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Double Consciousness

By Rosalyn Eves

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?

About Rosalyn Eves

(Prose Board) currently lives in Southern Utah with her husband and three small children, where she teaches writing part-time at the local university. She has a BA in English from BYU, and an MA and PhD (also in English) from Penn State. In her spare time (what's that?) she likes to read, write, try new recipes (as long as she doesn't have to clean up), watch movies with her husband (British period drama is her favorite), go for walks, and generally avoid anything that resembles housework. Her first novel comes out Spring 2017 from Knopf.

15 thoughts on “Double Consciousness”

  1. Thanks for this great post. I'm also a Mormon woman in academia and have experienced similar challenges. I'm happy, very happy with my LDS brand of spirituality. I love my Heavenly Father and do not for a moment believe that he is a misogynist or anything like it. But living in Southern Utah for the past 3.5 years, I see many elements of ultra-conservative Mormon culture that run contrary or at least create friction with the things I know in my heart. I love the Church, but sometimes I resent its culture.

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  2. Thanks for the great post, Rosalyn. I feel that dissonance often, in several different ways. One is similar to the thoughts in this post, when I realize that some people have a certain way of thinking about me because I am a Mormon woman. I don't think many of us fit the cultural expectations that are common about Mormons.

    But that dissonance happens more often to me as a Mormon who loves and is totally fascinated by Islam in all its variety. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked by Mormons (it's usually Mormons who wonder the most) how a girl from Orem, Utah ends up learning Arabic and Uzbek and living in Central Asia by choice. My faith has been questioned, people wonder if I'm really a Mormon when I talk about Islam. My husband has experienced the same thing.

    It shouldn't surprise me anymore that but it still does because I can't see any conflict at all. But I too think the dissonance is valuable, because it reminds me often that I need to rethink my expectations of others.

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  3. Roslyn,
    You are so beautifully articulate. I love this post.

    Recently a friend sent me a message on Facebook, dumbfounded that I could believe this, that and the others, and ascribing feelings to me about certain issues. Her assumptions were based on media spin. None of what she said reflected my own beliefs or even the beliefs of most Mormons. It really was frustrating and took awhile to explain the reality of who I am as a person, and as a Mormon.

    On the othe hand, sometimes I find myself in the position to need to explain, that yes I know we don't use icons in our church, because I have a prominently displayed collection of very old Russian icons. I like them as a form of religious art and they represent the deep faith of other people to me. I have other art too, that is not of religious nature that some Mormons question.

    Both these scenarios can be frustrating to me. It helps me to recognize that others perceptions are understandable–and only stem from their own life experience. When I feel isolated from the ideas that appear mainstream to me, I try and remember there are other people who struggle the same way, but they are quiet about it; in other words, my dissonance isn't all that dissonant.

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  4. Thanks for this post – I really enjoyed reading it. You accurately described what I've experienced, too.

    "I love the Church, but sometimes I resent its culture."

    This pretty much sums it up for me, although I'm not sure if "resentment" is exactly what I feel. I actually feel grief and confusion. I wholeheartedly believe in the doctrines of the LDS church. In my mind, these doctrines should lead to unity among the Saints. But I don't see this very often, to tell the truth. I crave communion with the Saints.

    Maybe the problem is what you've described? Maybe we are as yet unable to view each other as we really are?

    I've actually been thinking a lot lately about Plato's Allegory of the Cave. It's complicated, because we each are enlightened on some principles and living in the shadows on others.

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  5. Regarding Amira's interest in Islam – what do you think of this theory:

    Perhaps God placed certain interests, aptitudes, and affinities in us that make us uniquely suited for achieving certain parts of His will? For example, I really love working with teenagers (I'm a high school counselor). Others are fascinated by history, or medical research, or child-bearing, or Islam. Each of us is necessary to God's work.

    It's just too bad that we don't value each other in that way. Instead, we view differences with suspicion. That is very hurtful, as I've experienced lately in the church.

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  6. Angie, I like your thought, it's consistent with the idea that no part of the body can say it has no need for another part. This tendency for people to dismiss 'different' has it's roots in insecurity. If you choose something different from me, and what you choose is right, does that mean that what I choose is wrong? The answer is no, we can both be right because our lives are meant to fulfill different purposes.

    I don't often concern myself with what others think about me. Actions speak louder than words, hopefully what I do says enough about Mormon women that I only need to add occasional commentary.

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  7. I appreciate all of your comments! Nancy–I am also in Southern Utah, so I hear you about the sometimes ultraconservative tendencies. (In fact, I think we can also experience this double-consciousness within the church when our viewpoints on non-doctrinal issues don't fit the general trends.) And Angie, I love the idea that we find dissonance and disagreements distressing because we don't yet fully understand each other as we are–I think that's part of what I'm looking for, some way to coexist with different viewpoints in a way that's harmonious rather than antagonistic.

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  8. Rosalyn – wonderful reflections. Very thought-provoking. I read the same Mormon Feminism article and have been mulling it for weeks. I think it's worthy of further discussion (maybe in another Segullah post at some point).

    I was left wanting a better definition of "Mormon Feminism." I found it hard to proscribe to the article's belief that mormon feminism is "coming back." Did it go somewhere for a time? And if so, how? I can think of women who have written similar sentiments to ER Snow throughout the generations. And the core of our doctrine does not (has not) changed.

    It seems that the ebb and flow is not in doctrine, or outside perceptions (my experience is that they remain largely uninformed – although I think our image is definitely improving!) The ebb and flow seems to be in our (the women of the church) view of ourselves! To me that is slightly disturbing. And as you described it Rosalyn – disorienting.

    Does feminism indicate a feeling of loss, or inadequacy, a perceived lack of equality that propels us to "tell our story" as Bushman said in a new way? I feel feminist in many respects, but never to the point of thinking we as women could be sovereign – or better – than men. Like you, I do not feel inadequate, less than, or unequal. I guess I'm just wondering where this movement is going, how one would define it, and if the "silent majority" the Trib referred to really exists. Anyone?

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  9. Double consciousness – but,not woman and Morman, but Woman and handicapped. I purposely did not capitalize it, because I do not consider it any different than if I said, Woman and brown hair. But that is not how the world see it.

    This week I cooked at church among women I have known from most of my life. Yet when I started cooking in that kitchen 21 years ago, I was told I couldn't by one of the women because I was daft, "you know, honey, retarded". Fortunately I had relatives there, couseins, who told her, that was a family trait, and we could cook.

    Often people see my crutches as mental incapabilities, let alone physical ones. In college professors did not want places taken up by a woman who would be on welfare, altho I worked about 25 years in the business world. When I got married people felt bad for my husband who obviously married me to be nice and I would not be able to be a real wife. Waitresses ask who I am with what I want to eat.

    And all though this can be irritating, it is just a part of my life, a small part. And yet, I must stand up at times. Stand up and say, I can order for myself, be educated and be a loving wife. Why? For the next handicapped woman, who is too afraid and shirks away, is why. We are not here for ourselves. WE are only here and valuable as we are of value to Heavenly Father and others.

    Which is why I believe that woman, wrote the beautiful piece in the post.

    Thanks for the post. We all need remeinded at times.

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  10. Last week I had the opportunity to attend a private dinner before Jill Mulvay Derr presented on the life of Eliza R Snow at the Church History Library. At that dinner, in a small room around a table, an actress recited a sermon given by Snow in Ogden in 1875. Everyone in that room was blown away by the power of her words, the authority that resonated in her understanding of the gospel, her confidence in herself as a daughter of God and the commanding rhetoric she used to convey her leadership. Instead of demurring next time we give a talk in Sacrament Meeting or telling a joke at the start of a lesson in RS, let's remember the weight our words have as daughters of God and present them with that authority.

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  11. Wonderful post and very intelligent, articulate comments. This was timely for me as I'm feeling my now annual anxiety about General RS Meeting. Ever since Sister Beck's talk "Women who Know" I have struggled with her and worry about what will be said. To me, that talk felt like it somewhat crossed the line between the Gospel and the culture of the Gospel. I am only two short years away from my youngest being in school, and I sense a large turning point approaching in my life. As an educated, intelligent Mormon woman, I am feeling that double consciousness acutely as I begin to make plans and decisions about what I will do with the next phase of my life.

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  12. Rosalyn, Thank you for this wonderful post. (It's taken me a while to get to it!) Partly because of my personality and partly because of the path I've chosen in life, I feel as though I'm looking through a double consciousness in most aspects of my life. And I wish I could get out of it–I do not want to always be looking at myself from the perspective of others. I want to live with the confidence and peace that the foundation of my testimony gives me.

    And as a sidenote, I almost cheered in the General RS Meeting when Sis. Beck declared that we need to look to our history. Ever since I read bits of the history of the RS for my dissertation, I've felt that both women and men in the church need to look at what Relief Society women have done in the past to realize more fully the power that we wield and to get a better picture of Mormon women to combat those we might too often be presented with in our double consciousness moments, both within the church and without.

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