Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Feminists or not? Who has the right to take a label?

This post was inspired by Amy's post on whether the Feminist Mormon Housewives are really feminists, and then Cognitive Dissenter's post asserting that they most certainly are not.

I haven't stopped over there much recently, but I do find the blog interesting, even though sometimes reading can be like watching a train about the bear down on the car, and you're hoping the car is going to move out of the way before the train hits, but then it doesn't. They seem to be women who recognize the value of feminism and then try so hard to make it fit into an organization that doesn't even pretend to be anything but patriarchal. I feel like they're fighting a losing a battle, but part of me is still rooting for them. Because the LDS Church is not going to go away and I think it will be because of women like them that it will eventually (like in a century or two) evolve into something more equitable. I'm not going to be a part of it anymore, thank goodness, but other girls are still going to be born into that organization and I can only hope that they'll grow up with a little more mental breathing room than I had.

So many of the posts over there delineate everything that's harmful toward women and girls (and humans in general) about the Church, but then still conclude that, "Well, but since the Church is after all true, what can we do about it?" I can sympathize. The stronghold the Church can have over a person's psyche really is like an abusive relationship. Intellectual dissent can be grounds for excommunication, which is essentially being cut off from the presence of God in this life and eternal salvation in the next, being denied the privilege of being with your family in the eternities. For a woman who believes in those doctrines and who loves her husband and children, that's a completely understandable motivation to toe the line, in my view. 

Amy asks very legitimately, why spend so much energy countering the messages your daughters hear at church? Why not just not expose them to those messages anyway? I feel the same way. So many of the complain-y articles over there make me ask, "Well, why don't you leave? You can clearly see flaws in church culture and how the doctrine supports these flaws. How can you retain a testimony?" It truly baffles me, but for whatever reason, most of them are staying, and I really wish them luck for the sake of upcoming generations of girls born into the Church. The Church has changed a lot since its founding. It's always behind the curve when it comes to positive change (Blacks didn't get the priesthood till 1978? Hello?!), but it does change and will continue to do so. 

But are they "real" feminists? Amy says not, on the grounds that they're not "doing" feminism, but merely "bitching" feminism. The other commenters on her post definitely had interesting things to say. Cognitive Dissenter says definitely not. You must go over and check out her post because the accompanying comic was perfect. I'm torn. I feel like they're doing as much as they can in their circumstance, which is being under emotional blackmail if they step too far out of line. Bitching on a blog is about as far as they can go if they want to retain their membership, and therefore salvation.

Let's appeal to the entry on feminism:
the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rightsof women equal to those of men.
sometimes initial capital letter an organized movementfor the attainment of such rights for women.
So belief in equality for women and/or an organized movement to attain that equality. How are we defining "equality"? I think all of the FMHers would say that they believe in equality for women, and indeed, the party line among even the highest ranking male priesthood authorities is that men and women are equal. But the equality they offer looks a hell of a lot like the "separate but equal" bullshit of the pre-Civil Rights American South. The women are designated their domain from which they are not to stray. Noticing this when I came back to the Church after being away for two years was one of the factors that led me to question:
I realized that the bishop or one of his councilors would often sit in on the women's Relief Society meeting, checking in and presiding, but knew that it would be unheard of for the Relief Society president to visit the men's Elder's Quorum meeting. Women were only allowed to preside over other women or children.
The priesthood always has the final say on interpreting doctrine or issuing judgments. So you can't preside or make any decisions of consequence unless you have a penis. And when only the people with penises have a say in whether something is equal, that doesn't strike me as equal.

I think the FMHers have flawed ideas about what constitutes equality, which I think are founded on flawed premises, but I don't presume to know better than they do what their path to happiness in this life should be. 

CD points out that taking a Women's Studies course at BYU doesn't make you a feminists. Incidentally, taking a women's studies course was one of the lynchpins in sealing the fate of my "testimony." It was six months after being re-baptized and trying desperately to fit myself back into this mold that I hadn't even realized was confining me. All my life, I'd been taught that feminists were evil, bitter, spiteful, men-hating women who spit on stay-at-home moms and have abortions for fun. Taking that class was like coming up for oxygen after having my head held under the ocean by some very heavy hands. Everything I learned in that class seemed so much more compassionate and sensible than anything I heard at church, not just about women, but about homosexuals and other marginalized groups as well. This was all stuff I had wanted to think and believe all along but was continually told I shouldn't. Ever since learning what feminism was about from feminists themselves, I've been proud to call myself a feminist.

And Mormonism in its current state, completely incompatible with feminism.


If you enjoyed this post, I hope you'll check out my new blog.


  1. Agreed. I thought for so long that I could believe in the Catholic Church in every way, and yet remain a feminist. That contradiction was a large part of my disaffection with Catholicism as an infallible mouthpiece for God that teaches only the Truth.

  2. Leah, I do remember feeling like I had to go along with the patriarchy because of the given, "the church is true." At the time my hands were covered in eczema and I was having nightmares. I feel for them, as I believe most ex-Mormon women do.

    Unfortunately I think that trying to change the church from within is head banging exercise of frustration. Historically, the LDS church has caved to pressure from the outside, rather than the inside. The federal government, not Emma Smith, curtailed the practice of polygamy, and so on. Now the church is scrambling to repair its image with Evangelicals, and appear more gay friendly. The FMH's don't seem to be arousing their attention. In conference, Monson seemed more concerned with young people who put off marriage.

    I wish the church would pay attention to the opinions of those within their ranks! But until they do, I will always be baffled by liberal Mormons. Probably because I used to be one.

    Great post. Also, I love your new profile picture. :-)

  3. Following your link, I read the FMH site, to be exact the entries of Maimonides and Marx, and The trouble with Tinkerbell and they are quite good.
    My impression in that entries is a "so close and so far" sensation, because the authors make good points, like "acknowledge the social realities that create that need", and in the comments nat kelly suggests a way to achieve this in the LDS world: star paying good salary to worker women, fighting slumlords.
    It appears is necessary recognize one more fact, a BIG and obvious fact that almost every feminist must know.

  4. Excellent analysis, Leah. I love your take on this.

    I agree with Donna. The church has done nothing about improving conditions for women simply because it was the right thing to do. Anything that has been done to improve the treatment of women was motivated by politics and the need to save the patriarchy's butts.

    My problem with FMH is some things I have read over there (and it's been a long time) as well as the discussions ... it reminds me of when I served in various auxiliaries and the bishop was always looming over our shoulders. There was nothing we could do without running it by the priesthood first. It feels like sitting in Relief Society where the women complain about the men ... who they allow to exert authority over them.

    Also -- what Donna said about your new pic. Very nice!

  5. I think a better definition is that "feminism is the set of philosophies and policy programs premised on the postulate that men and women are, generally speaking, morally and mentally equal and must be treated as such both at the individual and the societal level." By this definition, FHMs don't qualify, just like the "accept traditional sexist notions at face value but try to invert the value judgment" approach of so-called "difference feminists" and the "all men are irredeemable psychopaths and all women except us are gullible morons" school don't qualify.

  6. When you talk about the men looking over the relief society but opposite never happening and the hierarchy within the church, I recalled a game that has that hierarchy spelled out quite nicely in terms of stewardship.

    How much is the notion of stewardship "male" and how much of it is power, and how much of it is love? If you accept your steward, when is price of it too much?

    These are rhetorical questions to just ponder. I agree with your points.

  7. I was tought the same things about feminists. I've been reading "The Mommy Myth" and I've been blown away by how much my parents were influenced by the media and politics of the day, even thought they insisted that all of their bigoted beliefs were founded only on the word of God! Its a great book, I just wish I could get my sisters to read it.

  8. The men in charge do what men in charge do and that's make sure they stay in charge. But the culprits I have a bigger problem with are the women who claim to be in support of other women but will throw each other under the bus in order to stay in favor with the men in charge. They censor each other and any dissent, even without any prompting from the men. They shun and manipulate and bully other sisters for daring to speak out.

    Many of the women in my own family were the most badly abused and over used of LDS women yet they're the first ones to defend the status quo, going so far as to ostracize and villify women like me who try to call out the injustice and imbalance.

    Feminist Mormon Housewives seems like a place for the ladies to bitch and whine but those actually daring to boldly go where no woman has gone before are turned into the very crones that Leah mentioned.

    I too was told that feminists are like a cartoon image of Jeanine Garapolos (sp?), shrill, angry, nearly violent and anything but feminine. It's a very unsubtle message that is meant to deter women and girls from daring to speak out, from daring to stand against the abuse and imbalance. No one wants to be a hairy ugly screeching masculne harpie, so just don't speak out and you'll be magnifying your womanliness. Keep sweet. Smile till you're happy.

    Those of us who have managed to make our way out are held up as tragic cautionary tales. Don't question authority or you'll end up like XXX. Don't get a divorce because you'll have to turn to prostitution and drugs to make a living. Don't get a good job because you'll become a cold heartless bitch like Hillary Clinton.

    In truth, many of us who are feminists are as maternal as any LDS woman, loving and sacrificing for our kids like moms around the world do for their kids. Most of us like to feel pretty and feminine. Many of us would love the luxury of being a SAHM if the economy were favoring that but in truth, most of us have to work just to survive, even with a husbands income. We are not unrighteously angry but there are some things it's good and worthwhile to feel anger at. Anger is a motivator. Anger inspires action.

    I'm not into bra burning (those contraptions aren't cheap and I'm not about to set an $80.00 bra on fire) but I will stand in solidarity with my fellow sisters and call out sexism, call out injustice and use my miniscule influence to draw attention to the real issues that LDS people of all genders and ages face.

  9. "Amy asks very legitimately, why spend so much energy countering the messages your daughters hear at church? Why not just not expose them to those messages anyway?"

    I don't think that is what I said. If it is, that isn't what I meant. I don't think that spending time and energy countering the messages at church is pointless. Countering negative church messages for one's children is very worthwhile. My own parents always encouraged me to pursue higher education (in fact, they insisted on college) and career ambitions. They never pushed about preserving my virtue/virginity, marriage (temple or otherwise) or babies. (Okay I'm getting a little pressure about babies now, but I am 31 and I have been married almost 10 years. I am also finally wrapping up a PhD, so my mom wasn't exactly pushing me to forgo my dreams in order to start a family sooner). I was taught humanism, compassion, and feminism at home. Their willingness to come home and say “oh, no the church is wrong on that point” has been incredibly helpful to me and I would absolutely encourage parents to counter harmful messages their children (and especially their daughters) are hearing in church.

    My point was more that if you are taking your children to a church where they are being taught things that you then have to counter at home, you are: a) not protecting them from being taught that they are of lesser value if they aren’t male, aren’t perfect, don’t serve a mission, have normal and healthy sexuality (ie. masturbate), don’t get married in the temple…etc., b) sending very mixed messages about your own views on individualism, personal worth, morality, and respect for other humans, and c) providing an example that they should just tolerate the status quo, rather than on insisting that they be treated fairly and equally. Despite my parents reversing the church messages at home, I still heard them at church and I didn't escape without damage. As a teenager, I spent 3 hours in church each week, 5 more in seminary, several more in leadership meetings, and 2-3 hours at YWs activities. I heard a lot more from the church than I did from my parents and the church was significantly louder. I valued my parents’ opinions more than those of my religious leaders, which is why my parents had a greater impact on the person I am now. But, it felt a little disingenuous to me that my parents continued to attend and raise children in a church that they so obviously had significant differences of opinion with on some of the most important moral issues, those pertaining to self-respect and how we treat other people. And, all of those hours of sitting in church, hearing messages that made me literally sick, and not feeling like I could voice my opinions, was harmful. I’m a more assertive and vocal individual now. I’m much better at standing up for myself, defending my boundaries, and insisting that I be treated in ways that don’t hurt me or stifle my growth. But, I didn’t enter adulthood comfortable “doing” or speaking my feminist and humanist views or demanding change and fair treatment. That has required a lot of effort, therapy, tears and time – all to undo the damage from being raised in the church where the most harmful and loudest messages were those discouraging individual study/thought, critical thinking, doubt, or choosing one’s own path in life and those insisting that I must accept a pre-determined life path based on my female reproductive organs and that I must obey, obey, and obey some more.

    I do think explaining to your children that you disagree with the church on certain policies and doctrines is better than just allowing the church to indoctrinate your children unimpeded. I just also think it is far better to protect children from damaging messages in the first place and that countering those messages at home doesn’t prevent any and all damage that results from the repetitive assaults to their individuality.

  10. Are the FMHs "feminists?" Based on my experiences within the feminist movement, they may fit the dictionary definition, but they fail miserably in practical application. This might not be a bad thing, though. From my early teen years to rather recently, I considered myself a feminist because I believe in equality for all people, and I wanted to address issues that dealt specifically with women. Being within the feminist movement, as part of N.O.W. in high school, and participating in various formal and informal feminist events over the years, it was made very clear to me that the majority of other feminists saw me as an outsider and not a true ally. I wanted to wear makeup and skirts, and so they said I was brainwashed. I expressed a desire to have children, and they said I was brainwashed. Every part of me that didnt fit their mold was explained away as "brainwashing" by the "the Patriarchy." Feminism is just another box for women to try to squeeze themselves into because we are so rarely encouraged (even by those claiming to be advocating for women) to simply develop our individual selves, so we try to fit into prepackaged identities laid out by others. And don't even get me started on the quagmire that is feminist sexual politics. Most of the feminists I have encountered are more oppressive about sex than any religious leader, and insist that any woman who chooses to have sex is doing so because she is, you guessed it, brainwashed, and therefore unable to give real consent. Some in the Dworkin/MacKinnon camp insist that women are incapable of giving consent to sex with men because we are such mindless little children, we dont know what we are doing! Isn't it a little strange to have feminists being the ones who claim women are too stupid to make their own decisions?

    The word "Feminism" itself is very problematic. Most who claim the title will say they are fighting for equality for all people, but wouldn't that just make them Humanists, Egalitarians, or any number of more precise terms? "Feminism" as a word implies a certain bias towards the female of species. In the end, the more important questions than "Are the Feminist Mormon Housewives actually Feminists?" should be, "Are the Feminist Mormon Housewives happy being who they are, regardless of what they call themselves or what others may call them?" and "How can we, as women in solidarity with each other, assist those who are not happy and want a change in their lives?" It is unfortunate how seldom feminists consider the happiness of other women as opposed to how "liberated" they are.

  11. Macha, I've lost my ability to believe in anything as infallible, for which I am very grateful.

    Donna, thanks! I think you're right in your points that change has historically come from outside pressure. The goal of authorities is to keep members in line, not so much to listen to them. Maybe someday that will change too? One can hope? Perhaps as they lose their credibility as infallible mouthpieces of God, they'll have no choice but to take into consideration the POV of members.

    edivimo, I agree with the "so close but so far" assessment. They're intelligent, articulate women, yet they seem unwilling or unable to address the elephants in the room.

    CD, thanks!

    Azkyroth, I like that definition.

    gg, thanks for the questions. I have a problem with stewardship, or any concept that puts one human under another, even if it's in principle only. I've heard women say things like, "I don't mind letting my husband be the head of the household, because we're in such agreement and he would never ask anything against my best interest." If that's the case, where's the threat in sharing power equally? Why does there have to be a head? Stewardship is something parents have over children, or a farmer over his/her animals and land, not something a spouse should have over the other. All organizations have hierarchies and lines of authority, but a person's sex shouldn't be the factor that determines where those lines run. That's my pondering. :-)

    Young Mom, sounds like a great book. It is frustrating to see people unwilling or unable to look at a point of view that could really help them.

    Insana,I agree with all of that, and I hope we'll all continue to call out injustice wherever we see it.

    Amy, I don't we're in disagreement. Sorry if you feel like I misrepresented you, not intentional. I didn't mean to imply that countering the messages kids hear at church is worthless, just that like you say, it's better if they just don't get those messages to begin with. I really wish I had gotten some countering messages at home, but my mother was and is one of the biggest defenders of the patriarchy. I was taught not to question church leaders or the status quo, because it was all inspired by God, so if I was in disagreement, I was the one who needed to be more humble and change. I didn't feel I had choices about what I could and should do with my life. I got very clear messages at church about my divinely appointed calling and those messages were backed with my parents' stamp of approval at home. I don't think affirming messages at home would have meant that I would have gotten through Young Women's and seminary unscathed, but it would have made a difference.

  12. Kat, I've not encountered feminists like that. I'm really sorry you had that experience. It reminds me a little of atheists who have chastised me for continuing to be interested in religion and (gasp!) considering changing my mind on the question of whether there's a God. Not all, or even the majority, I should acknowledge, but there is that sentiment, among any group I think, that, "If you don't fit the mold that the rest of us have determined is the right one, there's something wrong with you." And the common response is to pin it on "brainwashing" from "the enemy" (i.e. people who disagree with them).

    I think most, if not all, of those who have commented on this post would consider themselves feminists, and most if not all would agree that being pretty and feminine, wanting children and choosing to stay home with them are not in conflict with feminism.

    I know when my sister got married, she wanted to take her husband's name simply because she liked it better than her maiden name, and was worried that other women would think she wasn't a "real" feminist if she did didn't keep her own name. Ultimately she decided, that if a woman was going to judge her for making a choice that made her happy and was right for her, then that woman wasn't a real feminist.

    I understand your objection to the word "feminism." I still think it's an appropriate name for the movement though for the same reason I think the NAACP is appropriately named: It's an acknowledgement that female members of our species are currently not regarded and treated as equals, and they and colored people need a movement to promote their advancement.

    I agree that whether or not the FMHers are happy is a more important question than whether or not they're "real" feminists. The main point I was trying to make in this post is that the principles of feminism and the principles of Mormonism are very much in conflict.

  13. "it will eventually (like in a century or two) evolve into something more equitable.

    Really liked your (parentheses). Sadly, it's probably an accurate timeline...

    The amount of time religions take to change might very well be their biggest weakness now. I mean, Apple released a new version of the iPad less than a year after the first release. Meanwhile, churches are still hung up on gender issues??

    I think I'd agree with the above comments that religions change more from outside influence than inside influence, but I can't help thinking change initiated from the inside would be more constructive, less traumatizing. Or, at least, more courageous...

  14. It seems that a lot of people here are saying, basically, that there's no good reason for a feminist to stay in the church or let his/her kids go to the LDS church. I don't think it's that simple for most people. This isn't a black and white issue. It's like how most people aren't 100% Democrat or Republican -- depending on the issue, they're more or less conservative. I think that's how it is for most Mormon feminists, which I guess I would count myself as at this point.

    In fact, my situation might be a perfect example. I was an orthodox Mormon until a few years into my marriage. I then pretty much completely lost my testimony and am trying to piece together some sort of something to live my life by. My husband -- who, for the record, is awesome and supportive in every way -- is still a pretty orthodox Mormon. If he weren't, I'm sure we'd just walk away. But he really, truly still believes. At this point it's easier on our marriage and our family if I'm at least still kind of pretending at church. I'd rather my kids go to church and we give them our perspectives and examples at home than split our family on this issue. I think there's a lot of good at church. The support structure is great. The things my kids learn about charity and service are great. I appreciate that it fills a need in my husband and helps him be a happier, calmer person. It helps him control some of his issues and baggage from his childhood -- I know he feels he needs that.

    Plus, if we go, we can give our more liberal view of things in a less threatening way. Really, change will never happen if not from within. If everyone who disagrees leaves, it leaves only those who don't mind and so there's no reason to change. I think there's reason to hope than Mormonism can be recentered on Christ, service, love, and equality.

    Anyway, it's not a clear cut issue. And for those of us who, for whatever reason, don't want to completely leave the religion, sites like FMH give us a voice. I can't spout everything I think at church without repercussions I don't want yet. Reading FMH, knowing I'm not the only one, gives me courage to do more than I think I would otherwise. And just because they're not enacting change in the ways others think they should doesn't mean that they're not valid feminists. I think once we start flinging rocks at each other and deciding who can and can't be in the club we lose track of the whole point of feminism -- to support women in the choices they chose (and make sure they have the opportunity to chose for themselves), whether we approve of them or not.

  15. Leah, it seems to me that religious institutions sooner or later adjust to the more sustained and vocal demands of their members, but that adjustment process can take decades -- or even centuries. I agree with you that the folks who stay in a church demanding might have some influence there, but life is short. Perhaps the best way to change a church is not to stay in it, but to vote with your feet. Sooner or later, declining membership is likely to cause more responsiveness from the church leadership than all the intellectual and theological arguments of the remaining members. At least that's my take on it.

  16. Andrew, I wish religions would approach things more like the sciences do and not consider it a weakness to admit, "You know, we've probably been wrong and such-and-such. Let's adjust now that we have better information."

    Conifer, I really appreciate this comment. This is a point of view I think we needed to hear. I try avoid calling things either black and white, but am still sometimes guilty of it. Thanks for calling this out. You are right about the issues for staying or leaving being complicated. And the number of New Order Mormons is growing.

    Paul, I think you have a valid point about voting with your feet, but conifer also raises a good point that if the only people left are the people who like the status quo, then there's no reason to change. For me, there were no compelling personal reasons to stay. I've displeased my parents, but I wasn't especially close with them anyway. There were good parts about my experience as a Mormon, but not enough to justify the psychological toll of continuing to go through the motions.

  17. Thanks for this post Leah. This has been a fascinating discussion.

    @Amy - completely unrelated to mormonism, we recently have had an ongoing discussion in my house about "Ladies first". My daughter's public school teacher believes that and the girls in the class go first. In gymnastics with both of my kids yesterday, the gymnastics teacher asked my son to wait because "ladies first".

    I probably need to post about this myself, but I do not agree with this philosophy. Why should girls always go first? But I refuse to take my daughter out of kindergarten because I disagree with her teacher, or out of gymnastics. It is one of the instances where my kids experience different philosophies outside our home, and we talk about the disagreement at home. I'm certain there will be more of these types of things in the future.

    The difference is, to my mind, in school or a gymnastics class, the majority of things my kids learn are valuable and helpful. There's just one little piece that I'm unhappy about. Figuring out that line is important - is the majority of what's being taught something a parent can agree with?

  18. I think a better definition is that "feminism is the set of philosophies and policy programs premised on the postulate that men and women are, generally speaking, morally and mentally equal and must be treated as such both at the individual and the societal level." By this definition, FHMs don't qualify, just like the "accept traditional sexist notions at face value but try to invert the value judgment" approach of so-called "difference feminists" and the "all men are irredeemable psychopaths and all women except us are gullible morons" school don't qualify.


Religion, skepticism, and carving out a spiritual life post-Mormonism