Jesus Was a Feminist and You Should Be One Too

I was recently interviewed by a student doing a project on Mormon women. During our interview she informed me that of all the LDS women she’d spoken to, I was the only one who identified as a feminist. I was shocked and felt betrayed by my fellow LDS women. How could they be active members of the LDS church and not believe in gender equality?

Vermeer, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha

Vermeer, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha

So central is the equality of all humankind to Christ’s message that during his earthly ministry Christ openly rejected cultural proscriptions that relegated women to an inferior spiritual and political status. He recognized women’s spirits and intellects; he taught them directly (Luke 10:38-42); he identified himself as the Messiah to a woman, the first such affirmation recorded in the New Testament (John 4:26); he healed women (Matt. 15:22-28) and raised a woman from the dead (Luke 8:49-56). After his resurrection, he appeared first to a woman, whom he asked to tell his apostles of the glorious event (John 20:11-18), although according to Jewish law women were not considered competent as legal witnesses. (Mary Stovall Richards, Feminism, Encyclopedia of Mormonism)

After talking over the issue with several of my LDS female friends, I realized that they, and possibly lots of other Mormons out there both male and female, shy away from the term “feminist,” because they don’t understand what it means. Rather than somebody who views men as lesser beings, a feminist is somebody who believes in, and advocates for, social, politcal, and economic gender equality. I can’t think of anything more central to our doctrine than the idea of equality among all of God’s children regardless of gender (See Valerie Hudson’s explanation of Mormonism as “the most feminist of all the Christianities“).

So, readers, I invite you all to join me in the feminist crusade. You don’t have to become a radical feminist, but please, take a stand for equality. As Ashley Judd (yes, that Ashley Judd) recently pointed out in the Daily Beast. “[Our objectification of both genders] affects each and every one of us, in multiple and nefarious ways: our self-image, how we show up in our relationships and at work, our sense of our worth, value, and potential as human beings. Join in—and help change—the Conversation.”

About Mostly A Martha

After an idyllic childhood in a smallish Utah town, 4 years at BYU and an LDS mission to Italy, Martha relocated to the East Coast where she's been for the past 4 years. Martha is a lifelong Mormon but a convert to the left end of the political spectrum. Her favorite things include chick lit, chocolate, and finding new restaurants.
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14 Responses to Jesus Was a Feminist and You Should Be One Too

  1. Teppo says:

    Good points Martha. So if I tell people that I am a feminist – which I sometimes do – what do you think it brings to their mind? Could our culture perhaps benefit from a different image of feminism?

    • I definitely think we need to reclaim “feminist,” not just in Mormon culture, but in American culture in general. Please, keep using the word and if you can get others to do so as well–especially other men–you can start a cultural change.

  2. Ruth says:

    Amen, sister. She obviously didn’t interview me. :)
    But, I do think that really this is more about a misconception of “feminism” than people’s true beliefs. And that involves people outside of the LDS church, as well as in. In fact, like so many labels, so many creeds, even amongst those who identify themselves as feminist there is disagreement. Which is why I’m cautious about how I answer that question.
    Once in a conversation with a friend I was able to figure out how I wanted to answer the question:
    Q: Are you a feminist? A: If you mean, do I believe that women are superior to men–no. If you mean, do I believe they’re equal and that I should actively work to ensure that equality is carried out in real life? Yes, absolutely! (But see how I had to incorporate the definition into my answer? Sigh.)

    • I agree that there are many misconceptions about what it means to be a feminist in American society in general. I made a suggestion to Teppo on one way we can try to slowly change them, but I think there are probably other.

      As far as differences among feminists, I feel like it’s sort of like differences among Christians. There’s a general sense that when somebody says “I’m a Christian,” you’re pretty confident trusting that they try to follow Jesus’s teachings, but until they further say, “I’m Lutheran” or “I’m Baptist” you don’t know much more about their specific doctrinal views.

      I think we can do something of that sort for feminism. When somebody says “I’m a feminist” that means they believe in gender equality. Then, when they further say “I’m a dominance feminist” or “I’m an agency feminist” you get a better idea of how they think we should achieve equality.

  3. ABC says:

    The word “feminist” is not easy to define, and even those who self-identify as such often define it quite differently. The word has become loaded with a series of political connotations with which some people (not just LDS) may not identify. Whether these connotations are fair or accurate or both or neither is a path I’ll avoid for now. But I think it’s fair to say that if someone asks the question “are you a feminist?” and expects a yes/no answer, there is bound to be some miscommunication. If someone were to say “no”, it almost surely doesn’t mean that they don’t believe in gender equality. Most everyone, if asked if they believed in gender equality, would answer in the affirmative.

    Typically, the differences of opinion on this topic come in the degree of inequality that one might believe currently exists and in the measures that they do/do not recommend for rectifying those differences. In order for the student in the original post to get a more accurate picture about what people (Mormon women, in this instance) believe, more pointed questions about the problems/solutions need to be asked. As Ruth said, binary answers to such ambiguous questions just won’t do.

    And as long as there is a difference of opinion on the basic definitions, it will likely be difficult to answer the “Was Jesus a feminist” question. But even if basic agreement on definitions was achieved, this question might end up filed next to “Was Jesus a conservative/liberal/socialist” on the list of questions that can be answered in any way you want, with supporting scriptures, depending on your preconceived notion of the correct answer.

  4. Michelle says:

    I used to feel the hope that the word feminist could be reclaimed. I don’t feel that way anymore. I am extremely passionate about ‘women’s issues’ but really don’t like the notion of ‘feminist’ (or even ‘equality’ for that matter). I’m not a fan of labels. I think they limit our ability to converse and explore important facets and tensions and nuance in different issues. But I don’t think you are alone in the passionate feelings you have about these topics, so I would hope that you could not see yourself as being betrayed just because others may not use the same term you to do describe your passion.

    • I agree that people can be interested in women’s issues without necessarily using the terms “feminism” or “equality.” However, I also think that encountering those terms forces people to acknowledge, or at the very least question whether, gender inequality issues exist today. My sense of betrayal is more that I think many of my fellow LDS sisters (and brothers) aren’t even discussing or thinking about gender inequality, whatever terms you want to use.

  5. Michelle says:

    “However, I also think that encountering those terms forces people to acknowledge, or at the very least question whether, gender inequality issues exist today.”

    I sensed that the lack of this kind of thing is what frustrates you, and I think dialogue is good. I think sometimes people are afraid to talk about gender issues at all, so I can sympathize with what you are saying. But in a way your comment is an example of what I mean. Let me try to explain.

    Yes, gender inequality exists today, and I think it’s good to talk about — to a point. I’m not convinced that equality should necessarily be an end goal in all cases. For example, I think one reason why some women reject the label of feminist is because many feminists insist that you can’t be a feminist and be ok with a patriarchal organization such as the Church, and that can feel threatening. I personally think that such focus can miss the mark.

    Let me be clear here: I’m not advocating running in fear from discussions about ‘women’s issues’ in the context of the Church. I just don’t think ‘equality’ as feminism defines it is a necessarily always a good measure for what we should be aiming for. I think feminism defines equality in a way that can sometimes be too narrow vis-a-vis our doctrine. Our doctrine is so much more expansive than just an organization chart or men vs. women job/opportunity list (which is often how ‘equality’ is measured).

    This is a long (and old) quote (using old quotes is not my usual MO), but it explains much better than I ever could what I’m trying to get at. I think his insight is both timeless in principle, and timely in our world of PC-driven dialogue.

    Secularism often seizes upon a single, true principle and elevates it above its peer principles. This act of isolation does not make the principle seized any less true, but it strips that principle of its supporting principles. One can be incarcerated within the prison of one principle.

    For instance, “peacemakers” are precious commodities, but peace-making must be tied to other principles or it can easily become peace-making at any price. Candor is an important attribute, but it must not be separated from genuine concern for those who will feel the consequences of candor. Paul’s counsel is to be sure that we are “speaking the truth in love.” (Eph. 4:15.) Love and truth need each other.

    Charles Frankel observed of those who would currently subordinate everything else to “equality”:

    “The fallacies of the new egalitarianism come largely from having ripped the notion of equality loose from its context. The result is to turn it into a principle vagrant and homeless, and identifiable in fact only if a quasi-theological context is unconsciously imported.” (“The New Egalitarianism and the Old,” Commentary, Sept. 1973, p. 61.)

    Elevating any correct principle to the plane of religion is poor policy. Just as one person makes a poor church, one principle makes a poor religion!

    In a sense, principles can become “prodigal” as well as people can! Principles can have the equivalent of estrangement and of a “journey into a far country” and be “spent,” with little to show. These “prodigals,” too, must return to and be reunited with the “family” of principles.

    The doctrines of Christ need each other, just as the disciples of Christ need each other. It is the orthodox orchestration in applying the gospel of Jesus Christ that keeps us happy and helps us to avoid falling off the straight and narrow path, for on the one side there is harsh legalism and on the other syrupy sensualism. Little wonder that man needs careful and precise help, the guidance of the Spirit, in order to navigate under such stressful circumstances.

    -Elder Neal A. Maxwell

    THAT kind of discussion, where we avoid either “harsh legalism” (often, imo, found in feminism or other -isms) or syrupy sensualism (I imagine we can all think of times when Mormon culture has had this kind of feeling) and can address hard issues with a willingness to engage “the whole,” the doctrines of the gospel, the context of the plan of salvation, the repeated counsel of prophets? THAT is what I get excited about. In my mind, that transcends feminism. To me, feminism is limiting, even as some of the principles do fit into the whole, imo. And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way.

    But in saying that, I hope you can not feel alone in your desire to talk about these issues, because you aren’t. I’ll talk about it any day, and I know many women who would! ;)

    Sorry for the long comment. Maybe I should just make it a post at my site. I’ll leave here for now but will also share my thoughts on my site. If you want to delete the long comment, I can just include a link if you would prefer.

    • Mostly A Martha says:

      Thank you for your thoughts. I really appreciate your perspective. And I’m not bothered by its length. I think this comment chain is doing exactly what I hoped would happen–getting people to think about and talk about how we even want to discuss or view gender issues in our church.
      I agree that we shouldn’t use any one “ism” to view the entire gospel, but I also hope that we don’t stick our heads in the sand and ignore the insights and new perspective we may get from analyzing our religion and our culture through any of the myriad philosophies out there (feminism, liberalism, conservatism, western thought, etc.).

  6. Pingback: On gender equality: Do you call yourself a Mormon feminist? | Mormon Women - About LDS Life and Belief

  7. Emily says:

    I think it would be great to reclaim the word “feminism,” but after talking to many women older than myself (mid 30s), I found that they had such a sour taste in their mouths about it — because of the ERA etc. However, I find younger women really relate to it and many would like to change the connotations. I’m all mixed on it. I used to say I was a feminist, but now, especially around older women, I don’t because I don’t want them to misunderstand me. I’m also a bit mixed on the equality thing… do I want to have to sign up for the draft like the guys? Uh, no. In my head, I often think of a feminist as someone who fights for women’s rights, not even necessarily equality.

  8. Patrick says:

    I’m sort of like Emily. When I hear the word feminist, I think of the very broad definition of “someone who cares about women’s issues.” As such, I identify as a feminist. Of course, the idea of being a male feminist has different connotations than a female feminist in society I think. It is a lot less common, though maybe more socially acceptable, to be a male feminist since it is hard to claim that a man is a feminist for selfish reasons.

    • Patrick,

      Thanks for being a male feminist. I think that one of the reasons people have misconceived the word is because so many men are reluctant to use it. The more men who acknowledge that they fit the definition of feminist, the less the word will be associated with man-hating. What’s the usual reaction when you say that you’re a feminist?

  9. Valerie says:

    “Rather than somebody who views men as lesser beings, a feminist is somebody who believes in, and advocates for, social, political, and economic gender equality.”

    Words are too complicated to give them one definition and say everyone should agree and identify with it. For a term that you say simply means gender equality, the word itself sure seems to emphasize one gender over the other (not without reason of course, given the history of the term).

    Plus, if those who believe in gender equality are called feminists, what do we call those who do believe women are superior to men? ;)

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