Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Keeping the Faith and the Feminism

I promised another post on Glee's continued misogyny, and yet I find something more substantial weighing on my mind - the struggle to remain faithful, as a feminist in a conservative and patriarchal worship community. This issue has weighed on my mind (and heart too, I suppose, but I don't want to sound sentimental) for awhile now, but I've hesitated to post for a couple reasons:

1. It's difficult to discuss this issue without bringing in some personal examples that could hurt, offend or confuse people who have attended church with me.

2. In my faith - and this is my greatest reason for hesitating - merely suggesting any form of doubt can make other members worry. And when they worry, they're often quick to jump in with needless (and perhaps destructive) reassurances. For instance, when I mentioned in Sunday School one day that there's a trend of creative writers leaving BYU for PhD programs elsewhere and then leaving the church and that this trend has forced me to contemplate what causes this apostasy so that I can avoid it - well, one friend immediately reassured me that apostasy only happens gradually so I shouldn't worry, and my bishop then asked me to explain this dilemma to my mother. Kindly, all kindly.

I've found myself explaining to friends my philosophy that it is good and productive to work through doubts and confusion, so why hold back on this blog? So instead of remaining silent, I'm prefacing this post with this explanation and a request: do not try to shut down this discussion or others like it, even with well-meant reassurances. Sometimes people need to consider and contemplate and discuss difficult situations, and your well-meant "Don't worry, it's not as bad as it seems," can cause real harm by ending a discussion before it happens.

As you can tell from that preamble, I've been thinking about tensions between faith and feminism for awhile now. Tension is only one part of that relationship - faith and feminism often reinforce each other in my life, which is why I tell people that I'm a feminist because of my faith, not in spite of it.  I'm a feminist because I belong to a faith where women are considered beings with divine potential, a faith that was before its time in promoting education for nineteenth century women. A faith with an unnecessarily well-kept secret (which isn't intended to be a secret in the first place) that women perform priesthood ordinances in the temple. Take that fact as you will, but a fact it remains.

Recently, though, I've been reminded that feeling a sense of belonging in church is a struggle for many feminists. A few weeks ago a friend added me to the facebook group Feminist Mormon Housewives Society, a group inspired by the fMh blog. Each day members of the group share stories of challenges that they face as feminists and unorthodox Mormons. One woman shared a story of a bishop curtly forbidding her from putting a Sunday service project in the ward bulletin, along with instructions for her to review church literature on what constitutes appropriate Sabbath activities. Another asked advice on communicating with her husband. But all the posts had something in common: Mormon feminists looking for a community of others who share their faith and their feminism to offer support.

As Mormon feminists we have all the advantages that I have listed. But we also belong to a faith with some ordinances and scriptures that don't seem to jive with the contemporary Mormon ideal for equal marriage partners. And a faith with members who sometimes infuriate and offend. Don't misunderstand me - members are much more likely touch my heart and teach me how to be a better person, but sometimes an individual infuriates me, all the same. And sometimes it simply takes awhile to find your niche in a faith community. And having a sense of community is key for most people in continuing in a faith. Sure, there are some religions that are more individualistic, but let's be honest - in faiths where meeting as a community is essential, who wants to continue spending hours with individuals where they don't feel accepted?

One of our teachings is that we should seek friends who share our values. In fact, my current branch (our word for a smaller congregation) recently handed out posters that reminded us to seek friends who share our standards (based on a 1989 address at Rick's college that is not accessible through My knee-jerk reaction was to make a snarky comment under my breath about how this poster was asking me to drop out of my PhD program. I have dear friends outside the church who are pro-pornography, friends who are openly gay, friends who drink, and I'm not about to cut off ties with those friends simply because their standards are different than mine. On a more productive level, I would say the principle is to find others who share our values in a more general sense. But even then,  do all active, temple-going Mormons share the same values and standards?

I think the obvious answer is no. Some Mormons love Ted Talks as much as they love hearing from Mormon leaders, while others pride themselves on reading only books published by church leaders. Some Mormons watch R-rated movies without a second thought, while others consider R-rated movies to be a form of pornography (sorry, dear fellow Mormon whom I'm referencing). Some Mormons are politically conservative, others politically liberal. And many of us fall into a more moderate area of these spectrums - most members aren't even in the US and don't even know why we US members make such a big deal over a rating system that doesn't apply to them and which is applied by people who do not share our beliefs anyway. So yes, Mormons are diverse, as the I'm a Mormon campaign has worked so hard at convincing people.

But that diversity does not always translate into an even distribution within one congregation. Because Mormon congregations are assigned by our residential addresses, neighborhoods and regions factor into ward makeups. If a member is unhappy with a ward, that member occasionally can choose a different form of congregation (I currently have the choice between a university branch and a local family ward), but usually switching congregations requires special permission or - more commonly - moving. A member who chooses to attend elsewhere without permission will find that his or her records remain in the assigned ward and is unlikely to be able to fully participate in the chosen ward due to the location of the records.

For the most part, I see those restrictions as a positive aspect of Mormon life. We are unable to shop congregations until we find a Bishop (pastor) who already agrees with us, so we face the challenge of learning to love and accept members and leaders whom we have not chosen. That challenge helps us grow and learn and love. But it also means that when a person feels rejected by a congregation, they have a choice of leaving the church, moving to a new home and thus ward boundaries, or seeking to resolve that rejection and attending church even if those attempts fail.

Sometimes rejection is hard to overcome, as in this recent story from a woman whose religious community is also her neighborhood and her former business clients. According to the author, she learned on good authority that members of her religious and neighborhood community made a collective decision to boycott her business in order to avoiding supporting someone who shared the views she makes public (in support of gay marriage and abortion rights, for instance). No matter how rare this type of incident might be, it presents a dilemma for anyone who finds herself in that position. When your faith community rejects you, how do you find the strength to continue attending weekly 3-hour meetings (and more, if you attend additional activities) with those very individuals?

For some Mormon feminists, the answer has been to stop attending church. But leaving the church is a tragic option for a person who still believes in the Gospel. So what can we do differently?


  1. I'm really glad that you've brought this up, Emily, because I've been having a similar struggle as well. I feel like I don't fit into the typical Mormon paradigm, where I stay home, make babies and delight in keeping house. That prospect actually makes me feel incredibly stifled. Happily though, I made a good choice in a spouse who shares this view and our endeavors are leading us to either both work from home, or have me be the primary provider working outside the home and my husband be a stay-at-home dad [he likes kids better than me anyway, not that I don't love my kids... that always comes out funny].

    Anyway, the way that I've found that best works for me, as much as it pains me to say it, is that I don't reveal much of the true goings-on of my household to people who I'm reasonably sure would not respond well, and when opportunities come up to share one of my less Mormon-ish views, I use lots of "I-statements" and frequently refer to personal agency and freedom of choice, and how it's against God's plan to coerce anyone to make any choice, good or bad, regardless of our personal feelings [I always feel a little miffed when we talk about "knowledge" that we have, as it generally comes out in a horribly condescending way, so I use 'feelings' and 'faith' because really that's what it comes down to anyway]. Generally when I approach things from that angle, even if others don't agree with me, at least we can manage to keep some common ground and "agree to disagree".

    I'm loathe to say that my solution is essentially to hide, but so far it's been the most effective. I'm not saying that it's the perfect solution, but being that I'd much rather happily get along with people while hiding [though never lying about] my true self, than drive my entire community away by shoving my true self down everybody's throat and say that if they don't like me, it's their own fault.

    Hopefully that came out right...

  2. I think a major thing we can do differently is to change the way we talk about nonbelievers in our meetings and in our culture. Instead of talking badly about them, and making them out to be less-than (less faithful, less prayerful, less righteous, less trusting), we could really benefit by acknowledging and honoring the struggles that people go through, and trying to be more like Christ in understanding where people are coming from and what they've been through.

    Rather than judging others, I think we could really benefit by looking at ourselves and trying to learn how to be better ourselves - not in terms of being "more prayerful than THEM," but in terms of learning what our driving principles are, and trying to learn to make our own actions more closely match what those principles are.

  3. Crystal, I couldn't agree more. Recently it's felt even more important to reframe discussions from us vs. them into a more inclusive and introspective model.