Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Does being a Mormon Feminist make me an oxymoron?

I'm getting into the world of Mormon feminism. It started with my work as a birth activist when Henci Goer, author and activist, said to me, "That's a feminist argument. Can Mormons be feminist?"

"I guess so. I don't know any but watch me be one," I replied.

Parallel to that, I was on a quest to understand Mormon women's predominant views on childbirth and why the majority of Mormon women heeded the "trust your doctor" advice. I have things to say about that, of course. But it was through Henci's question that I started looking to Mormon organizations that were working on social justice issues and Mormon Women's organizations to see if there were other LDS writers on childbirth issues. I started following the blogs at Feminist Mormon Housewives and Exponent.

I was thrown headlong into Mormon Feminism with this post from Jessawhy at Exponent. I jumped at the idea because it seemed like what I was looking for: a platform for LDS women to address issues of social injustice that they saw through out the world and a way for LDS women to work together to promote the civic policies that would be supported by the LDS Church (which were my educational and professional activities developed at BYU).

I've been working with organization since. It is in its formative stages still. Through my involvement with that organization, not only have I met a number of Mormon Feminists, I've found that there is a legacy of Mormon Feminism that started in the very beginnings of the LDS Church. Its become apparent to me that its a good idea to know this legacy and to learn more about it.

The first book I'm starting with on this topic is an anthology of articles called "Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism." From the table of contents and reviews I've read, it covers analysis of church policy in relation to Heavenly Mother as well as priesthood authority and women's roles in the church. For me, I'm seeking to understand where other women are coming from in their thoughts and desires relating to these issues and I'm finding that I am beginning to care to know the answers for myself as well.

The first thing that struck me from reading Women and Authority is the following passage:
There are different ways Mormon women and men receive access to priesthood power; through the baptismal covenant with Christ and gifts of the spirit; setting apart or ordination to various church positions; through the temple endowment and through temple marriage. Currently permission to use this priesthood is granted in full to men (through ordination to a priesthood office) and in limited form to women through setting apart to a church position. Priesthood discussions in this book focus on the temple endowment as the means of conferral of priesthood to women.

Historically in nineteenth-century Mormonism, priesthood offices have been conferred only to men; yet priesthood power and ordinances were administered by both women and men. After the turn of the century women's exercise of priesthood was discouraged and ultimately revoked, while men's priesthood was expanded. If the momentum of women's nineteenth-century priesthood had been maintained, women might have been fully included in the priesthood correlation program and perhaps would be fully able to exercise their priesthood power today.

Activation of women's priesthood power has been suggested by many Mormon feminists over the past decade. if this were to happen, women might not sense possession of something new but rather a loosening of bonds, perhaps a freedom to use something they have always had, or a spiritual liberation.

This crystalizes for me what I have been pondering as I've attended the temple recently. The language for women having an expanded role in the priesthood is there in the wording of the endowment ceremony. The historical legacy of feminist women in the early church is also there as I learned from reading biographies of the early presidents of the Relief Society.

I'm learning that some major shift happened in the church between then and now where it is no longer acceptable for women to act in the same ways that they did in the late 1800's. Additionally, this shift took place quietly and is marginalized in the history of the church. It is this combination that is upsetting to me.

I do know that given what I have learned regarding women giving blessings of healing, having greater autonomy in the Relief Society organization in the past and their role today as ordinance workers in the temple, that there is more that women can and maybe should be doing in the church today. I have sensed in the past that I as a woman in the church is held back from doing what I feel led to do and I'm realizing the background and history that is going into that.

At this point, I am honestly seeking to understand why this shutting out of women from the priesthood has occurred and to ask honestly and earnestly if the time is coming for when that will be changed.


Deborah said...

The "official" history of the Relief Society (official in that it was published by Deseret book) is actually amazingly awesome, if you haven't read it: "Women of Covenent: The Story of the Relief Society." Very open about women and healing, how/when that changed, the pain the RS general pres felt when correlation removed their autonomy . . .

So glad you are commenting at Exponent . . . I look forward to following your blog.

Jessica Steed said...

This is a great post. I'm glad you've explained your journey to Mormon feminism.
I haven't read Women and Authority yet (it's on my list) but Mormon Enigma was a very powerful book in shaping my views of women in early church history (it's about Emma Smith).

I love working with you in WAVE and look forward to making things happen in the world of Mormon feminism.

Jenne said...

Deborah, thank you for recommending that book. My guess is that it goes more in depth than the chapters in Women and Authority. I would like to understand more of the whys of the slow limiting of RS involvement. Women of Covenant sounds like a good source for that. Do you find that it was a honest, objective presentation of the history?