Feminists and other Mormon liberals have faced new setbacks in recent months as the LDS church has sought to discipline dissenters and limit their roles in leadership and church activities.
The recent excommunication of feminist Kate Kelly over her views on women’s ordination has been only the most publicized case of other disciplinary measures brought against church liberals. In the current issue of the independent Mormon quarterly Dialogue (Winter), Joanna Brooks surveys the present and future state of Mormon feminism and finds a unique subculture that has endured and even flourished, even though feminists have been increasingly marginalized; consequently, during the 1990s and 2000s, publishing of Mormon feminist books slowed to a trickle.
Mormon feminists have faced “cycles of retrenchment” going on since the emergence of the movement in the 1970s, but this pattern of crackdowns has meant that it has lacked any institutional anchorage or organizational history compared to feminism in other religious groups. The exclusion of women from most types of LDS leadership positions and the discouragement of Mormon women in academia have given Mormon feminism a vernacular and popular style that is more often expressed on blogs, Facebook pages, and self-published books than in scholarly journals. “Mormon feminist intellectual gatherings typically do not take place in university-based conferences but independent community symposia, mountain retreats or even camps welcoming to families and children,” Brooks writes.
Another bright spot for feminists in the church has been the growth of professional Mormon studies programs at secular universities such as the University of Virginia and Claremont Graduate University, “producing the first generation of professionally-trained Mormon feminist religious studies scholars,” says Caroline Kline, Rachel Hunt Steenblick and Amy Hoyt. Another article in the same issue by Courtney Rabada cites the recent lowering of the age of female missionaries in the LDS church as creating the potential for greater leadership responsibilities for women, even if it stops short at ordination into the priesthood.
The lowering of the age of female missionaries from 21 to 19 has caused a groundswell of applications of young women into the one-year mission program. Before the announcement of this change, “sister missionaries comprised only 15 percent of the total, while within six months of the announcement slightly more than half of the new applicants, and 36 percent of the missionaries called to serve, were young women.” [See May 2014 RW]
The change allows more women to serve before they are romantically involved and considering marriage, which has long been an impediment for women entering the field. Such large numbers of women entering missions have already created new leadership roles, including the Sister Training Leader to instruct new recruits. This position creates a corresponding office to the “highly coveted, male-only Assistant to the President position, and allows the women who hold these jobs to take on increased responsibilities and develop leadership skills,” as well setting up a scenario of men and women working together in the hierarchy for the first time, Rabada writes.
While the church officially emphasizes the role of males in missionary service and its role in strengthening the priesthood, the influx of women missionaries may eventually challenge that interpretation.