Protesting Patriarchy : 14 years after authorities excommunicated Equal Rights Amendment champion Sonia Johnson, Mormon feminists are re-emerging. Rather than leave the church, they want to change it.
About 350 women, some wearing holy undergarments from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gathered here recently to pray, sing hymns and give their testimonies.
But despite appearances, these were Mormon revolutionaries, feminists who have come to doubt what many grew up hearing--that they should take direction from men, who, unlike women, can speak and act for God; that a male God is the only one they should pray to; and that they may not be forgiven in this life or the next for criticizing the brethren.
Each woman had her own reason for coming to last month’s “Spaces and Silences” conference:
Salt Lake City therapist Marion B. Smith said she was frustrated by church leaders who ignored child abuse allegations in her neighborhood. The children’s stories implicated two bishop’s counselors and one son of a church apostle, she said.
Arizona homemaker and teacher Nancy Turley said she was distressed that the church had stated that prayer to “our Mother in Heaven” is “inappropriate,” even though the female deity plays an important role in Mormon theology.
Brigham Young University student Michelle Paradise cited a “big brother” atmosphere on campus, where a professor who favors abortion rights has triggered a major controversy over feminism and academic freedom. In Paradise’s opinion, the rapidly growing church of8.4 million worldwide is “run by a bunch of old men who have no idea what’s going on.”
Fourteen years after authorities excommunicated Equal Rights Amendment champion Sonia Johnson, Mormon feminists are re-emerging in hope of winning spiritual and secular equity for women. Rather than leave the church, they want to change it--through ordination of women, full participation in church decisions and freedom to speak out without fear of sanctions.
What they are getting for their efforts so far, said Mormon feminist writer Lavina Fielding Anderson, is “a rapidly accelerating spiral of increased repression I hope can bereversed.” The feminists are challenging the prevailing image of Mormon women as happy, deferential homemakers devoted solely to large, well-scrubbed families. The more brave among them openly state support for abortion rights, use postmodern philosophy to protest the “phallic” structure of the church or publish items such as “Neanderthal Watch,” a newsletter column that reports on men like the one who recently suggested BYU exclude women since men will assume “the main burden of a professional career.”
At the root of many women’s complaints is that in Mormonism, which is run by a lay clergy, only males 12 and older are eligible for the priesthood, which in turn means that only males can preside over congregations, perform rituals and become policy makers in Salt Lake City.
But “the toughest thing about Mormon patriarchy is that it goes right down into the individual homes, from spirituality to the financial,” said Kelli Frame, a founder of the Mormon Women’s Forum, a Salt Lake City feminist newsletter with a circulation of 1,300. “Mormons are taught the husband presides over the wife and children. That’s insidious.”
Church spokesman Don LeFevre said none of the church’s top male authorities in Salt Lake City were available for comment because they believe women’s issues should be addressed by women. But LeFevre said women already receive “full fellowship” in the church, are encouraged to express themselves and are viewed as equal partners in parenting, even though it is the father’s role to preside over the family.
A current manual for Mormon boys uses a quote from a turn-of-the-century church leader to explain why men should head the home: “The patriarchal order is of divine origin and will continue throughout time and eternity. There is, then, a reason why men, women and children should understand this order and this authority in the households of the people of God. . . . It is not merely a question of who is perhaps best qualified. Neither is it wholly a question of who is living the most worthy life. It is a question largely of law and order.”
According to LeFevre, church leaders believe they already bend over backward to tolerate feminists whose opinions appear in a number of independent Mormon publications, such as Sunstone, Exponent II or the feminist Mormon Women’s Forum.
But others say church leaders are increasingly using disciplinary measures such as “calling in,” a practice in which members may be interviewed, warned or scolded for transgressions (see accompanying story).
* BYU English professor Cecilia Farr spoke at an abortion-rights rally earlier this year. Now she says she is facing dismissal through the tenure review process. “I was called in for a friendly conversation and was told, ‘This is a dangerous position,’ ” said Farr, a mother of two who supports abortion rights although she would never choose abortion. But she said, “They hired me as a feminist scholar. I don’t know what they expected to get.”
Her case tests a BYU policy statement issued last September that says faculty members are not to use speech that “contradicts or opposes, rather than analyzes or discusses, fundamental church doctrine.” The issues of feminism and academic freedom have so divided the church-run campus, “it’s almost a civil war there,” said Elbert Peck, editor of Sunstone. In the English department, there are “people who don’t speak and write hateful notes,” one professor said.
* Four women from the Mormon Women’s Forum organized April’s conference, “Spaces and Silences,” as an alternative to the official annual Women’s Conference after Pulitzer Prize-winning author and feminist Laurel Thatcher Ulrich was dismissed as a possible keynote speaker for the main conference. Brigham Young University officials, who co-sponsored the official conference, noted Ulrich has previously spoken on campus and stated they have “the right of a speaker selection process.”
Later, BYU feminists said they were warned against speaking at the alternative conference. Said Paradise: “What was coming from the administration through the faculty was that our standing as students would be affected, meaning they could kick us out.”
Nineteen women subsequently dropped out of the “Spaces and Silences” program. But several came anyway, sitting quietly on the sidelines. Several men also attended.
BYU President Rex E. Lee denied that campus administrators contacted or intimidated any faculty or students. “Some of our faculty members came over to see me at that time. They told me they made the decision not to participate. I certainly did not suggest they should.”
* Meanwhile in Arizona, lapsed Mormon Deborah Laake was called in and then excommunicated for writing “Secret Ceremonies,” a memoir that revealed church secrets, such as the temple wedding and “endowment” ceremonies in which men and women receive the undergarments they believe will protect them from harm.
In her book she implied that the authoritarian structure of the Mormon church led to her hospitalization in a psychiatric unit. In an interview, Laake said, “I really do think that being a Mormon is the primary thing that caused me to become emotionally ill.”
William Monahan, a lawyer and president of the Phoenix stake, (which is similar to a Catholic diocese), said, “Her ridicule of the temple, of the leaders who try to help people go to the temple is open apostasy (heresy). . . . We, as any organization, have the right to discipline when membership is voluntary. Miss Laake knew that.”
He said women in the church “are encouraged to express themselves.”
Regarding some of the feminists’ other concerns, Monahan said that in the Mormon church, men and women are equal, but that they have “special roles in life.” He said he has seen neither an increase in disciplinary measures nor cover-ups of domestic or child abuse in the church. “Men are counseled very strongly that child abuse is a heinous sin which will be swiftly dealt with, and it is.”
Elaine Jack, who as president of the women’s organization, The Relief Society, is the church’s highest-ranking woman, said most women in the church are happy with the status quo. “There are many women in our church who really have no concept of what these woman are purporting.”
The church does not teach “male dominance,” she said. But at home, she added, men “take the lead because of the code they live by.
“We do believe in a Mother in Heaven,” Jack said. But “In light of instructions we’ve received, it’s inappropriate to pray to a Mother in Heaven. . .. It doesn’t strike me as a discrepancy at all.”
Observers say Mormon feminists are taking a difficult walk psychologically--trying to tread two paths at the same time. “If you accept Mormonism, you accept the basic distinction between men and women, defined as, women are always mothers and men are priests. It’s tough to become a feminist and stay a part of the system,” said Jan Shipps, a nonMormon author of “Mormonism, the Story of a New Religious Tradition” and a history and religion professor at Indiana University, Indianapolis.
Yet historians say it was inevitable in light of a history of feminism in the church, its emphasis on education, the women’s movement and economic pressures facing all U.S. families.
The church was founded in 1830. Far from being docile and submissive, 19th-Century Mormon women were suffragists and feminists, even some of those who engaged in polygamy.
“In the 19th Century, Utah was a kind of an oasis of women’s rights in the nation at large,” said dissident Mormon scholar Michael Quinn who was himself “called in” after he asserted Mormon doctrine already allows women to be priests. Contrary to other parts of the country, women in Utah territory were able to own property and won the vote in 1870, although some suggest it was only to help elect Mormon men. Quinn said polygamy offered autonomy for many women who, when their husbands were away, handled their own finances, made major decisions concerning their families, enrolled in medical and law schools and ran for office.
When polygamy was outlawed a century ago, Quinn said Mormon leaders vigorously embraced the ideals of the prevailing culture--Victorianism--to appear as normal as possible.
As a result, Mormon women today present a study of inner contradictions, said Martha Beck, a Mormon who has studied 300 Mormon women for her doctoral thesis at Harvard University. Beck said they are more educated than the general population, have higher political aspirations, yet they marry younger and generally accept a patriarchal church.
In her study, 10% called themselves feminists, another 10% strongly disagreed with feminist attitudes. Many traditionalists are torn between the mutually exclusive demands of needing and wanting to work, and church pressures to stay home with the children, Beck said.
“Women who were just falling apart psychologically felt like they had to somehow make these two exclusive ends come together so God would love them.”
The disparity caused the women she studied “extreme stress followed by social detachment.” Eighty percent said they felt alone in dealing with conflicting demands.
“A lot of Mormon women have (felt) this in the last few years,” she said. The feminist movement is one way for women to end their isolation, Beck said.
But most Mormon women value their religion intensely and do not want to become politically active against church leadership. “The desire to remain free from conflict is the strongest factor keeping people away from feminism,” Beck said.
What many Mormon feminists hope for is a “revelation” (a message from God revealed to the church’s president) similar to that which allowed ordination for blacks in 1978.
“A revelation will of course ultimately come,” said Mormon Women’s Forum founder Kelli Frame, who hopes feminists can embarrass leaders into making the change. “Things like this (alternative conference) will happen until it does.”
But others are doubtful.
Said church spokesman LeFevre: “The (1978) revelation came as the result of . . . a situation where black male members of the church had historically not enjoyed full fellowship. Because faithful women members already enjoy full fellowship in the church (the) analogy doesn’t apply.”
Said Shipps: “The likelihood there is going to be a revelation that gives woman the priesthood the way it took care of the black problem is pretty remote.”
Moreover, the top 15 church leaders, whose ages average 84.3, have “ways of thinking tied to the ‘50s and ‘60s which is very hard for them to even understand what women in the ‘90s are thinking,” Shipps said. Added Quinn, “Some of the most repressive of the current leaders have made a conscious effort to build proteges.”
Some note women’s issues, which may present a public relations headache, pale in comparison to that of coping with church growth, most of which is occurring outside the United States. Some estimate that by the year 2000, only 40% of the membership will reside in the United States, with 43% in Latin America.
Meanwhile, a few are quitting. “All my friends have left,” said University of Utah student Genevieve Taylor. And it’s not only women. Said one mother at the alternative conference: “I have sons in this age group that the church has lost. They refuse to be turned into little patriarchs.”
But many want to remain despite the problems. They say they love the emphasis on social work, the caring, even the hymns. One feminist said she still finds the Mormon Church’s family-based theology of eternal progression “dazzling.”
“When you’re born and raised in the culture, it’s like saying, ‘Why be Jewish?’ ” said Mormon Women’s Forum editor Laurel Stromberg of Los Angeles whose great-grandparents on both sides were polygamists.
Some women are experimenting with breaking the rules. At the “Silences” conference, the middle-aged wife of a former mission president said she felt so betrayed by church authorities who would not believe her reports of spousal abuse, she took off the undergarments she had worn since she was 18. “I expected that very day to be raped and murdered. People told me to expect to be overcome by the devil,” she said. “It didn’t happen,” she told the group.
Stromberg said she and others are simply ignoring authoritarian men. “We have basically removed ourselves from under the heel of authority,” she said. “I see my church leaders as colleagues, rather than as people I’m compelled to follow. It’s unnerving for them not to be treated in a deferential way.”
One woman said she wants to “agitate,” perhaps organize a strike.
Meanwhile, Sonia Johnson, now 57 and living in the mountains of New Mexico, says she has no interest whatsoever in the church’s current events.
“I’m glad to hear Mormon women are waking up a little. Not that it will change the church. It will change them.” After she was excommunicated, she said she wrote five books, become financially independent, and gained a sense of inner power separate from men.
Most important, she said, “I haven’t been afraid since.”