Point against point, this is the meaning of counterpoint. The term describes a musical tool where two or more voices are written in a way that is completely independent of one another but are harmonious when played next to each other. Indeed, it is the interdependence between the counterpoint lines that provides the interest and beauty to the music.
It was this metaphor that the Mormon Women’s Forum looked towards when they inaugurated the Counterpoint Conference in 1993; a hope that both the church and Mormon feminists could each sing their unique song but still be harmonious with one another. This hope was not realized. In 1993, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Claudia Bushman were banned from speaking at BYU, several feminist BYU faculty members were fired and many of the founding mothers of the Mormon Women’s Forum were excommunicated. There can be no counterpoint without a second voice and the voices of Mormon feminists were all but silenced for over a decade.
But that silence is no more. With the advent of blogging, Mormon feminism has had a renaissance and has opened up new areas of dialogue. It was this theme, “Women in Dialogue about Faith” that the 2009 Counterpoint Conference celebrated.
The conference began with a discussion led by Janice Allred about “Faith in Dialogue.” Allred suggested that there are four essential principles to having a productive conversation about faith. 1) All participants must come in as equals, each one with something to give and something to learn. 2) The participants must be independent from the comfort of their individual traditions. 3) Each participant must maintain ethical sensitivity and responsiveness. 4) Be able to self-criticize. In order to have productive dialogues we have to be willing to acknowledge our own culpability and contributions the suffering and oppression of other people. By following these principles and participating in faith dialogues, we have a chance to experience the creative process of opening our minds and changing our thoughts and actions for the better.
This introductory session was followed by four women who shared their stories of why they stayed in Mormonism or why they chose to leave the church. I appreciated these women’s willingness to share their personal faith journey. It was clear that for one of these women, Mormonism has inflicted deep wounds that may never heal. Another of the panelists was a very young woman and I believe that she needs time to understand the nuance and complexity of Mormonism and her relationship to it.
Perhaps because I myself have chosen to stay, I found the stories of the two women who also stayed the most powerful. Lavina Fielding Anderson was one of those feminists who was excommunicated in 1993 and yet after 16 years she still faithfully attends her ward every week. She shared her six major reasons for staying, ranging from the importance of the church for her family to her own profound testimony of the doctrine. But also she stays because her presence is a powerful reminder to those in authority that the church let go of her, she did not let go of the church. Vickie Stewart Eastman provides a wonderful example of how to stay a faithful, active LDS feminist. I loved her description of being richly nurtured by a tradition that constrains her. I also feel this way and hope to find the same acceptance that Eastman has that mainstream Mormonism is her stage to act on. Mormonism is her home and although this home may be dysfunctional, it is her home and she has earned the right to live there, serve there and speak there.
After a question and answer period that revealed the still very present pain over the public excommunications of feminists, the group broke for a wonderful lunch and the keynote speech. fMhLisa was awarded the Eve Award, a beautiful relief sculpture of Mother Eve and then charmed us with her life story and her thoughts about Mormonism, feminism, motherhood and the future. Hopefully Lisa will post parts of her speech over at fMh but I was particularly excited about Lisa’s desire for a fourth-wave of feminism or what she calls “motherhood feminism”. Lisa said that we have lost a generation of women who see feminism as irrelevant to their lives and, as she put it, maybe this is the case, especially if they’re single. Feminism has done a great job at opening up opportunities for single women to have an equal chance at an education and career but once these women get married and start having children, equality is no longer on the table. Mothers are struggling and feminism is not helping them. For too long the rote answer of mainstream feminists was don’t have children. This is not a realistic or helpful answer because most women want children. And this is where Mormon feminism could be really influential; because of our focus on family we could really help mothers gain equality, not only in our own culture but the rest of society.
The next session was about finding a balance between spirituality and religion. I was so impressed with the three women who spoke; they had amazing sensitivity, clarity and strength. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about this session because I don’t want this post to get too long but if you would like a complete set of my notes please feel free to email me. Also, Ellen Decoo is one of my new favorite people.
OK, now for a little bit of navel-gazing. The next session was about the faith conversations we have on the internet through blogs like Exponent II and Feminist Mormon Housewives. Our very own Jana spoke first and shared some of the important connections she has made with people through this blog and her personal blog, PilgrimSteps. Jana has found that being vulnerable and sharing personal experiences often creates bridges where none were before. Jana was followed by fMh’s mfranti. Melanie talked about her multiple life experiences that have helped her be an effective “facilitator” of dialogue on Feminist Mormon Housewives. She also talked about how feminist blogs help her and many Mormon women become their own brand of Mormon. Jessawhy echoed this sentiment in talking about how blogs provide an outlet for religious tension. These blogs perform an important service by helping those of us on the edge stay within Mormonism. However, we have to be careful not to fall into an echo chamber of rigid thinking and dismissive attitudes with people we disagree with. Hopefully Jana and Jessawhy will post their talks, they were really beautiful and I was so proud to count them as my sister-bloggers. The session was ended by the enigmatic and engaging Sara Burlingame, a.k.a . crazy woman creek. For those who don’t know, Sara has never been a Mormon and identifies as an atheist feminist but she is a testament to the bridges that blogging can build. Sara freely admitted to having preconceptions about Mormon women before getting involved with fMH. But now that some of those pre-conceptions have dissipated, Sara actively proselytes for Feminist Mormon Housewives and is committed to helping us in the coming Mormon feminist revolution. What I found most beautiful about Sara is her willingness to engage and be respectful of women who are drastically different. Our community is a much richer place because of her and we are lucky that such a woman has befriended us.
The last session really brought the theme of women in dialogue about faith full circle. Margaret Toscano interviewed her friend and colleague, Jacqueline Osherow. Jacqueline Osherow is a conservative Jewish woman, a feminist, English professor and a poet. This interview was fascinating and I found myself wishing that I could take a class from Dr. Osherow. Because this is probably the longest post in Exponent history, I have decided that instead of giving a breakdown of their conversation, I would link you to one of her books of poetry to prove how amazing Osherow is. If you want the details of this session please email me.
The mission of the Counterpoint Conference is finally beginning to be realized. When it started in 1993, Counterpoint was supposed to be a place where the voices of many different groups of feminists could be heard. And this weekend showed that was possible. Not only were the women from Mormon Women’s Forum present, but so were Exponent and fMh women, BYU students and feminists from Utah, Southern California, Arizona and Denver. Together we are strong; we could accomplish Lisa’s dream of fourth-wave feminism or the revolution that crazy woman creek dreams for us.
I can’t say enough how wonderful it was to be in the presence of these amazing women. It was such a pleasure to be with Jana and Jessawhy, to meet for the first time D’Arcy and Alisa, mfranti, Artemis, fMhLisa, foxyJ, Ellen, Sara/crazy woman creek and all of the other feminists who participated. These women have richly blessed my life; they have given me strength when I was weak, given me hope when I was hopeless, have made me cry and then helped me laugh. I have heard their voices, the music they make is beautiful. And their counterpoint to the church, well, it is nothing short of magnificent.