I originally began this post as a primer on feminism–a post on feminist ideological inconsistences and boundaries, and what the term “feminism” means–but the discussion following my previous T&S post on feminism and the comments on this post on FMH have got me thinking about the issue of allegiances and how that seems to be the main sticking point when it comes to Mormon suspicion of feminism.
But let me back up just a bit.
Aside from being an ideological space, feminism is a social movement. Probably my favorite basic definition of feminism is: “Feminism is a social movement whose goal is to eliminate the oppression of women in all its forms.” (Amy Kesselman, Lily D. McNair, and Nancy Schniedewind, eds., Women: Images and Realities, 1996). This definition puts at the heart of “feminism” not its discussion of the meanings of patriarchy or its interpretation of gender roles, but its status as a movement for change.
It’s really hard to work for social change without creating a group and developing a group identity. And typically, part of creating that identity is coming up with a label that you can use to identify yourself to your groupmates and others outside the group. I’ll be the first to admit that labels can have a lot of problematic consequences (which we’ve discussed elsewhere and can discuss again here), but labels are what we use to categorize the world. We cannot escape them, and I’m having a difficult time imagining a broad-based social movement that can attain any kind of coherence with no identifying marker such as “feminism” or “socialism” or “Civil Rights.”
Despite the various complaints people may have about feminism (many of which are justified), over the past hundred years it really has worked hard to end sexual violence, get women more equality in education and the workforce, set up shelters for battered women and children, etc. And it’s achieved many of its goals. Many women self-identify as feminist because at a point in their lives when they were experiencing problems related to their gendered position in society (i.e. sexual harrassment, feeling pressure to meet an idealized standard of beauty, etc.), they encountered feminism. And they recognized in feminism a
movement that would address and try to rectify these problems.
My introduction to feminism came at a point in my life when I was beginning to recognize my dissatisfaction with gender inequality in our society. I have to be honest and say that it wasn’t the church that provided the answers to many of my dissatisfactions. In fact, the church was the source of a lot of the problems for which I found the answers in feminism.
Which brings us to the problems faced by Mormon feminists. As Rosalynde so aptly observed on the FMH thread,
This leads me to wonder about feminists’ oft-repeated complaint that mainstreamers put their faithfulness into question . . . it seems to me that a self-identifying, self-selecting feminist is, in fact, indicating in that act of identification that he or she experiences a divided allegiance of some sort; indeed, it seems to me that that’s ALL he or she is indicating.
While I disagree with Rosalynde’s final claim, she is correct to point out that being a Mormon feminist raises the question of allegiance.
Most of the people I know who self-identify as Mormon feminists use their feminism to critique the church. I can understand the suspicions this raises in those within the church who oppose feminism or who are uncertain about it: are feminists allowing a philosophy of man (or, more precisely, woman) to take precedence over obedience to the Lord’s prophets? Does their use of feminism to critique the church mean that their allegiance to feminism trumps their allegiance to the church? Are their feminist commitments more important to them than their religious ones? These are important questions for us all to ask, feminists included.
Thinking about these questions, made me wonder: what is allegiance, and how exactly does one measure it? Then I asked myself, what if push came to shove and I was forced to choose between the church and feminism–what would I do? I played out the following scenarios in my mind: if feminism required me to no longer associate with the church or to renounce my religious beliefs, I would choose the church over feminism. If the church required me to no longer associate with feminism or feminists, it would be difficult, and I would struggle, but I would probably do it. If the church required me to renounce my feminist beliefs, I honestly don’t know what I would do. Choosing between my feminist moral convictions and my membership in this church would tear me apart.
This realization returned me to the question of ideology. In the FMH thread, I wrote that I had adopted the term “feminist” to describe myself “because it allows me to associate myself with a history and network of others who have worked for and are working for women’s rights and equality.” In the end, however, I’m a feminist because I believe a lot of the stuff about patriarchy and the social construction of gender. My feminism encompasses more than the idea that women have equal value to men; I believe that there is not equal treatment of men and women in our society, and my feminist moral convictions tell me that this must change (point of clarification: for me, “equal treatment” does not mean “treated exactly the same”). Accompanying this is a belief that “all is not well in Zion”: that our church faces some of the same kinds of problems faced by society at large.
On a recend thread at ZD, Lynnette discussed the links between feeling the love of God, one’s attitude towards the church, and one’s attitude towards change:
I like your point that a personal witness of God’s love doesn’t necessarily entail acceptance of the status quo. I can see such an experience going in at least two different directions: 1) I’m convinced that God loves and values me (and all his children)-therefore, even if I don’t understand all the practices of the Church, I can trust that they are good. 2) I’m convinced that God loves and values me (and all his children)-therefore, I’m going to critique Church practices which seem to suggest otherwise. Whether you opt for #1 or #2 might largely depend on how closely you believe God is involved in the Church, and to what extent you see the Church as a product of its culture.
I generally fall into Lynnette’s category #2, which means that I see my feminist moral convictions working hand in hand with my belief in God’s love for me, and my allegiance to His gospel and His church. I realize that it may be difficult for some to imagine, but my feminism is so closely tied with my allegiance to the church, I cannot separate the two. Because I love the church so much and how much it has enriched my life, I want to see it change to reflect ideals of equality more fully. I’m not sure what exactly this means, or how best to bring this about. And I am prepared to be open minded about what the Lord has in store (which will probably be different than what I think is best). But, nonetheless, I hope and seek for change. In the meantime, I will continue to demonstrate my allegiance to this gospel by keeping my covenants and striving to live a righteous, Christian life.
When it comes to the term “feminism”: perhaps labeling myself as a “feminist” turns others off (and I have reemphasized my resolve to be sensitive to this), but is the best word I have that encompasses this aspect of my beliefs. Additionally, I have loyalties to women outside of the church who are associated with the feminist movement, and I want to align myself with the good things I see them doing. Lastly, I’ve found that “feminist” is the best word for finding other like-minded souls in a church where I am in the minority.
In the end, I know that I will always be a little suspect because I want to see change in a church where many (most?) others are happy with the status quo. I hope that I am able to read the suspicion of others as their love for a gospel and a church that they think is perfect (or nearly so) and are reluctant to see altered. Concurrently, I hope that they are able to see my commitment and allegiance to this church and this gospel as a real, meaningful commitment, and that my feminist beliefs stem from my conviction that “all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33).
(Note: in discussing this post, I’m hoping to stay away from debates on particular feminist issues–women and the priesthood, gender roles, etc. I’m hoping to have a conversation about what allegiance is, whether being a Mormon feminist means you have a divided allegiance, why one might or might not want to use the term “feminim,” how best to exercise faith and commitment to organizations you hope will change, etc.)