Editor’s Note: This transcript has been lightly edited from the podcast format. The I used in the text signifies Taylor Petrey and most of the historical narrative was written by him. Some extra context has been given where he worked from notes and may differ slightly from the podcast. This article should not be considered a scholarly or academic attempt at writing this history, but rather a public offering to encourage learning more about the topics discussed in Dialogue.
Dialogue Topics: Women’s History and Feminism
This month is March and that means it is Women’s History Month. With that in mind, I [Taylor Petrey] wanted to take some time to talk about the role that Dialogue has played in Mormon women’s history, including marking the birthplace of modern Mormon feminism in 1971, and continuing to be a hub for groundbreaking work on women’s history, feminist theology, and cultural analysis of gender in the LDS tradition. Did you know that there are at least eight issues dedicated to this topic from 1971 to 2019, in addition to many standalone articles? In fact, there are so many that this podcast episode is really just scratching the surface of the thousands and thousands of pages of published material. Throughout the article, we have hyperlinked the various articles, and we encourage you to go to the source material to see what these people were saying about their religion and their gender.
Now, I should note that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Mormon feminism. I’ve written a bit about it in my own book on twentieth-century gender, and my articles on Mormon feminism and Heavenly Mother, and I’ve co-edited the Routledge Handbook of Mormonism and Gender. I consider Claudia Bushman, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and Judy Dushku friends and mentors. I thought I knew a lot about this topic, but researching for this podcast I still uncovered new gems and started to see the role that Dialogue has played in this history in a new light.
In the podcast episode and this article, I am going to walk through this history in four major phases. First, I want to talk about the role Dialogue played in the foundation of modern Mormon feminism. This introduces us to some of the key figures over the last fifty years. Then, I want to talk about the conflict that feminists faced between their values and their loyalty to the church during the years that the church was opposing the Equal Rights Amendment, as well as some of the fall out. In the 1980s and 1990s, feminists and church leaders came into even more open conflict once again. Finally, I want to review the scholarship on this issue over the past few decades, looking at Mormon feminism in the new millennium as it appears in the pages of Dialogue.
Act I: Mormon Feminism Reborn
When we talk about the founding of modern Mormon feminism, there are two contexts that I want to mention here. In our last podcast episode, we noted how Dialogue was born in the context of the civil rights movement. But 1966 is also right in the middle of the rebirth of feminism. This is the first major context. By the 1960s, we can begin to chart what is generally referred to as second-wave feminism. If the first wave was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries around white women’s voting rights, the second wave dominated the 1960s and 1970s, when women were calling for equal treatment in the workplace, at home, and in their religious traditions. No doubt Mormon women all over the country were being influenced by these broader cultural shifts. However, the Mormon women in Boston were particularly moved and began to organize. In 1970, they came together to discuss these issues.
The second major context that has to be understood is that church leaders in this period are emphasizing what they called “the patriarchal order.” This isn’t just a hold over of old values, but actually a newly re-assertive patriarchy that was dismantling the Relief Society’s independence and putting into place all sorts of new policies and programs that would ensure male leadership. Women are actually losing power in the church in the post-war period. It was in this context that that Boston women’s group first began to act, creating an independent funding stream for the local Relief Society in their area.
Dialogue co-founder and co-editor Eugene England was based at Stanford in California, but he visited Cambridge, MA, in 1970. Claudia Bushman remembers walking with England and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich on the Harvard campus one evening and pausing near the Widener Library: “I just blurted out that there should be a women’s issue of Dialogue and that we had a group who could put it together.” According to Bushman, England liked the idea: “I expected more of a hard sell,” she recalled, “but he just immediately agreed and said to go ahead with it.”
The result was the now famous “Pink Issue” of Dialogue. It was edited, illustrated, and written by that group of women in Boston. It marks the official beginnings of modern Mormon feminism. Devery Anderson has written: “The pink issue was the first public sign that a feminist movement within modern Mormonism had been born.” The editors of Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings, Joanna Brooks, Rachel Steenblick, Hannah Wheelwright, wrote, “The ‘Pink Issue’ of Dialogue, as it would later be known, struck a warm, frank, and bold note to mark the beginning of a new era in Mormon women’s history” (35).
It is fascinating looking back on the now-fifty-years-old issue. It was controversial, but it wasn’t confrontational. This wasn’t the Udall letter on race and the priesthood, but rather an attempt to start a conversation and to emphasize compatibility. Claudia Bushman wrote that they were committed to the compatibility of the gospel and feminism. The issue covers everything from housework to education to respect in church.
“The issue seems pretty innocuous now, but the whole project was still pretty threatening,” insisted Ulrich thirty years later. “Some women didn’t want to be associated with something that might make them seem critical of the church. Others thought we were not being bold enough. I think we were trying hard to be ourselves.” It was a lot of these women just telling their stories.
Ulrich was right about how it was received, despite the fact that this issue is now legendary. Responses assailed the idea of a “middle ground”: some said it wasn’t faithful enough to the role of woman as mother, while others said that it wasn’t radical enough by praising singlehood and childlessness.
One response from a single twenty-five-year-old male in the letters to the editor in the next issue was a classic case of mansplaining: “The penchant for autobiography in this issue led to a lack of systematic analysis on the problem of women in Mormonism in general.” Richard Sherlock, in that letter, critiques Claudia Bushman for being pro-marriage and pro-family in her feminism. More responses came in for the Summer 1972 Issue: “The women’s issue followed the church line. Ho hum!”; “Mr. Sherlock was not the only person who had great hopes for the issue on women and came away disappointed. At least it was a beginning….Raising children is a challenge, mopping the floor is a bore. Talking about it, or writing about it is a deadly bore. Please, just because we are women does not mean that we are interested in hearing more about housework, or cooking, or diapering. It is bad enough to have to do it.”
These disagreements continued for years. By 1974 the women in Boston organized by starting their own publication. Not a scholarly journal like Dialogue, but a magazine that featured the arts, poetry, personal voices, and more, they named it Exponent II, named after The Women’s Exponent, the nineteenth-century Mormon feminist publication that these women had discovered in the stacks at Harvard’s Widener Library and had been astonished to discover their feminist foremothers.
Bob Rees, then-editor of Dialogue, reflected on the Pink Issue and the first issue of Exponent II: “Frankly, I am still somewhat disappointed that the [pink] issue was not bolder and more far reaching in its attempts to speak to the serious problems of sexism within Mormonism. Your approach and tone may have been more practical and realistic, but personally I would have liked a little more boldness. That is, by the way, the same objection I have to the first issue of Exponent II—it seems to be trying so hard not to offend that it comes off as pretty bland.”
Dialogue’s letter to the editor section became a place to talk about the new venture of Exponent II, the second independent Mormon publication after Dialogue. Some examples of the complaints extended to Exponent II after the inaugural issue in 1974: “What a contrast [to Exponent the original]! Exponent II is timid and tentative where its namesake is forthright and assertive. The difference is due to the fact that nineteenth century Mormon women didn’t question either their rights or their independence (both of which were hard earned) and contemporary Mormon women seem uncertain of both. The history that spans these two publications has to be among the most intriguing in the annals of women’s studies.”
I want to point out that the birth of Mormon feminism had a rocky start, but it foreshadowed the very struggles that it would often find itself in. Too radical and too conservative.
But the existence of Exponent II didn’t mean that Mormon feminism disappeared from Dialogue. Dialogue continued to be a place in these early years to discuss the major issues of Mormon feminism. In the 1960s and 1970s, you’ll recall that race and the priesthood was heating up as a hot topic. The question of women and the priesthood wasn’t far behind.
In Summer 1974, Ulrich wrote an essay about why she doesn’t want the priesthood, stating simply, “If the priesthood were a profession, I’d feel differently. . . . Precisely because it is blatantly and intransigently sexist, the priesthood gives me no pain. One need not be kind, wise, intelligent, published, or professionally committed to receive it—just over twelve and male. Thus it presumes difference, without superiority. I think of it as a secondary sex characteristic, like whiskers, something I can admire without struggling to attain.”
A reader, surprised by Ulrich’s stance on the priesthood, wrote to the editor in a letter from Fall 1974: “I was shocked to read Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s short piece in the most recent issue of Dialogue. She states that the priesthood is ‘blatantly and intransigently sexist’ and that therefore the priesthood gives her no pain. She says she feels no urge to struggle to attain it. But the entire tone of her note suggests she is yearning to have the power which the priesthood represents and resents the fact that she cannot get it in spite of being perhaps better qualified in terms of ‘spiritual gifts’ than many males who have it. While I do not question Sister Ulrich’s spiritual gifts, she seems to have missed a point fundamental to the order of the Kingdom. The male has the right by blood to preside over the female in righteous dominion. It is the female’s and uphold the male who presides in righteousness. The sooner Sister Ulrich and other sisters in the Church come to accept this fundamental principle, the happier they will be. “
In these formative years, LDS feminists were finding their voice in a number of ways. First, they were reclaiming their past. Women’s history becomes an important part of this movement. It isn’t an accident that both Ulrich and Bushman go on to be leading historians of America and Mormonism, at Harvard and Columbia respectively, with women’s stories at the heart of much of what they do. Second, they are telling their own stories, and being authentic to who they are as Mormons and as feminists. Third, they understand the power of organizing. They not only produce a founding document in the “pink issue,” but put forward a number of other publications including Exponent II and some groundbreaking historical articles in an edited book. I am proud that Dialogue was the venue that helped launch modern Mormon feminism, and continues to be a home for these critical issues for over fifty years.
Act 2: The Equal Rights Amendment
The feminists in Boston weren’t the only Mormon feminists. There were LDS women all over the country who were being influenced by the broader feminist movement, and no issue became more important than the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). In the early 1970s, most Mormons supported the ERA, but in the beginning of 1975, the Church came out against the ERA and launched a national political effort to defeat its ratification. Mormon feminists found themselves in a tough spot, having to choose between supporing the church or supporting the most important feminist cause since women’s suffrage. This was the chief goal of the second-wave feminist movement. An innocuous statement in and of itself, the ERA would have had huge symbolic and real world consequences. But it proved to be hugely divisive for Mormon feminists.
Dialogue had moved to Washington, D.C., in the second half of the 1970s under Mary Bradford’s editorship. Mary, the first female editor of Dialogue, was already showing the leadership that women were taking in this arena. But it is notable that from 1975 to 1980, there is little written on Mormon feminism or women’s issues—including a profound silence on the ERA.
But that didn’t mean that Mormon women were silent on the issue. The chief group that you need to know about during this period is Mormons for the ERA, and its most important leader, Sonia Johnson. Johnson and Mormons for the ERA were a feminist movement that directly challenged church authority. They held events that garnered huge media attention, including flying a banner over General Conference that said “Heavenly Mother loves the ERA.” Johnson sparred with Senator Orrin Hatch in a senate hearing. She grew increasingly frustrated, moving away from compatibility between feminism and Mormonism and eventually called the church “the last unmitigated Western patriarchy” in a caustic speech. It is important to realize that the church in the 1970s was pretty strict: for example, women couldn’t give prayers in mixed-sex meetings for much of this decade. The end of the racial restrictions on the priesthood actually correlates with tighter patriarchal authority. In any case, Sonia Johnson was excommunicated for that speech in December 1979.
Dialogue’s silence was a source of concern. The first issue of the decade is filled with Letters to the Editor on the ERA. A letter to the editor in Spring 1980: “Please do something on the naughty women’s movement. We need more discussion of issues rather than warmed-over historical Ph.D dissertations.”
This was the issue. The ERA had been going on for eight years, with five years of the church opposing it. Feminism was transforming business, relationships, and the church. And Dialogue had been ducking it. Though Dialogue had sat out of these issues up until then, the floodgates broke in 1981 with three of the four issues dedicated to the topic.
The Spring 1981 Issue had an interview with Beverly Campbell, the anti-ERA spokeswoman for the LDS Church. She was the LDS version of Phyllis Schlafly, a Catholic anti-ERA spokeswoman who led the STOP ERA campaign. Campbell was the anti-Sonia Johnson. They’d both been invited to speak on the Today Show, but Johnson refused to appear with Campbell. Dialogue’s interview is really an excellent interview, a great resource for getting at what is happening for conservative women during this time.
In the Summer 1981 Issue, Mary Bradford writes “The Odyssey of Sonia Johnson,” which is a chronological biography based around major milestones of Johnson’s efforts. In it, Bradford provides lots of details about Johnson’s battle for the ERA, conflicts with Orrin Hatch, and so on. That year, Johnson had also published her book From Housewife to Heretic. There was still huge controversy about her excommunication almost two years later. It was the most notorious excommunication until the September Six.
Bradford’s biography was then followed by an interview with Johnson in the same issue. Mary Bradford did the interview, and it is notable that Beverly Campbell, Sonia Johson, and Mary Bradford were all from Virginia, making the D.C. area a hub of Mormon women’s activity. Johnson’s interview is a little challenging. There is a lot in there about her divorce and excommunication. It has a lot of the emotions, about betrayals from local friends and leaders, and some great stories about her daughter asking to be able to pass the microphone during testimony meeting or to pass out programs and her bishop saying, “No, that is a priesthood function.” During this time, President Spencer W. Kimball had reversed a policy that had been in place for a number of years that women couldn’t pray in sacrament meeting, giving people hope that other activities in the Church might be opened to anyone instead of restricted to the male members. It is important to recognize the context of how patriarchal the church was at this time.
After these two issues about the ERA, the Winter 1981 Issue is the ten-year anniversary of “Pink Issue”. Sometimes called the “Red Issue,” Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Claudia Bushman return. In the intervening ten years, both finished PhDs with six children and became professors. Feminism continued to transform society and rip at the church over the last decade.
Ulrich writes a retrospective in this issue. One of the things that surprised me was how much she describes the fights that these early Boston women were having. As stated earlier, the Pink Issue received mixed reviews, often being seen as too timid. But she was also writing in the wake of the rise of the religious right, the defeat of the ERA, and the excommunication of Sonia Johnson. “How did Bob Rees expect us to write about polygamy or the priesthood when we couldn’t even write about housework without risking a schism? . . . So it was that my first feelings of feminist outrage were directed not at ‘the Brethren’ but at the kindly gentlemen at Dialogue. Who did they think they were, presuming to tell us what Mormon women should want?” Ulrich continues, “The pink Dialogue proclaimed the value of women’s voices, yet in 1971 few Mormon women were really prepared to speak. Before we could write with any depth about tough issues, we had to do a little more experimenting with our own lives.”
“That the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints simultaneously enlarges and diminishes women should hardly be surprising since it was born and has grown to maturity in a larger society which does the same.”
In the Red Issue, there is an attempt to reset after the tumultuous decade by declaring what a Mormon feminist is: “A feminist is a person who believes in equality between the sexes, who recognizes discrimination against women and who is willing to work to overcome it. A Mormon feminist believes that these principles are compatible not only with the gospel of Jesus Christ but with the mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “
This Winter 1981 Issue was more than just a nice retrospective. It also set out a bold new agenda after ten years of feminist thought. The next generation wanted to talk about even more substantive issues. And right here in Dialogue, forty years ago, Mormon feminists broke another taboo—raising the question of women and the priesthood for the first time in print.
In 1978, the Church had received a revelation ending the restrictions on Black men from being ordained to the priesthood and Black men and women from attending the temple. Naturally, people increasingly started to ask the question about women’s ordination as well. This was a topic in numerous Chrisitan denominations, and many were opening up during the 1970s. In 1981, the RLDS church (now Community of Christ) received a revelation to ordain women.
And thus we get Nadine Hansen’s “Women and the Priesthood.” Her biography in that issue says she was a mother of four and a senior at San Jose State University studying religion and economics. The first real treatise on the subject, this article was the kind of thing the more liberal Mormon feminists had been hoping for over the past decade, but what more conservative Mormon feminists and women were dreading. It is a close and sophisticated reading of scripture and a more rigorous and intellectual engagement with the historical record. It self-consciously builds on the 1978 revelation on the priesthood: “Before June 1978, we all readily understood that the denial of priesthood to black men was a serious deprivation. Singling out one race of men for priesthood exclusion was easily recognized as injustice, and most of us were deeply gratified to see that injustice removed by revelation. But somehow it is much more difficult for many people to see denial of priesthood to women as a similar injustice.” She really tackles the hierarchical arguments about the priesthood, and questions whether the nascent egalitarianism, separate but equal, is possible.
Anthony Hutchinson also writes on this topic in the Winter 1981 Issue. In “Women and Ordination: Introduction to the Biblical Context,” he wrote some of the most important articles on Mormonism and scriptural scholarship during this period. Four years later, in the Fall 1985 Issue, a treatment of women and the priesthood was given with essays from Melodie Moench Charles, Linda King Newell, Meg Wheatley-Pesci. Questions around priesthood ordination were a big issue in the 1980s, but it was mostly in scholarly circles that it was discussed. We didn’t see any activism on this issue.
During this time, there are also other new venues that are popping up. Sunstone Magazine was founded in the late 1970s and began hosting forums. These topics were being discussed at Sunstone and Dialogue, along with the Mormon Women’s Forum and other organizations. Meanwhile, women’s history is moving forward with important, mature historians during this decade who were displaced after 1982 but regrouped and continued their work.
We also see a maturation of feminist theology really begin to take off in the 1980s. For example, in the Spring 1988 Issue, Margaret Merrill Toscano published “Beyond Matriarchy, Beyond Patriarchy,” a work of speculative feminist theology. In Fall 1988, Melodie Moench Charles offered an early critical appraisal of Heavenly Mother as imagined by many Mormon feminists in “The Need for a New Mormon Heaven.”
So, in the two decades following the founding of modern Mormon feminism, there were some rough years as they struck to find a balance between their faith and feminism, but the conflicts really rose to the surface over the ERA. However, Mormon feminists didn’t leave en masse; rather, they regrouped and remained committed, producing new, groundbreaking scholarship, pushing boundaries in history and theology, and raising enduring questions around femininity and gender, authority and membership, and role and future.
Act 3: Open Conflict
A dark period for Mormon feminists’ relationship with the Church began in the 1990s. In this period, a number of open conflicts between the Church and feminist result in chastisement and excommunication. There is a sense of restlessness in the articles they were writing. There is hope for their goals: things are moving forward and there is great new scholarship. But it seems that the church isn’t really changing. By this time, Sonia Johnson’s work is a decade old by now, but it and her excommunication loom in the background.
Yet, there was also a sense, almost twenty years after the Pink Issue, that these issues were somehow passe. Consider the opening to the Fall and Winter 1990 Issues, which were dedicated to women’s history and feminist theology: “A women’s issue in 1990? Doesn’t that smack of tokenism, of division rather than unity, of sexism rather than sexual equality? Perhaps it would if women’s voices hadn’t been integral and almost proportionate in Dialogue for more than twenty years now. Perhaps it would if the landmark ‘pink’ issue of 1971 and the ‘red’ one in 1981 hadn’t mattered so much to both men and women.“
The Fall 1990 Issue contained Alison Walker’s “Theological Foundations of Patriarchy,” which uses scriptural and theological analysis to argue for patriarchal roots, and Betina Lindsey’s “Woman as Healer,” which looks at the history of women and gifts of the spirit. Additionally, in “The Good Woman Syndrome; Or, When Is Enough, Enough?” Helen Candland Stark takes a look at domestic abuse in Mormonism as she expands on her Exponent II essay on the same topic.
These years, the readership of Dialogue is seeing more and more women as writers, and excellent writers at that. In the Winter 1990 Issue, Vella Niel Evans looks at Mormon women in the labor industry in “Mormon Women and the Right to Work.” Lavina Fielding Anderson, in “The Grammar of Inequity,” takes on gender-inclusive language within the Church and the gospel: “The scriptures are profoundly exclusionary. It is an agonizing paradox; but to the degree we love and use the language of the scriptures, we also love and use the language of exclusion. . . . I feel that women must be fully included in the gospel of Jesus Christ, not because the scriptural texts fully include them nor because our theology perfectly includes them but because any other pattern does violence to the fabric of the universe, distorting and misshaping the image of God that I strive, however imperfectly, to see and reach toward. When language becomes a veil, masking and disguising God, then it is imperative, as a matter of spiritual health, that language change. I think that the process, though arduous, will be accompanied by joy. “
It’s interesting to me to see the negative reactions to these issues and these articles. For example, a letter in Summer 1991 states, “Equity between the sexes is unquestionably an issue of importance, but one might reasonably ask if it is the only issue. The Fall 1990 Issue of Dialogue was devoted almost entirely to this issue, as was a major part of the Winter Issue.
“Perhaps instead you could have devoted some space to addressing the completely one-sided treatment of this topic in Dialogue. Surely the word ‘dialogue’ does not mean that those holding one point of view should spend their time and energy reinforcing one another’s prejudices.
“Is Dialogue going to treat a wide range of issues in an intellectually honest manner, or become merely a propaganda machine under the control of persons with only one point of view?”
And a letter in Fall 1991: “I have only recently finished a cover- to-cover reading of the Fall 1990 Women’s Issue, and I must send my thanks and sense of awe-struck appreciation for an issue of such power and magnitude. I have pondered for some weeks now just what I can possibly say to express my sense of indebtedness to each and every contributor, and unfortunately I have come up empty-handed. Still, I must somehow try. “
Despite the detractors and the letter writers, women continued to publish, writing their own history with their own voices. In the Winter 1991 Issue, Lola Van Wagonen published “In Their Own Behalf: The Politicization of Mormon Women and the 1870 Franchise,” which is relevant to current celebrations since 2020 is the anniversary of the national enfranchisement of women. And in the Summer 1992 Issue, Julie Nichols told the life stories of various Mormons in “The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: Women’s Stories, Women’s Lives.”
That takes us to up to 1993. And this is a big one. The whole Spring 1993 Issue is powerful, and one of the most controversial ever published in Dialogue. The essay that I want to focus on here is related to feminism, but not exclusively about feminism. For a little more than a decade before this, since the early 1980s, tension between church leaders and scholars was heating up. Historians were publishing a lot of material that was embarrassing church leaders. You’ve got the Hofmann forgeries, which hurt them twice, first when he publicized the content and then when they turned out to be fakes. And church leaders were playing ping pong with Mormon scholars—some going after them behind the scenes and some protecting them. Tensions were high.
Enter Lavina Fielding Anderson. “The LDS Intellectual Community and Church Leadership: A Contemporary Chronology” is a sixty-page article on what she calls “ecclesaiastical abuse.” It represents the early work of the Mormon Alliance that Paul Toscano had started that was seeking organized pushback against the Church’s patriarchal control. A sample from the article helps to set the tone of it: “The clash between obedience to ecclesiastical authority and the integrity of individual conscience is certainly not one upon which Mormonism has a monopoly. But the past two decades have seen accelerating tensions in the relationship between the institutional church and the two overlapping subcommunities I claim—intellectuals and feminists. “ The article was really about historians and feminists, and acknowledges that scientists and others might also have their stories. But the issues with the New Mormon History movement and various feminists during the ERA and beyond needed airing. Lavina belonged to both communities—historians and feminists—and argued at the intersection of them.
The article then discusses conflicts from 1972 to 1992. It takes people through the beginning and end of Leonard Arrington’s stint as Church Historian and his exile afterward. It documents many episodes of intimidation of historians, quotes letters from General Authorities attacking in general and specifically certain historians for airing unflattering history of church leaders, and goes over the church’s efforts to disrupt the International Women’s Year conferences. It also discusses Sonia Johnson’s excommunication. Anderson shows that the Committee to Strengthen the Members, a.k.a. Strengthening the Church Members Committee, is behind it a lot of the supervision. In 1992, the committee, headed by James E. Faust and Russell M. Nelson, was publicly exposed. The article reveals that several of those being investigated have “files” on them and that people working at Church Headquarters in Salt Lake City, UT, seemed to be calling local stake presidents and bishops. Some of the main characters in this story are Paul Toscano, D. Michael Quinn, Lavina Fielding Anderson, Linda King Newell, and Maxine Hanks. Brent Metcalfe, David Knowlton, John Sillito, and other big Sunstone names are also getting blowback for Sunstone. In addition to this article, from 1991 to 1993, this anti-intellectual movement within the Church top brass is receiving tons of media coverage. LDS intellectuals are speaking out, comparing the Church and community’s treatment of them to McCarthyism. Eugene England’s essay compares it to the Salem Witch Trials.
Because of this article, Lavina Fielding Anderson is excommunicated as part of the September Six, when six members were excommunicated for articles published. Included in those six targets were other prominent feminists Maxine Hanks and Margaret Toscano. Many others were caught up at BYU and elsewhere as a silencing moratorium spread across the field of Mormon studies.
However, Dialogue continued to wade into these murky waters. Summer 1994 brough another special issue on women’s topics. In it, Janice Allread published her foundational piece on Heavenly Mother, “Toward a Mormon Theology of God the Mother.” History still needed (and still needs) to be expanded in Martha Sonntag Bradley’s “Seizing Sacred Space,” Women’s Engagement in Early Mormonism and David Hall’s “Anxiously Engaged: Amy Brown Lyman and Relief Society Charity Work, 1917-45”, which informed his later full-length biography of Lyman, an indispensable work of what women’s authority in the church was like before correlation.
Additionally, this period saw authors like Lynn Matthews Anderson engaging with broader conversations occurring in the study of religion and the study of scripture. For example, “Toward a Feminist Interpretation of Latter-day Scripture,” brought together feminist biblical studies and feminist literary studies toward Latter-day Saint conceptions of scripture. And, Margaret Toscano, one of the September Six, continued to publish on Mormon history with “If Mormon Women Have had the Priesthood Since 1843, Why Aren’t They Using it?”
Although this was a tough period, I want to end with Cecilia Konchar Farr’s “Dancing Through the Doctrine: Observations on Religion and Feminism.” Farr ran into troubles at BYU as part of the 1993 crackdown, but she published this article anyway. In it, she wants to desecularize feminism and find space for feminist critique of religion from inside positions of faith.
“Religious feminists and certainly Mormon feminists might lay some of the blame for the loss of religious discourse in feminism not only on our reluctance to use it, but also on a wresting away of this language by the conservative groups who have set up feminists—along with witches and lesbians—as the enemies of God.
“Perhaps I am also writing in response to the question that I hear often from many of my (as we say in Mormonism) gentile friends, ‘Why do you stay in such a male-dominated religion?’ I am often tempted to ask them, admittedly begging the question, which institutions they associate with are not dominated by men—their banks, their government, their schools or factories or hospitals? I stay because Mormonism means something to me at the deepest levels of my being. So I find myself, in my own religious odyssey, sitting in a structure I have deconstructed, but that I admire still. I stare at the clouds through the open beams where the ceil- ing once was and admire the beams without wishing for the ceiling. And currently I have no plans for a desert escape. It’s a tough position to take in this particular historical moment as an intellectual and a feminist, I love my church and am proud to be Mormon.”
Act 4: Mormon Feminism in the New Millennium
By the 1990s, Dialogue had moved past commemorating the 1971 Pink Issue and was tackling new projects with new dedicated issues. As stated above, in 1990 and then with two issues in 1994, they devoted space to various topics that intersected with feminism and gender. However, for nine years, Dialogue did not publish an issue focusing solely on these topics. It wasn’t completely silent in the intervening years; there were other articles here and there that you can search for in our Archive. For this history and for brevity’s sake, we skip forward to the Fall 2003 Issue when we get another full issue on women’s issues. It was exactly a decade after the September Six, as well as after more excommunications, like Janice Allred’s later that decade.
This issue hints at the continuation of old questions, as well as starting to take the question in new directions. There are contributions from more than twenty scholars on three topics: Women and the Priesthood; Women and Missions; and Sexuality and the Women’s Movement in Mormonism. Some of my good friends have articles in this issue, which came out just as I was finishing my masters degree. There are also essays from others assessing what had happened to the movement, including a discussion of Lavina Fielding Anderson’s excommunication. Claudia Bushman also offers a key essay on the origins of Exponent II and the early days of Mormon feminism in Boston.
The turn to sexuality I think marks an especially interesting development. Melissa Proctor’s “Bodies, Babies, and Birth Control” is still one of the most important articles on this topic. In it, Proctor studies the messages sent to women, officially and unofficially, by the Church and how those messages were received.
For those interested in the women in the priesthood question, this issue provides important milestones for that conversation. In the panel, Dialogue published Todd Compton’s “‘Kingdom of Priests’: Priesthood, Temple, and Women in the Old Testament and in the Restoration,” William D. Russell’s “Ordaining Women and the Transformation from Sect to Denomination,” and Barbara Higdon’s “Present at the Beginning: One Woman’s Journey.” Looking at the history and contemporary conceptions of priesthood, the panel gave new looks at women and the priesthood in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Bushman’s 2003 essay on the history of Exponent II set the stage for really telling the history of modern Mormon feminism. Forty years after that conversation in Harvard Yard, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich published “Mormon Women in the History of Second-Wave Feminism.” This article is really crucial because it retells LDS feminist history that had often seen LDS women as reacting to feminist thought, or being influenced by it, but Ulrich shows that Mormon women were co-creating feminist approaches to religion. She writes, “Mormon women weren’t passive recipients of the new feminism. We helped to create it. Constructing a timeline of key events reinforced the point. In 1972, the year Rosemary Radford Ruether introduced feminist theology at the Harvard Divinity School, Mormon feminists were teaching women’s history at the LDS Institute of Religion in Cambridge, Massachusetts.” It also offers a fuller and more contextualized history of early Mormon feminist groups, and some reflection on early Mormon feminist interaction with Dialogue. Mormon women were passive actors, but leaders and co-creators of religious feminism.
One other important essay, this one in the Winter 2008 Issue, is Kevin Barney, “How to Worship Our Mother in Heaven (Without Getting Excommunicated).” Barney’s article builds on Dan Peterson, “Nephi and His Asherah,” and teases out places in the scriptures that discuss Heavenly Mother.
During the 2000s and early 2010s, it is important to note that social media and blogging were breathing new life into Mormon feminism, spreading it far beyond scholars and becoming a mass movement that was mobilizing women all over the place, not just in metropolitan areas or college towns. Nancy Ross and Jessica Finnigan tell this story in “Mormon Feminist Perspectives on the Mormon Digital Awakening: A Study of Identity and Personal Narratives.” But I want to consider how this digital awakening led to a renewed clash with feminists and the church.
Women’s leadership and roles in the church were really heating up in these decades. Neylan McBaine’s “To Do the Business of the Church: A Cooperative Paradigm for Examining Gendered Participation within Church Organizational Structure” appears in Fall 2012. This article was originally given at a FAIR conference and must be read in the context of a renewed feminist movement in the LDS church, with radical and more conserative wings. Ordain Women, Neylan McBaine, and Valerie Hudson were “must read” material, in addition to Feminist Mormon Housewives, Wave, and other organizations.
Notably, in Spring 2013, Kate Kelly and others, including many veteran LDS feminists, launched Ordain Women. They led mass actions at Temple Square and gained global media attention. Just over a year later, Kelly was excommunicated. This was huge news and once again struck many as an irreconcilable conflict between feminism and LDS church practices. Kelly’s actions not only divided feminists from the church, but feminists from feminists, with many sympathetic but who believed she’d gone too far. Others felt she did what was necessary. However one feels, Kelly became a household name in the church and broke a taboo on public discussion—not just on blogs or in the pages of Dialogue—a public discussion on women’s leadership in the church.
While the public discussions begun by Kelly and others occurred, Dialogue continued its own engagement with the topic. For an excellent roundtable discussion, check out “Three Meditations on Women and the Priesthood” (Winter 2014): C.J. Kendrick, Rosalynde Welch, Ashmae Hoiland. And, in Summer 2015, Cory Crawford wrote “The Struggle for Female Authority in Biblical and Mormon Theology,” which engaged the question of precedent for women’s ordination: “The historical origins of the gender ban have not yet been addressed with the same degree of attention in Church discourse. The recent statements made by the Church on the racial priesthood ban strongly emphasize the impact nineteenth-century US racial politics had on the development of the priesthood ban for members of African descent, but no such discussion of culture and gender politics has yet been addressed in Church publications on gender and priesthood.” He looks at both the cultural contexts of ancient Israelite priesthood and modern LDS priesthood to identify a genealogy of the gender ban. In my view, the definitive article on this topic, and I highly recommend it. I would also commend, in tandem with these articles, Roger Terry’s two-part series, “Authority and Priesthood in the LDS Church” (Spring/Summer 2018).
A year before her and co-editors put out Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings, Joanna Brooks published “Mormon Feminism: The Next Forty Years” (Winter 2014). Brooks talks about the period from 1970s Mormon feminism in Boston to the present and imagines what needs to be part of the future. She identifies five areas for Mormon feminism: theology, institutions, racial inclusion, financial independence, and spiritual independence.
Mormon feminist theology has fortunately made a comeback and Dialogue has been an important home for that since Brooks wrote seven years ago. For example, Spring 2016 brought us Fiona Givens’s “‘The Perfect Union of Man and Woman’: Reclamation and Collaboration in Joseph Smith’s Theology Making” and Spring 2017 gave us a Feminist Roundtable: Maxine Hanks, “Shifiting Boundaries of Feminist Theology: What Have we Learned?” Mette Ivie Harrison, “When Feminists Excommunicate,” and Neylan McBaine, “Mormon Women and the Anatomy of Belonging.” Hanks, who was excommunicated in the September Six episode in 1993, returned to the church in 2012 and reflected on the shifting ground of feminist historical and theolgoical thought in the intervening two decades. Hanks’s comeback also includes an interview in Spring 2019, “LDS Women’s Authority and the Temple: A Feminist FHE Discussion with Maxine Hanks.”
Spring 2019 also has an article by Jodi England Hansen on the temple, “Condemn Me Not.” In it, she reflects on the changes that occurred to the temple ceremony: “I am grateful for what was removed, which consisted of much of the sexist language and action. There are still words that distinguish gender roles, and there are still differences in some of the ordinances between men and women. I see the changes as a step toward more equitable language, but not as achieving true gender equality at the linguistic level. I am concerned about some of the added phrases.“ Also in that issue, Kathryn Knight Sonntag has an ecofeminist article, “The Mother Tree.”
So, I want to end somewhat with where we began. The Spring 2020 issue was guest edited by Exponent II, as the editorship transitioned away from Boyd Peterson to myself. I guess we can say this was Exponent II and Dialogue’s Jubilee Year, forty-nine years after the Pink Issue. And it is remarkable to note how far Mormon feminism has come. Margaret Olson Hemming put together an amazing issue that really put forward the new kinds of feminist scholarship out there: Brittany Romanello, “Multiculturalism as Resistance: Latina Migrants Navigate US Mormon Spaces,” which brought much-needed intersectionality to the scholarship, while Amanda Hendrix-Komoto’s “The Other Crimes: Abortion and Contraception in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Utah” is I think the first history of abortion in Mormon studies and benefits from the new histories that show that abortion was increibly common in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, including in Utah. Tons of other great content in this issue too, including some fascinating interviews, one with Emily Clyde Curtis, a former classmate of mine, “Mormon Women in the Ministry” that talks about her work as a chaplain, and Barbara Christiansen, another old friend of mine, in “Women in Workplace Power.”
Conclusions and Continuations
The Mormon feminist content of Dialogue is an embarrassment of riches. I am proud that it has stood as a leader in this work for over 50 years now and I am in awe with all the contributions of such brilliant feminists. From the brave beginnings of the Boston group, to maturation and divisions among feminists, to conflicts with church leaders, to renewed efforts to carve our space and a future, Dialogue has been there. We haven’t been the only place, as our friends at Exponent II and later organizations and publications, including blogs and social media, grew and flourished throughout the years, but we have been a continual resource for fantastic scholarship.
There is still more to say, and Dialogue will continue to curate and distribute conversations around these topics. In fact, in 2022, Dialogue will have its first issue completely dedicated to Heavenly Mother and discussing topics pertaining to Her.
Thank you for taking this journey with us, for trusting some of your time to Dialogue, and for all your support. If you want to subscribe or donate to Dialogue, you can do so at dialoguejournal.com/subscribe.
The podcast episode of this post was written by our editor, Taylor Petrey, with sound editing and music by Daniel Foster Smith; this post was edited for cohesion and brevity by Adam McLain and Emily Jensen. Our content manager is Emily Jensen. Our social media managers are Adam McLain and Calvin Burke. The Dialogue Journal Podcast is produced by The Dialogue Foundation, with support from Merry Thieves.
The podcast episode is part of the Dialogue Podcast Network, a collective of independent, interesting podcasts who promote thoughtful, respectful, and engaging inquiry and discussion of all aspects of the LDS tradition, thought, and arts and culture.
Continuing the Dialogue Topics Podcast, Dialogue Editor Taylor Petrey walks us through the history of feminism in the pages of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. From the Pink Issue in Summer 1971 to fight for the Equal Rights Amendment to open conflict between feminists and patriarchs in the Church to Mormon feminism finding its foundation in the new millennium, the pages of Dialogue have been host to numerous and various thoughts on the matter of gender and women.
Act 1: Mormon Feminism Reborn
Act 2: The Equal Rights Amendment
Act 3: Open Conflict
Act 4: Mormon Feminism in the New Millennium
Other books and resources