Last week offered rich opportunities to gather with women of faith, but for me those women of faith weren't only LDS. Three significant gatherings reminded me of the unifying work that is happening among women of faith worldwide.
The AltFem Magazine Launch: I was invited to speak at a conference celebrating the launch of AltFem, an online magazine dedicated to "expanding the definition of feminism to include women of faith." I wasn't exactly sure what I was in for, honestly. The panel I spoke on was entitled, "A More Inclusive Feminism," which really could go any way. But I knew the conference was sponsored in part by the Beckett Fund, a law firm dedicated to defending religious liberty, and so I had a feeling I was going to be on pretty devotional ground. I was right, and the day was humbling and revealing and energizing all at once. These were women for whom faith comes first, and if feminist principles can enlarge and improve their faith communities, they're all for it. They are not feminists firsts, who might try to shoehorn their faith where it will fit.
On my panel alone was Christy Vines, an Evangelical ex-pastor's wife who is the Executive Director at the Center for Women of Faith & Leadership at the Institute for Global Engagement; Eve Tushnet, a gay Catholic who is about to publish her book Gay & Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community and Living My Faith (and apparently was a year behind me at Yale); and Shahed Amanullah, a former State Department advisor. We were moderated by Aishah Rahman, a lawyer with Karamah, Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights. We had a vibrant discussion about the need for role models for women of faith, the limitations of language to describe faith-centered concepts like submission and obediance in terms that have not been negatively coopted, and the abundance of stories in our respective scriptures that bear testimony to the equal dignity of men and women in the eyes of God.
A few key concepts that really stood out to me throughout the day:
- The overarching tone of the diaglogue was what we in Mormonism would label as quite conservative. Eve Tushnet spoke eloquently about the need to redefine "submission" to God's will in a positive sense, while being accutely aware that without a frequent give and take between parties, submission can be easily abused by those who are not all-trustworthy like God is. I was routinely disoriented hearing concepts like this discussed in the vernaculars of different faiths and hearing words that I instinctively bristle at, being discussed reverently.
- Particularly on the panel on motherhood later in the day, I was startled to hear three women talk passionately about the sanctity of motherhood and how much they love being mothers: a Catholic mother of five, a Jewish mother of two and a black Muslim mother of three. But the Catholic had been a Supreme Court justice clerk and still Chief Council for the Judicial Council Network, the Jewish woman had been a speechwriter in the White House and the Muslim woman had given up a tenured position at Spellman College to homeschool her three boys (and written a couple of books while doing it). Their experiences brought to mind my last post, about how Utah women are not completing college and not pursuing ambitious careers at the same rate as other states, and so I asked the panelists if they ever thought about shying away from their careers because they were preparing to be mothers. They looked at me like I was nuts. They all gave answers to the effect of: "Of course I would still do everything I can to live my own fulfilling life. I don't just live for my small children."
- I've probably spent the least amount of time among other Christian denominations, compared to Judaism and Islam. (Judaism was my second home growing up in New York, and my college roommate was Muslim.) I was touched by concepts and vernacular that we don't have in Mormonism, but that I thought were useful. For example, many of the Christian women talked about finding their "vocation," which is most closely tied to our idea of a life calling. But we don't use the words "calling" and "ministry" and "vocation" like they do. I was particularly touched by several women who spoke about motherhood as a vocation, or their life calling, but then quickly listed other circumstances -- being single, being a good friend, being a dependable worker, being an aid worker -- as noble and divine vocations as well. The idea is that we must bloom where God plants us, and that no vocation is less than another. People who are called to motherhood as their vocation, for example, can thrive in that, but others are called elsewhere. Because motherhood and intergendered exaltation isn't part of these other theologies, the role of mother doesn't have the same theological weight as it does for us and so other "vocations" can be equally celebrated, but I did find myself wishing that we could validate more - as I often do! - the other paths God has for his daughters.
It was an honor to participate and I found myself appreciating the revolutionary doctrines of Mormonism while being humbled by the goodness and integrity of women in every faith.
LDS Church Public Affairs Department Brunch: On Saturday, the Church's Public Affairs department held a brunch at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building for female bloggers. Representatives from the whole range of women's organizations -- from Feminist Mormon Housewives to Mormon Women Stand and LDS WAVE to Juvenile Instructor -- gathered with the ladies of the Public Affairs department to watch a preview showing of Meet the Mormons. Two of the women featured in the movie were in attendance. I have deep admiration for the way the Public Affairs women are leading conversations and building trust with various groups.
LDS General Women's Meeting: On Saturday evening, I sat with my mom and three daughters at home and watched the General Women's Meeting. It was a joy. The messages were powerful, but I saw so many of the subtle but important shifts in practice and tone that send clear messages about the capability and weight of our women's voices. Here are a few of my favorites:
- The female presidencies sat on the same row as the attending apostles, visually creating the balance of power that our church's dual male/female structures have inherently built in.
- The rows of general board members in the rows behind them were beautiful!
- A black woman said the opening prayer
- A single woman said the closing prayer
- President Burton spoke in Korean after the fantastic performance by the Korean children.
- President Burton and Sister Stephens wore black!
- President Uchtdorf refered to the meeting as the first session of General Conference
- Every female speaker quoted at least one woman.
- Female speakers didn't speak to particular child/youth/women constituents. The messages were meant for all.
There was a lot to celebrate. And of course there are a few things I would still love to see happen:
- Change the name of the meeting to Women's Session
- In official publications (i.e. the Ensign) refer to the meeting as the opening session of General Conference
- Feature speakers from the general boards. Short talks, like we have the Seventies speak briefly in the general sessions, so we can see their faces and get to know more of them. Three women is not enough!
What were your favorite moments from the Women's Meeting? Did you notice some of these changes? What did they mean to you?
What I'm Watching:
Two riveting British crime series with awesome female detective heroes! Happy Valley, with the woman who plays Miss Audrie in one of my other favorite British series, The Paradise; and The Bletchley Circle, where a group of former WWII spies use their skills to solve Holmes-style cases. Neither is for the faint of heart, but let's just say I binge watched both of them!