The Overwhelmed Woman and the Feminist Movement
by Darla Isackson

When I was a little girl I loved to finger-paint. I had only four colors of paint, and green was my favorite. I’d daub the green paint onto the paper, then have a glorious time making graceful leaves and swirly designs with my hands.

I retired from visual art at an early age, but tried a comeback three years ago. I took a water-color class, and the first lesson was on color. I learned that water-color paint comes in dozens of shades and tints and that you could make hundreds more by mixing them. All those choices overwhelmed me, reminding me of my life. I have too many choices! Not long ago women had too few. My own mother didn’t go to college, didn’t drive a car, was never employed after she married, was released from church jobs whenever she was pregnant and not called again until she had no children under the age of two! Since I have a Yentl streak, the simplicity of Mom’s life would have been stifling to me.

For centuries, women had a tiny palette of colors to choose from, a limited number of options open to them. I was shocked when I learned how limited.

Why Women Needed “Liberation”

In Joseph Smith’s day, even in America, it was illegal for a female to enroll in most colleges. She was subject to arrest should she attempt to speak in a public meeting. All professions and nearly all remunerative trades were closed to her, and the church meetings of that day were without her voice. Even though our Constitution had long stood as an ensign of personal freedom and the rights of the individual, in 1842, America’s own women stood outside its franchises and guarantees. Women, blacks, and criminals had no sovereign identity as citizens. Legally, women were viewed as merely the possessions of their husbands. The English Common Law was in effect everywhere in the United States, which stated: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the legal existence of woman is merged in that of her husband. He is her baron or lord, bound to supply her with shelter, food, clothing and medicine, and is entitled to her earnings and the use and custody of her person, which he may seize wherever he may find it.”

That’s what women needed to be liberated from–being seen as merely a possession. Not from the right to the protection of men while they bear and rear children. Not from the right to stay at home with their children if they choose to. Not from the right to be women in every sense God intended them to be women.

The Church’s Role in the Early Women’s Movement

It wasn’t until I was editing Latter-day Woman magazine in 1987 that I learned of the Church’s role in the early women’s movement and its validity at the time of its conception. I was also able to see clearly how that movement had been distorted in the intervening years. Gladys Allen’s article called “Mormon Women: Pressures and Perspectives” was especially informative.

She pointed out that LDS women were on the forefront of every positive aspect of the women’s movement, whose goals were very different from those of women’s groups today. I learned that LDS women were the first suffragettes, and saw more clearly the Restoration’s important role in the emancipation of women. For centuries no major changes occurred in the treatment of women in society; since the Restoration the changes have been explosive.

In Zion, from the first, conditions were very different for women from those found in the rest of society. They were treated with far more respect. From the very organization of the Church, women voted alongside the Priesthood in matters of sustaining and moving ahead the Kingdom of God. When the Saints reached the West, Mormon women were given a vote in government matters as well.

In 1852, however, before Utah could be granted full territorial status, women’s right to vote was withdrawn upon the insistence of the U.S. Congress. For the next eighteen years, the sisters were undaunted in their efforts to regain the vote. Their victory came in February, 1870, a full fifty years before the nation as a whole followed suit.

Our Pioneer Sisters Were the Original Liberated Women

Gladys said, “While the battle for women’s suffrage raged on for five more decades in the East, the sisters in the Rocky Mountains were forging ahead, breaking new ground, and charting the uncharted waters. Only in Deseret could women be found teaching in universities, serving on school boards, becoming doctors, running hospitals, holding public office . . . and publishing their own newspaper.

“The first female Senator ever elected in the United States was Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon from Utah, who was running against her husband, Angus Cannon, and won by more than 3,000 votes!

“LDS women lent their hearty support to the National Women’s suffrage movement. The leadership and wisdom of Mormon women was sought often by Susan B. Anthony and other great leaders of the National Women’s suffrage movement. Notable women of Zion were invited frequently as spokeswomen at national conventions in the east. Of Mattie Hughes Cannon it was said, ‘Senator Martha Cannon is the most brilliant voice on women’s issues in the country today.’ In 1888, the Relief Society and the YWMIA were invited as charter members of the newly formed National Council of Women of the United States.”

There is No Liberation in Lies

The original women’s movement made great strides in increasing women’s freedom to choose and to exert the righteous influence God intended. What happened between the time of our Pioneer sisters’ landmark progress in service outside the home and President Benson’s landmark talk to the mothers in Zion calling them back into the home? The modern feminist movement in its persuasion away from the home and from the positive qualities of character of true womanhood has promoted many counterfeits to the purposes of the original women’s movement. From the amazingly varied palette of colors offered us now, we are invited, paradoxically, to paint a picture that does not even include marriage and family! Many feminist who eventually opt to have a child are persecuted, snubbed as “sell-outs!” No more ironic thing has happened in the supposed fight for women’s rights. In the wake of the modern women’s movement, many of us have experienced, not liberation, but a new level of enslavement to time clocks and an endless round of demands. Women are pushing themselves to the breaking point trying to be all things, do all things. Our “liberation” seems to have freed us from our stable moorings and cut us adrift on a tempestuous sea of crushing expectations and endless options. Gladys said, “These are perilous waters which we navigate, made all the more so because they are basically uncharted. No other generation of women has ever been where we are. We are the pivotal generation, facing the full impact of an explosive technological age, a tidal wave of provocative media, and the untested theories of the modern feminist movement.”

And so, offering a balm in Gilead, the Prophet spoke, saying softly, “Mothers come home.”

The ERA and CEDAW

True emancipation is the freedom to follow the Spirit in fulfilling righteous purposes and blessing our homes and societies with the full measure of our womanly talents and abilities There is no liberation in the lie of absolute equality. Gender differences are God-given and we ignore them at our peril. I’ve never known a women emancipated by taking on the roles of men and ignoring her own, but I’ve known many who rejoice in the freedom to fill their own role unencumbered with the unrealistic expectations of “having it all.”

As the final eleventh hour battle accelerates, women’s issues have been the target of some of Satan’s most vicious offensives. Many of us have vivid memories of how close the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) came to being passed. The book From Adam’s Rib to Women’s Lib by Maurine Proctor was a thoughtful and incisive look at the deceptive nature of this bill. She uncovered the fallacy of the “Absolutely Equal Woman” promoted by the ERA Maurine pointed out the deceptive nature of the wording of the bill, written to appeal to all fair-thinking people, yet fraught with danger to women. The irony of touting the bill as one that protected women’s rights when it could easily have thrust women into military combat, stripped them of any claim for support for their children, and barred them from the choice of staying home, still causes us to shake our heads.

The ERA died a reluctant death, but the woman, her home, her family and her very nature continue to be under siege–most recently apparent by the attempt to erase gender differences on an international level. The Meridian article “CEDAW: A United Nations Treaty for the Elimination of Motherhood,” states, “The following key tenets of LDS doctrine as expressed in the Proclamation of the Family are in direct opposition to CEDAW (The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) committee expectations;

• Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal and eternal identity and purpose.

• The sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife.

• We affirm the sanctity of life and of its importance in God’s eternal plan.

• Husband and wife have a solemn responsibility to love and care for each other and for their children.

• Children . . . Are entitled to be reared by a father and a mother.

• Fathers are to preside over their families . . . And are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.

• Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.

“Contrary to the claims of CEDAW proponents, this treaty originating from the U.N. Has done little to stop the gross abuse of women by rogue regimes such as the Taliban, prevent the stoning of women in Nigeria, or help women in developing countries get much needed food and medicine. Instead, the CEDAW treaty has been used by “social engineers” to advance their radical agenda of abortion, androgyny, sexual promiscuity and redefinition of the family.”

Irony again, when world leaders attempt to enforce the right to engage in all manner of behavior against the laws of God at the expense of protecting our agency to choose God’s plan of life.

We Need the Lord’s Help to Respond to All Our Options

On April 28, 1842, the Prophet Joseph Smith turned the key on behalf of women. He proclaimed: “I now turn the key in your behalf in the name of the Lord, and this society shall rejoice, and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time henceforth. You are now placed in a position in which you may act according to those sympathies which God has planted in your bosom.” The key was turned, the options are now available, the choices are ours, and the up-side is the tremendous influence for good now possible for women. President Spencer W. Kimball said, “The righteous woman’s strength and influence today can be tenfold what it might be in more tranquil times.” That statement was made before the advent of much of our latest technology! Now our words and voices can be spread across the globe in seconds. Righteous women speak in General Conference to a worldwide audience of millions! Women are now instantly informed of people in crisis in far-off nations whose very lives may depend on the help of others. Capable LDS women head righteous causes and support the organizations of the Priesthood in responding to the turmoil and crisis in the world.

The Pressures That Come with Choice

With all the needs of a world turned upside-down and families in peril, no wonder we feel pressure! No wonder we often attempt to water the whole field instead of keeping our own field green. No wonder we get confused. While our outside options for influence multiply, gospel requirements do not decrease to make room for them. Still, the key has been turned. The call has gone forth for righteous women everywhere to stand firm in the testimony of Christ.

With such a challenge, it’s hard to strike a balance and keep our peace. We often feel we are doing a juggling act and simply can’t keep all the balls in the air. I believe LDS women feel the pressure more than others. The gospel checklist alone seems long and demanding even before you add all the outside options. In reality, it is comprised of primary colors of home, family, and individual commitment to Christ. In a talk tape named The Juggling Act, which I released in the early 90s, I reviewed the above information in more detail, spoke of the challenges of our many options, and suggested balance and carefully considering seasons of our lives. I want to add one more compelling idea.

Relying on the Master Painter

I’ve come to believe that most of my feelings of being overwhelmed in my own juggling act are pride-based. The Lord said, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit; for without me ye can do nothing.” (John 15:5) Therefore, if I’m feeling overwhelmed it usually means I’m either taking too much on, running faster than I have strength, or taking too much of the load on my own shoulders and not turning it over to God: “With God, nothing shall be impossible.” (Luke 1:37) Or it may mean that I’m trying to do my will and not His, that I’m forgetting Book of Mormon directions to “Counsel with the Lord in all thy doings.” I know from experience that when we counsel with Him, he does direct us for good. (Alma 37:37) Only living prayer by prayer and following the Spirit can keep me from feeling overwhelmed and help me choose the colors He wants me to use each season in my life.

When the colors in the picture of my life begin to clash, I know I must use fewer colors, and get my Heavenly Father’s direction to know which ones to choose. I lay my burdens at His feet, turn it all over to Him, pray for His love, His Spirit, His strengthening promise–telling Him I know I can do nothing without Him, asking Him to consecrate my work for the good of my soul and the good of all those around me, expressing faith in His power, asking for His yoke, which means all things in His will are possible because He will be right there beside me adding his unlimited pulling power to my puny strength. I ask to do any righteous work with joy and peace because it is His work–it is about His strength, not about my inadequacy.

With so many tints and shades and vibrant colors to choose from, the portrait of a woman’s life can be so much more interesting today than in many centuries past. Increasing our options has made agency so much more meaningful. If no choice exists to paint with dark colors, then the choice to paint with bright ones has little meaning. May we, with the help of our Master Painter, Jesus Christ, choose our colors with care.

The original ideas for this article came from Darla’s talk tape “The Juggling Act.” For those who missed Darla’s tapes when they were available in LDS bookstores, Rosehaven is re-releasing them. Meridian readers may order “The Juggling Act” and “Peace of Mind” for just $5.95 apiece by calling Rosehaven’s toll-free at: 1-888-790-7040 or going to their web page: www.rosehavenpublishing.com. Rosehave is also distributing Darla’s booklet co-authored with Emma Lou Thayne To Be a Mother: The Agonies and the Ectasies.

Note* Darla will be hosting two writer’s workshops in November and Writer’s retreats in January. For more information e-mail Janet Bernice at: janet_scots@yahoo.com