The Many Faces of Mormon Feminism: The 2nd Wave

Below is my take on 2nd Wave Mormon feminism, much of it based on Hanks’ volume Women and Authority. If you have more to contribute, or anything to amend, please do!

After women received the vote in 1919, first wave Mormon feminism dissipated. Slowly but inexorably, privileges and rights that women had taken for granted a generation before were shifted more to male priesthood holders. Whereas before LDS women had freely laid hands on one another and blessed, new edicts came from Presidents like Joseph F. Smith that such actions were inappropriate.

In this era of mid 20th century, Mormonism began to assimilate with the U.S. culture at large. And just as all women of the 1950’s were encouraged to embrace traditional concepts of femininity, so Mormon women were as well. But out of the turmoil of the 60’s came the Women’s Movement, and several Mormon women began asking the same questions women all around the country exploring. And out of these questions sprang some important milestones in the study of 2nd Wave Mormon feminism.


After male Church leaders forced the retirement of The Relief Society Magazine in the 60’s, Mormon women were left without an official publication that specifically was produced for and by them. However, in the early 1970’s, a group of women in Boston founded the non-Church sponsored Exponent II newspaper, after discovering the fiery and feisty writings of female leaders in the original Women’s Exponent. In thoughtful personal essays, this newspaper gently led women towards feminism as it explored the tough issues of feminism, mothers working, being single in a married church, even occasionally abortion and gay/lesbian issues. At about the same time, publications like Dialogue were gaining an audience and also explored women’s issues.

International Women’s Year

In 1977, an International Women’s Year Convention convened in Utah. Church leaders, uncomfortable with the political purpose of this convention, organized thousands of Mormon women to go to this convention to defeat all the proposals. Instead of the 3000 women that were expected, 10,000 showed up and hysterically shouted down every proposal, including an item agenda about promoting equal pay for equal work. The convention organizers were left “dazed, feeling betrayed, ashamed at the action of their sisters, and offended at the level of hysteria in the meeting.” (From Hanks’ Women and Authority)

Mormons For ERA

In 1978, a group of LDS women formed Mormons for ERA. Sonia Johnson was president and she guided this group as it worked for the passage of the amendment as well as to expose the Church’s organized but surreptitious efforts to defeat it. This organization’s tactics were offensive to many Church members. They chained themselves to temple gates, hired airplanes to fly banners supporting ERA over major Mormon gatherings, and voted no to sustaining Church leaders. With the defeat of the ERA, this group disbanded, with its members either quieting their voices or leaving the Church, or continuing to agitate to improve women’s position in the Church. Sonia Johnson was ultimately excommunicated.

Mother in Heaven

The 1980’s saw an increase in interest in the LDS doctrine of Heavenly Mother. The 1980 Relief Society Eliza R. Snow Poetry contest brought numerous submissions that dealt with the feminine divine. Dialogue, Exponent II, Mormon Women’s Forum, and Sunstone published poems and articles about Mother in Heaven. In the late 80’s, Carol Lynn Pearson wrote a play detailing several different women’s relationships with the Mother God. The backlash came in 1991 when Faust and Hinckley warned women to not stray towards “the beginnings of apostasy” by praying to Heavenly Mother.

My next post will deal with 3rd wave Mormon feminism.

Ideas to consider:

  • Are there any other important events that should be added to this outline of 2nd Wave Mormon feminism?
  • Why do you think there was such a backlash against these Mormon feminists, whereas 1st wave Mormon feminists were embraced and admired by the Mormon population as a whole?
  • What is your reaction to the tactics and strategies of some of these 2nd wave Mormon feminists? And what is your reaction to the Church’s organized opposition to them and to the ERA?
Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.


  1. First, a couple of coreections:

    1) I am unaware of any edicts by President Joseph F. Smith that women blessing and healing was inappropriate.

    2) I’m really quite certain that at any time in our Church’s history that the Church hierarchy would categorize praying to Heavenly Mother as apostate.

    The earliest feminists were in many ways fighting for things that the Church had already promoted and were taken away by the federal government (to the chagrin of Church leaders, i.e., the governments action). These women fought fiercely in support of polygamy and were trusted by the hierarchy.

  2. Jay,
    Thanks for your comments.

    1.) Regarding Joseph F. Smith, I did find this in Linda King Newell’s essay.

    “An October 1914 letter to bishops and stake presidents from President Joseph F. Smith and his counselors established an official policy on “washing and anointing our sisters preparatory to their confinement.” Though little of the information was new, it was the first time such a statement had not come from the Relief Society. After affirming that sisters may wash, anoint, seal anointings, and bless a woman prior to giving birth, the letter stated: “It should, however, always be remembered that the command of the Lord is to call in the elders to administer to the sick, and when they can be called in, they should be asked to anoint the sick or seal the anointing.”

    2. You may be right. But it is interesting to think that Eliza R. Snow’s poem – now the lyrics to the hymn O My Father – adresses both mother and father. I believe the original title was even “Invocation, or the Eternal Father and Mother” That word invocation connotes prayer…

  3. Jay,
    I meant to add that you’re right that Joseph F. Smith was not the person to ultimately and defitively clamp down on women’s blessings. Joseph Fielding did that.

  4. In 1946 Joseph Fielding Smith sent the Relief Society a letter that stated “While the authorities of the Church have ruled that it is permissible, under certain conditions and with the approval of the priesthood, for sister to wash and anoint other sisters, yet they feel it is far better for us to follow the plan the Lord has given us and send for the Elders of the Church to come and administer to the sick and the afflicted”.

    That is where it basically says that women cannot administer.

    This is a great topic. The third bullet point question makes me so angry that I cannot write a response without deleing it because it is too harsh!

  5. I think J. Stapley is right to point out that first-wave feminism had mostly to do with suffrage, and so the first wave feminists were fighting the government for a specific political right.

    Second wave feminism (both inside and outside of the church) was more broadly focused. Second wave feminism encouraged feminists to critique and try to change unequal practices in patriarchal institutions, broadly speaking. For many Mormon women, the patriarchal institutions that needed to be critiqued included the church. As a result, women were no longer just fighting the government, they were questioning (and often critiquing) church teachings, methods of authority, etc.

    This placed second wave feminists in a potentially more antagonistic relationship with the church, and from what I can tell, things deteriorated from there.

  6. When I wrote the RS lesson post, I noticed that there were citations in the manual from The Relief Society Magazine. I was sad that I couldn’t look up the original source. That’s just an aside.

    Whenever I read about the International Women’s Year events, I feel ashamed, angry, and embarrassed. On the other side, I can see how the tactics of feminists involved with the ERA could be antagonistic and make people feel defensive.

    Thank you for writing this, Caroline. I can understand some things in the present better with added context from the past.

  7. tanya sue, that excerpt of a letter frequently gets rolled out as the “death knell” to women’s administering. This is not the forum to discuss all of the details surrounding it, but I think that this perspective is not particularly accurate.

    sarphine, I think it was more than suffrage, but the general placement was that. Polygamy forced women to support themselves and so you have folks like Brigham Young encouraging women to pursue professional careers. When Emmaline editorialized on equal pay for equal work, it was in a very different cultural setting than the Church of the 1970’s.

  8. J., You’ve intrigued me. Can you not tell us more about why you think that letter is not the death knell to women’s administering?

  9. J. wrote:

    “that excerpt of a letter frequently gets rolled out as the “death knell” to women’s administering. This is not the forum to discuss all of the details surrounding it, but I think that this perspective is not particularly accurate.”

    I want to know, then, what the forum for discussing this _would_ be??

    It sounds to me as if you’re intimating that because women still bless each other in the temple that they the brethren haven’t clamped down on women administering to each other. Am I right?

  10. No, I just meant that it requires going through a lot of data, in which blog comments aren’t the best place. If you are around SLC for MHA, Kris and I will have some time (but not much) to discuss this particular issue.

  11. J,
    I am curious do you think that the leadership of the church is ok with women administering outside the temple? In my mind I can’t picture most priesthood leaders being ok with it.

    Since I won’t be able to talk to you at length can you stear me in the right direction of where to start doing more research on the subject?

  12. Caroline, this is a very nice overview, and thank you for citing my work, also.

    I usually cite 1920 for women getting the vote, since the 19th Amendment was passed in 1919, but ratified in 1920.

    Also, it was 1970 when the R.S. Magazine officially ceased publication.

    For J. Stapely
    1) Both JF Smith and HJ Grant were unsupportive of women’s ecclesiastical power, in a number of ways.

    JF Smith advocated ordination for young men and priesthood correlation because the RS was “outperforming” the priesthood quorums. (JF Smith also denounced birth control).

    HJ Grant released Emmeline Wells from her position as RS Pres. to remove her power and the power of her office as leader of the female “quorum” or Relief Society.

    2) In the 19th-Century LDS Church–prayer, vision, and worship of the mother in heaven were not seen as apostate, including worship of Mother Eve and other mothers in heaven…

    3) The earliest feminsts — Lucy Mack Smith, Emma Hale Smith, Sarah Kimball and others — were concerned with topics other than suffrage. They were engaged by cultural feminist agendas (spiritualism, spiritual gifts, revelations, visions, speaking in tongues, blessings, healings, female god, temperance, etc.).

    Early Mormon feminists also engaged liberal feminist agendas (women’s suffrage, paid work, public work, education, political activism, public service, work outside the domestic sphere, even birth control).

    Early Mormon feminists were advocating more than what “the church” or male leaders were advocating, as seen in the genesis and life of the Relief Society…

    Respectfully and appreciatively,

    Maxine Hanks

    P.S. My material on feminism in W&A is excerpted from a much larger history of Mormon feminism that I compiled while working on W&A and presented in several lectures, but it was not included in W&A due to limited space.

  13. Thanks for posing some important questions with regard to Modern Mormon feminism, Caroline. Exponent II bloggers might be interested to know that a couple of concise, second-wave LDS feminist chronologies can be found in The Mormon Women’s Forum Quarterly, 3:3&4 and 9:1, now available in the publication archives at

  14. Maxine, 1) I agree that Heber J. Grant was pretty unsupportive and that JFS became that way in the 20th century. I still don’t think we have a good handle on JFS’s development, but the Priesthood crises at the turn of the century did play into things, I think. There were earlier prophets that denounced birth control as well.

    2) Of course 19th century worship was a bit confused by Adam-God. But I don’t see what we would consider modern worship of a Mother in Heaven in the 19th century.

    3) I’d be interested in any primary material that treated Emma or Lucy’s perspective on a female god. I am in solid agreement about 19th century female charisma.

    I also agree that the 19th century sisters advocated lots of things besides the vote. You are correct that they were quite innovative. As I mentioned in a previous comment, however, I think that all these things were “generally” supported by the Male hierarchy, which support was further bolstered because of their fierce loyalty. The genesis of the RS is a great example. If JS wouldn’t have supported it, I doubt that the sisters would have been blessing the sick immigrants as they filed of the boats.

    Tanya Sue, I think if you are serious about it, then going through the primary sources is the best way to go. I have serious problems with many of the essays in _W&A_, but the best way to gauge that work is to read the primary sources yourself.

  15. Maxinne,
    Thanks for your input. Your voice adds a lot of credibility to the discussion. Like J., I am fascinated by the idea of early Mormon women’s relationship to the female divine. I can’t help but wonder… if it were more widely known that early mormons worshipped Heavenly mother, maybe there would be more space for that nowadays?

    Lorie, thanks. I will go there and read up on that.

    J., it sounds like you’re doing some historical work on women in the early church. What’s your current project?

  16. What’s your current project?

    Kris and I are collaborating on Healing in Mormonsim (with a significant focus on women). You can see that outline of our MHA proposal here. We will be talking on Baptism for healing and women as healers. Hopefully we will have a couple of manuscripts out this year on related topics.

  17. “Why do you think there was such a backlash against these Mormon feminists, whereas 1st wave Mormon feminists were embraced and admired by the Mormon population as a whole?”

    As I see it:

    1st wave Mormon feminists supported the church and its leadership – and felt that the leaders were indeed called of God.

    2nd wave Mormon feminists seem to often have serious questions about the very existance of a God. 2nd wave Mormon feminism isnt about religion, its about politics.

  18. Caroline — I so agree that if people only knew more about the early Mormon precedent for mother god, the concept would be much more comfortable today–which has been a motive for much of my work over the years. (I’ve written a few other texts on the mother god and keep discovering new aspects).

    J.S.–your paper (w/Kris Haglund?)sounds like a fascinating look at the intersection of healings and baptisms. One reason re-baptisms were so common was their curative appeal for spiritual as well as other ills.

    I have compassion for JFS, and understand why he and other male leaders were sexist. I think Scott Kinney has a good handle on JFS’ development.

    I think “modern worship of a Mother in Heaven in the 19th century” includes all forms of worship–from vision to scripture to poetry to song, all of which occur in the 19th Century.

    I think “primary material on Emma or Lucy” is very hard to come by…especially their “perspective on a female god.” I was referring to their formation/participation in the feminist spirituality of 19th-Century America.

    Can you tell us more about your graduate/scholarly area, work?

    I’d have to respectfully disagree that “all things” Mormon feminists cared about “were ‘generally’ supported by the Male hierarchy” (and is that who you meant by “the church”?).

    The genesis, life, and autonomy of the RS was not greatly supported…
    although I agree that Joseph supported the R.S. to some extent (for complex reasons including sexist ones) while apparantly, the R.S. was denied formation in other towns.

    I’ve been doing primary research on Mormon history since 1975, but I don’t claim to know everything…
    the more I learn the less I know.

    Could you share your “serious problems with many of the essays in _W&A_” ?

    Having spent years researching that material and its primary sources, as did each contributor, and having chosen only the most solid material, while rejecting material that seemed less solid, I would be sincerely curious to know which sources you find faulty?

    appreciatively, Maxine

  19. Hi Maxine, J. is working with another, smarter Kristine–Kristine Wright. I’m hoping to look brilliant by mistaken association!

  20. Maxine, I did my graduate work in carbohydrate chemistry. Wrapped up my Ph.D. in 2004. If you are still interested (I wouldn’t blame you if you weren’t), I published a couple of papers last month in Carbohydrate Research.

    I hope some day Scott publishes his work on JFS. His papers are definitely a rich resource.

    I think we can respectfully disagree. I hope that my words were not taken to be a disrespectful disagreement. The contributors to W&A did use great sources and have multiple scores more experience than I. I don’t think, however, that the sources were always analyzed appropriately. Most of what I find problematic right now relates to the narrative and interpretations of women healing and authority (frequently priesthood) as that is my focus and is what is in the front of my consciousness. When we publish, I am sure that we will include the major critical points.

  21. Kris — you’re already brilliant, and without comparison. 😉

    J. — I’m curious to know how you evaluate whether “the sources were always analyzed appropriately.”

    Regarding the “the narrative and interpretations of women healing” as being “problematic,” how were Linda Newell, Ian Barber and Betina Lindsay problematic in narrative and interpretation?

    Rather than equate authority and priesthood, W&A made considerable effort to distinguish and problematize the two — not imply “authority (frequently priesthood)”

    I’m interested in any “major
    critical points” now or later.

    appreciatively, Maxine

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Click to subscribe for new post alerts.

Click to subscribe to our magazine, in circulation since 1974.

Related Posts

Can LDS Moms Stop Feeling Guilty for Wanting a Career Now?

Last month, the Deseret News (a church owned paper in Utah) ran a story about a very, very cool woman named Michelle Wright Amos....

The Mountain of the Lord’s House

This past weekend was General Conference. One thing at conference that made me happy was something President Nelson said in his talk in the...

Fight/Flight/Freeze/Fawn: Stress Responses to Sexist Comments

When was the last time you experienced a sexist comment? Maybe you were the only woman in a meeting and were asked to take...

The Atlanta Shootings: One Year On

Today, March 16, 2022, marks the one year anniversary of the Atlanta spa shootings where eight people, including six Asian American women, died. Do...
submit guest post
Submit a Guest Blog Post
subscribe to our magazine
Subscribe to Our Magazine
Social Media Auto Publish Powered By :