[Transcriber’s note: This discussion has been lightly edited for clarity.]
Panelists: Neylan McBaine, Valerie Hudson, Wendy Ulrich, Kristine Frederickson, Maxine Hanks
Neylan McBaine: It is a pleasure to be here with you today. A year ago exactly today I stood before you and I shared with you my thoughts on how our rhetoric and our cultural practices could more effectively and consistently ensure that women are seen and heard in our local congregations.
A lot has happened since I was here last year. While I personally was greatly encouraged by the hundred plus emails I received, mostly from fathers and husbands, detailing what members around the world are doing in their stakes and wards to incorporate women more thoroughly, there continues to be an “us vs. them” attitude in many of our discussions about women.
Whether or not we agreed with Stephanie Laurence’s movement to Wear Pants to Church earlier this year, there was no excuse for her receiving threats on her personal safety on her Facebook page. Whether or not we agreed with former Young Women’s General President Elaine Dalton’s continued emphasis on virtue and modesty, there was no excuse for vilifying her and effectively devaluing the tremendous good she did for women and children around the world.
Today it is my honor to introduce these four women and participate in the discussion about how we can address and reconcile the tensions that exist among us in our conversations about Mormon women. To kick this off, we are going to start with one of the most fundamental questions which can sometimes breed tension in our discussions and that is “Is it possible to be a Mormon feminist?”
I have asked each of these women to introduce themselves to us by answering this question. Do they identify as a Mormon feminist, and if so, why or why not? I made the scientific decision to go in alphabetical order. We are going to start with Professor Valerie Hudson Cassler here to my right, then we will do Kristine Frederickson, Maxine Hanks, and we will finish with Wendy Ulrich.
I have asked each of them just to spend a couple of minutes introducing you to them by answering this question. Then we will open it up to a panel discussion, and at the end we will have time to take your questions. Please think of what you would like to ask these four luminaries. We will have time for that at the end.
Valerie Hudson Cassler: First let me say I am delighted to be here. I think this is my third appearance at FairMormon. I have very much appreciated the spirit and the tone and the level of the conversation that Fair encourages, I am grateful to Scott Gordon and all of the FairMormon board for bringing us back again.
I think that some of you know that I actually wrote a piece on Mormon Scholars Testify that I called “I am a Mormon Because I am a Feminist.” So I think that the answer to Neylan’s question is that I really do not find a contradiction. Now of course, it all depends on what you mean by feminism, and I guess that these days it also depends on what you mean by Mormon! There are so many different shades of Mormonism now, in a sense. But let me just express to you that, as far as I am concerned, feminism speaks to the equality of men and women, but that term “equality” is a very important one to pin down. It does not mean “the same.” It does not mean “identical.”
I think all of you may remember a talk given by Elder Wirthlin not too long ago in which he said, “Why would God have created this vibrant orchestra of souls just to value the piccalos? That is crazy! With God, in a sense, there is a vision of equality in the context of difference. There are still going to be bassoons and piccolos and cellos and drums. Yet there is equal regard, there is equal respect, there is equal power, in a sense.” All of these things comprise my definition of equality, which I have sometimes called parity, which is equality in the context of difference.
I believe every single Mormon is a feminist. Do you know how utterly revolutionary it is that we are a Christian religion that believes that we have a Heavenly Mother; that there is no way that there could be a Heavenly Father without a Heavenly Mother; that God is not some sort of old bachelor; he is a married man and he is married to an equal companion? Do you know that alone of all the Christianities, we believe that Eve did not sin in the Garden of Eden? That is absolutely astounding! I am sure you are aware of all the mischief that has come to the daughters of God through the Christian teaching that Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden. But we do not believe that, right?
We believe that there are behavioral standards for men. Over and over we hear the General Authorities talking about how horrible the abuse of women and children are; what an evil pornography is; what an evil prostitution and things of this nature are. They have talked about valuing daughters as much as we value sons. In so many ways there is a sense that this people, set apart from all other people, believe doctrinally that women and men are to be regarded as equals in the context of their differences.
My conclusion is that I think every single one of you in this audience is actually a feminist.
Maxine Hanks: I like that! I said the same thing twenty years ago when I was interviewed by Rod Decker and people thought I was crazy! I said, “All Mormons are feminists, they just don’t know it yet!”
I have been a feminist since high school, back when they called us “women’s libbers,” because feminism to me means entomologically “femme” “ism” or the philosophy of being a woman, or “womanism”; in other words, a woman who is self-defining. There are many different types of feminism. Each type of feminism addresses the particular need of a woman living in a particular context. All the many different types of feminism can be grouped in to two main camps: equality feminism and difference feminism.
Equality feminism addresses the ways in which men and women are equal and have equal potential, particularly intellectually and spiritually. Difference feminism addresses the ways in which men and women are different because they live in male and female bodies, and they have unique needs, unique to those bodies, particularly where women go through pregnancy and nursing and child care.
In looking at those two main camps of feminism, both are needed. I like Valerie’s definition of feminism as equality in the context of difference. That is a beautiful way of bringing those two camps together. I am someone who has found that over the course of my life I have needed, and resonated to, and practiced almost every type of feminism at one time or another. I really value both, because I think that Mormonism is amazing because it is one of the few religions (maybe the only one, although Catholicism is starting to get there) that incorporates and institutes both equality feminism and difference feminism within one organization. (I will talk about that a little more later.)
I agree that all Mormon women are feminists, but you don’t have to use the word. I think that the word has been polarizing. I think that a lot of equality feminists have tried to convince everybody that the definition of feminism is equality, that feminism equals equality, and that is not the case.
Mormon women were on the forefront of feminism in the 19th century for women’s rights. In fact the slogan of The Woman’s Exponent, the Relief Society’s magazine, said, “For the rights of the women in Zion and the rights of all women.” I am paraphrasing, but the slogan was about women’s rights.
You are a feminist if you vote. Voting was a feminist agenda. If you work outside the home and have a life in the public sphere you are a feminist. That is what feminism won. Using birth control—feminism again. But you don’t have to use the word. Frankly, I don’t use it as much as I used to. But I am definitely a feminist, and I don’t think you always have to use the word.
Kristine Frederickson: Let me start out by thanking you for inviting me to participate here today. I know your time is valuable, so I hope what I say is somewhat stimulating. I am grateful to be among women today, and among the women on this panel, bright, thoughtful women who thought deeply about the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and their relationship with the Savior Jesus Christ. That is where I hope we can find common ground in the Church as we all practice charity towards one another. We are very different. Each woman is significantly different from another. Unless we embrace difference, unless we become a church that is inclusive rather than exclusive there will be problems.
Once we do become charitable individuals we will see those problems that trouble us perhaps go away, as we try to understand one another better than we do, rather than labeling or challenging, I would suggest to you that faith generally comes through that process of questioning and doubting, even wondering about things. So we should allow that process to take place in the Church today.
Now in regards to the term feminist, I am a writer by profession, so I wrote down some ideas. The first thing that came to my mind is that “feminist” is a troubled, complicated term, defined differently by every person who self-identifies as a feminist, as well as by those who use the term to label others. So I am rather ambivalent, unless provided a working definition as to what a feminist is. If you classify Jesus Christ as a feminist, then I am a feminist.
Let me refer to one of the women who has become my muse, who I have written and researched on for the past fifteen years. I am currently working on a full-length treatment of her life. She is in my recently published book and I can’t let it go. I find her to be one of the great, maybe I would describe it as a theologian, but one of the great disciples of Jesus Christ. She lived in that 19th century world, where women, of course, and their rights and freedoms were severely circumscribed. She was a Woman’s Rights proponent, but this was what she had to say: “Among the great typical acts of Christ which were evidently and intentionally for the announcement of a principle for the guidance of society, none were more markedly so than his acts towards women. And I appeal to the Bible and to the intelligence of every candid student of gospel history. Search throughout the gospel history and observe Christ’s conduct in regard to women: his example of submission to parents; of filial duty and affection; his repeated teaching of the sacredness of marriage and of the duty of obedience to his law. It seems to me impossible for anyone candidly to study Christ’s whole life and words without seeing that the principle of the perfect equality of all human beings was announce by him as the basis of social philosophy.”
We see this, too, in the early history of the Church. In Doctrine and Covenants 25, of course, this is a revelation which is given by the Prophet Joseph Smith to Emma, although in verse 16, of course, it says “This is my revelation and my word unto all” so it has application for every member of the Church. But in that 19th century world, where women were told not to have a public presence, nevertheless the Prophet delivers a blessing to her where he tells her that she is to study, she is to learn, and she is to teach. And then, of course, with that organization of the Nauvoo Relief Society that is exactly what she does, and what the other sisters do, and taken up again, of course, by Eliza when they get to the Salt Lake Valley. So there is a significant place for women in the Church. If you see Jesus Christ as a feminist, I am a feminist.
Now on the other hand, unfortunately, I think that—and this is moving to the broader spectrum of feminism in the world today–the reason the word is so troubled in the use of that word and the application of it as a label, to my mind there are far too many self-labeled feminists in this country that are not really interested in defending or empowering all women, or in the equality of women, but in the empowerment of a small specific group of women who share what to my mind sometimes becomes a perverse ideology that denigrates women, marriage and family. So if that is the working definition of feminist, then I am not a feminist.
Wendy Ulrich: I am a psychologist by training and so I think, perhaps, I come to this question on a more personal level. I think our panelists have very well described the challenges we face with this word. To admit that you are a feminist is basically to admit that for many people that you are angry, that you don’t like men, or that you think there is basic unfairness that needs to be rectified in the world. I personally am troubled that we have that perception, but, of course, there is good reason that sometimes we do.
I have appreciated this quote from President Gordon B. Hinckley: Notwithstanding the preeminence given the creation of women she has so frequently through the ages been relegated to a secondary position. She has been put down, she has been denigrated, and she has been enslaved, and she has been abused. “ This statement from President Hinckley lets me know that we are not misguided when we look at the personal experiences of women who have had that kind of reprehensible experiences in the world that we live in and want to do something about it.
I do consider myself a feminist. I don’t know that I am angry anymore, so much as I am dismayed, I guess, by some of the personal experiences that I have had, and that women that I love have had in the world that we live in and at times in the Church. When we see the kinds of things that President Hinckley is talking about happen in the world, I think of the experience of Enoch, who saw God weep over the sins of his children. But when we see some of those things happen in the Church, we not only get angry, but we get confused as to why sometimes, even in the Church that espouses the name of Christ, things are not as perfect as we would like them to be for men or for women.
Having said that, I, too, agree that there is not a theology more empowering for women; that we have an incredible history of feminist women in the Church who have made a difference for good in the world and in the Church for women. And I am astounded at the opportunities that exist for women to exercise spiritual power, to be recipients of spiritual gifts, and to be lauded within the Church for their contributions and the gifts that they bring to the world. Primary among those are the opportunities that are unique to women.
I feel to say, however, in the field of feminism, I kind of reflect on the words that may sound familiar to you, that among feminists and among women sometimes in the Church,”… all their good feelings one for another if they ever had any are sometimes entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions.”
And I might add some other words from this same author, “In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I have often said to myself, ‘What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right, or are they all wrong together? And if one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?’”
And like the author of these familiar words, I have concluded that the only way we can know where we land is to ask God, who giveth to all men and women liberally, and does not upbraid when we are hurt, when we have questions, or when we are confused.
Neylan: I love that we have on the panel here [an] academician, [a] theologian, psychologist, [and] historian, and I am encouraged that this is going to bring a wealth of perspectives to our discussion. This perspective has already been touched upon in this discussion of feminism in terms of its definition in the world, the way it is played out both in our worldly culture and in our faith culture.
Right now I would like to ask each of the panelists to dwell upon what the key tensions are specifically in our faith culture that exist among women in the Church. Why is there still this discord in our rhetoric and in our discussion? We can sit so civilly up here and talk about our differences and the way that we associate with a term like feminism, why is this not being translated to each of our blogs, and our conversations in the hall, and in our wards and our stakes?
Maxine, describe for me what you see are the key tensions that are causing us not to be unified as members of the Church?
Maxine: When I think about this there are so many tensions that we are hearing right now. It seems that women’s issues have reached a critical mass in Mormon consciousness, which is a really exciting and interesting time, but it is fraught with conflict.
The first key tension that I see is clashing realities, my reality versus your reality. Women have a lived experience in a situation and those experiences are different. Sometimes when we express our different realities, there is a feeling or a sense that someone else’s reality is going to obliterate mine or invalidate mine. That is one key tension, the push and pull between very different realities, which are really all real and all valid.
Another tension is burnout versus engagement. So many feminists tell me they are burned out. They are tired of trying to work with a circular problem that they don’t feel can be solved. So they are dropping out, while other feminists are still engaged and feel like, “No, you can absolutely work with leaders and work with the Church.”
Along with that, the tension between working on the inside to solve issues and problems versus working on the outside, in the public, through the media, through pushback, that is a tension, a difference in approach that we see happening.
Of course, some women drop out of Church to find another path that feeds them versus those who stay in and feel really fed in the Church, as I do.
I mentioned equality feminism versus difference feminism. That is a huge tension right now between women who think, “No, it is all equality. It’s all equality. Women should be inducted into male offices and male orders and there should be no differences.” The difference feminists come along and say, “Wait. Separate spheres are good. Boys and girls learn better sometimes in separate settings. Girls do better in an all-girls school. Relief Society is important because it addresses the needs of women and girls.” So there is that tension.
The last tension that I will mention is this tension that I see between preserving unique, original Mormon theology and doctrines and structure and practices versus “No, we have got to reform the Church. We have got to use our scholarly skills and our deconstruction and our feminist theory and we have really got to reform the church.” So that is another tension.
There are some serious tensions out there. Chris mentioned a really interesting one that I hope she will talk more about between the notion of protecting and revering motherhood versus some voices that are critical. I think there is some misunderstanding in that tension. Some women who seem critical about motherhood or invalidating are actually just trying to say, “I have a right not to be a mother. I have a right to choose not to have children.” They are not trying to invalidate motherhood, they are just trying to say there is another valid path. I would like to hear more from Chris about that.
Kristine: I sure will. I don’t know if there is a spot of significant agreement there. Let me tell you just some of the things that I think are creating key tensions. I will tell you where I am coming from. I am a mother of six children. I have some children who are not active in the Church and some children who are struggling with their testimony. I have two daughters out of three that are not married at this point in time and they are a little bit older. But they are all part and parcel of this growing and very large church that is trying to accommodate everyone in their different circumstances.
What the Church does is provide models and those models that the Church provides are what we would suggest is the epitome, but that model does not necessarily play out in individual lives.
Let me tell you some of the tensions that I am seeing. The first thing that I have noticed is that we do not distinguish as a Church between LDS doctrine and LDS culture. When we look back at the Jews, Christ’s constant criticism of the Jews is that they were hypocrites. It is actually to my mind the worst kind of condemnation or finger pointing that you can do to an individual, that they are a hypocrite. So here are the Jews, and they are taking the pure doctrine, theoretically, that came from God the Father, and they are interpolating it and turning it into all kinds of practices and behaviors that are actually sometimes not even consistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are very good at cultural application of certain practices and beliefs that are just not to be found in the doctrines of the kingdom. We need to work very hard in becoming conversant with the doctrine so that we can distinguish it from the culture, in the way that culture can do very harmful things to individuals.
Because we have a cultural application that is significantly different from the doctrines of the Church, we can become a very judgmental community. This can do enormous harm in individual lives. We have women in the Church who are not able to have children, who choose not to have children, but for some reason we come to see this then as outside the pale of current Mormon behavior.
Judging is good. Christ encourages us to righteous judgment. We make judgments every day in our lives, but we need to understand that righteous judgment is a difficult thing to do, and condemnation is outside the pale or scope of any human being on this earth. That is totally the purview of the Savior, Jesus Christ. It is not our right to judge other individuals and to condemn other individuals, if you see those two as synonymous. What we need to do in the Church is to be an inclusive rather than an exclusive community. We need to allow for difference, we need to allow for doubt, we need to allow for questioning, recognizing that each of these characteristics is often actually critical to the advance of faith. We need to stop condemning others simply because they do not share “my point of view” and because they do not “act as I act.”
I have a daughter that is struggling right now. Consistently I hear from her that it is the judgmentalism in the Church that puts her off. This certainly is not in keeping with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Think about my two single daughters. The model in the Church is marriage. I happened to be in the temple the other night and saw the new temple film. It really is exquisite, and particularly exquisite when you look at the portrayal of women in that film and the role of women on this earth, and how central a role that Eve played in that. I encourage everyone to take advantage of the opportunity to get to the temple quickly and to participate in that experience.
The other thing we find is how important marriage and family is. What do we do then with women who either do not have that opportunity, or circumstances are such that they do not choose that opportunity? Do we exclude them in this Church or do we find a way to include them? Are we aware of the various challenges that women face in this Church because of their different circumstances? That is something that we need to be attuned to. That is something that we need to address in our teaching, in our rhetoric, and it is certainly something that we need to address in our behavior and again be inclusive, not exclusive.
Wendy: I was a Relief Society president in the Ann Arbor Michigan stake, a place where we had an interesting array of women: women who were pursuing graduate degrees at a major university, women who were spouses of people who were pursuing such degrees, and women who had nothing to do with the university. I was fascinated by the comments I often heard from women in all of those categories. Often the women who were working were saying, “The women who are stay-at-home moms just don’t respect me because I work or I go to school. There is no place for me in this Church.” And the women who were stay-at-home moms were saying, “The women who work and go to school don’t respect me, because I am a stay-at-home mom. There is no place for me in this ward.” I think that kind of tension continues to exist on all kinds of dimensions, all kinds of ways that we define ourselves and that we judge ourselves and one another.
I think ultimately the tension boils down to “How do I live as a person of integrity with my particular set of revelations or life experience or set of circumstances and still be a member of this Church? How do I live as a woman of integrity when perhaps I have felt drawn to something that does not look like it fits? Or my circumstances have placed me in a place that does not seem like it fits with the norm, whatever that happens to be?”
I feel very grateful that one of the things that has happened as a result of feminism in the Church, is that there is a place for a wider array of circumstances and of personal experiences being treated with respect. I hope that that trend will continue.
I, too, am amazed at what can happen when not one word of the script is changed, but someone with vision, and someone with a different way of looking at that script, shows us how life can be lived and how our philosophy or doctrine can be understood, and how much healing can come into our lives when we see one another’s lives proceeding with faith, proceeding with integrity, even if it is not personally the way we would do it.
Kris referred to the temple, a magnificent explanation in my mind given to us through the vision and spiritual imagination of one woman, basically, not changing the words, but changing the way we see the story in a dramatic way. I think that can happen in many, many places in our lives.
Neylan: I will give you the last word on this question, Valerie.
Valerie: I think all the points that have been raised have been good, but there is one that I would like to add. I think the current tensions reveal an instance of the notion that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. We know that we are in the latter days. We know that we are preparing to live as those in the City of Enoch, in Zion, lived. I believe that what we are seeing in this winding-up act is the notion that while we know the Divine Male, we still do not know the Divine Female. Yet we recognize that the City of Enoch is fully in the presence not only of our Heavenly Father, but also our Heavenly Mother.
I think what we are seeing in the Church is a collective, growing, Mother-hunger, a hunger to understand the Divine Feminine, to understand more fully the power and authority of divine women. That includes not only our Heavenly Mother, but also the daughters of God who are here on earth. I think that is what we are collectively struggling with now.
I also believe that this is where I am seeing some incredible movement by the Church. I have written before rather than have our culture shape our doctrine, I think we are in a time period where the Brethren are very interested in having our doctrine reshape our culture.
For example, being one of the people who have learned to stay up until four in the morning in order to get everything read, I actually read through the new Young Women’s and Young Men’s manuals, even though I am not serving in those organizations. In fact, I want to tell you this. In my ward in Texas I am serving as the Gospel Doctrine teacher. I emailed my friends and I said, “Has Hades frozen over?” So that was a testimony that something had changed.
The Young Men and Young Women manual: they have a new definition of priesthood. I bet you know what the old definition is: the eternal power and authority of God, the right to act. But that is not what it is anymore. The definition of priesthood that is being taught to our youth is that priesthood is the power and authority of Heavenly Father. I am excited, because what does that mean? That means that there is an eternal power and authority of Heavenly Mother. We are now making room for that.
I think we are beginning, using Maxine’s word, to excavate what is in our doctrine. The new mission leadership councils, where the mission president’s wife (we need a much more powerful term than that), she and the mission president lead the mission leadership council that includes sister missionaries as well as male missionaries.
I think we are beginning to see in the Worldwide Leadership Sessions where women are asked to sit at the table with apostles and talk to them as equals so that our people can visually see the equality, still in a context of difference, of men and women.
Do I think that more is coming? You bet. You saw it in this last conference–little things. Allowing women to pray in conference, both opening and closing, so no strange person at the local level could conclude that they could only do one and not the other, which I think means that the Brethren are very aware that things can get very weird at the local level, if they are not careful. I think that we are going to see more. I think that you are going to see changes to the temple ceremony that begin to accentuate our understanding of the power of the Divine Feminine. And I think it will come from the women themselves, because let’s face it. What does it say if we are waiting for men in the Church to tell women who they are? There is something a little bit weird about that. I understand the principle of gaining revelation for the whole Church. But I also think it is going to take women as well beginning to define themselves: What is a woman? What is the Divine Feminine?; in concert with the help and facilitation and assistance and even justification by those who hold the priesthood keys in the sense that they hold the eternal power and authority of our Heavenly Father. I think it is going to be a joint effort. And I think it is going to revolutionize our Church and our understanding of who we are. And I think it is going to make it possible for us to live like those in the City of Enoch lived, because you can be darn sure that women are not second class citizens in the City of Enoch. And if we wish to fall upon their necks, and they upon our necks, in the winding-up scene, it ain’t gonna happen if we are treating women in a subordinate fashion. Thanks.
Neylan: As a segue into our next question, I just want to read again something that Valerie has written and that she just referenced. Let’s start with Wendy with this next question. Valerie, you wrote: Rather than allow our culture to remake our doctrine, might we rather allow our doctrine to remake our culture? Maxine has referred to excavating the inherent equality in the organization of the Restored Church.
So, Wendy, in what ways do you feel our culture currently dictates our doctrine, and in what ways might we remake our culture to reflect that doctrine, as Valerie just explained to us?
Wendy: I am still remembering a prayer offered by a counselor in a Relief Society presidency I served in many years ago. She said, “Heavenly Father, help us shape the culture of the Church we live in. Those words pounded into my brain and reminded me that that is an opportunity that we all have and we need to take seriously. I am not an activist by any stretch of the imagination in this movement. It is a very personal thing for me, but I think when we look at some of the challenges we face, we look at an opportunity for healing, at a cultural level, at a church level, and at a personal level.
Christ is the one who comes with healing in his wings. There is so much in our culture, in our scriptures, that I think we miss because we have seen it for so long through one set of eyes. I was looking the other day at the story of Sarah and Hagar, as an interesting example of two amazing women. Sarah, the wife of the covenant, if we think of priesthood in its traditional sense, the priest was the one who offered the sacrifice. Can we for a moment think that women are not in a position of offering sacrifice in the world that we live in and that we have lived in throughout history?
It is interesting to me that in that story of Sarah and Hagar, Sarah is the privileged wife. She would be the one who, in modern feminist terms, is the educated woman who has the prerogative of working, and her sister in this story, Hagar, is the slave woman who does not have that choice. She has no alternative but to work, which is the case for many women. It is interesting to me that although it is Sarah’s offspring who becomes the one who claims the covenant promise, Hagar is the one who writes, “I have seen the One who sees me.” I think this is where we need to open up our imagination spiritually. If there is common ground for us to have in the culture of the Church, I hope that it is in our search for God, that we are not as women or as men saying to the prophet as they said to Moses in ancient times, “You go up on the mountain. You go up to that scary place where it is smoky and thunder is rolling and all this. You talk to God, and you can tell us what he thinks and what he says, and we will do it, but don’t make us go up there.” I hope that as women and as men, we are changing the culture of the Church in such a way that we can say, “I have the right to go up to the mountain myself, and to commune with whoever is up there, and to find whatever they want me to know about what my individual mission is, and about what we are to be doing as a Church.”
Kristine: I love that phrase, excavating doctrine. It is such a beautiful expression and points to some of the problems and confusion in the Church today. I also love the point that was made, “What is a Divine Woman?” That is a great question, isn’t it? What is a Divine Woman? It sometimes does get so confused in the culture versus the doctrine of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I am going to share just a couple of stories with you. I was a visiting teacher to a woman who was called to be the Relief Society president. In the course of sitting down and chatting one day she shared with me the fact that when she was called to be the Relief Society president (she works full time outside of the home) there was a group of two or three women who got together and went to the bishop and told the bishop she could not be a Relief Society president because what did her example say to the women of the Church and that he had made a mistake and she needed to be released.
Now I am going to take you back to the days of Brigham Young and Ellis Shipp. Ellis Shipp is one of those extraordinary women that I have so much respect for. I did this recent book and she is one of the people that I got to explore the lives of these fascinating people. Ellis Shipp was a woman who came under the wing of the prophet, Brigham Young. He brought her to the Lion House, and she got an education there. She ended up marrying Milford Bard Shipp and she became a wife and a mother. She had children, but her longing for education was palpable throughout her life. She so desired to get an education. The purpose for her was so she could better serve mankind, to improve the health and the welfare of women and children, particularly in the Midwest at that period of time. Her husband took other wives. She was a polygamist wife.
Eliza R. Snow approached her about the possibility of leaving her family, going to Philadelphia to the Women’s Medical College, and becoming a doctor. She consulted her Father in Heaven. She talked with her husband, who said she was capable of doing this. Then she consulted Brigham Young, who said, “Ellis, I say to do it, to go, and to become a doctor.”
So she left her family behind and she went and she trained as a doctor. She came back and she did enormous good throughout her life. She was a member of the Relief Society General Board. Here we see the application of the doctrine of the Church for this woman to be a sentient individual being. Certain decisions, many of those important decisions that we make, are partnership decisions. We make a decision between ourselves and our Father in Heaven. If there is a husband or a spouse involved it should be a three-way partnership in making these critical decisions. If you get the approval of our Father in Heaven, and you feel that this is an appropriate thing to do, then how can we not be supportive of that in the Church?
Because of the cultural crush that we sometimes see in the Church today, I would suggest that we are also seeing an interesting trend among women in the Church. We are seeing women who are exhausted, who are discouraged, and who are depressed. We impose so many cultural mores on women. They have to do this, they have to do that. They have to be all things to all people. There are quite a number of women in the Church today who say, “The bar is too high. I am going to drop out.” That is heart-breaking, isn’t it?
We need to be very careful that we recognize that individuals (the great gift of our Father in heaven was agency) were all given the privilege to exercise agency. Hopefully we will exercise it wisely and well, and hopefully it will have the approval of our Heavenly Father, and hopefully as we go forward in our lives we will have the approval of the other members of the wider community.
Maxine: This notion of culture defining doctrine or doctrine defining culture is something I have wrestled with and thought about; this tension between that which is inspired and that which is human understanding and cultural baggage. Both coexist in the Church. In fact, they coexist in us. They coexist in everything. We are both divine and human. We are spiritual and we are limited. We are inspired and we are flawed and subjective. That tension creeps into our scriptures and our teachings are our Church, because that is the human condition.
Joseph Smith was very keen to this; in fact this was his hermeneutic. It is all through his writings and it is all through his revelations—how important it is to search out all the teachings and all the doctrines and all the religions and to search the scriptures and to try to discern spiritually that which is higher and more pure and less polluted or cluttered by our own human subjectivity.
In terms of that tension between that which is inspired and that which is cultural, and trying to figure out the difference (and everybody has different opinions) I think both prayer and inspiration and scholarship—spirituality and scholarship are partners. Scholarship is designed to study, understand, research, analyze and deconstruct the social, political, cultural dimensions of our history, and our practices, and scholarship tells us a lot. But scholarship is not designed to spiritually discern God’s whisperings, and the whisperings of the Spirit. For that you have to have spiritual knowledge, spiritual methodology. I think both are important, and both are useful.
There are many, many ways in which we have, over the years, incorporated cultural, social, political, subjective ideas into the church. What is amazing is the way that God’s revelation and inspiration and direction have continued to guide the Church more and more; as it says in the Doctrine and Covenants, to grow brighter and brighter until the perfect day. We are still becoming, we are still sorting out what Joseph was trying to tell us; what is spiritual and what is transitory or temporary. The understanding that we have today may change next year because we have learned more and we have progressed more.
Neylan: We will let Valerie say a few last words on this particular question and then we will move to your questions from the audience.
Valerie: I think this is a great question. I want to say at the outset that I am a convert to the Church. It used to be when I was a new convert to the Church I held it against Heavenly Father. I was upset and angry at him, because he had me be born into a home outside the Church where there was a lot of dysfunctionality. I wondered why I couldn’t be worthy enough to be born in a Mormon family.
But then I spent twenty-four and a half years as a professor at Brigham Young University. I have to tell you that some of my female students told me were so horrifying that I began to say, “Thank you, God, that I was not born in a Mormon family.” I think that is pretty terrible.
For example, a young woman I met just a couple of years ago, said, “You know, Professor Hudson, all through high school I excelled. My parents were so proud of me. I was student body president. I was debate team captain. We went to All-State in volleyball. I was a golden child. I could do no wrong. And then I came to BYU, and I am 24 and I am unmarried, but I have a 4.0 GPA.” She said, “I want to go to graduate school, [but] my parents are no longer proud of my accomplishments. They see my accomplishments as a barrier to me ever getting married. They wish that I was less than who I am.”
Oh, my gosh! How is it that we do that to our women? You remember the parable of the Master with the three servants to whom he gives talents. It is almost as if sometimes in our culture, the righteous woman is the one who takes her talents and buries them as deeply as she can. That is the standard that we hold up for our daughters. That is not right. Those talents were given for a reason. We as a community should be facilitating the contribution to our community, to our faith community and to our world the talents that God has given women.
Now don’t read into this that I am saying that all women have to get a PhD. That is not what I am saying. But it is an attitude of whether we think that we need to be facilitating those women, or whether we need to be presenting them with a choice: “You can either contribute your talents, or you can be a righteous woman, but you can’t do both.” That kind of either-or thinking is not something that we burden our sons with. They have an “and” life. “You can be a righteous man and you can contribute your talents. Go out there and be fantastic, Son.”
But too often we give subtle messages to our girls. “Well, either-or. You can choose to be a righteous woman, or you can do something with your talents.” We need to absolutely change that. I agree. I would simply say that there is no doubt in my mind that we are moving to a time when things that are culture are going to vanish.
Let me give you an example. I had lunch yesterday with a good friend of mine in the College of Religion at BYU. (Yes, I have friends in the College of Religion!) I was told that the Department of Ancient Scripture has hired on a tenure-track line a woman who has a two year old and a six month old. OOOH! Think of the import of that. Previous to this time women with young children could be secretaries in the College of Religion, and work an eight hour day away from their children, but they could not actually teach in that college. That just disappeared. Did you hear anything about it? Did you see it in the Deseret News, the Salt Lake Tribune, anything? This is what is going to happen, my dear brothers and sisters. You are going to see these things vanish that have nothing to do with our doctrine, and were only culturally based. And you will have cause to rejoice in your heart that this is so.
Neylan: We want to make sure that we address some of these excellent questions that we have received from the audience. We may do some podcasts to address some of these questions at a different time. Maxine, what mechanism is there for women to speak up about doctrinal and cultural inequalities in the Church?
Maxine: There are a couple of mechanisms. The way that the Church is structured, and this will articulate what I mentioned earlier about the inherent equality. There is a parallel equality, separate spheres with the Relief Society and the Priesthood Quorums. That equality is that they mirror each other.
Eliza R. Snow articulated in The Women’s Exponent in 1884 that that equality should be perfectly equal, and that there were boards at all levels. There is a Relief Society Board at the ward level, the stake level, and the general level, three levels, and that women should not go through the male channels, they should go through the female channels all the way to the top. So there is a mechanism in that you are supposed to counsel with your women’s leaders, and then the women’s leaders and the men’s leaders are supposed to counsel together in council or as Elder Ballard said, “counseling with our councils.” The mechanism is that the women discuss issues and deal with problems and bring them to these councils, the ward council, and on the stake level, the stake council, and on the general level, the general council. The women bring them to the men and discuss them in council with each other. The way that that should operate is that they council together as equals, not as subordinates and superiors, but as equals. In my ward and in my stake that is how it functions.
I think it is really important for women to bring their issues forward and discuss them with good will, and with hope and faith. I recently had a member of my stake presidency tell me, “Don’t be afraid to bring forward your feminist concerns and insights. Share them. We need them.”
The mechanism is there. I honestly can say that in my personal experience, twenty years ago my approach was all wrong. My approach was putting the men off, and we were not connecting. I did not love them and respect them and see them as equals. Now I do, and your approach changes everything. Your biggest mechanism for success is your approach and your spirit and the empowerment that you have within you.
Neylan: I am going to read this question exactly as it was written, and I would love for Chris to take the first stab at this with your historical understanding of the Relief Society. “Do you really, honestly evaluate Relief Society as addressing the needs and interests of women? Today?”
Kristine: I think that one of the interesting things that we are finding out about Relief Society in the way that in some sense it is being restructured is that it is quite dynamic in scope and possibility. Hopefully we will realize those possibilities. I think in the Relief Society, it is becoming a community that is attempting to address the wide variety of concerns and interests among women in the Church. In my ward at least there are different groups that have different interests or proclivities that gather together so that they can address [them].
We have become sort of automatons in the world that we live in today. I think about the old days, and this is just anecdotal because I am certainly not that old, but I remember the olden days when you would go to Sunday School, and then you would stay after and talk with everyone. You would go to Sacrament, and you would stay after and talk with everyone. Then the mothers would go home, but during the week there would be Primary meeting and gathering for women, there would be Relief Society meeting and gathering for women, there would be Young Women’s meeting and gathering for women.
If you are a mother, if you are a single woman, if you are a working woman, women need to make connections with other women. It is simply a facet of women’s existence that is critically important to them. When women get put in places in their lives where they feel alone and they can’t make those kinds of connections, it is very difficult for them oftentimes.
We are a worldwide church as well, and we see very different cultures, and very different societies, and I think that Relief Society is trying to shape itself in such a way that it can different interests and concerns that it can provide a forum or a place where women can gather together and where they can share concerns and where they can share interests in one another’s lives; also where they can learn and they can be educated.
I like the direction the Relief Society is going, and I like the way that the Relief Society is now playing a much more significant role in the councils of the Church.
Neylan: One more question to Valerie, and then we will end with a question for Wendy.
Valerie, do you see the lack of women in the Book of Mormon as an obstacle to encouraging the Divine Feminine? How do we encourage an active identity for Mother in Heaven with such limited spiritual context?
Valerie: That is another really great question. In the book that I co-wrote with Alma Don Sorenson called “Women in Eternity, Women in Zion”, we tried to tackle that issue. I have come to the conclusion that the scriptures are priesthood manuals. They are written by men. They are written to men who oversee the Church. In a sense, the absence is not surprising, and yet I think it is still dismaying to many, many women.
I know that our General Authorities have made a great effort whenever there is “men” or “brethren” or “son” in a particular scripture that will be extended to say “brethren and sisters”, “sons and daughters of God”, and so on and so forth. Yet I think that Women’s manual for their “-hood” comes in a different way. I have tried to write about this topic. I am not going to take up the time here, but I think it comes in a different way, and I think that it is OK that it comes in a different way.
I did see a question on polygamy. If you read the book, “Women in Eternity, Women in Zion”, there is a great chapter on polygamy, and I gave a FAIR presentation last year on polygamy as well, and I think that will be very helpful to you.
There is a question Neylan gave me about The Family Proclamation. It says fathers are responsible for providing the necessities of life. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. Are working mothers following the counsel of the proclamation or are they not?
I think that kind of black-and-white thinking is the foundation for some of the cruelties that we have seen talked about on this panel and some of you know in your personal life. The Spirit is not Mosaic. There is not a series of checkboxes for a woman, that if she checks them all off she is righteous, and if she does not check the boxes she is condemned. It is not that way. I will simply tell you that when I was having my babies, I was a professor at BYU. I would get on my knees to God and say, “I can’t do this. Let me quit.” And the answer that I received was, “Valerie, I need you here for my daughters. I need you here, and the laborer is worthy of my hire. If you are in my employ and do as I ask your children will be fine.” And I want to testify to you that my children are fine, because I did as the Spirit of the Lord asked me to do. So these black-and-whites, are they righteous or unrighteous? We have to move past that, brothers and sisters, and understand that the spirit is not a Mosaic Law. And God can ask a daughter of God, just as he did with Ellis Shipp, to contribute their talents in a larger way. Because, let’s face it. Men have created the world that we live in. How happy are you with it? Don’t you think that if men and women were partners in shaping this world that it would be a better world to live in? I think so.
Neylan: Last question for Wendy. This actually came in from online, but I think it is an excellent question to end with. In our broader culture it seems hard to emphasize one group without marginalizing another, sort of a zero-sum game, where more for one naturally means less for another group. This seems unavoidable in the mortal paradigm of limited care and attention and resources. Doesn’t emphasizing the experiences of, for example, the single LDS woman, or the childless LDS woman end up deemphasizing the experience of the married LDS mother? Can it be avoided when it seems apparent in the wider first-world culture that such an emphasis has, in fact, deemphasized motherhood, marriage and family?
Wendy: Did anybody else understand that question?
Neylan: The part that interests me most is talking about the issues today as we have talked about this, is it a zero-sum game? Does it take away emphasis from any of the other womanly identities that we have not directly espoused and celebrated today?
Wendy: I think one of the challenges we all face is that when we hear somebody else’s life story we think “What’s the matter with mine in comparison with that one?” This is a pretty natural human tendency that we have. I hear how somebody else’s life is going, and I think, “Why did my life not go like that.” I hear somebody else’s mission, or calling or revelatory experience, or the way their child was healed, or whatever it might be, and I think, “Why didn’t those things happen to me?”
I do not think we even need to go out into female-male experiences for that to happen. I was talking with a friend just recently who said, “I just have to live around my family, and think, ‘Why didn’t I get treated like my sister? Why did my parents treat me this way and they treated her that way?’”
Unfairness is one way of describing those experiences. Different missions, and different life assignments is another way of describing those different experiences. I think when we get past the idea that we all have to do this the same, and we begin to embrace this enormous variety that exists in the world that our God has created, perhaps we can stop worrying about being competitive and jealous of other people’s experiences.
I think one of the reasons, perhaps, that we don’t have more stories about women in the scriptures, or the opportunity that comes with that is we need to be writing our own. We need to be writing our own experiences with the Spirit as men and as women that will inspire and help others through this difficult process that we call life.
Neylan: I want to take the moderator’s prerogative and answer one question on my own. There was a question about media coverage of Mormon women focusing heavily on the viewpoint of women who are dissatisfied. The question is what can we do to highlight the stories of women who find LDS doctrine uniquely empowering and beneficial for women.
I will tell you a special url where you can go to read stories of these women. It is the Mormon Women Project at mormonwomen.com, which is my non-profit where I have told over two hundred stories of women who I really feel exemplify the qualities that our panelists have talked about today.
Valerie: This is a great time to be a woman in the Church. Sit back and strap in, because in the ninth article of faith is going to be there in your life-time. There is greater light and knowledge coming. Do you feel it? It is coming. I feel it. It is coming. You are going to want to stay for it. You are going to want to stay. So hang in there. Hang tough. The greater light and knowledge that He promised to send, and She, no doubt, promised to send, is coming.
Maxine: I think the answer to all the tensions is both-and, and either-or. We need both. We need all in the Restoration. We need single women, career women, and full-time moms. We need those who are devoted to Relief Society and the Ordain Women movement. We need cultural feminists, liberal feminists and difference feminists. We need everybody. The metaphor of the body of Christ is that all of the parts are needed. I promised to explain how Mormonism incorporates both difference feminism and equality feminism. It is very simple. The parallels are the Relief Society and the Priesthood; separate spheres is difference feminism, that addresses the different needs. And those two preparatory orders, and I see them both as orders, come together in the temple in one inclusive order. And I think it is beautiful.
Kristine: I sat in a Relief Society when we first moved to Utah, and one of the sisters was talking about women knowing the doctrine of the Church and expressed the reality of her life. The reality of her life was the fact that whenever there was a doctrinal question she simply turned to her husband, and her children turned to her husband for answers, or for explanations. I had a discussion in the hallway in church last Sunday, and one of the sisters mentioned this fact and said, “Can you imagine what those Relief Society meetings are going to be like fifteen, twenty years from now with all of these young women who have returned from missions, that are devoted to the Savior Jesus Christ? Can you imagine what a meeting like that will be?”
I would suggest what we are going to find is really what is the essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We will better understand the practice of charity. I have been doing some research to write a piece on charity recently. It is in conjunction with something I found about Josephine Butler. I researched her life for fifteen years now, and I finally came to understand who this woman was, that was able to go out and work with prostitutes, with women who had been trafficked, and to transform their lives, because she loved them.
When she was a young woman she had an epiphany, a religious epiphany. It took her about a year, but she sought to understand Jesus Christ, and she sought to feel His love for his children. She requested His own heart’s love for sinners, His own heart’s love for the world. She really wanted to feel and understand others as Jesus Christ understood others.
I believe that this missionary experience that these young women are having, the transitions and challenges that we will face as members of the Church and of the world, will force us to develop strong and firm and steadfast testimonies on our own. That does not mean that we won’t lose some along the way. We will. But we will be a body of individuals who are fitted with charitable inclinations, that pure love of Christ, so that we can love and embrace others. I think we are going to see extraordinary things among the women of the Church because of that.
Wendy: I am grateful for a scripture by which Jesus Christ introduced Himself to the Nephites, where He said, “I sit as a mother hen who gathers her chicks under her wings.” I am grateful for a Savior who is not opposed in any way to portraying Himself as the One by whom we are both begotten and born again. I would just like to presume to share my testimony of Him, and of His healing and redeeming power in all of our lives in the Name of Jesus Christ. Amen.