Mormon Feminists?

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

BY: Peggy Fletcher Stack
The Salt Lake Tribune


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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.

Perhaps the biggest loss to Mormon women in the early 20th century was the spiritual gifts they had enjoyed, including blessing the sick, a rite now performed only by men.

Then came the 1970s movement to add an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which the LDS Church helped to defeat. The conflict erupted bitterly in 1977 at a meeting of the International Women's Year in Salt Lake City. Organizers planned for 3,000 women, but 10,000 showed up after getting marching orders from church headquarters. The nearly hysterical mob voted down every proposal.

Next came activist Sonia Johnson, who sparred with U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch over the ERA in Senate Committee hearings and exposed the LDS Church's behind-the-scenes opposition to the amendment. She was excommunicated in December 1979, and her case became a cautionary tale to Mormon feminists everywhere.

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