Interview: Joanna Brooks and Rachel Hunt Steenblik

Joanna Brooks and Rachel Hunt Steenblik, together with Hannah Wheelwright, are the editors of Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings, a wonderful new anthology of some of the most important feminist Mormon voices over the last 40 years (review forthcoming). Joanna is the author of several books and is Associate Vice President of Faculty Affairs at San Diego State University. Rachel is a writer and Ph.D. student in philosophy of religion and theology at Claremont Graduate University, and frequent contributor to The Exponent. We’re grateful for their work and their thoughtful answers.

1. Your work brings together writings from over 40 years of Mormon feminism. Of course, Mormonism is far older than that, but in looking at that 40-year time span, are there recurring themes that strike you?

On the flip side of that question, how is the world different for Mormon women today? (better or worse). As a follow-up: why start with the Second Wave? It seems like an interesting choice, given the amazing acts of feminism displayed by many LDS women going back to our origins.

Joanna: This is a classic feminist scholarship question: where do we situate the beginnings of feminism? How do we account for proto-feminist histories? You’re absolutely right that Mormon women in the 19c were politically active on women’s issues, an activism informed by distinctive aspects of our faith. However, for this project, we chose to situate the beginnings at the moment Mormon women consciously started using the word “feminist” to describe themselves. In these forty years, so many important theological and political questions are voiced and evolve–read the book! it’s too much to capture here. I’m interested too in the distinctive methodological features of Mormon feminist writing: historical recovery as a Mormon feminist project, emphasis on the personal essay (and later the blog post) as a venue for theological reflection and innovation, and the importance of using writing to memorialize and preserve the names of women and the relationships between women that have kept this movement alive, sometimes at significant personal cost.

Rachel: I cherish our Mormon feminist past, “going back to our origins,” and am especially grateful that our first chapter, “Foundations: Mormon Feminism in the 1970s,” offers so many accounts of Mormon women recovering that history. We get big and small glimpses of “the amazing acts of feminism displayed by many LDS women” in Claudia Bushman’s, “Exponent II is Born,” Judith Dushku’s, “Feminists,” Sonia Johnson’s, “The Church Was Once in the Forefront of the Women’s Movement,” Linda P. Wilcox’s, “The Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven,” Linda King Newell’s, “A Gift Given, A Gift Taken: Washing, Anointing, and Blessing the Sick Among Mormon Women,” Carol Cornwall Madsen’s, “Mormon Women and the Struggle for Definition: The Nineteenth-Century Church,” and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s, “The Pink Issue of Dialogue.” They are gold.

2. How does Mormon feminism differ in approach or theme from Christian feminism generally, or from nonreligious feminism? How would you characterize the distinctiveness that comes from that mix of Mormonism with feminism?

Joanna: It’s hard to compare or answer this question in an abstract way. Mormon feminism is rooted in Mormon women’s experience and Mormon theology. Many of us come to feminist consciousness when we encounter contradictions or unresolved questions or impossibly narrow spaces in our own still-evolving faith tradition. Our tradition evolved alongside and on the same time frame as Catholic feminism and Jewish feminism–Laurel Ulrich says this explicitly in her essay on the second wave: we weren’t latecomers to the modern feminist movement, we have been contemporary builders of it, from our own Mormon frames. Encountering contradictions, inequalities, unresolved questions in our own tradition hopefully produces a consciousness that we can mobilize in the service of all struggles for human emancipation and well-being. Our experiences as Mormon women and our faith-based commitment to the Zion ideal must put our feet on the path to serve and work with others wherever there is need. All inequality is interrelated.

Rachel: I agree with Joanna. So tricky. I might also be more interested in what Mormon feminists share with other feminists of faith, and with nonreligious feminists. It’s why I love Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s essay, “Border Crossings,” anthologized in the volume, and Caryn D. Riswold’s review, “We Knocked,” at Feminism and Religion. Riswold begins, “Mormon feminists experience what most feminists of faith have heard at some point. Utter dismissal of the possibility of their existence.” We share this (bad) assumption with more general Christian feminists, Catholic feminists, Jewish feminists, and Muslim feminists. And, we share the (good) response, to “document [our] history, make [our] theological case, and engage [our] scriptures as robustly as any conservative traditionalist would.” While the specific questions we ask might differ (e.g., Heavenly Mother!), the themes of equality, justice, and inclusion are the same. This is also true for secular feminism.

3. Any compilation that says it has the “essentials” is inviting people to size up that claim. Obviously, tons of stuff must have been left out. What were your selection criteria? Do any pieces come to mind as particularly heartbreaking to leave out? (think of this as a chance to give us a ‘Director’s Cut’.)

Joanna: We have labored painstakingly over this question. We wanted, first, to focus on collecting writings that produced new knowledge, advanced important lines of theological inquiry and argument, or broke new aesthetic or generic grounds. We also wanted to understand what essays were considered most impactful by Mormon feminists. We asked broadly for input, and we held a workshop at the 40th anniversary Exponent II conference where we passed out the table of contents to about 50 women of all generations–including feminist elders like Laurel–and asked them what we were missing, what was most important, what had to be included.

Of course, narrowing our original 1000 page manuscript down to the 400 page limit Oxford gave us was extraordinarily difficult. Many pieces were excerpted. I hope readers will follow the references we provide back to the originals. There is so much extraordinary theological, intellectual, and artistic work Mormon women have done out of love and commitment, with almost no recognition.

Rachel: I may or may not secretly wish we chose another subtitle. :) But, I can’t think of anything better, and “Essential Writings” it is. :) It might be helpful to keep in mind that it isn’t “Essential Events,” “Essential People,” or even “Every Essential Writing.” It is one book. We know that it is not the first volume on Mormon feminism, and that it won’t be the last. We welcome this.

As Joanna mentioned, we included as many voices as we could by excerpting as many pieces as we could. Still, we couldn’t include every piece that we wished. A few that broke my heart are D. Michael Quinn’s, “Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood Since 1843,” Tania Rands Lyon’s and Mary Ann Shumway’s, “‘Not Invited, But Welcome’: The History and Impact of Church Policy on Sister Missionaries,” “East River Lady’s “The Miracle of Forgiveness,” and Alicia Harris’s “Earth Mother,” Parts I and II.

I truly believe that our “Additional Resources” section is one of the most valuable tools we offer. It helps fill in the gaps.

4. I’ve heard you both talk of this editing work in reverent tones, as a sacred work and a holy experience. Tell me more about that experience, if you can. Even though this is a textbook in many respects, how would you characterize the spiritual nature of this volume?

Joanna: I was always raised to understand that our ancestors are nearby and are invested in the work we do, an understanding that has been of deep significance both to my personal life and to my work as a literary historian. I won’t go into specifics here, but yes, I had some very Mormon experiences of that closeness in working on this project. Last night, I was with Rachel, Hannah, and contributor RevaBeth Russell before our Provo event, and a story was related of how the great Mormon feminist Helen Candland Stark (important to remember her name!) had said to Lavina Fielding Anderson, “I can die now, because I know you will carry the Mormon feminist work on,” and how Lavina said the same to Hannah, and Linda King Newell said the same thing to Hannah and Rachel at an event this week. Our lives have been about asking these hard questions and remembering vital histories and spiritual practices that were lost and must be kept alive and carried on. That sense of responsibility is, to me, sacred.

Rachel: It felt holy to sit with the words of Mormon women, and to read what they had thoughtfully, faithfully, and occasionally bravely written, as it felt holy to sit with Mormon women, in California, Utah, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut, and ask them which words and texts mattered to them.

It felt like the Book of Mormon’s pattern, of fathers and brothers writing “a few of the things which [they] considered most precious” (Jacob 1:2), before passing the record on, though our responsibility came from our spiritual mothers and sisters.

It felt like Kierkegaard’s “work of love in remembering one who is dead,” though only a tiny number of the contributors are.

It felt like voices crying from the dust.

It felt like a heart turning to its mothers, but also a heart turning to its daughters and nieces.

It felt like restoring what was lost.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the hard work of love, Joanna and Rachel (and Hannah!). I’m looking forward to reading the book and learning from these great Mormon women.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Nice interview; kudos.

  3. crazywomancreek says:

    So good. Thank you for this.

  4. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    It was an honor to be included.

  5. wreddyornot says:

    ***** (Those are stars, not asterisks.)