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Protesting Patriarchy : 14 years after authorities excommunicated Equal Rights Amendment champion Sonia Johnson, Mormon feminists are re-emerging. Rather than leave the church, they want to change it.

May 16, 1993|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SALT LAKE CITY — About 350 women, some wearing holy undergarments from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gathered here recently to pray, sing hymns and give their testimonies.

But despite appearances, these were Mormon revolutionaries, feminists who have come to doubt what many grew up hearing--that they should take direction from men, who, unlike women, can speak and act for God; that a male God is the only one they should pray to; and that they may not be forgiven in this life or the next for criticizing the brethren.

Each woman had her own reason for coming to last month's "Spaces and Silences" conference:

Salt Lake City therapist Marion B. Smith said she was frustrated by church leaders who ignored child abuse allegations in her neighborhood. The children's stories implicated two bishop's counselors and one son of a church apostle, she said.

Arizona homemaker and teacher Nancy Turley said she was distressed that the church had stated that prayer to "our Mother in Heaven" is "inappropriate," even though the female deity plays an important role in Mormon theology.

Brigham Young University student Michelle Paradise cited a "big brother" atmosphere on campus, where a professor who favors abortion rights has triggered a major controversy over feminism and academic freedom. In Paradise's opinion, the rapidly growing church of8.4 million worldwide is "run by a bunch of old men who have no idea what's going on."

Fourteen years after authorities excommunicated Equal Rights Amendment champion Sonia Johnson, Mormon feminists are re-emerging in hope of winning spiritual and secular equity for women. Rather than leave the church, they want to change it--through ordination of women, full participation in church decisions and freedom to speak out without fear of sanctions.

What they are getting for their efforts so far, said Mormon feminist writer Lavina Fielding Anderson, is "a rapidly accelerating spiral of increased repression I hope can bereversed." The feminists are challenging the prevailing image of Mormon women as happy, deferential homemakers devoted solely to large, well-scrubbed families. The more brave among them openly state support for abortion rights, use postmodern philosophy to protest the "phallic" structure of the church or publish items such as "Neanderthal Watch," a newsletter column that reports on men like the one who recently suggested BYU exclude women since men will assume "the main burden of a professional career."

At the root of many women's complaints is that in Mormonism, which is run by a lay clergy, only males 12 and older are eligible for the priesthood, which in turn means that only males can preside over congregations, perform rituals and become policy makers in Salt Lake City.

But "the toughest thing about Mormon patriarchy is that it goes right down into the individual homes, from spirituality to the financial," said Kelli Frame, a founder of the Mormon Women's Forum, a Salt Lake City feminist newsletter with a circulation of 1,300. "Mormons are taught the husband presides over the wife and children. That's insidious."

Church spokesman Don LeFevre said none of the church's top male authorities in Salt Lake City were available for comment because they believe women's issues should be addressed by women. But LeFevre said women already receive "full fellowship" in the church, are encouraged to express themselves and are viewed as equal partners in parenting, even though it is the father's role to preside over the family.

A current manual for Mormon boys uses a quote from a turn-of-the-century church leader to explain why men should head the home: "The patriarchal order is of divine origin and will continue throughout time and eternity. There is, then, a reason why men, women and children should understand this order and this authority in the households of the people of God. . . . It is not merely a question of who is perhaps best qualified. Neither is it wholly a question of who is living the most worthy life. It is a question largely of law and order."

According to LeFevre, church leaders believe they already bend over backward to tolerate feminists whose opinions appear in a number of independent Mormon publications, such as Sunstone, Exponent II or the feminist Mormon Women's Forum.

But others say church leaders are increasingly using disciplinary measures such as "calling in," a practice in which members may be interviewed, warned or scolded for transgressions (see accompanying story).

Consider:

* BYU English professor Cecilia Farr spoke at an abortion-rights rally earlier this year. Now she says she is facing dismissal through the tenure review process. "I was called in for a friendly conversation and was told, 'This is a dangerous position,' " said Farr, a mother of two who supports abortion rights although she would never choose abortion. But she said, "They hired me as a feminist scholar. I don't know what they expected to get."

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