Black Mormon women may have powerful voices, but few are ready to join the white LDS feminist chorus, pushing for gender equity in the Utah-based faith.
And their reasons are as varied as the women involved.
To many, no conversation about equality is complete without confronting race and its role in Mormon history.
After all, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prohibited men and boys of African descent from being ordained to the priesthood until 1978. It barred black women from temple rites as well.
“If you look at the reality of a white woman’s lot in life in terms of freedom,” says Catherine M. Stokes, a former public-health professional who joined the LDS Church in Chicago in 1979 and now lives in Utah, “you [black women] don’t have much to identify with.”
A couple of weeks ago, Stokes attended a Mormon baby-blessing ceremony for twin boys.
“I took such joy at looking at those kids and was happy for the life that lies ahead of them,” she says. “But I realized if they were black, it would be very different. They would never know that freedom.”
The war on young black men is “documented by dead bodies,” Stokes says. “And if black men are not free, then we — men and women — are not free.”
Stokes and other black Mormons see no parallel between feminist activism and the civil-rights movement of the 1960s.
The discrimination women suffer in the LDS Church is nothing like that faced by blacks — “lynching, the rape of the black women from the time they got off slave ships, burning crosses, the death of [those] who were struggling for the rights of black people.”
To compare the two, Stokes says, “is deeply, deeply hurtful.”
For many black Mormons, racism is the greater priority.
Competing goals • Bryndis Roberts, president of the women’s Relief Society in her Atlanta LDS ward, didn’t join the Mormon faith until 2008 — long after the priesthood ban had been lifted.
Still, before being baptized, she had to wrestle with the church’s history of racism.
The former member of a Black Baptist church says she prayed and wept over the issue before concluding that the policy never came from God, a finding she believes is now supported in the church’s 2013 essay on it, laying the blame for the policy on racism in Brigham Young’s era.
Given that racism persists in the masses and in Mormonism, Roberts says she carries two “buckets” — one for race, the other for gender. It’s not always possible to lift both at the same time, she says, so she has to hoist one and put the other down for a while.
“When the 15th Amendment passed, giving blacks the right to vote, there was agitation for that bill to include women,” she says, “but the country said, ‘We can’t do both of you at the same time so women will need to wait.’ ”
It finally came with the 19th Amendment.
Now Roberts doesn’t want to drop either bucket.
“There’s so much work to be done in Heavenly Father’s kingdom,” she says. “I would love to see a way for all the talents and energies to be used in local administrative positions.”
She’s not alone in shouldering dual buckets.
Restoring all things • For LaShawn Williams-Schultz, who teaches African-American culture at Salt Lake Community College, everything centers on history.
“When the [Mormon] gospel was restored in a full manner, black men were ordained [in the faith’s early days], white women were [kind of] ordained,” Williams-Schultz says. “In the Restoration, everything was about truth, seeking to understand mysteries of the kingdom.”
Mormons believe their church is a “restoration” of the authentic Christian gospel, stripped of centuries of accumulated traditions and practices. Instead of asking for tickets to the all-male priesthood session of LDS General Conference, writing letters, or marching to Temple Square, Williams-Schultz says, Ordain Women should have posed questions about the lost Mormon practice of women giving healing blessings and other ritual participations from the past.
The feminist group might not have encountered such resistance, she says. “It could have been a different conversation.”
The SLCC professor, wife and mother likes the phrase, “Go hard on the system but soft on the people.”
For her part, she confronts patriarchy as a woman and racism as a woman of color, Williams-Schultz says. “If we can realize the system is the problem, then we can question that —not each other. We can support each other through it.”
She was comfortable, for example, in trousers on Wear Pants to Church Day in December 2012.
“My ward expects some of those types of displays from me. It kind of goes with the sassy black woman stereotype,” Williams-Schultz says with a laugh. “I am already comfortable being a sister and an outsider. I did it for sisters in my ward who were scared to wear pants. It was my way of saying, ‘I see you because you see me.’ ”
But where is the mutual support?
After a couple of white women LDS leaders prayed for the first time publicly at General Conference, for example, she wonders why feminists didn’t push for a woman of color to be up next.
She would welcome allowing Mormon moms to hold their infants during “baby blessings” (after which both parents could do the “Baby Simba thing at the end”), adding the Girl Scouts to parallel the Boy Scouts program, and assigning teen girls to pick up fast-offering donations for the poor.
“There’s so much room for acceptance,” she says. “The ground is not going to open up and swallow people for asking.”
Beyond feminism • Janan Graham-Russell, a black Latter-day Saint who is studying African-American Mormons as part of her graduate work at Howard University in Washington, says she has steadily moved “out of feminism and shifted to womanist theory — the study of the experiences of black women, who reside at the center of race, gender, class and sexual orientation.”
Graham-Russell supports any initiative that opens up leadership opportunities for all LDS women and, if women’s ordination does that, she is all for it.
“However, I have yet to see or hear how those who support women’s ordination will distance themselves from white supremacy or continuing the history and present of predominately white general authorities,” she says, “even though we describe ourselves as a global church.”
White Mormon women “have always had access to the priesthood in a way that would secure their salvation in the highest level of the Celestial Kingdom, while black African women have not,” she says. “We share the task of advocating for equality, yet, more often than not, it’s not my equality that I feel they [white feminists] are advocating for.”
Like Williams-Schultz, Graham-Russell sees racism as an institutional problem as opposed to an individual one.
“Ending racism amongst the ranks of white feminists would require addressing the white supremacist thought,” Graham-Russell writes in an email, “that often lies at the center of their advocacy work.”
For her part, the new bride — married last week in an LDS temple — believes the Mormon priesthood to be “the representation of God’s power upon the Earth.”
And it isn’t dependent on any man.
“I have always and will continue to have a direct relationship with God,” she says, “and it’s not through my husband.”
Not all black Mormon women, though, are engaged in feminism. For some, the faith’s teachings about God and humanity transcend all differences — and that’s enough to quiet any concerns about gender or racial issues.
M.J. Butler, who belongs to a mostly black Atlanta ward, does not understand women for whom feminism is an issue.
“I have faith that this is Christ’s church and that it will be run according to the Lord’s will, whether or not I agree,” Butler says. “I have to learn to understand that, or I am looking too intently with my human eyes — and our humanity is limiting.”
Butler, who is a counselor in her LDS stake’s Young Women presidency, doesn’t feel “disrespected or overlooked.”
“I don’t get my callings from men,” she says, “but from God.”
God talks to members individually through the Holy Spirit, she says. “If we could see each other as siblings, working together, that would be a good start.”
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