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Home / Articles / Opinion / Editorial /  Mormon Feminism

Mormon Feminism

Elizabeth Smart calls for change

By Holly Welker
Posted // June 19,2013 -

At a human-trafficking forum at Johns Hopkins University in May, Elizabeth Smart said she didn’t try to escape after being kidnapped at knifepoint from her Salt Lake City home, both because she feared reprisals from her captors and felt worthless after being raped, thanks in part to abstinence-focused “object lessons” about premarital sex. Whether she realized it or not, Smart is part of a growing movement of LDS female activists, members anxious for cultural and practical changes within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in areas ranging from how girls learn about modesty and sex to ordaining women to the priesthood. Smart is by no means the first LDS woman to criticize how women are socialized regarding sex and power, but she might be the first with enough clout to actually effect a change.

Like the larger feminism movement, Mormon feminism has faced challenges as it’s evolved. Responses to LDS women’s activism range from wild enthusiasm to accusations of apostasy, plus a few death threats for organizers of Wear Pants to Church Day, with confusion in the middle about what the message actually is.

In the 1970s, LDS women in Cambridge, Mass., began a feminist newspaper called Exponent II, and Sonia Johnson created Mormons for ERA, challenging the church’s aggressive efforts to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, which outlawed discrimination based on sex. But after the defeat of the ERA in 1982, Mormon feminism retreated for a few years. Then, in 1988, LDS feminists founded the Mormon Women’s Forum. When the MWF sponsored a debate in 1989 on women’s ordination to the priesthood, more than 600 people attended. But after the 1993 excommunications of several well-known feminists and intellectuals, Mormon feminism went underground—until the advent of the Internet changed the playing field.

“The real and potential reach of the discussion has increased exponentially because of the Internet and the proliferation of Mormon feminist social media,” says Lorie Winder, an editor in Los Angeles involved in Ordain Women and All Are Alike Unto God, two groups focused on extending the priesthood to women. “Unfortunately, many of the questions remain the same.”

LDS feminists are still asking the same questions because the church, which has changed its stance on other issues, hasn’t changed the answers it gives women. But, today, “women aren’t accepting the same answers regarding structural inequality ... that would have pacified their mothers and grandmothers just a few decades before,” says Stephanie Lauritzen, a Utah high school teacher and founder of the Mormon feminist group All Enlisted.

The church advised members to oppose the ERA in the ’70s because it would somehow contribute to the destruction of the family. But, Lauritzen says, “When the church tried to take that same response in regards to marriage equality [for gay couples], many members answered with a ‘How, exactly?’

“ ‘One miracle at a time,’ and ‘If God wanted the church to be different he would tell us’ won’t cut it with many Mormon women anymore,” she says.

All Enlisted organized Wear Pants to Church Day for Dec. 16, 2012. Organizers expected it to be small, with perhaps a few dozen women trading skirts and dresses for trousers. But a fierce debate nicknamed Pantspocalyse or Trousermageddon erupted even before the event took place. The action was criticized as both too trivial and too aggressive—something well-behaved, respectful Mormon women wouldn’t do. However, as Pulitzer-prize-winning historian and co-founder of Exponent II Laurel Thatcher Ulrich famously notes, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

All Enlisted’s second action was Let Women Pray, a letter-writing campaign requesting that women lead prayers in General Conference. Two prayers out of the 10 during the two-day April 2013 conference were offered by women.

Another feminist group, Ordain Women, launched in March 2013 and eschews smaller, safer steps to change. “We are not asking for incremental concessions or gradual inclusion,” says founder Kate Kelly, a human-rights attorney in Washington, D.C. “We took the name Ordain Women for a reason. We want to be very clear about what our objective is: full equality.”

While some have been critical of the Mormon feminist movement, others have greeted it with shrugs of indifference. Ulrich, for instance, isn’t impressed by the current crop of activists. “I don’t think many of the Mormon feminists I know worry much about what they wear to church on Sunday or even whether women pray in General Conference,” she says.

Ulrich knows feminists who are “lawyers, college professors, CEOs, politicians.” These women “raise their voices often and well in local settings where they are usually heard,” she says, adding that they “are too busy trying to make a difference in areas where they have significant responsibility to worry a lot about what is happening in SLC.”

But Smart’s plea that we abandon certain ways of promoting abstinence elicited a loud chorus of amens and hallelujahs across the country. Locally, Deseret News reporter Andrea Whatcott insisted on her blog that Smart hadn’t criticized abstinence education and was talking only about how the rape made her feel worthless. But after relating an analogy plenty of LDS girls have heard at Sunday school comparing a person who has sex outside marriage to a used piece of gum, Smart said, “Nobody should ever say that.” It’s a clear call for change, and Whatcott’s Deseret News piece was eventually revised to acknowledge that.

We need a fundamental change in how we teach young girls to view their sexuality. The overall religious climate that girls and women inhabit is an area where we have significant responsibility—and pretending otherwise is to shirk that responsibility.

Holly Welker is a Mormon feminist and freelance writer who lives in Salt Lake City.

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Post a comment
Posted // June 27,2013 at 14:06

I am sorry that tweedmeister feels the way he or she does. As a believing Mormon my experience regarding women, at least from Church leaders generally, is quite different. My mother and wife are both educated women and their comments were and are well accepted. I can perhaps give you an illustration. When my mother was set apart as a member of the LDS Church Relief Society board, Preasident Joseph Fielding Smith indicated that she was to speak out and express her views without holding back. She did that and made a real difference.


Posted // June 27,2013 at 12:31

Seems like a fundamental change in a Church's ideology seems like the creation of a new church. Finding "God" is not something one is born into. It's something one has to find. At times, "God" is found by creating a new church, just like J Smith did. Change is always hard, but it's always for the good.


Posted // June 22,2013 at 14:12

Mormon leaders always demonstrate such dramatic insecurity regarding their own leadership. Somehow, women are a threat in the first place. Then educated women seem to be the bane of Mormons. Add some confidence and feminism, and Mormon apostles just can't deal with it, and then the threats begin.

Mormons continute to be taught that women like Elizabeth are "licked cupcakes," repentant but forever scarred. Monson & Brethren continue to teach that women have a role in their own rape, and that they have to repent for that part. Moreover, they continue to teach that a woman is better off dead than having had sex, whether by desire or by rape. In fact, I can bring up several Mormon quotes at will that stipulate that, if a woman doesn't fight to her death over rape, she shares part of the blame. This is the stuff of provincial and backward Muslims in the outback of Pakistan or Afghanistan; it is not what Mormons, who somehow consider themselves "enlightened" and guided by modern-day prophecy, should be preaching. What?, are they still led by the likes of the nutty and unstable Brigham Young? Doesn't Thomas Monson read his current events? Get with it, LDS Inc.



Posted // June 25,2013 at 13:29 - Elizabeth was raped and she felt "worthless" instead of escaping to seek justice for her rapist. It's premarital sex Elizabeth who felt "worthless" for staying with her abducting lover. She hasn't learned the big difference between rape vs premarital sex.


Posted // June 21,2013 at 09:44

I think it is important to remember the spiritual nature of human kind. Not all of us believe the same thing or in the same thing.   Each one of us has a unique set of experiences, personality and path. One of the most important things I think we can teach our children is to love others, and to love themselves, we can do this through unconditional love.   Parents, friends, teachers, neighbors, and relatives can offer unconditional love, and to be an example of loving others.   I believe if we learn to love ourselves, it makes it much easier not to feel threatened by others who have different ideas or beliefs about life.   We walk in no one else’s shoes but our own.

I happen to believe God ( or whatever you call it, the divine, the source, Great Spirit, your higher self. . ) loves all of us, each and everyone of us. It is my belief that it is important for me to follow the first two commandments, love God, and love one another. The order of these commandments, First loving God and then loving others helps us to teach ideals, things to strive for, ways to view ourselves-as children of God- all of us, and ways to treat others.   I believe it’s not just important to teach the ideals though, we also need to teach love and tolerance, and what to do if we are not perfect, how to really apply the Gods love to our lives.   I believe as humans, it’s important to offer hope to those who have made imperfect choices, have been treated harshly by others and carry shame from this, to be open and loving and non-judgmental when someone chooses differently than we might. It is important I believe to remember we all have our own path here on this earth, and we are all created equal. Teach the ideals, but also, teach to find a deep relationship with God ( or whatever you call it) to guide you in your life, and help you through the rough patches. To me the education has to be a twofold process and needs to be taught together.



Posted // June 23,2013 at 12:31 - It would be sad if anyone believed and part of the comment by Tweedmister. Especially the "some mormon said" so it must be church doctrine. Every word of Tweeds comment is false, my right hand on the bible Book of Mormon and all other scripture.


Posted // June 20,2013 at 09:24

The patriarchal nature of the church means that there are no womens' voices in the power structure to bring about changes like this one. Look at the women we see trotted out in General Conference as models: They are demure, floral print wearing, sing-song voiced models of submissiveness. This is what the leaders of the church, themselves typically octogenarians whose values were solidified in the 1950s, value.