We often think of our Mormon foremothers as women who crossed the plains with babies strapped to their backs, or who made the desert blossom as a rose working alongside their sister wives. We know our history is full of strong and faithful women, certainly, but we might not be as well versed in their roles as suffragists (women in the Utah territory won the right to vote in 1870, which was earlier than anywhere else in the nation) and as physicians and midwives. In other words, Mormon feminist history is essentially as old as Mormon history.
Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings, edited by Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik and Hannah Wheelwright and published by Oxford University Press, delves deeply into the Mormon Feminism of the last fifty years– spanning the time period from the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment to President Benson’s “To the Mothers in Zion” talk to present-day concerns over expanding women’s official roles in the LDS Church.
In the last few months since Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings has been published, I’ve been delighted to see it on the shelves of bookstores all over Utah. This widespread availability of the book seems to reflect what Brooks as to say about the intended audience in her introduction: “This book is for anyone who wants to go deeper than the headlines and understand what it means to be a Mormon feminist. This book is for Mormon men and women who have questions about gender dynamics within Mormonism. Maybe you have wrestled about these questions personally. Maybe you have witnessed a friend or relative struggle with these questions, or have heard about Mormon feminist activism and want to understand it better. Maybe you are not Mormon but are curious about how contemporary Mormons live our vibrant and demanding faith and reconcile ourselves to its challenges. . . .”
The breadth of the intended audience is reflected in the wide range of authors included in Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings— more than forty women. Voices include church leaders like Chieko Okazaki (former member of the General Relief Society Presidency), activists like Kate Kelly, bloggers like Lisa Butterworth (founder of Feminist Mormon Housewives), scholars like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Claudia Bushman, beloved poets like Carol Lynn Pearson, and many other women all across the spectrum of the Mormon experience. The collection also includes women of color and voices that extend beyond just American feminism.
The editors of Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings should be praised not just for the breadth of their collection, but for the many extras that enhance the reading of the book. Brooks’s introduction provides a nice overview to the history of Mormon feminism, especially in relation to mainstream feminist movements at work during the last fifty years. The editors do a nice job of scaffolding the pieces with introductions to the significant time periods, and with commentary and context on each piece included in the collection. I teach a Mormon Literature course, and this is a text I will definitely consider adding to my syllabus in the future, but I think it’s accessible enough for a casual reader and would also be a fantastic book for book groups. The editors have added a fabulous Study Group Guide full of thoughtful discussion questions at the end of the book, ready made for book groups. They also list Selected Readings by Topic so readers can pick and choose what they want to read without delving into the book from beginning to end.
I’m one of those people who likes to read a book from beginning to end, and this book was engaging and instructive for readers like me, too. While I felt fairly well-versed in Mormon feminism when I started reading, I felt that I learned a lot and view of people who can be included in the umbrella of a Mormon feminist was expanded and broadened. Reading Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings made me feel grateful for both the more recent foremothers who carry the feminist banner, as well as for the Mormon feminists with whom I brush shoulders from day to day.