“In Good Conscience”: Mormon Feminists on the Brink -The Toast

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This is how things used to be: you opened your mouth or you kept it shut. If you spoke up, there were risks. Maybe everyone would shrug and forget about it. Maybe everyone would cluck and think, Oh, there she goes again, and you’d just be the ward eccentric, that one weirdo, beloved but never quite understood or respected. Then there was the other possibility, a very real outcome — that this would be the beginning of the end. You’d be asked to meet privately with the bishop. You’d be told you were on the verge of losing your temple recommend or facing formal discipline if you said such things. You’d be ostracized and cut out of the social machine that is a Mormon ward.

Keeping your mouth shut had its own risks. The loneliness, the doubt, the fear, the worry that you were the only one and nobody understood and what would they think of you if they knew? You could lose your spouse over this, you could lose your family, and so maybe the awful depression that surrounded you was worth it if you could hang onto them. 

Whichever way you chose, you almost always went it alone. There was no script to recite, no model to follow; you just made your own way.

But that is not how things are anymore. Now the world of Mormons isn’t just the couple hundred or so people who go to church with you every week. Now there are blogs by and for Mormon feminists. There are Twitter accounts and Facebook groups for people like you. You know you’re not alone. You can have a conversation, share your story, and hear people reply, “Me, too.” Those other people may live in other cities, some might be the lone feminists in their wards just like you are the lone feminist in yours. But now you can work together, bit by bit. You can organize. You can find your best argument, your strongest message, and deliver it together.

At one time, and most recently near the end of the 20th century, Mormonism took a strong stand against those who spoke up about feminism. Women were excommunicated for speaking out, writing articles, and trying to share their message widely. For many of us this seems as though it happened long ago; we were too young to observe it, and our mothers didn’t tell us about it.

Enough time passed that feminism within the church moved from dangerous to merely controversial. Over the last decade, the feminist Mormon movement has grown larger and made itself visible through organized acts of protest. Sometimes they fight against Mormon culture, the ways in which the church tells women they don’t matter and encourages them to conform to an outdated view of femininity and domesticity. Sometimes they fight against doctrine: one group has openly lobbied for women to be ordained as members of the priesthood. As they push harder, the church has begun to push back by once again excommunicating the outspoken — including Kate Kelly, who founded the Ordain Women movement.

The comfort and strength that comes with numbers, with connection, with knowing you are not alone cannot be overstated. Something has changed. It may never change back.

What we teach our little girls turns us into the women we are, and it breeds self-shame and self-blame and the need to always smile and say yes. This is how I was. I hated conflict and I hated rocking the boat. I was learning that not everything is happy, I don’t always have to say yes and smile, and sometimes when we avoid conflict we are overlooking real problems that should be addressed. That’s what finally did me in. –Genna

I am an atheist, liberal, feminist bisexual woman. I am also, technically, a Mormon, though I haven’t attended regularly in over a decade. I grew up in the church. I was baptized at eight years old. I was a Molly Mormon, as we say, the good girl who never broke the rules. I looked just right on the outside, but I never felt comfortable. I attended BYU for seven years and left single, since it turns out most men there weren’t interested in dating a biochemistry major or a law student; there were plenty of other young women who made their expectations clear by majoring in child development.

The more I came into my own, the less I fit the model of what I was expected to be as a Mormon woman. It started with small rebellions against the mostly unspoken rules of Mormon culture. But the culture is secondary to the doctrine, and ultimately it was the doctrine that led to the years of doubt and struggle that ended in my decision to leave the church.

I say I left the church, but there’s leaving and then there’s leaving. I stopped attending. I told my parents I didn’t believe anymore. I drank coffee and alcohol and wore tank tops and let my friends gradually figure it out. But I never removed my name from the official rolls of the church. Every year, when they announce their membership numbers, I am still included. Next year that number will finally be one less.

My husband and I were hoping to wait until our parents died before resigning. Our doing so will break their hearts, but we cannot in good conscience stay on the rolls. –Lynn

The decision to leave isn’t always like mine. I stopped believing in the church’s teachings, but I also stopped believing in God. I didn’t leave for another church or continue to study my scriptures and seek spiritual fulfillment on my own.

The thing that can be so hard to explain is how much many of us continue to love the church, whatever our beliefs. Some do leave vindictive and angry, but others leave only because we feel we must, and the loss is an ache that does not go away. We love the culture we grew up in. We love the rituals that are second nature to us. We love the doctrines and teachings we believe in. But then there are the things we don’t love, the things we can’t believe, the things that are inconsistent with what we feel in our hearts.

When you’re told that a thing is from God, being against it can feel like siding against God. When that happens, there’s a little part of you that you have to turn off. Yes, that was the subject of a rousing musical number in The Book of Mormon musical. But that switch is very real, and its effects are irreversible. Here you are on one side, they tell you, and here is God on the other. Between you might be just a thin line or a wide chasm, but there is something separating you. No matter how much you feel you are right, there is God, standing over there, proving you wrong.

Sometimes you’re not sure where God is. Who’s to say whether God supports this candidate or the other, whether God even cares? But at other times, there’s chapter and verse telling you exactly where God stands, and it’s not with you. You can choose whether to put down the part of yourself that believes something is right, or you can put down the part of yourself that loves God. In this situation, neither feels good.

I’m heartbroken and upset, but I’ve yet to finish my post-secondary degree at BYU, so if I put one toe out of line I could lose years of work and tuition money. My best-case scenario right now is to keep my head down and my trap shut until I can graduate, then let my recommend expire and stop tithing. –Elizabeth

Perhaps from the outside, it seems strange that the tipping point for so many feminists isn’t about feminism at all, or women within the church. But LGBT issues have dominated the church’s agenda for the last ten years, coinciding with Mormon feminists organizing online. The precursor was the Proclamation on the Family, released in the 1990s, distilling the church’s position down to one page: It forbade premarital sex, defined marriage as between a man and a woman, declared gender as “essential,” strongly discouraged divorce and single parenthood, and gave men and women drastically different roles within the family.

Then there was Proposition 8 in 2008, when Mormons were encouraged by their leaders to vocally and openly support and campaign in favor of the measure outlawing marriage equality in California. The church was a quieter but similarly strong force in battles over constitutional amendments prohibiting same-sex marriage around the country.

Now there is the new policy on LGBT families, taken from the church handbook, which offers guidance and lays out procedures for bishops and other priesthood leaders. It restricts children being raised by same-sex couples from being baptized at the normal age of eight, receiving the traditional naming and blessing ceremony given to infants, being ordained into the priesthood, or serving a mission. It does allow these children to be baptized and receive other church ordinances after the age of 18, but requires them to leave their household first and “specifically disavow same-gender cohabitation and marriage.”

This policy is not a cultural tradition or a habit. This is a statement from the leaders of the church, the men who have titles as prophets and apostles of God, who receive revelation on behalf of the church. This, we are told, is God. We have been told this before. The church has a history of racist and discriminatory policies — later revised or rescinded as times changed.

Some of us say this new discriminatory policy cannot be God. This is not the God we know, the one we were brought up to worship. Some of us see the problem not with God, but with the church itself. 

This is not the church I love. The God I know would never turn innocent children away…and most certainly would not tell them that it was for their own good. And yet, here we are. And that breaks my heart. –Kalani

I’m not sure why the policy change was so important to me because I don’t currently consider myself active in the church, but as soon as I read the policy, I started sobbing. To me, it simply felt like more evidence that the church doesn’t care about or trust people like me. –Kylie

This has been the final straw for so many of us. Those of us who never cared enough to leave officially but now cannot stand the association. Those of us who care deeply about equality and view this as an essential act of protest. We do it because we must. We know who we are. We know what we stand for. We cannot accept this, even from those who say they do it on God’s behalf.

Some of us leave behind our families, our spouses, our parents, our children, our friends, our teachers, our mentors. There is a narrative already created for those we leave behind, no matter what we say: We are not leaving because of integrity or faith or love. It is because we do not trust God’s prophets. We are letting our doubts rule our faith. God’s ways are not man’s ways, and we aren’t strong enough.

You’d think it would be easier to tell your non-Mormon friends about leaving the church, but it’s just painful in a different way. They treat us as if we’ve made the obvious rational decision and finally come to our senses. They don’t understand the pain of the decision, our torn loyalties, the complexities of faith.

This is the biggest and hardest thing we have ever done. The only ones who understand are others like us. So we stick together.

I will most likely resign from my Relief Society Teacher calling, which I love, so I am super sad about it. But I can’t in good conscience teach something that feels so wrong. It is important for me because I want to live a life of integrity, and I want my children to see that sometimes that looks like giving up something you really love because it is hurtful to someone else. I cannot stand idly by and turn a blind eye to the hurt my LGBTQ brothers and sisters are experiencing. I will mourn with those who mourn. –Kalani

It is my heritage and my history and I feel firm in my desire to change it for the better if I can. If they want me to go they must force me out, but I will stay and refuse to let them ignore me or my brothers and sisters who are suffering, regardless of the cause. I will stay and be a safe place/person for those who are afraid. –Sally

There is one other group, the ones who stay. Some still have hope that the church will come around; some still believe enough of the doctrine to find spiritual nourishment; some just want to be there for all the people still to come. 

The ones who stay walk a difficult tightrope. They’re still subject to the policies they find abhorrent. They stay in order to speak up — to maybe make a difference for someone else, who may be struggling silently. But they are stuck in the middle, surrounded by the faithful while they doubt. Surrounded by the doubting while they have faith.

It is hard to talk to people about your faith if they don’t share it. When people hear I was brought up Mormon but no longer practice, they think they can safely crack jokes, call it a cult, say it’s ridiculous, and I will join right in. From the outside, it’s easy to call faith ridiculous. It’s easy to compare God to Santa Claus. From the inside, it’s different. Faith is a real thing. A relationship with God is something you can’t easily explain.

Progressive feminists who remain in the church face the difficult task of never being fully accepted anywhere. To be Mormon among non-Mormons is to be an other. To be progressive among Mormons is to be an other. There is no refuge. But they let their faith guide them and make the best choice they can.

I have been teetering for over a year, trying to find a reason to stay in the church. I don’t know if I can anymore. I cannot see that this is what Christ would have done with His church on earth. It hurts my heart and soul to see others marginalized just because they don’t fit the same mold as the majority of the church. All I know now is I believe in Christ and in a Mother-Father God. I believe They love us and want us to be happy. —Kim

Whether you leave or whether you stay, it can seem like an impossible decision to make. It is often difficult and painful and unrewarding, and it is hard to know precisely where to place the blame for all the anguish. For some of us, nothing is solid ground anymore. All we can know is what’s in our hearts, and that is what we try to follow.

The one thing we know, the one thing we all agree on, is that as Mormon feminists we are part of a unique and beautiful sisterhood — one founded on love, equality, and respect. No matter what we decide to do, individually or together, we know who we are, and we know what is right, and that will never change.

Jessica Woodbury is a lapsed lawyer, single parent, and bookworm. She blogs at Don't Mind the Mess.

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