Religion, Feminism, and Freedom of Conscience
Edited by George D. Smith
Chapter 11. The Struggle to Emerge: Leaving Brigham Young University
Martha Sonntag Bradley
[p.123]British writer Virginia Woolf spoke in 1931 before a group of women who had been barred from entrance into male-dominated professions. She acknowledged their grievances, even their pain, and then suggested they might try writing as a career, saying that there were no legal obstacles to succeed at writing, only barriers one created for oneself. She said:
While I was writing [this] review I discovered that if I were going to review books I should need to do battle with a certain phantom. And the phantom was a woman, and when I came to know her better I called her after the heroine of the famous poem, “The Angel of the House.” It was she who used to come between me and my paper when I was writing reviews. It was she who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her. … [W]hen I came to write I encountered her with the very first words. The shadow of her wings fell on my page; I heard the rustling of her skirts in the room. Directly, that is to say, I took my pen in my hand to review that novel by a famous man, she slipped behind me and whispered, “My dear, you are a young woman. You are writing about a book that has been written by a man. Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure.” And she made as if to guide my pen. … [p.124]Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing. … Thus whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the inkpot and flung it at her. She died hard. Her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her. It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality.
One of my reasons for writing this essay is the persistence of a Mormon angel in the house. In my work at Brigham Young University, in conversations with my neighbors and friends in Mormon suburbia, in church and public meetings I hear too many women apologize for their statements of power as they acknowledge concern about women’s issues and protest the current state of affairs. At the university I was frequently dismayed by how students recoiled at the very mention of feminism. Often I was accused in my student evaluations of being a feminist (although I was also accused of being a Democrat or even a socialist). Male and female students alike became defensive during discussions of historical feminism. It was as if they felt they had something to lose.
I hear too many apologies. At a recent professional meeting of the Mormon Historical Association in Lamoni, Iowa, one of my colleagues, an editor and writer, prefaced her remarks about women by saying, “Now I’m not a feminist, but I do believe women should be treated fairly.” What does that mean? Of what was she afraid? Why does she want us to know she isn’t a feminist? I recently appeared on a local Salt Lake City television program that discussed Mormonism and feminism; afterwards, numerous individuals wrote letters to the First Presidency of the Mormon church complaining about my continued employment at BYU because of my feminist views, describing me as brazen, dangerous, frumpy, a junior Betty Friedan, among other incendiary accusations. I was asked to answer these complaints, essentially to defend myself, a proposition I consider today entirely absurd. I am a feminist, and I do not need nor intend to apologize for it.
How did this happen? How did an atmosphere of suspicion and fear evolve to paint feminism as the enemy of traditional values? We feminism are the Reds of an earlier generation. Many believe we pose the most significant threat yet confronted in the twentieth century to [p.125]the integrity of the LDS church and the patriarchal powerhold of the Mormon community.
In attempting to understand why there are so few Mormon feminism and why we are viewed with hostility, I will discuss three issues in the context of Mormon history: 1) The narrowing of women’s political power within the community; 2) the idealization of the role of Mormon women; and 3) theological restraints to feminism within Mormonism.
I begin with an historical overview. During the nineteenth century the debate over female roles was called “The Woman Question.” It was a grave preoccupation of families, churches, and politicians in much the same way as economic recession and nuclear weapons are today. Popular sensibility was dominated by an angry perplexity about why women might want to have spheres of influence outside the home—with growing numbers of women pointing out, the joys and cares of domesticity notwithstanding, there was no reason to suppose that housekeeping and intimate relationships could possibly satisfy every talent, ability, and inclination which half the human race might harbor.
In the midst of such controversy, Mormon women entered the twentieth century on the crest of a wave of institutional and personal power. They had joined with national feminism in the National Peace movement, the drive for female suffrage, and the national agenda for reform. The Mormon Relief Society, the Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Association, and the children’s Primary organization gave them opportunities for organizational power, leadership opportunities, and autonomy. Women were still performing blessings, anointings, and manifesting other spiritual gifts until the third decade of the twentieth century. In other words, they were still actively engaged in spiritual as well as social work.
During World War I the LDS church reorganized the women’s Relief Society into units of the Red Cross for the war effort. This alignment with national agendas typified the engagement of Relief Society sisters in social causes during the first three decades of the twentieth century. The key player in this drama was Amy Brown Lyman.
Lyman first met with church president Joseph F. Smith in March 1918 to discuss the society’s work with the Red Cross to benefit [p.126]Mormon servicemen and their families. She was at the time general secretary of the Relief Society. Lyman and a number of other women had already received professional training in the latest social work techniques, and President Smith himself was impressed. He commented: “If there was anything in the Church that needed improvement it was the charity work” because there was “much duplication and waste of effort and funds.”1 Smith offered to fund a social service department for the church and placed it at Relief Society headquarters, physically and organizationally under female leadership. This marriage of public and religious interests created the perfect vehicle for Lyman’s creative energies.
Lyman first enrolled in sociology courses while her husband Richard attended the University of Chicago. There she became familiar with scientific approaches to societal problems, which she would later describe as having drawn a curtain from her mind.2
Under the Relief Society, the Church Social Services department worked closely with public agencies including the county charity department, the county hospital, the city and county courts, the county jail, the police department, the Salvation Army, the Traveler’s Aid Society, the YWCA, and the Charity Organization Society.3 This cooperative relationship with government agencies continued during the depression years and was facilitated by New Deal programs. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration required that federal funds be distributed through government agencies. This federalized the Relief Society Social Services Department for an eighteen-month period beginning in August 1933 while a state public welfare agency [p.127]was being created. Besides normal case work, Lyman’s Relief Society staff provided food, clothing, and fuel orders from government stores.
These women were not stay-at-home mothers, staging teas and socials. They were feminists. They devoted their lives and energy to the feminist agenda. They were involved in social welfare, prenatal health, infant mortality projects such as the Relief Society milk stations, suffrage, moral education, and pacifism. In this historical context, Mormon women were feminists because they were involved in the issues of feminism.
Furthermore they were serious about their work. It defined them. And while it certainly did not preclude their obligations as mothers and wives they considered social activism a serious reason for their organizational existence. A sense of social responsibility and personal empowerment rings clear in the columns of the organization’s publication—the Relief Society Magazine, Mar. 1939, 161-62. For instance, one column written by Clarissa Smith Williams and Amy Brown Lyman, “The Official Round Table,” detailed Lyman’s work in Colorado.4 Amy Brown Lyman “has been spending a month in Denver studying social service methods in the headquarters of the Civic Service division there,” it reads.
The peace armistice has measurably halted our strenuous war activities … but the Relief Society workers will not cease their efforts and loyal labors until our Government gives the word that we are entirely released. … We received an appeal from the National Suffrage Association to join with them in memorializing President Wilson to add at least one woman to the Peace Commission, as women’s and children’s interests demand recognition at the hands of the men who are to settle the affairs of the world.
Isn’t this extraordinary? The Mormon Relief Society joined in with one of the two most prominent women’s organizations formed to promote the feminist agenda. These efforts in the fun spectrum of social and moral progressive reform typified the work of the Relief [p.128]Society during this interesting period of female empowerment. They were recognized for their work on a national and international scale. They were social activists, empowered by a sense of spirit, of self and corporate worth, and the institutional backing of the church.
In public forums these women addressed issues of national reform. Speakers at the 1919 Relief Society conference gave evidence of this emphasis. One woman, Cora Kasius, who, with Amy Brown Lyman, was one of the first Mormon women to receive professional social work training, spoke about the agenda for “transforming the unstable inefficient family to a stable efficient one.”5 The second speaker, Clarissa Smith Williams, suffragist Emmeline B. Wells’s counselor and successor, urged the calling of “well-trained and well-educated” younger women as teachers because education was below the “standard desired for it.” Other speakers addressed health, home nursing, juvenile delinquency, work with needy and dependent families, mental hygiene, and applied psychology. Equally interesting is the editorial written by Julia A. F. Lund, then general secretary-treasurer, defining the Relief Society’s goals as “health, employment, social services, spiritual welfare, education in every form, better homes, [and] wiser parenthood.”6
Toward the end of World War II, male leaders redefined the role of women in Mormon society and placed a new emphasis on raising families. In perhaps the single most important official move affecting the relationship of women to their church, on 29 July 1946 general Relief Society president Belle Spafford received a letter from Elder Joseph Fielding Smith of the LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles stating that it was no longer approved “for sisters to wash and anoint other sisters.” Instead, women were to “send for the Elders… to come and administer to the sick and afflicted.” Institutional sanction for women performing ordinances of healing was thus officially revoked.7 Mormon women themselves had rethought their role [p.129]during the war. Women who had believed they could help save the world looked inward and focused on solving the problems of their own families instead.
Like the rest of the American nation recoiling from war, in 1949 the domestication of Mormon women was idealized even as their spiritual power eroded. The same phenomenon had occurred after the Revolutionary War with a call to “republican motherhood.’ In the rhetoric of those post-war decades, women played a key role. Men would fight the British and win the war, but it was women’s responsibility to inculcate American values in their children’s hearts and minds. Their role was to perpetuate and transmit the values, beliefs, and behavior that marked a republican nation.
By 1949 Mormon women, with their American female counterparts, joined the post-war celebration of domesticity, and increasingly the rhetoric of motherhood replaced the emphasis on social activism. The Relief Society Magazine became obsessed with the home and included an increased number of articles by men. Male voices acquired more authority and helped to define and articulate the Mormon female ideal. This ideological process continued to develop throughout the most passionate events of the 1960s women’s movement and was by the early 1970s rigidified within church literature and practice.
During the LDS “correlation” movement of the 1970s the church pulled the auxiliaries of the church, including their publications and lesson materials, under one umbrella. The women of the Relief Society lost in 1971 their control over money and direct access to the LDS First Presidency. All LDS women automatically became members of the Relief Society, dues were no longer collected, and they were forbidden to have separate fundraising activities or budgets. Local wards no longer staged bazaars, bake sales, and other traditional activities that helped create and sustain femme ward networks. The LDS church made considerable efforts to draw boundaries between traditional women and feminists. Increasingly the feminist was portrayed as the enemy of home, family, and traditional religious values.
[p.130]Nationally, the church’s fight against the Equal Rights Amendment was essentially a war against feminism. On 13 December 1974 Barbara B. Smith, Relief Society general president, led the effort taking a personal and public stance against the ERA in a speech given at the LDS Institute adjacent to the University of Utah. While acknowledging historical inequities to women and conceding the impotency of legislative remedies, she insisted that “equal in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was not the same thing as ‘identical.”8 On 11 January 1975 an editorial in the Church News criticized the ERA as “so broad that it is inadequate, inflexible, and vague. … Men and women are different, made so by a Divine Creator. Each has his or her role.”9
In May 1978 the First Presidency officially launched the campaign against ERA by issuing a statement opposing extension of the ratification date, citing “profound veneration for the Constitution” and “very deep and everlasting commitment to the preservation and strengthening of the family.”10
Anti-ERA activity stepped up in the late 1970s, including intervention in International Women’s Year conferences and feminist Sonia Johnson’s 1979 excommunication. In February 1980 the church published an anti-ERA booklet called: The Church and the Proposed Equal Rights Amendment: A Moral Issue. It detailed among other conclusions that the ERA would “endanger time-honored moral values” by removing protective legislation, increasing access to abortion, legalizing homosexual marriages, making women liable for the draft, reducing a husband’s legal requirement to support his wife and children, eroding the power of the state, and possibly refusing to recognize “reasonable distinctions between the sexes.”
Victorian America was preoccupied with the role women played as mothers and continued to romanticize it through the turn of the [p.131]century. Mormon attitudes toward women and motherhood were not unique but paralleled those of the nation at large. The Victorian image provided a detailed model for motherhood which was adopted practically wholesale by Mormon culture and remained the primary image of motherhood during the next thirty or forty years. As was true of republican motherhood, what some scholars have called the cult of true womanhood included the idealization of mother’s self-sacrifice, love, domesticity, and divine purity and gentleness. It is ironic that this all played out against a history of serious organizational work in feminism.
The sentimentalization of motherhood was increasingly perpetuated by the male hierarchy. One Mormon male speaker, Heber Iverson, in a 1995 radio address said: “the standards of motherhood during any given period of history are absolutely the controlling moral factors in the world at the time. The standards of civilization are fixed by woman. The quality of the manhood of every period is created by woman.”11 David O. McKay, second counselor in the First Presidency, called motherhood “the noblest office or calling in the world,” “the greatest of all professions,” and “the greatest potential influence either for good or ill in human life.”12
Showing the importance of this body of ideas, the church mobilized powerful instruments to convince girls and women that motherhood was their primary role and obligation. Mormon leaders used an interesting variety of appeals. ‘The women who prefer society, entertainment, luxury, even a career, to motherhood, are not really intelligent,” one leader noted. He further warned, “Divorce is a very much more frequent thing in families where a woman has economic independence and no children than under older fashioned conditions.”13 The accusation that women who were reluctant to bear [p.132]children prevented the progress of unborn spirits was particularly potent.14
Even as church leaders were idealizing motherhood, Mormon women were following their Gentile sisters into employment out of the home. Alarmed, church leaders expressed disapproval of wage-earning mothers. When women began contributing to the war effort, the First Presidency said in 1942, “The mother who entrusts her child to the care of others, that she may do non-motherly work, whether for gold, for fame, or for civic service, should remember that a ‘child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.'”15 A 1956 Church News editorial called “earning mothers” “one of the greatest threats we have to stable home life in America” and editorialized: “The Lord has said that he will hold parents responsible if they neglect their children, and working mothers and wives might well consider what he has said on the subject. There is no economic necessity today which will justify neglect of children.”16
These ideas were emphasized visually in church publications. For example, drawings in the Improvement Era showed women working at the stoves in their homes, happily dusting tables, working in gardens in full skirted bliss, beaming smiles on their faces. They were not portrayed at desks in offices; rather than clients they had children and clearly enjoyed their domestic roles. These powerful images sent potent messages to women and girls that helped perpetuate the idealization of the female role, defined more narrowly after 1950 as mother.
Many women were particularly dissuaded from pursuing careers by LDS church president Ezra Taft Benson’s pivotal address which characterized women’s career objectives as selfish and degrading. [p.133]The most important work women can do is in the home, he reiterated, quoting a previous church president.17 In March 1990 speaking at the University of Utah “Women in the Work Force Conference,” Benson’s counselor Gordon B. Hinckley added his voice: “It is my opinion that the very situation of an ever-icreasing number of mothers out of the home and in the workplace is a root cause of many of the problems of delinquency, drugs, and gangs.”18
This is a serious burden for mothers to carry on their shoulders. I have often wondered why fathers aren’t similarly judged. Many women work for the same reasons as their husbands: the physical sustenance of their children. This blanket condemnation of what they do—their contributions—denigrates their efforts and devalues what they are.
Mormon leaders used to acknowledge women’s equal burden; increasingly today the emphasis is on difference, not equality. For instance, one article in the Relief Society Magazine discussed Joseph F. Smith’s “Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” which the magazine believed “confirms the noble standard of equality between the sexes which has always been a feature of the Church.”19 Today a number of inconsistent attitudes and policies separate men from women in the church.
Throughout their lives Mormon girls are given contradictory messages about their roles. They are told to be the best that they can be, but also to be supportive, submissive, obedient, and accepting. My daughter Katelyn wishes that official Mormon publications included more female imagery. “All the pictures of missionaries,” she complained to me, “are men or boys.” Young girls must be challenged by the church’s policy of male priesthood ordination, wondering why they’re not good enough to receive it themselves.
In 1979 University of Utah student Ann Kenney was set apart as [p.134]president of the University of Utah Second Stake Sunday School. The local stake leader who chose her explained that he had been “strongly impressed” to issue the call, which was approved by a church general authority. One month later, however, Kenney was released. She was told, “In the past there has been no policy set. The Quorum [of the Twelve] was divided on the issue, and the decision was left to the president [of the quorum].” The president was Ezra Taft Benson.20
The issue of leadership extends upwards. In the early church there were countless references to Mother in Heaven, glorious Mother Eve, and heroic women past and present.21 Yet on 5 April 1991 President Hinckley warned church leaders “to be alert” to “small beginnings of apostasy” and cited prayers to Mother in Heaven as an example.22 Belief in a mother in heaven figured prominently in the September 1993 disciplinary courts held for Mormon Women’s Forum president Lynne Kanavel Whitesides.
Why the sustained attack against women? One reason is the growing number of working Mormon women, in spite of inequalities they experience in the workplace. Statistics gathered by the Utah Department of Employment Security reported that Utah is last in the nation in the number of women who perform top management jobs in state and local government (17.7 percent—the national average is less than one-third). In private business, 39 percent of executives and administrators are women, which is closer to the national trend. Between about 1950 and 1980 fully-employed women in Utah earned approximately sixty cents for every dollar a fully-employed man made.
More significant are increases in the number of working mothers. In 1980, 37 percent of Utah mothers with preschoolers were employed out of the home; in 1990, 57 percent of the same group were [p.135]employed.23 These figures do not include the huge number of Mormon women who work part time, which is even more typical, or women who essentially engage in sweat shop work in their homes. I know one woman who sews appliqued designs on twelve sweatshirts a day, proud that she isn’t a working woman but able to stay home with her children. This is difficult, laborious work that requires enormous concentration. Even if she is in the house with her children I can’t imagine that they are getting what they need from her. This admonition to mothers to stay at home confuses quality child care issues and fair labor condition standards, among other social issues that affect families.
National exposure to women’s issues is unrelenting. We are continually bombarded with female imagery of empowerment. Can you imagine the impact of a whole generation of little Mormon girls growing up with the image of Hillary Clinton before them? Or Claire Huxtable? Or whomever? This is a generation who will grow to maturity with the image of Anita Hill as part of their female consciousness. How could it not make a difference?
Mormon women have organized and have reached a new level of sophistication in their discourse about feminism. I credit the Mormon Women’s Forum and Exponent II for this accomplishment. While the forum’s presentations have been significantly diverse and varied in quality, this important scene of feminist dialogue has continued to thrive despite numerous efforts to punish leaders for their participation, including the disfellowshipment of forum president Lynne Kanavel Whitesides and threats against Margaret Toscano and forum organizer Karen Crist.
The situation is bleak at best at BYU for feminist faculty and students. A recent study of BYU’s female faculty shows that 13 percent of the total faculty are women; a handful are administrators; 3 percent full professors; 16 percent are associate professors; 23 percent assistant professors; 53 percent of instructors and adjunct professors are women. Until the 1960s BYU had a policy against [p.136]hiring married women professors. Until the mid-1980s they had a policy against hiring mothers with school-aged children.
There have always been fine female instructors, professors, and employees of BYU who made an important contribution. And I do not in any way want to diminish the value of what they have given the university. But this new generation is important in different ways. We confronted feminism as young women. When we went to graduate school we were taught by feminist professors, we studied feminist methodologies, and we considered ourselves feminists without being threatened by what it seemed to represent.
There is now at BYU an activist group of feminists who are stirring things up like never before. They are inspiring a whole generation of young Mormon women to take on careers, to prepare themselves for the eventualities of life, and are exposing them to the great promise life holds for them, very definitely an expansive view. This is an irreversible process, no matter how many of us they fire or push out. We have made our imprint on that place. They will never forget us, nor us them, even though I have resigned from BYU. We helped to change things for young women not even born. This is a fight for all Mormon women and this time it played out on the tidy lawns and antiseptic classrooms of BYU. But it is well to remember that it isn’t over yet. In part because so many of us have daughters, because we care about our female students, the difficult, perhaps horrible, work ahead takes on new poignancy and meaning.
The church’s reaction against feminist expression is destructive. Children are juxtaposed against professional contributions. This illogical dichotomy presents feminists as the enemies of mothering, of the home. Who wouldn’t be afraid of feminism when it is presented in this way?
In her book Women Who Run With the Wolves, Jungian psychologist Claudia Pinkola Estes discusses the importance of embracing Skeleton Woman, a dual-natured fertility figure that surfaces in certain Eskimo traditions. Skeleton Woman is a heap of bones after being punished by her father. She lives at the bottom of a lake until a fisherman, thinking he has made a big catch, snags her bones and reels her in. He is horrified at the sight of the skeleton rising from the lake and tries to escape. But her body is caught on the fishing line [p.137]and no matter how hard he paddles she is still connected to the boat, and as he rows away she appears to be chasing him, rising again and again in the wake of the boat. When he realizes that he cannot get away, he stops and builds a fire. Though frightened and exhausted, he is finally overcome with compassion and proceeds to untangle the heap of bones that are twisted upon themselves. After covering her with a bear skin, he falls asleep before the fire. During the night, the Skeleton Woman acquires flesh. When the lasherman awakes he is no longer lying next to a skeleton, but the soft, rounded form of a woman. She releases him from his long loneliness, and provides him with companionship that will nourish them both for the rest of their days.
I believe that fear of Skeleton Woman, which so easily can represent the feminist, has been designed by a male hierarchy but perpetuated by faithful and obedient women. They are the ones who spend far too much time wrestling with her bones, trying to free themselves from the threat she seems to pose, a specter created for us by others. Too many women have been indoctrinated as girls to believe they cannot or should not or will not be powerful. And by the time they are women they are convinced. And they are afraid every time that Skeleton Woman, the face of feminism, shows itself before them. It is fear of the unknown, fear of failing at the most sacred institution in their charge, their families, that prevents many Mormon women from joining in the work.
This past year the BYU Women’s Conference committee presented the name of Pulitzer Prize winning author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich as the keynote speaker to the school’s board of trustees. Ironically, the two female members of the board were both out of town. The board rejected her name because of numerous early publications she produced for publications like Dialogue and Exponent II, a Mormon feminist publication she helped organize. This so incensed the female intellectual community that a group of women called for an alternate conference. And in April 1993 a small but courageous group of women chose to speak out and take a stand whatever the costs and organized Counterpoint Conference. After pressure was leveled against faculty in the BYU English department, seventeen professors chose to withdraw from the program, and only one student from BYU stayed on the program and participated. Most [p.138]did not even attend. Consider the words of one professor, a feminist, as she expressed her reasons for withdrawing:
After talking to several administrators and colleagues at BYU and giving the matter much thought, I have decided with profound regret, to withdraw from the conference. I am convinced that the concerns I feel deeply about in my department and in the University at large will be compromised if I speak at this time, but not because anything I would say would be divisive or in any way critical of the LDS Church. Due to the present political climate in Utah and the polarization within the Church membership and leadership, I don’t believe my message will be fairly assessed. … This decision leaves me feeling quite hopeless; I see little possibility of ever having my own particular point-of-view heard. As a BYU faculty member, I do not believe women’s very real issues are addressed adequately. I often feel overwhelmed by the pain that women students and colleagues express.24
It is impossible to have traveled through the fall of 1993 without a knowledge of the Mormon church’s fear of feminism. The series of excommunications has been stimulated at least in part by the fear of powerful women, women empowered by ideas, and women willing to voice their criticism of church leaders. Certainly Apostle Boyd K. Packer’s biting condemnation of feminists as one of the three most serious threats to the integrity of the church today—Mormon intellectuals and homosexuals were the other two—sends a potent message to Mormon women: “Stay home, be silenced, accept traditional ways of doing things, be good, be happy.” But too many women believe the messages taught them as children, that they too, like their Mormon brothers are children of God, that they are of value, and that they must be the best that they can be. Anything less, and they fail in the most important commission they have been given.
If Mormon feminists represent the hideous face of Skeleton Woman rising again and again to haunt and confuse the leadership of this church, we must hope that leaders will eventually recognize in the guise of the Mormon feminist something of value, that acceptance  of the fear we seem to create offers the hope of great power and strength that will benefit us all.
Martha Sonntag Bradley is a former Professor of History at Brigham Young University, Associate Professor of History at the University of Utah, and coeditor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.