Wanted: A New and Improved Feminism

So this woman shows up at the Facebook Mormon Women Writers page and asks an innocent question, something that noted the liberal bend of most posts and wondered aloud if this group was only for liberals. I made the assumption that this was a conservative Mormon woman, worrying that she might not fit in, so I sent her a private message, meant to encourage her participation. Turns out, she’s liberal and we had a brief conversation–mostly me “talking” as usual–in which I admitted to NOT being a Mormon feminist.

But that’s not true. I am, in many ways, a Mormon feminist. I think women are great. I just happen to think men are equally great. I don’t feel any more put-upon by my church than the men I know. Maybe we are put-upon in different ways from the men, but … are we? Church is demanding. Church can be stifling. And painfully intrusive. And also glorious. Its the idea of a Mormon feminist as an angry (or not angry), foot-stomping (or finger-snapping), give-me-the-priesthood-dammit (or darn it) that doesn’t fit me. I don’t want teenage girls to have to confess to old men. I do want LDS women to be respected as people with ideas and goals and ambitions that extend beyond the home. I hate when I find myself with a group of men talking, say, politics, and feel the temperature of their conversation plummet because I speak up, something they apparently aren’t comfortable with, an assumption I can make since I tend to share the same political views as the majority of Latter-day Saints.

But Mormon feminism in literature bores the Hades out of me. It feels so stuck in the 1970′s. Is that because the Mormon church is “behind the times,” as they say? Probably. After all, Mormon women are fighting for respect for their choice to have careers. And Mormon women have a certain kind of sexual battle to wage as we work toward a culture that acknowledges that women are sexual, and not simply procreative, beings, and that the clothes we don do not define our worthiness or condemn men to their impossible lusts. We have to fight, as I said earlier, for moral decency and equivalency in the confessional. No female who has committed what the gospel tags a sexual sin should have to speak face-to-face with a man–usually an “old” man from the perspective of a youth–who asks intrusive and often obscene questions of her. This is not equality. After all, no man has to endure this from the Relief Society presidency. They wouldn’t stand for it. Can you imagine if your Relief Society president demanded some teenage boy come report to her weekly about his tendency to masturbate in the shower? There are many, many things about our Mormon culture as it pertains to the treatment of women that warrant, even demand, we examine them through our literature. I’ll give you that.

But it bores me. I feel like I’ve been reading these kinds of stories for four decades. Surely I wasn’t reading Mo Lit four decades ago, but I was reading feminist lit and it sounded a lot like what comes out of our community today.  I’m going to pick on a friend of mine, a prolific feminist Mormon writer I’ve worked with through Sunstone and one I deeply respect, namely Helen Walker Jones. In December of 2010, Sunstone was fortunate to publish her story, “Angina”, a perfectly good piece of literature and, I think, the first short story I edited for Sunstone. I chose to run the story. I chose it. Because I liked it. So please understand that,  when I sit and read “Angina,” I’m not bored by the story. That isn’t what I’m saying. As with all of Helen’s many published stories, I feel as involved with these characters as I do with characters from any good piece of fiction,  be it published in or outside our community. In this particular story, an aging Mormon woman wrestles with her husband-less identity and her flagging sexual appeal. All good. All viable topics for examination. Its when I step back from this story and consider this piece, and others like it, that I seem to hear a rock dropped into a deep well ricocheting off the walls once or twice, but not striking water. The well is drained. The problem, for me–and I realize I may be the only person who thinks this way–is not that our feminist writers or feminist stories are lacking. In fact, our history of feminist literature has been, in many opinions, our strong suit; our women writers are fantastic. The problem may be that the kinds of feminist short fiction I’m reading these days aren’t necessarily adding something new to the conversation of Mormon feminism. To me, they too often seem Been There/Done That.

But how do we find a new way in to Mormon feminism? How do we find our way beyond stories that center on often weak–I’m guilty of this charge–women who struggle against the cultural demands that we fervently multiply and replenish the earth and never darken an unwomanly office desk? How do we move beyond complaint and begin showing how we want the world to be, even if by showing how the world is wrong as it now is?  How do we stop being the proverbial old whine in a new bottle?

Obviously, I can’t answer that for other people. Perhaps its enough to raise the question so that Mormon female and male writers who write about women’s issues give the question some thought. Somewhere in my personal progress as a short fiction writer, I realized I had an interest in how men are treated, not only in the Mormon culture, but in the broader society. Certainly we’ve seen a huge shift, thanks largely to feminism in general, from the Ricky Ricardo Man-as-Sensible character of the “I Love Lucy” days to the Ray Ramono Man-as-Idiot era of “Everybody Loves Raymond.”  For me, degrading half the human race isn’t the way to even the score, but it seems our era of modern story-telling hasn’t gotten that message. And for me, the burdens women often feel as members of a patriarchal church doesn’t justify degrading the struggles men feel in a patriarchal church. And they do have them.

The truth is, all humans struggle. And all that struggle is worthy of literary examination. Basically, I object to defining myself as a champion of my gender, perhaps partly because of the societal implication that, if I champion my own gender, I “must” do it at the expense of the other gender. Not interested in that. My life has filled with wonderful men. And awful men. And wonderful women. And awful women. And with both men and women who have struggled and suffered and been knocked down. Some make it back to their feet. Others do not. But each has lived a life of passion and angst. My fascination with life’s struggle is likely what made me a writer. And my interest in the tick-tockings of people prohibit me from assigning myself the title “feminist.”

I remember telling my graduate adviser that I didn’t think I’d ever write a story from a male POV because I don’t know what it is to be a man. She cocked her head and looked at me like I was crazy, and in that moment, I realized I was.That moment haunted me for years. A while back, I opened a dusty file (a real file folder, not an electronic one) and found some stories I wrote before I came to know how to write. In them, I found a story about a woman who was molested as a child, a story I loosely based on some women I’d known. Even if the story wasn’t particularly well-crafted, it was especially feminist. In this story, I, for some dumb reason, decided to throw in a very brief journey into the point of view of the protagonist’s husband. As I reread the story (cringing, I promise) and came to this strange and ineffective POV insertion, I realized that I’d missed the real story entirely. My words to my graduate adviser came storming back. I had to write this story from the husband’s point of view. Then it had the chance to become something.

It became “Straight Home,” published in Dialogue‘s Spring 2010 edition. (Read the story at http://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V43N01_180.pdf)  The story is definitely what I’d call masculinist (as opposed to masculist, which, if I recall correctly, is a term sometimes used in queer theory) because it kindly shines a light on men and their sex drive. The woman is seriously flawed, having been horrifically abused as a child, a fact she never shared with her husband. In the story, the woman, though a victim, is in the power position and the husband is cast as  the dog looking for crumbs. I hope the story is open to various reader interpretations and won’t muddle up the experience of reading it with excessive  writerly intrusion, but I will say that, as I wrote it, I discovered something that was, to me, dramatic. Even though I focused on the man’s struggles, the story, in a very real way, opened a view of the struggle so many women face. . . with sex, sex in marriage, control, abusive pasts, etc. I like the story because of that balance, because, while we discover each character as flawed, needy and damaged, we are (I really hope, fingers crossed) unsettled by the fair distribution of life’s problems. One problem impacts another; one damaged character damages another, not out of vindictiveness, but out of need, of lack.

There: I picked on one very good and very capable writer, of whom I am a fan, and then exalted my own work. Shameless. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that my story is better crafted than Helen’s. That would be the stupidest thing I ever said. Rather, I bow to her lengthy and wonderful publication history as a Mormon writer and know I’ll probably never come close to the volume of her very successful stories. I do wish she would gather her stories and approach publishers about a collection. (You listening Z?) Nevertheless, she’s been writing a long time and of course, will represent old timey feminism to one degree or another. But what about the rest of us? Like I said, I’ve written weak women. Many times. And dealt with marriage and identity and who is gonna deal with the “burden” of children. To prove it, here is a link to “At Bay,” also published in Dialogue, though so many moons ago, I can’t remember:  http://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V37N04_187.pdf. It definitely has that old feminist flavor, partly because I wrote its initial draft while in college in the mid 1980′s and simply converted the protagonist to Mormonism for submission in the Mo Lit realm. All this to reiterate that I mean Helen nor any other feminist Mormon writer disrespect. But this is self-titled blog so I will wallow now and then in my own thinking and in my own work, especially if it illustrates a point. And “Straight Home” does demonstrate one way one Mormon writer (me) explored female sexuality without writing a “typical” abused woman story.

Of course, it can be argued that “Straight Home” isn’t feminist at all, but I’m not going to beat myself up. That’s the job of other people, of critics.

1 Comment

Filed under Me and Mine, MoLit Community, Mormon Literature

One response to “Wanted: A New and Improved Feminism

  1. Pingback: This Week in Mormon Literature, July 7, 2012 | Dawning of a Brighter Day

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