' Skip To Content
The Mormons | Article

Interview: Margaret Toscano

Toscano is founder of the Mormon Women's Forum, a group formed to encourage open discussion of Mormon culture and gender issues. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted Jan 2006.

Tell me about yourself and your family's history as Mormons.

I was born in Arizona, and my family [was] one of the ones that settled there as Mormon pioneers. ... I have ancestors that joined the church in the 1830s, that were in Missouri; Nauvoo, [Ill.] ... It's an old Mormon family, a huge Mormon family. I have seven siblings.

My parents were very much believers, although I sometimes make a distinction between the old Mormon families. Ours was not this kind of strict Mormon family. We had lively discussions about Gospel questions -- very believing, but open, loving, was the sort of background that I came from. I went as a freshman to BYU [Brigham Young University] and more or less stayed around in Utah. ...

What were you excommunicated for?

I was excommunicated in the year 2000. I was actually threatened with excommunication seven years before, which would be 1993, which was the famous September Six [the excommunication and disfellowshipping of six Mormon academics] and all of that. I was one of the first to be threatened with excommunications in the summer of 1993. ... I received a letter from my stake president at the time. In this letter, I was told that I was not allowed to speak, discuss, publish, write about anything to do with church history or church doctrine or they would hold a court on me. Those things that they had asked me not to speak about were women in the priesthood and the Mormon idea or the Mormon concept of the Heavenly Mother. ...

Now, the official position of the church on women in the priesthood is that it is God's will that only males hold the priesthood. That is their eternal role, and that women have motherhood, and that they have more of this nurturing role. When I first got interested in feminist issues, of course, this had to be one of the things I was concerned about, and a lot of my research centered around the writings of Joseph Smith. What I did is I looked at the different statements of Joseph Smith; I discovered that he believed -- and he said this very clearly -- that he gave women the priesthood through the Mormon temple ceremony. I uncovered a lot of historical statements about this, both from him and his close followers who he had taught this to. I wrote a lot about that issue, and also using other Mormon theological ideas to show that women and men should be joint holders of what is called the fullness of the Melchizedek priesthood.

The other issue that I got in trouble for was the Mormon Heavenly Mother. Now, once again, this is actually an orthodox Mormon teaching, because basically all of the Mormon prophets have asserted at one time or another that indeed, Mormons do believe in a literal Heavenly Mother. The doctrine seems to go back to Joseph Smith. In fact, there's a vision that Joseph Smith had of the Heavenly Mother that is very rare -- most people don't know about this vision at all. But in the Mormon hymn "O My Father" there is a reference to the Heavenly Mother. And also, as I mentioned, the Mormon prophets have said that this is in fact an orthodox doctrine. President [Gordon] Hinckley himself has mentioned this on a couple of occasions.

So on the one hand you have this idea that we do believe in a Heavenly Mother, that God is female as well as male. On the other hand there is this general feeling that we can't talk about her. In my writing I explored both what does our doctrine of the Heavenly Mother mean, and why can't we talk about her? ...

[The stake president] was very concerned about what I had said about both of these topics. Now, ironically, he had not really read most of what I had written, but just the topics themselves were considered dangerous, out of line and so forth. So in this series of meetings, he was trying to persuade me to just stop talking altogether, and the interesting thing to me was that it was not even what I said; it was the topics themselves.

So that was when I was first threatened. It was not carried out until seven years later. And when it finally happened, it was somewhat out of the blue, because my husband, [Paul], had been excommunicated, and we had gone totally inactive. My four daughters no longer wanted anything to do with the church after Paul was excommunicated, ... so I was rather surprised when suddenly I got a summons to a court, and the charges were apostasy.

Now, in Mormonism, in the official church handbook, they define apostasy in two ways. One is that you're in open opposition to the church and its leaders. The other definition of apostasy is that you are preaching as church doctrine what is not church doctrine. So those were the two charges. Now, that's very vague. In particular, when I actually got into the court, they were using the letter that had been sent to me seven years before as their official reason -- the idea that I had not obeyed the stake president who had asked me not to write and speak about women's issues. ... Now, they also brought up some of the topics that I had written about, which, again, were women's issues, ... but it was really disobedience to church leaders that they were using as the official reason for my excommunication.

How would you characterize the mood and tone of all of this?

... First of all, you have to imagine that a church disciplinary court ... -- they call them "courts of love," which of course is very funny, and now they call them "disciplinary councils." You have to imagine that when you go into one of these, that you go in by yourself as the person who's been disciplined. You're not allowed to bring anybody with you. So, for example, as a woman, I'm in there. There are 16 men that I am facing. If you can imagine the room, it's a little bit intimidating on one level. But I'm a university professor, and I've had to face a dissertation committee, so I was not intimidated on that level. But ... you don't have much support here.

... I'm sitting in a chair just like I am right here. To my right is a table with the stake president and his two counselors and their executive secretary. Then in front of me in a semicircle are 12 men, who are the high council in this stake, this division in the LDS Church, and they are there to hear the evidence.

The stake president is the one who is presenting the case against me, and he did it in almost courtroom-like fashion. He had a set of notes, and he had his reasons why I should be excommunicated. He also had a stack of copies of everything that I had written, and it was kind of like just a stack. ... One of the things that was a little bit scary to me, ... I knew from the beginning it was like a kangaroo court. The decision had been made. They were going to excommunicate me. The second thing is it did feel a little bit like an inquisition and a little frightening in the sense that they had all the power and I had none.

And they had resources that I had no idea about. For example, in their stack of evidence against me, they actually have the transcription of a talk that I had given. It had never been published. The only way they could have had this is if somebody were there with a tape recorder and then had transcribed it and sent it to church headquarters, where they had then given it to the stake president. Of course I knew that they had this extensive system that accumulates knowledge. There's a whole committee in the church headquarters where they collect evidence against members that they see as dangerous. But the fact that they have spies that were there at places where I was speaking, that I didn't even know that there was somebody in the audience that's secretly taping me and then sending it up to church headquarters so they can transcribe it, it was a little frightening in a way. ...

They brought the charges against me -- this apostasy -- saying that I had been in opposition to the church, and then proceeded to give their case, very seldom letting me respond to anything. And this was one of the reasons why it felt very much like a kangaroo court to me, was that I really was never given a chance to defend myself. At one point the stake president was saying that all I had written about women in the priesthood was really wrong, and I tried to come in to defend myself doctrinally by quoting Joseph Smith and by using argument and reason. I gave the example of blacks in the priesthood. ... In the middle of the sentence, the stake president interrupted me, and he said: "We will not allow you to lecture us. We will not allow you to use this kind of reasoning again. You're only allowed to speak as we give you permission." And of course I just kind of stopped midsentence. I couldn't go on, but you can imagine that this was -- I mean, you don't really feel like you have much of a defense.

... It felt very much like they wanted me out, and they were going to make sure that I was out. ... What they were hoping to do is to make sure that nobody then would believe anything that I said. That came out several times.

How did the court end?

... [The stake president] gave me a couple of chances to respond, but I wasn't allowed to give very long answers. Then the 12 men, the high counselors, were given a chance where they could ask me questions. So I then fielded questions that the high council asked me. I would say that the first part lasted maybe an hour, hour and a half, maybe a little longer, then maybe an hour of interaction with the high council. Then they asked me to go out, and they deliberated for about 20 minutes and then brought me back in. I sat back down on the chair, and the first thing that the stake president said to me is, he said, "I want you to know that the high council was very impressed with you." [Laughs.] And he said, "They were all amazed at how articulate you are and how passionate you are and what a nice person you are." ... So he started out with giving me all of these compliments.

Then he said: "However, you are excommunicated. We have found you to be an apostate." ... I'm a nice apostate, I guess, right? [Laughs.] I'm a nice apostate. ... Then he proceeded to explain to me what that meant, what the consequences of that are. And then at the end -- and this struck me as extremely bizarre on one level, that after he made the pronouncement and told me what it meant to be excommunicated, and the fact that you're not allowed to wear your temple garments, that you're not allowed to participate in meetings, that your name is no longer on the church records and all of your church ordinances are cancelled and so forth -- then when it was over, everybody got up. In fact, they were just always so concerned about being polite to me, and they all wanted to shake my hand. It just struck me as so bizarre on one level, that here you've excommunicated me, which means that I no longer can go to the celestial kingdom and be part of the community of Saints, and yet you want to shake my hand and tell me I'm a nice person and that you really weren't trying to do me any harm. It just struck me as so -- [Laughs.] -- ironic on a certain level.

Then I left, and they wanted to make sure they walked me out to the parking lot, because it was 10:30 at night, and so there was this politeness. ... In fact, I afterwards talked about sort of the horror of niceness -- that on the one hand they're cutting me off from eternal salvation and telling me that I'm this apostate, which really is considered very bad in Mormon culture, and then I'm this nice woman that they're going to shake my hand. There's something vicious about niceness that struck me in this -- that the niceness covered over the violence of what was being done, because, in fact, excommunication is a violent action. And yet you had this veneer of niceness that covers it over. That was horrifying to me. Afterward it almost made me shudder, that incongruity between the violence of that excommunication and the niceness of the discourse that went on.

Tell me about how you felt having to defend your ideas in front of this council.

The interesting thing is there is a sort of primal fear that came out, and also a grief that came out, that I wasn't expecting. I had not been active in the church for about six or seven years by the time I was excommunicated, and I was not expecting it to affect me in the way that it did.

Basically, I decided to attend the court. I mean, obviously there's no way that they can force you to attend this, but I wanted to attend for several reasons. They didn't know me, and I wanted them to have to look me in the eye and do it to me. I didn't want them to have it easy in the sense that they could just cut me off, label me as an apostate without having to look at me, hear me speak, and see what kind of a person I was. That was one of the reasons.

Another reason I wanted to attend is because even though I had not been active in the church, I am Mormon on a deep level. I'm not LDS anymore, but I'm Mormon, and I care about the community, and I do not believe that a community can be spiritually healthy when it silences people. That was my reason for not obeying the stake president in the first place. I told him at the time; I said, "I cannot be silent, because for me to be silent is to participate in an abuse of authority and to damage the community that I care about." ...

So I also went because I cared about the community, and I wanted to talk to them about this. Again, I'm this hopeless idealist -- I'm hoping that maybe if I go there and talk to them, I didn't think it would make a difference in them not excommunicating me, but I wanted them to see that the issues are more complicated, that you shouldn't just label a person as evil because they have questions.

... It occurred to me as I'm sitting there that if this had been in the Middle Ages, if these men had not only the ecclesiastical power but if they had the power of the state, where they could give a physical punishment to me, I realized in this moment that they would have burned me at the stake. And they would have done it smiling, thinking that they were saving my soul. This is why at the end they can shake my hand and say, "Oh, you're such a lovely person," at the same moment that they're saying, "We've condemned you," that you now are cut off from the church and the kingdom of God and everything else.

... I did not expect that I would have grief over the excommunication, because I had been in a state of limbo. My name was on the records of the church, but I was not really in the church. ... This will be kind of a mercy killing, right? So I was not expecting that I would have so much grief, but I cried for three days. I couldn't stop crying. ... Sometimes when I hear a Mormon hymn, I feel the grief. It's very primal. It really is.

Is there one hymn in particular?

I have to say that the hymn "O My Father" really does move me. Obviously it has the reference to the Heavenly Mother, which is very, very dear to me. But another aspect of it is that it was a family favorite. My grandfather, he requested it be sung at his funeral. I have a great-great-grandfather who was converted to Mormonism in Denmark when he heard this song. So I think it connects me with my roots in a way.

... I sometimes like to tell people that Mormonism is an ethnicity as well as a religion. That's why you can say, "I'm Mormon, but I'm not LDS." You're part of that culture. It is very deep. ...

But [excommunicated Mormon scholar] Lavina [Fielding Anderson, one of the September Six,] still goes [to church]. That was never an option for you?

It might have been. And I think the difference is family circumstances. When my husband, Paul, was excommunicated, our daughters at that time -- we have four daughters -- ... at the time that Paul was excommunicated, our baby was 9. His trial ... -- I think it was eight or nine hours that it lasted -- started at 6:00 in the morning. ... Our little daughter Sarah, she basically announced from the moment that the court was done and they excommunicated him that she was no longer Mormon. She was only 9.

For a few months after Paul was excommunicated, I continued to go to church. Maybe like Lavina I had this feeling that I wanted them to know that I was still part of this community. And of course I hadn't been excommunicated yet. My daughter Sarah, after a few months had gone by, she announced to me, she said, "Mom, you have to choose between the church and us."... I said -- [Laughs.] -- "Well, you're much more important to me than the church is, and I'll stop going."

The interesting thing is that when I stopped going, I discovered I was angry. I hadn't let myself be angry. I was going to be ... this stalwart, nice Mormon woman -- that I'm going to still be part of this community. I stopped going, and I discovered I had a lot of anger. Anger is a sin in Mormonism. [Laughs.] You're not supposed to be angry.

Are you still a faithful Mormon? What are your feelings towards this religion?

I don't believe in its claims in the same way I used to. I can certainly say that. I can also say that I'm a person that has a lot of doubts. The intellectual part of me really doesn't want to be a believer. But I would say that, if I'm completely honest, ... I think I'm a person who believes in the soul and God and believes in spirituality and thinks that that's a very important part of our humanness. And ... as far as any religion is true, I think that Mormonism has a lot of truth in it. ... There's a lot I don't like, but I think that there's a lot of good there, too.

Who was Joseph Smith to you?

Joseph Smith is the endless prophet puzzle. I think it's interesting that there's pretty good evidence that my great-great-grandmother was probably one of his plural wives, sealed to him at some time. What that means I don't know. I've always been intrigued by Joseph Smith, and in fact, when I look at my spiritual journey, one of the interesting things is that ... for a lot of Mormons, when they find out that the Sunday school [version of the] story is not true, they lose their faith. For me, when I found out the Sunday school story was not true, I discovered my faith.

... I found my faith, because for me, that sort of whitewashed history did not make any sense to my own experience as a person in my everyday life. I'm a person with struggles. ... I mean, these things were all very complex, so when I found out that Joseph Smith was this complex man who made a lot of mistakes and did things that were troubling, I was intrigued.

What, for instance?

Well, the complexity about the Book of Mormon. The idea that the translation of the Book of Mormon was not just simply him looking at these plates and he knows how to translate and he writes them down. I found out that there were a lot of complicated things that happened. ... I mean, let's even use polygamy. ... Obviously it troubled me on one level. On another level it intrigued me for two reasons, one of them, that I saw the human element in religion. ... The boring, static notion of perfection is not appealing to me. I think one of the hardest things in religion is to try to say, what is it to be perfect? Does perfect mean that you never have a sexual thought? Does perfect mean that you don't laugh, that you're solemn all the time? ...

So when I learned about the messy parts of Joseph Smith's life, I felt like there was hope for me. ... Part of my spiritual journey is trying to find out what it means to be perfect. I would like to believe that I could be both a spiritual person and a sexual person. Well, this is a huge problem in most religions. And for me, when I started finding out some of the things that Joseph Smith actually did and said, I think he was struggling with trying to bring together spirituality and sexuality. Quite frankly, Christianity has been really bad at this. Most major religions have been really bad at spirituality and sexuality. You're supposed to be spiritual on Sunday, sexual when you're in bed with your partner, your legal husband or wife, right? No one else. And yet then you're supposed to deny your sexuality in all of these other contexts.

Well, it doesn't make sense. It doesn't make any sense at all. So when I see Joseph Smith and this messy stuff with polygamy, to me he's a real person. He's a real person who's struggling with what it means to be sexual and spiritual. And I don't think he came up with good answers, but he was at least trying, which to me is better than ... the lie.

The lie is that people tell you that you're supposed to have this great marriage, and we don't really want to deal with the actual sexual dysfunction that happens in marriages. I mean, let's face it: One of the big problems in marriage is, if you're married to somebody for 25 years, to keep sexual interest alive. Nobody wants to deal with that.

... We're not realistic about what these things are. So, ... quite frankly, probably if I were a woman living in Nauvoo, I would have wanted to go to bed with Joseph Smith. He was charismatic; he was interesting. I find most people lie about these things. ... I have to struggle with what this means ethically, right? Because as a woman, I wouldn't want to be having sex with him and lying to Emma [Hale Smith, his wife]. That's wrong. But these are real-life, human problems. Does that make sense? [Laughs.]

What do you miss most about being an active member?

I do miss some things about being an active Mormon. There are certainly some things that I'm glad that I no longer have to do. Maybe I should also say at this point, that as things are now, I really don't want back in the church, because I can't be part of an organization that treats gays the way that it does. I cannot be part of an organization that has the gender inequity that it does. And I don't want to be part of a community that cannot have open discussion about things, that doesn't allow dissent. ... But what do I miss? I miss having to deal with the complexity, because I think that there's a way that growth comes by having to deal with people that you don't always like. [Laughs.]

... Being in that struggle -- I do miss that. I miss that struggle of trying to understand other people, of trying to be part of a community where you don't always agree with people. I think it does bring out good, spiritual things that I miss. ...

... People ask me, "Well, why don't you go out and find another faith community?" Quite frankly, for me it's sort of like a person who's been in a really bad marriage. After you've been in a really bad marriage, you often don't want to be married again. ...

Do you feel you've lost part of yourself in the process?

I don't know if it's half of myself, but it is a big part of myself. And ... every now and then, ... I realize that it's not altogether healthy. I think it's been a necessity because I went through so much pain, but it's not altogether healthy. ... I almost can't say what I miss because I think some people, if they've moved to a place they're totally comfortable with, you can kind of look back nostalgically and smile or whatever. And for me, it's almost like I don't want to go back.

How has this excommunication affected your relationships with your family?

That's probably the most painful part about the excommunication is the way in which, if you're a part of a large Mormon family, it really does hurt your relationship with your family. There's no question about that. ... Mormons don't like to deal with the uncomfortable conflicts, so we don't speak about it. ... I have seven siblings. One of them, my sister Janice Allred, was also excommunicated. But the way that my family has dealt with this is by silence. We don't talk about it. It's this thing in the corner that you never talk about. That makes it really bad.

... This kind of situation for a Mormon family is very difficult, because it creates a contradiction that the family doesn't want to admit is even there. The contradiction is that if you're an active, believing Mormon family, you can't say the church did something wrong. So on one level they've got to say the excommunication was right. On the other hand, there's a part of them -- they know me; they know my other sister, and they know Paul. They can't say -- at least most of them won't say -- that we're bad people. So how do you deal with this contradiction? You know, did we deserve the excommunication? Didn't we? They don't even want to think about it.

... For me the really painful thing is that there's this distance, where you're no longer part of this assumed believing connection; that it creates a barrier. To me that's the worst part of it. The other parts that are painful, of course, is that as with most religious communities, basic family rituals are centered around the church, so when you're excommunicated, you no longer can participate in those family rituals, and that is very painful. Blessings of children, births, marriages, deaths -- these vital things that bring us together as families and where even if you haven't seen a family member for a long time, you connect again at these moments -- you're excluded. I have times now where my family members don't even tell me about things that are happening, because I can't participate. So you become an outcast in some ways that is really painful.

Probably the most painful is in death, I think. ... My younger sister passed away a little over a year ago. She died of cancer. One Mormon ritual is that when a person dies, you dress them in their temple clothing before you bury them. My brother-in-law, who's a very active Mormon, very patriarchal, if I can say that, he did not want my sister and myself to be part of that. He didn't want us to help dress her body, and that -- I mean, that cut me so deep, I haven't gotten over it. I don't know if I ever will, because this way of saying goodbye to somebody you love, and the idea that somehow I'm unclean, I'm somehow polluted -- and he just wanted me to accept this. That was very painful. It's very, very painful. That's probably the worst part of being excommunicated. ...

[Talk about your first experience going to a Mormon temple.]

... When I first went to the LDS temple, I was only 21. Usually in the LDS community, as a female, you do not go to the temple until you are either going on a mission or getting married. Those are the two reasons that you go to the temple. I was not doing either one of those at age 21. But at that point in my life I was kind of a religious seeker; I was on this spiritual quest. I had had an experience not long before this that in some ways was my spiritual conversion, where I felt God's love forgiving me of my sins and telling me that God loved me and that I was OK. I wanted to go to the temple because for me, if you look at how Mormons believe, the temple was sort of the next step in the spiritual journey or quest that I was on. So I persuaded my bishop ... that I should be allowed to do this. So I went with anticipation.

Now, I know that for a lot of other people, when they first go to the temple -- because it is often talked about in Mormon discourse as this high point of spirituality, and it's the ultimate ritual in Mormonism -- and when they go there, they are so disturbed at the funny clothing, at everything that takes place. For women, they're often disturbed because of what can really be seen as female subordination. But I didn't feel any of those. ... When I first went to the LDS temple and received my endowments, all I can do is describe it as I really had a mystical experience, where the temple ritual, which is set out as a journey of Adam and Eve, that there was a way in which I connected to it on a very deep spiritual level. ...

What I experienced was that I felt empowered by this experience. I mean, I was already at this time of my life beginning to question women's roles. I was not yet at the point where I could say I'm a feminist, right? But I was questioning women's roles, partly because I was a 21-year-old woman at BYU. At BYU, when you're 21 and you're starting into graduate school and you're not married, people begin to question your role.

So I was beginning to question those things. As part of that, one of the things I was questioning that was really hard for me in the church at this time, is that as an intelligent, spiritual woman, it seemed like there was no place for me. It seemed like my longings to express my spiritual self, that there was no place for them in the church -- and especially as a single woman, right? What I read in the Scriptures, all of the models for spirituality were men ... -- almost all, right? The Bible has very few females, and the Book of Mormon has even fewer -- quite frankly, almost none. So I look in these scriptural texts, and who am I identifying with? I'm identifying with men. I'm longing to be able to do these things that men do. And I feel horrible about this. Am I betraying my sex? Is this something that I shouldn't feel as a woman? Am I doing something wrong? Why am I feeling this? Is this wrong that I'm identifying with these men, that I want to be able to do the things that they do?

I read about the life of Joseph Smith. This was the time when I began to. I had a friend who is feeding me documents about what was really happening in the days of Joseph Smith, and I'm getting all excited about this. And I identify with Joseph and his brother Hyrum, and I identified with all these men. I'm a woman, and I always liked being a woman. It's not like I want to be a man. Yet when I look at spiritual roles, I identify with the men, so I'm feeling very troubled about all of this. I'm feeling as though there may not be any place for me.

Not only that, but I love talking about theology. I'm starting to study Greek and Latin at BYU, and I'm all excited about studying the Bible in its original language, and I want to talk theology, and the only people that I can find that are interested in talking about theology are men. ... Amid all this, in this spiritual quest, I want to go to the temple.

Well, what happens to me -- and again, I can't say it's just one instance, but a series of instances that culminate in one experience where I'm in the temple, and I'm troubled about these issues. I feel not just endowed in the physical sense of this ritual, ... but I experienced this on a spiritual level. It was sort of like my mind was suddenly open, that I realize that what this temple ceremony meant was not just about these physical things, but I understood what it meant symbolically, because I felt it on a very deep, mystical level. But what I was being endowed with was priesthood power, that I was being endowed with the power of God, because, in fact, that's what priesthood is supposed to be about.

Priesthood is not simply about directing the ward or being the one who's in charge of the church, but that priesthood means that you are endowed with the power of God, which Joseph Smith describes as love and light and knowledge and charity and visions and understanding. Somehow I understood on this very deep level that what I was experiencing in the temple was this feeling that this endowment was real, and that this was not just for men, but that this was for women, too. I felt in a sense that God was approving of these feelings that I had had, that I was not out of line. ...

My whole experience of what I experienced in the temple and what came afterward, the thing that I finally concluded is, I felt, what spiritual, intelligent woman wouldn't ask these questions? That's the hard thing for me to understand. I mean, on the one hand, I don't want to criticize any of my sisters that feel happy in the church, and yet on the other hand, it's been very hard for me to feel condemned because I had certain feelings. It wasn't like I became a secular feminist first and then I wanted to drag this all into the church. For me, my feminism started because I loved my religion and because I read the Scriptures and because I wanted to be a good person. It was in the process of that spiritual quest that I became the feminist and started questioning roles. I only questioned roles because I felt so negated as a woman who had desires for spirituality and for intelligence.

That for me is maybe one of the most painful things: is that it was the fact that I wanted to be such a good Mormon that really led me to the thing that they excommunicated me for.

What are the problems feminism has in reaching out to Mormons?

One of the reasons I still feel very strongly about speaking out on Mormon women's issues, even though there's a part of me that is no longer there because I'm not in the church, is that I really care about other Mormon women, and I think that there are some things in the culture that are very damaging to women. Now, I want to add to that there are a lot of empowering things in the culture, too. And this is the problem, because if you start pointing out problems, a lot of women will immediately respond by saying, "But I'm perfectly happy in the church." I certainly do not want to negate any other woman's experience. If a woman says to me, "I'm perfectly happy in the church," I'm not going to say to her, "No, you're not," because I think that's just insulting. I don't want to say that to any woman. ...

This whole idea where the church focuses women's whole role on motherhood, I find this extremely damaging to women in at least two or three ways. First of all, as soon as they say that the proper role for women is motherhood, what it sets up is a horrible division that says that if you're in this mothering role and doing it the way that we want, then you're a good woman, but if you're outside of that, you're somehow not a good woman. This both creates horrible guilt for women about what they're doing in a way that I think is very damaging to their sense of self and their self-esteem, and it also turns women against each other. ...

I see it as so damaging to sisterhood and to self-esteem, whichever side of that you're on. In the proclamation of the family, where it says that the primary role of women is nurturing children -- even if you agree with that, it can be damaging to women. ... There's a way in which it makes them confine themselves. It makes them try to make themselves smaller, where they're always afraid that if they let out too much in their talents that somehow they'll be stepping on boundaries and they'll be going beyond this role that is assigned to them. Again, this is extremely damaging to the way women see themselves.

... There's a dichotomy that the church has where more or less we have the notion that men are in the public sphere, women are in the private sphere; that the role for men is in the public sphere, whether we're talking jobs or whether we're talking church leadership, and the role for women is in the home or working with children, other women in the church. ... Because men are given the leadership role in the church, it means that women and the work that they do in the church is always subordinate to what the men are doing, that because the women's organizations in the church are all under priesthood authority, women have to get permission from men ... -- all the decisions or the creativity that women use in the church have to be given the stamp of approval by men. ... And I see that as damaging to women, because they're put in the role of being under the power of the men. It's not an equal partnership.

... So on the one hand the church likes to talk about that really the roles of men and women are an equal partnership, but I do not see an equal partnership in terms of decision-making in the church. That's very damaging to women and also damaging to the church, because the gifts of women, their talents, are not fully used in this broader way.

... I think all women in America feel that tension between [working and staying at home]. What I see as different in Mormon culture is what's at stake. In Mormonism, you're told that your very eternal salvation and the eternal salvation of your children is the thing, that if you somehow make a false move, am I going to mess up my kid forever because I worked that job? Not just in this life -- they may take drugs or something -- but will they lose their eternal salvation? That is a horrible burden that you face, that I am responsible for this. Women feel that very keenly in the church. It's a horrible burden. It really is. And then, of course, it affects the way they deal with each other. I've heard so many women say that they feel more criticism from other women than they do from men, which I see as very sad, but I think typical maybe also, again, in America.

How is this message conveyed to girls growing up in this church?

I have talked so much about gender issues, and people keep assuring me in the church that really, men and women are equally valued. As I keep hearing, everybody says, "Well, we have different roles, but our worth is the same." Well, recently I was told a story. ... There was a mother that got up and told a story where her boy asked her the question, he said, "Are boys more important than girls?" And she said, "Why in the world would you think that?" And he said to her, "Well, Heavenly Father and Jesus are boys, and boys get the priesthood and girls don't." Well, the mother went on to tell him and assure him that really, men and women are equally important in the church. But I like this story, because this little boy, at 8 years old, he saw messages that were telling him that there was a difference in the treatment. ...

Girls are given a lot of opportunities, for example, to speak in church. One of the positive things would be that girls get an opportunity to develop gifts of public speaking and service and other such things. And certainly that's there, OK? On the other hand, there are subtle messages that let girls know that the boys are the ones that have the really important role.

... One of them is that often there are more funds and money given to the men, to the boys' programs, than there are to the girls' programs. ... Another example would be that boys are often put in circumstances where their leadership and their public role is emphasized, whereas service is emphasized for women. Someone just told me a story where the boys were sent off on some kind of big trip and the girls were told that, because service was so important for them, that they were supposed to do some kind of a service activity rather than have fun.

... Another kind of subtle message is that there's so much talk in the church about obedience to priesthood and about supporting the priesthood. So from the time that girls are young, one of the things that they're told is that their primary role is not simply to nurture children, but to support the husband in all of his activities. ...

Just recently, a young Mormon woman in her early 30s came to me. She knows that I talk about women's issues. She was very upset, wanted to have a sympathetic ear, because she's concerned about women's issues. She's concerned about the working-mother issue. She's concerned about the fact that we can't talk about Heavenly Mother in Mormon meetings. She has other concerns. And she told me a story about how she recently went to her bishop to tell him some of her concerns. He's a friend of hers, so she was feeling that she could have a sympathetic ear here, and she was more or less shocked when, instead of being sympathetic to some of her concerns, he told her that she was being influenced by Satan and that if she were only not a working mother -- that her real problem here is that she's a working mother and that, because she's a working mother, she's now opened herself to the influence of Satan. This has made her dissatisfied with her role as a Mormon woman. ...

The disturbing thing to me is that why would she be accused of being influenced by Satan when, if you look at her, she's completely active in the church? She has three children. She's a great mother. She's very active in her ward. She has a church calling that she's fulfilling. She's doing all the outward things that she is supposed to as a Mormon woman. And yet, by questioning them, now suddenly she's a pawn of the devil. ...

How does the Mormon Church treat its intellectuals?

Well, one of the contradictions I see presently in Mormon culture is, on the one hand, we have this long tradition of encouraging knowledge and education, and yet at the same time, there's a real anti-intellectual strain that's been there for quite some time. Certainly this is true in terms of Mormon studies. There's a real problem right now as Mormon intellectuals try to become part of the academy, because if you're an active LDS person and you want to write about Mormonism, there are just certain things that you cannot talk about. Certainly the temple is one of them. I mean, if you look at the historical roots of the temple, that's a real no-no that you cannot talk about, even if you're trying to do it in a faith-promoting way.

Another one is obviously feminist issues. I know so many women who have gotten in trouble for talking about feminist issues. Obviously women in the priesthood and Heavenly Mother, but really raising any kind of feminist question is something you cannot do, questioning authority in any way -- and in fact, I think that this is probably one of the biggest taboos in Mormonism. ... So of course writing any kind of history that's not faith-promoting per se in the traditional sense is a hot spot, obviously. And really, to be a Mormon intellectual means that you're opening up yourself to being called into a church court. It's a dangerous thing, and ... the irony is, for example, at BYU, that if you really want to be a Mormon intellectual at BYU, your area of study cannot be Mormonism.

I do find it as ironic, because they try to say that the great thing about BYU is that you can blend your faith and your scholarship. But you can't blend your faith and scholarship if your scholarship deals with gender, if it's in anthropology, if it's in Mormon history. If it's anything like that, you cannot blend. They will not allow you to do it.

What I find often Mormon intellectuals do if they want to stay in the church is that they really become almost schizophrenic, where their research is over here in areas that the church does not find challenging, and their faith is over here.

Briefly talk about the excommunication of the September Six.

Fall of 1993 was very disturbing for the whole intellectual community. In September there were six prominent Mormon intellectuals, feminists that were excommunicated -- my husband being one of them. ... My husband, Paul Toscano. Some people like to joke and say that he was, in fact, excommunicated for a joke. But it was really because of his criticisms of the authoritarianism of the church, where he critiqued the use of power; he critiqued the lack of spirituality of leaders. ... And everybody else, they were all close friends of mine. It was a very traumatic time, both personally, because of what this meant for my family, but also I think as the whole intellectual community, because what it meant was that it was not OK to be Mormon and to question. It was not to OK to be Mormon and to think about issues deeply.

This was disturbing because there were a lot of us that had felt that this was at the root of what we felt being Mormon was. We felt that being Mormon should mean that you could be part of the community and love the community and still talk about difficult issues. So when those excommunications came, it sent out a message to people that it was not OK to do that, and I think we're still feeling the effects of it today. ... What it did is it polarized Mormons. Before 1993 there was more of a middle ground, where you could be active LDS and also questioning or at least exploring certain issues.

I'm part of an organization called the Mormon Women's Forum, which is a feminist organization that was founded in 1988. When we first started in the late '80s and the early '90s, we would have meetings where you might have 200 people that would show up -- and women from BYU, women that were very active in the church. After '93 there was this big polarization where I have literally hundreds of female friends who left the church because they said, "Well, after what happened to you and other women, there's no place for me," ... and other women who said: "I can't leave; I have too many connections, family and my own beliefs and so forth. I've got to be quiet." They wouldn't come to the Forum anymore, either to participate or to speak. The BYU women could no longer come. ...

Are certain issues in Mormon history cyclical?

One of the problems in Mormonism is definitely connected with it being a relatively new religion. As somebody who studies the history of religions and religious structures, I sometimes have to laugh because I'm sure that if we had more information about the real life of Jesus, that we would find that there are some problematic areas that we wish we could simply cover over. Yet the story of Jesus is so far in the past that it has become myth. ... And because of Mormonism being a recent religion, we have so many documents about the life of Joseph Smith, and it's harder to cover over the embarrassing areas. ... I think all the stuff that happened with the September Six would be different in a church that was older. ...

... I think Mormonism also faces the problem that any religion does: that of trying to not just deal with its history, because history is always troubling, but it's struggling with the question of what we take literally and what we take metaphorically. And again, all religions struggle with this. It doesn't matter whether you're looking at Islam or different areas of Christianity or even ancient Greek religion, which I teach. The issue of what do we take literally is always problematic.

... So, will it get better? I hope. I may be more optimistic in some areas than I am about women's issues, but certainly I think we can hope that things can work themselves out as the church gets more mature.

... I wish there could be more discourse between Mormon scholars and non-Mormon scholars, between Mormons and other Christians, because I think we have a lot to learn from each other. I mean, sometimes Mormons are ignorant about the history of Christianity in a way that I think would really give them a broader perspective on their own history. On the other hand, I think that Christians and Jews and Muslims and other people could also see some interesting things in Mormonism and maybe be willing to cut Mormons a little more slack if they simply had this broader perspective.

For example, every religion, when it starts out, usually has a charismatic, chaotic stage, where in order to found a religion, you often have to have this kind of troubling, charismatic leader that later we have to cover over all the embarrassing things of a leader. That's typical.

... I heard a little statement the other day where somebody said, "What's the definition of a cult?," and the answer is, "Somebody else's religion." When you look at some of the definitions that the evangelicals give of what a cult is -- and of course they want to fit Mormonism into that -- if you look at early Christianity, you could define that in the same way, because those kinds of things that you see in early movements, they're there always.

... One of the things that I hope for is that, just like in Christianity, if you look at second century and third century and fourth century and so forth, that you'll have a time where the Saints from Spain or the Saints from Africa or the Saints from the Middle East, that they will bring a new energy into the church that infuses it with new life and kind of takes it out of a narrow-mindedness. I think we're going to see that in Mormonism.

... I'm hoping that the LDS Church can finally come to a stage where, rather than kicking out all of its dissenters, that they can become an energizing force that infuses the LDS community with not only more spirituality, as St. Francis did, but also new ideas about how LDS is not just one thing.

How do you respond to President Hinckley saying that Joseph's words are either the whole truth or not true at all?

One of the problems I see in the history of any religion are the claims about it's all true or it's not true at all, and certainly Mormonism gets into that discourse of you're a believer or you're not a believer. That's obviously a problem for somebody like me. I see that as ultimately very damaging, because that dichotomy sets people up for believing that either it is this simplistic way that I was told as a child, it's true in that way, or it's not true and I've lost my faith. So either this story of Joseph Smith is completely true or it's all false. Either he's a fraud or he's a complete prophet. Well, to me, I see several problems here: first of all, the problem [of] what does a "prophet" mean? Does it mean that you have no flaws, you don't make mistakes? ... I see a real problem in Mormonism where it will not deal with people's doubts. I see this as a set-up for people losing their faith in a way that maybe they don't have to. ...

What is the middle way between believing that Joseph Smith is a fraud and that Joseph Smith actually found the plates, went to the hill and translated them?

... [Mormon historian] Dan Vogel [has a thesis] that [Smith] is the pious fraud, which means that he knew he was deceiving, but he had a good purpose. To me there's another step where you say he really believed that he saw God; that he saw, that he had plates, that this is God's revelation.

But maybe he didn't really. He was deceived. It was a hallucination. It was not real. There's another ground, OK? Another middle ground: He did have some kind of mystical experience. He did have some kind of artifact that he thought was ancient and that he somehow channeled some kind of spiritual force that gave him this book, and it was not an ancient record, but he thought it was. OK, there's another middle ground.

Another middle ground: There were real plates. It was an ancient record, but the translation that he was given from this spiritual source gave it to him all in 19th-century language, ... really a sort of a paraphrase. ... So there's another middle ground. ... To me there are so many things in between the fraud and the completely truthful prophet that we haven't explored.

Another real problem that I see that this kind of dichotomy creates is that rather than looking at what our religious texts say themselves, and what we can glean from them on an allegorical and a spiritual level, we get so hung up with the historical problem that all of our energy goes to that. The important thing, which is trying to feed people spiritually and internally by giving them stories and symbols that can enrich their lives and help them, we get caught in this historical problem. ...

Did the defeat of ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] have a chilling effect on feminists within the Mormon Church?

I was not involved in the ERA movement at all, and I have to say that at the time, I was not concerned about it. Later I was very concerned about it and wished that I had been involved with it. ... I think the ERA is one of those pivotal moments in Mormon feminism, and I believe because there were so many women that felt betrayed by the church that it made them realize that the church -- which said that it was so supportive of women -- that it was interfering in a way that they felt was damaging to their citizenship in the country. And that's a very deep betrayal to feel. So I think it's a very pivotal moment for women.

Do you mean that these women felt betrayed that the church participated in stopping the ERA?

... I've talked to some Mormon women who feel like, for them, the ERA and also the IWY [the International Women's Year] ... were pivotal moments for them in their feminist journey, because it was at that time that they saw so clearly how they were being manipulated, that they were sent as kind of believing, trusting, LDS women to these meetings where the issues of the ERA were being discussed, and they were told beforehand how to vote on all of the issues. When they went there, and they saw these other non-Mormon women and realized that they were being set up to think that these women as their enemies who were perpetrating bad things for women, and yet they didn't sense that really. They also then realized that there was this manipulation which went against basic notions of American fair voting. They felt enormously disturbed because they realized that there was something horribly wrong here.

I think sometimes part of my upsetness [sic] on women's issues is that I tried for so long to defend the church. ... I feel like when I was in my 20s that I used all of my intelligence to justify the church's position, and I didn't get involved in the ERA. I was trying to defend what they were doing. Also the same thing with the blacks in the priesthood. Later I looked back, and I regretted so much that I was not involved. I regretted that I didn't get involved in the ERA, in the International Women's Year, in all of these things -- because I was doing it to try to hold down the fort, you know, this kind of Mormon position. Now I wish I would have spoken out. ...

How do you now explain that position, of defending the church and opposing the ERA?

... You would try to use your intelligence as best you could to say that really, maybe if we do support the ERA, this will lead to places where women are forced into being something that they really shouldn't be or do, or that somehow the importance of women nurturing children will be compromised in some ways. Now I look back and think, all my rhetoric was ridiculous, but it just indicates how dedicated I was to trying to make the best out of the church's position. ...

I'd like to say a short statement about why I think the Heavenly Mother is important, and then a short one about why I think the issue of women in priesthood is important for women. For me, the Mormon concept of a Heavenly Mother is extremely important for Mormon women. How can a woman see herself as eternally valuable if her picture of God does not include something of her? I mean, in Mormonism and most religions, men have a picture of God and the divine that reflects who they are. Mormon women need this picture of the feminine divine that gives them this model, this something that they can look at and say, yes, that is me, too. I feel so strongly that to forbid women to talk about the Heavenly Mother is to tell them that being female is somehow forbidden, or somehow there's something not right with it. So in spite of the fact that a lot of people don't see this as an important issue, I really think that on a very deep level, even that we can't sometimes articulate, there's a way in which our pictures of God are so vitally connected with how we can picture ourselves.

... There are two reasons for me why I have focused on the issue of women in the priesthood. One of them has to do with the community, that because in Mormonism, priesthood is so central to how all decisions are made, whether we're talking the most mundane thing or we're talking doctrine, that for this reason, when women do not have the priesthood, it basically means they have no vote. It's like not being a citizen.

The other reason is that because priesthood is connected with spiritual power, as, for example, with President Hinckley, all of our models about what the epitome of spirituality is are male. And sadly, right now in the church, for example in the Relief Society, the manuals focus on the sayings of the prophets. They're all male. ...

The gifts of women -- their spiritual gifts -- are not either fully utilized or used as a blessing for the whole church. But that's also an internal way in which women do not feel that they can fully blossom because of this lack of priesthood. Even if they say that this is not true, the way I see them functioning is that they gesture to the man. You know, the husband in the home, he gives the blessing. ... She's always giving over to the man that job of spiritual authority, that she cannot claim the spiritual authority for herself. For me that's vital for a woman to have a full sense of her personhood.

For me, finally, the bottom line is that the present structure of the LDS Church does not allow a woman to develop her full personhood, and no matter what authority you quote to me to contradict this, for me the basic teaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the notion of the worth of the individual soul. And I believe that the present structure of the church damages women's sense of worth.

Editor's Note
Due to limitations of time and resources, all the interviews conducted for this program could not be published. 

Support Provided by: Learn More