A feminist look at the Mormon faith

The Boston Globe/June 17, 2006
By Rich Barlow

Judith R. Dushku is best known as an academic -- a professor of government at Suffolk University and former dean of the school's campus in the African nation of Senegal -- and as the mother of actress Eliza Dushku .

But the description that perhaps best defines her seems oxymoronic and captures the religious tension of her life. She's a Mormon feminist, a woman who takes periodic issue, if lovingly, with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

"I suspect that no one at Suffolk has any idea that Judy Dushku, who does all of these international study-abroad programs . . . is doing it out of anything except academic interest or a political, ideological commitment," the 64-year-old scholar said . "But the people who know me well say, `Oh, you're acting out of your Mormon upbringing.' "

So what keeps a committed feminist in the church? For one thing, membership in what she calls a Mormon feminist collective -- a group that, 34 years ago, launched the newspaper Exponent II. The publication, now only available online, "remains one of the few outlets for LDS feminist expression," according to the 1999 book "Mormon America ."

Dushku also loves church doctrines of service and the music. (She recently gave a talk titled "How Mormon Hymns Have Saved the Gospel from the Mormon Church.")

Excerpts from a recent interview follow.

Q: Tell me what an LDS feminist collective is.

A: Back in the early '70s, there were several of us who were academics, stay-at-home moms, [and] professionals who were interested in the women's movement. We began to ask, is this compatible with Mormon theology? Most of us felt that it was. At first it started as just a discussion group, and then it became a group of wonderfully close friends.

During troublesome times -- like in '79 and in 1993, when some women were excommunicated for their feminist views, and there were ripples of fear that went out -- it was very much of a support group, a buffer against the possibility of feeling alone, if ever local authorities felt compelled to criticize what I was doing. We were concerned about the lack of strong leadership that women did not have in the Mormon church. Certainly, there were some women who decided they could no longer stay in the church.

Q: As a feminist, how did you resolve the tension between your feminism and the theology?

A: It is an ongoing work. I think that our leaders and membership are continually defining Mormon doctrine, so it's not stagnant. It is true that only men can hold the priesthood, which is the authority to act in certain leadership roles. We wish that that would be different, and we think there may come a time where it will be different. But most of us have felt there are other leadership roles we can play. But as a feminist, I frequently feel some discomfort with the emphasis certain leaders put on certain aspects of the theology that I simply don't accept.

Q: How did Mormon hymns "save the Gospel from the Mormon church," and are they a source of your feminism?

A: Yes. One of my favorite doctrines of the church was the responsibility of all members to be involved in what they called the building up of Zion. The emphasis was we would all be part of these communities of service, where we would share burdens and no poor people would be allowed to stay poor. The one place where you always hear references to building Zion [is] our hymn book. There must be 20 favorite hymns that talk about this building of Zion.

Here's one. This is [from] Deuteronomy 14:2. Mormons have referred to themselves as being a "peculiar" people, but that comes from Deuteronomy, where it says, "Thou art a holy people, unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord has chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto Himself, above all the nations of the earth." I remember asking my parents as a teenager, what do we mean "above?" They said not "above" in terms of more important, but being above earthly concerns, above greedy accumulation.

Q: I didn't want to let you go without talking about your work in Africa.

A: [Senegal is] a 96 percent Muslim country, and the United States' bombing of Iraq began while my husband and I were there. People were very afraid for us. We couldn't have been more loved. People were just fabulous to us. When people ask me, `Why do you think you loved going to Africa?' I think it's part of a string of experiences I've sought working with people I feel have been victims of greedy European or American foreign policy. I feel I'm part of a leveling act.

Q: Does that empathy grow out of your religious faith?

A: It must. Where else does it come from?

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