Cheryl Bruno on history & feminism

OK, I’m finding it hard to keep up with the brilliant ideas whizzing by at 60 mph! I am not doing Cheryl’s presentation justice AT ALL. Here’s what I was able to glean:

Cheryl Bruno’s remarks, entitled “Mormon History from the Kitchen Window: White is the Field in Essentialist  Feminism,” began with a nod to gender differences, schools of thought that advocated body/spiritual differences between the sexes, and the Proclamation on the Family as outlining LDS ideas of gender roles as divinely decreed: men provide/protect and women nurture.

Cheryl reviewed the three waves of feminism and discussed gender essentialism as having great potential for use in Mormon Studies. She noted that Mormon Studies is skewed male (as illustrated by her being the only woman on the morning panel) and that her credentials were vastly different from the other panelists: mother of 8, making 19,000 bag lunches, sewing an elaborate wedding dress in 3 days, and otherwise treading the recommended path for Mormon women. Cheryl argues that if doing these things really are valued in Mormonism, then the kind of pursuits should also have a place in Mormon Studies.

Cheryl sees great potential in the marriage of feminist theory and Mormon Studies to yield a great harvest–beyond the traditional examination of Emma Smith, church auxiliary leaders such as Eliza R. Snow, and the polygamous wives of early church leaders and general authorities.

What do we know about the lives of common Mormon women? And what could we learn if we knew more of their stories? What of the unsung women whose contributions were more limited to spheres of home and family?

Cheryl cited Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book on Martha Ballard as one example of the rich treasure available in the record of a relatively obscure woman’s daily life and activities. Cheryl reviewed what she defined as the male-centered methods/approach and the contrasting approach and perspective a women-centered look can provide.

What if Mormon Studies adopted a more female way of looking at history, theology, etc.? What if we were less concerned with individual achievement and impact and instead focused on relationships, the contributions of Mormon women to family and their spheres of influence, their incorporation of myths? What’s lost to us if their stories are not assembled and told in ways that make the ordinary woman’s experience common knowledge in the church? It seems the field is white and ready to harvest for feminists and feminist theory in the field of Mormon Studies.


  1. SimplyMe says:

    Yes!! I think that would be wonderful. As a student in Women’s Studies I understand that there are three principles to feminist theory. The third principle, valuing the female perspective, is relevant to this discussion.

    I heard a conference review on Mormon Expression that included comments by male panelists who stated their dislike for the only woman speaker in the Sunday morning session. They said that they didn’t like that her manner of speaking left them feeling like she was talking to children. I, too, have to admit that I have felt that way after hearing a few of the women at General Conference. Valuing the female perspective says that women, being socialized to be nurturers, soft spoken, and not angry are criticized and de-valued for being that way. I society, as well as in church, women are socialized to be nurturers and are then de-valued for their work as nurturers. Perhaps this woman spoke in this manner b/c she has been taught that such behaviour and tone is what accomplished mormon women do and sound like. From that perspective she would receive an A+. Feminist theory included in Mormon Studies would help women and men embrace the feminine characteristics as women use them and embrace them as desirable and valuable.

  2. Lycidia says:

    As a young girl growing up in Utah during the days of the ERA, I felt betrayed by women who went out of their way to devalue the traditional (nurturing) feminine roles. I am a strong believer in the divine nature of the feminine, motherhood and a traditional family. I have spoken in favor of the Proclamation on the Family many times, including those areas in which the possibility of male nurturing and female providing are explicitly advanced.

    However, the key issue with gender essentialism hinges exactly on the point that SimplyMe illustrates in the closing of her comment, above: so often, “feminine characteristics as women use them” are a matter of nurture, not nature, and are designed to devalue the nurturing role. Being a mother doesn’t by nature make you soft-spoken and take away your anger–a mother has to be fierce and focused, as well as loving and comforting. Mormon women have been socialized to act in a certain way in public so that they can be seen, not just as non-threatening, but as childlike and in need of protection.

    If motherhood were actually awarded equal standing to the priesthood in our culture (in practice, not just as lip service commentary designed to keep a girl interested only in serving her future husband), then women would no longer be infused with a vague sense that their position as mothers makes them capable only of teaching children or other women. This would not only empower the women of the church, but would broaden the spiritual understanding of the men. Men can also be nurturers–they should be allowed by the church to feel empowered by that part of their nature, just as women who are by nature providers should be encouraged to perform that role within their family if they are best suited to do so.

    I look forward to seeing the harvesters advance.

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