No banners proclaiming “Mormons for ERA” will be soaring over the LDS General Conference this weekend as they did in the 1970s. No Mormon women will be picketing the semi-annual meeting or praying to their Mother in Heaven over wardhouse pulpits, as they did in the 1980s. None will be speaking out on women’s rights on the steps of the state Capitol or on TV, getting themselves fired from Brigham Young University or excommunicated from the church as they did in the 1990s.
In other words, Mormon feminists are awfully quiet.
The Mormon Women’s Forum, established in Salt Lake City in 1988, can scarcely draw a crowd to its annual fall conference. Exponent II, the Boston-based quarterly for Mormon women, which led its readers “gently, gently towards feminism,” is still publishing nearly 30 years after it was launched. But it is more likely to take up issues of grief, aging and being single in a married church than the question of priesthood power.
These days, Mormons feminists are less likely to publicly cut their ties to the church than to quietly slip into inactivity or simply go underground, nursing their concerns in private.
Feminism as a movement within Mormonism “is dead or dying with our generation,” says Claudia Bushman, an LDS historian who teaches at Columbia University. “Feminism is such a potent word, it’s been expunged from our vocabulary.”
But does that mean there are no independent, free-thinking women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Or that all women’s issues have been resolved? Or that they no longer care about the questions that remain in a church which excludes women from its top offices?
The answer to all three is no, says Jill Derr, managing director of BYU’s Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History.
Young Mormon women today “take equality between men and women on a personal and professional level as a given,” she says. “It’s not even a question.”
Young scholars are more well-rounded, more disciplined and less scarred by the experience of overt discrimination, Derr says. They expect to balance family and career and presume the church’s approval.
“They did not live through the polarizing era that was such a marked part of our lives,” she says. “They can look at our history through a more nuanced, complex lens.”
It may be just the term “feminism” that makes people wince.
For some, it carries too many negative connotations derived from past battles and is synonymous with a confrontational style or hostility to motherhood. Or they feel it has been co-opted by those who define it solely in terms of reproductive rights or competition with men.
One BYU professor says “feminism” has been dropped from women’s studies discourse almost entirely, replaced by the more neutral term “gender.”
Besides, the church has changed a lot since the 1970s.
Issues that electrified earlier activists have slowly declined or disappeared, Bushman says. Female participation and visibility in the church are on the rise.
At this weekend’s conference, at least one woman will likely speak in nearly every session (except tonight’s priesthood session, open only to men).
Women can preach and pray over ward pulpits as often and as prominently as men. They sit on ward councils, serve as presidents of women’s organizations such as Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary. They officiate at some women-only temple ceremonies. More and more of them are serving full-time missions for the church, becoming just as well-versed in Mormon scriptures as their male counterparts.
On the home front, the church has stopped pushing big families and talking about birth control. Mormon leaders still see the nurturing of children as the most important thing a woman can do, but are more sensitive to the needs of working women. They encourage couples to make family decisions prayerfully, based on individual situations, not on a universal mandate.
Last summer the Smith Institute hired Bushman to direct a seminar for graduate students on LDS women in the 20th century. Organizers had to choose qualified fellows from among dozens of applicants. They settled on eight women from Harvard, Yale, Brown, the University of Utah, Claremont College and BYU. Some were married with children, some without children, some single. At least half had served LDS missions.
“They were all very ambitious, very able and very devoted to the church,” Bushman says. “When I was that age, you could not have assembled a group like that.”
They spent eight weeks in Provo, researching topics ranging from LDS participation in the National Council of Women from 1888-1987, the history of the church’s stance on birth control, rifts among LDS women created by the Equal Rights Amendment, and the relationship between patriarchy and contentment.
“We tend to tell our story by jumping from event to event, mostly negative,” Bushman says. “We wanted a better way of looking at it.”
Back to the future: Whenever Derr goes to academic conferences, she encounters people who say, “I know the history of Mormon women. They had a lot of power. Now they’ve lost it.”
That’s not the way she sees it. But there’s no question that the institutional roles of LDS women fluctuated throughout the faith’s 163-year history.
In the 19th century, many Mormon women did feel a stronger sense of their partnership with the priesthood. They were outspoken leaders of their own female organizations, especially the Relief Society.
Ironically, polygamy and the church’s outsider status in America gave Mormon women some freedom from the reigning Victorian ideals of domestic life. Leaders like Eliza Snow spoke openly of their spiritual powers and being the offspring of heavenly parents — one of them God the Mother.
Mormon women were early suffragettes, forming alliances with national leaders such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who spoke in Utah. They were the first in the nation to vote and among the first to pursue professional careers in medicine, business and law. State Sen. Martha Hughes Cannon was the first U.S. woman to be elected to a legislature.
These women owned their own buildings, organized a hospital and published a newspaper, Woman’s Exponent, which was edited by Emmeline B. Wells, a plural wife and mother of five daughters, from 1877 to 1914. In the newspaper, Wells and women like her promoted female education and careers.
But when the church gave up polygamy in order to gain national acceptance, its women struggled to maintain their independence.
“The image of Mormon women as docile homemakers, a la June Cleaver serving Jell-O to a smiling family in a 1950s sitcom, is just one of the many things Mormonism adopted from conservative American culture,” wrote Margaret Toscano, who was excommunicated on Nov. 20, 2000, for her feminist heresies.
Perhaps the biggest loss to Mormon women in the early 20th century was the spiritual gifts they had enjoyed, including blessing the sick, a rite now performed only by men.
Then came the 1970s movement to add an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which the LDS Church helped to defeat.
Some Mormon women were for the amendment and some against it, and that conflict erupted bitterly in 1977 at a meeting of the International Women’s Year in Salt Lake City. Organizers planned for 3,000 women, but 10,000 showed up after getting marching orders from church headquarters. The nearly hysterical mob voted down every proposal.
Next came activist Sonia Johnson, who sparred with U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch over the ERA in Senate Committee hearings and exposed the LDS Church’s behind-the-scenes opposition to the amendment. She was excommunicated in December 1979, and her case became a cautionary tale to Mormon feminists everywhere.
In the 1980s, women again began talking among themselves about a Heavenly Mother — a concept that for decades had lost its potency — and some acknowledged praying to her. Church leaders swiftly condemned any public display of devotion to her.
And women speculated about the possibility of being ordained to what has always been a male-only priesthood.
“There doesn’t appear to be much interest in the priesthood question anymore,” says Nancy Dredge, editor of Exponent II. “It’s been talked to death.”
Derr says young Mormon women still want to explore their relationship to the priesthood, but they raise the issue with family and in private settings.
“The questions haven’t changed,” she says. “Just the venues for discussing them.”
Woman vs. woman: One issue that still percolates in the church — as it does in the rest of American society — is the importance of having a full-time career versus staying at home with the kids.
On Feb. 22, 1987, LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson sounded the battle cry with his speech, “To the Mothers in Zion.” He told Mormon women in no uncertain terms not to postpone having children or curtail the number of children for “personal or selfish reasons.” He also said unequivocally that mothers belong in the home, not the workplace.
The speech had an immediate and overwhelming impact: D ozens if not hundreds of Mormon women quit their jobs, believing that was what their prophet wanted, while others felt guilty for ignoring that mandate.
And the church tried to implement institutional policies that would enforce women’s role. For a long time, women were forbidden to teach at LDS Institutes of Religion, but now they can be hired — as long as they have no children under 18.
Nor can women with children under 18 be temple workers to assist with rituals, but they can volunteer in the laundry.
Since ascending to the LDS presidency in 1995, however, Gordon B. Hinckley has presented a more variegated stance.
The work of raising a family should be tantamount in a woman’s life, he says, but it is up to individual women (with their spouses) to decide when and how best to accomplish that. Education is important for women and so is self-respect. Simple ideas, maybe, but in a Mormon context almost revolutionary.
Last spring Hinckley told the church’s 12- to 18-year-old girls to “study your options. Pray to the Lord earnestly for direction. Then pursue your course with resolution. The whole gamut of human endeavor is now open to women.”
He described meeting an LDS nurse who was raising three children while working.
“There is such a demand for people with her skills that she can do almost anything she pleases,” 93-year-old leader said. “She is the kind of woman of whom you might dream as you look to the future.”
Of Hinckley’s speech and emphasis, Bushman says, “That’s the new model. I like it.”
Emphasis on education, formal or self-selected, seems to be working.
Thousands attend BYU’s annual three-day Women’s Conference each spring, where many of the speakers are female scholars, writers and thinkers. And now Deseret Book, the church’s publishing arm, is taking some of its writers to one-day seminars for women across the country. So far they’ve been filling gymnasiums and stadiums in cities from San Diego to Orlando, Fla..
The number of women faculty at BYU has steadily risen from 13 percent in 1983 to more than 20 percent today, says spokeswoman Carrie Jenkins. More Mormon women are graduating from college and professional schools than ever.
Elizabeth Harmmer-Dionne, a Boston attorney and mother of three young children, is one such woman.
Harmmer-Dionne graduated from Wellsley College where she says she constantly got the standard question: How can you be in that patriarchal church?
Her reply was her life, she says. “A lot of what I am, I owe to the church. If feminism is empowerment, so is the gospel.”
In her Cambridge ward, Harmmer-Dionne sees a lot of female graduate students. Many of them feel a strong sense of mission about their careers.
“It comes out of their sense of personal revelation,” she says. “That is the quiet story of feminism no one notices.”
Peggy Fletcher Stack