In Defense of Feminism

Posted on April 14, 2012


For conservatives, the mere word brings up images of carping women demanding not parity, but outrageous concessions. Feminists are, in my faith, considered some of the worst examples of apostates, overturning a natural order of things that is not only wholesome but sacred. To women, they are the narrow-eyed critics of stay-at-home-moms and threaten the right and freedom of every domestic to be happy in her calling. To men, they are the less-than-feminine threat to the simple opportunity to be a man, bring home the bacon, and be comfortable that they’re doing okay at manhood. In every way, feminists are modern lepers.

I am a feminist. And I am a Mormon. So I am a Mormon feminist. It’s neither oxymoronic nor leprous. And I am none of the things the cultural definition indicates.

This is my definition of feminism, copied right from the online dictionary that google so politely provides me: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. Thank you Merriam-Webster. I don’t know a single person with whom I deal regularly who would challenge any of that, but were I to self-identify publicly as a feminist, they would as an entire group be aghast. The problem is a poor cultural understanding of true feminism.

It reminds me of a story I read earlier today of a black woman in my area. She was awarded a position of some prominence and responsibility. Along with the position came a parking space, but hers was not to be out front with the other executives. It was in back by the dumpster. When she asked why, she was told that if it were known that they had hired a black woman for a position of this prestige and authority, the company would be in a difficult position and so would she. They didn’t want to impose that kind of racially-motivated backlash on her, so they would “bring her in through the back.” This explanation was offered with the greatest kindness and deference and deepest respect for her skills and abilities to do the job she’d been hired to do. Not a one of those involved considered themselves engaging in racism. Still, from our perspective their behavior is absolutely jaw-dropping, and quite obviously racist.

In the same way that people of color are marginalized politely, women have been as well. In progressive countries the issue is not as often a protection from abuse or horrific laws as it is a set of assumptions that are flawed, though applied with the greatest kindness and good will. We can eliminate these last vestiges of racism and misogyny first by defining them accurately and examining our assumptions.

I’m not going to go into the issues of feminism in Mormonism, nor of the many, many types and flavors of feminists. I’m interested in unpacking the assumptions in the word feminist and the belief that Mormonism is not compatible.  Feminism doesn’t deserve its baggage.

Deseret Hospital Board of Directors. Top row: Ellis Shipp, MD; Bathsheba Smith; Elizabeth Howard; Romania B. Pratt Penrose, MD. Second row: Phebe Woodruff; Mary Isabella Horne; Eliza R. Snow; Zina D. H. Young; Marinda N. Hyde. Bottom row: Jane S. Richards; Emmeline B. Wells. Courtesy the Utah State Historical Society.

For instance, Mormon women have always been some of the most progressive of American women. While Utah was the second territory to award the vote to women, it was the first to fully institute it. 19th century Mormon women were trained in medicine, started hospitals, provided most of the relief/welfare work, started social organizations, and were active in politics. They stored enough grain in commercial granaries prior to the start of World War II that the US government bought grain from them to boost domestic supplies. Mormon women were actually some of the first feminists, and they were awesome – not carping, not leprous.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who is one of my heroes, is a Pulitzer-prize-winning historian who now teaches at Harvard. She is also a Mormon feminist, and she talks about how those two things work together much better than I ever could (please, if you read nothing else, click the link and read it). In her words:

Each group reduces the other to its own worst nightmare, and the war is on. In such a climate it is tempting to run for shelter, saying less about feminism among Mormons and less about Mormonism everywhere else. But a silence based on fear is no solution.

What an apt description of the unnecessary conflicts women feel between one another and with men. She also discusses the benefits and opportunities that are coming to women in our day as our church publishes an unprecedented historical survey that it has put, cost-free, into the hands of 6 million women worldwide. Julie Beck, former president of that 6-million strong Relief Society, also discusses the heritage made available to us in Daughters in my Kingdom.

Nobody is saying the F-word (feminism) aloud, but that is exactly what this book is. It is a story of the noble history of one of the world’s greatest organizations, meant to awaken within a sleeping population an understanding of the potentials and destiny of our sex by demonstrating its earliest proponents. Arm-in-arm with men in our church, women are invited to enjoy every spiritual gift, engage every noble impulse, and vanquish every evil on this earth.

That’s feminism. It doesn’t have anything to do with what you do for a living. It doesn’t have anything to do with whether you are wearing a bra. And it’s not just for make-up-less lepers in comfortable shoes anymore.

So, what has your definition of feminism been, and can it accommodate cookie-baking, pinterest-interested women right along with single ladies in sensible shoes? And if you are a man, are you a feminist?

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