Madwoman Out of the Attic

a feminist trudging forward in a patriarchal world

Friday, March 09, 2007

My Mormon Woman Story

John Dehlin of Mormon Stories is currently putting together some podcasts featuring Mormon women's stories. I was flattered that he particularly asked me to send one in! This is what I came up with. The latter half is an amalgamation of other posts I have written over the last couple of years. I was trying to be somewhat balanced about my experience as a Mormon woman, ergo my section about why I stay. When Mike read it he asked, "Can you live up to this?" And my answer is a resounding "no." But I'd like to.

Here it is.

Three months ago, surrounded by friends and family in our home, my husband and I together held our firstborn baby and blessed him. Well, technically my husband blessed him. In the interest of preserving family harmony, I agreed that Mike could be the mouthpiece reading the blessing. But we composed that blessing together, negotiating, editing, and advocating, until we were satisfied that it resonated with our spirits and represented both our hopes for our little son. And in the end, when I raised the baby over my head – like Rafiki in The Lion King - I was satisfied that in the face of private convictions and institutional and traditional pressure, we had come up with viable compromise.

As a Mormon woman, a committed feminist, a loving spouse, and a questioning member of the church, compromise and negotiation like this will no doubt characterize the rest of my life.

Raised by a widowed mother and closet feminist, my questions about women’s roles in the world and church began early. I’ll never forget the day when my mom and I were riding in the car on our way to church when I was about 12 years old. We passed by a congregational church and I noticed that it said that the sermon would be given by pastor Marsha Graham. I was a bit stunned by this. Somehow I had never really realized that in other faith traditions women could be ordained.

“Mom” I said, “how weird is that – their minister is a woman!”

My mom glanced at the sign and replied casually “Actually there are a lot of women ministers. It’s a job that requires a lot of compassion and caretaking, and many women feel drawn towards this.”

I had never thought of it like that before. And from there I began to wonder a bit why women in Mormonism, women who in my experience were brimming with compassion and spirituality, couldn’t hold the priesthood and lead congregations, like these other women could.

When I later decided to attend a women’s college I became unafraid to associate the label "feminist" with some of my deepest convictions and understandings.

But as powerful as feminist ideals were to me, equally powerful was my identification and loyalty to the Mormon faith. I married Mike, former Elders Quorum president, and obvious bishop to be, thus consolidating my lifelong commitment to the church. I knew that when I married Mike I was also marrying the church, and I was more than willing to make that commitment at 22.

But that commitment was shaken by a painful experience at the temple. My third time doing an endowment session, the first time I did it not surrounded by acquaintences or in laws, I really listened to the women's hearken covenant. I saw Eve silenced. I pondered the implications.
And I lost it. Right there in the middle of the session. Silent tears soon became gulping sobs. Gulping sobs turned into wails of keening pain. I did everything I could to stop it, conscious that I was ruining the experience for everyone else there. Tried holding my breath, dug my nails into my wrist to distract myself. But nothing worked and I sobbed the entire session.

For a couple of years I couldn't even bear to think or talk of that experience. It was too painful. But I now see it as an important moment in my understanding of myself and my relationship with my faith. This experience forced me to confront the paradox of membership and commitment to a faith whose teachings at times fill me with anguish and don't adequately represent the ideals I see Jesus advocating in the New Testament.

While I am pained by many of my church's teachings regarding women, My commitment to Mormonism remains strong. Have I considered leaving in the past? Definitely. But for now I’ve decided to stay, and here are a few reasons why.

1. I love and embrace Joseph Smith's vision of the divine potential of humans, male and female. And the idea of eternal families deeply resonates with me.
2. the kindest, most thoughtful, most Christian human I’ve ever met is Mormon. And I know that the church helped foster those qualities in him.
3. I stay because the Church needs people like me to stay. The more types of people it has as members, the more types of people it can help.
4. . I stay because I know that leaders need to be allowed to make mistakes and grow. I now realize that all human beings, including Church leaders, including myself, are subject to their own cultural contexts, and that even the wisest, most wonderful leaders can allow unfortunate cultural ideas to creep into their conceptions of the gospel. I am trying to be more compassionate towards these leaders. After all, they are human, and I am human. And I know that I make mistakes too.
5. I stay because of my own fallibility. Just as I need Jesus to forgive me for all the mistakes I make, I know that I need to forgive the institutional Church for the mistakes it makes. It's not easy to do. I am extremely hurt by the ways women are routinely shut out from the general Church hierarchy, by the ways women's voices and ideas are lost or ignored in nearly all Church talks and lessons. But I need to give the Church time to progress. This is the gospel of progression; it is also the Church of progression. And I have reason to hope that it will indeed progress with time.
6. Finally, I stay because I now realize that I have the privilege, the right, and the responsibility to embrace those wonderful LDS ideas that empower me and to reject the ones that don't. And this realization - that I can choose what to believe in, that Mormonism is not an all or nothing proposition - has liberated me. By rejecting the ideas that tear me down and hurt me I am now at liberty to embrace the ideas which I love that are also a part of my faith. It inspires me to no end to know that the Jesus we Mormons believe in is the same Jesus who went out of his way to include and teach the outcasts of society, to break taboos, and to uplift all humans despite race, sex, or class. That is the Jesus I accept and love, and any ideas that have crept into Mormonism that go against that, I happily reject.

So here I am. A member whose commitment to stay is daily tested by doctrinal struggles, who takes Mormonism on her terms, in her way, hoping to find creative solutions and alternatives but also willing to go forward with “aching faith” that my loyalty is not misplaced. That my church will evolve to become better. That in the end my heavenly parents will open their arms to me and thank me for doing my best.

Oh and theTemple? I never went back. But I hope to someday - on my terms, when I'm ready, letting the good that is there buoy me up and inspire me, while letting the bad slide off and away from me, an obsolete anchor that no longer has the power to drag me down.


Blogger amelia said...

this is beautiful, caroline. i think the balance of conviction in your own beliefs and humility in recogniaing your own (and by extens, others') fallibility is precisely what will allow you to continue within the church. and i'm glad you want to. you are needed at church. more than you could know.

3/10/2007 2:52 PM  
Blogger amelia said...

damn. that's supposed to be "recognizing" (not "recogniaing")...

3/10/2007 2:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"And the idea of eternal families deeply resonates with me. "

If it is so resounding, why won't you make a small sacrafice of your pride (regardless of if your difficulties with the temple are legitimate or not) and do a bit of service to enable others who have died before this time to take part in this great blessing?

3/12/2007 2:53 PM  
Blogger Caroline said...

It will all get taken care of in the millenium. And in the meantime, it would be extremely inconsiderate of me to ruin everyone else's experience there by going and sobbing the whole time. I'm sure this would be obvious to most people.

3/12/2007 3:47 PM  
Blogger john.white said...

Wow. You get the best anonymous comments! If best means comments that show the commenter in the worst possible light.

3/12/2007 9:09 PM  
Blogger Caroline said...

Thanks amy :)

John, agreed. Anonymous doesn't come off looking like a kind person. I'm actually now registered with statcounter, so I'll be able to find out where anonymous lives, how long anonymous stays, how often anonymous visits, and where anonymous goes before and after coming to my page. Should be interesting to find out more about how a person like this ticks.

3/12/2007 10:00 PM  
Blogger amelia said...

i am always astounded by people who are very simply mean but who do not have the balls to own up to being mean. really. if you want to criticize, at least have the guts to acknowledge doing as much.

i would also point out that fostering and making possible eternal families does not only happen inside the temple. there are many ways of building and making possible eternal family connections. and the very most important of those ways is building a loving, trusting, strong marriage and family. and i can state without any doubt that caroline does a brilliant job on that front.

3/13/2007 9:42 AM  
Blogger journeygal said...

Caroline, I have a lot of respect and really admire your convictions and your reasons for staying. You have a lot of courage and strength - and the ability to stand up for yourself passionately but without being offensive or exclusive.

I wonder how much of your current place in Mormonism you attribute to your marriage/choice-of-spouse? Sometimes I wonder if I would be standing in a different place if I were single or in a different marriage. I'm not saying I'd be standing in a better or worse place, but different. (Most people in a commited relationship would say the same, I imagine.) If nothing else, it's an interesting and thought-provoking thing for me to consider.

3/13/2007 5:18 PM  
Blogger Caroline said...

Thanks Elise.
I attribute a lot of where I am to my marriage with Mike. It was he that actually introduced me to Hanks' seminal book, "Women and Authority: Reemerging Mormon Feminsim." While I had been a feminist with questions before, I never knew that there was a community of other women asking these questions. That was huge and gave me the courage to own my feelings and convictions more than I might have otherwise.

Also because of MIke I ended up in Irvine and met other progressive Mormons who have had a big impact.

But Mike being such a stalwart when it comes to church stuff certainly does help keep me in right now. If I at this point in my life were married to some other type of Christian, there's a good chance that I wouldn't attend LDS church as often as I now do. Yes, I think my choice of spouse profoundly impacted who I am and what I am choosing today.

3/13/2007 6:33 PM  
Blogger Bored in Vernal said...

Caroline, Lovely story. I'm looking forward to the podcast. Are you reading your own piece?

I wanted to ask you how to register with statcounter. I have a particularly nasty troll friend who visits me, too.

3/16/2007 11:15 AM  
Blogger Caroline said...

Thanks, BOV. Yes, I'm reading it. Jana and John let me come over and record it on their microphone.

As for statcounter. Just go to and register for it. I think there's some code that you have to put in your template, but I don't remember it being that difficult. It's very interesting to see who is visiting you.

3/16/2007 11:25 AM  

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