Beliefnet
No banners proclaiming "Mormons for ERA" soared over the LDS General Conference last month, as they did in the 1970s. No Mormon women picketed the semi-annual meeting or prayed to their Mother in Heaven over wardhouse pulpits, as they did in the 1980s. None spoke out on women's rights on the steps of the state Capitol or on TV, or got themselves fired from Brigham Young University or excommunicated from the church as they did in the 1990s.

In other words, Mormon feminists are awfully quiet.

The Mormon Women's Forum, established in Salt Lake City in 1988, can scarcely draw a crowd to its annual fall conference. Exponent II, the Boston-based quarterly for Mormon women, which led its readers "gently, gently towards feminism," is still publishing nearly 30 years after it was launched. But it is more likely to take up issues of grief, aging and being single in a married church than the question of priesthood power.

These days, Mormons feminists are less likely to publicly cut their ties to the church than to quietly slip into inactivity or simply go underground, nursing their concerns in private.

Feminism as a movement within Mormonism "is dead or dying with our generation," says Claudia Bushman, an LDS historian who teaches at Columbia University. "Feminism is such a potent word, it's been expunged from our vocabulary."

But does that mean there are no independent, free-thinking women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Or that all women's issues have been resolved? Or that they no longer care about the questions that remain in a church which excludes women from its top offices?

The answer to all three is no, says Jill Derr, managing director of BYU's Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History. Young Mormon women today "take equality between men and women on a personal and professional level as a given," she says. "It's not even a question."

Young scholars are more well-rounded, more disciplined and less scarred by the experience of overt discrimination, Derr says. They expect to balance family and career and presume the church's approval. "They did not live through the polarizing era that was such a marked part of our lives," she says. "They can look at our history through a more nuanced, complex lens."

It may be just the term "feminism" that makes people wince.

For some, it carries too many negative connotations derived from past battles and is synonymous with a confrontational style or hostility to motherhood. Or they feel it has been co-opted by those who define it solely in terms of reproductive rights or competition with men. One BYU professor says "feminism" has been dropped from women's studies discourse almost entirely, replaced by the more neutral term "gender."

Besides, the church has changed a lot since the 1970s. Issues that electrified earlier activists have slowly declined or disappeared, Bushman says. Female participation and visibility in the church are on the rise.

Women can preach and pray over ward pulpits as often and as prominently as men. They sit on ward councils, serve as presidents of women's organizations. They officiate at some women-only temple ceremonies. More and more of them are serving full-time missions for the church, becoming just as well-versed in Mormon scriptures as their male counterparts.

On the home front, the church has stopped pushing big families and begun talking about birth control. Mormon leaders still see the nurturing of children as the most important thing a woman can do, but are more sensitive to the needs of working women. They encourage couples to make family decisions prayerfully, based on individual situations, not on a universal mandate.

Whenever Derr goes to academic conferences, she encounters people who say, "I know the history of Mormon women. They had a lot of power. Now they've lost it." That's not the way she sees it. But there's no question that the institutional roles of LDS women fluctuated throughout the faith's 163-year history.

In the 19th century, many Mormon women did feel a stronger sense of their partnership with the priesthood. They were outspoken leaders of female organizations. Ironically, polygamy and the church's outsider status in America gave Mormon women some freedom from the reigning Victorian ideals of domestic life. Leaders like Eliza Snow spoke openly of their spiritual powers and being the offspring of heavenly parents -- one of them God the Mother.

Mormon women were early suffragettes, forming alliances with national leaders such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who spoke in Utah. They were the first in the nation to vote and among the first to pursue professional careers in medicine, business and law. State Sen. Martha Hughes Cannon was the first U.S. woman to be elected to a legislature.

But when the church gave up polygamy in order to gain national acceptance, women struggled to maintain their independence. "The image of Mormon women as docile homemakers, a la June Cleaver serving Jell-O to a smiling family in a 1950s sitcom, is just one of the many things Mormonism adopted from conservative American culture," wrote Margaret Toscano, who was excommunicated on Nov. 20, 2000, for feminist heresies.

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