Polygamy, progressivism and the real history of Mormon feminism: "Women who joined this movement were gender radicals"

Mormonism's conservative present is well known. But its amazing feminist history needs to be better understood

Published December 5, 2015 7:00PM (EST)

Ginnifer Goodwin, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Bill Paxton and Chloë Sevigny in "Big Love"   (HBO)
Ginnifer Goodwin, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Bill Paxton and Chloë Sevigny in "Big Love" (HBO)

The week before I spoke with Joanna Brooks, a prominent Mormon progressive and feminist, Church authorities declared that children of same-sex couples would henceforth be ineligible for baptism. To some critics, it looked as if Mormon leaders were ready to punish kids for the sexual orientation of their parents.

If your sense of the Latter-Day Saints largely comes from Broadway and the Romneys, that move won’t seem surprising. Mormonism’s reputation as a conservative bulwark is strong—so much so that it’s easy to forget that the Church originated as a collection of mobile, marginal believers, committed to a non-traditional form of marriage—polygamy—and to the kind of communalism that’s associated more with socialist kibbutzim than Levittown suburbs.

That progressivism often extended to gender roles. Mormon women were among the first in the nation to vote. They ran community organizations and pursued advanced degrees. Early Mormons developed a unique theology of a female God figure—Mother in Heaven—and they had priesthood roles for women.

Much of this tradition was suppressed in the 20th century, as the Mormon Church became more bureaucratic, and its hierarchy more male. But in recent years, Mormon feminists have revived that suppressed history as they search for ways to reconcile the culture of the Church with their visions for equality.

In a new collection, “Mormon Feminism,” Brooks, along with co-editors Rachel Hunt Steenblik and Hannah Wheelwright, introduce critical documents from the past 40 years of that struggle. The result is a fascinating snapshot of a community negotiating its relationship with the past, with the future, and with American politics at large. The topic may seem niche, but the questions resonate outside the Mormon world: How do you balance the personal and the political? How can women best challenge power structures built by men? And how do you honor a tradition that you love, even as you hope for change?

Brooks is an associate vice president and a professor of English at San Diego State University, and the author of “The Book of Mormon Girl,” a memoir. (She is also on the masthead of Religion Dispatches magazine, where I am an associate editor; we had never communicated before this interview.) Over the phone, Brooks spoke with Salon about excommunication, same-sex marriage and why early Mormon women could be thought of as “gender radicals.”

Within the context of Mormon feminism, is there a particular definition of feminism that applies especially well?

Mormon women started calling themselves feminists at the very same moment that women in other faith traditions, and women who were not religious, started identifying as feminists as well. This was in the late 1960s. The women’s movement was in full flower in the United States. When [Mormon] women met in an inaugural consciousness-raising group in Boston to discuss their lives, they used feminist messages: the idea of women talking about their lives to gain new consciousness, and then organize for change.

Feminism for Mormon women is the process of critically examining what it means to be a woman in Mormonism, and what our experience teaches us about the necessity for changing the world to make it a more just, nourishing and equitable place for everyone.

What do Mormon feminists bring to the table that would look different from other strains of feminism?

What Mormon women brought to the table was a long history of gender progressivism. Women were writing about God the Mother in the 1840s, which was 50 years before the idea of a woman God was brought up in Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “The Women’s Bible.” Mormon women were told by Church founder Joseph Smith that they would be organized as a kingdom of priests, and a form of priesthood was conveyed to them by Smith in the early days of the Church.

In the later 19th century, after the exodus to Utah, Mormon women across the entire territory were incredibly politically progressive. They were the first in the nation to exercise their right to vote. They had their own women-run newspaper, The Exponent, that was explicitly pro-suffrage, even as it was pro-polygamy. Mormon women organized, traveled, met and spoke alongside national suffrage leaders like Susan B. Anthony, who made uneasy peace with the fact that some Mormon women actually viewed the practice of polygamy as supportive of expanded life chances for women. Mormon women were sent by Brigham Young to medical school in the upper Midwest and the East.

So, this long history of incredible organizing belonged to the Mormon women who identified as feminist in the late 1960s. But what had intervened were decades of conservative retrenchment in the institutional church, as Mormonism left its isolated 19th century Utah era and entered mainstream American society in the 20th century.

Mormonism adopts this mainstream, conservative, Protestant ideal of the homemaker as the essential, defining role of women. So, in the late ’60s and early ’70s you find Mormon women wrestling with the contradictions between an incredibly expansive theology and the fruits of assimilation, which are a very conservative and constrictive and practical role for women in Mormon life. This contradiction fuels Mormon feminism to this day.

There’s the stereotype of Mormonism as such a conservative culture. Then you look back at the 19th century, and you see this wild, marginal movement.

The women who belonged to early Mormonism were seekers who wanted a better world. Women who joined this movement, were, in some forms, gender radicals. They were joining a marginal religious movement, walking into new territory to live their faith.

Did Mormon women understand polygamy in these progressive, radical terms?

Polygamy is a complicated story. There were women who found polygamy to support more expansive lives and shared childcare with a sister-wife. You could live in women-headed households. At the same time, the day-to-day lived realities of polygamy weren’t always so elegant, and they caused people a great deal of cognitive dissonance and shame.

Polygamy, as a theological principle, has not been rejected by the Church, officially. Plural marriages for the eternities, where a man can be sealed to more than one woman for eternity, and a woman can’t, continue to be performed in temples. It is a ghost that haunts us still. Mormon girls who are smart still realize that there might be polygamy in heaven, and no one is going to tell them for sure there won’t be.

Looking for a more equitable route, do critics talk about polyandry as well? Or just getting rid of the poly- altogether?

Mormonism has a very beautiful and complicated theology around family. Joseph Smith’s vision was of being united with his brother, who died young, through vicarious baptism—knowing that his brother could be with him in heaven through vicarious ordinances performed in this life by proxy. That doctrine grew and blossomed into this notion that we go to heaven in family units. In its most expansive reading, we all go to heaven together with our ancestors and those who will come after us. So heaven is a collective spiritual event.

At its most beautiful and elegant formulation, it is very inspiring. It was practiced in the 19th century through polygamy, which bears some very unfortunate parallels to, and is an expression of, patriarchy, which is not as spiritually satisfying.

In some ways, "Mormon Feminism" is a story of bureaucratization. There’s this enormous shift of power within the Church as it builds a bureaucracy.

Look, the Church was trying to move from being a marginal, radical sect that was bankrupted by the United States government over its practice of polygamy. It had to stage a quick entry into mainstream American life in order to survive. It designed itself as this marginal movement, and it went through a transition to becoming a Protestant church. In its assimilation, Mormonism became more aggressively male-dominated in its practice.

When that happens, where do practices of a female priesthood, or belief in Mother in Heaven, go? Are they forgotten? Suppressed?

There is a process called correlation through which this wide range of beliefs the Mormon movement had generated and sustained were bureaucratized in the mid 20th century, systematized, reduced, and made available for implementation in curriculum. Some of the gender stuff just never makes it in, and is repressed.

Women have had a glimmer of historical memory--from their grandmothers or great grandmothers. But it is nowhere in our church manuals. No one talks about it.

One of the greatest contributions that Mormon feminists made in the 1970s is that they undertook a huge process of historical recovery. A woman named Susan Kohler found, in Harvard’s Widener Library, the entire archives of the 19th century newspaper The Exponent. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who is now a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at Harvard, recalls that discovery. She says, “We realized that these women were saying in the 1870s things we were just starting to think in the 1970s.”

How widely known is this history today?

 It depends on who you ask. Just a few weeks ago, the Church released an essay online acknowledging the history of women in priesthood, and [another essay] acknowledging Heavenly Mother. And they did so deriving from work done by feminist historians. Even 20 years ago, when I was a student at BYU, talking about Heavenly Mother was taboo. A BYU professor, Gail Houston, was fired, effectively, for acknowledging in public that she had prayed to Heavenly Mother.

People are more familiar with these issues than they were five years ago. But many are really not aware of the depth of Mormon history on these issues.

Did the Internet help?

The movement in the Church in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s was to manage Mormons’ information and knowledge through a hierarchical chain of command. The Internet has created this terrific open-access horizontality. The knowledge is now available. Episodes of history that had been disowned or repressed are now out in the open for people to reckon with. There is no putting the genie back in the bottle—including on gender issues.

Why were the Equal Rights Amendment and the women’s liberation movement so threatening to Church leaders in the 70s?

The ERA had actually passed in Idaho before Church leaders came out in opposition to it in 1975 or ’76. They had to organize Mormons in Idaho to rescind their approval of the amendment. Surveys conducted before the Church announcement suggested it was leading in Utah as well. Mormon people have sometimes been shocked by conservative retrenchment and resistance to gender equality articulated by their leaders. But once leaders speak, the Mormon practice is to fall in line.

There is a pattern across the years that we can see both in relation to women’s equality and LGBT equality, in that the Church reserves a special theological place for the family. In Joseph Smith’s era, that means a more expansive version of family--that generations past and future go to heaven together.

To explain its opposition to feminism or LGBT rights, the Church can use this language of protecting the family. But there’s also an argument on the grounds of personal autonomy—that this is about the individual conforming to the group’s demands, versus individuals doing what they want.

Mormon theology has always supported the right of individuals to seek their own answers on spiritual questions, and you’re entitled to have your own answers. Only Church leaders, the logic goes, are entitled to receive answers for the whole Church. That’s the fine line that Mormons who disagree have always walked: what are the limits of having my own answers? If I have different views, can I talk about them in church on Sunday? Can I join a demonstration? Can I organize for marriage equality? What are the limits to which I can disagree and still belong in the community?

In some of the earlier documents in this collection, many writers insist that they’re not challenging these basic models of family or individual agency. Do you think Mormon feminism today requires a rethinking of the family, or a rethinking of personal autonomy?

There are many Mormon feminists who live in very conventional married-with-children family setups. We all know that that family model is highly conditional. It’s only been possible for people to voluntarily form families like that within a very narrow window of human history. What Mormon feminists are more interested in doing is making sure that all families, of all shapes, and all individuals, are honored and find a place within the Latter-Day Saints community.

Would that openness require the Church to rethink the relationship between the community and the individual? Would it entail a shift in power?

Look, it’s a very complicated dynamic. The Church has excommunicated, in the last few years, a handful of people who have been very public in their disagreements over doctrines and policies, including women’s ordination and LGBT equality. But it seems to be that the Church is more interested in excommunicating those who disagree very publicly. It couldn’t possibly handle the caseload were they to go after everyone who disagrees privately or spoke about their disagreements only to their families and their friends. There are too many Mormons with too many perspectives in our rich and complex faith for everyone who doesn’t perfectly toe the line to be excommunicated.

At the same time, I think many of us who are progressives had hoped over the past five years that, through [our] work, and through lifting up the voices of LGBT Mormons to tell their stories, and highlighting the complexity that already exists in Mormon life, we could gradually make more space in the day-to-day practice of Mormonism for everyone.

What’s been difficult in the last week is that we have seen the Church retrench pretty decisively, and pretty much create an outclass of LGBT adults and their children.

The Church just denied baptism to the children of LGBT couples. Is this kind of move unprecedented?

The Church has a policy of forbidding children living in polygamous families from being baptized. But declaring gay marriage a form of apostasy, subject to excommunication, and declaring children of gay parents—who have in the past or present lived in a gay relationship—to be ineligible for baptism, is a painful, striking escalation. It strikes at the very core understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Jesus is on record twice in the New Testament saying “suffer the little children that they should come to me, and forbid them not.”

Childhood religious education, including being named and blessed in front of a congregation and acknowledged on the record of the Church at birth, and then baptized at age 8, and involved in an extensive program of education and activity, is just crucial for Mormon culture. It feels so anti-Christian and out of line with core Mormon values to exclude children from our community. It has been a very difficult week.

Why did the Church make this move now? Is it as a response to the Supreme Court decision over the summer?

For 30 years, high-ranking LDS church officials have been eyeing with great concern the potential of legalization of gay marriage. The Church has carved out for itself a defensive retreat into religious freedom claims that, “We cannot accept gay marriage. To honor religious freedom is to honor the Church’s right not to solemnize in LDS temples the marriages of gay and lesbian people.”

Many observers speculate that this policy announcement, which was rolled out fairly unceremoniously in the new edition of the Church’s handbook, without careful handling by Church leaders, was motivated by a legalistic concern that an LGBT family could sue the church, not just for access to sacred Mormon spaces and rights, but also based on some legal precedent suggesting that individuals and organizations can be legally penalized for creating alienation between a parent and a child.

So, observers believe that the Church got some pretty aggressive legal advice, and then adopted this policy to protect itself.

Do you think the Mormon rank-and-file will fall in line on this one?

There is a huge grassroots struggle going on about this. It just feels wrong for most Mormons to exclude children from baptisms. Even more orthodox members, who oppose same-sex marriage, are wrestling with the new policy. More progressive members—for many, it has been the last straw.

How do you balance your desire to remain a Mormon with policies that might make you want to leave the Church?

Anyone who is a citizen of the United States knows what it means to love a community and be profoundly frustrated by it. That is the condition of conscious living. For some people, it is significant to say, “I am no longer a member of record. I no longer contribute. I am no longer an official member of the Church.”

No one ever leaves Mormonism who’s been raised in it, in their hearts or in their souls. It’s a culture. It’s a movement. It’s a family. It informs our values, our core concepts of life’s meaningfulness, our ways of seeing the world, regardless of whether or not one belongs to the Church officially. So, the question of how one can begin to leave a religious faith is so complicated, and it doesn’t reduce to: “My church: love it or leave it.” Identity is more complicated than that.

Within different expressions of feminism in the United States, do you think there’s sympathy for this kind of position? Or do you think there are people for whom it would be hard to understand why there could ever be a book called “Mormon Feminism”?

I think people are getting more used to us now [laughs]. Religion is a space where some of the most important struggles around equality and emancipation are being fought for women today. Our faith is our gateway into the effort to make the world a better place for all who live here, regardless of their gender, sexuality, or race.

Is there a push toward ritual and egalitarianism among Mormon feminists, or are people angling for something closer to a complementarian approach, with distinct gender roles, but a more equal distribution of power?

I think the complementarian approach is really a great fit. It is very popular, among those who nominally believe that God created men and women equal in God’s sight, but want to continue to work through Mormon customs, and even some Mormon rites that carve out different participatory roles for men and women.

Complementarianism works for a lot of feminist-identified Mormons. Others of us push a little harder, knowing that women at one point in history did have their hands on more authority, and that there is nothing sacred about Church bureaucracy. A bureaucracy is a bureaucracy. A patriarchal bureaucracy is a patriarchal bureaucracy. It’s secular. It’s just the way the Mormon Church is doing its business in the 20th and early 21st centuries. It’s not forever.

If a girl is born to a Mormon family tomorrow, what world do you hope she would grow up in?

The Mormon scripture is that God created men and women that they might have joy. That’s the whole purpose of creation. For me, any Mormon girl—and I am going to envision this Mormon girl as an indigenous, Pasifika Mormon girl—I would hope that she would get to learn and grow within a supportive Mormon community, and feel the support of that community in having joy, in expressing and affirming the unique talents God gave to her as an individual, and not experiencing domestic violence, living in a family where her voice was honored and respected, and having a shot at changing her community for the better.

That’s what Mormon feminists want. We want everybody to experience faith in a way that is enlarging and that honors the divine nature of every soul, regardless of gender.

By Michael Schulson

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