1990s Mormon Feminism Ignites Church Backlash

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Joanna BrooksJoanna Brooks

Credit: Courtesy of Free Press.

(WOMENSENEWS)–So it happened that I was there at Brigham Young University just in time to witness a remarkable upwelling of Mormon feminism, a feminism that started very simply in basement classrooms with the idea that all were alike unto God.

The university hired more female faculty in the late 1980s and 1990s, including Mormon women who had studied feminism and, finding nothing at its core incompatible with a just and loving God, dared to make it their own. One by one, Mormon feminist historians were publishing books reconstructing the lost worlds of early Mormon women, who, we learned, once commanded priesthood powers and forms of authority lost to women in the modern bureaucratic church.

Mormon writers like Terry Tempest Williams fearlessly spoke out for the rural southern Utah “downwinders” who lived under plumes of atomic fallout, their lives and their wholeness knowingly sacrificed by the United States government, while Carol Lynn Pearson penned a play that dared to celebrate openly our hushed Mormon belief in God the Mother.

We were not the first Mormon feminists, to be sure. There were many others before us: early visionary Mormon women, pioneer widows who commanded their sick oxen to stand and carry their wagons across the plains, plural wives who traveled east from Utah in the 1870s to become medical doctors, women who continued to anoint and bless one another’s bodies before confinement and childbirth, and in the 1970s and 1980s the courageous and embattled Mormons who campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Mormon Feminism Revival

It was happening again in the early 1990s at Brigham Young University, another wave of Mormon feminism. Together, in study groups and consciousness-raising meetings where Mormon women permitted only Mormon women to speak, we taught ourselves once again to tentatively (if sometimes clumsily) parse the grammar of Mormon feminism: all are alike unto God; God is a Mother and a Father; Mormon women matter.

Little did we then realize the powerful fears this grammar would disturb.

On Aug. 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 the existence of the Strengthening the Members Committee, “an internal espionage system” organized by church elders in the 1980s to keep files on members perceived to be critical of the church. Brigham Young University professor and renowned Mormon intellectual Eugene England, speaking on the same panel as Anderson, reacted immediately by denouncing the Strengthening the Members Committee and calling for its dissolution.

Church spokesperson Don LeFevre confirmed the existence of the committee the following week. He explained to newspapers that the committee “receives complaints from church members about other members who have made statements that ‘conceivably could do harm to the church,'” then “pass the information along to the person’s ecclesiastical leader” to “provide local church leadership with information designed to help them counsel with members who, however well-meaning, may hinder the progress of the church through public criticism.” Another Mormon elder compared the Strengthening the Members Committee to a kind of “clipping service” that tracked critical writings, including letters to the editors, published by church members.

Counter Attack

That same summer, church members Paul and Margaret Merrill Toscano founded the Mormon Alliance to counter what they described as growing patterns of spiritual intimidation within the institutional Mormon Church. In the fall of 1992, Anderson and Mormon feminist Janice Merrill Allred formed a special Mormon Alliance subcommittee to document instances of spiritual intimidation and abuses of ecclesiastical authority within the institutional church, while professor England made a public apology for denouncing the Strengthening the Members Committee, which he admitted he had first incorrectly thought to be composed of regular church employees but which, in fact, included some of the highest ranking members of the church leadership, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

On May 18, 1993, church leaders identified the objects of surveillance, when Boyd K. Packer, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, delivered a speech to the Mormon All-Church Coordinating Council declaring that the three greatest “dangers” to the church were the “gay-lesbian movement,” “the feminist movement” and the “so-called scholars or intellectuals.”

In June 1993, Brigham Young University fired Cecilia Konchar Farr, a feminist literary critic and my mentor. Within months, several other feminist BYU professors announced their resignations from the faculty.

Beginning on Sept. 14, 1993, with the disfellowshipping of Mormon feminist Lynne Kanavel Whitesides, the church embarked on the serial excommunication of prominent feminists and intellectuals, a group now known as the September Six. One of the six was Anderson, who was excommunicated on Sept. 23, 1993, at a church court held in her local ward house.

Excerpted from “The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith” by Joanna Brooks. Courtesy of Free Press.

Joanna Brooks is an award-winning scholar of religion and American culture, and the author or editor of five books. A senior correspondent for ReligionDispatches.org, she has been named one of “13 Religious Women to Watch” by the Center for American Progress and one of “50 Politicos to Watch” by Politico.com. She offers answers to seekers of all stripes at her website, Askmormongirl.com. She is associate professor and chair of the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University, and lives (with her Jewish husband) and two children in San Diego.

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2 thoughts on “1990s Mormon Feminism Ignites Church Backlash

  1. It is incredible to see no comments on this article? Gender bias appears alive and well, both in our institutions and ourselves. Further progress for both ourselves, our daughters, and our society will only occur when All Americans are included and recognized as valuable!

  2. It is true that several women intellectuals ended up being excommunicated in the 1990s. This was a sad time. My mother, who was an intellectual Mormon feminist, a questioner but also faithful member of the Church, was not one of them, though she also empathized with them.

    You note the few that had difficulties. What of the many bright, intellectually gifted, faithful female Church members who were not excommunicated? It seems to me that women intellectuals, like those of us males who are also intellectuals, can find a way to question and wonder within a context of faith.

    I have great admiration for the many female Mormon intellectuals like my mother who raised questions, discussed issues, but did so in a context of faith. My mother had an experience that helped her when she was a student at Columbia University in the 1930s and can help other questioners. She once asked her great uncle Heber J. Grant, then president of the Church, if he had ever doubted the Gospel. His answer helped her, and since then me, and others. President Grant said. Alice, “I have never doubted but I have wondered.” He, like the rest of us had many questions and was aware of challenges in the Church, but sought to work through them in a context of faith. I would recommend that we all do the same, as difficult as this might seem at times.

    Phillip C. Smith, Ph.D.