Dear Ask a Feminist,
I am fairly new to this Mormon feminism thing and am trying to find my footing. I have always had certain feminist feelings but have never allowed myself to explore them until recently. I have been sharing some of my feelings with my husband and for the most part he has been very open and understanding. In recent weeks I have become sick of sitting through lessons at church about men without any mention of strong Mormon women. (In our lessons on the prophets the teachers can’t even recall the names of their wives!) So, this last Sunday we had a Sunday school lesson all dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Half way through the lesson my husband leaned over and asked, “Did you notice this whole lesson is about women?” I smiled and said yes. When we got home I brought it up again and told him that I didn’t want to diminish these two amazing women but I wanted to point out that because of their strong faith, they were both given the calling to give birth to future male leaders of the church. I felt that the only time our church could ever hold women in high esteem was when they had given birth to someone important. This totally frustrated my husband. He couldn’t believe that I had pointed this out and got very defensive. I think he thought I was going to be so excited that we had had an entire lesson on righteous women. I was happy but I was also sad because it only pointed out to me that we cannot talk of women in any other circumstance than motherhood. For the record, I think Mary and Elizabeth were amazing women and they were given a most holy and high calling. But somehow I want more. Was my husband right to be frustrated with me? Am I just looking for the bad side of things or is there any validity to my feelings?
I completely agree! I have felt very much the same way as you. Thanks for your question and participation. We really hope that we can be a place of discussion and support for like-minded women. As a faithful obedient LDS woman, I also had a very hard time taking the step over to Mormon feminism and didn’t really know where I belonged for awhile. For me, being a “good” Mormon meant that I didn’t really break any rules. I liked being seen and treated like a “good” Mormon and it was really hard for me to be seen otherwise. Despite not changing anything about my activity, behavior, or attitude, the moment I embraced Mormon feminism was the moment I started being seen as dangerous or that something was wrong with me. It’s been a long adjustment but I really do feel so much more authentic now. I’m less concerned with what other people think and my behavior better reflects my inner most feelings rather than social proscriptions. I loved your question and interestingly I have had a very similar debate with my husband. First, I’ll tell you about my experience then I’ll focus more on answering your question.
The debate between my husband and I started out as I complained about the lack of a whole complex female storyline in our scriptures. I was explaining that for so many of our male prophets and scriptural figures we have examples of them being good, bad, immoral, moral, obedient, disobedient, confident, unsure, respected, despised, happy, sad, etc. We see them make mistakes and have redemption. We see them change, a lot. However, with our few female examples in the scriptures they are either perfect or evil. It’s the old Madonna/whore complex where women are rarely portrayed as complicated people with a past and a future and the ability to change throughout. This is problematic because it is hard to relate to a uni-dimensional person. None of us are solely good or bad, we’re each a unique mix of both! How can we expect women to relate to the scriptures, even the few feminine examples, if they don’t represent reality? After this debate my husband assured me that we do to have a complete example: Emma Smith. We see her questioning marriage with Joseph and then supporting him, mourning the loss of her children and all her trials with faith, questioning polygamy but never denying Joseph’s prophetic calling, and ultimately aligning herself with a direct lineage succession of prophets that many ascribe as her downfall. Was my husband right? Partially. It is true that Emma is a complex individual female example that we have access to through the scriptures (but mostly through church history). However, did this one little example answer the main problem I presented: that we don’t have enough examples of whole women in religious text. No. Just highlighting this example did not change the current situation and in fact it negated the argument altogether. Instead of recognizing, acknowledging, and addressing the problem, my husband was more concerned with fact that there was ONE example. He was focused on the specifics of the problem, rather, they way I presented it: “but there is one example”, rather than the problem itself: “In the general scheme of things there are not enough examples”.
Having your husband recognize lessons that focus on women’s lives is fantastic, but it doesn’t solve all of the other offenses—that there is only 1 lesson out of 52 that use female examples, that the few women who are used as examples are typically highlighted only inasmuch as they are mothers and wives, that there are no female quotes in any of our manuals, etc. Think of how differently our lessons would be if the roles were reversed. Can you imagine if our manuals and scriptures only talked about men as often as we talk about women and mostly in the context of being fathers and husbands? Automatically everyone would recognize the fact that men are accessories to the real story— a story of women. Why is it so hard for people to see that about women? Similarly, it is difficult to listen to the barrage of male-bias all year and then have one lesson on women and have people say, “See. There are women in our lessons!” It is hard to describe why this is so hurtful, but it negates all of the other weeks, all the others lessons, all of the other problems. One example or one lesson does not make things equal. It does not undo or repair the damage already done. It is a great start, don’t get me wrong, and I appreciate that one example or that one lesson but it does not fix or make up for the great inequality that exists. It is difficult to be grateful for that pittance or lip service when you know that there is so much more to be done.
I don’t know if this will help but it reminds me of an analogy. Imagine if every week people were given a big scoop of vanilla ice cream. Everyone loves vanilla and is happy with their ice cream. They don’t even notice that there are other kinds of ice cream because everyone is content. Everyone except you. You like vanilla alright but you know there are so many other flavors of ice cream. In fact you prefer other flavors and so you start noticing more and more each week when the only flavor that people are serving is vanilla. At first you are frustrated. It wouldn’t hurt anyone to have other flavors why don’t we just add more? When nothing changes you begin to get upset. You worry that the only reason we keep having vanilla is because the people in charge like vanilla. You fear that your kids are missing out on a variety of experiences, especially the ones that don’t like vanilla. Your frustration keeps building until you are actually mad. You begin saying things and even asking for more flavors. At first people just think you are crazy and should enjoy your ice cream like everyone else. Some people even wonder why it is that big of a deal to you, vanilla is what they grew up with and they are happy, why can’t you be? Others even suggest that you just stop eating ice cream altogether. To make you happy one week they mix in some chocolate sauce with the vanilla. Everyone is happy. “See”, they say, “we do have other flavors.” You want to be happy with the inclusion. It is a good thing. You want to encourage more. At the same time you want to explain that the chocolate sauce in vanilla ice cream is different that chocolate ice cream. You wonder why we don’t have chocolate every week or why is it okay to taste chocolate but not to really devour it or eat it regularly. Your friends and family are mad, “After all you’re fighting for flavor, you got what you wanted, and you are still not satisfied.” It is hard to describe to them that tasting something is not the same as being satiated by it. You want to explain that this isn’t just for you— that everyone is better off with more flavors. You want to scream that one step in the right direction is not the end goal. When the next week rolls around and everyone is back to vanilla ice cream it just doesn’t taste as good to you anymore and you wonder if you shouldn’t just stop eating.
This might have been a really silly analogy, but I just want you to know that you are not alone. Despite the name I don’t really have all the answers. We have such a long way to go. I’m just glad there are people out there like you.
Ask a Feminist