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

Chapter 12.
Dancing Through the Doctrine: Observations on Religion and Feminism
Cecilia Konchar Farr

[p.141]Lucretia Mott, a nineteenth-century Quaker minister and suffragist, delivered a speech at a Philadelphia women’s rights convention in 1854 in which she discussed the day of Pentecost. She said:

Then Peter stood forth—some one has said that Peter made a great mistake in quoting the prophet Joel—but he stated that “the time is come, this day is fulfilled the prophecy when it is said, I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,” etc.—the language of the Bible is beautiful in its repetition—”upon my servants and my handmaidens I will pour out my spirit and they shall prophesy.” Now can anything be clearer than that?1

Sarah Kimball, a nineteenth-century Mormon Relief Society leader and suffragist, held similar beliefs about the relationship between  religion and suffrage, about the evidence of God’s hand in the expansion of women’s rights. She wrote that “the sure [p.142]foundations of the suffrage cause were deeply and permanently laid on the 17th of March, 1942,” the day in LDS history when Joseph Smith ‘turned the key in the name of the Lord” to organize the Women’s Relief Society.2

It is not unusual to find among early leaders of the cause of women’s rights repeated and sincere references to religion. Sarah M. Grimke, for example, wrote that God created man and woman in his image: “God created us equal;—he created us free agents;—he is our Lawgiver, our King and our Judge, and to him alone is woman bound to be in subjection, and to him alone is she accountable for the use of those talents with which her Heavenly Father has entrusted her.”3 Sojourner Truth reminded her congregation that Jesus came “from God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with Him.”4 Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Fanny Fern, and of course our Mormon suffragists used religious doctrines as the foundation of feminism.

We have walked a long road since then, a road that has led us further and further away from religious discourse and Christian justification. Our reasons, like those of our liberal and humanist friends, have been good: we didn’t want to limit or exclude. We didn’t want to direct all feminists down a single philosophical path. We wanted to avoid the violence caused by binary thinking and metaphysical justifications. We’ve tread lightly, acknowledging but mostly avoiding sacred ground. Although academic feminists have revised history, philosophy, literature, and art while standing firmly within the narrow confines of patriarchal disciplines, our critiques of religion most often find us smelling the flowers to the side of the road. We don’t often publicly state allegiance, even to the gentle god of the New Testament, though many of us admit to loving Shakespeare. Even though American feminism’s mainstream is still made up of “liberal feminists” whose agenda remains reform rather than revolution, our discussions of religion are most often about women’s [p.143]inherent (individual) spirituality or about the intractable patriarchal nature of the church—not about how to find women’s place within mainstream religious movements. We work within patriarchal systems of education, economics and government, but we give up on religion. Why?

If there is a purpose for this essay, it is to call for two things: 1) a move on the part of American feminist organizations and theorists to reassert our ability to occupy the important ground of religious discourse and 2) a loyal feminist critique of religion on our way to a revolution in religious thinking, the Second Coming, if you will. We need to find out what is worth keeping in our traditional theology as we’ve done, for example, in philosophy. Many feminists no longer accept the Western humanist construct of a whole and unitary individual with inalienable rights, but we’ve taken off from that concept, empowered by deconstruction and revision, to explore new theories of subjectivity.

I see the return of religious rhetoric to feminist thinking as a way to overturn the binary of good and evil that is doing violence to our nation on issues such as abortion and child-care. Evoking religious morality on both sides blurs the distinctions between entrenched opposites. And it is an honest invocation, considering how many of us in the U.S. (liberal and conservative alike) connect our morality with an organized religion. I also see feminism as inclusionary: American feminism has embraced the American tradition of pluralism and done a much better job of encompassing diversity than most theoretical schools or political groups. We struggle constantly with the hows and whys, we make mistakes and fall into patriarchal and colonial patterns, but we never give up. As long as we as feminists maintain mutual respect for religion as we’ve done, I think fairly successfully, with sexual preference, this allowance of various religious discourses would do more to convince traditionally Catholic Chicana women, Jewish-American women, the religious Eastern European-American women I grew up with, African-American women whose ties are Christian or Muslim, or oppressed women of many ethnic groups who embrace liberation theology, that the movement belongs as much to them as to skeptical, middle-class, white, Anglo-Saxon-Protestant women.

As feminists, skilled in the discourse and practices of diversity, [p.144]we’ll have to apply our commitments across belief systems and resist the temptation of religious discourse to invoke the transcendent as a proof—as the ultimate end of discussion. We can’t very well expect religion to do without a theory of transcendence—belief in God and a heaven beyond earth are, after all, what religion is about. But as one of my religious, postmodern students in a theory seminar said, “Keep your transcendence to yourself.” Can religious feminists keep our religious proofs to communities of believers and approach others with gentle deference? I have seldom seen such deference in religious communities. Indeed, I understand that by inviting feminism to participate in religious discourse, I’m inviting feminism to work within a long history of violence, especially violence against women: witness the mass murder of “witches” in Europe and of “heathens” in Asia and the Middle East. This is more than a little problematic.

I have seen (and continue to see) such deference, such attention to different beliefs and cultures, within the feminist movement. Even so, in my study of feminisms I have yet to find a home for my conservative religious beliefs. I have found, instead, that religion is one area where mainstream feminist thinking has been clearly secular and often barely distinguishable from current mainstream liberalism. For example, we could easily substitute “feminism” for “the nation” in the following passage from Yale Law Professor Stephen L. Carter’s book, A Culture of Disbelief: “It is both tragic and paradoxical that now, just as [feminism] is beginning to invite people into the public square for the different points of view that they have to offer, people whose contribution to [feminism’s] diversity comes from their religious traditions are not valued unless their voices seem somehow esoteric.”5 Carter writes that despite the strong religious tradition in American social reform—from suffrage and abolition to Civil Rights and anti-war—where “the public rhetoric of religion … had been largely the property of liberalism,” suddenly and immutably the realm of religion has been ceded to the conservative right, so that “by the time of the 1992 Republican Convention, one had the eerie sense that the right was asserting ownership in God.” Other recent texts on [p.145]religion and politics have also traced the move from “religious sentiments, beliefs, and organizations” being “at the heart of a large number of contemporary social movements” to the current perception that religion is only for hardline conservatives.6

Mormon culture, especially in the American West, has participated in this broader cultural trend, successfully uniting religious doctrine with politically conservative dogma: in the 1992 presidential campaign of Bo Gritz; in various editorials in my local Utah County Journal; and most recently in a special issue on “the conservative backlash” in the BYU campus newspaper, the Daily Universe.7 In a front-page editorial for that issue, BYU political science teacher Bud Scruggs defended God, family, and hearth as the exclusive domain of the conservative Republican. His defense echoes Hyrum Andrus’s 1965 book on Mormonism and conservative politics, in which the author posits that “in order to meet the problems that currently confront them, Latter-day Saints are bound by that which they hold sacred, to support an intelligent, conservative position in social, economic and political philosophy.”7 Such rhetoric moves feminists, political activists, and even Democrats from the center of the church into the margins. And since there has not been an equally successful countering of this rhetoric, nationally or locally, there we have remained.

But in the margins, the words of Martin Luther King, social reformer, activist, and Baptist minister, reverberate in the speeches of Jesse Jackson and Mario Cuomo and in the writings of Toni Morrison and Madeleine L’Engle. King’s dream was decidedly not a secular one, and his speech on “Conscience and the Vietnam War” reinforces that:

For those who question “Aren’t you a civil rights leader?”—and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace—I answer by saying that I have worked too long and hard now against [p.146]segregated public accommodations to end up segregating moral concerns. Justice is indivisible … In 1957 when a group of us formed the [Southern Christian Leadership Conference], we chose as our motto: “To save the soul of America.” Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war.8

Perhaps in response to this impassioned rhetoric of activists of the 1960s and early 1970s, mainstream American politics continued more determinedly along its path of secularization. While the causes of the secularization of politics are complex and beyond the scope of this essay, some of the reasons most often cited include the privileged position science and empirical thinking have held since the Enlightenment and especially in the twentieth century; the “modernization” of the West, including technological advances, urbanization, and a growing mass media; and broad efforts toward public (i.e., secular) education for children from all racial, ethnic, and socio-economic groups. The persistence of religious groups in the face of these advances has surprised many social scientists. Recently in many countries, most notably in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe, religious resurgence has served as “an expression of cultural authenticity.”9

Certainly in the United States we cannot deny that religion is our legacy, and it has returned to the political realm with a vengeance since the 1980s—but again only on the conservative right. Stephen Carter blames the left for yielding, for “shedding religious rhetoric like a useless second skin.” But I believe he misses part of the picture. Religious feminists, and certainly Mormon feminists, might lay some of the blame for the loss of religious discourse in feminism, not only to our reluctance to use it, but also to a wresting away of this language by the conservative groups who have set up feminists—along with witches and lesbians—as enemies of God. For many people steeped [p.147]in conservative thinking, “femi-nazis” are effectively silenced before they attempt to speak. I have encountered such people at BYU who simply cannot hear a word I say, even when I’m teaching Hemingway or sharing my belief in Jesus Christ.

Let me take a moment here to locate myself. As I write, I am a professor at BYU, although I am being forced to leave the university in late 1994. I generally call myself a radical feminist, meaning that I imagine huge changes, not just reformative or cosmetic changes, are going to be necessary to alter women’s oppressed situation in our world. I am generally more sympathetic to re-visioning and rethinking than I am to reform, because our oppressive ways of operating in this world arc so firmly entrenched that painting over them will never be enough. We need to strip our institutions down to the bare structures, then see if they need rebuilding or renovation. We don’t repair structures by sitting in the middle of them and imagining that they’re fixed.

But if these structures are, in poet Audre Lorde’s term, the father’s house, have feminists explored many ways to approach them—with the father’s tools? With our own? Or do we build our own houses across the street? Or do we reject the imperialist constructions that deface that Earth and go off to live in canyons and deserts? My position on religious conservatism and feminism is that, with apologies to Mary Daly, Sonia Johnson, and Carol P. Christ, whom I admire, feminists have been spending too much time in the desert. I say this perhaps because beginning at age six I was enmeshed in my mother’s personal religious revival and conversion from Catholicism to Mormonism. Mormonism was then and continues to be my conduit into the universe, my access to personal spirituality, to healing faith, and to empowering theology. It pushes the limits of my intellect, reminding me that there are many ways to construct and perceive truths, many, many of them beyond my power of understanding. It gives me a way, as a feminist theorist, to approach believers of any theology tenderly and with respect.

Though I have studied feminist theory and have been a committed feminist for years, I am still brought up short when we assume, as a group, that our feminist faith is New Age, goddess-worship, or earth-centered. At the “Take Back the Night” march in Salt Lake City last May, I and a few of my friends were dismayed to find our political [p.148]protest of violence against women coupled with candlelight chants about our bodies and our blood. I honor the organizers’ commitment to their faith, but I balk at the assumption that it is the faith of all feminists.

Perhaps I am also writing in response to the question that I hear often from many of my (as we say in Mormonism) gentile friends, “Why do you stay in such a male-dominated religion?” I am often tempted to ask them, admittedly begging the question, which institutions they associate with are not dominated by men—banks, government, academies, factories, hospitals? I stay because Mormonism means something to me at the deepest levels of my being. That response informs this essay.

Let me also add this caveat: I am neither historian—Mormon or otherwise-social scientist, nor theologian. I am a feminist literary critic, with a penchant for cultural critique, and a Mormon woman, anxiously engaged in finding a way to integrate a late-twentieth-century postmodern feminist consciousness with a lifelong commitment to faith and active participation in the LDS church and a conviction that, for some feminists, the basic structure of Mormonism can and ought to remain. I emphasize some feminists because in this difficult time we must acknowledge the struggle many Mormons have with that structure. What I share with you, then, is perhaps more aptly titled “justification” than “observation.”

Within my call for the return of religion to feminism and feminism to religion, I would like to suggest a broader discussion than we have heretofore had of Mormon feminism. I hesitate to do this, since my first response to our present embattled position is to close ranks, yet I think it is time we looked to the future armed with a dear praxis and an articulate agenda. I should probably remind you that this is most definitely a loyal critique—both of feminism and of Mormonism—because my elaboration may cause you to forget that. As my friend and I used to say self-righteously, “We’re from the rock ‘n roll generation. We haven’t learned to waltz around the truth.” It is my truth, of course, but I advance it with no less vigor because of it.

Recently some feminist thinkers, Gloria Steinem among them, have called for a return to consciousness-raising groups as a way of bringing feminism back to local relevance and back into the everyday lives of women. Feminist thinkers, mostly in academe, have turned [p.149]our movement into a theory, they argue, to the detriment of the movement. This nostalgic place, where feminism was about the “liberation” of individual women, is, I think, where Mormon feminism has remained.

In the spring of 1993 I attended my first Mormon feminist retreat, called “Pilgrimage,” with several graduate students and English teachers—all women in our twenties or early thirties—who had met together once a week for nearly a year to study feminist theory. A combination consciousness-raising/support/study group, we had spent part of winter semester studying Mormon feminism. We read Sonja Johnson’s From Housewife to Heretic, essays from Sisters in Spirit, and Maxine Hanks’s collection, Women and Authority.11  As we talked our way through these texts, we began to outline a Mormon feminism from our roots in feminist theory and cultural criticism, a feminism based only partly on our own experiences. This feminism, we decided, was not so much a reaction to disillusionment or mistreatment as it was an enactment of our theory and our theology.

At “Pilgrimage” our own thinking was set against the backdrop of the longstanding tradition of Mormon feminism which surrounded us there. We spent our days pointing out to each other known LDS feminists we had read—there’re Linda King Newell in the sauna, Lavina Fielding Anderson by the fireplace, Margaret Toscano at the book display—and our nights sorting through our experience. Amid a group of women we admire and respect, here is what we saw at “Pilgrimage”: a feminism based on individual liberation, where meetings consisted mainly of entertainment, affirmation, and sharing stories of awakenings and abuses; a homogeneous feminism that seemed, for the most part, comfortable in its familiar surroundings; an insular feminism that based its desires for change almost solely on getting male leaders to understand women in the church; a non-theoretical feminism, whose major premise was that women should no longer be silent; an apolitical feminism that, at the time, resisted a [p.150]pull by some of its members into an activist campaign to wear white ribbons on their lapels.

It was, in short, a feminism we were not wholly comfortable with, a feminism that highlighted all of the imperfections of our smaller group—homogeneity, middle-class consciousness, insularity. It was also different from the Mormon feminism we had been developing hopefully together. Let me explain. One member of our group worked on the rape crisis hotline in Provo. She talked to rape victims, sometimes several a week, took them to the hospital and the police station. She insisted that we always keep broad social and cultural change on our agenda. Another woman studies Hispanic literature. She never let us forget that white women are not the center of the world—that we aren’t even a majority of women in many parts of America. She inspired us to read Gloria Anzaldua together. Another had just finished teaching for a year in intercity schools in Boston and had, she told us, altered her approach to life at a very basic level to accommodate what she learned there. We made each other food, we threw showers and going-away parties, watched each other’s children. We confided and theorized and negotiated. And we demonstrated, organized, and gave political speeches.

In short, though our discussions were local and personal, they were also theoretical and global, always with immense political and cultural pretensions. We saw how religious institutions resist change and close the doors to revolution; we were determined not so much to change the church as to change the world. Mormonism opens a skylight to revelation, and therein lies hope for changing the church—and we pray for it. But in the meantime there’s a lot to be done, and we feminists must be about our Father’s business, if you’ll excuse my rallying you around a patriarchal metaphor. We need to be much more anxiously engaged beyond the boundaries of our small communities and our individual souls.

Let me acknowledge that many Mormon feminists see revolution and revelation as much more closely related than I do, and they courageously stake their integrity on it. To them I say, let the conversation begin. Because we are well-suited to initiate a discussion of religion and women’s issues; we have a history of courageous feminists and a common bond that crosses cultures and ideologies. [p.151] It is a worldwide church, and many of us are lucky enough to serve in wards that reflect this.

In conclusion, I must insist that if you are committed to Christianity, you are committed to social change, to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, mourning with those who mourn. You are bound to be humble in your assertions, reluctant to exercise authority, eager to serve others, and loving to those who believe differently. I say, with all due respect for difference, that I, as a Latter-day Saint, am bound by that which I hold sacred to support an intelligent, radical feminist position in social, economic, political, and religious philosophy.

Cecilia Konchar Farr is Professor of English at Brigham Young University.


1. Miriam Schneir, ed., Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings (New York: Vintage, 1972), 102.

2. Jill Mulvey Derr, Sarah M. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1976), 7.

3. Schneir, 37.

4. In Schneir, 95.

5. Stephen L. Carter, “Conservatives’ Faith, Liberals’ Disdain,” New York Times, 15 Aug. 1993, 15.

6. Anson Shupe and Jeffrey K. Hadden, eds., The Politics of Religion and Social Change (New York: Paragon, 1988), viii.

7. Daily Universe, 19 Sept. 1993, 1.

8. Hyrum L. Andrus, Liberalism, Conservatism and Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1965), ix.

9. Martin Luther King, The Trumpet of Conscience (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1967), 24.

10. Emile Sahliyeh, ed., Religious Resurgence and Politics in the Contemporary World (Albany NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), vii.

11. Sonia Johnson, From Housewife to Heretic (Albuquerque, NM: Wildfire, 1989); Maxine Hanks, ed., Women and Authority : Re-emerging Mormon Feminism (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993).