As a graduate student, I spent some time pouring over old microfiche records of The Woman’s Exponent (incidentally one of the first lasting magazines published by women for women in the American West) and other works by and about early Mormon women. Repeatedly, I was struck by these women’s firm insistence in their own dignity, despite a popular press that depicted them as alternately deluded or depraved. Take, for example, this speech from Eliza R. Snow at a woman’s mass meeting:
“Heretofore, while detraction and ridicule have been poured forth in almost every form that malice could invent, while we have been misrepresented by speech and press, and exhibited in every shade but our true light, the ladies of Utah have remained comparatively silent. Had not our aims been of the most noble and exalted character, and had we not known that we occupied a standpoint far above our traducers, we might have returned volley for volley . . . . But there is a point at which silence is no longer a virtue. . . . . [Our enemies] must be very dull in estimating the energy of female character, who can persuade themselves that women who for the sake of their religion left their homes, crossed the plains with handcarts or . . . drove ox, mule and horse-teams from Nauvoo . . . when their husbands an sons went, at their country’s all, to fight her battles in Mexico; yes, that very country which had refused us protection, and from which we were then struggling to make our escape—I say those who think that such women and the daughters of such women do not possess too much energy of character to remain passive and mute under existing circumstances are ‘reckoning without their host.’ . . .
“Were we the stupid, degraded, heartbroken beings that we have been represented, silence might better become us; but as women of God, women filling high and responsible positions, performing sacred duties—women who stand not as dictators, but as counselors to their husbands, and who, in the purest, noblest sense of refined womanhood, are truly their helpmates—we not only speak because we have the right, but justice and humanity demand that we should” (Tullidge, Women of Mormondom, 389-92).
Surrounded as I often am by people who share my faith, it’s easy to think that the negative viewpoints nineteenth-century Mormon women fought against are entirely thing of the past; it’s easy for me to forget that not everyone sees Mormon women the way I do: as strong, independent women doing their best to craft virtuous lives. Last month, an article ran in the Salt Lake Tribune about the resurgence of Mormon feminism. I thought the article was interesting (although I didn’t agree with everything), but the predominantly negative comments were curiously disorienting, as if I were seeing myself simultaneously through two different lenses: my own familiar self-vision and an alien lens that transmutes my perceived virtues into faults.
W. E. B. DuBois had a term for this sense of double-vision: double consciousness. And while any sense I have of experiencing social contempt for my religious views falls far short of racial discrimination, I find his term useful for understanding my own experiences: he describes double consciousness as “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (“Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” p. 2)
I think that, on some level, many of us feel this conflict–whether it’s as a country dweller temporarily seeing herself through the condescending eyes of some urbanite (or vice versa), those of us who are a little more self-aware can’t help but experience that unsettling moment of double vision, when we see ourselves both through the self-affirming vision of our own world-view and through the devaluing lens of someone else.
I’ve struggled with this dual vision on multiple occasions–as a religiously faithful woman in academia, recognizing the skepticism that most of my peers held for my religious views (and once even sitting silent in a graduate seminar where one of my colleagues, a former member of the church, held out for a good fifteen or twenty-minutes on our doctrinal and cultural failings); but also as an academic in an audience of devout religious folks, fighting my own skepticism.
I am a woman, and I happen to be Mormon, two overlapping identities that make this sense of double-consciousness particularly acute for me. As a Mormon woman, I’ve never felt particularly oppressed by my faith (in fact, I’m more often liberated by the religious sensitivity it has wrought in me), but I can’t help being aware that most people, looking at the male-dominated hierarchy of our church, believe that it denies “equality” to women. (However, I also can’t help feeling that it takes a certain kind of annoying sense of cultural superiority to tell people that their own culture “oppresses” them, when they are far from feeling that kind of oppression.) And while I admit I do wonder why God designated the priesthood for men, I have enough faith in my faith to let it rest at that for now (after all, God doesn’t often explain his reasoning until after the fact–witness Abraham and Isaac). Nor do I feel any less loved, or any less capable because of the organizational structure of my faith. Nothing in this organizational structure changes my essential relationship with God. Having said all this, I have to admit it’s still hard when I’m confronted with the reality that many people would think me delusional, weak, ignorant–any variation of a cooperative victim–for believing as I do.
I think such dissonance can sometimes be a good thing–it keeps me from becoming too complacent, it forces me to continually articulate for myself what it is I believe in and why, and it forces me to recognize that—for both good and ill—not everyone sees the world the way I do, and they, too, prize their beliefs. That doesn’t always mean that I like it (or accept it gracefully). But this kind of cognitive dissonance also gives me a great deal of hope in one of my interpretations of Paul: “now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12)–that is, if now my image of myself is fractured, one day I will see myself clearly, as God sees me. In the meantime, I strive mostly for imperfect glimpses of that self.
What about you? What kind of cultural dissonances bring that sense of double-consciousness for you? How do you resolve (or live with, or otherwise harmonize with) that sense of dissonance?