In 1993, the late apostle Boyd K. Packer identified the “feminist movement” as one of three “dangers” to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, reflecting the rough ride self-described Mormon feminists have endured through the decades.
Even today, many activists, though devout in their faith, shy away from using the term for fear of turning off fellow believers.
Now, more than a quarter century after Packer’s declaration, the Utah-based church has issued a more nuanced, but still cautionary, position on “feminism” — one that is neither an endorsement nor a denunciation.
A four-paragraph, 224-word piece, published in this month’s New Era, an official magazine for Latter-day Saint youths, addresses the question: What is the church’s stance on feminism?
It opens with a declaration that: All people are “children of Heavenly Parents.”
“Gender is an important part of who we are — both before, during, and after this life,” the unsigned essay states. “Men and women are equal — one is not superior to the other.”
The church position also insists that equality does not imply sameness.
Men and women “are also different, with different roles within a family,” the essay adds. “Both men and women fulfill their highest purpose together as husband and wife, not separately.”
Feminism can mean “different things to different people,” it says. “Sometimes it refers to efforts to ensure basic human rights and basic fairness for women, as well as efforts to encourage women to obtain an education, develop their talents, and serve humankind in any field they choose. Latter-day Saints support these things.”
Then comes the warning.
“Sometimes certain philosophies and social movements bearing the feminism label advocate extreme ideas that are not in harmony with the teachings of the gospel,” the article says. “These can lead people to become distracted from (or even work against) the ideals of marriage and family. Latter-day Saints frown upon such things.”
At the same time, the essay notes, the church “also frown[s] upon extremes such as male chauvinism, sexism, machismo, or any other cultural influence that would cause men to think and act in ways that are not in harmony with gospel teachings of respect, love, modesty, chastity, equality, and family responsibilities.”
The piece was not prompted by any contemporary issue, says church spokeswoman Irene Caso, including the ramped-up drive to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (which the faith opposes).
The New Era’s content “is planned a year in advance,” she writes in an email, “so renewed interest in anything is typically coincidental.”
The magazine “responds to topics that are submitted by teenagers,” Caso adds. “We’ve addressed questions on dinosaurs, evolution, abuse, young women’s education/career planning, traditional families, mission ages, the environment, and many other topics.”
Reactions to the essay have been mixed — some unmitigated praise, appreciation for parts of it but not all of the language, and concerns about the whole of it.
Here are some responses (edited for length):
“The equality that we seek as men and women is not with each other, it is actually with our Heavenly Parents. This understanding is not one that we will ever find in the world. Rather, it is a perspective we gain as covenant-keeping and temple-attending women. Therefore, in discussions about feminism and equal rights, we must keep an eternal perspective. … By doing so, we find harmony in both our spiritual and secular lives; there shouldn’t be a division if we’re committed to following God’s plan.
“Certainly, we seek for equalities within society which can be strived for and won, and which are morally right, according to doctrinal teachings, such as the right to vote, equal pay for equal work, etc. However, within the context of Latter-day Saint teachings, by revelation (particularly the family proclamation), we have divine guidelines by which we can measure personal decisions and actions.”
— Kathryn Skaggs of Murrieta, Calif., who founded the Latter-day Saint Women Stand website and who does not call herself a feminist.
No longer an ‘f’ word
“This is a good and helpful statement, a welcome improvement over the not-nuanced 1993 generalization by Boyd K. Packer. It rightly points out that, under a certain definition of feminism, members of the church are all feminists — that is, members believe in the equality (though not sameness) of men and women, and believe women should enjoy basic human rights and fairness, and be encouraged to develop and contribute their talents. Furthermore, the church preaches some extraordinarily feminist doctrine — that we have a Heavenly Mother, that Eve did not sin in the Garden of Eden, that women wield priesthood power. One of the very helpful things about this new statement is that the membership need no longer consider ‘feminism’ to be an ‘f’ word. Members of the church can now, without hesitation, self-identify as feminists without calling into question their faithfulness, referencing this statement.
“Still, I agree that there are some interpretations of feminism that are antithetical to the feminism I embrace. Some schools of feminism condone pornography and prostitution; others argue that marriage and childbearing are inherently subordinative of women. These particular understandings of feminism would surely lead us astray from the happiness our Heavenly Parents intend us to have.”
— Valerie Hudson, director of the program on women, peace and security at Texas A&M University.
Gender becomes ‘problematic’
“My definition of feminism is that women should fully develop their talents for the benefit of the family, the community, the church and themselves. While I believe that goal and feel that I have been able to do many things, I also know that I grew up in a world and church where I was a secondary citizen. Two recent talks of [church] President Russell M. Nelson about women have been in harmony with my original aims.
“Gender becomes a problematic concept. I know that the proclamation on the family says that gender is eternal. ... But the church’s efforts to enforce gender specificity have not been successful. To say that gender is absolute gives us problems we do not know how to deal with and have been unable to solve. ... We now have a large percentage of single people for whom traditional celestial marriage is a goal that they know they will never reach. It is increasingly clear to me that the unit that must be considered is not the family but the individual.”
— Claudia Bushman, historian in New York City who helped launch Exponent II, a magazine for Mormon women.
“It’s a little strange that this appears in the New Era, since the statement seems unresponsive to the arguments of either third or fourth wave feminism. It’s hard for me to see how it would help young women or young men respond to arguments they see and hear around them. It doesn’t use the terminology that contemporary arguments about gender do; it uses painfully dated words like ‘chauvinism’ and ‘machismo’ (rather than the more relevant and worrisome ‘men’s rights activism’) and doesn’t address questions around harassment and assault, intersectionality and privilege about which young Latter-day Saints might want guidance.
“Because this statement is vague, it will be easily weaponized against anyone who identifies as a feminist, regardless of what they understand by the term, and regardless of whether their ideas about gender are really in conflict with LDS doctrine, or merely place them on the wrong side of an old culture war. It seems to me that the greatest danger of feminism in this generation is the potential use of the term to label and dismiss fellow saints who have different political and cultural viewpoints.”
— Kristine Haglund of Phoenix and former editor of “Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.”
‘Shout that line from the rooftops’
“I see some important progress here along with some sentences that are quite frustrating. I like that saying ‘we are children of Heavenly Parents’ is becoming commonplace. Considering that even acknowledging a feminine divine just a few years ago was taboo, that’s great to see. I appreciate the third line: ‘Men and women are equal — one is not superior to the other.’ Given The Salt Lake Tribune’s recent reporting about how a majority of women in Utah believe they have a lower status than men, the church ought to be shouting that line from the rooftops of the temple. I’m glad that in the last paragraph they called out sexism. Importantly, they put the responsibility of bad behavior stemming from sexism on men.
“Interspersed with the good are some troubling ideas. The church seems to endlessly tie itself to the idea that men and women have different roles within a family. This kind of rhetoric frankly sounds bizarre to younger families today. Beyond giving birth, what do they mean? Most families I see (including my own) have a fluid partnership, where different roles are fulfilled by whoever is available and capable in that moment of doing it. Nurturing, providing, protecting, disciplining and caring for are all things that can be done by either parent. A true partnership of equals means that either of us can do any of it, as needed.”
— Margaret Olsen Hemming of Chapel Hill, N.C., and Exponent II editor-in-chief.
‘Strong examples of feminists in the scriptures’
“The church needs its leaders in all the women organizations to stand up and talk about feminism as our foremothers have done before. This article in the New Era is a basic start, but unfortunately lacks anything concrete and lacks authorship. This unfortunately will allow anyone reading it to fill-in-the-blank of how they think a feminist should act or dismiss it altogether.
“We have strong examples of feminists in the scriptures, women who asked God how to make the world a more equitable and thus better place. We also have strong examples in our church history who fought for feminist ideals and more modern women, like Chieko Okazaki, who helped us understand that feminism must be diversified to include more than just white women.
“It’s the feminists in the church who have recognized the inequality in church and temple worship, and have helped — and will continue to help — leaders make needed adjustments to avoid further harm and become a more Zion-like people.”
— Emily Jensen of Farmington and Dialogue’s web editor.
‘A decade of personally wrestling’
“I do appreciate the church’s softened stance regarding some feminist ideas, but I don’t agree with the statement that, as a Latter-day Saint, I should be against any ideas that ‘lead people to become distracted from (or even work against) the ideals of marriage and family.’ In my experience, not every woman is cut out for marriage or motherhood, and that’s perfectly fine. The church hasn’t changed its position on feminism, it has merely changed the definition to separate ‘OK’ feminist philosophy from ‘not OK’ feminist philosophy. After nearly a decade of personally wrestling with being both ‘Mormon’ and ‘feminist,’ I understand that claiming both titles often feels contradictory and exhausting. I don’t think the newly defined stance makes it any easier.”
— Kalani Tonga of Midvale, who facilitates a women’s peer-to-peer empowerment group for a Pacific Islander nonprofit.
‘Primed to value marriage’
“As a divorced parent of three and a friend to others who either have not married or have divorced, I am concerned by the article’s language. The target audience of adolescents will be explicitly primed to value marriage for the sake of creating the ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ label for themselves instead of using feminist definitions to help them identify, commit, create, repair and maintain healthy relationships with their chosen partners.
“Additionally, the interpretation of this language that one’s ‘highest purpose’ is only as a husband and wife joined together leaves open the option for tolerating abuse within relationships before or during marriage because marriage is the only path to a ‘highest purpose.’ What if it’s an abusive marriage? Is there no purpose for a divorcee with no children? What about an unmarried parent? And what of a spouse’s death? Men are more likely and more encouraged to marry again, but it leaves women waiting to be chosen for marriage and potentially feeling unfulfilled.
“Is there room to encourage New Era’s readers to talk with their parents about feminism and how they see it functioning in their home? In society? Can we engage feminism and the gospel by seeing stories of women using their power in Christlike ways?”
— LaShawn Williams, mental health therapist in private practice in Orem.