By Hannah Wheelwright
Back in August, the Church History Department helped sponsor the first ever Women and the LDS Church conference. I was lucky to be able to attend by carpooling up to Salt Lake from Provo with other Women’s Studies minors from BYU, and we had a blast. My delay in writing up my comments about it does not at all reflect on my actual opinion of the conference- I thought it was a great first step in trying to better understand LDS women. I’ll share with you my notes. Please keep in mind that this is all from my memory and jotted down notes, so nothing is a verbatim quote and could be written down incorrectly. You can listen to all four panels yourself here.
The overlying topic of the conference was agency. I didn’t take notes about Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s plenary address on Friday night, but it was excellent. She spoke on the importance of recording personal stories. I personally wrote in my journal every night from the night before my freshman year of high school up until about the end of my freshman year in college, but have since only written sporadically, about once every week or two. I have always loved keeping a journal because I find myself hilarious when I bluntly express my thoughts without trying to censor myself and sound intelligent and then later read what I wrote. Also when I draw pictures as I am half asleep, those are really funny too. I often address my journal entries to my future children (“Kids, don’t ever do what I did today. It sucked. Do you kids still use that phrase, ‘it sucked’? Or do you have way cooler slang? How awesome are your rocketships? I’m so jealous”) so it keeps things interesting for me.
The first panel on Saturday morning was about women’s agency from a historical perspective. The panel (Susanna Morill, Quincy Newell, Kate Holbrook, and moderator Laurel Thatcher Ulrich) consisted of female historians who had recently published papers or were more knowledgeable about certain women in LDS history.
The first panelist to present, Susanna Morrill, talked about Eliza R. Snow and Emmeline B. Wells. The most interesting thing that stuck out to me in her remarks was her emphasis that those early sisters were not trying to make up doctrine (though they did take many steps that we would consider bold and not appropriate for women outside of the power structure of the church to take), but were instead just filling in gaps with their own personal prophetic revelation.
Kate Holbrook spoke next about Sister Aurelia Rogers, who founded the Primary organization. I am not a historian and would encourage you to look up the exact story, but basically Sister Rogers saw that the youth of the church, particularly the boys, were becoming such rapscallions that she decided to do something about it. After some hard work, lots of prayer and receiving revelation, and talking with church leaders, the specifics of which I cannot recall, the Primary organization was born- all because this sister saw a need and pushed a solution. She felt like she could act on her own revelation. She also believed that Zion should be built by both men and women; and also, there were male presidents of Primary! I have written in my notes, “Unliberated women still exercise agency, and women in the Church often saw the Church as a key to emancipation.” There was this idea that women had unmediated access to God’s will, and thus Sister Rogers had credibility in her promoting the solution of the Primary organization. My absolute favorite quote from Sister Rogers that I don’t have a copyright on but want to state now that I think it would make a FABULOUS (to borrow a word from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich) book title: “A fire seemed to burn within me.”
The last panelist, Quincy Newell, talked about Jane James, who was a black woman who lived at the time of Joseph Smith. She was refused temple ordinances due to her race, but still praised and sustained the leaders who denied her exaltation. This blows my mind and makes my qualms about inequalities in the LDS Church seem insignificant. She helped force the church to formulate racial policy instead of it just deciding things on a case by case basis- previously, it had depended on the consent of church leaders. I circled this many times in my notes, and jotted down the questions- “Why don’t we let everyone in the temples? If God will choose what ordinances to accept, why not allow everyone the opportunity?” She also spoke about how masculinity was perceived- since masculinity in Mormon culture depends on holding the priesthood and black men could not hold the priesthood, it had profound effects on black Mormons and their families.
The second panel was interesting for several reasons. It covered women’s agency from a contemporary perspective, and at first I thought the panelists were such a random grouping that I wondered how they would be as cohesive as the first panel. They did not end up being cohesive at all in my opinion, but that was part of why they were so interesting. Aimee Evans Hickman from the Exponent II moderated this panel.
The first panelist was David Campbell. He shared a lot of really interesting statistics from studies he’s been doing about religiosity (I am shocked that is actually a word; I thought it would have a squiggly line under it. Whoa squiggly is a word too. Crazy). Some stats I found particularly interesting- women are more likely to say that members of the LDS Church should seek revelation instead of obeying General Authorities without question, and also that members should interpret the Sabbath day ritual individualistically. Mormons make the least religious bridges between faiths except for black Protestants and Latino Catholics. 74% of Mormon men agree with traditional gender roles, as opposed to 32% of non-Mormon men.
Next, Jennifer Finlayson-Fife spoke about repressing women’s sexual agency. By far the best part of her remarks was when she said, causally and inadvertently, “Many of you have probably heard of the book Fifty Shades of Gray, you can actually pick it up at the grocery store, right next to the bananas….” I have never heard a room full of middle-aged to older Mormon women laugh so long and so raucously.
However, I really enjoyed the rest of her remarks as well. She spoke about how Mormon women sometimes get the message that they are naturally less sexual than men, and thus have a disconnect with their bodies. Men are the agents of desire, preparing to choose- whereas women are desirable, the subjects of desire. Women use their agency to put their needs second and please others. There is a disproportionate responsibility, a guilt and shame for misnavigation; there is non-agency, or an inhibited ability to act of your own self-accord. Women in the LDS Church sometimes see sex as a duty, and not an opportunity to increase agency. They’re taught that sexual liberalism is bad because sex is divorced of commitment. Women keep their pre-marital masturbation secret because they don’t want to be seen as sluts- they must remain chaste because it is a mechanism for creating a relationship that they want down the road. Erotic seems sinful; it seems to pull on the theological framework, though there is room to embrace those principles within the theology, such as resisting to the subjugation of their husband’s needs. Women face the difficulty in the Church of fending off sexuality while still appearing desirable. They put off orgasm in order to not be more sexually experienced.
The last panelist was Mary Farrell Bednarowski, who is a Catholic scholar. She spoke about the particular impossibilities of feminism and the differences and commonalities between Catholic feminism and Mormon feminism. She listed out some points that I honestly can’t remember what the overall title of the list was, but I’m going to list them anyways because they’re interesting. Here’s what I wrote:
- Thoroughly gendered religious traditions
- Finding creative ways to ask why women’s contributions are dissent
- Is there anything worth saving? Why stay Mormon/Catholic?
- Opening depth and breadth of tradition- more there than we thought. TRADITION DOESN’T NEED TO BE INFALLIBLE TO BE DEAR.
- Both religions are mixed bags
- Brining to life moribund parts of traditions (Heavenly Mother)
- Broaden devotion- “we venerate blessed Mother- we don’t adore her.” Cultural platitudes and pieties
- Women ask about purpose of doctrine- static or dynamic
- Work of women is bringing new understandings of authority. Not good for religious traditions to submit to authority.
- More of women’s theology moving to organic is good for traditions
- Living out new ways of belonging- new categories instead of just “in” and “out.”
“…that doesn’t mean we don’t belong.”
“GENDER IS NOT A PROBLEM TO BE SOLVED. IT IS AN EVER UNFOLDING MYSTERY OF EXPERIENCES.”
The third panel was my favorite. I don’t have a lot of notes from it because it was my favorite… I was thinking too much. Sorry my notes won’t be as good here. I might do a second post with some more thoughts and not just sharing these details. Anyways, the panel was titled Women and Agency: Popular Perspectives. Jana Riess moderated.
The first panelist was Claudia Bushman. How awesome is she? She talked about three principles of Mormon feminism: agency, revelation, and a belief in Heavenly Mother. Some of my favorite quotes I jotted down from her:
“Yes, I obey the Word of Wisdom- in the same way Joseph Smith and Brigham Young did.”
“Mormons choose which doctrines to feel strongly about.” –I have personally used this line many times since the conference to explain this concept to people. I see it happen all the time, especially at BYU. Also, “We define such doctrines that we don’t approve of as policy.”
“Praising women in a way that keeps them under control”
“Does Heavenly Mother take care of us in a way that she doesn’t need to be praised?”
“As that great theologian Joan Rivers once said….”
The second panelist was Jane Hafen, and she was arguably the show-stopper of this conference. She deviated slightly from the form all the other panelists before and after her used and instead used her time to tell her personal story. It was moving, thought-provoking, and exactly what the conference needed to have some real dialogue beyond just quoting historical or contemporary evidences of women in the church. Somewhat ironically, her remarks were focused on the LGBT community and the Church, and not so much Mormon feminism. I loved at the beginning when she stated that withholding words is power, but sharing them openly and honestly is power too. When she spoke of her son coming out as gay, there was the question “Do you love the dogma more than your son?” That question has always resounded in my mind about LGBT people within the church. I cannot bring myself to write more here about her remarks because I want everyone to go listen to them instead when the podcast comes out. Immensely powerful.
Next, Neylan McBaine spoke. She’s the founder of the Mormon Women Project and works with Bonneville Communications. Her article recently caused a stir in calling for non-doctrinal changes in the structure and business of the Church- she would advocate only for these things and not doctrinal changes beyond them- “change perceptions if not the actual product.” She also talked about challenging policy seen through the lens of assuming testimony.
I disagree with Neylan on a lot of things; it bothered me at the beginning of her remarks when she emphasized, “I choose not to be a victim” as an explanation for staying in the Mormon faith despite perceived inequalities. I don’t think acknowledging inequalities and questioning whether you should emotionally or spiritually maintain your ties to that religious organization makes you a victim.
From the question and answer session following this panel, an audience member asked how you can go against doctrine: Jane Hafen (who is a member of the Navajo tribe) responded, “Well, let me ask you something. Am I white and delightsome, or am I pure and delightsome? Doctrines and policies change.”
I didn’t write down who said it- I think it was Neylan- but I loved the quote: “We need to eliminate all sentences in the Church that begin with ‘Women are…’ or ‘Men are…’ We risk eternal damage when we emphasize this script that may or may not fit all women or men.”
The fourth and last panel was addressing LDS Women in the International Church. Anita Sthalasayee moderated the panel.
First, Matt Heiss from the Church History Department spoke about how the doctrine of the LDS Church is revolutionary in liberating and making agency possible. He quoted Elder Sitatee, the 1st Kenyan called to the Quorum of the 70, who talked about the “shackles of tradition that restrict agency” and how the doctrine of the Church combats that.
Next, Carine Decoo-Van(I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to write down the correct spelling of her name!), who is a Mormon woman from Belgium, spoke about LDS women in Europe. She talked about how Mormon women in western Europe reflect cultural norms of their countries rather than those of Americans, despite being part of what is oftentimes perceived as an American church. She talked about how Mormon women in Europe frequently hold multiple callings in their wards due to the small congregation sizes, and that 74% of Mormon women in Europe work outside the home, as opposed to just 60% of non-Mormon women. She emphasized that they are Mormon Europeans, not European Mormons.
Lastly, Mariama Kallon from Sierra Leone spoke about her personal testimony and how being converted to the Mormon faith liberated her from many cultural practices and standards in her community. She spoke about the importance of being able to receive personal revelation, of being forgiven “no matter what sin I have committed,” and of how agency empowers women to get education and get equality. She spoke of how wonderful it is that for many Mormon women in Africa, they no longer have to deal with beatings from their husbands, because of the change in their families after they all join the LDS Church.
So that’s it! I hope that reading my notes gives you as much to think about as it did me. I look forward to attending many more events like this in the future. Feel free to ask any questions you may have in the comments section- I’ll try to respond if I can.