A dialogue with Betsy VanDenBerghe and Meg Conley.
Betsy VanDenBerghe is a mother and a writer whose work has appeared in First Things, the Ensign, RealClearPolicy, Meridian, and RealClearReligion.
Meg Conley is a writer who specializes in topics of womanhood, motherhood, childhood…basically all the ‘hoods. Her blog, megconley.com, is quickly becoming a nationally recognized platform for women’s issues and day to day inspiration. She speaks at conferences and has been lucky enough to hang out on TV shows like Good Morning America, Nightline and The Steve Harvey Show.
Could you offer some historical background and context for your perspective on feminism? How did the zeitgeist of the era you grew up in affect your outlook?
My love-hate, paradoxical feelings about feminism began with a 1970s coming of age and the onset of second wave feminism, evincing itself in my childhood with Marcia of the Brady Bunch trying to join Greg’s Frontier Scouts and, much more appealing to me, Ann Marie of That Girl excitedly viewing the Manhattan skyline from a train window as she begins her professional life in the big city.
The wave of possibilities symbolized by Ann, or Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat into the air in her own big city, appealed to me, and I was also drawn to women writers. There could never be enough Laura Ingalls Wilder, Elizabeth Speare, or Beverly Cleary books to fill my childhood, and these early authors fueled my later interest in Jane Austen (before A& E and Colin Firth made her omnipresent), Edith Wharton, Bronte sisters, Mary Ann Evans, Barbara Pym, and Ann Tyler (who once got dismissively asked if she were still home with kids doing that writing thing). I loved male writers, too, but understandably related to the lens through which women viewed the world, thus ending up at a women’s college with a curriculum which could best be described as humanities on steroids, perfect for a STEM-averse reader like me.
Feminist icons like Gloria Steinem spoke on campus and, while some of us snickered at the extremism that early “women’s lib” at times advocated, I remember a conversation at the end of my freshman year in which a friend and I whipped ourselves into a frenzy discussing her mother’s tendency to hover over her father at breakfast. While I ended up transferring elsewhere because of the private tuition costs, maybe I subconsciously knew I was gravitating into trivial feminism (the nitpicky kind whose adherents find Mark Zuckerberg’s preference for plain gray t-shirts chauvinistic as opposed to healthy egalitarianism, and needed to find some perspective elsewhere—but not without making some nice, smart, funny friends, some of them loyal feminists to this day and others, in Mormon parlance, now less-active in the women’s movement.
My formative years were spent in nineties Southern California. By that time, bra burning was a cliché and, often, a slur. “Oh, they are just a bunch of bra burners.” My cultural education outside of the home taught me that feminists hated men, were sex obsessed and were rarely content.
My cultural education in the home was vastly different. My parents didn’t use the language of ideology, but they taught their three daughters about the importance of strength, individuality, ambition and also endowed us each with a gleaming sense of personal worth.
My dad handed me books liberally. I was expected to expand my world equally through literature and texts on the golden ratio, astronomy, ancient scripture, economics, etc. I found my kindred spirits in the likes of Austen and Wharton and, at times, Paglia. (By the by, Camille Paglia was introduced to me by my Dad. An expansive man.)
My mom was an example of a woman who used her voice loudly and passionately. The results were equal parts glorious and damaging. I remember her crying after a confrontation at church. A woman had pulled me aside to reprimand me about my skirt length. My mom then pulled her aside to reprimand her about overstepping, the ridiculousness of worrying about a kid’s knees showing and the concept of offering love instead of judgment. It didn’t go very well. I was only eleven, but knew she had been brave. I was also old enough to wonder why a conversation about skirt length required courage.
At that point, I wouldn’t have called myself a feminist, it was a term that was used with disdain in both the media and the religion I belonged to…but that day was certainly the beginning of my feminist awakening. My first year in college, I met Wollstonecraft and Woolf. I also met women who identified as feminists that were neither man haters nor nymphomaniacs. And perhaps, most importantly, I was finally able to understand the worth of the rarely content woman. Funny that it took me so long, as I was raised by one. I was still adverse to labels at that point, but began to respect feminism with an earnest interest.
How did membership in the Church influence your educational, familial, and professional goals? Did being LDS make you gravitate toward or retreat from a feminist worldview?
My Mormon upbringing affected my feminine identity in a positive and interesting way. Getting dragged to daytime Relief Society by my mom, where the women did everything from study Shakespeare to practice for “Singing Mothers,” made me love and crave sisterhood. The ward I grew up in included moms, a few professional women, and a substantial number of widows whose gray heads filled the front rows of Relief Society. A few of them took an interest in me and, especially as a young adult coming in and out of the ward, I felt drawn to their wisdom and became privy to their sagas, like one sister’s story of spending formative years supporting a destitute family and going to bed at night not knowing if she could face another day.
While LDS doctrine fosters a sense of the sacredness of motherhood, my ancestors also ascribed to LDS scriptural injunctions to “seek learning” which, possibly combined with an great-grandfather’s journal warning to avoid his embarrassing lack of education, encouraged them to educate women beyond the expectations of the day. I’m still amazed that my maternal grandmother’s family did everything they could to send her to college, and later on supported her and another musically gifted woman to study in Chicago as young married women leaving children with relatives for the summer (we’re talking early 1900s).
Both my mother’s and father’s Depression-era parents sacrificed as much to educate their daughters as their sons, with my maternal grandfather encouraging my mother, post-graduation, to go off, like Ann in That Girl, to a big eastern city. Her Washington, DC days on Capitol Hill inspired my journey to Boston for graduate and professional work and offered a paradigm of feminine possibility that included educational, professional, and maternal fulfillment in various phases of life—all stemming from a Utah Mormon extended family.
Of course, not everyone had such positive experiences growing up, like the marriage Elder Oaks remembered from his youth in a General Conference address. He described a husband who dominated the wife and “roared like a lion, and she cowered like a lamb,” a circumstance that angered Elder Oaks’ working widowed mother. I honestly never saw anything quite like that. My experience consisted of well-meaning chivalry and cultural norms that now might be called soft chauvinism, but I remember most of my priesthood leaders as gentle, encouraging shepherds who took a genuine interest in my well-being. Other LDS women, I know, felt stifled or expected to live in perpetual girlhood, and I think many on all sides are trying to rectify that.
At first, a cursory understanding of our gospel as cloaked by culture made me shy away from feminism. However, as I began to truly understand the revolutionary nature of our gospel, to delve into the sheer magnificence of the gift of sisterhood, as I began to investigate the concept of True Womanhood, I was pulled to the feminist perspective.
Truly, looking back on the progression, it wasn’t a decision. It was an act of sheer magnetism. I could not go any other way. Once I understood myself through that perspective, the roles my religious tradition felt I should take on versus the roles personal revelation insisted I take on, fell into place.
Once again, I must credit my parents for the ability to embrace this realization. I saw my mother struggle to make her desires and the cultural requirements of the church of her childhood meet in a place that was both fulfilling and acceptable. It was painful to watch and she spent most of our childhoods working and preaching to make sure we didn’t have that same struggle. I left her tutelage free of the things that still occasionally fettered her. It was a gift that not all my peers were given. It has meant that so many of my decisions – from going into marriage to embracing motherhood to exercising my voice in the acts of writing and speaking – have been truly decisions. I do not resent them, because they are mine rather than cultural expectations I was forced to check off a list.
I married because I found a man that wanted to build a life with me, not for me. I found an equal partnership between our Heavenly Parents both from study and revelation. I was eager to embrace and emulate it within my own home. I had babies because I was entranced by the sacred sacrament of birth and the beauty of guiding fellow brothers and sisters through this gleaming and smudged mortality. To help to raise that which is also co-eternal with God? What a charge, what a blessing, what excitement! (And what occasional drudgery, ha!) I write both as a way of improving what God has given me and, most essentially, as a way of reaching out to, and communing with, the sisters I hold so dear.
Do I run into time management issues, mother guilt and the occasional ache for something more? Of course, but I see these as a symptom of mortality more than a by-product of my belief. There is no ethical conflict between my professional desires and personal desires because, for me, they are both born of personal revelation – one of the spiritual gifts on which this religion was founded.
Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not?
Coming up with a solid definition of feminism seems impossible to me, having lived through so many metamorphoses of the women’s movement, starting with Gloria Steinem claiming a woman needed a man like a fish needed a bicycle and then tying the knot later in life. You had the clarion call to leave home for work countered by feminist sympathizers like Deborah Fallows writing cautionary books that examined the effects of non-parental child care. Never ending wars between stay-at-home moms, working-moms-who–had-to-work, working-moms-who-wanted-to-work, and everyone in between represented the tension between professional fulfillment and deep-seated maternal instincts.
The “I can’t believe I forgot to have children!” cartoon became not so funny for some, like the memoirist I read who, after having gone the childless route, felt like screaming at Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug: “Thanks for ruining my life!” Decades later, the tension lives on with Ann-Marie Slaughter re-visiting “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”” in the Atlantic, Sheryl Sandberg encouraging professional women to Lean In, and Camille Paglia smirking on the sidelines at the naiveté of ignoring male-female differences.
Still others speculate that today’s blended gender roles leave both men and women craving masculine-feminine differences in the extreme, leading to the unfortunate popularity of 50 Shades of Grey. And yet feminists today increasingly reject imitating men and embrace the feminine not just in leadership styles but also in making choices that include domesticity and raising children.
It’s all brain-crampingly complicated, which is why I don’t call myself a feminist, but admire certain countries in the Balkanization of the feminist world. You’ve got your male-averse Portlandia feminist bookstore purists, your Lean-in businesswomen, your literary feminists (my preference) who take women’s stories and domestic/maternal experiences seriously, your minority feminists who resent the elitist ”White Feminist Industrial Complex,”, and now another weird reversal that Atlantic writer Emily Bazelon describes as affluent feminists formerly focused on abortion rights and careers bequeathing “their children the benefits of conventional nuclear households” as single parenthood becomes the domain of the less educated.
Even feminists like Roxanne Gay can’t find their bearings under so many iterations; she resorted to calling herself a “bad feminist” because she likes lyrics romanticizing men in charge and can’t repair the slightest item on a car, deep-seated feminist loyalty notwithstanding.
The LDS feminist movement feels, for me, like reliving all these discussions from college days and in Boston with both religious and non-religious friends—most of us craving personal fulfillment alongside longing for Mr. Darcy and his 10,000 pounds a year—and it makes me tired. Discussions on women’s roles in the Church need to take place, and I applaud the meaningful way some are navigating them. But frankly, if I could raise my own issue to the fore, it would be a call for more meaningful Easter week observance.
A lot of church-goers, I’ve discovered from friends in various religions, including progressive Protestant ones, would change certain things, from approved scriptural translations to procedural practices. Those who find fulfillment in a faith tradition tend to view their issues as spokes in a wheel that keeps turning because God is the hub. When points of contention become the hub, it’s hard to keep the faith, so all of us, unsurprisingly, not just the Mo-fems, have to work hard at putting our relationship with God at the forefront to keep our issues in perspective and worship with people with different paradigms. Ideally, we try to make it easier for each of us to do that.
Absolutely. When the word is used the right way. The term feminist first appeared in France in the mid-1870s as “les feministes”. It moved on over to Britain about fifteen years later and then hit the ground running in the US in 1910. (Fun fact. The forerunner to the word “feminist” in the UK was “womanist”. I think we can all agree that the better term won the day.) Initially feminism was a big umbrella. It covered any individual that advocated on behalf of other women. The education reformers, the sex advocates, the abolitionists, the agitators for the vote, the temperance movement (worst.movement.ever.), women campaigning on behalf of match girls and prostitutes, labor advocates and on and on.
Many of these feminists sought ends that could not exist with one another. They had deep philosophical disagreements and more than a few run-ins with one another. But feminism was not a movement owned by one set of rules. It was still as varied as the people that made it catch fire. It was a breathing, messy, full of life and strength and potential sort of thing.
It was, on its best days, absolutely beautiful.
And then, as terms do, the word narrowed. Feminism became a club you had to join, a movement that could exclude you. Our sisters who came before us were so much braver in their feminism than women are now. They did not try to sanitize the movement. They accepted its complexities. They understood sisterhood was more important that agreement. They fought each other bloody at times. But women’s advocacy was not claimed as one group’s exclusive right. And always that umbrella of feminism helped to shield their work from the elements of policy and popular opinion.
Now, so many of us are simply left standing out in the rain. It shouldn’t be that way.
Feminism is bigger than the men and women that would make it small. It is not owned by any one person, any one ideology, any one movement. Feminism belongs to every girl that hoped to make her life better. It is the birthright of any woman that has looked into the night sky and felt the heat of the stars reflected in the chambers of her heart. It belongs in holy places and in the workplace and around kitchen tables. It isn’t radical. It is right. It is the belief that as a woman I have infinite value and a desired place. It is the fervent need to help other women believe the same thing. It is so much of what I was born to be and a truth I hope my girls fold up into that delicate place where soul and mind touch.
So the answer is, Yes. I am a woman therefore I am a feminist.
What appeals to you about feminism?
Anyone who dismisses the gains of feminism outright should probably brush up on the history of female oppression and ask themselves: Am I grateful my sisters, daughters, and friends can no longer be viewed as property to be married off, discarded, raped, or killed with no justice served? Or that they can no longer be expected to live a life void of education, property rights, suffrage, or self-determination? Even the most traditional among us should be wary of naysaying all kinds of feminism when, as the Church-published Daughters in My Kingdom makes clear, Jesus changed the trajectory of female subjugation in the way he spoke with, treated, and allowed women to become some of his closest and most beloved disciples.
Joseph Smith put women in leadership and teaching positions unheard of in the 1800s, and today many camps of feminism are valuable allies in the war on pornography and sex trafficking. Even though Church leaders have navigated testy relationships with the women’s movement from the 1970s on, they have offered interesting outreaches as well.
I was fascinated, doing a copy edit on former General Relief Society General President Barbara Smith’s autobiography, to read of her turbulent 70s years. She met with various LDS feminists, found many of them thoughtful and spiritual, and empathized with some of their concerns. More recently, women started praying as well as speaking in General Conference, serving as missionaries and mission leaders at nineteen, and getting placed on key committees at Church headquarters—no small accomplishment for an international church encompassing a wide variety of cultures from the highly traditional to the markedly progressive.
Senior spokesman for the LDS Church Mike Otterson even sent an open five-page letter to LDS blogs detailing the ways Church leaders “expend much energy” training local leaders to be sensitive to women and described Church Public Affairs’ meetings with various feminist groups. Because the Church is moving forward, I find it unhelpful for a few members to demean any and all feminists. LDS scholars like Valerie Hudson and Chad Emmett write books describing the consensus that countries who treat women fairly are much better off and less prone to warfare than those which don’t. And LDS women scholars like Catherine Thomas, Camille Fronk Olson, Fiona Givens, and others bring out a Lord of the Rings “I-am-no-man” sense of pride in me, sort of like when I watch Angela Merkel interact intelligently on the world stage, or read about Soviet Gulag prisoners who discovered they had not been forgotten because Jeane Kirkpatrick, daughter of an oilfield wildcatter and the first female U.S. ambassador to the UN, read their names aloud on the assembly floor.
I am in love with its lift. My feminism is not a flight of “better than”, rather it is an ascension to the places I am personally meant to be. If gender is eternal, then gender matters. If gender matters, women’s voices have a unique and fervent place in our dialogue. Feminism does not take man’s place, it simply ensures woman’s place. Is feminism sometimes a fight for, with or against? Absolutely. Like the generally peaceful Sikhs, we can be warlike when we feel our sacred truths attacked from those within and without the church. But usually, my feminism is too busy building to bother with obstruction or destruction.
I am reaching for my Heavenly Parents while also stretching to understand and love those that do not understand or love me. Feminism has given me peace and that peace has made room for the love of Christ in a way that was both unexpected and gracious.
What are your hang-ups about feminism?
Feminists need to understand that misgivings toward the movement don’t stem entirely from misogyny. An early fixation on abortion alienated a large swath of religious women and men, and even feminists like Naomi Wolf, who dared to voice misgivings. A certain brand of Lena Dunham-esque sexual liberation seems destructive to young women, especially poor ones who can’t fall back on a trust fund, and male treatment of Girls, in the series and on campus, seems demeaning and dangerous.
My biggest issue probably consists (going back to that trust fund) of a feminist condescension that is hard to pinpoint, but shows up in Portlandia’s feminist bookstore owners’ encounters with air conditioner repairmen and in the viral “catcalling” video called out as classist and racist.
My sympathies definitely lie with women getting harassed, but it’s hard not to notice the tension between the video’s young woman up against minority and working class guys who never had the chance to take gender studies at Swarthmore.
When a feminist writer like Hanna Rosin writes perceptively on the plight of boys and men and their downward spirals economically, socially, and educationally (to the point that administrators at the College of William and Mary wonder about changing the name to Mary and Mary due to dwindling male applicants), she gets shamed in online feminist forums reminiscent of Maoist struggle meetings targeting a class enemy who’s veered from orthodoxy.
Feminist condescension, or maybe just obliviousness, often ignores that women of all classes still care deeply about the educational and job prospects of the men in their lives. Thus religions and institutions like the Church, which cultivate a sense of breadwinning responsibility in men, help the women in their lives, too. I agree with many feminist concerns about the issues girls and women face, but also concord with Camille Paglia that “when an educated culture routinely denigrates masculinity and manhood, then women will be perpetually stuck with boys, who have no incentive to mature or to honor their commitments.”
Unfortunately, this arrogance shows up in certain strains of LDS feminism in which degreed women condescend toward less educated sisters, and a few exhibit an antipathy toward priesthood leaders that, whatever their justifications, has no place in the body of Christ—just like anti-feminists threatening feminists online, an issue affecting LDS forums as well as the culture at large, has no place in the body of Christ.
This is a difficult question….what brand of feminism? I have great difficulty with anyone who tries to own the term or generalize with it. There continue to be feminists both inside the church and outside the church that feel it is their right to proclaim “What A Feminist Looks Like” as if it is a conclusion that can be reached by formula. They reject the great strides of other women simply because they don’t fit the generally accepted feminist mold. I am tired of feminism that makes symbols and martyrs of women. It is impersonal and imprecise.
The feminism that hurts men, that denies biology, that removes protection, that revels in its exclusivity, that is angry rather than passionate, that breaks apart rather than builds, that kills when it should give life, that denies reality instead of working to see it more clearly – that feminism is difficult for me personally. But, as ever, I understand its origins and feel great empathy for those on that journey.
Discuss your feelings about the current state of feminism and the Church.
I see Church leaders moving forward in positive ways that engender meaningful masculine and feminine roles that create sexual complementarity, but don’t feel rigid. Sister Neill F. Marriott’s recent General Conference talk included wage earners in her list of meaningful women’s roles; a Church worldwide leadership training meeting emphasized that general admonitions to Church members are just that: general. It’s up to each individual to carve out his or her own specific choices with the Lord guiding the way.
Years ago, I came across an article noting an LDS writer headed off to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop whose essay, “Working at Wendy’s,” had been included in a prestigious national collection. The writer’s back story described working a job in fast food to support his wife and child while finishing up college, and mentioned that, much as everyone had admonished him to become a dentist or insurance agent, he couldn’t bring himself to be anything but a writer.
Gender roles provide opportunities for noble selflessness and they also sometimes stifle. They paradoxically give and they take, and we all need to offer compassion and understanding as men and women find their specific ways to navigate them. I’m grateful the Church held out motherhood as a crucial role, even though I got sick of it at times, and find raising children surprisingly, deeply meaningful and the most important thing I’ve ever done.
Ultimately, my camp of sisterhood stems from General Young Women’s President Bonnie Oscarson channeling Rodney King in her “Can’t we all get along” talk at the first General Women’s meeting in April 2014. She asked LDS women to forego our own mommy wars and “rejoice in our many different roles as women in the Church,” realizing that, single or married, working or at home, “we all desire to serve in the kingdom, using our unique talents and gifts in our own ways.”
As Sister Oscarson elaborated on how we needed to quit nitpicking our differences and instead look for our commonalities, I thought of an unlikely friendship in my ward between a traditional young mother and a single feminist home from graduate school who became her visiting teacher—and truly befriended her through baby-sitting and inviting her and the kids over for family dinners when the husband was frequently out of town. They watched movies and did workouts together, and both offered acceptance, friendship, and genuine concern to the other.
Each has moved on to different sides of the country, but that friendship inspires me in the same way the “Meet the Mormons” women inspire me: the professional comedienne, the single mom who went from homeless to missionary mother, and the kick boxer punching her coach’s face on a sunlit beach. I love my sisters, in and out of the Church, including gray-haired pews of widows from my adolescence, roomies and compatriots from single years, South American companions from a mission, and professional women and fellow mommies. One of those sisters, an LDS divinity school graduate, recently told me she looks to the Book of Mormon’s description of a short-lived heavenly society in which there were no “Lamanites, nor any manner of –ites; but they were all in one” (4 Ne. 1:17) and just wants to avoid “isms” and focus on the “all in one, the children of Christ” part. Me too.
Ah, I have great hope. I can feel the clouds of grand revelation gathering. A downpour is coming and I plan on dancing in it in my bare feet. A more shaded understanding of our Heavenly Mother, in particular, feels imminent. In the meantime, I see the rigidity of the feminism of the 70s and 80s evolving into something that is less reactionary and imbued with more complexity. We are steadily moving from a time when we thought we were presented with one of two choices (Angry Feminist, Docile Homemaker) to a time when the plane of feminism is varied and thick with possibility. I’ve got no problem with the same truth reflected through the vast prism of human experience. The colors that result are absolutely brilliant.