Next week I'll be part of a conference exploring Mormon women's issues. Although it's being held at the University of Utah, it's co-sponsored by the LDS Church, which is an exciting step forward for all of us who care about the role of women in Mormonism.
As you can see from today's great article in the Salt Lake Tribune, there is a movement afoot to understand Mormon women's roles in history and in the LDS Church today. The article charts a "middle ground" between Mormon women who advocate for female priesthood and those who simply want women to exercise greater authority and agency in the Church today without the priesthood.
The theme of the conference is "agency." Kate Holbrook, the new (and first-ever) scholar of women's history in the LDS Church History Department, says that the conference theme stems from a talk that Cathy Brekus gave two years ago at MHA:
Brekus described how the academy has tended to discuss female agency in terms of women who act against prevailing norms, so female exercise of agency has become synonymous with rebellion. Brekus argued that women who stay within their traditions also exercise agency. She called for a more inclusive and nuanced approach to the discussion of agency and women’s history. The theme of our conference is a response to her call.
Pulitzer-Prize winning historian and Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (pictured above) will kick off the event next Friday night with a keynote lecture, followed by several panels the next day. I am part of one on contemporary Mormon women that will feature Claudia Bushman, Neylan McBaine, and Jane Hafen. I'm excited about the august company!
There are also panels on Mormon women's history and women in global Mormonism. Here is a good source for the schedule; the whole event is free and open to the public.
Over at the Tribune, which had a nice Q&A with Holbrook about the conference, there were two comments as of this afternoon when I wrote this post. Those two comments just about perfectly sum up the un-nuanced, extremist positions that some people tend to take about Mormon women:
Commenter 1: Doesn't seem like there would be much agency in an organization that relies on subservience.
Commenter 2: The LDS Church does not have anything to do with subservience.
The problem with this is that there is an entire world of experience and complexity lying between those binary line-in-the-sand positions. I speak and write as a Mormon feminist who has been both empowered and limited by her church. Yes, it is an organization that relegates women to support staff positions, as someone remarked in the "middle ground" article. Its complementarian position relies on a "separate but equal" doctrine of men's and women's roles so that those roles turn out to be separate but not at all equal.
I get that. However, it is also an organization that teaches women that they are daughters of Heavenly Parents -- both a father and a mother -- and that they are empowered with divine agency and a godly birthright. It teaches us that we are beloved and strong.
This conference is about the millions of women who exist in the middle of the extremist positions marked out by Commenter #1 and Commenter #2. I hope you'll stop by and join us.