Sunday Spotlight is a series where we profile individuals in the Young Mormon Feminists community to hear their story and get to know them a little better through Q&A or their personal narrative. This week we talked with Allison Jensen.
Who are you, what do you do, and what do you want to be doing?
My name is Allison Jensen; I am a 23 year old, married, Canadian, 5th year English major and will be graduating next spring with Honours. I will be writing an honours thesis about the intersectionality of postcolonialism, feminism, and Christianity; I am not sure on a more specific direction for the thesis other than that but I can already feel it’s going to be interesting, for me anyways. I plan on going to grad school in the UK to get my Master’s degree and then a PhD. I want to be a university professor, which doesn’t always go over well when discussing my life plans with more traditional Mormon folk but it’s what I want to be and I feel that the Lord supports me in my decision to pursue this career. I could also see myself working with non-profit organizations, teaching English abroad and working with women’s empowerment initiatives in less developed countries. I believe in the power of education and the positive changes that can come from improving our personal and global education.
How did you come to identify as a Mormon feminist?
I didn’t necessarily identify as a Mormon feminist specifically until relatively recently; I mean, I have always been Mormon and I am definitely a feminist so yes, I suppose I am a Mormon feminist. I don’t really see my religious beliefs as being central to the way I look at things but rather that my thought processes inform my religious opinions. By being able to look critically at the ideas and doctrines presented at church, I am able to have a fuller understanding and make a more informed decision for how I choose to act on what I feel is true.
I discovered myself as a feminist in my critical theory class in university. The course was a requirement and was probably the most difficult course I’ve ever had to take, partly because of the professor and partly because of the course material. Having to rethink everything you ever thought through numerous different perspectives is not easy but it is definitely the most beneficial course I have ever taken. I think critical theory should be a life requirement course for everyone but that’s just me.
I remember starting the section on feminism and being apprehensive; while reading the introduction to feminism chapter, it used examples of common sayings people use when trying to justify not identifying as feminist. “I’m not a feminist, I like men”, “I’m not a feminist, I think women should be able to stay home and raise children if they want to!”, “I’m not a feminist, I wear a bra!”. The book then said that all of these things do not mean you aren’t feminist and that many feminists believe those things. It discussed different examples of female oppression through political, social, economic, and psychological ways in patriarchal society and states that regardless of different viewpoints within feminism, the ultimate goal is to promote women’s equality. There can be a philosophical discussion as to what equality means but it’s a pretty good general direction to start. A few years later in a women’s study class, the professor defined feminism as a theory and a movement focusing on social justice and liberation for all beings, centering on the lived experiences of women. That is something I always felt in my heart to be important when I was growing up but never knew how to express it. Feminism has given me the vocabulary and theoretical approach to understand the things that are going on around me and provide an analysis to better figure out what is happening and how I can change it. I discovered it’s not so bad after all and have felt liberated ever since.
What feminist concepts do you think are the most important in understanding Mormon feminism?
For me, one of the most crucial concepts I learned in feminism and critical theory is the concept of privilege. Privilege, in a nut shell, is thinking that certain things are not problems or issues simply because they are not problems or issues for you personally. Privilege runs along gender, race, and class lines most notably but also along lines of sexual orientation, age, and physical and mental ability. Privilege selectively colours our view of the world while making us think that what we see is exactly how the world works. This concept of privilege ties in closely to the theoretical concept of “othering” or seeing people as “the other”. We draw a line between how we choose to define ourselves and those we define as not ourselves or not people we want to share the same category as ourselves. Othering runs along the same lines as privilege and prevents us from seeing people how they really are but instead we see them as something different from ourselves, mostly as something negative, often vilified, inferior, and to be avoided.
Many Mormons hide behind their privilege in order to invalidate the claims women make with regards to gender discrimination in the church. Some women don’t experience overt sexism in the church and then claim that there is no gender discrimination in the church at all when they only have their own personal experience to draw from. There are countless women who have had and continue to experience overt and covert sexism, meaning blatant sexism and more subtle but still as serious sexism, within the church as an institution as well as from the members of the church. It is a very serious issue for many women, one that is paramount to their progress personally and spiritually, so to devalue their experience because it is not comparable to your own is unfair and ignorant.
What issues in Mormon feminism get you really riled up?
I really enjoy pondering and analyzing the principle of charity because I find it’s something lacking in the culture of the church, more absent than we’d like to admit. Gandhi said “I like your Christ but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” This led me to think that perhaps why people outside of the church don’t think we are Christian is because we don’t really act like it. We get so caught up in doing all the things we think we need to be doing to be righteous that we forget the whole point: to be like the Saviour. The Saviour was the epitome of charity; He didn’t tell people how bad He thought their choices were or lecture them about all the ways they are wrong. It’s not about judging the actions of other people, making our opinions about whether they are doing what we “know” to be the “right things” or not, but it’s about loving everyone. Period. It’s not “Well, yeah but we also know that their behaviour is wrong and that we need to judge righteously”. There’s no buts about it. Judging other people is never righteous; we are to judge the behaviour and come to a decision whether or not we personally should be participating in a given behaviour or not. It boils down to asking the question “Would the Saviour being doing/saying/thinking/acting like this towards that person?” Sometimes when I ask myself that question, it’s not what He would be doing and I need to change how I see the situation. I am certainly not perfect at being Christlike but it is something we can always be working on and constantly evaluating our own progress.
I think something I struggle with the most in the Mormon culture is the misconception of what is actual church doctrine versus what is tradition and popular opinions within the culture of the church. I find too many members group the gospel, the church, and church culture into a synonymous group when in actuality they are three separate concepts. Often, popular opinions of general authorities, other respected leaders, or societal traditions are interpreted as doctrinal truth and we never really learn for ourselves what the doctrines of the church really teach and what the gospel itself really is; we rely on other people’s interpretations instead of discovering for ourselves what the answers are.
Take the example of feminism in the church; many people hear the word “feminism” and immediately turn against it because of preconceived, inaccurate notions of what the concept is. When examined critically and genuinely, feminism is very much in line with the doctrine of the church. I don’t for one split second think that the Saviour thinks any less of me because I am a woman or that He will treat me any different because I am a woman. I know in my heart that He would never stand for the oppression of other people and that He would show nothing but compassion, love, and understanding towards people who express feelings of pain and frustration over issues like sexism in the church. He would not tell them they need to read an internet article He found and to get over themselves; He would not tell them that the only reason they feel this way is because they are unrighteous or because they just don’t understand. He would not stand for the oppression of women or any other group and He would absolutely stand up for my rights and even more so for my feelings and experiences.
But most people don’t look that far in to unfamiliar territory. It takes a lot more work to formulate our own opinions on principles and we might avoid doing it because we are afraid of what the answer may be. We take the answers other people have been given and use those as a substitute for finding our own answers, afraid that we might find a different answer and that our testimonies won’t look like everyone else’s.
Don’t get me started on how people, in and out of the church, think an adopted, underdeveloped opinion deserves as much validity as those that are well-informed, researched, and educated. All opinions are not created equal. Instead of making judgements about what you think you think about an issue without actually doing any background investigation (such as feminism, for example), you need to evaluate how much accurate information you have in order to be able to have an actual opinion about issues, rather than just your personal thoughts at the time of the question. RANT OVER.
What would you say to people new to Mormon feminism?
You are not alone; there is an entire community that feels similarly to you and can help you work through whatever you are trying to reconcile within yourself to get to an answer you are satisfied with, whatever that may look like. Your performativity of Mormonism and feminism does not have to look like everyone else’s. Sister Chieko Okazaki said “There is not just one right way to be a Mormon woman.” You can have differing opinions from the accepted norm or tradition of the church and still be a righteous member. Don’t let others discourage you from what you feel in your heart is best for you. Feminism holds the belief that women should get to be exactly who they feel they are and should be able to make the choices they feel are best for themselves; the doctrines of the church would support that notion but often the culture does not. There is a place for everyone in the kingdom of God and you have just as much an inheritance there as anyone else does. The Lord loves you and knows your heart; when all is said and done, that’s all that matters. The only people you have to answer to are yourself and the Lord. There will be a great and last day where we will see His justice and feel His mercy.
It can be really difficult at times to be a feminist in a world, particularly in a sub-culture, that doesn’t want you to be one because it’s different from the expected norm. It gets to be overwhelming, feeling like we have to single-handedly dismantle the patriarchy and change the world overnight. I constantly have to remind myself that I can’t change everyone but I can change my actions and people will see the difference. I repeat to myself the words of Come, Come Ye Saints when I feel overwhelmed: “Fresh courage take. Our God will never us forsake.” Faith in the Lord and in the Saviour are absolutely essential in being a Mormon feminist; do not lose that faith.