“Not a feminist”

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.


8 thoughts on ““Not a feminist”

  1. Sarah Dunster

    I wrote a very similar kind of post several years ago and in fact, just fed it into my twitter feed 🙂 Coincidence? I think not. But… I love the picture of your grandmother. She *was* a feminist by my definition of the word, and most anybody’s definition. I think what people reject is the label that tends to come with some (to me unwelcome) strings.

  2. Blain

    I’m way more ambivalent than that. I don’t claim the label, because I’ve been in circles where that would have brought challenges of “How can you claim to be a feminist when you do/don’t support X?” The label wasn’t worth the hassle to me.

    I’m more of a “fellow traveler.” Some of the people I enjoy the most are active Mormon feminists (I’ve been told I’ll be considered a third or fourth wave feminist in 20 years), and I’m feminist enough to piss people off sometimes.

    I have no problem with the label and people who wear it. It’s a positive for me. But I still don’t wear it.

  3. Annemarie Garrett

    I’ve always gladly called myself a feminist because I think of it as meaning a belief in the equality of men and women. I recently had a conversation with a friend (a strong, intelligent woman) who refuses to use the term because she thinks people sometimes mean things by it that she doesn’t agree with. It was an interesting conversation to have. And I think you’re right, the disdain for patriarchy that many feminists are not shy in expressing can make it difficult for LDS culture as a whole.

    Of course, if your list of what makes your grandma a feminist is taken as a list of criteria, many strong, intelligent women among my friends and family won’t make the cut because they don’t “teach the importance of working outside the home.” When did this become a requirement? One of my own feminist beliefs is that strong, intelligent, independent women get to choose how to spend their lives without outsiders getting to critique them.

    On a separate note, I absolutely love your wife’s comment “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.” Too right.

  4. Kelly

    Being a feminist means having all the options open to me that are open to other humans. It doesn’t mean I have to wear pants, wear a dress, bear children, bear no children, stay home, work outside the home, or anything else to “show” that I am a woman. It means that I get to define for myself what being a woman looks like for me. I don’t believe feminism means better than, for me it means that we are all, men and women, equally and sometimes differentially unique and powerful. We owe a great debt to those who came before us and showed us the full measure of what a woman can be or become. My grandmother worked in a munitions factory during WWII. My other grandmother taught herself to drive. They both exceeded the boundaries of their time. I think it’s important to celebrate the strong women in our lives. Thanks for your post.

  5. Sarah

    I love the logic that you use in your posts. They’re interesting to read and not argumentative, which is really a breath of fresh air these days. At various RS activities over the past year, I have had the opportunity to teach about a few issues that target “Mormon feminism” in today’s society and I think that you might be interested in some of what I have found. Most of it is relating to the “Women and the Priesthood” conflict. If you would like it, let me know how to send it to you and I will.

  6. Hillary Stirling

    I think you hit on the head the reason some women (like myself) reject the feminist label even though many would probably apply it to me: the antagonism toward patriarchy or men in general. It always struck me as somewhat ironic that a movement called “feminism” was so obsessed with men, with not only having the rights and opportunities as men but by actually becoming more like men. The strong women in your family weren’t out to be as good as men, they were out to be the best women they could be and to follow their dreams. Those are two very different objectives.

  7. Pingback: Sometimes the institution gets it right, Or: The church is talking about equal partnership & not mentioning that women should be stay-at-home-moms |

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