Heather Sundahl and Katie Ludlow Rich: In ‘Romney: A Reckoning,’ McKay Coppins misses the mark on Mormon feminism

False stereotypes obscure what faithful feminists advocated for.

(Courtesy) McKay Coppins' new biography of U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.

If you want to dismiss a large group of Mormon feminists, a good way to do it would be by characterizing them as “agitating for women to receive the priesthood.”

In the new book on Mitt Romney (“Romney: A Reckoning”), this is how author McKay Coppins portrays Exponent II, a group of Boston-area women who formed an organization and publication in 1974 based on the dual platforms of Mormonism and feminism. He is wrong.

Coppins’ book openly acknowledges the tense relationship that sometimes existed between the women and Romney while he served as a stake president. Coppins quotes Barbara Taylor, Romney’s executive assistant when he was governor and a former president of the organization, who recalled that “Mitt was very anti-Exponent II. He thought we were just a bunch of bored, unhappy housewives trying to stir up trouble” (39). Romney once wrote that he did “not believe that [Exponent] is helpful either to the church or to Exponent’s members.”

But Coppins, as a researcher, has a responsibility to see past the broad-stroke stereotypes of Mormon feminists and look at the actual work that Exponent II was trying to accomplish during this time period.

While Coppins insists Exponent II was merely pursuing the divine feminine and reaching for the priesthood, a glance at the archives tells a different story. (FYI, all past issues are publicly available, and Coppins could have easily verified those assertions.) Sue Booth-Forbes was editor of the paper from 1984 to ‘97, when Romney was a stake president and focused on the abuse of women and children — specifically challenging priesthood or ecclesiastical abuse, not “agitating” for ordination.

Exponent published editorials about abuse written by Booth-Forbes and Judy Dushku, articles from professionals and personal experiences sent in by their readers. They gathered resources about abuse in the church from the Brigham Young University Women’s Studies program, hosted a symposium at Brandeis University and spoke to Latter-day Saint congregations. Their grassroots, woman-led advocacy had a meaningful impact in raising awareness about abuse within the church and helping women know they weren’t alone in their experiences.

Let’s not forget that Exponent’s advocacy on abuse was not without risk. In 1993, Lavina Fielding Anderson was excommunicated for her work documenting allegations of spiritual and ecclesiastical abuse in the church. As Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess has written, these issues still haunt the church in a culture where “Latter-day Saint men are groomed not to listen to women.”

Our beef with Coppins is not that he made Exponent sound more radical than it was. It’s that he missed its actual radical work at that time.

The problem is not merely rhetorical. There is real damage in being mischaracterized. False stereotypes obscure what these faithful feminists advocated for — the protection of women and children from abuse being done in the name of God. By characterizing the women of Exponent as agitating for power when they were pleading for priesthood leaders to take their lack of safety seriously, Coppins perpetuates the trope of angry feminists trying to dismantle patriarchy for their own gain.

What if, instead, these feminists were angry because the structures set up to protect them were being used to harm them? We are not saying women did not want to dismantle patriarchy, but it must be acknowledged that Exponent was shining a light on the darkest aspects of patriarchy and not grasping for power. There is nothing “benevolent” about abuse.

And as for priesthood ordination, Exponent II intentionally avoided the topic in its first few decades. Its members did not have a united position on the issue, and the publication prioritized personal sharing and community building over ideological purity. Years after Romney’s time as stake president, during the height of the Ordain Women movement, Exponent’s Spring 2014 issue on women and priesthood emphasized the range of feelings among Mormon feminists on ordination. Editor Aimee Evans Hickman wrote: “My greatest hope is that the diversity of experiences and viewpoints expressed in this issue can exemplify some of the respectful, thoughtful and sincere ways women are laying claim to their unique perspectives without employing divisive rhetoric.”

As the writers of an upcoming book on the 50-year history of Exponent II, we have a particular stake in correcting these stereotypes and mischaracterizations of the longest-running independent Mormon women’s publication.

We don’t think Coppins has an anti-Exponent II agenda or any ill intent. He simply perpetuates a problem that Mormon feminists frequently encounter with Latter-day Saint men — they assume an understanding of the issues without actually listening to what women say or reading their work. A little more digging would have revealed a more complex and accurate picture of that time period and the concerns of this feminist organization.

By reducing feminists to a stereotype, Coppins creates a straw man (or straw woman) that is easily dismissed while missing the still urgent work of confronting the church’s shadow side. Patriarchy hurts everyone, but especially those most vulnerable to abuse. We have to do better.

Heather Sundahl

Heather Sundahl is a marriage and family therapist and the historian on the board of Exponent II.

Katie Ludlow Rich

Katie Ludlow Rich is an independent scholar and co-writer of “Fifty Years of Exponent II” (2024, Signature Books).

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