How My Mormon Faith Inspired My Feminism

My faith teaches amazing things about human potential—things that I grab onto and have held onto in dark times in my life.

Mormons believe that all humans have a divine worth that transcends the dumb struggles of daily life, that a mistake doesn’t define you, and that you can hold onto these wonderful aspects of your immortal soul to guide you because we are literal offspring of Heavenly Parents. Parents—plural—a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother, separate beings united in the cause of their children. Who wouldn’t want two kind and eternally wise people in your corner?

I have felt their distinct influences in my life. I have found few things as empowering in my life as knowing that I have a mom in Heaven that is an example of what I can become. Perhaps equally as empowering is having a dad in Heaven that loves that I’m a woman and wants me to be successful in who I am, as simply me.

This revelation about how my Heavenly Parents felt about me changed my understanding of being a woman. I had spent forever trying to reconcile who I was and the cultural ideals of womanhood. In Mormonism in the U.S. there’s some hefty cultural baggage about what it means to be a woman.

I’m getting a PhD. I’m single at 38 and have never married. I’m outspoken. My politics definitely do not align with the norm in Utah (where I grew up). One day I’ll wear a ball cap and cargo shorts to a Mets game. The next day I’ll be wearing makeup and will have done my hair “all cute.” I had wondered for years if I weren’t doing the womanhood thing better on the cute hair days.

Wondering about my cute hair was nothing compared to how I questioned myself and my role as a woman in a church setting. I feel like I am getting mixed signals about how important I am as a member of this church. In 1978 a leader in our faith proclaimed that

We need women who are organized and women who can organize. We need women with executive ability who can plan and direct and administer; women who can teach, women who can speak out.

However, in action on a church-wide scale, I don’t see this play out nearly as much as I would like it to. In our recent April General Conference where leaders gather from around the world to speak in six different sessions only four of 36 speakers were women. We have a General Women’s Session. Three of the four speakers were women in the session. A session for men happens on Saturday night where all the speakers are men. This means that there are four general sessions for the church membership at large, young and old, male and female. Just one of the 27 speakers during the four general sessions was a woman.

The paucity of women speaking again seems to fly in the face of things that are taught as principles of our faith. In 1959 a leader named Joseph Fielding Smith said about women, “You can speak with authority, because the Lord has placed authority upon you” and that “(women have) been given power and authority to do a great many things. The work which they do is done by divine authority.”

Yet I see so few women speaking to the church as a whole. The cultural undertow pulls heavily in this regard. Although it is not a religious edict, I hear from so many that women speak to the women and children. The men speak to us all. When I mention these problems rarely do men argue with me. Rather I usually hear rebuttals from other women.

Here is where I feel the most conflict. I see my male leaders not realize how few opportunities they give women to speak, which creates the tacit understanding that men don’t need to learn from women (no matter what the men might teach over the pulpit during our General Conferences). I think some of this is simply years of male-dominated tradition that we can’t seem to break out of, even after some recent advances in the visibility and roles of women in leadership. It’s certainly not doctrinal that more men than women must speak in General Conference. But some of the women in my church culture are the most vicious to me when I say that I want to hear from more women, and that I’m concerned that women’s voices are being silenced by lack of opportunity. I do not feel overall the men in my church telling me to “shush” when I talk, but I do feel this from women.

Some women simply state that they feel differently or that they don’t care how many women speak. Some, though, have doubted my faith as a Mormon with some very pointed and antagonistic statements. I honestly understand the reaction. I’ve also had visceral reactions when I hear people speaking about my religion in ways that cause me discomfort. In fact, growing up I fought back against some statements that I now embrace because I was afraid of speaking against my leaders because I really do want to be a faithful Mormon.

This discomfort was good, though, because it led me further to truth. I have realized over time that being a faithful Mormon means standing up for the worth of all of God’s children, so I am led to where I find myself today:

a feminist Mormon because of what I know about my Heavenly Parents and how they feel about me and their daughters.

In these same moments of being shushed or condemned by women, I am also lifted up by so many of my friends and family that feel as I do. We want to hear from more women. We need the voices of women.

In smaller settings I have heard some of the women leaders in our church speak boldly and powerfully. In fact, these women are leading our church’s refugee efforts. These stories must be told. We need to learn truths from these actions. I feel like I see so many women in my local congregation and in the church inside and outside of the U.S. carrying so much of our work. This is what we should be doing.

If we are divine children of Heavenly Parents, shouldn’t this be exactly what we’re tasked with? And yet, it is commonly women that silence me or question me when I ask for these stories to be told by women to the church as a whole. I have not yet figured out how to bridge this gap in what I see as eternal doctrines of the divinity and worth of every human, and how things play out in a church led and populated by imperfect beings.

Tension in religious faith and action exists because we are imperfect beings believing that we can slowly shed beliefs and actions that hold us back. This tension, if we allow it to make us into better and more compassionate people can lead us to find new paths toward a divine homecoming. Men and women, all of us, that are trying to make ourselves and our world better deserve to have our voices heard so that we can know who we need to comfort and what pain we need to heal.

We need to learn from the examples of all people that do good. This will forever be my point as a human that happens to be a woman and a Mormon.

About Vanessa Swenson

PhD student in linguistics focusing on African Portuguese varieties. Fan of baseball, science and history documentaries, and road tripping.

View Comments