My Journey To Mormon Feminism: Living Up To Our Doctrine

Two weeks ago I wrote about the events and emotions that lead to the beginning of my journey to Mormon feminism. I wrote in response to a dear friend's questions. The second part of her question was what Mormon feminism means and why I think it is necessary. As I have pondered this question I have struggled with what to say and how to say it. In his BYU Education Week address today on the gospel and social media, Elder Bednar reminded members to make sure their online communication met certain criteria. Two of the items on his list were authentic and uplifting. I sincerely pray that I may be both of those things.

The most basic definition of feminism is that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. A simple statement, but one layered with complex social and historical context. As an LDS woman, I believe our core doctrine teaches that men and women are equal in worth and potential in the sight of our Heavenly Parents. However, throughout human history and among the faithful, there has also been inequality. I also believe that the current official polices and procedures of the church along with cultural traditions could improve to live up to the lofty doctrine we claim.

Scriptures, both ancient and modern teach the equality of men and women. In the beginning God created both men and women in his own image. We are all his children. In the Book of Mormon, Nephi taught that God considers all his children precious, all of equal worth in his sight:  "... he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile." 

Many of our modern leaders have taught that women and men are equal in the sight of God. I am sure many volumes could be written about the empowering and affirming messages from our leaders. I have included below a few examples.  

Elder John A. Widtsoe
“The place of woman in the Church is to walk beside the man, not in front of him nor behind him. In the Church there is full equality between man and woman. The gospel, which is the only concern of the Church, was devised by the Lord for men and women alike” (Improvement Era, Mar. 1942, p. 161).President

President Spencer W Kimball
"The scriptures and the prophets have taught us clearly that God, who is perfect in his attribute of justice, “is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34). We know also that God is perfect in his love for each and all of us as his spirit children. When we know these truths, my sisters and associates in this divine cause, it should help us greatly as we all experience much less than perfect love and perfect justice in the world. If, in the short term, we are sometimes dealt with insensitively and thoughtlessly by others, by imperfect men and women, it may still cause us pain, but such pain and disappointment are not the whole of life. The ways of the world will not prevail, for the ways of God will triumph. We had full equality as his spirit children. We have equality as recipients of God’s perfected love for each of us."

Gordon B Hinckley
"First let me say to you sisters that you do not hold a second place in our Father’s plan for the eternal happiness and well-being of His children. You are an absolutely essential part of that plan."

What beautiful reassurances.

What does Mormon Feminism mean to me? I have a testimony that Father in Heaven and our Savior love, honor, and respect women. I believe they want each of their children, men and women to live up to their full potential. That potential is, for both men and women to become justified, sanctified and glorified, to dwell with God and become like him. I believe that here on earth they want each of us to have full access to the blessings of the restored gospel and to live in a manner consistent with equality. When I say equality, I do not mean that men and women must be the same. Quite the contrary, I believe that "Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose." (The Family: A Proclamation to the World)

Why do I think it is necessary to label myself a Mormon Feminist? I also believe there have been messages throughout the years that do not live up to these ideals. My purpose in the next few blog posts will be to detail those issues that are most meaningful to me. Before I start, I would like to add a disclaimer. I am at the beginning of a journey, one that I expect to continue for a long time. These are my thoughts today and they may be imperfect, uninformed, and still developing. I do not speak for all feminists; each has issues they consider important.

In a BYU Devotional address, titled "Women of Righteousness," Elder Ballard shared a portion of a letter sent to Church headquarters. This letter reflects the fear and doubt that many LDS women have. They sense, through countless acts and words, that in the eyes of the church their only worthwhile contribution is as a wife or mother.

"I have a wonderful husband and children, whom I love deeply. I love the Lord and His Church more than I can say. I know the Church is true! I realize I shouldn't feel discouraged about who I am. Yet I have been going through an identity crisis most of my life. I have never dared utter these feelings out loud but have hidden them behind the huge, confident smile I wear to church every week. For years I have doubted if I had any value beyond my roles as a wife and mother. I have feared that men are that they might have joy, but that women are that they might be overlooked. I long to feel that I, as a woman, matter to the Lord."

The following list includes some of the areas I believe we, as a people and the body of Christ are lacking in creating church where women matter, where their contributions and value go beyond one template:
  1. Visibility 
  2. Modesty and Virtue
  3. Priesthood Authority, Power and Blessings  
  4. Teaching and Leading with Authority
  5. Inequality in Marriage 
  6. Marginalizing
  7. The Missing Feminine Divine  
I began to expand my thoughts on these issues in this post, but found I had too much to say. Instead, I will break down these topics into separate posts. I hope that focusing on what I see as problems will not detract from the great good that flows from Christ through the gospel and His Church to women. Elder James E. Talmage stated that “the world’s greatest champion of woman and womanhood is Jesus the Christ.” I believe we there are things we can do as his disciples to live up to his example.   


    My Journey to Mormon Feminism Part One: Discovery

    A few days ago one of my dearest friends asked me to explain what Mormon Feminism was and why I identify with that label. I didn't have the time or words to answer her then, but I think that answering her question is an important opportunity for me to define and refine what I believe. I find that I often don't know what I believe until I write it down.

    First, let me take you back in time. I have always loved being a woman in the church. While I there have always been little nagging things that bother me about the culture of the church and some doctrines that remain mysterious I have found joy, love and peace in my church membership. Through the scriptures and ordinances of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I have found a relationship with the divine and that relationship is very precious to me. I truly believe, as I was taught in the Young Women Theme, that "I am a daughter of my Heavenly Father, who loves me and I love Him."

    About two years ago I first heard about Mormon Feminism from a dear friend of mine. She told me about the blog Feminist Mormon Housewives and a woman named Joanna Brooks. What little I knew about them then made me alternate between loathing and pity. They must not understand the doctrine. They just wanted to change my church to match their liberal social views. They were just angry. They were victims of the rare abuse of power and authority that can happen in any organization.

    I look back now and realize how arrogant and uncharitable my attitude was. I judged these women before I knew their stories or tried to understand their point of view. I felt so superior because I knew the true place of women in the church.

    Over the next two years much happened in my personal life that turned my expectation of life and faith on its head. I wasn't living the perfect Mormon dream and was consumed with guilt.

    All I had ever wanted was to be the perfect Molly Mormon wife depending on my Peter Priesthood husband with a clean, crafty home and a "quiver" full of children. As that dream became increasingly unlikely my guilt likewise increased. That guilt turned into anger. I was angry at family members, at God and at myself.

    One day I was in my car on the way to work listening to our local public radio station and heard this episode of Radio West called The Evolving Role of Mormon Women. I started crying uncontrollably. I pulled into the parking structure and work and sat in my car for 10 minutes trying to compose myself. I was so angry. Who were these women who wanted to come in and take my church from me and turn it into something else? Why didn't they just leave?

    After I calmed down I realized there was something seriously wrong inside me if a simple radio program brought such a violent emotional reaction. I decided I had to figure out why I was so angry. What was it about Mormon Feminism that was so threatening?

    I prayed and pondered. I listened to the radio program again and again. I turned to a Facebook group for readers of a blog called Empowering LDS Women. One of the members of the Facebook group suggested I read a blog post titled "Why Do Some Members See Inequality?" As I read the blog post my anger slowly melted away and understanding washed over me.

    While I didn't agree with every single thing in the blog post, I realized that for the most part, these could have been my words. I was a Mormon Feminist and I didn't even know it. I had been so angry because I was afraid. I was afraid, not of these women, but of being one of them. That would make me the "other."

    In the weeks and months that have followed I have set out on a journey of self discovery. A whole new world has opened up to me. Sometimes frightening and overwhelming, this new world has forced me to grow up and choose who I will be. I have given up my former faith which was comparably narrow and linear. I have embraced a more living and fluid faith. In the process I have found great reservoirs of trust in God and compassion for others in myself. My relationship with my God has deepened and expanded. I would say I feel more "myself" today than at anytime in the past.

    The path has also been a lonely one. While I have confided in a few trusted souls, no one really knows the depths of the transformation I have undergone and am still undergoing. I have been reluctant to share much of my heart with others for several reasons. I feel firstly that this is a very private matter, between me and God. I also feel I am still in a transforming state, like a butterfly still in chrysalis.

    Chrysalis by Katy Bailey

    I also still fear the judgement of others. I fear that others will view me as I once viewed Mormon feminists, or worse. I am afraid to speak up in church or to my friends for fear a church leader will get wind of something I said and call me in for a "talk." My church membership and community of saints are things I hold dear and the idea of anything or anyone threatening them fills my soul with fear.

    And yet, I cannot turn away from this new path I have found. Something in my soul compels me on this journey and I feel deep down in my bones that this is the way God has laid out for me. I certainly would not have chosen this way. As I seek God in prayer and in my scripture study he answers with love and I pray for the strength to follow where he leads.


    World Breastfeeding Week: Sometimes Breastfeeding Sucks

    "A newborn baby has only three demands. They are warmth in the arms of its mother, food from her breasts, and security in the knowledge of her presence." Grantly Dick-Read

    I looked forward to the birth of my first son with great anticipation. I read books, watched videos, talked to everyone. I was a little nervous about childbirth, nervous about being a good mom. I worried about how much I would love him and if we would bond. There was a lot to worry about. But I never worried about breastfeeding. The delivery was much better than I anticipated. Our new baby was so beautiful. We fell in love with him immediately.

    Then it came time to feed him. I thought this would be no big deal. You whip out your boob, stick the baby on and bam, out comes milk, right? If I had any trouble my mom, a Labor and Delivery nurse who was studying to be a lactation consultant was right there. 

    After hours of unsuccessful attempts they sent in the lactation consultant. Still no luck. Turns out a mom with inverted nipples and a tongue tied baby are a bad combination. She got me a pump and suggested I pump and spoon feed so as not to confuse my baby with a different type of nipple until I could get him to breastfeed. She recommended having his tongue clipped before we left the hospital. 

    Then came the pediatrician on call. She refused to clip the baby's tongue because she didn't believe that could prevent him from breastfeeding. She also refused to discharge me because my baby still hadn't breastfed. I tried again. And again. Finally, the lactation consultant convinced the doctor to let me go home with a pump and the promise that I would come back and follow up. 

    What followed were three months of ecstasy and misery. My baby was perfect: sweet and good nurtured and adorable! I loved every part about being a mom. Every part except breastfeeding. It hurt so much! I cried and cried. I pumped and pumped, hoping that would help alleviate the pain. I pumped until my milk turned pink with blood.   

    Finally, after three months we started to figure things out. Feedings went relatively smoothly and we all relaxed. I could hold my little one and gaze at his precious little face the way I had imagined. Breastfeeding was never comfortable, but at least it was endurable.

    When I found out I was pregnant with my second son I felt much less worry. I knew what to expect. When my midwife asked be about my fears and concerns I told her, "I'm not nervous about the birth. That part is easy compared to breastfeeding. I am terrified to breastfeed again. I have nightmares about it." 

    I tried to prepare. I read up on the literature. I bought booby tubes, nipple cream, teas and supplements, gel pads, special bras and pillows. I was ready and this time I was going to knock this breastfeeding business out of the park.  My midwife and my friends assured me that the second baby would be much easier than the first. 

    It was never easy. I believed it was important. Isn't the essential, visible act of mothering being able to feed your own child? 

    I couldn't do it. 

    This baby was tongue tied too and I begged the pediatrician to clip his tongue. He did so reluctantly, but it didn't help. We went home from the hospital pumping. 

    The WIC classes and the lactation consultants didn't help. All the products I bought made things better but none could take away the intense pain of breastfeeding. I was cracked and bleeding and sore. 

    Again I turned to pumping. Every two or three hours I repeated the ritual: pump, cry, clean. With grim and obsessive determination I pulled out my pump. How I hated that pump! I dreaded the sound of the suction pulling on my breasts, still tender and raw from the last session. I cried as the milk dripped slowly into the bottles. 

    The last straw was the medication I was prescribed to help heal my nipples. The lactation consultant said she hurt just looking at them. I had an allergic reaction to the medicated cream. I couldn't do it any more. 

    There were many tears, many prayers, many conversations with those I trust. There was no flash of insight, no grand moment when I came to myself. I slowly came to realize that I was trying too hard to conform to an idea of motherhood that was unrealistic for me. My ideal was getting in the way of creating a meaningful bond with my baby. If I continued what I was doing and feeling I was afraid I would end up resenting him. This tiny, innocent person God had sent to me to love and teach and rear and yes, to feed. 

    So I gave up. 

    I gave up worrying about if his future academic success would be affected by formula. I gave up worrying what my breastfeeding activist friends would think of me. I gave up feeling like less of a mother. 

    I found peace in knowing that I was doing the best I could and that was all my baby wanted. He just wanted to be safe and warm and fed. 

    I could do that. 

    We all can do that.