Yesterday (no I didn’t go to the opera, but I will be next weekend), I had some things to do in the morning, but in the afternoon, I attended a conference on women in contemporary Mormonism at the Claremont Colleges. The conference was titled, “Women’s Lives, Women’s Voices.” I should preface this entry by letting the readers know that in the Mormon faith, gender rolls are often spoken of as being firm and rigid, homosexuality is a severe sin worthy of excommunication, and variance from binary gender norms is highly frowned upon by many. Generally, this conference was about Mormon women trying to redefine themselves, the world, and God, in the light of that perceived rigidity.
As I may have revealed in past entries, I was raised a Mormon, but officially withdrew my membership about 10 years ago. Still, Mormon culture is very much a strong part of my life in many respects, and Claremont Graduate University (CGU) has a thriving Mormon Studies program which usually puts on several conferences and other events throughout the year, and I must say that I enjoy attending so as to get a pulse on the latest and greatest in Mormon theological “evolution”. I put evolution in quotation marks because, at least when I was affiliated with the church, many Mormons would say that their church does not really evolve that much (thinking that ‘God is the same yesterday, today and forever’), but attending these conferences and other events throughout the year reveals how the church very much throughout it’s history, evolves in it’s theology. And given their realization of this at CGU, they are amazingly pushing beyond the limits of anything I thought possible within the theological landscape. Anyway, although the church is really not for me, it is entertaining and fascinating to see wherever they decide to take their journey.
For me, of the speakers I heard, the overarching theme that I took away from the conference was that of telling stories as a means to create new identities.
The first speaker I heard was Diedre Green, whose speech was titled, “Naming the Self, World, and God: Women and Narrative.” Ze talked about how the stories of Mormon women, when they are told, creates a new reality for their identities. Mormons generally believe in a concept called “agency,” which they believe is the freedom to act however one will, instead of to be a slave to God. Women’s story telling, itself, included:
• the naming of things and events
• the naming of themselves and their communities
• the redefining of being a woman in Mormonism
• the creative re-interpretation of Mormon scripture
• the not-acceptance of tales and things taught to them
• the choosing of which stories will carry the most emphasis
— empowers women to redefine their own lives, their relationship to God, and to the world around them. Ze talked also of how forgiveness and reconciliation unto those who told the stories in the past was also needed in order to tell the stories and definitions of today. Story telling is about establishing subjectivity rather than being passive. As well, the importance of being a part of “a global sisterhood” was mentioned also – in order to tell the truth of who they are, and what it means to be a woman, to communicate their self-definitions.
As I considered this presentation, there was something deeper that they were not saying so much: Of what that self-definition was, or whether the “global sisterhood” itself is just one final step on the path to gender oblivion, a metamorphosis of roles and ways of being, definitions, and the end of mankind and the true beginning of humankind. Certainly one might say that it is just as much as men’s conference as much as a women’s as they are suggesting a metamorphosis of the boundaries. Or some might argue that the men’s roles are so fixed that only women are only allowed to challenge those the boundaries — the men who do will be beaten into submission.
The next speaker was Caroline Kline, whose presentation was titled, “Competing Demands and Divided Loyalties: Self and Other in a Mormon Context.” This speaker focused a lot on the meaning of “charity” in relation to gender. Ze talked about how some forms of morality itself are based on charity; in relation to some Mormon gender constructs, women are often supposed to embody the living of a self-less, charitable life of giving, and supporting (especially hir husband in the home) without any expectation of return – the epitome of charity. This is an extreme perspective, but ze spoke of how men may often be taught to fulfill the opposite extreme role – leading, dominating, and even exploiting the world around them to sustain the self and the cocoon of the family. And amid that exploitation, the women, ze said, often becomes a victim of male exploitation. Instead of submerging oneself into the husband’s life to lift and fulfill the male, women ought to realize the power within themselves. That choices are creation itself. That choosing is power. And that women’s choices ought to be treated with kindness and respect. Overall, it seemed like there was a bit of a “fighting” theme behind it all, to stand up to oppression – against things like rape, but at the same time, a theme of women being co-creators with men.
The next presentation was by Eliza Pulido. Hir presentation was called, “I Hope They Call Me On A Mission: Mormon Women and the Great Expectation.” This was a fascinating speech about how a great many Mormon women experience quite a lot of disappointment when one or more of their sons do not choose to go on a two year Mormon mission in their early 20s, or disappointment if they happen to come home early from their mission. It was expressed that for many Mormon women, the rearing of missionary sons is considered a high spiritual achievement, even — a fulfillment of the “recipe” of faithfulness and righteousness. As such, ze said that many Mormon women feel like failures when their sons don’t go, if they go inactive, or especially if they leave the Mormon church. They not only experience self-blame, but they blame others, too, such as blaming leaders in their congregation who potentially failed to be there for their son when ze needed it most. Such “failures” also shame and shatter family reputations – so it’s not just the mothers who experience this, but the fathers too. It was quite interesting that they spoke of how in Mormon theology, they believe that at a certain point in eternity, 1/3 of the hosts of heaven left heaven; hir point was: Was this God’s fault? Did God fail as a parent?! As such, they really shouldn’t feel so bad!
As I meditated upon this, it is an interesting phenomenon that even from the time of Adam and Eve, when Adam ate the fruit, the blame game began. Upon God making a couple of rules and Adam and Eve breaking them – enter the blame game: “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.” Adam blames the woman, but actually, ultimately turns it back on God hirself with the words, “whom thou gavest.” And then Eve replied, “The serpent beguiled me”! Shame, shame, shame, and blame, blame, blame – around and around and around and around it goes. For myself now, with Jesus, we are taken back into a pre-fall state with no more rules ever again!
The final speakers were a group, a panel presentation, in which four different women told their stories of stuggles, coping, evolving, overcoming, and finding peace. One was a young mother who had lost hir eyesight. Another was a medical doctor, ze discovering hir husband was gay, and chose to divorce hir, the husband happily found a wonderful male life-partner, this woman eventually remarried, is now very old, and hir second husband recently passed away and ze now finds comfort in hir belief of eventually being with hir when ze passes on, too. The third, was a young Asian woman who grew up in an ethnically white congregation, and chose education and career over marriage. And the forth, was a middle aged woman who had four, now adult, children, all of whom had now departed from the Mormon faith – and in such departure she felt such great shame and disappointment, but now ze has come to feel peace amid that. Particularly ze brought up a famous line by one of the Mormon leaders, David O. McKay, “No failure can compensate for failure in the home.” Even amid hir failure to raise faithful Mormon children, all of hir children are now strong and happy adults, one of which ze said is gay and married to a wonderful husband. One of hir final words was that ze honors their agency and that they honor hirs.
Claudia Bushman, one of the lead professors of the Mormon Studies Department at CGU, closed the conference by encouraging the attendees there to go forth and record the stories of their lives, and make space for themselves to act.
Every time I go to one of these I come away encouraged that perhaps there is hope for them in the Mormon faith. I see it as a dying religion that, if they don’t reconcile their past and present, nor adapt quickly enough in this presently quickly evolving world that their religion will vanish. To speak and record their lives, to me, is both a sign of an effort to evolve as a faith, and if their faith is extinguished that a strong record will be left.
I have spoken with some of the faculty of the Mormon Studies department on many occasions at these gatherings and for them, that is the case, it is evolve or die, and their program is an effort to help that evolution.