Feminism and I have had a long and tenuous relationship. I started struggling with "women's issues" when I was really young, around 11 or 12. I had lots of hard questions about why men’s and women's roles and places in society were so different. For most of my pre-teen and teen years my questions smoldered and confused me. I spouted popular feminist ideals and jumped on any feminist bandwagon I could find. Yet my confusion only got worse and it started to make me angry and resentful. The only thing that kept me anchored to my testimony was a sure knowledge of God's nature. I knew that He wasn't a respecter of persons, male or female, and knew that if I was confused it was probably because I didn't understand things well enough. It also helped that I was also a dedicated scripture reader and from a very young age turned to them for guidance with my questions.
By the time I got to college I had a burning desire in my heart to do something that would help improve the condition of women in the world. I remember once telling my roommate that I wish I'd lived in the early 1900's so I could be a suffragette. I needed and wanted a cause--any cause-- to fight for that would help women. At BYU I majored in Public Health and minored in Women's Studies. I also got a job as a research assistant at the Women's Research Institute (which sadly doesn't exist any more) and worked there for four years studying women and peace, peace education, and women's education. While there I met LDS women who healed my heart and taught me not to rely on blogs, lectures, videos, or books for an understanding of women's roles but to open my scriptures and ask God. Their advice has made all the difference. Through the scriptures, prayer, and fasting I gained a testimony of my divine nature as a daughter of God and my role as a woman on the earth. I gained a sure knowledge that the only way women (and men for that matter) will truly be empowered and realize their true value is through embracing and living the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Yet despite all my involvement with and passion for women's issues recently I've started feeling uncomfortable labeling myself as a feminist. Perhaps this is because feminism is often a loaded term and means different things to everyone, but I think it is mostly because I've never found a group of feminists or a feminist philosophy that describes or advocates for the sort of "feminism" I believe in-- not "Mormon Feminism"-- or any other brand I have come across in my years of searching.
I think the closest that anyone has come to putting into words the type of feminism I believe in is Rachel DeMille in her essay "’Steel to Gold’: Motherhood and Feminism" . She said,
There is a widespread myth that feminism came about in the 20th Century, that—along with Civil Rights and Environmentalism—feminism is one of our great modern advances. The truth is that feminism has a much earlier origin.
Ancient feminism, started by the initiative of Eve, and spurred on in the East by Taoist thought of Yin and Yang, and in West by the Odysseus-Penelope tradition, has one focused objective: the maintenance of the basic unit of society. In all three traditions equality was never in question, and the feminine provided spark, spice and initiative.
In the ancient stories it is woman who takes this initiative, woman who teaches that all other vows in society are only as strong as the marriage vow, woman who instills steel in young hearts—hearts which will not bend to temptation or loose traditions.
It is ironic then that modern feminism has attacked the marriage vows, pushing for religious, traditional and even legal approval of breaking them, of disconnecting us from each other, of replacing wholeness with individual license.
Eve didn’t need to be emancipated. Only where the marriage vows fail is there abuse and domination by male or female.
I firmly believe that God loves both His daughters and his sons and that He divinely organized the best arrangement in which both men and women could reach their highest and greatest potential and that it is called-- the family. All other organizations, groups, movements, NGOs, or governments we create on this earth will always fall short of the impact that the righteous family will have in the lives of women, men and children. In my opinion the family, because of its ability to influence past, present and future generations, should be the focus of all our "feminist" energy.
Yet it is interesting to me just how much some feminists want to distance themselves from the family and don’t believe that women can truly be happy or empowered in a patriarchal society. I think that many of them, at their core, believe in the family and understand its importance but they get deceived into believing that things like NGOs, the UN, universities, law firms, medical schools, development programs, more political involvement, and countless other things will make more of a difference to women and to the world than the family. Instead of focusing on helping people improve their intimate, most basic relationships with themselves, God, and their family they run programs and petition governments, churches, and international organizations for greater gender equality. It is true that many of these actions are very praise worthy, and I have participated in some of them myself, but all they do is temporarily relieve women’s suffering. They are treating the symptoms of the disease rather than the cause and in doing so are missing what will really make the most difference in the lives of women.
In her essay DeMille goes on to say,
"There is a power that women bring to the table, the power of shaping a community—of changing its very heart—a power that lasts for generations, not just between elections. This power is best expressed by the woman who sets out to raise her great grandchildren. At first this seems obvious. A woman who raises her own children successfully will, of course, have direct and indirect impact on her grandchildren and even her great-grandchildren. But this is only the start.
Every great-grandchild is directly raised by twelve people. There are others who will influence the child, but twelve who directly raise, mentor, teach, lead, counsel and help the child reach adulthood. The power of womanhood is to directly train all twelve of these people, so that when her great-grandchild is raised, he or she is raised correctly and well.
The twelve people are the great-grandchild’s:
rabbi (church leader)
These are the twelve most influential people on the life of your perhaps yet unborn great-grandchild. And if you don’t raise them right, who will? What an incredible challenge! Our role as women is to raise these twelve people right! No elected official can do all this, no judge, no senator, no CEO, no high school principal, no Hollywood executive, no media mogul or Federal Reserve banker. No President or Pope can do this. They just aren’t powerful enough.
No matter how successful such men or women may be in their sphere, they don’t have the power to raise these twelve people effectively. No constitution, law or policy has such power, but every woman has it, is born with it, can reach deep down inside and bring it to the surface, can spend her life doing it. If this seems overwhelming, welcome to womanhood."
It is getting harder and harder for women to remember but they way in which we in the United States live our lives is only a product of the last 150 years or so. For most of the rest of US history women didn't have to choose between "home" and "career" and neither did men. The home was the fundamental unit of society and all the important work of society centered around it. Men often did not work far from home (unless they were merchants, soldiers, or members of a privileged class) and women stayed home, not because they were unfit for other work, but because the amount of work required to keep a household running required a clear division of labor. Most businesses were family owned and were often run out of homes. All major life events like marriage, birth, and death were conducted in the home and all the members of the family were involved. There was no real divide between the home and the rest of the world and men and women worked side by side. Women and men were focused on raising, not only their children, but in creating a the type of world they wanted for their great-grandchildren and it was focused around the home.
In the United States it wasn't until the advent of the Industrial Revolution that both men, women, and children left home, on a widespread scale, to make their living. Our society’s focus shifted from the home and the family as the fundamental unit of society to the institution and the individual as the fundamental unit of society. Tasks that were once functions of the home and the responsibility of families were "outsourced" to institutions and corporations. Today we rely on governments, corporations, and organizations to do the jobs which men and women traditionally did in their homes together. Jobs like pre-school and foundational education, caring for the elderly, hosting guests, preparing meals, building, taking care of the poor, raising and preserving food, nursing the sick, birth and labor, weaving, spinning, making clothes, preparing and burying the dead, cleaning, and making the things necessary for the home are tasks that we have now turned over to organizations. These organizations, by their very nature, often require the break up of the home. They require that men and women be separated, working in separate spheres, buildings, and focusing on separate goals. Men and women no longer work side by side together all day like they once did and often times they forget that they are working towards the same goal and sometimes don’t even know what that goal is.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I think that our modern progress is in many ways a great blessing, but I think we are sometimes unaware of how it has affected and changed our most basic relationships. If our focus as a society was really on the family, rather than economic and individual gain, then women (and men) wouldn't have to choose between "working" in the home or working in "society" because the end goal of both would be the same-- creating strong and righteous families. Yet because our society is not focused on the family men and women spend all their time trying to balance two competing agendas-- that of creating a strong family and that of making money and creating a "good" world-- and often it just makes them stressed and results in a weak family and weak society instead.
I’ve been listening to the news for months waiting for any mention of how we need to strengthen families to improve our society. I haven’t heard anything. Instead all I’ve heard is that we need to improve our economics, our education, our health care, our gender equality, and our international relations and then all the world’s problems will be solved. The more I listen the more I realize that we really are living in a world in which the family is increasingly no longer the fundamental focus of our society. We are beginning to loose our center, the very core of who we are, and why we are here on the earth. We are becoming like Paul described in Eph. 4:14 a ship at sea “tossed to and fro” with no rudder and not direction. Patricia Holland elaborated more on this in her essay "One Needful Thing: Becoming Women of Greater Faith in Christ", she said:
"I am very appreciative of the added awareness that the women’s movement has given to a gospel principle we have had since Mother Eve and before—that of agency, the right to choose. But one of the most unfortunate side effects we have faced in this matter of agency is that, because of the increasing diversity of life-styles for women of today, we seem even more uncertain and less secure with each other… Surely there has not been another time in history when women have questioned their self-worth as harshly and critically as in the second half of the twentieth century. Many women are searching, almost frantically, as never before, for a sense of personal purpose and meaning; and many LDS women are searching, too, for eternal insight and meaning in their femaleness.
…If I were Satan and wanted to destroy a society, I think I would stage a full- blown blitz on women. I would keep them so distraught and distracted that they would never find the calming strength and serenity for which their sex has always been known…Satan has effectively done that, catching us in the crunch of trying to be superhuman instead of striving to reach our unique, God-given potential within such diversity…We can become so sidetracked in our compulsive search for identity and self-esteem that we really believe it can be found in having perfect figures or academic degrees or professional status or even absolute motherly success. Yet, in so searching externally, we can be torn from our true internal, eternal selves…
One woman…whose writings I love, is Anne Morrow Lindbergh. She comments on the female despair and general torment of our times: “The Feminists did not look … far [enough] ahead; they laid down no rules of conduct. For them it was enough to demand the privileges. … And [so] woman today is still searching. We are aware of our hunger and needs, but still ignorant of what will satisfy them. With our garnered free time, we are more apt to drain our creative springs than to refill them. With our pitchers [in hand] we attempt … to water a field, [instead of] a garden. We throw ourselves indiscriminately into the committees and causes. Not knowing how to feed the spirit, we try to muffle its demands in distractions. Instead of stilling the center, the axis of the wheel, we add more centrifugal activities to our lives—which tend to throw us [yet more] off balance.
“Mechanically we have gained, in the last generation, but spiritually we have … lost.” Regardless of the time period, she adds, “[for women] the problem is [still] how to feed the soul.”
DeMille also said something similar in her essay. She said,
"... the more unfortunate impact of 20th century feminism is antithetical to its aims: not strong, amazing women who know the power and beauty of their mission, but rather women who are doubting and tentative, even as they assertively rationalize their insecurities. If they have careers, they fear they are missing something. If they are homemakers, they fear they're missing something. If married, they're lectured about independence; if single, they're cautioned against it. This is the legacy of modern feminism-- Not independence. Not emancipation. Not opportunity. Not equality-- doubt."