Utah has an “F” word that most of the rest of the nation does not consider a swear word. It’s not flip, fetch or fudge. It’s feminist.
It is a term often said in derision, used as a slur and a statement of judgment. There are a number of definitions of feminism, some of which I agree with and some I do not. At its core, however, feminism is the radical idea that women are equal in human value to men. I am not alone in being both an active Mormon woman and a feminist, one that believes in the power, strength and equality of women and in the sanctity of life.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, one of the founding figures of the contemporary Mormon feminist movement, defines Mormon feminism as follows:
A feminist is a person who believes in equality between the sexes, who recognizes discrimination against women and who is willing to work to overcome it. A Mormon feminist believes that these principles are compatible not only with the gospel of Jesus Christ but with the mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Brigham Young University professors Mary Stovall Richards and Kent Harrison wrote in the journal BYU Studies: “ ‘Feminism’ … simply espouses fair and equal treatment for all of our Heavenly Parents’ children as wonderful holy potentially divine beings.” What a radical notion.
Neylan McBaine describes feminism this way: “If you care about the spiritual, emotional and intellectual development opportunities available to you, your wife, your sister or your daughter, you are a feminist.”
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said that Mormon feminists share a common experience of an identity “double bind” with feminists of color and feminists of faith from other religious traditions who “[found] themselves stigmatized within their own group when they advocated for change and dismissed by other feminists when they defended their heritage. Mormon feminists often hear from both conservative Mormons and progressive non-Mormons that ours is an impossible position — that one simply cannot be both a Mormon and a feminist.”
Mormon church founder Joseph Smith could accurately be called a radical feminist. Not only did he not believe women had “only” one role as wife and mother, he actively encouraged women to get an education, to speak, to write and to lead.
In the early days of the LDS Church, women of the Relief Society gave blessings to the sick, performed religious rites of washing and anointing to women in childbirth and generally felt they had full access to the Priesthood. Women were active in politics, including the national suffrage movement and had the right to vote years before they achieved statehood. Female church leaders of the early 20th century like Emmeline B. Wells were active suffragettes. Sister Wells also ran for office and served as the general Relief Society president. She used her public presence as an opportunity to speak and write about women’s rights.
Through the years, Emmeline took pride in the fact that the Relief Society had opened “one of the most important eras in the history of woman.” Wells wrote expansively on the rights and roles of women, often under the pen name “Blanche Beechwood.” She once wrote in the Women’s Exponent, “I believe in women, especially thinking women.”
Of course, Martha Hughes Cannon was also a big supporter of women’s legal rights but also in the notion that men and women are created equal in worth. Now, not only will she be getting a statue in Washington, D.C., but her birthplace in Wales wants to follow suit and erect a statue in her honor.
In spite of a hue and cry that spits that one cannot be both Mormon and a feminist, Dr. Valerie Hudson, expert in gender and foreign policy and convert to the LDS Church, explains that she is Mormon because she is a feminist.
“After decades of studying LDS doctrine concerning women (and carefully distinguishing it from LDS cultural understandings and practices, which in quite a few cases contradict that doctrine),” she says, “I have been liberated as a woman from the erroneous and harmful beliefs about women that haunt those raised in Abrahamic traditions. How remarkable and in some senses ironic it still seems to me to have experienced ‘women’s lib’ by conversion to Mormonism! ... LDS doctrine teaches that men and women are equals before the Lord and before each other. ‘Equal’ does not mean ‘identical’ — for example, there are no two men who are identical, and yet they stand as equals before each other and before the Lord. Can we imagine an understanding of equality that means that a man and woman, though different, can be equals before the Lord and before each other?“
Elder L. Tom Perry, an apostle of the LDS Church, said in 2004: “There is not a president and vice president in a family. We have co-presidents working together eternally for the good of their family ... They are on equal footing. They plan and organize the affairs of the family jointly and unanimously as they move forward.”
What an incredible vision, especially for a Christian denomination, many of which believe in some type of doctrine of submission of wives to husbands. The LDS do not preach submission of wives.
I have met many good people who are afraid of this particular “F” word, but who show in their word and deed that they value women as equals. To them I would say — don’t be afraid to own it. We need more Mormon feminists willing to speak up, not in anger, but in truth and love. I believe the power of Mormon doctrine in relation to women is the most powerful on earth. We need to move past some of the cultural patterns that have slipped into our traditions and reclaim our power as equals.
Holly Richardson, a Salt Lake Tribune columnist, is a Mormon feminist who is center-right in political philosophy and who sees no contradiction in being all of the above. She is grateful for the many men and women she knows that also believe in the equal worth of women.