Friday, April 25, 2008

Mormon Feminist Blogging

Recently I was asked a few questions about Mormon feminist blogging, so I wrote down the following thoughts.

Mormon feminism has traditionally never had a place to go. We see quite a few feminists in the early Utah years, those who wrote in the Women's Exponent, agitated for women's right to vote, and staunchly defended the practice of polygamy. But these voices seemed to cease with the passage of the Edmunds-Tucker Act and the turn of the century. Until the 1950's Mormon women seemed satisfied with traditional roles as mothers and homemakers, giving their energies to service in the Church. The first public instance we see of feminism in the twentieth century was when many women rallied around Sonia Johnson to support the ERA. This ended badly for all concerned, since the Church took a firm stance against the ERA, thus putting feminism outside the pale of faithful Church membership. Sonia's fight turned into a personal battle, she was excommunicated and became involved in additional activities inconsistent with Church standards. Unfortunately, during that period, Mormon feminism was associated with Sonia, so Mormon women felt constrained to stay away from both feminism and activism. Feminist activism continued to remain underground for many years, manifesting itself occasionally during all-women retreats where, for example, a sympathetic priesthood holder might be persuaded to bless the sacrament on Sunday morning and women would pass it to each other. (How daring!) (That was sarcasm, by the way!) But feminists who spoke out continued to be excommunicated from the Church well into the '90's when the September Six incident occurred. The excommunication of Maxine Hanks was a particular blow for Mormon feminism. She is a feminist theologian who compiled and edited the book Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism (1992). She was excommunicated Sept. 19, 1993, ostensibly for this work (as was fellow contributor, Michael Quinn). Also particularly discouraging to Mormon feminists was the excommunication of Lavina Fielding Anderson, a feminist who did much work on exposing ecclesiastical abuse against women. The later excommunication of Margaret Toscano, who was also a well-known feminist and scholar on women's issues reinforced the stance of Church leadership against feminism. Because these excommunications were said to have been influenced not by local leadership, but by higher-ranking LDS leaders, the disciplinary actions were viewed as a strong message that feminism, and especially feminist activism was unacceptable for women who wished to maintain their Church standing.

I bring up all this history because I think it helps to explain the phenomenon of Mormon feminist blogging. In August of 2004 Lisa B* started the blog Feminist Mormon Housewives as a way to release her tensions over faithful Church membership and feminism. Ten years had gone by since the excommunications and very little feminist activism had been seen. But, because of this, the Church had not felt the need to take any public stances against it. The slate was clean.

Blogging proved to be the perfect medium to discuss feminist issues. First, the computer medium drew in younger women who were unaware of the past history of Mormon feminism and the possible danger of expressing their opinions. Second, women who may have hesitated to declare themselves as feminists felt comfortable participating in an anonymous venue. Finally, more liberal-minded women who were scattered among the wards and stakes of a worldwide church could at last exchange ideas and communicate with each other. Almost four years have passed, and now there are several blogs which can be said to embrace feminist Mormon issues, especially Feminist Mormon Housewives, Zelophehad's Daughters and the Exponent Blog. So far, the Church has not chosen to discourage this exchange of liberal ideas. Lisa and other feminist bloggers have slowly revealed their true identities by participating in Sunstone Symposia and giving public speeches, and have felt no repercussions. This is a major step for feminism in the Church.

As far as concrete, measurable things that feminist Mormon blogging has accomplished: I don't think blogging has affected Church policy in any way. Not yet. I am very skeptical that grass-roots movements are able to make any changes on such a strongly hierarchically-organized system as we have in the LDS Church. Additionally, I think that leaders at the top have only very, very recently become aware of the blogs and the subjects which are discussed here. I think the major way that blogging has supported feminists in the Mormon Church is the solidarity it gives them for thinking about ideas which have traditionally been discouraged in the Church. More LDS women are working outside of the home, which has happened independently of blogging. But blogging gives support and encouragement to these women when they do not feel it in the wards.

Another major accomplishment of feminist Mormon blogging is that it has strengthened other activist causes. For example, being "green" is often discussed on feminist Mormon sites, and many of the readers have been motivated to start living a more ecologically-based lifestyle. This is something which has never received Church-wide emphasis. A concrete example is Lisa's post "Who Needs a Toddler" on FMH where she says, "See, I keep a mason jar on the washer and I fill it with the lint, so I can compost it, because Artemis tells me I should, and sometimes I do try to live up to her shiny example." So a lot of us are composting and hearing about it and getting tips from our blogging. There's another recent post called "Eco-Friendliness: Cloth Napkins" by Artemis on FMH. Just one more instance of saving the planet I can recall at FMH is all the encouragement to use cloth bags when grocery shopping. The post "January C3 challenge" has comments showing the development of a consciousness of this issue on the part of feminist Mormon housewives!

One of the best examples I can give you is the October 07 peace march which FMH participated in. I think, if you want to know where feminist Mormon blogging is headed, this will give you an idea. As time passes, feminists are connecting through the blogs and getting together to support causes. One post describes a planned FMH quilt effort : "We will auction (ebay?) the quilt and 100% of the proceeds will be used to invest in Kiva microloans." And this year in her annual fund raising post, Lisa explained, "In the past I’ve taken down the button as soon as we’ve made enough to pay our server fees. This year I’m going to leave it up all day and any extra will be put into our fMh Kiva microloans."

I've concluded that blogging has given Mormon feminists a place to go. Our most radical ideas are not exactly welcome in Relief Society, and church leaders often feel uncomfortable with us and our causes. We're too few and far apart to make a difference without this unique way of communicating and coming together. We've just started to discover what blogging can mean to this demographic.

So, feminist Mormon bloggers, do you think the "blog" forum has accomplished anything? Has it made any difference in the Church or in the lives of Mormon women? What future do you see for feminism in the Church? Will blogging play a role?


Anonymous said...

I think it is interesting that the environmentalism and activism you have tied to feminism do not actually have much (or anything) to do with feminism. These are liberal causes. Feminists tend to be liberal, too.

I think that mormon feminist blogging, like other blogging, serves as a support for people who might feel otherwise isolated in their units. They might feel that they are the ONLY people who are concerned about gender discrimination in the Church, or the only people who don't automatically canonize all that BR McConkie ever said. But blogging allows us to come out of the closet a bit, and to see that there are lots of people out there "like us." I really think that can act as a great support during some hard times in conservative wards.

I would hope that, over time, more of our leaders would read Mormon blogs to gather perspectives on how people feel about this that and the other. Blogging has served as an outlet where people have been able to explore their hurt over specific doctrines or talks--I think that is very useful.

I have occassionally printed out "useful" posts for my friends who serve in various capacities. While my friend appreciated reading about serving autistic kids in Primary, she did ask me if FMH was the real name of the blog and told me she would never read there herself. Another time, someone in RS used FMH as an example of an internet resource she had accidentally read and had "made her feel bad" (the name only illicited gasps in RS).

Feminism is very much a dity word for Mormons. I sincerely hope that will change.

rockin' groovin' mama said...

I can't speak for anyone else, but Mormon feminist blogging has changed my life. For the first time I feel like there are others like me, so I can be honest and true to myself.

Also, I have always struggled (as a victim of abuse) to stand up for myself. I have always been afraid to say what I really think or feel if it is different from others. The anonymity of blogging has allowed me to do what has frightened me. As a result, I am feeling more comfortable standing up for myself IRL.

I am well educated and (despite my weakness at blogging) am very articulate, yet Mormon feminist blogging has been more empowering than anything else I've done.

If there are more like me, we certainly will be a group to reckon with.

Samantha said...

My personal opinion is that there is a definite need and therefore a place for Mormon feminists. I enjoy having a place to read thoughts that might not be expressed comfortably in church. I've even come across a few feminist bloggers who have had the courage to discuss issues of sexual abuse (including symptomatic problems encountered by adult abuse survivors), and same-sex attraction (also known as gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgenderism by those of us who experience it and aren't afraid to use those words). I suppose I see Mormon Feminist blogging as a path to look not only at discrimination in the church, but as a way to discourse about the really difficult topics--because women talk--and we're good at it.

Heidi said...

I just read the very beginning of eso's comment and wanted to add a little bit: Actually feminism (esp. feminist thealogies and the like) have been linked to environmentalism from its beginning. Mostly, it's been a natural connection made because of a new emphasis on natality (instead of the usual focus on death as a universal equalizer which has been the more "patriarchical" norm in judeo-christian religion).

Natality leads to a celebration of creation which leads to more associations with nature/"mother earth"/fertility-goddess stuff which naturally (hah hah) leads to a focus on honoring our environment. There's actually a word for this...something like ecofeminist thealogy. Anyway, read Carol Christ if'n you're interested.

Aaaaaaanyway, I think you're onto something with the blogging and Mormon feminist re-emergence. And, I agree with your points. I don't have anything else really to add right now (and I need to prep a Sunday School lesson) but I just wanted to give a big "YES" to:

--The fact that us feminists seem to be scattered about the general churchdom and blogging creates a necessary support group and community of accepting discussion.

--Blogging can give you anonymity, and I think that is still necessary for women in the church to have that mask to feel safe with their feelings. I don't like it, but it's true. At the dinner I was at with Melissa Proctor, at one point I leaned across the table and whispered, "I want to start a revolution"...and she just quietly shook her head with a sad look in her eyes (or so it seemed to me). I understood all the complicated feelings of trying to be a Mormon feminist, faithful, tongue-tied, but needing to break free from that in her simple look.

Also, I'm speaking at Sunstone in August. Do you know if any fmh people will be there?! I would really, really, really like to meet them.

Bored in Vernal said...

Pinto!! I am going to Sunstone, too. Let's schedule a get-together for feminist bloggers!

OK, I wanted to reply to that comment about the Melissa Proctor "look." 2 years ago at Sunstone there were a couple of talks about women in the Church that I thought were absolutely depressing. Some of the participants had been early feminists in the Church back in the Boston days when Exponent II was founded, and they hadn't seen ANY change since then, in fact, they said, things were even worse. Either you accepted the whole "feminine eternal role" stuff, or you left the Church. So I think that is where that look is coming from.

But I think what older women like myself don't often see is that younger women are not fighting for change, but just acting as if change has already taken place. In spite of the rhetoric, they have equality in their marriages. If they want a career, they just go do it and if they are competent and active in the Church, they are given callings, too. They choose how many children to have. They take their YW on canoe trips without asking anyone's permission. (oh, I needed approval??) The rhetoric hasn't changed much, but actions have.

We were trying to break free and start a revolution by changing the way things were done and what was said in the Church. Now many women are breaking free by just changing the patterns in their own lives and then coming to Church and being just as much a part of things as anyone else.

I'm still trying to figure out how this can all be happening. It leaves a huge disconnect for me, but it seems many women are able to navigate these waters and be happy in the Church.

I think gay men are starting to do this, too. When we have LGBT members showing up and being open about who they are and taking an active part in what is going on, the wards will change, even if policies and rhetoric stay the same for now.

I say all this while remaining fully aware how damaging and horrible it can be to hear talks and comments which separate and discriminate and disempower. I'm still thinking it all through.

The Faithful Dissident said...

Of all the feminist postings I've read on different blogs, I don't think I've read too much that I haven't said or at least thought myself. I mean, honestly, who hasn't questioned and, perhaps, even grieved over certain doctrines and/or policies of the Church concerning women and feminism?

At the very least, blogging has helped me realize that I'm not alone in my thoughts, and that I'm not the only one who doesn't fit the mold of the typical RS sister. It's a great outlet for me, as well as a source of enlightenment.

I've posted my personal thoughts on feminism and being Mormon in my blog.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing the history-I enjoyed reading it. For me the blogging world has helped me realize I am not alone in my thoughts and feelings. I am not sure that it has made a difference in the church because I am not sure enough people read them that are not already liberal. In my experience people look for online communities when they are not able to create a community in real life, for whatever reason.

I don’t think the leaders in the church have completely comprehended how much the internet has the power to impact others. I think they are beginning to since at BYU Hawaii grad students were encouraged to go online and be a presence. I think feminism will have to be more accepted. They cannot put the genie back in the bottle on this one-it is too far out.

John White said...

BiV: Thanks for the history gateway (I went and read about the September Six because of it), as well as your comment on the younger generation "acting as if."

I like that last thought (and think maybe it should go in the main article). I asked my girlfriend last night how she could be a part of a feminist Mormon community without living in fear... I mean 15 years ago just isn't that far removed from a feminist purge.

Bored in Vernal said...

John(wh), Not to cause trouble between you two! But the Sept6 thing is crazy, isn't it? I think there is a lot of fear among those of us who were of age when it happened. I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Hopefully we really have moved past this.

M said...

I have to say that if the younger generation is "acting as if" (and I'm vain enough to include myself in that - partially), it is because of the women who have gone before us and the atmosphere in which we were raised. My mother, while she did emphasize having children and being a SAHM, also encouraged me in my schooling and career aspirations, never telling me no. She openly used birth control in the 70's and viewed that she had had all the children God required of her. My parents always encouraged me to say what I thought and to ask them any question I had and that they would answer them with honesty. My dad still encourages me in my independent thought and even concurs with some of my concerns.

That said, it unnerves me that so many have been formally excommunicated or essentially "forced to resign" because of their thoughts or understandings. If we are to become Zion, of one heart and mind, shouldn't it be by revelation and dialogue and not by force? (D&C 121:41-44)

amelia said...

interesting post, BiV (as usual).

on mormonism and feminism generally: i very much subscribe to the "acting as if" understanding of feminism in the church today. and i think that the second-wave mormon feminists (think the founders of exponent II, etc.) are wrong to believe that it's an all or nothing game to be a woman in the mormon church. i don't think it's that all the free-thinking feminist liberal women have disappeared. i think it's that feminism has so thoroughly informed so much of our lives that it's a lived norm in some ways rather than the noticeable exception (as you so nicely summarize in your comment about that here).

i know i for one have very much lived feminism inside the church. i've openly challenged bishops during RS and SS when they've espoused what I believe are mistaken understandings of sex and gender. i often speak up in church meetings from a feminist perspective. most people who know me would agree if someone suggested i'm feminist. but most people who know me would also agree that i'm a faithful, active member of the church who's an "asset" to her ward (i hate that word, asset). i think the way forward towards change is by combining feminism and mormon practice.

allowing change to happen over time as generations evolve is frustrating because it's by definition slow. and it doesn't respond quickly enough to immediate catalysts. but it's perhaps the most important kind of change. because then the change actually infiltrates ordinary lives, as Maraiya describes in her comment (i've had a very similar experience, by the way; my parents are some of my biggest supporters in my pursuit of education and career and a life that's very different from their own).

on the september six--

john and i did have a long conversation about this last night. from his perspective, the event is good cause to fear being openly liberal and/or feminist in the church. if it's happened in the past, it can happen again. i don't tend to feel that way. partly because i'm (perhaps naively) optimistic and trusting. i don't think that the simple fact that something has happened once means it's likely to happen again. from what i know of the september six, i think it was a mistake. an abuse of ecclesiastical power. a response premised on fear rather than love and honesty. i acknowledge the realities of that situation. and i acknowledge the reality that it could happen again, and potentially to someone like me. but i refuse to allow that acknowledgment to become a fear that will prevent me from thinking and writing and believing things that feel in keeping with the gospel as i understand it.

i also think that the church has changed a lot in the last 20 years when it comes to women. i know it often doesn't feel like it. and i know that on the surface, it's still very patriarchal and traditional regarding gender and sex. but at the same time, there are identifiable shifts in rhetoric regarding divorce, abuse, women's working, education, etc. as we identify and address the problems, we need to be careful that we don't ignore the real progress that has been made. ignoring that progress will only undercut our efforts to suggest and support future progress and change.

John White said...

Well, I'm never one to advocate fear, but it's not like there was an open discussion of the incident, a repudiation, reversal of as much of the damage as possible, etc.

Just no further action. That's creepy.

Kaimi said...

Great post, BiV. I'm sorry I missed it when it came out (stuck writing exams).

I like your timeline and history. I'd add a few things to it, though.

-Claudia Bushman guest blogging on Times and Seasons (Jan 2004).
-Kristine Haglund starts commenting and blogging at T&S (Jan/Feb 2004). Kris is really the original feminist blogger, and everything else flows from her.
-Julie Smith starts at T&S, with her own unique voice; a few months later, Melissa Proctor and Rosalynde Welch come aboard.
-Steve launches BCC with a crew including Kristine, Karen Hall, Tamara Cannon, Christina Taber.
-Heather O. opens shop at Mormon Mommy Wars, and then Carrie Lundell over at Tales from the Crib.
-BCC adds several strong female voices: Taryn Nelson-Seawright, Kris Wright, Tracy M, Amri Brown, ECS (who later moves to FMH)
-Margaret Young embarks on her blog perigrinations.
-FMH adds a number of strong new voices -- Emily, Janet, Quimby, now Melanie.
-Lisa and others speak at Sunstone about feminist blogging.
-More orthodox (but still self-labeled feminist) women bloggers set up shop at Segullah.
-Kristine edits the Sunstone feminist issue, which is comprised largely of discussion by feminist bloggers.
-Kristine is appointed editor of Dialogue.

When you look at it, there's really a lot that feminist bloggers have done over the past few years. And I'm certain that there's much, much more to come.

Bored in Vernal said...

Awesome! Thanks for providing this info, from someone who has been on the cutting edge. :)

Anonymous said...

This was an interesting read. I think Kaimi adds some good information, but MMW as a feminist blog? Seriously? They don't link to FMH and sometimes denigrate it, or allow their commenters to. I don't think having a temper tantrum about Sister Beck's talk necessarily makes one a feminist.