About ten years ago, I decided to shift my research focus as a management professor to study women and leadership. Shortly after this, one of my academic colleagues and friends, Scott Hammond (an active member of the Church) and I were talking about my research goals when he suddenly blurted out, “You do know that you are a feminist, right?” I immediately said, “No, I am not,” and he said, “Yes, you are.” After a few rounds back and forth, with “I am not” and “Yes you are,” he smiled and said, “I’m a feminist too.” Of course that immediate halted the argument (which was actually a friendly debate). He said, “You don’t understand the word, Susan. Feminists are people who think that women should be respected, just like men, and that women and men should have the same rights within society. Don’t you believe that?” I said, “Of course I do. But I don’t think that’s what feminism means.” Well, after a good, healthy debate, I finally agreed with him that maybe I was a feminist—but only a “baby” feminist.

To be honest, the term has always made me (and continues to do so) slightly uncomfortable. Maybe it is because feminism is still associated in my mind with “women’s liberation,” “radicalism,” and the “Equal Rights Amendment” of the 80s, which of course the Church opposed. Maybe it is because I still in my mind’s eye see feminists as people standing outside buildings with picket signs making a scene—and thank heavens some women have done so or we would never have gained the right to vote!

These days, however, I’m forced to confront this issue from time to time as it resurfaces in questions related to my speaking and writing. In fact, during a recent Q & A session after one of my speeches in Utah, a woman asked, “Why do you always research and speak about women? Are you a feminist? Don’t you care about men?” I carefully responded, “I love men, I’m married to a wonderful man and have three great sons (and one fabulous daughter)—but my research and related work and service focus on women.” Now, it is also important to admit at this point that even my own 22-year-old daughter asked me this past year if I was a feminist! Other people have seen me as a feminist, even though I never self-identified as such.

In the academic realm I expect that most of my colleagues, who understand the broader use of the word, assume I am a feminist because of my belief that women should have voice and choice—a phrase I use often. Yet at conferences, I sometimes attend sessions where certain academic feminists present research on how awful things are for women, giving little hope for the future and blaming men for the majority of the related problems. I’ve actually got up and left sessions that wandered into “male-bashing” and opinion-based statements instead of objective research discussions. These kinds of sessions not only make me uncomfortable, but irritate me as well. I think it is because I believe (and am supported by the literature in this) that barriers for women in terms of voice and choice are both internal (inside ourselves) and external (e.g., society, organizations/group norms and practices, socialization). Don’t get me wrong; there are still plenty of things to blame men about—just ask my husband (e.g., he doesn’t rinse out the sink when he does the dishes)! But there’s a lot more going on than just that.

So here I am, trying to figure out what to call myself. I’m obviously not comfortable calling myself a feminist, but I do admit to some that I am a “baby feminist,” as stated earlier. Yet I am not certain there is truly a good word to accurately describe a faithful LDS member who 1) is engaged in helping women develop voice, competence, and confidence so that they can become more prepared in life, and 2) desires to help women learn to lead so they can become more influential and a force for good in the world. I have always believed that my goals are aligned with what a number of General Authorities have also maintained is important. For example, Elder Marvin J. Ashton once said,

This is a day when serious minded, clear thinking women are needed to promote a climate of peace, harmony, and righteousness in community life.  Let such women work together to create an atmosphere in which the problems of our society can be resolved by reason, respect, and concern for all people, and by esteem for that which has traditionally proved conducive to mankind's happiness and well-being.  Let us remember that the woman whose life is well ordered may and should work for the benefit of both her community and her family. [1]
In addition, President Gordon B. Hinckley made the following powerful statement in 1985:  
I have often thought that if great numbers of the women of all nations were to unite and lift their voices in the cause of peace, there would develop a worldwide will for peace which could save our civilization and avoid untold suffering, misery, plague, starvation, and the death of millions. [2]
I too believe that women must continue to learn, grow, and develop their confidence, competence, and knowledge so they can be prepared to make stronger and broader contributions in society.

A number of statements have also been made by prophets about the importance of learning for women within the Church—including the criticality of women getting college degrees. Research shows that a college education is critical for the development of so many competencies and abilities needed to influence and lead, and it is therefore also important to the overall development of women. [3] For example, Brigham Young once said, “You educate a man; you educate a man. You educate a woman; you educate a generation.” [4] He also stated, “If I had a choice of educating my daughters or my sons because of opportunity constraints, I would choose to educate my daughters.” [5] And, President Gordon B. Hinckley provided the following inspirational thought:
It is so important that you young men and you young women get all of the education that you can. The Lord has said very plainly that His people are to gain knowledge of countries and kingdoms and of things of the world through the process of education, even by study and by faith. Education is the key which will unlock the door of opportunity for you. It is worth sacrificing for. It is worth working at, and if you educate your mind and your hands, you will be able to make a great contribution to the society of which you are a part, and you will be able to reflect honorably on the Church of which you are a member. My dear young brothers and sisters, take advantage of every educational opportunity that you can possibly afford, and you fathers and mothers, encourage your sons and daughters to gain an education which will bless their lives.” [6] [emphasis added]
One Utah statewide report said, “A college education is more than a gateway to an affluent lifestyle. Earning a college degree has implications far beyond the workplace. The non-tangible benefits of receiving a college degree are, at minimum, equivalent to the monetary ones, and they extend from individuals to families and communities.” [7]

Overall, I have found substantial evidence in Church publications that LDS leaders do understand that women need to become lifelong learners (both formal and informal education) in a host of varied areas, gospel and non-gospel related, to become “…perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). I believe this scripture means that all of us need to continue to learn and grow as much as possible so we can develop our minds, hearts, and bodies to be as smart and competent in as many areas as possible.

So, are these feminist statements? I guess it matters how you define feminism.

Consider that within the LDS culture, the underlying struggle over the word feminism pops up frequently; for example, it has been recently articulated in a few publications. First, Sheri Dew in her recent book Women and the Priesthood, stated bluntly, “I am not a feminist.” [8] However, Valerie M. Hudson, in her Fall 2013 SquareTwo article, “Book Review: Women and the Priesthood by Sheri Dew,” argued that Dew must have a very different definition of feminism than she does. [9] Hudson believes that Dew may have been setting some particular audience at ease by saying that, and I must say that I totally “get” that myself. Yet, Hudson believes that feminism “asserts that women and men stand before each other as equals, that women and men are of equal worth, that they should be paid equally for doing the same job, that they should have equal voice and equal say in the councils of human decision-making.”  By this standard, in Hudson’s view, “every single Latter-day Saint, male and female, is a feminist.” Hence, the innovative title of a 2010 article she wrote, “I am a Mormon Because I am a Feminist.” [10] Yet, I don’t believe that there are many faithful LDS men and women who understand the broader definition of feminism the way Hudson so clearly articulates. I think that is why I’m still so uncomfortable using it in public, as it is such a “loaded” word and most understand it much more narrowly than does Hudson.

To illustrate the confusion further, there is even a slight discrepancy with the use of the word feminist even within the SquareTwo Fall 2013 issue itself where Hudson’s book review was published. I happened to read Hudson’s book review the same day that I read another article in the same issue: “Women Wearing Pants to Church: Putting the Current Wave of LDS Feminism into Historical Context,” by Morgan Lyon Cotti. [11] Although I also enjoyed this article as well, the contrast in the use of the word “feminist” was evident. Cotti called “All Enlist” a “new LDS feminist group” organized to wear pants to church for gender equity. Cotti provided various “feminist groups” or “movements” within the history of the church, with most being examples of more radical LDS feminist movements from All Enlist, The Equal Rights Amendment, The September Six (of the six who were excommunicated, most were women), to Ordain Women and others. Although she provided some excellent history of more conservative feminism examples (e.g., creation of Relief Society, other early 1800 Church practices, mission age change for sisters), I was still left hoping no one in my ward thought of me as a “feminist.” I felt that Cotti’s use of the term “LDS feminists” referred specifically to those who challenge the common practices, policies, and/or doctrines. I’m a returned missionary, raised in a strong and traditional LDS family, and I have no interest in movements that outright challenge publically a practice, policy, or doctrine of the Church. I don’t want to be ordained, I don’t want to wear pants to Church, and I certainly don’t want to challenge doctrine or even policies in a way that seems disrespectful to Church leaders. So, am I a feminist or not? Not sure.

So, how exactly is a feminist or feminism defined? I decided it was finally time for me to find out. A number of online dictionaries I consulted state that a definition of “feminist” typically includes the notion that it is a person who advocates rights for women (i.e., social, political, legal, and economic) that are equal to those of men. Sources also state that a feminist is someone who supports feminism (not that helpful) and/or a person who engages in dispute or argument related to the reform of women’s rights. To restate, it is defined in many sources simply as someone who supports equal rights for women. Vocabulary.com provides this example: “If your brother objects strongly to women being paid less than men for doing the same job, he’s probably a feminist.” [12] This source also argues that if you believe that women should have the same political, social, and economic rights as men, then you are a feminist. It also states that “It has absolutely nothing to do with putting down men or boys in order to elevate the status of women. The word ‘feminist’ comes from feminism, which originally meant simply ‘being feminine,’ or ‘being a woman,’ but gained the meaning ‘advocacy of women’s rights’ in the late 1800s.” [13] Finally, a few sources summarized definitions by sayings that, to be a feminist, you should believe in women's rights, the need to secure rights and opportunities for women, or have a commitment to securing these rights.

So, what is feminism then? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary says it is “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” and “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.” [14] The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia states that feminism is a “social movement that seeks equal rights for women.” [15] According to Wikipedia, “Feminism is a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending a state of equal political, economic, cultural, and social rights for women. This includes seeking to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment. A feminist advocates or supports the rights and equality of women.” [16] Finally, the Urban Dictionary says it is “The belief that women are and should be treated as potential intellectual equals and social equals to men…embraces the belief that all people are entitled to freedom and liberty within reason—including equal civil rights—and that discrimination should not be made based on gender.” [17]

The themes that emerged from all of these dictionary definitions appear to focus on the following beliefs:

I have listed these in order of basic beliefs to active participation. I think some stark differences will appear among individual views of 1) which rights are considered (e.g., equal pay), 2)  what advocacy means (e.g., sending emails to legislators, speaking about it to college students, picketing), and 3) what reforming, securing, and maintaining these rights actually looks like.

As I look at this list, I must admit that I do believe in all six; dang, maybe I am a feminist! Yet I may have a different view of which rights are important, how advocacy should work, and what reforming, securing, and maintaining these rights means compared both to non-LDS feminists and possibility even other LDS church members. I also wonder how close my views on these things would be to Hudson and Dew—my guess that we would probably be pretty dang close.

I am strongly committed to women having equal voice and rights in marriage, family, church, society, and politics—actually in all areas of society. I am committed because I truly believe that God loves men and women equally and has created each of us with amazing gifts, talents, strengths, and challenges. Of course there are some gender differences in how these may play out in life (“equal” does not mean “exactly the same”). I also believe that we are all commanded to be influential—to lead in our families, churches, communities, and so forth. For example, we are called to influence and lead in church callings such as being a teacher, youth leader, primary president, and even in the commandment that every member is a missionary.

I am a returned missionary myself and even taught at the MTC for a while after I returned. I know LDS doctrine fairly well and, because of this, I have not and do not struggle with the whole issue of men and the priesthood. I have a deep belief that I am respected and loved by my God, and that is what matters to me. I have always been inspired by this beautiful quote by President Hinckley (2001) when he shared his vision for faithful LDS women:

The whole gamut of human endeavor is now open to women. There is not anything that you cannot do if you will set your mind to it. 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 are as entitled as are men to the Spirit of Christ, which enlightens every man and woman who comes into the world. . . 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 of which she will be a part. [18]
So, am I a feminist? I guess I should admit I am based on my journey in writing this article, but I will probably not announce it from the rooftops. I wish I had a better term, but I do not. Yet I’m okay with that, because I know who I am. I am a wife and mother. I am a daughter, sister, aunt, and friend. I am a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am a teacher. I am a women and leadership scholar, author, and speaker. I am an active community member. I am an advocate for silent voices and for women who need more confidence, competence, and education (all of us). I am a restless soul. I am assertive, and can be bossy and a pain at times—but my heart is full of love and compassion. I am brave and have courage to do what needs to be done and to say what needs to be said. But more than everything else, I am a daughter of God. This brings me peace beyond measure. And that is what truly matters.


[1] Ashton, M. J., TBA. [Back to manuscript].

[2] Hinckley, G. B. (1985, October). Ten gifts from the lord. General Conference. Retrieved from https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1985/10/ten-gifts-from-the-lord?lang=eng . [Back to manuscript].

[3] Madsen, S. R., Hanewicz, C., & Thackeray, S. (2010). The value of higher education for women in Utah. Office of the Utah Women & Education Project. Report UWEP 2010-201. Retrieved from http://www.utahwomenandeducation.org/assets/Research__Policy_Brief_1.pdf . [Back to manuscript].

[4] Goodreads. (n.d.). Brigham Young quotes. Retrieved from http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/37892-you-educate-a-man-you-educate-a-man-you-educate . [Back to manuscript].

[5] Thinkexist.com. (n.d.). Brigham Young quotes. Retrieved from http://thinkexist.com/quotation/if-i-had-a-choice-of-educating-my-daughters-or-my/348559.html . [Back to manuscript].

[6] Inspirational Thoughts, http://www.lds.org/ensign/1999/06/inspirational-thoughts?lang=eng. [Back to manuscript].

[7] Madsen, S. R., Hanewicz, C., & Thackeray, S. (2010), op cit. [Back to manuscript].

[8] Dew, S. (2013). Women and the priesthood. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book. [Back to manuscript].

[9] Hudson, V. M. (2013, Fall). Book review: Women and the priesthood by Sheri Dew. SquareTwo, 6(3). Retrieved from http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHudsonDewBookReview.html . [Back to manuscript].

[10] Hudson, Valerie (2010). I am a Mormon because I am a feminist. [Back to manuscript].

[11] Cotti, M. L. (2013, Fall). Women wearing pants to church: Putting the current wave of LDS feminism into historical context. SquareTwo, 6(3). Retrieved from http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCottiMormonFeminism.html . [Back to manuscript].

[12] Vocabulary.com (n.d.). Feminist. Retrieved from http://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/feminist . [Back to manuscript].

[13] Ibid. [Back to manuscript].

[14] Merriam-Webster (n.d.). Feminism. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/feminism . [Back to manuscript].

[15] Ibid. [Back to manuscript].

[16] Wikipedia. (n.d.) Feminism. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminism . [Back to manuscript].

[17] Urban Dictionary. (n.d.) Feminism. Retrieved from http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Feminism . [Back to manuscript].

[18] Hinckley, G. B. (2001). How can I become the woman of whom I dream? General Conference. Retrieved from https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2001/04/how-can-i-become-the-woman-of-whom-i-dream?lang=eng . [Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Madsen, Susan R. (2014) "My Personal Struggle with the Term 'Feminism'," SquareTwo, Vol. 7 No. 1 (Spring 2014), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleMadsenFeminist.html, accessed <give access date>.

Would you like to comment on this article? Thoughtful, faithful comments of at least 200 words are welcome. Please submit to SquareTwo.

COMMENTS: 3 Comments

I. Michael Reed Davison

As a Latter-day Saint who accepts Valerie M. Hudson's definition of feminism, I have struggled when my friends have criticized feminism, for many of the reasons Susan Madsen outlines above. They call themselves "egalitarians" or "humanists," and I explain that I am a feminist because I see a special need to fight for the "voice and choice" of women in this world, to use Madsen's phrase.
            Unfortunately, I soon realized that my friends had a point: there is a branch of radical feminism that is inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are women who call themselves "feminists" who shame stay-at-home moms, who blame men for the world's problems, and who would certainly not be willing to wait for a male Prophet to get more revelation about the role of women in God's kingdom. Sometimes, these women allow no place for men in feminist dialogue, except to validate what the women have said. Some feminists act this way frequently, and others do so only occasionally.
            To make this issue clearer, I have proposed the term "egalitarian feminist" to describe women's rights activists who respect men, and who are open to discussing men's issues as well. An egalitarian feminist knows how to critique patriarchy (a feminist term which can be defined as systematic unrighteous dominion of men over women; see D&C 121:34-36) without descending into misandry (or hatred of men), a distinction that I feel needs to become plain to both feminists and so-called non-feminists. We can acknowledge that men have more voice and more choice than women do, without hating those same men. We can empower our sisters without disempowering our brothers. We can be both egalitarian and feminist.
            Of course, being a faithful Latter-day Saint feminist requires more than basic respect for men. It also requires respect for the Lord's servants: for instance, the scriptures warn us, "Thou shalt not command him who is at thy head, and at the head of the church" (D&C 28:6). If we see patriarchy in our church leaders, we may need to spend more time praying for them, or asking for judgment through official Church channels, instead of taking the issue to the newspapers. I have no doubt that the Lord will reveal more to the Church on this matter, because we live in the latter days, "A time... in the which nothing shall be withheld... As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints" (D&C 121:27-28, 33).
            I am proud to consider myself an egalitarian feminist who prays for the Prophet to receive more revelation about women, according to our faith, and according to the will of the Lord. I am very curious what the Lord will reveal.


II. B. Kent Harrison

See our article, "Feminism in the Light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ", by B. Kent Harrison and Mary Stovall Richards, in BYU Studies, vol. 16, no. 2 (1996-97), pages 181-199.  At the end of the article, we summarize our definition of feminism by noting:  "Feminism", as defined and discussed here in the context of our own deeply felt beliefs, simply espouses fair and equal treatment for all of our heavenly parents' children as wonderful, holy, potentially divine beings." On a more light-hearted (sort of!) note, I have always liked this definition:  "Feminism is the belief that women are people."


III. Valerie M. Hudson

I really appreciated Susan Madsen's treatment; it helps tremendously in understanding various perspectives of the term "feminism." And like Michael Reed Davison, sometimes people tell me I should be a "humanist," instead of a "feminist."

But I have come to feel strongly that the binary of male-female is the first, the last, and the ultimate binary that must be reconciled in unity and love and equality--rather than in conflict, hatred, and hierarchy. No matter what racial, ethnic, religious, geographical, ideological, or any imaginable differences exist among people, there is still that binary of male-female difference within it. It is inescapable.

And it was meant to be so, I believe. You cannot love your neighbor if you cannot love your woman. You cannot love God if you cannot love your woman. You cannot live in peace if you cannot live in peace with your woman. You cannot respect another if you cannot respect your woman.

Social orders based on hierarchy between men and women have always been, and always will be, dysfunctional. Societies that strive to eradicate that hierarchy will be blessed, even bounteously. Even run a bivariate correlation between GDP or national economic growth and the status of women?

Why be a feminist, then, and not a humanist? Because tackling the character of that binary is THE ultimate societal pivot. Change that pivot, which lies within every human family, and you change everything.