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Visiting professors lecture on Mormon feminism

By Marissa Ditkowsky
On October 29, 2012

At the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute in the Epstein Building, participants gathered last Thursday for a presentation on "The Faces of Eve: Varieties of Mormon Feminism" led by anthropologist and Prof. Janet Bennion of Lyndon State College in Vermont and historian and Prof. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich of Harvard University.

During the event, Bennion and Ulrich spoke individually about their research, and a question-and- answer session followed. Bennion and Ulrich focused on revealing the feminist aspects possible in polygamist relationships as a part of fundamental Mormonism.

"[T]here are a variety of feminisms that just because you disagree with another woman's decision to be in a patriarchy doesn't mean she's not a feminist; it means she's defending her rights, and we as feminists have to provide that protection for her ... [M]any of the women I study are in rigid patriarchal groups, [but] I would never be in one of those groups," said Bennion in an interview with the Justice.

"I think alternative sexuality and marriage are a way to adapt to a changing socioeconomic environment that we should be seeing these alternative forms as adaptive mechanisms."

The event was cosponsored by the Women's and Gender Studies program; the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project; the politics Department and the HBI and Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law. It also pertained to the Brandeis Series on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law, a series of books that started being published last year although the efforts began in 2008, according to Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, director of the Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law at the HBI.

Bennion's book in the series, titled Polygamy in Prime Time: Media, Gender, and Politics in Mormon Fundamentalism, was published this year as a collaboration between the HBI and the University Press of New England.

"[T]he project ... seeks to support research that takes innovative approaches to resolving conflicts between women's rights and religious law, and as a part of that work we've published a book series, and [Bennion's] book is one of the books that we published that creatively, innovatively looks at the world of Mormon women," Joffe said in an interview with the Justice.

The series consists of "books that were comparative and looked at similar themes around women's struggle for equality in different religions," said Joffe. Other books in the series include Citizenship, Faith, and Feminism: Jewish and Muslim Women Reclaim Their Rights; Fertility and Jewish Law: Feminist Perspectives on Orthodox Response Literature and Self-Determination and Women's Rights in Muslim Societies.

According to Joffe, the event was a celebration and attempt to promote Bennion's book.

In addition, Ulrich was asked to attend to "comment on where [Bennion's] book fit into the broader landscape in scholarship on Mormon women," Joffe explained.

Bennion spoke about her experiences studying polygamist relationships as depicted in her book and the possible fulfillment women get out of these relationships within the household.

"As a social scientist ... I feel it's my duty to show by firsthand experience that there are many forms of polygamy, and that it's not polygamy per se that causes harm, but that it's a variety of these poor-functioning attributes ... [such as] overcrowding, economic deprivation, father absence [and] male supremacy," said Bennion in an interview with the Justice.  


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