Forging the Thunderbolts: A Report of the “Women and the LDS Church: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives Conference,” August 24-25, 2012.
Overheard at this weekend’s conference: “This could be Mormon women’s Seneca Falls.”
This conference seemed to be riding a wave of attention to Mormon women’s history and contemporary issues, only partly born out of the current media attention to the Church, but mostly due to the public voices of online Mormon women’s groups, and increasing attention to Mormon women’s history (see my own summary of MHA’s recent women’s history offerings here.) Most significantly, Neylan McBaine recently presented a talk for F.A.I.R., in which she called for a middle ground of expanding women’s participatory roles in the church, by stretching some of the cultural aspects of gendered separation still present in LDS culture, but without the more radical demands of priesthood ordination. (See her ground-breaking talk here). Peggy Fletcher Stack has followed up McBaine’s middle-ground approach by asking for reasonable ideas for broadening women’s inclusion in church practice and governance here. This conference built upon these ideas by saying, look, Mormon women have experienced past and present gendered challenges and discrimination– which all need to be validated—but are still committed to their faith, and want to explore ways to expand their agency, through conversation, leadership, creativity, and revelation. This middle-ground approach is attempting to reclaim discussions of Mormon women’s agency from those who want it to mean exclusively female priesthood ordination. Joanna Brooks admitted here that “ordination is important for some of us Mormon feminists, and that for some of us questions of decision-making and institutional participation and visibility take priority. I find myself more in the latter camp.” Saturday’s conference was a resounding answer for those who also seek to work within the framework for greater gendered inclusion, myself among them.
This conference included some of the best and brightest of LDS women intellectuals, including Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Claudia Bushman, Jana Riess, Neylan McBaine, historians Quincy Newell, Susanna Morrill, and Kate Holbrook (who also co-directed the event with Matt Bowman), Catholic religious studies scholar Mary Farrell Bednarowski, English professor Jane Hafen, and popular clinical psychotherapist and author, Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, among others.
The theme of the conference was LDS women’s agency, and especially the notion, as introduced by Catherine Brekus at MHA in 2010 and published in the Journal of Mormon History in Spring 2011, that agency should not be measured by how much women overthrow an institution or a system that supposedly oppresses them. Rather, agency covers a spectrum of choices that might challenge patriarchy, uphold patriarchy, redefine patriarchy, or to stretch its limits in other ways (my summary).
The first session looked at historical examples of women’s agency. Susanna Morrill led off with a discussion of Mormon women’s (and one man’s!) relationship to Heavenly Mother, through poetic, musical, and other literary expressions of the characteristics of divine female parenthood. This topic seemed to get the most audience discussion, especially in regard to how Mormon women might build upon historical explorations of Heavenly Mother to reclaim her in current faith and personal worship. Kate Holbrook then presented a wonderful backstory on the founding of the Primary, showing that Aurelia Spencer Rogers exercised her creativity and revelatory acuity in coming up with the idea for the primary. Perhaps most surprising to attendees was how Rogers, a relative “nobody,” proactively sought the listening ear of the general Relief Society presidency to implement a children’s organization. Through them, the idea reached the desk and approval of the First Presidency, after which Eliza R. Snow gave the suggestion to Sister Rogers’s own bishop to call Rogers as the head of the first primary in Farmington. Sister Rogers’s process of questioning, seeking, and receiving answers is very familiar to Mormon women today, but the notion of a female leader counseling a local priesthood leader might sound a little less familiar. Quincy Newell offered a more troubling portrayal of one woman’s attempt to navigate the choices available to her in the 19th-century Church. Conversion to the Church provided African-American convert Jane Manning James much empowerment, through the exercising of spiritual gifts and her participation in Retrenchment and Relief Society. Indeed, these organizations gave Jane “a way to define her feminine normative behavior that (Mormon) black men didn’t have.” And yet, when Jane issued numerous petitions to attend the temple and receive her endowments, these were always rejected, undeniably due to the racist attitudes of early church leaders. Still, Jane remained faithful. Audience discussion addressed whether a woman can truly exercise agency when the institution that she is supporting is also oppressing her because of both gender and race.
Session Two presented various analytical approaches to women’s agency in the contemporary church. David Campbell presented some statistics taken from a recent survey of 500 “active” Mormon men and women. For one, Campbell and his colleagues found no significant difference between men and women in their level of religiosity and devotion to the LDS Church, as well as a very small difference in both group’s support for an all-male priesthood. And so, Campbell concluded, from a “sociological perspective, patriarchy works, because it keeps men tied to the religion.” Some feminist bloggers have already jumped all over this as a kind of apologia for unquestioned patriarchy, but Campbell presented other findings indicating more complexity in Mormon women’s reactions to the their religious experiences. These included women’s much greater preference for personal revelation over obedience to authority, and female emphasis on “helping others” as a mark of faithfulness over men’s emphasis on “sinlessness.”
Mary Farrell Bednarowski presented a compelling comparison between Catholic and Mormon women’s responses to patriarchy, which was a particular audience favorite. Noting that both groups of women are working within forms of male control, she found a few common areas where women are “creatively responsible moral agent[s],” from Mormon women’s believe in a Heavenly Mother, and Catholic feminists’ attempts to reclaim the “Blessed Virgin” as more than just an obedient and passive figure. She offered ten areas of shared gendered negotiations for Mormon and Catholic women, including recognizing our doctrines as “repositories of [both] tradition and innovation,” quoting Jewish scholar Raquel Adler’s descriptions of how some women experience their own patriarchal religion: “it doesn’t have to be infallible to be infinitely dear, only inexhaustible.” And finally, Jennifer Finlayson-Fife used her experiences as a psychotherapist with a clientele of 80% Mormon women and/or couples, to examine Mormon women’s sexual agency and sense of contentment in marital intimacy. In other words, she argued, many Mormon women enter dating and marriage confused by the expectation to both pure and virtuous, while also sexually alluring. Mormon women have experienced much of the shame and guilt of trying to reconcile these contradictory pressures, but many have also found empowerment in marriage by owning their expressions of sexuality, while also appreciating that the Church’s “Law of Chastity” is technically binding for both women and men, and how it acts as a “communal domestication of male sexuality.” The recent popularity of Fifty Shades of Gray (“You can pick it up next to the bananas,” she quipped.) might also find some mileage among LDS readership for its “benign female eroticism.” Still, Finlayson-Fife summarized some warnings about cultural expectations for women in the Church: “Men need to stop telling women how to be desirable.”
What was absent? There was no Manifesto or Declaration, but that wasn’t really the purpose. Certainly some in attendance expected more “radical” demands for priesthood ordination for women or complete overhaul of the system, and except for a few vocal audience members, the conference really didn’t take that tone. Still, there was a kind of unwritten, unspoken manifesto that threaded the presentations together– how women are negotiating their agency within a patriarchal organization, and continuing to find new (and old) ways of doing so.
In spite of the conspicuous sponsorship by the CHL, various absences were particularly striking and a bit maddening—no current general RS leadership or YW leadership attended, and except for Elder Nash’s attendance at Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Friday night lecture, no high male leadership of the Church made an appearance. There was no visible Mormon Frederick Douglass, there to push the limits of the conversation on behalf of women. Even the Church’s own media outlet, Deseret News, offered an almost defiantly misrepresentative post-conference coverage here, including this disappointing sidebar summary: “The subject of the conference was “Women and the LDS Church.” But the big news coming out of the conference had to do with LDS men.” Really? REALLY??
On my drive home after the conference, I happened upon the “Showtunes” radio station. It was playing the famous song from Oklahoma:
“Everything’s up to date in Kansas City! They’ve gone about as ‘fer as they can go. They went an’ built a skyscraper seven stories high. About as high as a buildin’ orta grow.” I couldn’t help but think of the comparison, and all those who might respond by saying “we’ve gone about as ‘fer as we can go.”
Still, the importance of what was accomplished this weekend cannot be underestimated. A gathering like this, partially sponsored by the LDS Church, and including many women along a spectrum of LDS belief and practice, as well as non-LDS, feminist scholars, male presenters, and international voices, might not have been possible even five or ten years ago. The tone and the spirit of the conference was both challenging and respectful, critical and faithful, and always dignified– a true model for how all discussions about gender in the church should take place. My hope is that we can continue to build on these conversations to recognize LDS women’s agency within the Church that they love, but also expand their involvement in ways that are hopeful and validating for everyone. As Jennifer Finlayson-Fife declared: “Women’s creativity, intelligence . . . are not being used like [they were] in the 19th century to become a community of saints. We have a precedent for this.”
I invite readers of this post, as well as Tona’s reflections on the second half of the conference, to present respectful reflections of their conference experience, observations about what was said, and probing questions to further discussion.