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The question of freedom of conscience.

"What other judgment can I judge by but my own?"

Margaret Merrill Toscano, a Utah Mormon feminist, was honored by the Utah NOW in 1993 for her courage in lecturing on the goddess tradition, and the role of God the Mother in the Latter Day Saints (Mormon) theological framework, despite threats of church disciplinary action. She was excommunicated.

"I want to begin by thanking the women of NOW for this honor and for giving me the opportunity to speak to you tonight, which for me is an award in itself. I must confess that I have always loved giving speeches.
        "As a child I would volunteer to give talks in Sunday School as often as possible; I loved thinking about a topic and presenting my ideas to a group. At that time my church leaders were pleased with my eagerness to spike; but, needless to say, they have grown less pleased over the years as my woman's voice began questioning the status quo and challenging the patriarchal hierarchy.
        "Ironically, I received the phone call... informing me of the NOW award just the morning after a meeting with my LDS bishop in which he advised me to avoid all public speeches or media attention. This July meeting was part of an ongoing dialogue with my church leaders which had begun a week and a half earlier when my stake president gave me an ultimatum: I must stop writing and speaking or I would be considered an apostate.
        "He said I could not expect to be a member in good standing when I had spoken out on issues which he said were embarrassing to the Church, on issues such as women's right to the priesthood and the importance of female deity. I told him that I could not be silent, and not simply because I feel strongly that women will always be second-class citizens in the Church so long as they are denied priesthood and God is spoken of only in male terms. More important for me was the issue of silence itself. More fundamental was the question of freedom of conscience and speech. I could not and would not be silent because to do so would reinforce what I see as the major problem in the LDS Church today: an oppressive and legalistic authoritarianism which is not only contrary to the basic tenets of Mormonism but which also destroys the climate of freedom and grace that is necessary for individual growth and the flourishing of an open-minded and loving religious community.

There was a time in my life when I would have submitted

 "There was a time in my life when I would have submitted, or at least compromised in some way, with my words at least if not with my heart.
        "But it was too late; it was twenty years too late. And not just for me, but for others too, who by the middle of September had been given similar threats, in the form of summons to appear in Church courts.
        "We were all obedient once when we were young, but now we are middle-aged, middle-aged dissidents. We missed the countercultural revolution of the sixties and seventies; we were at BYU. And now here we are twenty years later with a revolution of our own. (Everything seems to come to Utah twenty years late.) Now some of us find ourselves committing acts of civil disobedience in the Mormon community; we can't follow rules we feel are invalid, or obey simply because we've been told, or agree to be silent when we see injustices.

I expected to join the group referred to as the'September Six.'

"You've been reading about it in the newspaper, you've seen it on TV. Lynne Whitesides was disfellowshipped on September 14 for apostasy: she talked about God the Mother and disagreed with Church leaders in public.
        "Avraham Gileadi was excommunicated on September 15 for apostasy: his books interpreting Mormon scripture challenged the exclusive right of leaders to define doctrine. My husband Paul Toscano was excommunicated on September 19 for apostasy: he criticized the authoritarianism of church leaders, advocated feminist theology, and refused to follow the stake president's request not to speak at the Sunstone Symposium.
        "Maxine Hanks was also excommunicated on September 19; her feminism was too radical for the Church, and she dared to speak it publicly. Lavina Fielding Anderson was excommunicated on September 23. also for apostasy: her crime was simply collecting stories, the stories of people, a majority of them women, who have been abused by the ecclesiastical system; and she refused to stop speaking out for the disenfranchised.
        "Today we learned that Michael Quinn also has been excommunicated in his third church court, simply because he has written factual church history which he refuses to whitewash to please leaders. I expected to join the group which is now referred to as the 'September Six.' When my stake president first gave me the ultimatum, I went through the agony of examining what my church membership means to me. I'm a sixth generation Mormon. My excommunication would be painful not only to me but even more so to my extended family. I love the religion and its people, even if I dislike its claims to exclusive truth and even though I have major disagreements with present church policies, especially those dealing with the status of women. I've stayed in the Church in spite of personal pain because I have deep spiritual and emotional ties to the religion and because I believe I have a right as a member to help define what that religion is and will be.

Someone needs to oppose this stuplifying climate of fear

"Mormonism is an American religion; its theology is rooted in fundamental principles of freedom: freedom is seen as a constituent element of personhood and personhood is both primal and indefeasible in Mormon cosmology.
        "If all thinking Mormons leave the Church, all of the expansive, liberating aspects of Mormon theology are likely to be lost and the atmosphere in the Church will only become more oppressive. Someone needs to speak out for change.
        "Someone needs to oppose this stultifying climate of fear. The members at large deserve something better.

"These are the kinds of arguments I used to boster myself. I remembered Joan of Arc's speech from Maxwell Anderson's play: 'every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing, nevertheless they give up their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have, and we live it as we believe in living it, and then it's gone. But to surrender what you are, and live without belief - that's more terrible than dying-more terrible than dying young.'
        "I accepted the inevitability of my collision course with church leaders, and it felt right to be sacrificing my membership for principles I believed in. Then something happened to change the direction of events: my bishop and my husband intervened to save me from a disciplinary council.
        "My bishop took the responsibility for dealing with my so called problem by setting up a process for ongoing negotiations, and my husband Paul diverted the stake president's attention to his own disagreements with church leaders and policies, which eventually led to his excommunication.

I had to face all of my inner demons

"And then I had to deal with the mixture of emotions I felt about my escape from church disciplinary action. I had to look deep at my doubts and desires, at my ambivalence about what had happened. I had to face all of my inner demons - my fear and pride, my anger at men for having the power to decide whether I was in or out of the Church.
        "And while I knew that my husband had acted from a moral commitment and that my bishop wanted to reconcile differences, I still resented the fact that men were trying to define what my relationship to the Church would be; and I was depressed that I felt guilty about my resentment.

"It's such a familiar pattern. Throughout history women have been defined by patriarchal standards. They are the Other, the one without the phallus, the gap, that which lacks or is invisible. There is an old African tale about a man who was given a beautiful and magical wife on the condition that he not open her most prized possession, a little basket, without her permission. His curiosity finally got the best of him one day and he secretly opened it, only to discover nothing inside. While he was laughing at what he thought was a woman's silly game, the magical wife disappeared, not because he had disobeyed but because he saw nothing in the basket. In fact, it was full of treasures from the sky to be used to enrich the earth.

What women have must first be valued by women themselves

"What women have must first be valued by women themselves. The must assert the reality of their gifts against a tradition that makes them doubt their knowledge about their own lives.
        "Gerda Lerner puts it this way:
'...Since (women's experience) has usually been trivialized or ignored, it means overcoming the deep-seated resistance within ourselves toward accepting ourselves and our knowledge as valid..[It means] being critical toward our own thought, which is, after all, thought trained in the patriarchal tradition. Finally, it means developing intellectual courage, the courage to stand alone, the courage to reach farther than our grasp, the courage to risk failure.' (The Creation of Patriarchy, p.228.)
        "I believe that the most courageous thing a woman can do is to trust her own ability to define what her life is and should be, even with the risk of failure.
        "Facing my Church's censure is nothing in comparison with facing the dark abyss of my own self-doubts. When excommunication loomed over me, the thought of sacrificing for the sake of my personal beliefs gave meaning to my life.
        "Without such an external force I have to work harder to construct meaning for myself. Ironically, for good or ill, the outward strictures of society act as a foil which puts in relief the patterns of our own self-definition. Opening ourselves up for growth by keeping the relationship between public categories nd private interpretation in a fluid state is perhaps the most difficult of human tasks. It can only happen when we continually challenge the validity of society's structures and the way in which we relate to them. Living with the tensions this creates takes courageous thought as well as courageous action.
        "Bernard Shaw's Joan Arc is less sure of her heroism than Maxwell Anderson's Maid. When threatened with being burnt at the stake, she is ready to sign a recantation until she learns the alterative is life imprisonment.
        "In spite of her doubts, Shaw's Saint Joan ultimately trusts in the validity of her inner voices. During her trial, one of her accusers asks, 'Then your voices command you not to submit yourself to the Church Militant?'
        "Joan replies, 'My voices do not tell me to disobey the Church; but God must be served first.'
        "Another inquisitor queries, 'And you, and not the Church, are to be the judge?'
        "Joan answers with a rhetorical question: 'What other judgment can I judge by but my own?'

What other judgment can I judge by but my own?

"That is the question for every woman, and man, who is concerned with authenticity and integrity. Today I salute those women of courageous thought and action who, at personal cost and risk, have worked to create a society with the freedom and equality necessary to offer every woman the opportunity to shape her own life and judge the validity of it for herself.
        "I salute Sally Smith and Jeanetta Williams. I salute Lavina Fielding Anderson, Lynne Kanavel Whitesides, and Maxine Hanks.
        "And I also salute those women whose names are unknown to most of us who have had the courage in the face of censure, opposition, and pain to assert their personal beliefs with little or no support from their communities-women like Gay Blanchard, Charlene Ecklund, and Lanette Graves.
        "And finally, I salute the women of NOW for their support of the women of Utah and the ways in which they encourage courageous action from us all.
        "Thank you."




© 1990-2006 Irene Stuber, Hot Springs National Park, AR 71902. Originally web-published at
We are indebted to Irene Stuber for compiling this collection and for granting us permission to make it available again.
The text of the documents in the women's history library may be freely copied for nonprofit educational use.

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