Rules for Feminist Mormon Radicals – Moving the Overton Window

feministOver the last few years we’ve seen that Feminist Mormon Activists have encouraged a kind of civil disobedience to the prophets and apostles.

They have used self-referential echo chambers to amplify propaganda and magnify the perception of support based on demonstrably faulty data and unfounded claims.

They’ve organized protests for women to break LDS cultural norms during worship services by wearing pants to church and run media campaigns and petitions to pressure the church to allow women to give prayers in the LDS Church’s General Conference.

And they have blatantly misrepresented facts in order to stir up outrage at church leaders.

But now they have taken things to a whole new level.

Back in 2010, when the LDS WAVE (Women Advocating for Voice and Equality) was launched by feminist bloggers they were very careful to say that they were not agitating for the priesthood to be extended to women.

In September of 2010, the spokeswoman for the group, Tresa Edmunds (who also goes by the pseudonym Reese Dixon) explained in an interview for the Salt Lake City Weekly:

“We’re trying very hard to be viewed as faithful members trying to contribute, rather than some evil feminists,” Edmunds says. The key to avoiding such confrontations will mean primarily avoiding contentious issues such as reclaiming female ownership of priesthood authority. This authority is given only to male members of the church, but was granted to women in the early years of the church’s history, between 1830 and the 1850s. While restoring that authority has been a battle cry for many Mormon feminists, it’s not on WAVE’s agenda.

“There’s no mention of priesthood on our website,” Edmunds says. “We think there’s a lot that can happen before that ever becomes an argument.” Edmunds says possible future campaigns range from asking the church to make budget funding equal for Young Women and Young Men groups to something as simple as putting changing tables in the men’s bathrooms in chapels.

Edmunds sees the organization less as a lobby group and more as a think tank. “As devout members, we sustain and affirm our leaders as prophets and revelators, and we long to give them the information they may not have since they are not women.”

In response to the article, Jonathan Stapley, who has done research on the topic, wrote a blog post debunking the false notion in the article that the priesthood had been given to women in the early days of the church and was then taken away.

In the comments of his blog post, Sister Edmunds further explained that WAVE was not lobbying for priesthood ordination for women:

Yeah, I know WAY better than to make such a ridiculous claim. My statement ended with the quotation mark, the rest was all the very nice reporter […] You might also notice that the next quote from me mentions that we’re specifically NOT advocating for the priesthood, so it would be a bit weird for me to talk about some alleged return to a priesthood we’re not actually advocating for.

Oh and, I never would have used the word “lobbied” that appeared in the headline, and since the author said in his article that we’re NOT lobbyists, I’m thinking that was an editorial decision.

And she reiterated in additional comments:

I wouldn’t say that WAVE doesn’t intend to lobby ever, but I don’t think that as a characterization of our efforts is accurate. Especially right now. We’re not talking petitions or protests. We’re wanting to honestly communicate our feelings with our leaders. Even when we’ve talked about doing a letter writing campaign, there would be no form letter or position to take, it would be up to each person to write their own experiences, whatever those might be.

[…]

So a lot of our early efforts will encourage women to work locally. But all of it coming from a place of faithfulness.

I think the suggestion of lobbying assumes a method of doing business that doesn’t really fit inside a religious model, particularly this religious model.

Now fast forward two and half years to the present (the spring of 2013). Most of the things mentioned at the outset of this post have happened within the last few months to a year. This represents a clear shift away from that original idea that lobbying assumes a method that is particularly inapt or inappropriate for use in the LDS Church. It also is a clear shift away from encouraging women to work quietly with local leaders to a focus on media attention and public pressure on the church as a whole.

Until this week the actual changes for which they have been agitating were not very controversial. The backlash that they have received has been mostly in reaction to their activist methods, not so much the specific changes they are requesting.

But that changed this week. This week a new website launched specifically agitating for the church to extend priesthood ordination to women. And who is prominently featured on the the site? Tresa Edmunds. She is now openly lobbying the church for exactly what she said they would not. And she has been consulting with professional activists and decided that the time has come for “large scale demonstrations”. In case there is any question, she is still listed on the board of LDS WAVE.

One of the tactics used by political activists is called “Moving the Overton Window“.  They intentionally promote ideas even less acceptable than the fringe ideas they are currently working toward with the intention of making the current fringe ideas acceptable by comparison. It’s a form of reverse-psychology. The movement has both a radical arm and a less radical arm. The radical arm acts as a foil to make the less radical arm more palatable by juxtaposition, and over time they shift the norm until what was previously far outside acceptable norms can be achieved.

While it is impossible to know for sure, there is some evidence that this devious tactic is being knowingly embraced by at least some of the participants in the Feminist Mormon movement. Just weeks before the Ordain Women website appeared, the originator of the wear-pants-to-church protest wrote on her blog:

“People who are scared by the more radical stuff will often become more sympathetic to the moderate view-point in response. I can’t take absolute credit for this idea, one of those great Mo Fem friends pointed it out to me. Essentially, every movement needs a radical fringe to make the moderate viewpoint sympathetic.

Worried that the “crazy” feminists with their radical demonstrations will make you look bad? They might. But they also might make you look really good and reasonable. Plus, everything that was once radical eventually becomes the new normal. We need the radical “fringe” people to help normalize the “moderate” stuff we are doing now.”

Whether intentional or not, the Ordain Women arm of the Feminist Mormon Activist movement has the potential to play the functional role of the radical arm. It has the right amount of contrast and the right timing. It manipulates our normal desire to compromise by giving the impression that the less extreme demands are reasonable in contrast.

Many LDS church members find this kind of political activism directed at a church we believe to be guided by real prophets, seers, and revelators to be very troubling. And combined with the misinformation tactics cited at the beginning of this article and the clear contradiction between 2010 assurances and current actions, we have good cause for alarm.

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