At a family party over the weekend, my brother and I found ourselves chatting about our grandmother. I’ve written about my grandmother before; a remarkable woman. Her husband, my grandfather, was murdered in 1940, leaving her with five children under the age of nine. She moved in with her mother, and went to work. While working as a teacher, she earned an MA and a PhD, and ended up on the faculty of BYU, in Library Science. She was a strong-willed and forceful woman, and her four daughters grew up to be equally remarkable. My mother and her sisters (my deeply admired and redoubtable aunts) are woman of extraordinary accomplishments and talents. Two of them earned doctorates; the other two, master’s degrees. Two of them are published authors. One is an extraordinary playwright, another a remarkable poet. I love them all deeply, and continue to be astonished by their humor, wit, energy and intelligence.
Anyway, my brother and I got to talking about my grandmother. We were in a big family gathering, surrounded by our kids and their kids and in-laws, and we were sort of evangelizing about this amazing woman who was such an important part of our early lives. And then my brother said something that completely amazed me. He said “of course, she wasn’t a feminist.”
Well, of course she was a feminist. She was a feminist pioneer. One of the first women to be hired as tenured faculty at BYU. A former Utah Mother of the Year. An actress and a writer. She fought for equal pay. She raised her daughters to value higher education, and she taught them the importance of working outside the home. And her daughters all did–they were, all of them, well respected professional women. Obviously she was a feminist. They are, all of them, feminists.
But for my brother, it was equally obvious. Of course she wasn’t a feminist. How could I even suggest such a thing. Yes, she was an accomplished woman, a fiercely independent woman, a professional woman of extraordinary abilities. But that didn’t make her a, you know, a . . . a feminist.
It blew my mind, honestly. And it was a big chaotic family gathering–not a setting where we could really pursue it, or where I could ask the question burning in my mind: “what the heck do you think ‘feminist’ means?” The moment passed, the conversation swirled off in another direction.
And I love my brother, and I respect him. But come on. If my grandmother, of all people, wasn’t a feminist. . . .
But I do think she might have rejected that label. She opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, for example, back in the day. She was a loyal Republican, and she thought the ERA might bring with it serious unintended consequences; she thought it wasn’t worth the risk. I talked to her about it; she said she preferred to work one issue at a time–on equal pay, for example, job by job, rather than a big federal approach, or something as potentially scary as a constitutional amendment.
So what is it about that label? Why is feminist a new F-word? Why do some women, bright, independent, strong women, still resist calling themselves feminists?
My Mom’s one. When I was a kid, my Mom always ‘worked outside the home,’ as all those sacrament meeting talks back then insisted married women had no business doing. She was a school teacher. My Dad was an opera singer and a music professor; I don’t know much about their finances, but she told me once that she didn’t work because they needed the money. She worked because she needed to, because staying at home with kids drove her insane. She chose to work. So when I got home from school, it was my job to watch my younger brothers. Which was completely no problem–all we did was play basketball. Home from school, drop the book bag, grab the ball. Babysitting made easy.
Mom wouldn’t go to Relief Society for years. Every time she went, there’d be a lesson about not working outside the home, and so she’d stay away for another year or so. Finally, after years gone, she finally started going, because they made her RS President. But my Mom also didn’t consider herself a feminist.
Feminist means . . . well, to me, it just means someone who believes in and supports equality. To me, feminist means equal. Period.
But for some people–people every bit as committed to equality as I am–feminist means, well, all sorts of nasty things, I imagine.
What I think, though, is that the central feminist critique of patriarchy, of how patriarchy functioned in the past and how it still controls the power centers of our culture, that the feminist rejection of patriarchy (such a potent and central concept in academic feminist discourse), that that may be the key to why so many LDS people are uncomfortable calling themselves feminists. ‘Patriarchy’, a pejorative word for feminists, is a positive one for Mormons. We give patriarchal blessings. We talk of honoring our patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. Priesthood is exclusively patriarchal.
I’m reminded of the probably apocryphal story of the kid, graduating from primary, brought up to the pulpit by the bishop. The bishop tells the congregation “little Sally here will be joining the Young Women’s, and I was so impressed with her bishop’s interview. Let me show you.” He then turns to the girl in the best beaming bishoply fashion, and says, “so Sally, a little quiz. There’s something that your Daddy has that your Mommy does not have. And it starts with a ‘p.’ What is it?” The girl stares up at him, appalled, and finally replies, “I think I know the answer, but I don’t think I’m supposed to say it in Church!”
My wife likes to say that she doesn’t mind not having the Priesthood right up to the point that some man, talking about women’s roles, says she shouldn’t mind not having the Priesthood. And my Mom and grandma were much of the same mind. I used to love watching my grandma in Sacrament meeting. Whenever a speaker would talk about ‘women’s roles,’ or why women shouldn’t ‘work outside the home,’ my grandmother would start cleaning our her purse. And she would say ‘oh, dear, oh dear,’ under her breath, just loudly enough that the speaker could barely hear it, but not so loudly as to be distracting.
But ‘feminist’? That’s going to far. That suggests, maybe, that patriarchy itself is at fault, that an organization run entirely by men, correlated by men, is inherently, automatically unjust and unequal. That society itself remains unequal, despite the undoubted advances women have made. And for some women, that’s pushing things too far. They’re perfectly happy being women, comfortable in their skin. And they don’t feel they’ve been disrespected, either in Church or society at large. Sure, there are problems, and we need to work to fix them. But we don’t need to completely re-order society.
Of course, ‘feminism’ means many things to many people. To some feminists, the essence of feminism is the critique of and opposition to patriarchy. To other feminists, the essence of feminism is simply equality. For some, my grandmother’s muttered comments in Church when men talked about women’s roles was an act of feminist subversion (muted to be sure, but certainly unmistakable). But to others, her rejection of the ERA couldn’t be reconciled with committed feminist activism.
My grandmother was a strong, independent woman. To me, that makes her a feminist, an important and powerful feminist pioneer. My Mom is equally strong, equally independent, and very much a feminist too. That’s because, to me, feminist is a positive word, a terrific thing to be. To others, it’s another ‘f’ word. Either way, equality is what we’re aiming for.