Not asking Permission: Reflections on the 40th Anniversary Exponent II Issue

“Ecstasy” by Maxfield Parrish

What I say is that women should not ask permission, they should just act.”  — Claudia Bushman in the upcoming anniversary Exponent II magazine

I love this idea that Claudia Bushman articulates in her article in the coming 40th anniversary issue of Exponent II. In one of the very first conferences I participated in with Claudia Bushman seven years ago, she hosted a discussion about women in the church. One of the points she made at that conference was similar — that women should come up with ideas and carry them out, working outside of church-sponsored forums. Think that the church should be more involved in humanitarian work, Claudia asked? Then start a humanitarian organization. Think that we need more books that highlight Mormon women’s voices? Write them yourself. Stop looking to the institutional church to carry out these projects and do them yourself. Make your own opportunities for leadership, vision, and community.

This advice resonates with me. While I would love the institutional church to change its ways and create more inclusive practices for women — and I have certainly picked my battles to create more visible roles for women in my ward  and the church at large– I also love this liberating vision that Claudia sets forth. That we act on our consciences, without always seeing the need to ask for permission from church leaders. (Joanna Brooks proffers this advice as well in her recent Dialogue essay and in this 40th anniversary Exponent II issue.)

My imagination runs away with me when I think of all the things we Mormon women might do if we gave ourselves permission to act as we see fit. In her article, Claudia mentions women giving blessings to one another and to their babies in their homes. Some of the most spiritual experiences I have had have involved women giving and receiving blessings, so I reflect with gratitude and thankfulness that other women have given themselves permission to do these blessings– which have in turn emboldened me to do the same. Recently I have experimented with prayer practices that involve Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother. This was a leap into the unknown for me, but it felt right to model to my children a seeking after God that acknowledged both our divine parents. They will make their choices ultimately about how they wish to connect to God, but I feel good that they will have some variations to pull from in their spiritual tool kit.

What else might we Mormon women do, if we authorize our own actions, without looking to church leaders for permission? Judy Dushku’s humanitarian organization in Africa is one example of a Mormon woman simply taking action and doing important work in the world. Cecile Pelous, French LDS fashion designer who sold her home to build an orphanage in Nepal is another example of a woman who saw need in the world and acted outside of church forums. When asked why she didn’t just let the church take care of this kind of humanitarian work, she. She responded, “This is the Church.  Me.  I’m a member of this Church, and this is the Church doing this.” This attitude inspires me to examine my conscience, step up, take responsibility, and do good in the world — without or without church leaders’ approval.

One way that I would love for us Mormon feminists to authorize our own actions and stop looking to the institutional church for approval and direction is to engage in generating our own practices. For several years, I’ve felt that the Mormon feminist community should begin creating its own rituals and products, objects and acts that we can pass down to our daughters to buoy them up as they confront the often spirit-crushing confines of patriarchy. Here are some ideas of practices and products that Mormon feminists generated at a session at a Sophia Gathering a couple of years ago.

  • produce art that features Mormon women and Heavenly Mother
  • create Mormon feminist liturgical calendars
  • institute a practice of Quaker-style clearness committees, to help women discern for themselves how to move forward with their lives
  • compose Mormon feminist songs and anthems
  • generate rituals of banishing and healing
  • engage in blessing rituals of women and babies

These are all practices and products that I would love to have available for my daughter and for myself, to help us navigate our women’s lives and bind us to our Mormon women’s community. I love many things about Mormonism, but among the best is the way we Mormon women can do sisterhood. Nowhere else have I found such full-hearted generous support and good intentions. I envision a world where more and more often, we women can look to one another, lift one another, and creatively connect to the divine together. When we give ourselves permission to act, amazing things will inevitably follow.

When you think of giving yourself permission to act according to your conscience, of instituting practices that would be healing and spiritual for you, what comes to mind? What are some of the things you would love to do and create, regardless of church leaders’ approval?

Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.


  1. I love these thoughts! It goes completely against our conditioning as Mormon women and I think it takes practice. But you are right that by doing and not asking, we will move forward at a faster pace. When I was still in the mode of asking permission, I felt like I was just hitting my head against the wall (and constantly getting into “trouble” with my leadership). I have felt more empowered since then, to look at my own life and talents, and to move forward with doing good and improving my own little corner of the world. I love your conclusion: “I envision a world where more and more often, we women can look to one another, lift one another, and creatively connect to the divine together. When we give ourselves permission to act, amazing things will inevitably follow.”

    • Thanks, Jenny. It it a total reorientation to just do, and not ask. And part of me is reluctant to give up on the asking, since I do care about the institutional church and I don’t think change will come unless we highlight issues — which often involves asking for change. But another part of me finds it very liberating to not worry about the institutional church and just do what I feel is the right thing to do.

  2. I absolutely love this, Caroline. I especially love the idea of a Mormon feminist liturgical calendar – I crave that kind of ritual. I love the idea of blessings at times of life change – something to celebrate girls passing into womanhood, for women getting married or having children, or getting higher education or a big life accomplishment. We could celebrate so much together as sisters!

    • Yes! I also love the idea of the liturgical calendar. Maybe we need to have a workshop at a retreat and get working on this project.

  3. This was so beautiful and moving to me, maybe because some of my most spiritual experiences also involved women claiming their spiritual gifts.

    I loved Joanna’s words and encouragement to this same theme, and am very much looking forward to reading Claudia’s words and perspective. She is a great, great example.

  4. I want to participate in blessings. Sisterhood and unity in love is so important and being able to pronounce a blessing or be the recipient of one seems like a great experience. However I don’t only need my permission but also that of the other sister(s).

  5. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, it is never a bad thing to go about doing good of your own volition.

    On the other, I am already contributing more than 10% of my income to the church and volunteering several hours a week for the church. Is it unreasonable to want my time and resources that I am already contributing to the church to go towards the Christian causes and priorities I value, not just those that are valued by male patriarchs? Women are already busy people giving much of their time and resources to the church. Asking them to somehow dig up more time and more resources to create their own spiritual opportunities seems unreasonable.

    And the idea of giving blessings surreptitiously without training or authority does not appeal to me at all. Men in our church are honored, encouraged and nurtured in their efforts to give blessings. I do not want to perform them secretly in my home as if I am ashamed. Not only could I be punished by the church, but I honestly do not feel authorized and able to perform sacred rites without the blessing of the church. I need nurturing and institutional help to develop my spirituality just as much as men do. I can’t do it without the help of the institution, and if I were male, no one would expect me to.

    Sometimes I feel like advice to women to just go rogue and do your own thing is both blaming the victim for not starting initiatives on her own (an act that would be unnecessary for men because they are already welcomed to participate in existing priesthood projects, ordinances and initiatives already begun by the church) and ignoring the realities of women’s lived experience–even if I develop my own spiritual initiatives and opportunities outside the church, every Sunday, I am still relegated to second-class status in the kingdom of God. That matters, even if the rest of the week is fulfilling for me.

    • These are really important points, April. I personally take a both/and approach. I think it’s important to discuss, question, and push back on institutional policies/teachings that place women in a secondary position. If our leaders don’t know that we’re unhappy about certain things, they’ll never discuss it and consider alternate ways of doing things. So I certainly affirm that path. But I also affirm the path of following our own spirituality and conscience. The reality I’ve been coming to grips with is that the church will probably in my lifetime never give me all that I want. So I need to get what I want in other venues and ways. I also have the the hope that if enough women decide to engage in such practices as blessings, then eventually these practices won’t be taboo and secret, and the institutional church will change its rhetoric on the matter. That happened with birth control — I’m an optimist that such grassroots practices like women giving blessings will also filter up.

  6. The whole “asking permission” thing reminded me of an incident in Sonja Johnson’s book “From Housewife to Heretic”. If you’re young, you won’t remember her or her fight for the Equal Rights Amendment. She testified before numerous government groups about the issue and eventually was excommunicated for believing women should have legal equality. One of[ her friends asked her why she didn’t ask the church’s permission before speaking. Johnson said that later she realized she had ceased to be a permission-asking woman.

    That phrase went through me like an arrow and I demanded that my name be removed from the records of the church. I have lived my life since then with the devout intention to never ask permission from anyone.

    Keep going, youngun’. Freedom awaits you, if you’re brave enough to grab it.

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