Juvenile Instructor » A Semester of “Gendering Mormonism” by Patrick Mason
 


A Semester of “Gendering Mormonism” by Patrick Mason

By: Ben P - May 08, 2012

(The following is cross-posted, with permission, from the stupendous blog Feminism and Religion. If you haven’t been reading their fascinating and sophisticated material, repent and bookmark their site today.)

Readers of FAR have been treated to a number of posts over the past few months from members of the “Gendering Mormonism” class I taught this semester at Claremont Graduate University.  I was fairly apprehensive in offering the course.  For one, I’m not a scholar of gender, gender studies, feminist theory, feminist theology, queer studies, queer theology, or anything related—I’m a historian of American religion, and most of my training to that effect was about the white guys in American religion (most of whom, you’ll be shocked to learn, weren’t exactly feminists).  I have also spent some time in international peace studies, where I got a crash course in issues of gender justice.  But I entered this course as a relative novice.  This is one of the fun things about being a member of a graduate faculty—as a professor I don’t have to pretend to be the fount of all wisdom all the time, and I learn a lot from students who are often more expert in a particular field than I am.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but from my perspective the course was an unqualified success.  The #1 reason for that:  the students (and, to be sure, our TA, FAR’s very own Caroline Kline).  Part of what I was apprehensive about was what the classroom climate would be.  It will come as no surprise to readers here that Mormonism has plenty of room for critique on gender issues, from the obvious to the more subtle, all of which I feared would be fodder for a semester-long rant against Mormon patriarchy, homophobia, and heteronormativity.  To be sure, there was plenty of that, but the conversation was richer, more nuanced, more analytical, and thus more faithful to the complexity and messiness of human experience.

The LDS students, who were all female—betokening a broader problem of male disinterest once the word “gender” is mentioned—were neither punching bags nor mere apologists, but critical examiners of their chosen tradition while also affirming through their own personal experience how Mormonism provides meaning and empowerment in their lives even as it is a source of regular frustration.  The non-LDS students, who came from a mix of other faith traditions or no tradition at all, were insatiably curious in learning about the layers and complexities of Mormon theology, history, and practice.  More importantly, they asked all the tough questions and made all the damning comments, while also recognizing and to some degree reveling in some of the distinctive (if often suppressed or sublimated) possibilities for gender equality opened up by Mormon theology and practice.

One of the primary goals of the class was to put Mormonism and gender studies in conversation with one another, allowing each one to critique and enrich the other.  Along these lines, I thought one of the best comments of the semester came in an ethnographic paper written by a student after visiting a Mormon Sunday service:  these are real people—real women!  It’s amazing what happens when our analysis leaves the abstractions of the ivory tower and becomes connected to flesh and blood—it’s so much easier to belittle or demonize the imagined other.  It was this consistent recognition of the profound humanity of our subjects that imbued the class with a sense of deep engagement rather than the superficiality of most of our public and private (and, unfortunately, too often academic) discourse about religion.  Just as they could teach the feminist and queer communities about being open to Mormon humanity, my students could also teach Mormons in the pews a thing or two about recognizing and respecting the profound humanity of feminists, homosexuals, and secularists who all too frequently simply appear as one-dimensional bogeymen.

One of the important aspects of the class was that everything was on the table, including a number of subjects that would make many LDS church members and leaders squeamish.  Over the course of fourteen weeks we discussed (and argued and joked and yelled about), among other things, historic Mormon feminism, Mother in Heaven, Mormon feminist theologies, gender identity and difference, women’s roles and experiences, Mormon women and second-wave feminism (with guest lecturer Laurel Thatcher Ulrich), masculinity, priesthood, patriarchy, polygamy, sexuality, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage (including, of course, California Prop 8).  Most weeks the conversation was so rich, so engaged, so loud, that we got to only a fraction of our assigned reading and regularly kept the next class standing impatiently outside the door waiting for us to vacate the room.  I haven’t seen the students’ research papers yet, but I look forward to essays that will push the field forward—it is a fertile field for study, and as some of the most well-read people on the planet on the topic of gender and Mormonism, my students now have the opportunity to really move the conversation forward in new and exciting directions.

Finally, what did a semester of “Gendering Mormonism” do for me?  On one level, I simply learned a lot of stuff.  I will forget many of the details in the readings or our class conversations, but what I will remember is the transformational experience of participating in an engaged, honest, safe classroom space where people could talk about tough, and often quite personal, issues at a high level of sophistication and without the fear of being misunderstood, caricatured, or ridiculed.  And most importantly, I walk away from this semester a stronger feminist, a more convinced and empowered advocate for LGTBG equality, a more informed and (hopefully) sophisticated scholar, a better Mormon, and a better human.

Not bad for a semester’s work.

Patrick Mason is Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies and an associate professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University.  His graduate degrees are from the University of Notre Dame, in history and international peace studies.  He is the author of The Mormon Menace:  Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South (Oxford UP, 2011)



10 Comments

  1. Interesting. I’m hoping that you are oversimplifying a bit. I find the suggestion troubling that it was the non-Mormon students who had to attend Sunday School to realize “gasp” that they were real women — real people, and that it was the non-Mormon students who similarly asked all of the tough questions. I have many Mormon friends who are deeply committed to feminism and ask difficult questions about their faith. Likewise, a lot of my non-Mormon friends from Southern California surprised me with their knowledge about Mormonism. Although So Cal is less influenced by Mormonism, than say, Idaho or Utah, it still bears a Mormon imprint.

    There is also a bit of a false dichotomy in your post between Mormon and non-Mormon. A lot of non-Mormons who are interested in the topic are interested because they have family members or friends who are Mormon. My interest in Mormonism, for example, stems from my pioneer heritage and from my large Mormon family. My interest in Mormonism and gender stems from personal experience. I grew up in an abusive household where the scripture citations from the Book of Mormon were frequently used to justify my father’s control and treatment of my mother. When asked why I’m not Mormon, gender is one of the primary reasons. My lack of belief in the Book of Mormon as ancient scripture is a close second.

    Finally, I wonder about the students’ reactions to questions about homosexuality. I’ve always felt that gender equality can only come with the complete acceptance of homosexuality and that in divinizing the family, Mormonism cuts off that possibility. I wonder what the students, especially those who were LGTBQ felt.

    Comment by Amanda HK — May 8, 2012 @ 8:39 am

  2. Ah, I’m disappointed to hear that this course was offered *this* semester and not in the fall, when I’ll be arriving at Claremont. I hope that you decide to teach it again in the next few years, for I would be one Mormon male that would take a course in gender studies!

    Comment by Michael H. — May 8, 2012 @ 9:47 am

  3. Sounds like a fantastic course, Patrick. Well done!

    Comment by Kevin Barney — May 8, 2012 @ 9:48 am

  4. I wish I had been enrolled in the class.

    Comment by Jessica F — May 8, 2012 @ 9:53 am

  5. Thanks everyone for their remarks. Amanda, no doubt this post is a vast oversimplification of what was a very rich semester of 16 3-hour long discussions. I was being a bit flip in including the observation that these are – gasp – real women, but the student’s paper really did say something to that effect. Of course she knew that in her head (after all, there were several real Mormon women in the class), but it’s another thing to go to a congregation and see how this religion works in the flesh. That’s why, whenever appropriate, I require my religion students to attend services or meet with believers — otherwise our academic study of religion can get awfully abstract and divorced from what gives real people meaning in their real lives. No doubt, people in SoCal are more exposed to Mormonism than people east of the Rockies, but the fact that you know someone is there, and maybe even went to high school with a handful of them, doesn’t mean you know anything about them or their religion. My wife’s best friends in high school were all Mormon, and she went to church dances and girls’ camp, but she didn’t know anything substantive (doctrinally or historically) about Mormonism until she met with the missionaries years later.

    I’m not quite sure what you mean about avoiding a “false dichotomy” between Mormon and non-Mormon — people really are one or the other (recognizing there are many who inhabit the borderlands in between), and the falsity would be in pretending that the categories aren’t real. This is not only the case out in the “real world,” but also in the classroom as well, where my LDS and non-LDS students brought different things to the table in terms of their experience, background, the kinds of questions they asked, etc. As much as possible I wanted to break down the dichotomy and have everyone participate as scholars rather than members of confessional communities (whether Mormon or LGTBQ), but to pretend the differences aren’t there isn’t particularly helpful, I think. In my mind the false dichotomy is Mormon vs. feminist, or Mormon vs. liberal, or Mormon vs. LGTBQ, but not Mormon vs. non-Mormon — that’s just a common-sense issue of nomenclature and chosen identity, not a value statement.

    Finally, on LGTBQ issues, they came up throughout the semester, partly because they’re unavoidable and partly because one of the students in the class was gay and several other are well-versed in queer theory and queer theology. One of everyone’s favorite articles we read all semester was Taylor Petrey’s instant Dialogue classic, “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology.”

    Comment by Patrick Mason — May 8, 2012 @ 11:42 am

  6. Michael — the course was successful enough that I’ll definitely do it again (probably in spring 2014), perhaps in regular rotation thereafter.

    Comment by Patrick Mason — May 8, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

  7. Very interesting, Dr. Mason. I’m sorry I missed out on taking any of your classes.

    With regard to the “broader problem of male disinterest once the word ‘gender’ is mentioned,” I witnessed that firsthand when I took a class on women in Christianity from Dr. Ruether. Of the nearly forty students in the class, only two of us were male. I found that kind of baffling. I mean, this was Rosemary Radford Ruether we’re talking about. You’d be hard-pressed to find a comparable superstar teaching religion at Claremont. Yet it seems that only the female students knew what a big deal she was.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — May 8, 2012 @ 1:14 pm

  8. Sounds fascinating!

    Comment by Saskia — May 8, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

  9. Dr. Mason,

    I do think there is a false dichotomy between Mormon and non-Mormon. Take, for example, Utah. There are thousands of people who grew up in the region, attended Mutual or Primary for a few years, but haven’t attended church in decades and will only see the inside of a ward building the next time someone dies. Are these people Mormon? What about someone like Will Bagley? He identifies as Mormon, but others would reject that classification for him. Personally, I find it helpful to think of Mormonism both as a culture and as a religion. Identities in places where there are substantive Mormon cultural element. The distinction between Mormon and non-Mormon isn’t easy or quick. Once I moved out of Idaho, I realized that as much as I despised Mormonism at the time that I had ingested a lot of its assumptions and ideas. As much as some people don’t like John Dehlin, I think that his work in redefining what it means to be a Mormon is important.

    I think I was reacting to what you describe as the “glibness” of the paragraph talking about the non-Mormon student. In my experience, the distinctions just aren’t that easy to make. A lot of students who are interested in Mormonism but don’t identify as Mormon still have had a lot of painful encounters with it and base their reactions to Mormonism not on stereotypes or a sense that they aren’t people, but actual painful encounters.

    Comment by Amanda HK — May 8, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

  10. Chris – Kudos on taking Rosemary’s class. You’re right, anyone who comes through Claremont and doesn’t take advantage of this superstar, regardless of their field, is remiss.

    Amanda – I agree with all you say here. And this is why I should be more careful when I write blog posts. I wrote in such bifurcated terms because that was the make-up of this particular class — we didn’t have any students who were operating in the kinds of liminal spaces you describe here (which are absolutely valid and important). In short, the students in the class were either lifelong, active members of the LDS Church (though on various points on the ideological spectrum within the church), or people who had never been associated with Mormonism and who came to it with very little knowledge or background. Obviously there are plenty of shades in between.

    Comment by Patrick Mason — May 9, 2012 @ 3:37 pm