Feminism among Latter-day Saints is dying, say former activists. But why?
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.