by Margaret Merrill Toscano
If feminism is defined as a concern with the status and equality of women and/or the questioning of gender roles, then feminism has always been a part of the Mormon religion and culture. Nineteenth-century Mormonism was radical in many ways and challenged the status quo of American culture at large, including the position and role of women. Joseph Smith's theology introduced a concept of a Mother God, acknowledged the power and equality of women, and gave them priesthood through the temple ritual, according to a number of scholars (see bibliography below). Although Mormon women in early Utah were the second group in the USA to receive the vote in 1870, which was only two months after Wyoming granted women this right, Utah women were actually the first to use their franchise and vote in an election.
Mormon women had other rights during the 19th century unknown to most women in the rest of the country: married women had the same legal rights as single women, including the rights to own property in their names, represent themselves in court, and win easy access to divorce. In the 19th century Mormon women were avid suffragettes who argued and fought for the rights of all women. They were in contact with Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others in the national women's movement. Through the LDS women's organization, the Relief Society, Mormon women controlled their own money and buildings, organized a hospital and other charitable organizations (which, among other things, collected, stored, and distributed grain and other food supplies), supported home industries (such as silk farms), and ran a women's newspaper (the Women's Exponent, 1872-1914), which advocated female independence, education, and careers, and emphasized female leadership and spiritual gifts.
In the early 20th century Mormonism went through a redefinition in order to fit into mainstream American culture and rid itself of its polygamous and politically autonomous past, which had been seen by many as anti-American. In a conservative reaction to its own history, Mormonism attempted to shuck off those elements of its theology and practice which made it unacceptable to the larger culture, while still retaining enough of its uniqueness to set it apart as a religion with a divine and separate calling from the rest of Christianity in America. Among the things lost during this period were the concepts of women's spiritual gifts and their role as priestesses (a term used to define such women as Eliza R. Snow in the 19th century). Although women retained control of their own Relief Society organization until the early 1970s, they gradually lost the management of their own affairs and publications from the time of statehood in 1896 onward, along with their sense of independence. Ironically, the image of Mormon women as docile homemakers, a la June Cleaver serving jello to a smiling family in a 1950s sitcom, is just one of the many things Mormonism adopted from conservative American culture.
Influenced by the national feminist movement in the 1970s, Mormon women began to reclaim their history and to participate in women's groups as part of an attempt to redefine women's roles and opportunities in an LDS context. This is not to say that Mormon women did not participate in feminism during the first half of the 20th century.(more of this article to follow soon)
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