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Feminism should be about equality and self-discovery, according to BYU–Hawaii professors

An illustration of a boy and a girl looking at one another.

With the Church publishing a short statement on its views on feminism in the January 2020 issue of the New Era, faithful female members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and faculty of BYU–Hawaii shared what it means to them to be a part of a church with a difficult past when dealing with the term “feminism.”

The Church’s statement says, “Men and women are equal—one is not superior to the other.” It also says, “Now, feminism can mean different things to different people. Sometimes it refers to efforts to ensure basic human rights and basic fairness for women, as well as efforts to encourage women to obtain an education, develop their talents, and serve humankind in any field they choose. Latter-day Saints support these things.”

Dr. Rebekah Kay Strain, an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Religious Education, touched on, what she described, a sticky history of feminism within the Church by pointing out how feminism has become highly politicized and has been viewed as an increasing “danger.”

Similarly, Dr. Esprit Saucier, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Sciences, shared how much of an underlying bias is found among church members, in which members say they support the total equality of women in both society and the Church, but they have a harder time practicing what they preach.

“I think changing that norm and that narrative is the biggest thing standing in the Church’s way,” she said. “I think we certainly have the right idea that both gender’s efforts are valid and worth it, not that one is superior over the other. But until that comes into practice, then it’s never going to get better.”

Feminism is equality for all

Strain and Saucier both said feminism is a diverse and all-encompassing term and that it is almost impossible to define because it means many different things to individuals. However, both said feminism can be boiled down to one main focus: equality for men and women.

Dr. Rand Blimes, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Business & Government, conceptualized this completely.

He said, “Being a feminist means you believe that women and men are equal. One is not better than the other. One does not dominate the other. One does not deserve more opportunities than the other.That’s what it really means to be a feminist.”

Blimes also said it is almost impossible to be a follower of the Gospel without fully supporting women, which Saucier also expressed is imperative for living truly as Christ did.

Since she is a convert to the Church, Saucier shared she has a different perspective on how feminism and equality play into the Church. “It’s not about how a man does a better job because he is a man, or how a woman does a better job because she is a woman. In terms of equality, equal efforts and contributions to society should be recognized.”

In terms of being in the Church, Dr. Helena Hannonen, a professor in the Faculty of Business & Government, warned the role of women should never be overlooked in the general narrative of females and what they can contribute to the Gospel.

“Women are a critical and a driving force in the Church,” said Hannonen. “They make things happen and have capabilities that are valuable. Feminism is an individual choice ... Women need to understand that doors are to be opened more than once.”

Individuality through equity

Dr. Jennifer Lane, the dean of the Faculty of Religious Education, expressed how she sees equality of the genders being a great addition to the spirituality of the Church. She specifically explained how so many of the ordinances and blessings members of the church participatein can be seen as gender neutral or available to both sexes.

“A lot of our life experience of comingto the earth as mortals and the covenants and ordinances of the Gospel are universally shared. We’re all coming unto Christ. We are all making covenants, and part of what the Atonement is for is to allow us to receive all of the blessings of exaltation,” Lane said.

Strain also supported this concept by sharing the scripture from 2 Nephi 26:33, which partly talks about how all are alikeunto God, regardless of gender, race or life circumstances. Strain said this scripture always comes into her mind when defining what feminism is to her.

Strain said, “My value is just as much in God’s sight as a male member’s in the Church. My contributions are just as important, and God loves me just as much. My value is equal in God’s eyes, heaven’s eyes and eternity.”

Likewise, Hannonen said she grew up believing in herself and her own unique opinions, which she encourages all women and men to do for themselves.

“I have always had a voice. I have hadrole models who are both men and women, and I have always been a ‘player,’ not just a ‘cheerleader’ for men ... ,” said Hannonen. “No one should be a token. It is all about merit and competencies. This means sometimes women have to work twice as hard to be heard and seen in many countries and companies.

“I love being a woman. I have fun beinga woman. I enjoy being a mother more than anything else, and I am thrilled to see the love and respect God and Jesus Christ have for women,” Hannonen said.

With a focus on women continuingtheir educations and excelling in their chosen careers, both Strain and Hannonen shared how difficult it can be as a professor or mentor to see women giving up opportunities to reach their full potentials in life.

Strain referred to this issue as her soapbox and how much she wants this idea for women to change. She said the education of women is just as valuable as any man’s.

“It is not a backup plan, and it’s not that [women] are here to find a husband and learn how to support him. This is for [their] own personal growth and enrichment because [their] souls and [their] minds are just as valuable as his. We’re just lifting everybody up, and when we lift everyone up, I think we’re just so much more effective in doing God work.”

For today’s times

With all of this in mind, Blimes said there are still some underlying biases that can be found in the Church toward women and their purposes in life. One such bias he is trying to combat is the idea, which he said he often hears over the pulpit, women are by design better than men.

“I really try to push back on this narrative that women are inherently better people than men [because] it’s not good for women,” said Blimes. “It’s not good for women because it sets expectations. Once we embed that, it frames how we think about women in terms of if a woman does something selfish, we judge her harder than a man that does the exact same thing.”

As she was growing up, Strain said one of her biggest struggles in Church was the narrative she received as a young woman. She said most of what she was taught was rooted in the support of men and their priesthood responsibilities, as opposed to what she could be doing to better herself.

However, she expressed great love and gratitude that her daughters are not receiving that same education. “[My daughters] are learning about priesthood power in their lives and how they can utilize in their roles in the Church and what they need to do. It’s about self-discovery and not being swallowed up in helping him, but self-improvement and progression.”

With concerns about past teachings in the Church about women, Lane expressed how much she loves the new messages being distributed to women in the Church, both young and old. She said while messages in the past can be troubling, she prefers to focus on what is being taught at present.

“What we have to do is live today with the light and knowledge we have been given today. We don’t have to be stuck 50 years ago andbe frustrated by what was taught 50 years ago because we don’t live 50 years ago.”

Lane continued, “What we have today is what we should be living out and rejoicing in. My value or anyone else’s value is not tied to a historical moment in time. It’s an eternal and infinite quality and potential.”

Strain mirrored this concept in her life by talking about how much hope she has for the future of the Church and the eventual full realization of women as active and participating members of The Church of Jesus Christ.

“I think now we are pushing to a place where we [as women] want to step up and see equality as equal voice and as contributing more than just supporting ... I think women are able and capable, just when the culture and the people are.”