Review: Mormon Feminism

Mandy E. McMichael

Mandy E. McMichael is Assistant Professor of Religion at Huntingdon College.

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Mandy E. McMichael, "Review: Mormon Feminism," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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Brooks, Joanna, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, and Hannah Wheelwright, eds. Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 324 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-024803-1. 

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In Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings, Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, and Hannah Wheelwright provide an informative glimpse into the origins and developments of the contemporary Mormon feminist movement. In the introduction, Brooks sketches an outline of Mormon feminism, defining key terms and highlighting issues specific to Mormon feminists like women’s access to the priesthood, polygamy, and the gendered identity of God. “Mormon feminism,” she writes, “is the name for the community where we can explore these questions openly and together” (8). In this first collection of core primary documents, the editors aim “to provide a historical overview of the ways in which Mormon women have engaged with questions about gender in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (1).

To accomplish this goal, the editors gathered the writings of Mormon feminists to craft an introduction to the field. Divided into four chronological eras, each section provides context for a decade of the contemporary Mormon feminist movement from the 1970s to the early 2000s. The working definition of Mormon feminism assumed by the contributors is that of historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich who writes, “A feminist is a person who believes in the equality between the sexes, who recognizes discrimination against women and who is willing to work to overcome it. A Mormon feminist believes that these principles are compatible not only with the gospel of Jesus Christ but with the mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (113). In essence, Mormon feminists seek to show that their beliefs are not an oxymoron, as many feminists and Mormons contend.

Poems, blog entries, essays, and speeches appear side-by-side, all contributing to the movement’s telling. The voices of mothers, housewives, academics, journalists, and leaders in the Relief Society mingle together, yielding a diversity of experiences with a common refrain: they wish that the tradition they loved treated women and men as equals. Mormon feminists challenge standard Mormon teaching of separate but equal roles. For example, in her essay “Equality is not a Feeling,” human rights attorney Kate Kelly offers a response to Mormon women who claim they feel equal. “To them I say: you can feel respected, supported, and validated in the church, but equality can be measured. Equality is not a feeling. In our church, men and women are not equal” (266). Entry after entry affirms the reality of inequality experienced by Mormon feminists in their faith tradition, their firm belief that the theology of the church supports a position of equality between men and women, and their hope that things can change.

Written for “anyone who wants to go deeper than the headlines and understand what it means to be a Mormon feminist,” the editors offer ample resources to both Mormons and non-Mormons interested in these important historical documents (1). In addition to the editorial introductions to each entry, they provide a list of Key Events in Contemporary Mormon Feminism: 1940 to present, a glossary of names and terms, and a list of additional resources. I found the glossary of names and terms particularly useful as I waded through unfamiliar language in the tradition. This resource built a helpful bridge for feminists, historians, and other scholars interested in studying this movement. There are many parallels between evangelical feminism and Mormon feminism, and scholars of gender and evangelicalism might find this work particularly enlightening for understanding evangelical women’s experience in American culture. For Mormons interested in digging deeper with their communities, the editors supply a study group guide and a list of suggested readings arranged by topic. These salutary additions make the book more accessible to a wider audience.

Brooks notes four goals for the book. The editors hope that the book will: 1) “support conversations about gender and equality among the Mormon people and will deepen our collective understanding of our faith tradition,” 2) “foster understanding of Mormon women’s issues among non-Mormon readers and scholars,” 3) “contribute to the growing field of Mormon studies,” and 4) “help Mormon feminism reflect on its history as it strives to become a more globally conscious movement in the twenty-first century” (20–21). They have produced a volume likely to achieve all four goals. This well-organized book offers a window into an important movement in American religious history and provides a much-needed addition to feminist scholarship. Mormon feminists share much in common with other feminists of faith including evangelicals, Catholics, and Muslims. In each group, women are increasingly demanding a seat at the table. This collection makes comparison and dialogue between these groups possible. As such, it should prove a valuable resource for scholars of Mormonism, feminism, women’s history, and American religion.