Mormon feminists mark 40 years of women speaking up and speaking out

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Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik and Hannah Wheelwright pose together on October 29 in front of the 2012 "Pants Quilt" by Nikki Matthews Hunter. The quilt appears on the cover of their book.

Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik and Hannah Wheelwright pose together on October 29 in front of the 2012 "Pants Quilt" by Nikki Matthews Hunter. The quilt appears on the cover of their book.

Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik and Hannah Wheelwright pose together on October 29 in front of the 2012 "Pants Quilt" by Nikki Matthews Hunter. The quilt appears on the cover of their book.

Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik and Hannah Wheelwright pose together on October 29 in front of the 2012 “Pants Quilt” by Nikki Matthews Hunter. The quilt appears on the cover of their book.

This week marks the publication of an anthology I’ve been waiting for eagerly for over a year now.

Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings gathers up some of the best essays over the last 40 years of Mormon feminism, including the founding of Exponent II and the critical “pink issue” of Dialogue.

The book’s three editors — Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik and Hannah Wheelwright — say they created this anthology because blogs and podcasts, while valuable, are not enough. “We owe it to ourselves to know our history,” Rachel says.

Here, she and Hannah answer some questions about Mormon feminism: where it’s been and where it’s going. (My marvelous friend Joanna passed the torch to them as the “next generation” for this interview, but this week she did speak to Publishers Weekly about the new book, which you can access here.) — JKR

RNS: It’s an ambitious undertaking to try to sift through more than four decades of Mormon feminist writing. What were your primary goals when you and Joanna made these selections? What qualities were you looking for?

Wheelwright: I spent the summer of 2013 in BYU Special Collections reading all the archives of the Exponent II magazine; it was hard enough to just look at this one publication, let alone the many other sources from which we aggregated the included essentials.

We looked for works that represented the first time an idea or argument had been articulated, that marked a shift in the discourse or scholarship, or that poignantly represented the experiences of many folks who identified it as elemental to their understanding of Mormon feminism and the LDS Church.

RNS: I was particularly glad to see some classic essays get play here: Linda Newell’s 1981 article on Mormon women healing and anointing the sick, and Eloise Bell’s satirical essay “The Meeting.” What were a few of your favorites from the 1970s and 80s?

Hunt Steenblik: I was particularly glad to include them! Linda King Newell’s “A Gift Given, A Gift Taken” is one of my favorites, as well.

I also have deep affinity for Linda Wilcox’s “The Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven.” It’s among the first things I read when I was employed by BYU to research Heavenly Mother for what became the BYU Studies article, “A Mother There,” and has stayed with me since. Both seem particularly crucial in light of the recent Gospel Topics essays.

Then there is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s “Lusterware.” Working on the Mo Fem book was my introduction. I cried and cried when I read Laurel’s suggestion that “If you find any earthly institution that is ten percent divine, embrace it with all your heart!” and again when I read about her standing at the edge of the Mississippi River, experiencing an “infusion of the spirit.”

RNS: What were your favorites from more recent years? (One of mine is 2007’s “The Trouble with Chicken Patriarchy.” Genius.)

Hunt Steenblik: So many. Joanna Brooks’ “Invocation/Benediction,” because “Give me strength to work hours past my daughters’ bedtime” became my prayer while working on the book; Chelsea Shields’ “Dear Mom” for everything; Meghan Raynes’ “Now I Have the Power” because her daughter’s words and actions instill me with hope; and Janan Graham’s “On Black Bodies in White Spaces” for reminding me that the priesthood ban was not only a priesthood ban, but a priesthood and temple ban, which denied exaltation to black women.

I know that two of Joanna’s favorites are Lorie Winder Stromberg’s “Power Hungry” and Lani Wendt Young’s “Rejoice in the Diversity of Our Sisterhood.” One of Hannah’s is Triné Nelson’s “Claim Yourself: Finding Validation and Purpose Without Institutional Approval.”

Mormon FeminismRNS: There’s been some criticism already about things that have been left out. Stephanie Lauritzen, who founded Wear Pants to Church Day in 2012, wrote that “There is no pain quite like the pain of feeling marginalized within an already marginalized community.” Why did your book not include more about the Wear Pants to Church event? Have you received other criticisms about exclusions?

Wheelwright: While I regret we didn’t include a little more about Wear Pants to Church Day in the beginning of the last section, this work is an anthology, not a history book. The context and historical information we provide are intended to support the writings themselves, not replace them if no articles proved essential.

In our discussions with many members of the community about what pieces represented new thoughts, shifts, and contributions to Mormon feminism, no writings about Wear Pants to Church stood out — I imagine because it was the event itself, the participatory act, that was a turning point for many people.

RNS: What do you think of the Church’s new Gospel Topics essays on women? How have Mormon feminists’ writings through the years helped to prompt the questions being addressed in the essays?

Wheelwright: Church essays are now quoting research by Mormon feminists, whose leadership in this scholarly recovery of Mormon women’s writings has often been ignored.

A church Public Affairs rep attended our first book event in Utah. I had mentioned during the event that while the essays may push some everyday Mormons’ perception of the church, like how the new essay on priesthood speaks of women exercising priesthood authority (!!), it means little if the church doesn’t actively tell members it exists, like how mormonsandgays.org just kind of exists over there without the church actively sharing it as a resource with members on an institutional level. The rep told us afterwards that the church is planning ways to promote the essays more broadly, so I look forward to seeing how they do it, and hope they’ll do the same for mormonsandgays.org.

RNS: What’s next for Mormon feminism? Right now we seem to be characterized by some fissures and disagreements within the movement. Where are things heading?

Wheelwright: I wouldn’t characterize Mormon feminism by fissures/disagreements — I think many folks are very wounded on many levels, from church discipline to disappointment in progressive leaders to trying to heal in their personal life while finding spiritual refuge harder to find at church.

I think more Mormon feminists will speak up about their beliefs on a wide spectrum, and we’ll see more groups and blogs and projects arise as people feel called to focus on specific issues. I hope that together we find more holistic and supportive ways to sustain ourselves as a community in such demanding work.

  • A to Z

    It sounds like a good book. I was going to say “here’s to another 40 years,” but my real hope is that 40 years from now we won’t keep having to raise these same issues over and over. It feels like Mormon women have made advances but also that we keep having to apologize for wanting to be treated like equals.

  • Lynn in Europe

    Speaking as one of the contributors to this book, I stopped discussing Mormon feminism for a few years in tandem with ceasing to actively participate in the church. When I finally looked around to see what was going on among the rising generation of Mormon feminists, I was somewhat saddened to see them still having to ask the same questions to which they were still receiving non-answers. It is my hope that this collection will not only stop the endless reinvention of the wheel, but also provide a basis for moving forward. I am surprised, for example, that there appears to have been little to no follow-up on my piece about Mormon feminist exegesis and hermeneutics (“Toward a Feminist Interpretation of LDS Scripture”). There is so much work that can and should be done not just to recover women’s stories in existing (LDS) scripture, but also to continue to point out how inadequate existing scripture is to provide any basis for a Mormon “theology of women,” including about Heavenly…

  • Mormon women are in a religion that was started by a man and his ideas of what his religion will encompass. It is a mystery to me WHY a woman would ever be involved with this religion/cult. I find it amusing that there are Mormon women waiting for change. The “rules” are the same as they were when it was conceived. It makes NO difference how Mormon women think. If a person is seeking religion involve ones’ self in a religion that was not designed for exclusion. This would be advice for any group. There is so much growth to be had in a religion that WANTS to include women or minorities or people of color or gay. Life is short. Don’t waste your time. You can stand on a curb and tell the “do not walk” sign to change to walk. It will, as programmed. The problem occurs when you believe you changed the sign. It will operate the same for the next pedestrian. Unless they also believe they changed the sign.

  • Megan

    Your piece was one of my favorites! I can only imagine how disheartening it must be to see such little change since you wrote that essay. For this somewhat newly minted mormon feminist, some of these ideas are still new. If you don’t hear about them at church (which of course we don’t) you really have to seek to find them. My promise to you and all of my feminist foremothers is that my daughters will grow up knowing about all of you amazing ladies. Perhaps if our 15 year old girls raise their hand in seminary, sunday school, or young women’s and ask why we don’t see more women in the scriptures, or ask their bishop why the leaders of the church aren’t seeking more light and knowledge about Heavenly Mother when She is our ultimate role model, more seeds of desire for answers will be planted. Either way, thank you so much!