Shine a Light
Mormon feminism has a history of triumphs and setbacks that goes almost as far back as Mormonism itself. In 1870, the Mormon-governed Utah Territory granted women the right to vote, 50 years before the 19th amendment guaranteed that right to women nationwide. However, the church's opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and excommunication of vocal feminists in the 1990s were seen by many as steps backward for equality. This is the history that fuels the research and advocacy of School of Religion student Caroline Kline, who proudly calls herself a Mormon and a feminist.
Kline is working with CGU faculty member Claudia Bushman on an ambitious oral-history project that aims to capture the reality of being a Mormon woman. The goal is to conduct a series of two-hour interviews with 100 Mormon women to record their personal backgrounds, their thoughts on Latter-day Saints' women's issues, and their experiences within the Mormon Church. Kline sees this as a unique resource for future historians.
"The story of the Mormon Church has been enormously dominated by men," she noted. "Women have so often been the silent majority throughout the church's history. Hopefully, what we've put together will be a treasure trove of information on the lives of Mormon women, in all their diversity, in the twentieth century."
Through conducting and transcribing interviews, Kline is learning about aspects of her faith rarely addressed at a Sunday service. "There are so many fascinating stories. Women's experiences with fertility are interesting - especially decisions about birth control. There are stories about resisting leadership, which interest me a great deal," Kline said. "But the stories are largely positive. Most of the devout women we interviewed had very good experiences within their congregations. Mormonism has given shape and meaning to their lives."
Supplementing this research, Kline credits her course work at CGU with giving her an expansive view of religion that provides peace of mind as well as insight: "I'm much less filled with angst than I used to be. Now, if someone says something in church that disagrees with my worldview, I step back and say, ‘Well isn't that interesting? Why would they think that?' I tend to take a much more analytical point of view."
Kline has also co-founded a blog for progressive Mormon women, the Exponent (www.the-exponent.com). Somewhat surprisingly, blogging has played a key role in advancing Mormon feminism. In the past, publishing criticisms of the church could be considered a provocative act potentially resulting in excommunication. Writing on the Internet, however, is less risky, largely due to the sheer volume of posts and the potential for anonymity; bloggers frequently use only first names or pseudonyms (though Kline has chosen to disclose her full name and publish her photo). These conditions have created much more expansive dialogue between and amongst Mormon women, including The Exponent's 20 regular contributors. "The goal is to give women a forum to talk about their experiences," said Kline. "Their triumphs, their pain, what they want to see changed, what works, what doesn't."
In addition, Kline is involved in what she considers the next wave of Mormon feminism: activism. In fall 2010 she became a founding board member of WAVE (Women Advocating for Voice and Equality). Among other projects, the group will be issuing collective calls to action advocating for increased participation for women in LDS church meetings. Though she has been frustrated in the past, Kline is hopeful for the future: "One of the strengths of Mormonism is its ability to evolve," she said. "Mormonism in principle has a dynamic and changing canon. Because we have this idea of continuing revelation, there is a possibility for change. Our leaders just have to be open to the inspiration. There's always hope."
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