"To My LDS Friends:

Give Feminism a Try "

Michael Hardy

SquareTwo, Vol. 2 No. 2 (Summer 2009)


1 Comment





        I am male.  I am Mormon, an electrical engineer, and from a military family.  Those distinctions, loaded with imagery, often heap unwanted stereotypes on me.

         I am a feminist.  Before I am stereotyped for that, I encourage the reader to try to understand what I am saying—and what I am not saying. The bewilderment and concern I sometimes receive from others within my own faith community have lead me to write down why I choose to self-identify in this way. 

        While recognizing that many readers may already be sympathetic to my views, I write with the LDS members in mind who, upon hearing the word feminism, respond with leeriness.  In the interest of accessibility, I have made my discussion less academic and more personal, in part because I note with Bruce and Marie Hafen that, “as challenging as these topics are for the larger society, they can be even more sensitive—even wrenching at times—for Latter-day Saints, because they can touch on deep theological nerves regarding the role of prophets, the dignity of women, and the nature of marriage.” [1]  

         The word “feminism” in its most basic sense means concern for improving society through addressing discrepancies in gender treatment; however, many different agendas and philosophies hold “feminism” hostage, rendering the word essentially open to interpretation.  This paper, though it does not give a formal definition of the word, will give a concrete interpretation of how this one Mormon sees his feminism interacting with Latter-day Saint doctrine and culture.  To assure that this discussion begins synchronously for all readers, I offer this personal definition: feminism is the belief that God sees neither his sons nor his daughters as inferior to each other, loving them equally.

Historical Feminism and the Church

         Even though feminism has innumerable faces, I would suggest that there have been three “waves” in US history.  During the first wave, the Church and prophets supported many aims of the feminist movement, commonly associated with suffrage.  Pioneer sisters fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, attended national conferences with the Church’s endorsement, and lead the unparalleled Relief Society.  Joseph F. Smith expressed his support during this wave:

"Man and woman are begotten of the same father, are born of the same mother…both bear the divine image and possess the same divine nature…Then why shall one enjoy civil rights and the other be denied them? Why shall one be admitted to all the avenues of mental and physical progress and prosperity and the other be prohibited…? Shall a man be paid higher wages than…a woman for…the very same work? Shall the avenues for employment be multiplied to men and diminished to women by the mere dictum or selfishness of men?" [2]

         Feminism was strong among the early saints.  Utah was the social avant-garde: it had the first ballot cast by a woman—preceding the nation by fifty years, the first woman state senator, some of the first women mayors, and the first editors of a women’s periodical in the West, all considered masculine roles at the time. [3]

         During this era, people began leaving the countryside, where work, including parenting, had been shared between genders.  With urbanization, fathers ventured to the city for work, with mothers taking on more completely the taxing task of nurturing children.  Society was solidifying distinct economic roles for the genders, with men gaining the ability to make money in the workplace and advance in worldly measure.  The distorted culture of men-solve-the-world’s-problems-and-their-wives-raise-their-offspring jaded some women and created a dangerous environment which made women prey, as President Smith stated, to the “mere dictum or selfishness of men.”

         That culture, which lamentably persists today, has its roots in the intellectual tradition of Greek thought—notably Plato and Aristotle and their beliefs that men were inherently superior to women—and in the spiritual framework of a breed of Christianity that held its primordial mother, Eve, as the thoughtless, sometimes even scheming or stupid, purveyor of weakness to all her daughters.  No wonder so many women sought change:  at society’s roots lay a festering pool of false assumptions that justified and perpetuated systemic harm against women.

        Aiming to destroy those assumptions and prevent the male monopoly on societal contributions and status, the more audacious second wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s aimed to use male-centric metrics to prove that women were equal to—and, unfortunately for some, the same as—men. 

        Many good things were born from the second wave of the feminist movement: women felt more confident, economic and educational opportunities became realities, legal protection was proffered, and their varying needs were no longer silenced.   Gordon B. Hinckley praised these successes when he taught, “The whole gamut of human endeavor is now open to women…I am grateful that women today are afforded the same opportunity to study for science, for the professions, and for every other facet of human knowledge…. You can include in the dream of the woman you would like to be a picture of one qualified to serve society and make a significant contribution to the world.” [4]

        The second wave, though it allowed women to break through some glass ceilings, left the women’s movement stalled.  Some feminists feel that the culminating ERA failed because the agenda had been beyond the mark: it wanted to make women into men.  Adverse side-effects emerged: the “sexual revolution” bolstered markets that objectify women; no-fault divorce laws often left women more economically vulnerable; and the emphasis on societal status undervalued parenting, for both genders.  Church leaders responded strongly to the negative aspects of this wave, and most LDS distanced themselves from it, leaving many members of the Church with a visceral and negative reaction to the word “feminism.”  As the second wave came to a close, some feminists realized that they needed a new focus; they needed to let women be women, acknowledging that many women would be, and indeed wanted to be, mothers, in addition to anything else they might become. [5]  

        The nineties’ third wave encompasses countless feminisms, from stay-at-home mothers to man-haters.   This is today’s “wave” and is much more pluralistic than the Second Wave.  Thinking that all feminists aim to destroy families and religions is as unhelpful as thinking that every Muslim is a suicide bomber: a broad spectrum exists, with one end often embarrassed to be tangentially related to the other.  My personal slice of the Third Wave fights to improve the entire human condition, especially for those who don’t fit into ideal situations.

Latter-day Feminism

I feel my personal feminism has strong doctrinal roots in LDS teachings; I ask rhetorically with Gordon B. Hinckley, “Do you think that God our Eternal Father loves his daughters less than he loves his sons?" [6] With Bruce R. McConkie I affirm, “In all matters that pertain to godliness and holiness…men and women stand in a position of absolute equality before the Lord. He is no respecter…of sexes.” [7]  I stand with Brigham Young saying, “We were created…in the image of our father and our mother, in the image of our God.” [8]  I believe, with Erastus Snow, that “there can be no God except he is composed of the man and woman united” [9], and that “both husband and wife act as equal partners” [10], as Richard G. Scott taught.  I agree with L. Tom Perry, “There is not a president and vice president in a family.  We have co-presidents working together eternally.” [11] I announce with Alexander Morrison that, “The Church cannot bow down before any traditions that demean or devalue the daughters of God.” [12]  To those who are reluctant to consider feminism I say, I am feminist because I am Mormon, not in spite of it.

            But one challenge in the LDS community is separating the real challenges facing women with the ideal situation we often assume for women. Many LDS women find that their mortal probations are anything but “ideal.” Not everyone is married “happily ever after.”  Some don’t marry.  Some spouses are abusive; some die early—all symptoms of a fallen world.  I want all women, especially mothers, who end up on their own to stand economically and politically independent, socially integrated and spiritually strengthened.  This desire is founded in data that still reflects unnecessary vulnerability:  74% of the nation’s poorest are women and children, and 50% of homeless women and children are fleeing domestic violence. [13]

        The feminism I embrace aims to raise the heroic women and men who sacrifice everything for others through parenting and nurturing to the apex of societal appreciation where they belong, in contrast to some of the self-serving cultural trends of the past.  Avoiding the political indulgences of a highly individualized society, for me, feminism seeks to create hopeful horizons for our children.  Whether an individual is a parent or not, the fair treatment of both genders would allow all, wherever they find themselves, to make the best choices they can, without fear of social ostracism. 

        I believe society should sustain those women and men who chose to invest in children; I value their societal contributions more than Kobe Bryant’s or Sean Penn’s.  As Neal A. Maxwell said, “You rock a sobbing child without wondering if today's world is passing you by, because you know you hold tomorrow tightly in your arms.” [14]  One feminist lamented that children and mothers were still victims and that, “the plight of today's children can be blamed on . . . one thing alone: we no longer care what happens to them.” [15]  I want those who nurture children to be highly valued in our society, and those who are childless to be equally successful in their endeavors and not spurned indiscriminately for their lack of children. And that includes LDS society.

        I support women getting education, as much as they desire.  I support making employment fair for women who work.  Ironically, Utah, which used to be the cutting-edge on social issues, is now in the bottom 10% of states with regard to full-time worker gender/income discrepancy.  Despite the wage discrepancy, Utah, with its LDS population, is on par with the rest of the nation for percentage of women in the workforce. [16] Recognizing with Elder Ballard that “some [mothers] may have to work part- or full-time” [17], members of the Church should be eager to address the gender wage discrepancy and encourage women’s education.  However, from Sunday School to sacrament meeting, occasional unwarranted comments imply that mothers who work are intrinsically inferior or that higher education serves little purpose to women outside of browsing for eternal companions, or that a wage discrepancy and scarce quality day care are appropriate tools for coaxing women to stay home.

        Stay-at-home motherhood, desirable though it may be, is not a measurement of inherent righteousness.  As Elder Ballard taught, since “there is no one perfect way to be a good mother,” we should start reinforcing that “what matters is that a mother loves her children deeply,” prioritizing her precious relationships with God, her husband, and them “above all else.” [18] Mormon women do work, some at home, some away.   We should assume, first, that our sisters are doing best they can, rather than wasting our effort judging others against a checklist that Church leaders themselves have noted is not inflexible.  This is not an attack on the traditional roles of women who stay at home, only a call for a stronger recognition that there are many reasons why women might not choose that path.  We should work to meet their needs—such as daycare, domestic necessities, and spiritual and social support—and recognize their deep sacrifice, instead of suggesting that lack of full-time homemaking is a spiritual deficiency, making those who are leaving the home feel like they are inadequate.  One hopes this does not contribute to the below average self-esteem exhibited among LDS women. [19]

        Unrestrained or even self-righteous endorsement of stay-at-home mothers, to the exclusion of other possibilities, can indirectly condone career-driven fathers who disguise shirking fatherhood as “providing” by encouraging a total segregation of work within the marriage.  Nothing is further from the example of a nurturing, loving, training, nourishing, and highly involved Father in Heaven working with His children, who exhibits both fatherly and motherly attributes.   The ideal parenting situation is one where both parents can be just that: parents, with neither of them missing in action.  Efforts for reform can change the workplace to be more family friendly:  job-sharing, job-splitting, benefits for part-time workers, and shifts in maternal and paternal leave policies have recently made it more possible for one or both parents spend more time raising a family.  However, these options are infrequently implemented and rarely fought for—even though the LDS should be at the forefront of these battles, in my opinion.  The slow progress toward a more family-friendly work environment has made working and parenting options available that may have been next to impossible just 20 years earlier.  But we have much to go: currently, this country’s maternity leave policies are less family-friendly than those of Iran. [20] Where are the LDS who should be leading the charge on these policy issues?

        With women comprising 95% of US domestic violence victims, and 1 in 4 adult women experiencing partner abuse in her lifetime [21], I support better measures to combat domestic violence, which yearly incurs $5.8 billion in healthcare costs and produces productivity losses equivalent to losing 32,000 jobs. [22]  I support fighting for the rights of women globally, who often lack the most fundamental human rights.  As studies have shown, the best predictor of the stability and prosperity of a country is the fair treatment of women. [23]  

        Emboldened by LDS doctrine, I pray that misogyny, direct and indirect, that I have seen and felt from some Church members will end, from the local leader who refuses to counsel with the women in his ward, to the young women’s leader who chooses not to acknowledge possible husbandless futures.  Some women who have expressed these and other valid concerns have been dismissed as “crazy feminists” or distortedly caricatured as renouncing revelation or coveting priesthood. [24]  As a male, I hope to say all this without receiving the un-Christian backlash that has been prescribed to some of these sisters.  As George Albert Smith mused, “I wonder if we appreciate the daughters of God as He appreciates them.” [25]

        Latter-day Saints should be seeing the congruence between feminism and their beliefs, not purposely misunderstanding or ignoring it.  In fact, we should create an LDS brand of feminism that will energize our efforts to make the world a safer and better place for our sisters.  President Gordon B. Hinckley, when addressing the world on CNN with Larry King, taught how to approach the countless paradigms that can be found: “We say to people: you bring all the good that you have, and let us see if we can add to it.” [26]  We should bring all the good that we can, finding where the Venn diagrams overlap, and what parts are mutually exclusive.  Eloise Bell once illustrated this principle:

[During the Second Wave] I went to…attend the Tribune of the International Women's Year, a glorious conference for women…and a conference called to discuss some very crucial issues. Before I went to that conference, I sought a priesthood blessing as is my custom in such travels; and a great priesthood leader placed his hands upon my head and gave me a beautiful blessing, in which he said, "I bless you that you may discern the influences of Satan at this conference, for they will surely be there. And I bless you equally that you may discern the influences of Deity and of righteousness, for they will also surely be there." Both influences are present in feminism, but we have God-given powers by which to discern between them. [27]

        To my friends who have dismissed “feminism” on religious grounds, I say, “Give feminism a try.  Your personal beliefs may have much in common with it.”



[1] Bruce C. Hafen and Marie K. Hafen, The Belonging Heart: The Atonement and Relationships with God and Family, 1994, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, introduction to chapter 14. [Back to manuscript]

[2] Joseph F. Smith, "Relief society Conference," Woman's Exponent 24 (15 August, 1895): 44-46. [Back to manuscript]

[3] 14 February 1869; the first woman voter was Sarah Young, grandniece of Brigham Young.  See Utah History to Go at http://historytogo.utah.gov/utah_chapters/statehood_and_the_progressive_era/
. [Back to manuscript]

[4] Gordon B. Hinckley, "Words of the Prophet: Seek Learning," New Era, (September 2007), pp. 2-5. [Back to manuscript]

[5] For example, in Hafen and Hafen, The Belonging Heart, “Newsweek magazine reported in 1986 that ‘acknowledging the excesses of an earlier generation, whose emphasis on equality for women sometimes crossed the line into outright contempt for motherhood, a number of leaders believe the movement must openly embrace basic female values, longings and priorities.’ (Newsweek, "Feminism's Identity Crisis," March 31, 1986.)” [Back to manuscript]

[6] Gordon B. Hinckley, Satellite broadcast fireside for husbands and wives, (29 Jan. 1984). [Back to manuscript]

[7] Bruce R. McConkie, “Our Sisters from the Beginning,” Ensign, (Jan 1979), 61–63. [Back to manuscript]

[8] Brigham Young, given in 1856,  as found in John A. Widstoe, Discourses of Brigham Young Second President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (1954) pg 51-79. [Back to manuscript]

[9] Erastus Snow, Journal of Discourses (March 3, 1878), 19:269-270. [Back to manuscript]

[10] Richard G. Scott, “Removing Barriers to Happiness,” Ensign, (May 1998), 85. [Back to manuscript]

[11] L. Tom Perry, "Fatherhood, an Eternal Calling", General Conference Address,  (April 2004). [Back to manuscript]

[12] Alexander Morrison, Questions and Answer session for the International Society Annual Meeting, (1994), held in Provo, Utah. [Back to manuscript]

[13] Joan Zorza, "Woman Battering: A Major Cause of Homelessness," Clearinghouse Review, (1991), vol. 25, no. 4.  In the same breath, we should remember that 80% of custodial parents are women who are twice as likely to be poor than their single-father counterparts, illustrating the discrepancy in vulnerability (See the data at the U.S. Census Bureau: http://pubdb3.census.gov/macro/032007/pov/new02_100_01.htm). [Back to manuscript]

[14] Neal A. Maxwell, “The Women of God,” Ensign, (May 1978), 10. [Back to manuscript]

[15] Orania Papazoglou, "Despising Our Mothers, Despising Ourselves," First Things, (January 1992), page 11, as found in The Belonging Heart, by Hafen and Hafen, ch. 14. [Back to manuscript]

[16] Compare Data from the Department of Labor of the United States (found at http://www.dol.gov/wb/stats/main.htm) and data from Utah Department of Workforce Services (found at http://jobs.utah.gov/opencms/wi/pubs/womencareers/thefacts.html).  Both retrieved on June 26, 2009. [Back to manuscript]

[17] M. Russell Ballard, “Daughters of God”, General Conference, (April 2008) . [Back to manuscript]

[18] Ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[19] Carrie A. Moore, “Study elevates LDS women,” Deseret News (April 2, 2004). Retrieved on June 30, 2009:   http://www.deseretnews.com/article/595053226/Study-elevates-LDS-women.html. [Back to manuscript]

[20] Melinda Hardy, “Maternity Leave Policies”, unpublished research presented at BYU Women’s Studies Colloquium given on April 18, 2009.  Data used was extracted from the WomanStats Database:  http://www.womanstats.org/. [Back to manuscript]

[21] Will Dunham, “Quarter of U.S. women suffer domestic violence: CDC”, Reuters, (February 7, 2008),  http://www.reuters.com/article/healthNews/idUSN0737896320080207, retrieved on June 30, 2009. [Back to manuscript]

[22] Intimate Partner Violence: Consequences, CDC Center for Disease Control and Prevention http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/intimatepartnerviolence/consequences.html  retrieved June 26, 2008. [Back to manuscript]

[23] For example see Valerie Hudson, Mary Caprioli, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Rose McDermott, Chad F. Emmett "The Heart of the Matter: The Security of Women and the Security of States" Journal Article, International Security, (Winter 2008) volume 33, issue 3, pages 7-45. [Back to manuscript]

[24] One might suggest that a discussion of the unilateral possession of the priesthood should be discussed here.  As significant as this topic is, this article focuses more on cultural reform and a shift in social mentalities, rather than doctrinal analysis.  Suffice it to say that the equalities argued for in this essay do not in any way detract from the fact that men and women also have unique, divinely appointed roles, such as priesthood responsibilities for worthy males.  There have been various responses to this difference.  For example, it has been argued that priesthood leadership by men is an opportunity or role or repayment in kind that mirrors the spiritual leadership of women in other realms, such as in the Garden of Eden and in motherhood, drawing the conclusion that priesthood office may be understood as what helps men stand as spiritual equals with women.  The dissection of doctrinal assumptions can be a delicate process, and care must be taken not to confuse fixed points established in the wisdom of an all-wise and all-loving Heavenly Father with the artificial or cultural distinctions made by men and which oppress instead of liberate.  Since this essay focuses on the latter of this dichotomy, I will not address the topic of priesthood further.  [Back to manuscript]

[25] George Albert Smith, Conference Report,  (April 1943). [Back to manuscript]

[26] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Gordon Hinckley: Distinguished Religious Leader of the Mormons”, discussion on Larry King Live, Aired September 8, 1998 - 9:00 p.m. ET. [Back to manuscript]

[27] Eloise Bell, “The Implications of Feminism for BYU”,  BYU Studies, vol. 16 (1975-1976) pp. 537. [Back to manuscript]


Full Citation for This Article: Hardy, Michael (2009) "To My LDS Friends: Give Feminism a Try," SquareTwo, Vol. 2 No. 2 (Summer), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHardyFeminism.html, accessed [give access date].

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COMMENTS: 1 Comment

Ryan D. Whitaker, March 2010

This article brings to mind a comment offered by Richard Holzapfel during a presentation at BYU Education Week, where he said something to the effect of:

Whenever the gospel of Jesus Christ has been established on the earth, with higher priesthood authority, prophets, revelation and direct guidance by the Lord, the role of women has been elevated from existing societal views. Satan seeks to degrade the role and status of women; the Lord seeks to elevate the equality and status of women.

He touched upon some historical evidence of this.

During Christ's ministry, He was willing to forgive the woman taken in adultery. (Some suggest that He may have told the male accusers, 'If any of you are without sin with this woman let him cast the first stone,' calling to their minds that law required both parties caught in adultery to be stoned to death! Those men were too willing to kill the woman but spare her paramours.)  Christ was also willing to speak with the Samaritan woman at the well, and offered her some very poignant gospel teachings. Throughout His earthly ministry, the Savior was considerate, caring, and appreciative in the highest examples towards women.

He also pointed out that women were not allowed in the first modern temple, in Kirtland, Ohio. This suited the men just fine, many of whom came from Puritan backgrounds and thought in this way. The temple ordinances were not yet fully implemented at that time. By the time of the opening of the Nauvoo temple, however, the complete ordinances were ready to be observed, which necessarily included women. Some of the men rebelled at the idea of allowing women into the temple - permitting them access to all of the rites, ordinances and covenants there. But the Lord, through His prophet, showed mankind a larger, expanded view of womanhood and raised their modern status to not merely important, not only equal, but essential to, eternal progression.