By Nancy Ross, Assistant Professor of Art History at Dixie State University.
On Monday, June 23, 2014, I sat next to Kate Kelly as she read aloud an email from her bishop informing her of her excommunication from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). We were in the middle of an Ordain Women Exec Board meeting and, unusually, we were meeting in person in Salt Lake City, Utah. The previous evening we stood outside the Church Office Building with 400 of our supporters and declared we would not be silent about the challenges Mormon women face. It was a cathartic and community-building event that left me feeling light-hearted even in the face of the impending disciplinary action against Kate. But the news immediately reduced the room to tears. The thing we had feared the most had just happened.
Mormonism is a Christian religion, but it is distinct from the Catholic and Orthodox Churches as well as Protestant denominations. Mormons use the Bible and believe in Jesus, but have additional texts in their canon of scripture and a different cosmology. Mormonism was born in the nineteenth century Restorationism and today reserves spiritual power and administrative authority for the head of the church and the twelve male apostles that serve under him. The LDS Church is unusual in its reliance on lay clergy, with all men and boys being ordained to the priesthood, starting at age 12.
Mormon feminism lives at the peculiar intersection of conservative religion and liberal feminism. Secular feminists wonder if Mormon feminists can legitimately claim feminism when they participate in a rigidly patriarchal church. Conservative Mormons wonder how Mormon feminists can claim Mormonism while rejecting patriarchy.
The Briefest History of Mormon Feminism
Despite a lack of public awareness of the movement, Mormon feminism has a long and fertile history. Early Mormon women were involved with the campaign for women's suffrage and were on good terms with national leaders like Susan B. Anthony. Then, in the post-war period, the LDS Church emphasized traditional gender roles; as a result, women's autonomy within the Church eroded. In the 1970s and '80s, the LDS Church worked against the Equal Rights Amendment that would have provided women equal protection under US law (Bradley, 2005). In September of 1993, six prominent Mormon scholars and feminists were excommunicated for speaking and writing publicly about feminist issues in the Church, pushing organized Mormon feminism underground and silencing many supporters. Another feminist scholar was excommunicated in 2000.
Social Media and the Advent of the Feminist Mormon Blogger
In 2004, Lisa Butterworth started the blog Feminist Mormon Housewives (fMh). At that time, fMh bloggers did not use their real names for fear of church discipline. The earliest posts critiqued Mormon culture, discussed feminists and their feelings of being misfits at church, and difficult issues in LDS Church history, such as polygamy. In the following decade, blog posts continued to discuss these issues in more detail and with more nuance. The blog receives many comments every day and has gained a substantial following, with an average of 30,000 unique visitors each month (Finnigan and Ross, 2013).
After the fMh blog, many other Mormon feminist blogs sprung up, allowing for a diversity of Mormon feminist discussion online. Many blog posts express a love of different elements of Mormonism, especially church community, service/volunteering, and a belief in Heavenly Mother as well as Heavenly Father (God the Father). Many Mormon feminists believe that LDS Church structure can change because of the Mormon belief in continued revelation, which is the idea that God tells church leaders what they need to do in the present, just as God did in the biblical past. These mechanisms for change can alter church doctrine and policy, offering many feminists hope for a more progressive LDS Church in the future.
Blogs were an essential mechanism for allowing previously isolated Mormon feminists to connect with others and form active online communities. This changed somewhat when fMh created a closed Facebook group in late 2011, which allowed bloggers and others to participate more directly in Mormon feminist conversations within protected and private spaces (Finnigan and Ross, 2013). Blogs allowed for bloggers to start conversations about particular topics, but closed Facebook groups allowed any member of the group to start a conversation on any topic. The popularity of Mormon feminist Facebook groups, such as Feminist Mormon Housewives Society, moved conversations away from blogs and into these more private and flexible spaces.
Wear Pants to Church Day
Shortly after the creation of the fMh Facebook group, online Mormon feminist conversations snowballed into activism. The first major public Mormon feminist action in more than a decade was Wear Pants to Church Day, which was started by Stephanie Lauritzen in December 2012. The idea first formed in a blog post by Lauritzen, who called for Mormon-style civil disobedience. She then gathered a group of Mormon feminist friends and organized and publicized the event on Facebook.
The success of Wear Pants to Church Day led to several other activist campaigns in 2013, including Let Women Pray, the I'm a Mormon Feminist website, the Ordain Women website and October Priesthood Action, and The Second Annual Wear Pants to Church Day. The organization of activist events was coordinated in closed Facebook groups in a way not previously possible on blogs (Finnigan and Ross, 2013). By doing so, the changing mechanisms of social media facilitated gatherings of individuals and conversations that provided a new forum unavailable in the pre-internet age.
Despite the diverse goals and purposes within Mormon feminism, a common theme is that most hit their stride with the assistance of social media. For example, the first Wear Pants to Church Day was organized to raise awareness about gender inequality in the LDS Church, then the Second Annual Wear Pants to Church Day had a larger mission of acknowledging marginalized people at church and making space for all. Let Women Pray was a successful letter-writing campaign asking leaders of the LDS Church to let women pray at the Church's semi-annual conference, where they had never prayed before. The website I'm a Mormon Feminist was created to raise aware awareness of the many difficulties that Mormon women face in the LDS Church and its culture. Ordain Women formed and organized the October Priesthood Action to ask church leaders to pray about the ordination of women to the priesthood. All of these movements were sustained, in part, by an online presence and social media organizing.
At their core, these actions, blogs, organizations, and groups exist to make Mormonism a safer space for women, or to seek more spiritual or administrative authority for women in the Church. Some are there simply to support Mormon women in their diversity of choices and situations. From an academic lens, Mormon feminism is an interesting case study of a religious social movement that has taken advantage of social media. By utilizing the diverse types of social media, the movement has turned conversations into an activism that has gained considerable attention on the internet and in traditional news outlets.
Kate Kelly's excommunication on June 23, 2014 is a turning point, though it's unclear in which direction the LDS Church and Mormon feminists will proceed. The last few weeks have been turbulent, with many middle-ground and progressive Mormons expressing dismay that the church would do such a thing in the 21st century, and many traditional Mormons articulating their belief that Kate got what she deserved. Despite Kate Kelly encouraging frustrated feminists to stay in the church, anecdotal evidence suggests that an unusually large number of Mormons are resigning their membership.
Some have suggested that history is repeating itself, that June 2014 is a sequel to September 1993. While many Ordain Women leaders and supporters are fearful of further church discipline, it's clear that the movement and Mormon feminism are not going away or even underground. The internet, and social media specifically, will likely ensure a different outcome. The short-term results are unlikely to be dramatic, but in the long term, the LDS Church will need to hear Mormon feminists and address the roles of women in the church.
- Martha S. Bradley (2005). Pedestals and Podiums: Utah Women, Religious Authority, and Equal Rights.
- Joanna Brooks (2012). Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith.
- Claudia Lauper Bushman and Caroline Kline (2013). Mormon Women Have Their Say: Essays from the Claremont Oral History Collection.
- Jessica Finnigan and Nancy Ross (2013). "I'm a Mormon Feminist": How Social Media Revitalized and Enlarged a Movement, Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion.
- Maxine Hanks (ed, 1992). Women and Authority.
- Neylan McBaine (ed) and Silvia H. Allred (2013). Sisters Abroad: Interviews from The Mormon Women Project.
- Feminism Wants What You Want, Feminist Mormon Housewives podcast, Episode 21
- Women and the Church, Mormon Expression podcast, Episode 9
- Women in the LDS Church Part 9 - Margaret Toscano on the Church, Priesthood and Mother God, Mormon Stories Podcast, Episode 65
- Mormon Women's History Timeline