Mormon Feminists?

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

Continued from page 2

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.


In the 1980s, women again began talking among themselves about a Heavenly Mother -- a concept that for decades had lost its potency -- and some acknowledged praying to her. Church leaders swiftly condemned any public display of devotion to her.

And women speculated about the possibility of being ordained to what has always been a male-only priesthood. Derr says young Mormon women still want to explore the priesthood, but they raise the issue with family and in private settings.

One issue that still percolates in the church -- as it does in the rest of American society -- is the importance of having a full-time career versus staying home with kids.

On Feb. 22, 1987, LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson sounded the battle cry with his speech, "To the Mothers in Zion." He told Mormon women not to postpone having children or curtail the number of children for "personal or selfish reasons." He also said unequivocally that mothers belong in the home, not the workplace. The speech had an immediate and overwhelming impact: Dozens, if not hundreds, of Mormon women quit their jobs, believing that was what their prophet wanted, while others felt guilty for ignoring that mandate.

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Peggy Fletcher Stack
The Salt Lake Tribune
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