Mormon Women in the History of Second-Wave Feminism

By Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher | Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Mormon Women in the History of Second-Wave Feminism


Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher, Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought


As a historian of early America, I seldom paymuch attention to the history of the twentieth century. I have often joked that, since I lived through most of it, it seems too much like autobiography. That sensation was evenmore pronounced in the summer of 2004 when I confronted a stack of books on the emergence of second- wave feminism. I relived my own life as I read accounts of feminist awakenings in Chapel Hill, Seattle, or Chicago and learned about the struggles of Jewish, African American, and Chicana women caught between feminism and loyalty to their people.

Unlike textbook histories of second-wave feminism which typically focus on visible public events like the founding of the National Organization of Women in 1966 or the picketing of the Miss American pageant in 1968, newer scholarship focuses on grass-roots organizing and on the personal stories of leaders at various levels.1 Reading these books in relation to my own life taught me something I should already have known. 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. In 1974, the year more than a thousand women attended the Berkshire Conference onWomen's History at Radcliffe, those same Mormon feminists launched Exponent II. Similar things were happening elsewhere. At the time Black Feminists were organizing in New York, Carol Lynn Pearson was publishing Daughters of Light (Provo, Utah: Trilogy Arts, 1973). While Catholic women were gathering for their first conference on ordination in 1975, Elouise Bell, a professor of English at Brigham Young University, was lecturing on the implications of the new feminism. On different streets and within radically different traditions, women were exploring the implications of the new movement. It may seem merely a curiosity that Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior appeared the same year (1976) as Claudia Bushman's edited collection on Mormon pioneer women, but in both cases women steeped in the folklore of their people were rewriting history.

Histories of second-wave feminism sometimes tell the story of Sonia Johnson, a Mormon housewife fromVirginia, who stood up to Orrin Hatch, a powerful senator from Utah, during hearings on the ERA in 1977, but they do not situate Sonia's story within the larger history of Mormon feminism. The reasons are not hard to find. As Ann Braude has observed:

On both the right and the left, pundits portray religion and feminism as inherently incompatible, as opposing forces in American culture. On one hand, some feminists assume that religious women are brainwashed apologists for patriarchy suffering from false consciousness. They believe allegiance to religious communities or organizations renders women incapable of authentic advocacy on women's behalf. On the other hand, religious hierarchies often discourage or prohibit women's pubic leadership. Some leaders assume that those who work to enhance women's status lack authentic faith. Many accounts of second-wave feminism reinforce these views by mentioning religion only when it is a source of opposition.2

This essay is an effort to connect selected themes in the history of second-wave feminism with what I know of Mormon feminism. In that sense, it is both autobiography and history. I will emphasize three areas where I found significant convergence-in accounts about the emergence of grass-roots organizing, in narratives about the discovery of women's history, and in explorations of the double-bind of identity politics. Mormon women have a place in the history of second-wave feminism, though we have not yet claimed it.

The Emergence of Feminist Groups

Histories of second-wave feminism often begin in 1963, the year Betty Friedan diagnosed the mysterious angst of suburban housewives who seemingly had it all, yet felt empty and unfulfilled.

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