The Divine Feminine, Mormon Style: Carol Lynn Pearson’s _Mother Wove the Morning_, Joanna Brooks, and Faithful Mormon Feminism

Feminist. It’s a divisive word among Mormons. When I’ve told people that I consider myself a Mormon feminist it gets a wide range of reactions, from pleasant surprise from my more secular friends and peers who have a firm idea in their minds that Mormons are sexist and patriarchal; to a not-so-veiled antagonism from more conservative Mormons; to a simple and warm curiosity from moderates on all sides. As consequence of having seven powerful and independently minded sisters; a traditionally minded mother, who was nevertheless a strong and powerful influence in my life; a long list of female friends (generally, I have gravitated much more towards women than men); not to mention a strong minded wife and a spunky, little daughter; I’ve always had a robust appreciation for the women in my life. They’ve been a diverse spectrum of personalities, beliefs, and approaches, which have been a hugely pervasive and positive influence in my life.

Thus my feminism, although I may have hidden it from myself under different names in the early part of my life, it has really always been there, even as a young child. People have called me out on it in my writing, even in the time of my life before I really considered myself an “official” feminist. Women were often the key characters, and came in greater numbers, in my plays (except sometimes in my historical pieces, like Swallow the Sun… I couldn’t help it if C.S. Lewis mainly hung out with men!). As my writing continued, in time, my feminist identity and themes became even more pronounced… sometimes to the discomfort of certain family members and friends.

Unfortunately, in certain parts of Mormon culture, feminism is seen as a sign of unfaithfulness in the Church. With high profile excommunications of Mormon feminists and aggressive rhetoric against feminism from high places in the Church in past decades, a culture of distance was created within the Church from the main body of the Church and the more “fringe” feminists. However, in the more recent Church, in an environment that I call the New Mormon Faithful, there seems to be more tolerance (at least from the higher levels of the Church), and maybe even encouragement, about a kind of faithful Mormon feminism. Recent comments from President Monson , President Uchtdorf, and Elder Cook have showed at least some effort on the part of the official Church leaders to address the needs of the women of the Church, whether they fit the traditional molds or not.

And it’s also very encouraging to see some very strong women’s voices emerge in the Church. Sheri Dew, of course, has been a very visible symbol of woman’s strength in the Church as the CEO of Deseret Book and a former, unmarried member of the Relief Society Presidency. I found Chieko Okazaki particularly inspiring, as a more diverse and particularly insightful member of the Relief Society Presidency. Although some of her first addresses drew ire from Mormon feminists (especially the controversial “Mothers Who Know”_), I found President Julie Beck to be an interesting Relief Society President, as her presidency evolved into what seemed to be a progressive trajectory. She gave some great forward thinking comments about a woman’s ability to receive revelation and I found her call to have women intimately study the history of the Relief Society particularly intriguing… there are some very progressive aspects to the Relief Society’s history, especially Joseph Smith’s progressive comments to the Relief Society, which are often censored or ignored.

Of particular interest to me, however, are two women in Mormon Letters who have really touched me with their writing lately. The first, Carol Lynn Pearson, is a Mormon playwright, poet, and vocal feminist who has been a fixture in Mormon Drama and Mormon Letters since the 1970s. The other is Joanna Brooks, perhaps one of our most prominent female voices in the Church. She’s a professor of literature at San Diego State University, has been featured on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, is interviewed often by major news outlets, has a popular memoir Book of Mormon Girl published by Simon and Schuster, and a blog Ask Mormon Girl which has become incredibly popular and influential. I think both women are valuable voices in the Mormon Arts and Letters community, specifically, and within the LDS community at large.

I grew up with the VHS version of Pearson’s musical My Turn On Earth as a child. It was a pretty constant Sunday fixture in my family’s home in the ’80s. I remember my mother reading a lot of Pearson’s poetry, and as I grew older I became more aware of her other plays. Eventually, I heard of Mother Wove the Morning, Pearson’s one woman play which presents a series of women throughout history who describe their experiences with the Divine Feminine, the Goddess, Wisdom, or (as we call Her in Mormonism) our Heavenly Mother.

I eventually bought a copy of the Mother Wove the Morning and, wow, did its quality surprise me. I had a rather hit and miss track record with Pearson’s plays and how I responded to them, but Mother Wove the Morning moved me in a way that I did not anticipate. Each of the women presented, and their historical connection to our Heavenly Mother, were beautifully written with pathos and passion. She infused an innate spirituality into the piece which made me ache and long for my Heavenly Mother all over again.

Pearson, if nothing else, is a very brave person. Frankly and openly talking about our Heavenly Mother has become a taboo subject in Mormon culture, especially when trying to lobby for an expanded role for her in our lives, despite the origins of the doctrine tying all the way back to Joseph Smith. She even originally presented the play in the ’90s, during a period when a number of high profile excommunications came to Mormon feminists who the Church felt had gone too far . Thankfully, it seems like she had a generous open minded bishop and stake president (the advantages of being a California Mormon, I suppose…). But, during this age of the New Mormon Faithful, I think we will find that feminists like Carol Lynn Pearson will have less to fear. At least that is my hope from the signs and indications I think I have seen from the Brethren.

Which brings us to Joanna Brooks. Here is a woman who mentioned the desire of some women to gain ordination in the Church on national television on NBC. This is the woman who talked with Jon Stewart about marching in gay pride parades . But she has done so with a warm faith and hopeful optimism, absent of the stereotypical coldness and bitterness critics try to pin on feminists. She has done so with such love and positive support for Church leaders, even when she disagrees with some of them. She glories in being a Mormon, she supports and lifts all of those around her. She shows that Mormon feminists don’t have to have a bitter edge to get their point across, or an antagonistic stance against Church leadership. She leads with kindness, teaches with love, marches towards progress with hope.

People like her, like Carol Lynn Pearson, are showing that it’s a new day for Mormon Feminists. Progress is being made, their voices are being heard. And I think we are all the better off for it, for I don’t believe Zion can be truly established without real and honest gender equality.

About Mahonri Stewart

Mahonri Stewart is a Kennedy Center award winning playwright and screenwriter who resides in Arizona with his wife Anne and their two children. Mahonri recently graduated with an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Arizona State University, and received his bachelors in Theatre Arts from Utah Valley University. Mahonri has had over a dozen of his plays produced by theatre venues and organizations such as Utah Valley University, the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, Arizona State University, the FEATS Theatre Festival in Switzerland, Zion Theatre Company, the Echo Theatre, BYU Experimental Theatre Company, Art City Playhouse, the Little Brown Theatre, the Binary Theatre, and the Off Broadway Theatre in Salt Lake City. Mahonri also loves superheroes, literature, film, board games, lasagna (with cottage cheese, not ricotta!), and considers himself an amateur Church Historian. He is also a tireless advocate for Mormon Drama.
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26 Responses to The Divine Feminine, Mormon Style: Carol Lynn Pearson’s _Mother Wove the Morning_, Joanna Brooks, and Faithful Mormon Feminism

  1. Interesting pattern that prominent Mormon feminists mostly seem to be pro-gay too.

  2. Mark Stewart says:

    “I don’t believe Zion can be truly established without real and honest gender equality”

    Lot of cargo you’re hauling with that statement, brother. How is ‘gender equality’ defined in a church setting, and by whom? I think this is where I tend to separate from anyone with a hobby horse. I don’t have religious ‘beliefs’ that are outside of the scripture or prophetic utterance. I have ‘opinions.’

    I especially don’t have beliefs that the church MUST change in some way in doctrine or practice in order to be perfected. That isn’t my calling. Unless called to leadership, my only intersection of opinion and belief is how I choose to raise my family or speculate without imbuing my speculation with any freight of

    ‘Steadying the ark’ in general is a bad idea. Joanna Brooks probably crosses that line in my view. Promoting basic changes in doctrine based on human ‘wisdom’ is explicitly condemned in scripture. But she doesn’t hold a leadership position and her personal views are her own and she is welcome to them.

    Now all that said, perhaps unnecessarily, if your belief is more opinion, I don’t have an issue with or see an incompatibility between feminism and Mormonism per se. Where I see an incompatibility is with the 70s militant version of feminism. Take away abortion as an unmitigated good, and easy divorce as ‘freeing’ of women, then I, and as far as I can tell, the church have few quibbles with it.

    I think as a younger adult, you were probably less exposed to the bra-burning era of feminism and have been more exposed to the newer ‘girl power’ version of true choices in life. Most of the ‘classic’ women libbers considered stay-at-home moms little more than traitors to the cause rather than free agents making their own choices. When you are discussing this issue with the previous generations to yours you have to take into account that the words hold different meanings and memories and that the ERA folks tended towards the black and white as much as the conservative types.

    Today’s quieter, gentler, more self-aware and confident version has wide support even amongst conservatives, as long as isn’t militant about abortion issues. It has changed and gone mainstream, though there are still feminists who want to limit it to those who consider abortion as almost a sacrament.

    • Andrew H. says:

      “Most of the ‘classic’ women libbers considered stay-at-home moms little more than traitors to the cause rather than free agents making their own choices.”

      From what I have read of Betty Friedan-era 2nd Wave feminism, the rhetoric they used was about women taking the right to chose what role to play. In reality, I do not think it was any more radical than today’s “gentler” feminism. It is the cognitive dissonence their claims caused, the anger that making such claims stirred, that made them seem more “radical”. Most of the feminist writing I have seen celebrates a woman’s time with her children, so long as that role did not solely define her. So an attempt at achieving realisim in fiction by portraying a 1960s 2nd-wave feminist as (simply) angry and radical is problematic. Maybe you could find the stereotype in a few cities in the years 1968-1973, when small but media-savvy groups were turning to violent solutions, but those were more outliers then representatives of the mainstream movement. The streeotype is more useful as a way to dismiss, rather than as a way to understand.

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        I can’t speak to whether “most” of the classic women’s libbers of the 1960s and 1970s considered stay-at-home moms a traitor to the cause — but it was definitely a powerful strain in the rhetoric of the time. I’m sure that even at the time, there were more nuanced discussions of choice and the acknowledgment that choices might include home and family — but there was also a lot of rhetoric that had the effect of making women feel that if they chose to stay home, they were neglecting their own potential.

        This is important because I think you can’t really understand the attitude of many women in the Church at the time toward women’s lib without knowing the cultural context. Women who stayed home with their families in many cases felt attacked and belittled for that choice. The mobilization of LDS women in opposition to the ERA was not simply obedience to the directives of Church leaders; rather, it was also a deep-felt expression of many women who felt they had been marginalized and their voices unheard in the feminist debate.

        There’s an underlying irony that for many Mormon women of the period, empowerment expressed itself as opposition to traditional feminism. I don’t think we can adequately understand the resonances of “feminism” within the Mormon community, even today, without remembering that.

  3. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Howdy, Mark!

    Thanks for chiming in, bro! As always, you bring a lot to the table.

    I’m not for militant feminism– I’m not for militant anything– which is why I respond so powerfully to people like Brooks and Pearson. They speak with love and gentleness, and allow room for those who think differently than they do. But I do think you’re brushing with broad strokes by characterizing the entire feminist movement in the ’70s the way you have. Sure, I didn’t live through that era, but I’m a good enough student of history to have the general idea… and there were some very legitimate concerns being raised even in those days. Like in the ’60s, extreme circumstances sometimes spur extreme reactions– and even when disagree to the extent of those reactions, I think it is helpful to look into the cause of those reactions and see if there is a seed of truth there.

    Like you, I am pro-life (although I do make exception for the cause of rape, incest, or the endangerment of the life of the mother– like the Church does). I do not think that one person having certain choices taken away from them should beget a cycle where that person can then take away the choices of another (in this case, the unborn fetus’s right to life). That’s where I personally stand, and firmly so.

    However, in differentiating between these issues, I try and not to throw the baby out with the bath water. On the majority of feminist issues I tend to side with the party I feel most wronged. I have personally seen the pain that has been inadvertently caused to dear loved ones because of the cultural mindsets we sometimes hold in the Church. And there is much in scripture and Church history that blatantly contradicts much of what we still culturally hold onto.

  4. Mark Stewart says:

    Broad strokes? I think I qualified myself sufficiently with my ‘most’. If you look to the writings of the leadership at the time you will find little space for heterodox opinion in the feminist movement.

    “I also take issue with “I tend to side with the party I feel most wronged””

    I personally try to side with the party that is objectively correct. Your framing of the universe between victims and victimizers is disempowering and without logical weight.

    The ‘wronged’ have no engrained claim to truth. Everyone has been victim and victimizer, every day of their lives. Truth and correctness stand outside of that model. Christ isn’t correct because he was crucified, he was crucified because others were threatened by his truth-telling.

  5. Mahonri Stewart says:

    I agree with your positioning, of course everyone has been the victim and the perpetrator in their life. And, yes, there were extremists on both side of the argument. But I mean to imply by saying that those who have been “wronged,” have been wronged because they are on the side of the “truth telling,” much like you’re saying. Much of feminism, in my position, is truth telling. When I read the New Testament, I find Christ to be a radical feminist for his day. That’s where my personal beliefs lead me, but I also totally understand many of the points of the other side of the argument, of course.

  6. Mark Stewart says:

    “But I mean to imply by saying that those who have been “wronged,” have been wronged because they are on the side of the “truth telling,””

    Not what you said though: “I tend to side with the party I feel most wronged””

    I wouldn’t be surprised if what you first said betrays your mindset more correctly, if subconsciously. My impression is that those with ‘liberal’ mindsets believe exactly what you first stated. They choose sides based on sympathy rather than correctness. Riker instead of Spock.

    I’m guessing that a little introspection is in order… know WHY your brain is arriving at its opinions and wisdom is much easier to achieve. ;)

  7. Jonathan Langford says:

    Speaking as moderator: While this is an interesting discussion that has so far remained civil, I’d like to invite us to move the discussion away from Mormon doctrine (which is really off-topic for this blog) and toward the implications for Mormon arts and literature. How does it affect the way Mormons are depicted in literature — including our own? How does it affect the stories we read and tell?

  8. Mahonri Stewart says:

    No, Mark, I don’t let other people psycho-analyze me into a position I don’t believe, just because they want to make me an offender for a word and color me into a position that better fits a stereotype in their mind. Again, I respect your informed position, and love your big heart, but don’t speak for my beliefs, consciously or subconsciously.

    Jonathan, that’s my last comment in that vein, I swear.

    Although, I must ask, how do we separate Mormon Arts and Literature that has a political purpose, without talking about politics? ;) Talking about Mormon Arts and Letters in a general sense, without ever getting to the nitty gritty of what that art is actually discussing… it becomes a problematic and self-editing approach that deflates dialogue on the actual themes of the art.

    However, I do appreciate the impulse, as it keeps us from swerving into purely political discussions, without drawing in the implications it has on Mormon Arts and Letters, which is of course the purpose of this blog.

  9. Mark Stewart says:

    Sure, take the fun out of it Hon! :)

  10. Scott Hales says:

    Have you read Linda Sillitoe’s “Sideways to the Sun,” Mahonri. I’d be interested to hear your take on it.

    I read it as a product of the LDS reaction to the ERA and 2nd wave feminism. In some ways, I find its depiction of LDS men and conservative LDS women problematic and unfair. At the same time, I understand that the novel is trying to advocate for the kind of empowerment you bring up in your post, and in order to do that it must focus its critical eye on the gender problems within the system. To paraphrase another Mormon feminist, well-behaved feminist fiction rarely makes history….or change.

    Sometimes, I think, the resistance many male readers have with feminist Mormon fiction is the belief that this empowerment must come at their expense–that they always must be the bad guy. I think they’d much rather see the empowerment come in tandem with the sense of equality that core Mormon doctrines suggest and that you long for. With that, I think one of the strategies a work like “Sideways to the Sun” takes is to make the man feel marginalized, misrepresented, and misunderstood. It seeks to make him, in other words, an object rather than a subject.

    By the way, have you also read Luce Irigaray’s “Sexes and Genealogies”? Its a feminist text that addresses the cultural importance of a divine feminine and the consequences of her absence.

  11. Mahonri Stewart says:

    For a discussion about women’s rights, etc., we’re getting very little female representation in this dialogue…

  12. Yeah, and on that note, Mahonri, I’ll step in. Its weird to hear a bunch of Mormon men talk about Mormon feminism. I feel like I’m spying. Anyway, I want to say a couple things.

    First and foremost, I find the label “feminist” added to “Mormon” added to “writer” confining. I am a woman and I am LDS and some version of feminist to be sure, but if I hear my identity and my work labeled w Mormon feminist, I feel dismissed. No, I perceive the label as a reason to be dismissed in the same way people will dismiss SFF or some such thing. The assumptions behind the label are limiting. In fact, the label identifies the work or the writer as marginalized. So its self-defeating in my eyes. I have a dream that someday Mormon women writers will not “need” to be classified as “other.”

    And I completely disagree that women who write feminist pieces (and you can define that as you will) are being political. Sure, some are overtly doing that. And we all reflect our worldviews in our art, but I completely disagree that we can’t separate politics from the literary examination of a woman’s daily life. One of the problems for Mormon females is the assumption that if we use the term feminist it labels us with a political agenda we don’t have. Some do, some don’t. Anyway, I haven’t read either of these books (did attend Pearson’s play in the 90′s though and found it wonderful and brave), so I can’t comment on them. These books may well be political treatise. But they aren’t fiction, which is my primary interest, and the fiction LDS women produce doesn’t seem to me to be calling for some grand political agenda, but is a reflection of who we are in this society, be that in a liberal or conservative bend.

    I am seeing a change in Mormon feminism. I’ve spoken of Helen Walker Jones, who isn’t writing anymore to my knowledge. I’ve not read all her work because it hasn’t been collected (all short fiction), but in what I’ve read I do see a sort of “man is in the forest” feminism. That is changing, just as the “radical” bra-burning feminism has evolved into something more akin to the evolution of underwire bras into wireless bras (something that supports but is more comfortable for many women). Look at Angela Hallstrom’s “Field Walking” in the recent dialogue. When Sunstone publishes its upcoming special fiction issue, you’ll see a story by Courtney Miller Santo called “The Opposite of Sound.” Its coincidental that both these stories have plot ideas with similar roots (the stories themselves are unique), but what is particularly refreshing is that both of these stories represent Mormon women in long-term marriages who seek clarification of their identity, separate from their children and husbands, but not at the expense of their husbands. Man is no enemy, no master, no stumbling block, or authoritative squelcher of womanhood. He is a helpmeet. I am really looking forward to the publication of Courtney’s story because, having read both of these, I want to delve into that some more, but don’t want to provide any spoilers now. I do, however, see a genuine turn coming in feminist Molit. Its intriguing.

  13. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Wonderful comments, Lisa!

    • Thank you. And I certainly don’t mean to imply any disingenuousness on your part when I add that I have the creeping feeling any woman could’ve said anything here and been received w. a sense of gratitude. It is, as I said, weird that this was a conversation between men. So I’m wondering why the female voices aren’t responding. I have to think we aren’t reading it. Too bad.

  14. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Lisa, one thing I’ve wondered about is when I see when Mormon men seem to be more open in discussing these issues is whether that’s because some women in the Church may feel like speaking openly on the subject may cause them to be seen as suspect (much as Joanna Brooks is often treated by some), while maybe Mormon men aren’t seen as jeopardized because they have no “skin in the game,” so to speak. When my wife and I talk about our experiences in past wards, it sometimes seems that the discussions in Elder’s Quorum seem much more open minded than the discussions observed in Relief Society. I found that curious. Of course, High Priests may be a completely different story. ;)

    As to how that relates to Mormon Letters– what female writers do we have that are considered “feminist?” Should that term even apply in a literary sense or does it, as Lisa says, have too many political and limiting implications? Are there any male Mormon writers that have that term applied to them? (For one, I know I have had it applied to me on a number of occassions by reviewers, audience members, etc. and it’s a term I gladly accept and embrace in describing part of my identity). And why or why not is it weird for Mormon men to be included in the discussion on Mormon feminism, in the Arts or more widely? Is it problematic, or are they also a necessary component of the discussion, especially if change is or isn’t desired on a Church wide basis (especially in a largely male leadership)?

    And I would especially love to hear the voices from the women who participate here, whether they consider themselves “feminist” or not.

  15. emily falke says:

    Thank you, Lisa, for your comments. I wanted to comment, but I must admit that I am new to thinking about “Mormon feminism” and have only really been thinking about Mormon literature for a few months, so I’m rather, well, most likely uninformed. I like to think we all were at one time, so I don’t need to feel embarrassed about it. :) But I know my own feelings. I am happy to hear of stories of women who desire self-fulfillment alongside their families. I don’t think you have to choose one or the other. I’m wonderfully happy to hear of Mother Wove the Morning. I’ve often been in situations among members where one needs to be questioning or disagreeing with some aspect of the Church or its doctrine in order to be seen as thoughtful, intelligent, or realistic – if not, you’re simply closed-minded. Unfortunately, that’s also the feeling I got from perusing some of Joanna’s blog after reading about it from this post. However, from what I’ve read so far in Mormon literature, there is a wonderful middle ground between the overly sentimental and the questioning, work that allows us to look at life’s myriad of challenges and search for – and find – answers within the framework of faith rather than looking for reasons to leave it behind. That’s the place I’d like to find in my own writing at least.

  16. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Emily,

    Great comments.

    That middle way you’re talking about is what William Morris at A Motley Vision calls the “radical middle,” a position I gravitate towards as well. But Joanna Brooks I think is more in that camp as well than she may first appear. Just the fact that she is holding tight to the Church despite certain concerns of conscience she may have I think shows her loyalty lies with the Gospel. I think she is doing great good for us in secular circles, and helping show that not all Mormons are as homogenous as they may seem… which, to me, is a good thing. Showing diversity in Zion.

    • Mahonri Stewart says:

      And, connecting that with Mormon literature, I think we sometimes get too polarized when we think about how certain writers or thinkers fall into certain camps. I’m for appreciating writers who fit all across the spectrum, as distinct and unique as their individual personalities. Of course, Mormonism will have a communal effect on each writer, as I think it should. But agency is a powerful doctrine in Mormonism, which I think leaves a lot of room for individual expression (even disagreement) for our writers.

  17. Like anyone, I want to be given a fair shake as an artist. I resist being labeled as a female playwright, or as an LDS playwright—people tend to let those labels affect how they see my work, and that doesn’t sit well with me. I am a playwright who happens to be an LDS woman. Yes, I enjoy telling stories about women—creating roles for female actors to play—because I do feel strongly that there aren’t enough of those in the world, and because sometimes I’m good at it. If that makes me a feminist, okay; but I’d rather just be a human.

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