Brooks, Steenblik, Wheelwright, eds. “Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings” (reviewed by Harlow Clark)


Title: Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings
Editors: Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, & Hannah Wheelwright
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: Anthology, Women’s Issues, Feminist and Womanist Writing
Year Published: 2016
Number of Pages: 324
ISBN: 978-0-19-024803-1
Price: $29.95

Reviewed by Harlow Clark for the Association for Mormon Letters

The Work of Remembering is Holy and Harrowing

Jan 30, 2017 ( and later)

Utah’s legislative session opened last week, reminding me that I attended the opening day 6 years ago to report on some item of local interest to The Timpanogos Times. (Perhaps whether Craig Frank would be seated. His election to represent District 57 had been certified–but legislators who said a few years earlier that District 57 would include all of Cedar Hills left the Cedar Hills neighborhood Frank later moved into off their redistricting map.)

After doing my interviews and phoning in my story I went into the House chambers to hear Becky Lockhart’s opening address. She was the first woman elected Speaker of the House in Utah, so she started by telling about Martha Hughes Cannon, who defeated Angus Cannon–who shared her name, bed, and children–to become the first woman elected to a state senate in the US.

About four years later I was driving somewhere and saw Becky Lockhart’s face and memoriam on an electronic billboard–Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, “at times called a human form of mad cow disease”.

She was about the age of my oldest nieces, both ardent feminists, as I suppose Lockhart would be, though she’s at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Or she might say, “Define feminist.”

OK, how’s this:
“A feminist is a person, whether a man or a woman, who believes that historically there have been inequities in the education and treatment of women in several or many spheres of society and who is interested in correcting those inequities as he or she sees them. That’s about the extent of my definition of feminism.”

Elouise Bell made her definition broad and generous to invite an audience who might be suspicious of feminism to consider it sympathetically. Delivered September 30, 1975, “The Implications of Feminism for BYU,” was the first forum address by a BYU woman faculty member, as noted by Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, and Hannah Wheelwright, editors of the new anthology, Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings. Considering the energy with which women were talking about “inequities in the education and treatment of women in several or many spheres of society” in 1975, making the invitation was a formidable task. I originally read the piece in BYU Studies 16:4,  and was pleased to see it, but BYU Mormons were not the only group in 1975 that might see Mormonism and feminism as not compatible.

Consider this story from 1975, which I came across shortly after rereading Bell’s essay in Mormon Feminism. It’s part of William Ure’s interview with Shauna Adix from Leaving the Fold. Adix mentions a women’s conference in Salt Lake, Gloria Steinem’s “first speaking engagement in the state,” modeled on a conference in Mexico City which “used an open mike process which allowed for individuals to take the microphone and discuss whatever they wished. (Sounds a little like a Mormon testimony meeting, doesn’t it?) We incorporated that into our conference as well. Gloria Steinem and I were sitting on the dais together. There were a number of women who identified themselves as students at BYU. Most shared a similar theme, which was that they wanted all gathered to know they were Mormons and they were also feminists. Gloria and I discussed whether we thought one could be a Mormon and a feminist, and we agreed that if feminism were defined as freedom to choose, then one could be a Mormon and anything you choose, so you could be a Mormon and a feminist. However, if you define feminism systemically, as we both did, then feminism requires openness in all systems for all people, regardless of gender, to move as thoroughly and as far as they can. Under those circumstances, you could not be a Mormon and a feminist” (174-175).

I’ve thought a lot about who that definition excludes. Not only could Mormon women not be feminists (or Mormon men) but–at least by western stereotypes of Islam  — neither could Muslim women (or Muslim men). Many women (and men) in both groups would protest their exclusion, and rightly so. Including our three editors, in their great care to cast a wide net. Maybe too great care. They’ve been diligent in including a variety of contrasting viewpoints, but they’ve downplayed the contrasts, preferring to emphasize continuity and community of thought.

I don’t object to this approach, but I keep thinking about my oldest niece’s graduation picture. My brother-in-law pointed out that it shows her not shaking hands with the university president (or dean, whoever has handing her the diploma) because of “differences over women’s issues. The scamp,” he said with a laugh, adding that when the photographer reviewed the pictures a few months later he sent a refund because he had missed the handshake.

I suspect the differences over women’s issues among Mormon feminists are sharper than this volume would suggest, but the editors’ practice of acknowledging the differences and highlighting the commonalities deserves more comment than that. Years ago, reading a review of a women’s literature anthology, I was struck by the reviewer’s complaint that the volume had a polemic edge that you could see even in the bio-notes where the contributors gave as much space to their family lives as to their professional accomplishments. You wouldn’t catch men doing that.

So I was pleased that the readings end with an account of giving birth, Rachel Hunt Steenblik’s “Birth/Rebirth: Welcome Baby You Are Home,” followed by Carol Lynn Pearson’s “Pioneers,” which begins and ends with the declaration, “My people were Mormon pioneers.”

Does that ending give this volume a polemic edge? It’s tempting to think that the practice of highlighting what we have in common and trying to speak peace between contrasting factions is simply a result of feminine temperament, of woman-as-nurturer, and not to see it as a choice, a profoundly Mormon choice to speak peace to each other, a choice drawing on the same profoundly Christian sensibility that inspired the First Presidency to oppose the MX missile, saying, “Our fathers [and mothers] came to this western area to establish a base from which to carry the gospel of peace to the peoples of the earth. It is ironic, and a denial of the very essence of that gospel, that in this same general area there should be constructed a mammoth weapons system potentially capable of destroying much of civilization.”

WordPress’s counter tells me I’ve written more than 1,000 words here, which I once heard is about the limit of people’s online patience, and is more than the “thousand fearful words” Lawrence Ferlinghetti once wrote for a Cuban leader, and I’m still talking about definitions and the editors’ rhetorical stance. I haven’t said anything about the book’s organization or scope or whose unfearful words you’ll meet here. (And the counter tells me there’s another 1,000 or so words in the second half, so please bear with me.)

The book starts in the 1970s, with a section called “Foundations,” acknowledging the foundations of contemporary Mormon feminism laid by 19th century Mormon feminists, and discovered in the 1970s by people like Carol Lynn Pearson, who had, with the success of her poetry, both the press and means to publish an anthology of early Mormon women’s writing, Daughters of Light, people like Susan Kohler, who “discover[ed a] complete set of the nineteenth-century Women’s Exponent in the stacks at Harvard’s Widener Library” (26), and Boston-area scholars who founded Exponent II. “Foundations” includes samples of historical research by Linda King Newell and Carol Cornwall Madsen, and ends with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s “The Pink Dialogue and Beyond.” (The dust jacket is pink in honor of that pink issue).

There is also a lot of sadness in section I, the sadness and struggle surrounding the Equal Rights Amendment and the excommunication of Sonia Johnson, who provides a bridge for me to Section 2, about the 1980s, “Lived Contradictions.” I heard Johnson talking with Jim Bohannon one Friday night (The Jim Bohannon Show filled Larry King’s time slot on Fridays) about her 1987 book Going Out of Our Minds, so it would have been early 1988, possibly driving across eastern Washington towards my mother-in-law’s home in Orofino, Idaho, though I connect it to Seattle, where I didn’t listen to the radio at night much. Bohannon mentioned God–“I have no interest in him,” she said before he could finish the question.

Section II begins with Nadine McCombs Hansen’s “Women and Priesthood,” sounding a theme that resonates throughout the book, and ends with Sonja Farnsworth’s “Mormonism’s Odd Couple: The Priesthood-Motherhood Connection,” whose themes also ripple out through the book.

Readings include Carol Lynn Pearson’s “Walk in the Pink Moccasins,” and Elouise Bell’s “The Meeting,” two imaginings of Mormon worship services where women are in charge and men subordinate.

Thursday Jan 12, 2017 (and later)

Someone left sections from the Tribune on the FrontRunner, including Peggy Fletcher Stack’s feature about Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s new book on polygamous feminists, A House Full of Women. She talked to Doug Fabrizio about it Monday on Radio West. With readings in the first three sections and a mention in the fourth, Ulrich ties Mormon Feminism together, as does Carol Lynn Pearson, whose contribution to Section III: Defining Moments, is “Could Feminism Have Saved the Nephites?”

It was the cover story for issue 101 of Sunstone, complete with a Pat Bagley cartoon of Pearson as Captain Moroni (unfortunately Sunstone has reorganized their website and I can’t find a cover image to link to), which enough readers thought disrespectful of Pearson that the editor reminded readers that Sunstone had honored Pearson (and Peggy Fletcher Stack as sunbonneted pioneer) with caricatures on the cover. Not an insult.

Maxine Hanks is also mentioned throughout the book, given the importance of her anthology Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism, which can be read online in the Signature Books library.

As can Janice Allred’s God the Mother and Other Theological Essays. I came across a comment somewhere that some feminist scholars think Heavenly Mother might be the Holy Ghost. Allred may be the source of that speculation. The excerpts here read like an ingenious application of D&C 132:19-20 to the Nicene Creed, or at least to ideas about the Father and Son being one person.

Allred explores the idea that God is a title for a couple sealed in “the new and everlasting covenant” of marriage (D&C132:6), resurrected and exalted, a couple equal in status who use the title “Heavenly Father” when acting in concert and the titles “Son” and “Holy Ghost” when acting in separate roles. Allred lays these roles out in two parallel passages:

“God himself came down among the children of men to redeem his people. He sacrificed his immortal body and took on himself a mortal body to become one of us and suffer the pains and sorrows of mortality. He sacrificed his mortal body so that he might conquer death and bring about the resurrection of all humanity and he suffered the pains of all our sins so that we might be redeemed.

“God herself came down among the children of women to succor her children. She sacrificed her immortal body to be with us; she remains a spirit so that she can always be with us to enlighten, to comfort, to strengthen, to feel what we feel, to suffer with us in all our sins, in our loneliness and pain, and to encircle us in the arms of her love. She bears witness of Christ and leads us to him, teaching us of their will so that we might partake of eternal life in their kingdom.”

This is intriguing, but it doesn’t address the teaching that the separation of spirit and body is death, and resurrection is the inseparable reunion of spirit and body, which wouldn’t allow the sacrifices described. I don’t know if these two paragraphs were part of what raised concerns among church leaders that eventually led to Allred’s excommunication, but discussion of Heavenly Mother is such a sensitive topic among some church members that in 2011, nearly 20 years after Allred presented her essay at Sunstone, when David Paulsen and Martin Pulido published “‘A Mother There’: A Survey of Historical Teachings About Mother in Heaven” in BYU Studies 50:1, they began by reassuring their readers Heavenly Mother wasn’t a forbidden topic to be cherished but passed over in “sacred silence” (72).

Feb 17, 2017 (and later)

Today’s Storycorps segment of Morning Edition began with these words: “This weekend marks 75 years since President Roosevelt’s executive order that sent Japanese-Americans to internment camps.”

Several years ago Donna and Matthew and I went down to Delta, Utah for a commemoration of the Topaz camp. All that remains of the site are the foundations, but one or two barracks were moved into town for a museum. One group paused before a wood stove and a man in his 70s told how as a boy he had tried to light a fire in one of the stoves. Being from California he had never needed a fire to keep warm, and no one had taught him how to build one, so he filled the stove full of coal, stood across the room at a safe distance, lit matches, and threw them into the stove.

I heard a darker memory in the Storycorps segment when Roy Ebihara, now 83, told his wife Aiko, also a camper, “about what happened in his hometown of Clovis, N.M., in the weeks just before the executive order was issued.

“A sheriff and two plainclothesmen barged into the house and searched for what they called ‘contrabands.’ They took out my brother’s box camera, my father’s shortwave radio and they took the ax to it and chopped everything up,” Roy says. “My father never protested. Never said a word. He just stood there.”

It reminded me of Chieko Okazaki’s story at the beginning of Lighten Up, of going through the house with her mother, on Dec. 7, 1941, “burning anything that might say, ‘A Japanese family lives here.'” (Which reminds me how much I want to read Utahn Lily Yuriko Nakai Havey’s memoir Gasa Gasa Girl Goes to Camp: A Nisei Youth behind a World War II Fence.)

I am moved by the lack of bitterness in both Ebihara’s and Okazaki’s stories, and by the forthrightness, two qualities we see in the long excerpt from Sr. Okazaki’s interview with Gregory Prince, “There is Always a Struggle,” particularly when she talks about being asked if Pres. Hinckley should read “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” at the Relief Society meeting or the General Priesthood meeting, but not being consulted about the document, which, “as I read it I thought that we could have made a few changes in it” (235).

The excerpt begins with a story of her discomfort at being asked to speak on sexual abuse at a stake women’s conference. (A moving story, a good reason to read this book.) But the whole interview begins this way: “In my meetings with the young women or with the Relief Society women, I’m often really surprised that they do not feel that they can function as women in the Church—not all of them, of course, but many of those who come to me and talk to me. I just keep wondering, ‘How did they get to that point of feeling like they were not worth anything in the Church?”

That brought to mind the story of the relief society president who wondered about her authority. I asked the Duckduck to go find it, and found it wasn’t Okazaki’s story. It came from General Relief Society President Julie B. Beck (successor to Elaine L. Jack, in whose presidency Okazaki served).

“She was waiting on a curb outside of a home, a poor little home. There she was wringing her hands. I was going to make the home visit, but she said, ‘I don’t know what to do because I don’t know what my authority is to help this family.’

“It happened to be a family in great need. They were hungry. They were cold. They didn’t have water. And she wasn’t sure what she could do. And I said, ‘You are a Relief Society president. Think for a moment what you and your counselors could do immediately to help provide some relief for this family. Then think what you would take to your bishop and discuss.'”

The story’s source is worth noting. It wasn’t a conference talk. She told it in the 2010 Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting as part of a panel discussion on ward councils and using the authority of your calling before going to the bishop. So I see this story as part of training church members to act with the authority they have and not feel they have to clear everything with the bishop.

The consequences of feeling you have to ask permission for every act are explored in Linda King-Newell’s “A Gift Given, A Gift Taken: Washing, Anointing, and Blessing the Sick among Mormon Women” in Section I, and the idea of claiming our own spiritual powers and doing good of our own accord rather than being “commanded in all things” (though no one quotes D&C 58:26) runs throughout the book, especially in Section IV, Resurgence.

With Okazaki, Section IV introduces women of color into the conversation,and womanist thought, a term I first saw on the cover of Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Womanist Prose, intriguing for its suggestion that Walker was calling out a lack in the term ‘feminist,’ but I’ve never read the book to find out what that lack is. The womanist selections here see the lack as a focus on the experience of white women, largely of European descent and middle or upper-class concerns, oblivious to the experience and concerns of women of color. (See Janan Graham-Russell‘s essay, and Gina Colvin’s.)

I’m at 3,000+ words, so I’ll only comment briefly on Section IV, though it deserves extended comment, especially this story from Lani Wendt Young:

“I was driving home from church one Sunday, when I saw a couple dressed in church clothes, having an altercation by the roadside. The man was shouting, dragging the woman (his wife?) by the hair with one hand. With the other he held his scriptures and was using them to beat her around the face and head as she cowered and struggled. Two small children stood to the side, crying.” (See the comments on the original post for other stories.)

Young’s essay is called “Rejoice In the Diversity of Our Sisterhood: A Samoan Mormon Feminist Voice on Ordain Women,” and several essays in the book explore ordination, most favoring, some not. Valerie Hudson Cassler’s “The Two Trees” suggests a different way of imaging male and female roles, not as power to be begged for and doled out, but as stewardship over the two trees in Eden. “It is interesting to think that even Adam, who was created physically before Eve, entered into full mortality and full agency only by accepting the gift of the First Tree from the hand of a woman. In a sense, Adam himself was born of Eve.”

Cassler develops her ideas further in other essays. In “Ruby Slippers on Her Feet: Reflections on the OrdainWomen Website“, she talks about the sources of divine power, saying in the third paragraph, “As a feminist, the idea that men would ever have the right or ability to give women divine power strikes me as deeply anti-feminist.” After asking several questions about where divine power comes from she ends the paragraph with this statement, “I also feel to weep bitter tears in the realization that only a profoundly toxic culture for women could produce a situation where good-hearted women and men advocate an anti-feminist position as a step forward for women.”

There’s enough for another volume, even after a volume of our 19th-century mothers, and the editors have provided links to the full text for most of the readings, and to additional readings. (I would add Lavina Fielding Anderson’s “The Grammar of Inequity“) But having a wealth of material to choose from is not the only problem anthologists face. Reading the list of requested policy changes from the What Mormon Women Know Collective (264-5), it occurred to me that the editing must have been finished before August 18, 2015, when I saw a news item on my tablet about women being added as permanent members of three of the Church’s highest councils. I remember reading it on the stretch of I-84 just west of Tremonton, Utah, before the turnoff to Thiokol and Promontory Point, and thinking it an interesting but minor change.

I repented of that thought when we got back from vacation and someone in priesthood meeting said, “All these women are so excited about this change. It’s nothing.” Joseph Smith’s words came to mind, and I can imagine him remonstrating with us, “You know, brethren, that a very large ship is benefited very much by a very small helm in the time of a storm, by being kept workways with the wind and the waves”.

Reading the story on, I note how many of the 98 comments said things like, “Nothing to get excited about. Move along.” And how many didn’t, especially the women’s. (There was also a running debate about whether this change was related to Kate Kelly’s activism with Ordain Women.)

In the Tribune, Peggy Fletcher Stack quoted Valerie Cassler who called it a first step, “but once taken, this first step cannot be undone. . . . , and hallelujah for it!”

I hope the editors and the other contributors share Cassler’s optimism. As it is, the tone of this book is somewhat somber, matching Rachel Hunt Steenblik’s comment in the Acknowledgments, “The work of remembering felt at times both harrowing and holy” (xiii), and the rather dark colors in the cover illustration, with its bare trees and snowy hills.

But wait, isn’t that pink in the background a sunrise? The illustration is Nikki Hunter’s quilt made from 143 pairs of pants sent her by women who had worn them to church on Dec. 16, 2012. Pondering the color scheme for the quilt, Hunter says, “I was overcome by the need for a nap, and as I awoke I was given in a dream-state not only how the quilt should look–a rising sun coming through a grove of trees at dawn–but the name of the quilt: ‘Sunday Morning'” (xi).

Considering Cassler’s quote above about the toxic culture, perhaps one of those trees is the one Moses threw into the waters of Marah to heal them–sanctified by Miriam’s dancing. Perhaps another will give paper for a book that is sometimes bitter on the tongue but becomes sweet to the belly. The rest are for sunrise and prayer.

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