The Role of the Faithful Feminist

Woman in the Church

By Jessawhy

A few weeks ago EmilyCC and I decided to ditch our husbands and kids and go to dinner. We had a great time talking about our families, our lives, and our beliefs. We also talked about feminism and the church and gospel issues that confuse or upset us. In the end, I asked her, “Why do you stay in the church?”
Her answer had two parts. First, she said she has received personal revelation that this is the church where God wants her to be. She said the answer only came once, and she hasn’t received any follow-up revelations regarding specific doctrinal questions. The next part surprised me a little. She talked about how she sees her role as a faithful feminist as important for the church. Referring to 1 Corinthians 12: 12-27 and the Body of Christ imagery, she discussed how she sees feminists as an important part of that body. The scripture talks about how the eye and the hand each have different roles, but one is not more important than the other. As faithful feminists, we have a role to play just like any other member. Then I mistakenly placed 1 Corinthians in the Old Testament and we had good laugh. (Sheesh, I guess it’s time to read the Bible again)

But the importance of a faithful feminist in the church is an image to which I keep coming back. Since I’m still navigating my role as an LDS feminist, and because I’m generally opinionated and occasionally confrontational, I have trouble finding the balance between faith and questions in a Sunday School/Relief Society setting. Part of my trouble is how I frame feminism in a gospel context. Sometimes I see it as way to have a gospel discussion (read disagreement). But, I want to see it as a way to help individuals who struggle with patriarchy or other issues and have not found resolution through typical church responses.

Starfoxy recently posted on a similar topic as she explained how she, as a Radical Feminist continues to be part of a Patriarchal church. I liked this,
“My goal is damage control, and improving individual lives as much as possible, changing the structure of the world where we can, but otherwise working within the existing structure for the benefit of individuals.”
I think she’s right that the goal is to help individuals. Sometimes feminism can be helpful, or at least understanding.

Here’s my recent experience:
The woman I’ve been visit teaching for 4 years was recently released from 3 years as YW President (a few years after being Primary President) then called directly as RS President. She has 2 children ages 12 and 13 at home and has admitted to me that she is burned out and wishes she didn’t have this calling. So, I listen to her, validate her concerns, and encourage her to talk to the bishop about her feelings. Of course I don’t have the authority to know if her calling was from God, but I do want to help her know that she has the option of saying no, even to the bishop.

What are the ways, large and small that feminists can contribute to the church, and affect the lives of members individually? How do you see your role and follow your conscience as you try to strike the balance between faith and feminism at church?


  1. “So, I listen to her, validate her concerns, and encourage her to talk to the bishop about her feelings. ”

    Um, how was that response different from those of us who are NOT feminists?

    I thought it was a lovely and nurturing way to treat a sister in pain, but I don’t see the connection to feminism per se.

  2. DH loves to tell me that the Church needs women like me, but I’ve struggled with this. While I can speak out among like-minded individuals, I usually am pretty quiet and don’t rock the boat in church. My last calling was Primary Chorister, and while I loved the female prophet verses presented earlier on this site, there’s no way I would have felt comfortable actually implementing these in my ward’s primary during “Follow the Prohpet”–I would hate the awkwardness, that I would offend people, that I’d be stepping out entirely by myself. And when we had an RS lesson a few months ago where we read Pres. Benson’s “To the Mothers in Zion” talk about how it’s wrong for any woman to work for any time outside the home, I sat there in horrified, shame-riddled silence. So, how can I really provide value as a feminist if I don’t feel comfortable acting out as one? I just am not ready to do that, and I may never be. And, all I do individually with sisters in the ward is help them with their resumes so they can be more empowered in the workforce. I am doing that for the RS service auction as well since I don’t have any outstanding domestic skills to speak of. Maybe that’s my way of putting my beliefs into practice, but that seems quite minimal.

  3. Naismith,
    I should be more specific about my advice to this woman. I told her my opinion, that the Bishop was wrong to call her. I also urged her to tell him she wouldn’t do it anymore (she had begged him to reconsider, as though she didn’t have the ability to say no). She, and most women dare I say, hadn’t considered saying no. That is why I thought it was more feminist, but maybe it’s just typical.
    I do have a friend in the ward whom I confide in about my liberal or feminist ideas who just looks at me like I’m crazy and says, “Isn’t that just common sense?” I like her 🙂
    It is hard to speak out and be alone. So many people aren’t comfortable with anything outside the typical RS comments. I am learning, from you and others, that we only feel loved and accepted when we present our true selves. I guess that’s another reason to be a feminist at church, to be our true selves and help people accept us (and do the same for others). I want to think that even people who don’t necessarily agree with us will still love and support us despite our different ideas.
    And maybe this online forum is the place for that, not at church. I don’t know. But, at least I hope you can feel accepted here even if you don’t at church.

  4. I think there are things we feminists can do. Though I admit that it’s certainly not easy a lot of the time.

    1. make smart, insightful, and progressive comments in SS and RS.

    2. volunteer to teach lessons and give them an empowering, subtley feminist twist. (quote Chieko Okazaki as much as possible and use examples of great women throughout. Mother Teresa works great.)

    3. be proactive when something offensive is done. On a family history bulletin board in my church there was an offensive sign which said that our goal was the ‘patriarchal order’ with a picture of a newly wedded couple right under it. They clearly meant something like celestial marriage, so I quietly changed the sign to say that. It’s now been there for 3 years. No one knows who changed it or why.

    4. When something offensive is said or done in lessons and talks, kindly address either the speaker or RS president and voice your concerns. Chances are people will be more careful in the future.

    5. Be open about who you are. If you are a working mom and loving it, be open about that and talk about why that works for you. Mention it in discussions.

    6. Write. Blog. Learn how other smart feminists are navigating the waters and contributing in a positive and progressive way.

    7. Start a book group with open minded women in your ward. Discuss these issues. Raise consciousness. Read and discuss some of the classic feminist Mormon articles.

    8. Tell people about things like Exponent and Feminist Mormon Housewives. A lot of women have these concerns but have no idea that stuff has been written about it.

    9. Volunteer a lot in your ward. If you build up credibility as a generous giving person, people will give you the benefit of the doubt when you speak up in RS in a feminist way.

    10. Don’t be afraid to do things a little untraditionally. My husband and I blessed our baby at home rather than church so that I could hold the baby with Mike. Not only that, I also wrote the blessing, which Mike read.

    There are some ideas… mainly for me the bottom line is talk. write. be open. applaud when things are done well. kindly address when things are done badly. And go with your own conscience, even if it goes against church policy or tradition.

  5. Ah, this post is music to my ears! My husband often asks me “why I belong to a church where….” (fill in anything regarding patriarchy issues, conflicted feelings about the temple, women’s voices being heard, etc.) I, like Emily CC, have had a witness that this the place where I am supposed to be. As I grow into myself there are things that I grapple with which I never even thought of as a younger woman. A few years ago I was called as the YW Pres. in our ward. I truly felt that as a feminist I needed to show the girls the realities of being a woman in the modern church. I worked hard to staff the organization with strong women from every walk of life. My first counselor was married to a non-member with children from her first marriage, the second was a return missionary who had been divorced, and then while in the presidency, got remarried. My secretary was a woman, with all but one daughter grown, who had gone back to school for a nursing degree and had grown up in the ward. Two of our advisors were young marrieds, one in school and one a choir teacher at an area high school. I was the traditional SAHM, but hyperactive in the PTO and teaching preschool a few days a week. I wanted these girls to see that there wasn’t one mold for an active LDS woman. Even though many of the YW lessons were centered on an outline of how one should be, I wanted them to see that the outline came in many forms and one could still be an active participant in the gospel if they didn’t fit the exact mold. Knowing that there are many Uber-Mormons among our congregation, I didn’t stand on the table and rend my bra in twain. I simply let the lives of these women from wide backgrounds speak through their actions and the lessons/activities they created for the girls.
    Were we successful? In the long run, I really don’t know. Of the gang I taught for 3 years, my favorite one was a YW who went off to college, got married and is pursing her education further. She seems so grounded, despite having gone through her parents’ divorce while with me in YW. She is well on her way to knowing who she is at such a young age (I am so envious!)
    When I reflect on what I did for those years, I feel that it rang true to who I was as an LDS feminist. (and no, I don’t consider that title an oxymoron…)

  6. Alisa, I think I’m similar to you in terms of what I do in Church. While I wrote the post about Primary songs, I don’t know if I would be brave enough to belt out “Deborah was a prophet.”

    As a SAHM, I think I feel a bit more freedom to show my feminist self, but I still rarely make comments in classes.

    I think Kirsten’s approach is such a good one–showing the diversity of women in presidencies is so important. I’ve been happy to see that a lot in our stake lately (from the feminists and women who wouldn’t use that label).

  7. Thanks for the post. I don’t have anything profound to add other than I agree that it is vital for faithful feminists to have a presence in the church. I also think it is important to be honest with ourselves that the ease of being a feminist in the church goes in cycles. There will be times where those of us who consider ourselves feminist will be at peace with the complexities of gender issues in our culture and doctrine. There will also be times when those same issues feel like salt in a fresh wound. I believe that part of being a faithful feminist is being flexible enough to deal with the ebb and flow of living a complex life.

    I also wanted to thank Caroline for the suggestions she made above. I am in one of those painful cycles that I talked about above. I think a lot of it has to do with being hormonal and pregnant but over the past couple of weeks my anger at church has reached an unhealthy level. I have been seriously contemplating taking a break from church until either my hormones normalize or the baby comes. This was not something I really wanted to do but couldn’t think of any other solution. Your suggestions were a good reminder that I should be more proactive in making my church experience as positive as possible.

  8. Caroline,
    Great suggestions, (Can I just delete my post and insert your list?). I especially like that you changed the sign and didn’t tell anyone. Very clever.
    What a good example to those young women. I had a Laurel advisor who was married to a non-member and I only remember feeling very sorry for her and that she wished she’s never gone out with him to begin with. I didn’t learn to appreciate mixed religion marriages until much later.
    EmilyCC, I wonder what you mean by “As a SAHM, I think I feel a bit more freedom to show my feminist self.” Do you feel more mainstream LDS, and therefore more comfortable?
    You are absolutely right about the ebb and flow of comfort with the church. A few short months ago I wouldn’t have written this post. Even now, I chose not to go to Stake Conference last week, I stayed in bed and read a book. We do the best we can with what we have. And the hormones of pregnancy do make things more complicated.
    I wish you peace as you navigate your relationship with the church during your current cycle. (and come over sometime so we can play games!)
    Thanks everyone for your comments.

  9. mraynes,
    I know what you mean about the ebb and flow. A couple of years ago I was really angry. Now I’m less so, and I think it’s because I’ve drastically lowered my expectations. I just expect that most lessons and talks will be lacking. I expect that LDS leaders will not be progressive when it comes to gender issues. So when something insightful or spot on is said or done, I’m pleasantly surprised.

    It may be a positive thing for you to take a break. But please do come back. Feminist Mormons (and regular Mormons, whether they know it or not) need you and your ideas. 🙂

  10. Deborah, of course you are jealous. EmilyCC is funny, fun, and brilliant. You may also join us if you’re ever in Phoenix!
    Are you coming to the DAMW retreat at the end of the month? I’d love to meet you.
    MRaynes, EmillyCC, and I are piling in a car and making the 13 some-odd hour drive (in a hybrid, to reduce emissions 🙂
    We are rad-eco-Mormon-feminists
    WooHoo, Road Trip! (please don’t get images of that crazy Britney Spears movie that I never saw)
    Is anyone else going?

  11. Ooop, sorry, I wasn’t very clear there, Jess…yes, as a SAHM, I feel like people aren’t as wary of me as when I was, oh, a graduate student in theology studying feminism or a chaplain performing last rites and baptizing babies (and for the record, that’s not what I did! 🙂 )

  12. And, I’m tired of Deborah’s job getting in the way of her attending retreats (well, at least the ones I’m able to attend). I think the stars last aligned for us at the 2002 EXII retreat.

  13. Thanks for this post, Jess. I’ve been buried in final exam stuff lately (sigh) and my brain is too fried to put together any coherent substantive thoughts at the moment. (And I’m about to start grading — mwahaha).

    But I really appreciate your thoughts in this post, and the discussion that’s followed. Heaven knows, I’ve spent a little time trying to figure out how to reconcile feminism and faith. I’m not sure that the fit is perfect, but it’s important to try.

  14. When I was in college, my mother was called to be in the Young Women’s presidency of my home ward. She was absolutely mystified.

    My mother is a very good woman. However, she is not your typical US member. She is an immigrant from Japan. She is a convert, and was married in the temple a year after her wedding to my father. Yes, she was a mother of four, but she was working fulltime after having spent 14 years at home. She is incredibly independant. And while she loves her children fiercely, she does not automatically relate well to children.

    When she asked her bishop (a man who I especially appreciated) why she was being called to this position, he said that the young women of the ward needed her example.

    I feel that my feminist influence is not felt very much in my ward. I have a hard time relating to the female regulars, and most of my interactions with them stay on the surface. However, I organie a lot of informal activities for the single people in my area, and it is in this forum that I discuss my ideas and thoughts on the interaction between women and men and deity, and where I have the most influence on helping others understand my point of view. It’s a slow process, this one on one sharing of ideas, but it’s where I’m most effective.

  15. This feels like a small thing, but I’m going to speak to the bishop about Father’s Day. After today’s Mother’s Day themed sacrament meeting, I found out that the theme for sacrament meeting on Father’s Day is “Priesthood and Relief Society” rather than “Fathers.” Bad sign. If we honor mothers (however awkwardly!), we must honor fathers; otherwise we are saying that the father is the lesser parent, and we perpetuate unfortunate stereotypes. We confound priesthood and fatherhood, which is unfortunate. We’ll see what happens.

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