The sisters of Women Advocating for Voice and Equality (Wave) have a simple mission: Make the “F” word—feminist—no longer an obscenity among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Mormon feminists like those who make up WAVE’s board of directors aren’t the type who would hold picket signs or go burn their garments outside church headquarters—their mission is to be firm while seeking greater gender equality, but be diplomatic enough to avoid being censured or labeled as radicals.
WAVE’s first call to action, spokeswoman Tresa Edmunds says, is to compile a compendium of LDS female voices and perspectives that members can use in church talks and lesson plans, in the form of a downloadable book or, perhaps in the future, a smart-phone application.
“We want to have women in the church be recognized,” Edmunds says. “If we take their voices seriously, we can take our own voices more seriously.” The plan also highlights WAVE’s new approach to reforming church practice to be more gender inclusive, starting with simply raising awareness of the female spirit of the LDS Church.
“We’re trying very hard to be viewed as faithful members trying to contribute, rather than some evil feminists,” Edmunds says. The key to avoiding such confrontations will mean primarily avoiding contentious issues such as reclaiming female ownership of priesthood authority. This authority is given only to male members of the church, but was granted to women in the early years of the church’s history, between 1830 and the 1850s. While restoring that authority has been a battle cry for many Mormon feminists, it’s not on WAVE’s agenda.
“There’s no mention of priesthood on our website,” Edmunds says. “We think there’s a lot that can happen before that ever becomes an argument.” Edmunds says possible future campaigns range from asking the church to make budget funding equal for Young Women and Young Men groups to something as simple as putting changing tables in the men’s bathrooms in chapels.
Edmunds sees the organization less as a lobby group and more as a think tank. “As devout members, we sustain and affirm our leaders as prophets and revelators, and we long to give them the information they may not have since they are not women.”
For Margaret Toscano, a professor at the University of Utah and longtime Mormon feminist, one of the central problems with this kind of advocacy is the audience. “If you really are advocating for voice and equality, how can women have a voice in a church that is so patriarchal?” Toscano asks.
Toscano speaks from experience. As a member of the old guard of Mormon feminists, Toscano was excommunicated in 2000 for suggesting in writings that LDS prophet and founder Joseph Smith’s own teachings argue for women to have priesthood authority. Toscano says the default answer she heard from local religious leaders, even when quoting Smith, was that, “If this is true, then we would hear this from our current leaders.”
Toscano is nonetheless excited that the WAVE group is carrying the Mormon feminist torch, but adds a note of caution about playing too nice. “If you don’t do anything that really challenges the power structure, how can you ever make significant change?”
Whether or not WAVE rocks the boat of the church’s current patriarchy remains to be seen, but the organization is at least contributing to an online community for LDS women curious about feminism within their own faith.
“The Internet does free us from most of the constraints that we feel in our wards and families,” writes Lisa Butterworth, author of the popular Feminist Mormon Housewives blog, via e-mail. She sees the Internet as an essential forum for LDS women “to discuss literally hundreds of issues that weigh very heavily on our minds.”
These are issues that Edmunds and Butterworth hope the church starts listening to. As a Young Women teacher for the past seven years, Edmunds worries female members who go unheard may simply leave the church.
“I’ve watched too many who just leave,” Edmunds says. “They can’t reconcile what they hear in church and what they live in their real lives.”
Her worry is echoed by Butterworth. “The issues that we Mormon Feminists are so concerned about are the things that are making it so difficult for Mormon women to stay in the church,” Butterworth writes. “All we can do is hope that someone will be willing to listen.”
Eric S. Peterson: