Taylor Petrey: Are Mormons Feminists Now?

Today we welcome a guest post from Taylor G. Petrey, author of Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism, forthcoming from UNC Press.

Taylor G. Petrey’s trenchant history takes a landmark step forward in documenting and theorizing about Latter-day Saints (LDS) teachings on gender, sexual difference, and marriage. Drawing on deep archival research, Petrey situates LDS doctrines in gender theory and American religious history since World War II. His challenging conclusion is that Mormonism is conflicted between ontologies of gender essentialism and gender fluidity, illustrating a broader tension in the history of sexuality in modernity itself.

Tabernacles of Clay will publish in June 2020 and is available for preorder now on our website.


Are Mormons Feminists Now?

Recently, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published a very brief statement in their magazine aimed at teenagers, “What is the Church’s Stance on Feminism?” There wasn’t anything particularly new about it, but the statement articulated a tension that the church has navigated over the last several decades on women’s issues. How can the church both accommodate to changing values and stay faithful to its roots?

This statement made the case that some forms of feminism are compatible with the church’s teachings, including those that “ensure basic human rights and basic fairness for women, as well as efforts to encourage women to obtain an education, develop their talents, and serve humankind in any field they choose.” Yet it warns against “extreme ideas,” such as those that “lead people to become distracted from (or even work against) the ideals of marriage and family.”

Like most conservative churches, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spent most of the decades since World War II opposing women’s rights in family planning, working outside the home, and church leadership roles—each time insisting that such advances for women would come at the expense of families or pervert their natural roles in society.

The recent statement supporting some kinds of feminism codifies an approach that church leaders have embraced over the last few decades. Such accommodation to soft egalitarianism has increasingly replaced the old patriarchal model. An authoritative 1995 document encapsulates an intermediate point in the transition from patriarchy toward soft egalitarianism—it insists that fathers “preside over” their families but also that husband and wife are “equal partners.”

Before the tepid embrace of some kinds of egalitarian feminism, church leaders put forward what was unsubtly called the “patriarchal order” as the correct way to organize the home, the marketplace, and the church. From the 1950s to the 1980s, LDS leaders railed against women working outside the home, shrinking family sizes, the delay of having children, the use of birth control, and other feminist agenda items from the time. Women were implored to “come home” from the workplace in order to “bear children.” Then president of the church, Ezra Taft Benson explained, “No career approaches in importance that of wife, homemaker, mother—cooking meals, washing dishes, making beds for one’s precious husband and children.” Benson would have frowned upon the recent statement encouraging women to serve “in any field they choose.”

How can the church have modified these patriarchal teachings, while still retaining them in a more narrow form? In my forthcoming book Tabernacles of Clay, I point out that LDS rhetoric has moved away from the “patriarchal order” toward what I call the heterosexual order. This radical change enabled a cautious acceptance of moderate feminism, while objecting to what it calls “anti-family” feminist and LGBT activists as the real threat.

The new heterosexual order was far more flexible than the old patriarchal order in accommodating soft egalitarianism, one that would allow for limited forms of equality but still insist on essential differences to justify hierarchy in the church. For instance, the church increasingly emphasizes that in the home heterosexual couples are “equal” and now rarely exhorts women to stay out of the workforce. Yet, the church has retained differential treatment of women and men for ordination in ecclesiastical contexts and excludes women from most senior leadership roles.

Heterosexuality as a governing ideal could express both egalitarian and patriarchal ideals, while still firmly excluding same-sex families. Such a view is a relatively recent development, but heterosexuality allowed space for male-female complementarity where hierarchy had once been the only option. Now both patriarchy and egalitarian feminist ideals can exist in a blurry amalgamation of a male-female binary as the new essence of the faith’s teachings on gender.

The accommodation to feminism, however small, highlights a much more profound case of adaptation to cultural shifts and a willingness to abandon earlier teachings of church leaders. Yet, while the embrace of heterosexuality may have satisfied some feminists by opening up space for egalitarianism as an option, the heterosexual order has boxed the church in on same-sex relationships. If and how it will accommodate this this change, as it did with feminism, remains to be seen.


Photo by Keith Mumma

Taylor G. Petrey, associate professor of religion at Kalamazoo College, is author of Resurrecting Parts: Early Christians on Desire, Reproduction, and Sexual Difference. Follow him on Twitter.