This Is What a Mormon Feminist Looks Like

We spoke to one of the editors of a new anthology of Mormon feminist writing about the political effects of patriarchal religions, "spiritual pain," and why she stays in the LDS Church.

by Lauren Oyler
Nov 3 2015, 10:30pm

Photo by Alexandra Angel, courtesy of Oxford University Press

This week, Oxford University Press published what may seem like a paradoxical title: an anthology called Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings. Edited by three prominent Mormon feminist figures—Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, and Hannah Wheelright—the (beautiful) book is a thorough, often surprising survey of the last 45 years of Mormon feminist thought, in all its particularly thorny iterations.

Intended as a sort of textbook for Mormon feminism 101, the text is organized chronologically, beginning at the rediscovery of Mormon feminism during the second wave—though Mormon women were also instrumental in achieving universal suffrage—and extending to the present, when writers like Brooks, Hunt Steenblik, and Wheelwright are publishing memoirs, blog posts, and essays that contradict the idea that, in Mormonism, you're either a fervent follower or excommunicated. I talked to Wheelwright, a spokesperson for the Ordain Women movement who also co-founded the blog Young Mormon Feminists, over the phone about the book, the importance of educating young Mormon women about the history of Mormon feminism, and why she continues to believe in the LDS Church despite its "troubling" implications for women's lives.

BROADLY: What does it mean to call yourself a "Mormon feminist"? Is it risky to do that in the church?
Hannah Wheelwright: It's important to understand that the church has a complicated history with even just the word feminism. A few years ago, a church leader named Boyd K. Packer gave an internal speech to staff of the church, and he told them that the three greatest threats facing the church were feminists, gays, and intellectuals. That attitude really pervades the rest of church culture and the way the church is run; if you call yourself a Mormon feminist, you're not in a leadership position in the church on a national or global level. There are lots of everyday Mormon feminists who have a role within their congregations, but as far as thought leaders in Mormon feminism [go], they're either bigger names outside of the church, or they're not in the church. It's starting to come into more mainstream acceptance, but it pushes people to think about how women are not just confined to the roles of homemaker and wife and nurturer.

As far as our book is concerned, we try to identify that this is a community of scholars and activists and everyday women who are discussing these things and who are becoming thought leaders by discussing these things for the first time. An example is that when Mormon women did scholarship about the Heavenly Mother in the 80s and 90s, women were excommunicated for even talking about or publishing on these topics. Last week or the week before, the church published a new essay on their website basically explaining the church's stance on feminism, and they quoted from scholarship that Mormon feminists had done a few decades ago. The work that was once causing them to come under fire is now being officially recognized on the church's website.

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What is the role of the patriarchy in the church now?
A lot of Mormon women would say that they feel equal within the church—a lot of women in my family feel that way. They [say] that there's not a problem, that we have complementary roles: Men preside, but women are equal partners. Which doesn't really make sense; I don't know how you can have someone preside but still have equal partnership. The article [in the book] called "The Trouble with Chicken Patriarchy" [by Kynthia Taylor] addresses the idea that the church is a patriarchy that will not call itself a patriarchy. They will absolutely avoid saying that men are the only ones who can really be in charge. They talk about how they work together with the female leaders, they might really emphasize how husbands and wives counsel together. It all sounds really good, but at the end of the day only men can be ordained to the priesthood, and you can only be a leader over a mixed group of adult men and women if you have the priesthood. You can only become prophet if you're a man, we pray to a male god, and we're told that it's inappropriate to pray to a heavenly mother. What's really important for a lot of modern women to acknowledge is that it's fine if you feel equal, but you are not given the same opportunities. It really speaks to [what the church believes about] women's divine spiritual capacity.

The Salt Lake Temple in Utah. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

What's the role of the Heavenly Mother?
One of the unique aspects of the reality that Mormonism teaches is that God was once a man, and that you, as a human right now, can become like God. That's what you should be striving to do—become like God.

The church teaches these divine gender roles—men are supposed to become like the Heavenly Father, and women should become like the Heavenly Mother. But the only information about the Heavenly Mother has come from Mormon feminists. There's this troubling language of women being subservient to men for all eternity; most men and women, especially [those] who are feminist, would argue that that's not what this religion is really about. Mormon feminists are especially addressing a "spiritual destiny" question: What is your role in eternity? It can be really scary; a lot of people just assume that the Heavenly Mother is just up there in the shadows, pumping out babies. The mistakes of men have been muddled in with the truth of the gospel. In many respects, in the very early days of the church, women had more authority and autonomy and more possibility than they do now.

I don't know how you can have someone preside but still have equal partnership.

How so?
Mormonism is all about revelation—about having an open invitation, about having an open canon. As we get more information, that changes how we practice, what we teach, and what we think about. Mormonism is really uniquely set up to address these problems in its own culture, even in its book of scriptures. Right now, the church's practice has been to cut off or excommunicate the people who are asking questions.

On an everyday level around the church many people are starting to be a lot more open to thinking about these issues and problems, but it's difficult when the leaders of the church are very old, white men. It's just naturally difficult to convey this to someone who comes from such a different generation.

Do you see the Mormon Feminism book being read by non-Mormons? Is that important to you?
I absolutely hope that people who are not Mormon will read it. I think that it's also really telling that one of the biggest places where women are discriminated against with impunity is religion—not just in Mormonism but across many faith traditions. In many ways, there's a really big push for churches to not be homophobic or trans-antagonistic, but nobody is standing up like that for women in these religions; no one is standing up and saying, "It's terrible what you're doing to these women." I think a lot of non-Mormons might say, "Mormon feminism? LOL—what an oxymoron," and then move on with their days instead of thinking about the ways that women experience a lot of spiritual pain as well as physical pain [in the church]. The things that the teachings can push women to do are really unhealthy.

There's this troubling language of women being subservient to men for all eternity.

I would say that people outside of Mormonism—and outside of faith in general—are probably not thinking about rights within the church. Instead, they're seeing faith as counterintuitive to progress outside the church.

People don't consider how much Mormonism is a culture as well as a religion. Just look at Utah—Utah is over 60 percent Mormon. The Utah state legislature does not do something unless the LDS Church has given their approval or would be OK with it. That's a big deal; that's a way that the church directly influences politics. It affects college graduation rates in Utah; fewer women are graduating than men. Utah has one of the worst pay rates for women in the country, and especially for women of color. So even though these things originate in spiritual inequality, they have huge, very visible effects that a lot of people push aside, either because they're Mormon and think that's how things should be, or because they're not Mormon and they're like, "Oh, Mormons, who cares?" There are really serious ramifications that people should be paying attention to.

LDS Temple in Oakland, California. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

How do you view marriage? It seems like it's an organizational structure in Mormonism, but there are many secular feminists who believe we shouldn't have marriage at all—that it's inherently patriarchal, and there's no way that you can escape those historical connotations.
As far as monogamy and people demonstrating a strong commitment to one another and making promises to one another, I think that in itself is fine and great. I don't think that people should have to do monogamy. As far as marriage as it's related to Mormonism, I do still think that it's a really beautiful idea to connect with people in front of the Holy Trinity. But for me the entire concept is tarnished by the fact that there is so much I cannot stomach about the temple. It's so exclusionary—even the topic of gaining entry to the temple makes me uncomfortable. The fact that we spend so much money on elaborate castles really bothers me. Then, inside the temple, especially with the endowment of the ordinances that you have to complete, there are all kinds of really strange things. My entire childhood in Mormonism, my friends and I would ask what happens in the temple, and we were always told there's nothing new, don't worry about it, it's just a continuation of things you've been taught.

Then, the day that I was trying to decide if I was going to stay in the church or not, I basically said, "You know what, I would like to stay in the church. If there's something in the temple that's going to keep me here, then I want to know about it." So I looked up online the script for the temple ceremony, and I looked at the YouTube videos, and that was one of the biggest feelings of betrayal I've ever felt. Everybody around me had always been saying, "The church is not a cult, that's crazy, we're just normal people." But I was watching YouTube videos of the temple, and I was like, "No, this is why people think we're a cult."

Right now, the church's practice has been to cut off or excommunicate the people who are asking questions.

It really scared me that there was so much going on there that people had just not told me because they're bound to secrecy, and not just that it had been kept from me, but the actual things that they say that are detailed in the [Mormon Feminism] book. It really all made me feel like there's no way that I could ever go through that and get to the point of being sealed in the temple. [Editor's note: "Sealing" refers to the ceremony that family members go through to ensure the relationship—often marriage—extends beyond death, for all eternity.] I think it's such a problematic and such a deeply troubling aspect of Mormonism, that that's happening everyday in temples all around the world.

Saying that really, in some ways, feels extremely disrespectful. My own parents are sealed the temple, my siblings. For Mormon people, marriage is such an essential building block of society, but so many women have been hurt by the temple because these words and these actions are so damaging. If we're talking about [marriage] as a building block of society, then we're also talking about a building block where men feel this inherent sense of authority over women.

I guess what I'm wondering now is why you decided to stay.
It depends on how you define stay, you know. It doesn't mean you go to church every week, doesn't mean you believe everything, doesn't mean you pray at night, doesn't mean you obey all the dictates about not drinking coffee, or not drinking alcohol, or dressing modestly. I don't stay in the traditional way; I'm a Mormon in the unorthodox sense. And I'm really hoping that we develop some kind of unorthodox Mormonism, an acceptable Mormonism. I identify as Mormon because it's my people. I have five generations of Mormon pioneer ancestors on both sides of my family; it feels like my native language. It's such a part of my cultural and ancestral history; I can't deny that when I hear a hymn, or when I'm reminded of a sermon or scripture, that I feel, really deeply, a sense of peace and comfort and belonging. At the end of the day, even if that was some kind of intense brainwashing that I'm now forever tied to—which I don't think it is—it would still be a representation of my language, or my way of accessing divinity, or of accessing this all-encompassing sense of nature and peace and humanity. I think I stay because I find such commonality and so much beauty in working with the Mormon people to change our society and our cultural dictates and our structures. I find that the most solidarity and understanding when I'm talking with other Mormon feminists. I find a lot of beauty in accepting a lot of different ways of living your Mormonism.

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