Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Feminism & Mormonism: A Conversation with Kathryn Soper

We're having a great conversation over at Patheos about Mormonism & Feminism. On the heels of Kathryn Soper's essay As Sisters in Zion: Mormon Feminism and Sisterhood, several people were invited to submit short-essay responses. I've included mine below. (Not surprisingly, I couldn't resist mentioning birth & breastfeeding.)

Come join the discussions!


by Rixa Freeze

Woman #1: Married at age 20, she is the mother of two young children and pregnant with her third baby. She is a wife and stay-at-home mother. She breastfed her children through toddlerhood and beyond, often nursing one baby while pregnant with the next. She sews baby slings as a side job and enjoys cooking and gardening. Her husband works full-time while she is home with the children, so most of the household responsibilities (meal planning, shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry) fall to her unless she specifically requests help. In her free time, she blogs about pregnancy, birth, and mothering.

Woman #2: A scholar and musician, she studied violin from age 5 and planned a career in music until an overuse injury made her change paths. She was accepted into Harvard, Princeton, and other undergraduate schools with full tuition scholarships and won presidential fellowships for both her master's and Ph.D. programs. During her graduate student years, she and her husband -- a fellow Ph.D. student -- renovated a historic Victorian house, doing almost all the work themselves. They also worked for nine summers in France directing study abroad programs. She does the family's finances and tax returns. She continues to conduct research, publish, and attend conferences.

Which of these women is a feminist? And which is a faithful Latter-day Saint?

You might be surprised to know that woman #1 is a feminist and is married to a man who considers himself a feminist. You might also be surprised to learn that woman #2 is a life-long, faithful member of the [LDS] Church who is passionate about motherhood, childbirth, and breastfeeding.

You'd probably be most surprised to learn that woman #1 and woman #2 are the same person:


I've never fit any of the typecasts that come with being an LDS woman and mother, with being a feminist, or with pursing advanced education. In academic settings, my husband's colleagues shy away from my (increasingly visible) role as mother and seem relieved when we turn the conversation to my scholarship. At church, my multiple degrees and later entry into motherhood (at the old age of 28!) make me the odd woman out at times.

But I like these contradictions. I like living with one foot in both worlds. In fact, I don't see these two "women" as living separate or conflicting roles. And thanks to the efforts of my feminist foremothers, I have the freedom to choose my life's path -- or rather, paths.

I love that my academic interests and my commitment to mothering mesh together seamlessly. My main areas of graduate study were childbirth, maternity care, and breastfeeding. At the same time, I was actively involved in these fields outside of school as a doula, as a home birth midwife's assistant, and then as a childbearing and lactating woman.

Like the two "women" who comprise myself, my childbearing experiences could be seen as both ultra-traditional or ultra-radical. I gave birth to my first child at home unassisted, with no midwife or doctor present. My second child was born again at home, this time with a nurse-midwife in the background. I experienced the empowerment of stepping outside the medical system to have a baby -- no arbitrary rules or timelines, no one telling me what I could or could not do, the freedom and autonomy to follow my body's inner wisdom.

Kathryn Soper's comment resonated strongly with me: "It's a good time to stop worrying so much about who's a feminist and who's not, and instead focus on how women who care about gender issues can better cooperate by emphasizing similarities and respecting differences." I have found a remarkable degree of cooperation among those dedicated to supporting freedom of choice in childbearing -- freedom to birth at home (or any place of women's choosing), freedom from coercion or manipulation during prenatal care and childbirth, and freedom to breastfeed anytime, anywhere without harassment. Conservative Christian moms, lesbian moms, working moms and stay-at-home moms -- even Democratic and Republican legislators -- have united to protect the rights of pregnant & breastfeeding women.

Giving birth and nurturing my children at the breast are the most empowering, fulfilling, and radically transformative acts I have ever engaged in. It doesn't really matter whether these choices are feminist or traditional, conservative or radical. What matters is that I could choose.

For more responses to Kathryn Soper's As Sisters in Zion, click here.


  1. This is really interesting. As a feminist who was raised in a traditionally patriarchal religion (Catholicism) I'm always intrigued by feminists (whether they use that label or not) who manage to reconcile their (traditionally patriarachal) religions with their ideologies and real lives.
    Will have to go read the rest of the responses now!

  2. Thanks for the heads up, Rixa! I really need to get in on the feminist writing action. I've been hesitant to get in past my ankles. I like your essay and will read all the others!

  3. Hello from a fellow violinist who suffered from overuse injuries. I'm LDS too!

  4. Rixa, thanks for this post--it's just great.

  5. Rixa, I absolutely love this post! I could also write two separate descriptions of my work and life choices, and to most people these descriptions would seem to apply to two radically different people. And as you and Sopor seem to point out, the connecting thread between the two would be that I have had the privilege of making all of those choices *for myself*--that I had any choice at all! Many thanks to my feminist foremothers for that.

  6. Mrs Mordecai--that's cool, I didn't know that about you!

  7. Great post! Choice, and autonomy are the heart of feminism to me. I'm always happy to hear religious women use the description feminist for themselves since it seems that often some religious people think the two cannot co-exist.

  8. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this! I felt that Sopper's essay did an excellent job covering the complexities of this issue. I have recently realized that I identify with many of the ideas of "radical feminism" and that my work with birth could be considered part of that movement. I never considered myself a feminist before because I associated the term with people who believed that women needed to prove themselves within a masculine system of values in order to be considered equal to men.

  9. Rixa - I remember you from BYU, you were my TA in bioethics (I was Emily Parker then). Blogging makes the world smaller, doesn't it?

    I sometimes feel I have multiple identities as well. I married at 21, have 2 children, and am an active Mormon, but I also have a Ph.D. in biology, work full time, and bristle at the patriarchy. I often feel I don't belong in any social group, and that can be lonely. But I chose and am choosing my life, and the beauty is I was able to choose. My definition of feminism is that women are free to make choices, just as men are. So I agree with you that what matters is that we can choose.

  10. Ah, this is so very familiar to me! One foot in two places, being dismissed as too radical to be a faithful Saint and too Mormon to be a progressive, intellectual, curious, vivacious feminist woman. Sigh.

    I love my life, I am very comfortable with myself, and become more so the more life I live. It's just a super, extra-cool bonus to find other people with whom I agree on so many levels!

    I'm new to your blog, but as a fellow feminist, homebirthing, LDS woman, I think I'm here for the long haul.

  11. I had no idea that you followed the Mormon feminist discussions online. I am so happy to see your voice represented in the symposium and to see your activism in birth and childbearing on that stage.

    I've sometimes wondered what you thought about feminism in the church, its history, where its going right now and what your take is on things. But I figured that you are probably so self-aware and content with your busy life that's one area that you haven't been able to do much with because you've got so many other good and wonderful things going on.

    And to the other LDS homebirthing mamas who have commented, I'm glad to meet you and hope to get to know you. We need some birth activists represented at WAVE ( so please write about birth activism issues, especially about why it matters to women and feminists in general. Next we need to get those who are not mothers represented. Its a tough spot to be in to have so many vocal and articulate women advocating for mothering issues (as that is commonly when the mama bear comes out and we become activists) without having those who do not have children feel marginalized.

  12. Thanks everyone who chimed in on these discussions. In some ways, I still hesitate about using the label "feminist" because feminism today can mean so many different things that it's hard to even pin down a cohesive definition that everyone would agree on. There are some strains of feminism that I really agree with and others that I strongly disagree with. But that's a topic for a whole new essay!

    Emily U--did you write your bioethics essay on breastfeeding? If I remember it was called "Breast is Best" or something like that and looked at the ethics of formula marketing. If that was you, I still remember it being a great essay!

    Rachel (The Wizzle) welcome...I'm off to check out your blog. I have a really good (non LDS) friend Jen B. in Mesa who's active in AP and homebirthing circles....I wonder if you know her.

  13. Rixa, I felt the same way about the label feminist for a while too. Then earlier this year, I decided to just embrace, good with the bad and know that in the diversity of thought that is feminism, I'll agree with some and disagree with others. I'd love to read your reflective essay on the diversity of feminism. I hope you do it sometime! (then submit it to WAVE, hint, hint)


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