Religion, Feminism, and Freedom of Conscience
Edited by George D. Smith

Chapter 10.
A Feminist Comparison of Mormonism and Humanism
Bonnie Bullough

[p.117]Mormonism had its origin in early nineteenth-century western New York, a frontier that still welcomed new ideas, including experimentation and challenges to traditional gender norms. John Humphrey Noyes argued male-female duality of the Godhead in his utopia in Oneida. Seneca Falls hosted the first women’s rights meeting in 1848. Nearby was the futuristic community of Harmony, Pennsylvania, with its egalitarian ideas.

Several religions originated in the area at about the same time: Christian Science, Spiritualism, Seventh Day Adventism, and Mormonism. The Disciples of Christ (sometimes called Campbellites) were established in nearby Pennsylvania and Ohio. All shared the enthusiasm that accompanies a new religion, and all were different from traditional Protestantism. Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventism, and Christian Science included dietary restrictions, and preached a gospel of good health. Several of the religions were messianic, and all viewed God in a more personal way than traditional Christianity.

Women were emerging as spiritual guides: Mary Baker Eddy was a leader of Christian Science; Mother White was important in Seventh Day Adventism; and several well-known Spiritualists were women. Mormon men and women were not unaffected by such ideas, and for a time women held leadership positions in the church. Eliza Snow emphasized God the Mother, and Emma Smith, the wife of Joseph [p.118]Smith, was outspoken on matters of policy. After the death of her husband Emma left the Mormon church in a power struggle with Brigham Young and helped establish the Reorganized LDS church. Mormonism developed a conservative stance and looked back to the paternalism and authority of ancient Israel—emphasizing Jehovah, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Moses. They supported plural marriage, male priesthood, male leadership, and repression of women. Women were recognized for the support they gave men, rather than for their own accomplishments.

Although historians of humanism trace its origins to the fifteenth century, humanism did not develop as an organized social movement until the twentieth century when it was established as an arm of the Unitarian church. Edmund Wilson, minister of the Salt Lake City Unitarian church, was a founder and leader of humanist thought in the 1940s and 1950s. Humanism has now spread back to Europe, with a total of ninety organizations belonging to the International Humanist and Ethical Union. There are significant contingents in the Netherlands, Norway, and Germany where people are required to designate a church for their state contributions and many people prefer humanism to traditional churches.

Some call humanism a religion and some do not. It is a system of beliefs which accepts all of the great philosophers as wise, but none has the last word because the search for truth is eternal. Probably the favorite philosophers of humanism are the great rationalists: Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Voltaire, and Dewey. Robert Ingersoll is also respected for his work in the atheist movement. A belief in rationalism naturally led to support of the scientific method, so modern science is promoted, although science is thought of as blind to questions of morality, the ethics of philosophy are needed to shape the moral directions of humanism. None of these philosophies was particularly repressive of women, but the great philosophers and spokesmen were men. Women as people and as a class were somewhat outside the domain and concern of the philosophies, except insofar as they were linked under the generic term “man.”

Although humanism was organized in the twentieth century, the philosophers it honors are from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Current humanist writers often look back to a nineteenth century culture, so in many ways Mormonism and humanism share [p.119]the same cultural heritage built on a paternalistic Judeao-Christian base. Women in that culture had very little status and they filled roles subservient to men. The two sexes were also segregated. This cultural heritage can be seen in the Mormon church, with the separation of the male priesthood and the female Relief Society. Women are not allowed to be bishops, stake presidents, general authorities, or fill any of the other decision-making offices in the church.

Women work and are fully accepted within the organizational structure of humanism and have held all major offices. Even though they are as likely to fill as important offices as men, they have not been philosophers of the movement. The great thinkers and writers of the movement remain mostly men; and since it is primarily a movement of ideas rather than activities, this is important. This may well be due to the fact that women did not get degrees in philosophy until recently, but some humanist women still feel deprived when they realize that most of the discourse is by men, about men, and quoting men. A women’s caucus was established at the last international meeting of humanists, which was held in Berlin in summer of 1993. Thus the Humanist Women’s caucus and the philosophers are corollaries to the Mormon Relief Society and the priesthood.

Probably Mormonism and humanism differ most on the issue of authority. Mormons believe there is a god who rewards and punishes, and that god is male. More significant is the fact that the president of the Mormon church speaks for God, and God’s pronouncements in the last two decades have been paternalistic and repressive of women. In this regard the president of the Mormon church is congruent with the pope of the Catholic church who has indicated that God is against all mechanical and chemical birth control methods and considers the fetus to be a complete human being at the moment of conception, so abortion is never possible. In addition, God as interpreted by the Mormon hierarchy was apparently against the Equal Rights Amendment, an issue which the pope has not yet addressed.

Most Protestant churches, with the exception of a few fundamentalist cults, do not believe in a current living representative of God on earth. Most Hindus and Buddhists lack a living prophet; Confucianism is purely philosophical. Only one sect of Islam, Shiite Muslims, see their mullahs as God’s agents. All other Muslims look back [p.120]to the prophet Mohammed. Churches which accept current divine spokesmen allow members less freedom of conscience to decide what is right and wrong.

A living prophet has awesome authority and presents an almost insurmountable barrier to change. There is an extra added burden borne by Mormon and Shiite Muslim women because the prophet and the word of God are so near. The pope is more remote, not only in distance from America, but in style. Consequently the majority of eligible American Catholic women use birth control.

Humanists do not accept divine authority, arguing instead that people need to attend to making the world a better place or it will not improve. They do not believe in an after-life, heaven and hell, divine punishment, or divine rewards. Women are as devoid of the divine support system as men, so they are at the most basic level equal.

In spite of traditional religious prohibitions, a women’s movement has again appeared and reached into Mormonism. The current movement is in fact a second wave, with the first phase occurring late in the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth, and culminating with American women achieving the vote, which Mormon activists also championed. After that triumph, women relaxed and moved back to the kitchen, losing some of the gains they had realized. Betty Friedan, a humanist, identified women’s post-war attitude as the “feminine mystique.” The second wave can be dated from the publication of her 1965 book. While we can credit her with issuing the rallying cry, probably the most important factor in the present movement was the new reproductive freedom occasioned by oral contraceptives in 1960, changes in law to allow their distribution, and revised abortion laws which culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973.

Being able to time and control reproduction gave women a freedom they had never before experienced and opened up significant possibilities for women to move ahead in the occupational structure and have more sexual freedom, educational opportunities, and the possibility of being elected or appointed to public office. Moreover, it looks as if many of these changes will be permanent.

There is, however, a backlash typified by the “right-to-life” movement. It has occurred partly because men have realized the significance  of changes and fear women will lose their subservience. [p.121]Mormon men, including church authorities, have supported the backlash and used the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion issues to focus their attacks. Humanist men have generally supported the second wave of feminism, although only a handful of them have been in the forefront of the battle.

The backlash has had another unfortunate consequence. Fundamentalist leaders of the “right-to-life” movement have broadened their focus from abortion to birth control, so family planning has become more of a sin than it was in an earlier era. Another trend which has accompanied the women’s movement has been an increase in the number of households headed by women, which usually means households plagued by poverty. Poverty has become a way of life for a large segment of our population, and those families tend to be headed by women. In the case of Mormon women a high rate of out-of-wedlock pregnancies has resulted in early marriages which are often unstable.

Some Mormon women have lost the love and support of men who are threatened by women’s drive for freedom. Many have been punished for participating in the women’s movement. Mormon ERA activist Sonia Johnson was an early victim of this repression and was excommunicated (see her From Housewife to Heretic [Garden City, NY, 1981]). Her ideas did not die, and there are an increasing number of Mormon women who are speaking out for women’s rights. Some of them do historical research and find that women have lost power from the early church to the present time. They too are being excommunicated for their research and writing on this topic, but their ideas will not die. They are a force that the LDS church will eventually deal with if it is to stay viable in the twenty-first century.

So how do the positions of Mormon and humanist women compare? We share roots in the nineteenth-century Judeao-Christian male culture, but the lack of divine authority gives humanist women more freedom. Humanist men like to be taken care of by devoted wives, just like Mormon men; they continue to focus on great rational philosophers of the past, when paternalism reigned supreme, but they do not have the power of God to back them up. The more favorable position of humanist women leaves us with less motivation for change. We can, however, take inspiration from our Mormon sisters. The women’s movement has come to Mormonism thirty years [p.122]after it came to most Americans, but it has come at a critical time when the reactionary backlash threatens to obliterate progress. Mormon women now orchestrate a vigorous, thoughtful movement with determined leadership whose martyrdom will not stop the reform.