Feminism and The Book of Mormon Girl

The Book of Mormon Girl: a memoir of an American faith, was published in 2012.  It was the book that my book club, a sub group to Women Transcending Boundaries, a group that seeks to better understand others’ cultures and religions, read and discussed last month.  Copies of this book were rare, despite it being a well-written book by an intelligent national voice on Mormon life and politics.  Joanne Brooks is an award-winning scholar of religion and American culture. She has been featured on American Public Media’s On Being, NPR’s All Things Considered and Talk of the Nation, BBC’s Americana, Interfaith Voices, and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the CNN Belief Blog, and the Huffington Post.   She “offers answers to seekers of all stripes” at her own site askmormongirl.com.  She also is accessible through a Twitter account and at joannabrooks.org.  Her way with words makes the memoir compelling and descriptively pleasant reading.  But I did not have the opportunity to obtain the book until after our book discussion group met.

 

Well, I got a copy of the book after the rest in the book group finished theirs and loaned me one.  I read it mostly over a weekend retreat that a couple of girlfriends and I have been doing annually at Old Forge in the beautiful Adirondacks.  Saturday was chilly and we stayed indoors.  While they napped, I read and took notes, fascinated by the parts that hadn’t been discussed at our book club.  That topic was Feminism.

Joanna states that Mormon feminism started for her very simply in basement classrooms of Brigham Young University with the idea that all were alike unto God. She was a peace-sign-wearing student there.  She learned that the University had begun hiring more women faculty in the late 1980’s and ‘90’s.  This included Mormon women who had studied feminism and found that nothing at its core was incompatible with a just and loving God.  Mormon feminist historians were publishing books reconstructing the lost worlds of early Mormon women who once commanded priesthood powers and forms of authority lost to women in the modern bureaucratic church.  This should sound familiar to those of us who have studied Matilda Joslyn Gage and read her book Woman, Church and State.  In it Gage explored the anti-woman stance of the medieval Catholic Church but pointed out much earlier historical and pre-history ages when women ruled and Mother Goddesses were worshipped as the supreme rulers.  Major temples to them were built and maintained for thousands of years.

Mormon Carol Lynn Pearson wrote a play that dared to celebrate openly the hushed Mormon belief in God the Mother.  These Mormon feminists also did their research and discovered that they were not the first Mormon feminists.  There were many early visionary Mormon women, pioneer widows and plural wives who became medical doctors and continued to anoint and bless one another’s bodies before confinement and childbirth.  In the 1970’s and ‘80s “courageous and embattled Mormons” campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment. As Joanna began her studies at BYU, a new wave a feminism was happening again.  The women gathered in study groups and consciousness-raising meetings where  they permitted only Mormon women to speak.  They taught themselves the grammar of Mormon feminism:  all are alike unto God; God is a Mother and a Father; Mormon women matter. Raw feminist poetry leaked from Joanna in her college years.  She sent some of these poems—as well as her stories—to Mormon liberal magazines during those early years.

Later, she even sent her diploma back to Brigham Young University,

Then came the backlash.  On August 6, 1992, at a gathering of Mormon liberals, artists and intellectuals in Salt Lake City, Lavina Fielding Anderson, a sixth-generation member of the Church, a feminist historian and editor of the Journal of Mormon History, disclosed an internal espionage system that had been organized by Church elders in the 1980’s to keep files on members perceived to be critical of the Church.  They were organized not for the salvation of the dead (The famous Files that Mormons diligently keep) but for surveillance of the living.  This Strengthening of Members Committee tracked critical writings published by Church members that they thought might hinder the progress of the Church through public criticism. To counter this, Fielding published in the Mormon journal Dialogue an article describing a growing pattern of “spiritual and ecclesiastical abuse” in the Church wherein members critical of church authoritarianism were being subjected to ecclesiastical investigation and their church membership threatened.  A month later, May 1993, a counter speech was delivered declaring that the three greatest “dangers” to the Church were the “gay-lesbian movement,” “the feminist movement,” and the “so-called scholars or intellectuals.”

On June 5, 1996, BYU fired Mormon feminist English professor Gail Turley Houston because she had written an article in an off-campus newspaper that let it be known that she had prayed to both Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother.

At this point, Joanna felt like her Church, the Church she grew up in and tithed to, had declared her to be a double enemy.

In June 1993, Brigham Young University fired Cecelia Konchar Farr, a feminist literary critic and Joanna Brook’s mentor. Then in September of that year more Mormon feminists were “disfellowshipped.”  This serial excommunication of prominent intellectuals became known as the September Six.

Mormon feminist and Mormon Alliance cofounder Margaret Merrill Toscano was excommunicated on November 30, 2000.

It is no great leap to compare Gage’s own “excommunication” with these feminist sisters.  Gage’s excommunication was effectively accomplished by “kicking her to the curb” because it was the politically expedient thing to do when a progressive thinker and feminist champion pushes the envelope too far in the opinion of their contemporaries.  This was especially true in the case of a religious stance by Gage, albeit backed by research, took on the role of women in religious institutions.  Sidelined and outcast, Gage carried on, establishing a more liberal group (which foundered mostly because of lack of money after a few years) and writing her magnum opus, Woman, Church and State.

Most of these educated liberal Mormon women did not back down either.  Lavina Fielding Anderson spoke about her excommunication at a public gathering of one thousand people in Salt Lake City.  She emphasized that she was not rejecting Mormonism or even reforming it.  She was just trying to “remind Mormons of the truth and power and glory of its paradoxical assertion of absolute freedom and absolute love, a paradox that is reconciled in Jesus Christ.”

Joanna spent a decade in the grip of fear provoked in part by the strength of her Mormon feminist vision.  She feared the full, glorious, strange, and difficult humanity of her Mormon past.  And she feared the women who openly claimed the power of a Heavenly Mother and the fear of mothers and fathers who refused to sacrifice their children to protect the public image of the Church.  It was also a fear of their own gay and lesbian relatives who refused the confines of the closet.  By the end of her “exile” decade, she was able to come to terms with the fact that the Church she loved had declared her and her fellow feminists its enemies.

She sent some of her poems—as well as her stories—to Mormon liberal magazines during those early years in exile.  She filled her writing with images of “bruised and occluded Mothers and burning sacred groves.”  She also wrote some scholarly essays about Mormon feminism.  She had to “clench her jaw” and write through the fear to write what she knew was true.

The immensity of their work slowly dawned on them.  “We realized it would take a superhuman strength born of stubbornness, anger, desperation and love to hold on to the faith of our ancestors…We hid out in intermountain suburbs.  We pulled ourselves back across the plains to college towns and big East Coast cities.  We gathered by the rivers of the internet and we laughed and wept when we remembered Zion.”

Did Matilda also have these fears when she felt compelled to write about what she knew?  I am betting she did, but she had the advantage of not being in the position of trying to stay within the “confines” of a particular faith tradition.  She was strong and assertive and very intelligent.  Yet, it is still difficult when you do not get the approval of your peers.

Support systems are lifelines and often vital to women facing going against the grain of society.  Gage had fewer types of lifelines in her day but strengthened what she had through intimate letters, her diary and newspaper articles shared with the community.

For Joanna, an especially supportive woman, Sister Bryson, came to her emotional rescue.  “You’ll be fine,” she would say, resting her hand on Joanna’s, “because you are searching for truth, and truth is what matters.”

Joanna summed up her feelings in a small poem:

All are alike unto God:

male and female, black and white, gay and straight.

God is a Mother and a Father,

Mormon women matter.

 On her website I discovered a newer book dedicated to the topic most prominent for me.  She had co-edited Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings.  It was named a top 10 religion and spirituality book for Fall 2015 by Publishers Weekly, which also reviewed the book and called it “impressive,” “superb,” and “excellent.”

The Book of Mormon Girl: a memoir of an American faith, was published in 2012.  It was the book that my book club, a sub group to Women Transcending Boundaries, a group that seeks to better understand others’ cultures and religions, read and discussed last month.  Copies of this book were rare, despite it being a well-written book by an intelligent national voice on Mormon life and politics.  Joanne Brooks is an award-winning scholar of religion and American culture. She has been featured on American Public Media’s On Being, NPR’s All Things Considered and Talk of the Nation, BBC’s Americana, Interfaith Voices, and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the CNN Belief Blog, and the Huffington Post.   She “offers answers to seekers of all stripes” at her own site askmormongirl.com.  She also is accessible through a Twitter account and at joannabrooks.org.  Her way with words makes the memoir compelling and descriptively pleasant reading.  But I did not have the opportunity to obtain the book until after our book discussion group met.

Well, I got a copy of the book after the rest in the book group finished theirs and loaned me one.  I read it mostly over a weekend retreat that a couple of girlfriends and I have been doing annually at Old Forge in the beautiful Adirondacks.  Saturday was chilly and we stayed indoors.  While they napped, I read and took notes, fascinated by the parts that hadn’t been discussed at our book club.  That topic was Feminism.

Joanna states that Mormon feminism started for her very simply in basement classrooms of Brigham Young University with the idea that all were alike unto God. She was a peace-sign-wearing student there.  She learned that the University had begun hiring more women faculty in the late 1980’s and ‘90’s.  This included Mormon women who had studied feminism and found that nothing at its core was incompatible with a just and loving God.  Mormon feminist historians were publishing books reconstructing the lost worlds of early Mormon women who once commanded priesthood powers and forms of authority lost to women in the modern bureaucratic church.  This should sound familiar to those of us who have studied Matilda Joslyn Gage and read her book Woman, Church and State.  In it Gage explored the anti-woman stance of the medieval Catholic Church but pointed out much earlier historical and pre-history ages when women ruled and Mother Goddesses were worshipped as the supreme rulers.  Major temples to them were built and maintained for thousands of years.

Mormon Carol Lynn Pearson wrote a play that dared to celebrate openly the hushed Mormon belief in God the Mother.  These Mormon feminists also did their research and discovered that they were not the first Mormon feminists.  There were many early visionary Mormon women, pioneer widows and plural wives who became medical doctors and continued to anoint and bless one another’s bodies before confinement and childbirth.  In the 1970’s and ‘80s “courageous and embattled Mormons” campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment. As Joanna began her studies at BYU, a new wave a feminism was happening again.  The women gathered in study groups and consciousness-raising meetings where  they permitted only Mormon women to speak.  They taught themselves the grammar of Mormon feminism:  all are alike unto God; God is a Mother and a Father; Mormon women matter. Raw feminist poetry leaked from Joanna in her college years.  She sent some of these poems—as well as her stories—to Mormon liberal magazines during those early years.

Later, she even sent her diploma back to Brigham Young University,

 Then came the backlash.  On August 6, 1992, at a gathering of Mormon liberals, artists and intellectuals in Salt Lake City, Lavina Fielding Anderson, a sixth-generation member of the Church, a feminist historian and editor of the Journal of Mormon History, disclosed an internal espionage system that had been organized by Church elders in the 1980’s to keep files on members perceived to be critical of the Church.  They were organized not for the salvation of the dead (The famous Files that Mormons diligently keep) but for surveillance of the living.  This Strengthening of Members Committee tracked critical writings published by Church members that they thought might hinder the progress of the Church through public criticism. To counter this, Fielding published in the Mormon journal Dialogue an article describing a growing pattern of “spiritual and ecclesiastical abuse” in the Church wherein members critical of church authoritarianism were being subjected to ecclesiastical investigation and their church membership threatened.  A month later, May 1993, a counter speech was delivered declaring that the three greatest “dangers” to the Church were the “gay-lesbian movement,” “the feminist movement,” and the “so-called scholars or intellectuals.”

On June 5, 1996, BYU fired Mormon feminist English professor Gail Turley Houston because she had written an article in an off-campus newspaper that let it be known that she had prayed to both Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother.

At this point, Joanna felt like her Church, the Church she grew up in and tithed to, had declared her to be a double enemy.

In June 1993, Brigham Young University fired Cecelia Konchar Farr, a feminist literary critic and Joanna Brook’s mentor. Then in September of that year more Mormon feminists were “disfellowshipped.”  This serial excommunication of prominent intellectuals became known as the September Six.

Mormon feminist and Mormon Alliance cofounder Margaret Merrill Toscano was excommunicated on November 30, 2000.

It is no great leap to compare Gage’s own “excommunication” with these feminist sisters.  Gage’s excommunication was effectively accomplished by “kicking her to the curb” because it was the politically expedient thing to do when a progressive thinker and feminist champion pushes the envelope too far in the opinion of their contemporaries.  This was especially true in the case of a religious stance by Gage, albeit backed by research, took on the role of women in religious institutions.  Sidelined and outcast, Gage carried on, establishing a more liberal group (which foundered mostly because of lack of money after a few years) and writing her magnum opus, Woman, Church and State.

 Most of these educated liberal Mormon women did not back down either.  Lavina Fielding Anderson spoke about her excommunication at a public gathering of one thousand people in Salt Lake City.  She emphasized that she was not rejecting Mormonism or even reforming it.  She was just trying to “remind Mormons of the truth and power and glory of its paradoxical assertion of absolute freedom and absolute love, a paradox that is reconciled in Jesus Christ.”

Joanna spent a decade in the grip of fear provoked in part by the strength of her Mormon feminist vision.  She feared the full, glorious, strange, and difficult humanity of her Mormon past.  And she feared the women who openly claimed the power of a Heavenly Mother and the fear of mothers and fathers who refused to sacrifice their children to protect the public image of the Church.  It was also a fear of their own gay and lesbian relatives who refused the confines of the closet.  By the end of her “exile” decade, she was able to come to terms with the fact that the Church she loved had declared her and her fellow feminists its enemies.

She sent some of her poems—as well as her stories—to Mormon liberal magazines during those early years in exile.  She filled her writing with images of “bruised and occluded Mothers and burning sacred groves.”  She also wrote some scholarly essays about Mormon feminism.  She had to “clench her jaw” and write through the fear to write what she knew was true.

The immensity of their work slowly dawned on them.  “We realized it would take a superhuman strength born of stubbornness, anger, desperation and love to hold on to the faith of our ancestors…We hid out in intermountain suburbs.  We pulled ourselves back across the plains to college towns and big East Coast cities.  We gathered by the rivers of the internet and we laughed and wept when we remembered Zion.”

Did Matilda also have these fears when she felt compelled to write about what she knew?  I am betting she did, but she had the advantage of not being in the position of trying to stay within the “confines” of a particular faith tradition.  She was strong and assertive and very intelligent.  Yet, it is still difficult when you do not get the approval of your peers.

Support systems are lifelines and often vital to women facing going against the grain of society.  Gage had fewer types of lifelines in her day but strengthened what she had through intimate letters, her diary and newspaper articles shared with the community.

For Joanna, an especially supportive woman, Sister Bryson, came to her emotional rescue.  “You’ll be fine,” she would say, resting her hand on Joanna’s, “because you are searching for truth, and truth is what matters.”

 

Joanna summed up her feelings in a small poem:

All are alike unto God:

male and female, black and white, gay and straight.

God is a Mother and a Father,

Mormon women matter.

On her website I discovered a newer book dedicated to the topic most prominent for me.  She had co-edited Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings.  It was named a top 10 religion and spirituality book for Fall 2015 by Publishers Weekly, which also reviewed the book and called it “impressive,” “superb,” and “excellent.”