One morning in 1972, Susan Kohler was browsing the stacks at Harvard’s Widener Library when she came across a 19th century Mormon women’s newspaper called Woman’s Exponent. She started reading.
She was taken aback because the newspaper, published by Mormon women, took two seemingly contradictory stances: It was pro-polygamy and pro-suffrage. “I thought polygamy was abhorrent,” remembers Kohler, “but I couldn’t stop reading these female defenders of polygamy.” Their defense was that polygamy unburdened women from the weight of full-time marriage, freeing them to be true heads of household.
Kohler took out a bound volume of the old newspapers and brought it to her friends, young Mormons like herself. They were as astounded as she was. Two years later, Kohler and those women founded a sequel newspaper, Exponent II, on the principle that Mormonism and feminism could be held in tandem — two equal parts to one whole woman.
All of those founding women recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of that publication, and the modern Mormon feminist movement, which has become a diverse, robust, national movement. Yet despite the expansion, and many other successes, the women winced between smiles at their celebration. Had they made a difference?
In June of this year, for example, Kate Kelly was excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for apostasy. Kelly had advocated for the ordination of women to the priesthood.
Mormon feminists do not collectively advocate that women should have the priesthood, though. What Mormon feminists want, is for the women of their church to speak with impunity, and to be heard. They champion dialogue.
They produce this dialogue among themselves, if not beyond, at their annual retreat — a tradition the founders have kept with near-perfect regularity since 1973. Last year, Kelly spoke on the priesthood at their retreat.
This year, the retreat sold out in 36 hours to women from 26 states and three countries. The organizers had doubled their capacity since 2012, to nearly 150, but it wasn’t enough. About forty women had to be turned away.
Though the retreat is private, organizers allowed a Globe correspondent to attend a portion of it without any reporting restrictions.
In one room, 100 women were at a session called “The Art of Desire,” where they would “explore elements of our [church] culture that are inhibiting to our sexual self-confidence as well as elements of our theology that are liberating and permission giving.”
In another room, 45 women were reading a seven-page, single-spaced timeline of Mormon feminist history. “This faith that we love,” said Colleen Goodsell when she finished reading, “sometimes it slaps us in the face.”
For Anne Wunderli, their greatest setback was when the church, in 1970, took control of the budget of the Relief Society, the church-wide women’s organization. Before then, women of the church raised their own money and decided how to spend it. “We went from an empowerment situation to an infantilizing situation,” said Wunderli. The others agreed.
Judy Dushku, professor emeritus of government at Suffolk University and one of the founders of the movement, summed up their history as follows: “I think Mormon women have done a darn good job not factionalizing.” She meant all Mormon women, not just the feminists among them. Kohler nodded from across the room. Claudia Bushman looked up from her needlepoint.
Bushman was the original editor of Exponent II, back in 1974. Their publication was a quick success. They earned 4,000 paid subscribers in their first year.
But on the heels of success, the women were dealt a blow. Church leaders from Salt Lake City advised Bushman to step down. Bushman’s husband had a regional leadership position in the church, a connection that could imply that the Church endorsed Exponent II. Bushman deliberated, and then decided to resign.
After the church excommunicated Sonia Johnson in 1979 for her support of the Equal Rights Amendment, the Exponent II editors met with Johnson in Boston and decided to dedicate a whole issue to her experience. They struggled over that issue, arguing out every detail. The night before it went to print, two editors took their names off the masthead. They were afraid.
In 1990, they put out a landmark abortion issue. The editors sought out first-person essays by Mormon women — tales of their own unwanted pregnancies, and those of their daughters. The nation was frozen in its pro-life/pro-choice dichotomy, but these women created a polygon-shaped discussion.
This year the editors, a new generation of Mormon feminists, released an issue on gender and the priesthood.
Earlier this month, two nights before the weekend retreat, those new editors joined the founders of Exponent II to celebrate the publications’ 40th anniversary with a gala at First Church in Cambridge. One hundred and eighty-one people gathered in the auditorium. They had only set up 175 chairs. It was hot — 80 degrees even though the sun had gone down. Fans blew.
The keynote speaker was Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Pulitzer-winning author and history professor at Harvard University. Ulrich is 76. She and her husband raised five children. When speaking with women she knows, Ulrich sometimes holds both of their hands in hers. She framed her gala speech with this question: “Have we made a difference?”
After five speeches and a raucous applause, the 25 founding women gathered for a photo, but they couldn’t stop talking long enough for anyone to snap a clear picture. Then an 11-piece brass band called Hornography took the stage and played “Woman, Arise,” a Utah suffrage song. The women started singing.
When the festivities were nearly done, Dushku stood outside to cool off. Her sharp gray bob was ruffled. “I want people to know,” said Dushku, “that we’re not pretending to be feminists.” She spoke about Mormon women’s willingness to disagree without dividing: Wasn’t that radical in itself?
And on Saturday, as Joanna Brooks, professor of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State, stood before the room of women in New Hampshire presenting her timeline of Mormon feminist history, she couldn’t field every comment. She and Rachel Hunt Steenblik were asking their sisters to help them shape their forthcoming book, “Mormon Feminist Thought: Essential Writings.” Hands were up for the entire hour and fifteen minutes.
Dushku was there in the room, and Ulrich, Kohler, and Bushman, and other founders — all with gray hair, all with their own names on the timeline, all speaking little but listening intently, and all sitting separately, dispersed among the younger women.
One of Ulrich’s essays, published in 1981 and looking back at those early days, is slotted to appear in the book. In that essay, Ulrich wrote:
“To care enough about the church to want to see it better, to cherish the past without denying the future, to love and respect the brethren while recognizing their limitations, to be willing to speak when no one is listening — all of these require faith.”