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.