The Routledge Handbook of Mormonism and Gender
Series: Routledge Handbooks in Religion
- ISBN: 9780815395218
- Published By: Routledge
- Published: May 2020
Edited by Taylor Petrey and Amy Hoyt, The Routledge Handbook of Mormonism and Gender is an interdisciplinary collection of academic review essays bringing students and scholars of gender and religion up to date on the major debates in Mormon studies. In recent decades researchers have built on foundational women’s studies scholarship to include gender and sexuality as categories of analysis, a turn that is beginning to be evident in Mormon studies, as well. The authors that Petrey and Hoyt bring together in this volume tend to see masculinity and femininity as unstable social constructs, and they center the voices of people marginalized in multiple ways by race, nationality, class, and sexual identity. Such approaches complicate monolithic pictures of Mormonism and open up theological space in the field by democratizing it.
This volume is structured into four parts. Part 1 introduces readers to methodological issues within Mormon studies and within the study of gender and religion more broadly. It provides an exceptional introduction to the challenges facing historians, religious studies scholars, and theologians, as they wrestle with the relationship between power and gender. Part 2 addresses the meaning of gender for historical narratives of Mormonism. The chapters are mostly chronological, beginning with Benjamin Park’s history of plural marriage during Joseph Smith’s founding period and concluding with chapters on LGBTQ topics. Part 3 orients readers to social scientific approaches, providing systemic analyses of the relationship between Mormon institutions and adherents, with special attention to the global LDS Church. Part 4 acquaints readers with various positions on Mormon theology and gender.
For example, Petrey argues in this volume that there has never been one consistent Latter-day Saint (LDS) theology of sexuality. Rather, he sees an ever-changing mix of values (through polygamy, a strict monogamy, and a sexual revolution), as Mormons have responded to their evolving cultural context. “Mormon beliefs and practices of sexuality have both followed and rebelled against broader trends,” Petrey writes. “Not only have the dominant positions changed over time, but there are always multiple, coexistent positions” (521-22).
Centering the topic of sexuality in this way brings into focus the perspectives of non-elite women and LGBTQ Mormons vis-à-vis the institutional church, raising questions about the reasons for, and limits on, evolving belief and practice. While Laurel Thatcher Ulrich pays particular attention to the diverse ways 19th-century Mormon women understood polygamy, she still sees the marriage system as a male-privileging one (much like monogamy) that co-opted female sexuality for patriarchal dynastic agendas. In the context of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, LGBTQ members began organizing out of a desire “to understand themselves,” and as an expression of their faith, John Gustav-Wrathall writes (221). He sees a pattern of disillusionment among LGBTQ Mormon activist groups as their hopes for full acceptance have been denied.
In his history of LDS therapeutic culture and homosexuality, Eric Swedin observes that while modern psychology has softened the LDS Church’s stance toward homosexuality, the Church’s fixed position prohibiting all sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage leaves LGBTQ church members with difficult choices. Going right to the theological roots of the matter, K. Mohrman argues that unless the heteronormative assumptions that structure Mormon doctrines on pre-mortal, mortal, and post-mortal life are deconstructed, the religion will continue to do violence to queer Mormons.
While many of the authors, like Mohrman, challenge the idea of gender as a binary concept, others still maintain the significance of “women” as a category that will benefit from further research—a complicated category, yes, but an important one nonetheless, especially given the persistence of biblical literalism. The resilience of conservative religion cannot be fully comprehended without attention to women’s religiosity. Jana Reiss and Benjamin Knoll, for instance, found in the 2016 Next Mormon Survey data that American Mormon women were significantly more orthodox than their male counterparts. Reiss and Knoll theorize that these women see the prescriptive linking of female piety with motherhood as God’s will. Another explanation they consider is that Mormon women strive to outshine men, thereby beating men at their own game. One strategy implies female deference to ecclesiastical authority; the other implies a secret sense of superiority.
Several authors take up the problem of whether LDS women can make any substantive contributions to conservative Church teachings and policies, given their relative lack of institutional authority. Interpreting women’s experiences outside of the United States, Melissa Inouye uses a microbiological analogy to argue that women do influence the institution, just not in easily discernible ways. Especially brilliant is her likening of neural network formation to the way adherents socially construct a shared religious reality. Religious worldviews that order everyday life are not simply imposed from the top down; these worldviews rely on group consensus for their creation and maintenance. Moving from what is to what could be, Fiona Givens sees Smith’s intimations of a Heavenly Mother as a radical, but not unprecedented, solution.
This handbook consolidates the best thinking to date on the meanings of gender for Mormon life and scholarship. Given that it covers a dizzying array of topics, methodologies, and positions, I found it most helpful when the contributors explicitly placed their arguments in their respective literatures. By demonstrating the breadth of scholarship on gender and religion that is relevant to the study of Mormonism, these authors have also shown the relevance of Mormon studies to larger conversations about religion in the modern world.
Elizabeth Mott is a doctoral student in the history of Christianity and religions of North America at Claremont Graduate University.Elizabeth MottDate Of Review:February 28, 2022