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OREM - Like their sisters in other faiths, Mormon women want respect, acknowledgment, useful positions and space to make their way in their church and the world. That will never happen unless such women stop being passive and silent.
"We need to take action," LDS writer and historian Claudia Bushman said Thursday night. "Like Mother Eve. . . . She had to pay for what she did, but she did not remain an ideal princess in paradise."
More than 200 people came to hear Bushman - a professor of American studies at Columbia University; founding editor of Exponent II, a quarterly magazine for Mormon women; and author of 11 books - give the sixth annual Eugene England Memorial Lecture at Utah Valley State College.
Bushman's speech, "Should Mormon Women Speak Out? Thoughts on Our Place in the World," was a fitting way to honor England, an enthusiastic proponent of Mormon studies and first editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, who died in 2001.
England, after all, responded positively in the late 1960s when Bushman proposed an all-women's issue of Dialogue. The volume, known fondly as "the pink issue," was "one of the important moments in our Boston publishing empire, still busily churning out materials some 40 years later," she said. "Speaking out made a big difference for us."
For many Mormon women, just asking the question brings anxiety and uncertainty.
"They can quote chapter and verse on women who have spoken out and rued the day," Bushman said, repeating her friend and Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's famous statement: "Well-behaved women seldom make history."
LDS history, scriptures and contemporary statements also send women conflicting messages.
In one of his first published revelations, founder Joseph Smith gives his wife, Emma Smith, important assignments, such as producing a hymnal and acting as a "scribe" for her husband - that is, until someone more suitable comes along. The revelation goes on to say she should continue in "meekness" and "delight in her husband."
"That's a pretty good prescription for a modest, unassuming, silent wife," Bushman said.
It later says, however, Emma will be "ordained . . . to expound scriptures and to exhort the church."
She didn't really do that, Bushman said, but "imagine what the church would be like now if Emma had exercised this opportunity."
Today, the roles of Mormon men might be described as Eagle Scout, student-body president, elder, bishop and mission president, while women are seen as beauty queen, young mother and Relief Society president. Older women might be be described as "recipient of Christmas basket."
Among the stages-of-life statues in a Nauvoo, Ill., garden is an elderly woman, frail, alone, in a rocking chair sewing on a quilt. The title? "Fulfillment."
"That sculpture is not my idea of fulfillment," Bushman said to the standing-room-only crowd that included a number of gray-haired women. "Surely there is something more for the wise, experienced, creative women of the church to do than sit and rock."
Bushman had several suggestions for women on how to bring about change: get to know the male leaders in your local congregations, require them to treat you with respect, speak up for other women, speak up in your families, get your own ideas on the table, and be sure to have a life outside the church.
"You want to persuade and convince, not assault. You want to present yourself as an adult. Be charming and assured. No diffidence or apologies allowed here," Bushman concluded. "You will be moving ahead the great cause of women in the family, the church, the community, the nation, for now and for the eternities."