This article kicks off a new monthly column, Religious Feminist in the USA.
Mitt Romney and his faith are all over the news. With many Americans wondering whether voters are ready for a Mormon president, major publications and news shows have dedicated time and space to researching and publishing articles all about his faith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly called the Mormon Church and also The LDS Church). Much of the publicity received by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been decidedly negative. From Washington Post articles written by ex-Mormons who want their former faith to reform, to New York Times “debates” that consist of five different arguments on why Romney’s faith makes him a bad candidate, Romney’s faith sometimes seems like a bigger political liability than his tendency to make dumb comments about how much he likes firing people.
While I’m hardly a Romney fan, this national reaction to a faith I share with Romney has been a peculiar experience, made particularly strange by my current location in Provo, UT. Home to the LDS Church-sponsored Brigham Young University, Provo is a location so culturally conservative that it recently made international news when some pervy boy accused a girl a in knee-length dress of causing the men on campus to have dirty thoughts. As a feminist, I find myself angry about those types of incidents, particularly because the boy’s behavior stems in many ways from American Mormon culture. But as a Mormon I cringe, uncomfortable with the thought that those outside my faith may mistake his behavior for a representation of what all Mormon men are like.
As humorous as the boy’s note admittedly is, it points to the peculiarity of my position as a Mormon feminist. As a religious feminist, I sometimes feel as if I am walking a strange path. I belong to two communities that frequently overlap but which just as frequently clash. While many feminist communities think my faith is a flawed Boys Club that I should ditch if I want to be a real feminist, I also encounter some from within my faith who think I should ditch the feminism if I want to be a real Mormon.
When I was in high school, one of the other girls in my church youth group mentioned to one of the leaders that I was a feminist. The leader instantly chastised her. “No, she is not,” she said. “Don’t call her that.” To this leader, my feminism seemed both incompatible with my faith and like a genuine insult. When I explained to the leader that I was, in fact, a feminist, she warned me that I should use a different term, lest others misunderstand what I meant.
On the other side of things, a friend who belongs to a different faith once told me that she was dating a Mormon man, but that it troubled her to date someone who belonged to a faith that degraded women – and it didn’t seem to occur to her that I might disagree with her assessment of my faith. To my friend it was a cut-and-dry fact that Mormonism would be incompatible with feminism.
The irony is that in many ways my religious community is directly responsible for my feminism. As a child growing up on the New Hampshire Seacoast, I attended a Mormon ward (congregation) that had a reputation for feminism. It helped that we were the closest ward to the University of New Hampshire, and many ward members were highly educated women. But this reputation was especially influenced by the presence of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, author of Well-behaved Women Seldom Make History and the Pulitzer Prize – winning A Midwife’s Tale.
To me, Sister Ulrich (Sister and Brother are used as a form of respect in the LDS community, like Mr. or Ms.) was simply the nice lady who sang in the choir and who once offered me delicious homemade grape juice. But I’m sure I felt the indirect influence of her and other prominent feminists in the ward. In fact, my earliest memories of feminist pursuits involve using gender inequality to rile up my fellow classmates in Sunday School and writing letters to the Bishop that instructed him to listen to the women, as the president of the church had admonished local leaders to do. I was no older than seven or eight. Yes, my feminist pursuits stemmed from my frustrations with the organization I was part of, but they stemmed just as much from what I had learned at church about the worth of women.
For me, my faith and my feminism are so intricately entwined that I find myself unsettled and confused when others attack one of those areas because they find it incompatible with the other. In fact, in 2009 fellow Go Girl Erica and I established a feminist blog called Not Another Wave, in response to a conversation on the popular feminist blog, feministing. While in the past we had appreciated many feministing posts, this conversation about Prop 8 quickly turned into a situation both Erica and I found hurtful and disheartening – bloggers who identified themselves as religious but who explained that they still didn’t agree with Prop 8 were essentially told that in order to be a true feminist they would need to leave any faith that supported Prop 8. Such dismissal of religious convictions concerned us. Our goal when we founded Not Another Wave was to welcome a variety of perspectives. And given the genesis of Not Another Wave, it isn’t really surprising that our most loyal readers and commenters are religious feminists.
Communities like Not Another Wave – communities that welcome religious feminists – are hard to find, but when a religious feminist finds one, it is precious. To encounter someone who understands that strange place where you stand is to encounter someone who understands your struggles. Especially when a member of one of your two communities makes you cringe. When Randy Bott, a popular BYU professor, made disgusting, racist comments in a Washington Post article, I was horrified. But I felt relieved when I saw how others in my faith responded. Margaret Young, a former professor of mine and a writer and film-maker who has extensively researched the history of black Mormons, instantly denounced Bott’s statement. Carl, a friend whose blog has recently been a hot item in the LDS community, published a post denouncing the racist comments, full of links to other posts where other LDS writers denounced the racist comments. The very next day, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made two official statements discrediting Bott’s remarks, and I felt grateful that in the hours before the official response I had a community of like-minded Mormons who stood firm in denouncing Bott’s comments.
But the incident once again reminded me that I walk a strange line as a religious feminist. For each person who inhabits this space with me, there sometimes seem to be ten in each community who want me to entirely abandon the other community. You see, I once took a course from Randy Bott, and while many students adored his self-deprecating, charismatic teaching style, I always felt uncomfortable with the way he set up gay rights activists and feminists as strawpeople, bent on destroying families. And I am just as uncomfortable when someone ridicules my faith. When someone cracks a joke about “magic underwear” or polygamy, I feel like my heart is going to break – especially if that someone is a fellow feminist or a fellow liberal.
The good news and bad news is that religious feminists like me and Erica are not alone in our tight-rope walk between religious communities and feminist communities – this is good news because we have company and bad news because there are probably a lot of Go Girls and Go Girl readers who struggle with this situation, too.
In this new monthly column, we’ll take a look at the precarious position of being a religious feminist in the USA.