Book Review | BYU Studies

Book Review

Mormon Feminism
January 5, 2017
Book Review
Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings by Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, and Hannah Wheelwright
Camille S. Williams

This daily feature is an introduction to a full Book Review by Camille S. Williams. To read the full text of this review, follow the link below.

The editors of Mormon Feminism seek to introduce readers to "the Mormon feminist movement through the words of the women who have lived and built it" (1). For the editors' purposes, "Mormon" is broadly defined to include "anyone who identifies with the Latter-day Saint movement" (2), including those from other faith traditions and those who reject various teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. From the outset of the book, "feminism" is defined as "espous[ing] fair and equal treatment for all" persons (3), divorcing the term from aspects of its history that are troubling to many Church members and are in conflict with LDS doctrine, such as the view that elective abortion is central to female autonomy. The book includes sixty-one writings from 1970 to the present, purported to "have played a historic role in developing Mormon feminist history and theology, or have articulated key issues, tensions, and dimensions of Mormon women's lives" (9). Forty-one authors are included, most of whom are academics or independent scholars; while Mormon Feminism is published by a highly respected academic press, the book is written for an educated general audience and frequently departs from a scholarly approach. Consequently, readers will not find here a very deep or methodical exploration of those aspects of feminism that are valued and integrated into the religious lives of many Latter-day Saints around the world.

Despite the initial apolitical definitions of feminism, many of the writers critique the Church, along with its subculture in the United States, via a species of "the personal is political" feminist analysis. Liberal feminist views, such as Elouise Bell's Brigham Young University speech (47–49), are fewer in number than the structural feminist analyses, such as those excerpted in part 2. Structuralist views are illustrated by the editors' comment that "with the consolidation of Church bureaucracy around an all-male priesthood chain of command, dimensions of Mormonism significant to women—including the doctrine of Heavenly Mother and the time-honored woman-centered forms of religious authority and spiritual practice—[have] been diminished or lost" (118). Poststructuralist power analyses included in parts 3 and 4 are characterized as arising from a "critical mass of Mormon feminists . . . who pushed the movement toward new frontiers in consciousness, theology, and action" until a "backlash followed," and those who advocated for new conceptions of priesthood, worship, gender, and Church government were disciplined (171). The proffered minimalist definition of feminism contrasts sharply with structuralist assumptions embedded in many of the writings, most starkly in the invective of Sonia Johnson (73–78) and the womanist intersectional polemic of Gina Colvin (271–73), who opines that correlated Mormonism "has many of us dribbling with boredom" and has "given rise to a tide of viciousness and meteoric cruelty from those thinking they are doing the work of Jesus with their spew of vile recriminations" (272).