. Hirsch, E. Keller, J. Donovan, R. Tong, M. Belenky, C. Gilligan. I read French feminists Cixous and Irigaray and post-modernists, deconstructionists Foucault, Derrida, Lacan. I read women of color and womanists–hooks, Walker, Moraga, and Gloria Anzaldua who I met. Yet my home was with religion scholars, Mary Daly, Elaine Pagels, R.R. Reuther, E.S. Fiorenza, Carol Christ, J. Plaskow, R. Eisler, J. S. Bolen, Neumann, Campbell.
AR-M: What led you to compile Women and Authority?
MH: In Vella’s course we used Mormon Sisters, and Sisters in Spirit, plus Warenski’s Patriarchs and Politics. I chafed at Warenski’s claims that Mormon women weren’t feminists but “puppets.” I knew Mormons were real feminists, in their own right, “in their own behalf.” I began gathering proof that Mormon women were feminists for a book on the topic we could use in class.
It was time. I saw the signs of Mormon feminist arrival and the need to finally own it and validate it. Groundbreaking scholarship on Mormon women had been appearing in the 1980s, which needed to be available to a wider Mormon audience, and a new wave of feminism arose.
However, women’s studies itself was recent on university campuses, so women’s studies of Mormonism were nearly unknown. We had Mormon women’s history, sociology, and literature, but few women’s studies, feminist theory, or feminist theology. Even the word “feminism” was taboo in Mormon culture (post-Sonia 1979), so using it to analyze Mormon women was unthinkable. Yet I had no choice, if I was going to disprove Warenski.
AR-M: What was your process of choosing and collaborating with other feminists and scholars?
MH: I read women’s publications—Relief Society Minutes, Woman’s Exponent, Relief Society Magazine, Exponent II, Sunstone, Dialogue, MERA, MWFQ. I interviewed feminist groups, past and present. I excerpted Mormon feminist writings from each time period (19th-century first wave feminism, 20th-century second wave feminism, and 1990s third wave feminism) revealing that Mormon feminism was typical within those waves. I selected or commissioned scholarly articles that explored feminism, discourse, theology, organization, priesthood, and blessings. I surveyed women and men about Mother God, receiving myriad responses.
I was amazed by the number of feminist voices and texts in Mormon history, culture, and publications. I had enough material for three books demonstrating Mormon feminism’s own tradition of spirituality and authority located within LDS history and theology.
AR-M: What were your goals in publishing Women and Authority? Was it primarily historical, or did you hope to influence change in the Church?
MH: My intent was using a scholarly lens and framework for evaluating Mormon feminism and theology. Female identity and roles in Mormonism are complex, yet Church discourse oversimplified them, and scholarly work specialized them. Studying Mormon women requires multiple approaches–history, sociology, literary and discourse theory, feminist theory, and theology, religious studies. Women studies is interdisciplinary, so it allowed me that. I knew Mormon feminism was relevant within other fields. Studies of Mormon women were legitimate for their own sake, not a ghetto topic.
The Preface and Introduction briefly outlined approach and methods. Historical approach was the grounding, foundation. Discursive approaches valued voices, texts, identity, and the larger discourse that emerges from them, women’s own tradition. Theoretical approaches helped articulate or name Mormon feminism and feminist theology, emerging from our own voices, experience, texts, and discourse. I identified Mormonism’s own feminism and feminist theory, describing types, examples, waves and backlashes. I identified Mormonism’s own feminist theology, describing types and examples emerging within our unique religion. It was just a start, there was so much more.
I was reading Mormon women’s history in new ways, between the lines, reevaluating women’s and men’s words, seeing signs of women’s agency, authority, self-definition, self-direction, resistance and empowerment, and noticing men’s responses as signifiers of these things.
AR-M: What parts of the book did you anticipate would be the most controversial at the time?
MH: 1) Eliza R. Snow’s commentary on “The Relief Society was designed to be a self-governing organization.” 2) My survey of “Emerging Discourse on the Divine Feminine” or personal visions of the Mother God. 3) Mike’s article on women’s priesthood via the temple.
AR-M: Are there any portions of the book that you would edit or write differently if you had to go back?
MH: Yes, I’d finish my Introduction and Sister Missionary article (first drafts went to press). I’d include excerpts and articles I had to cut—the R.S. publications, chapters on R.S., suffrage, priesthood, theory and feminism, and more visions of Mother God.
AR-M: What else would you do differently? Would you approach the topic or project differently today?
MH: My approach and the material were solid, the research and texts were compelling. The book came together with a life of its own. Even the R.S. Presidency used the book. Looking back, I’d tone down some of the confrontational language.
However, my approach with the Church was flawed. For example, Women and Authority and Women of Covenant came out the same year, containing some of the same information. Yet the Church reviewed and approved WC, while it didn’t even know WA was coming. So leaders interpreted WA as oppositional, when in reality it was supportive. My approach defeated the texts themselves.
[AR-M: For a fair and relevant side-by-side comparative review of Women of Covenant and Women and Authority, see Mary Stovall Richards’s review here.]
AR-M: Can you elaborate on that tension? What went wrong? What went right?
MH: I saw WA as a textbook, not dissent. It was intended for women, students, scholars, the public. I failed to recognize male Church leaders as my audience and the effect of my book on them. I should have let them know about it, cooperate rather than compete, collaborate rather than confront. I was working ahead of the church, out of sync, the church leadership wasn’t prepared for the material.
AR-M: What did you learn from this?
MH: Know your audience. This matured my approach, sensitized me. Public discourse is a two-way conversation, not simply about my need to publish or share information. It’s about my relationship with audience, the quality of our dialogue. Don’t shock your audience, have sensitivity.
AR-M: Coming Soon: “‘There and Back Again': Feminist Studies Post-Purge”–Interview with Maxine Hanks, Part II. . . . .