A new documentary short is pushing open the doors of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to reveal the Mormon feminists driving a grassroots movement to integrate women into the church’s all-male priesthood. Where We Stand, from filmmaker Kristine Stolakis, offers a powerful counterpoint to the notion that Mormonism and feminism are mutually exclusive.
Though Stolakis herself is not Mormon, she understands a thing or two about the seemingly inherent conflict between feminism and religion. Raised devoutly Catholic, Stolakis found herself “unconsciously” pulling away from the religion in her late teens, torn between honoring church doctrine and her fervent support for gay rights and women’s rights. “It just didn’t feel like a place where I could comfortably be myself,” remembers Stolakis. “I never thought of religion as a place where I could be vocal about my beliefs.”
It’s in this space where Stolakis’ film lives: Where We Stand portrays the struggle of the women behind Ordain Women who are spiritually devoted to Mormon teachings, but who are also committed to increasing women’s representation in church leadership positions—doctrine be damned.
Recently, the Ms. Blog spoke to Stolakis about the controversy surrounding Ordain Women‘s crusade, Stolakis’ efforts to reconcile her own faith with her other “religion” (feminism), and the brave women at the heart of a modern feminist story unfolding in the unlikeliest of places.
Ms. Blog: What did you learn about women’s roles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through the process of making this film?
Kristine Stolakis: [One thing] I learned in the process of researching the film—and I think that a lot of women in Ordain Women [have told me this and agree]—is the church is actually a place where female empowerment is talked about pretty explicitly. There’s a tremendous amount of belief in the divine feminine and how important women are in terms of our worldly existence and our otherworldly existence so to speak [and] I think there’s a lot of love and respect for women. [The Relief Society, for example] is [one of] the oldest women’s [service] organizations in the United States and all women in the Mormon church are [a part of it]. Simultaneously the church, like a lot of conservative institutions, is a place where they believe in complementarianism, that the male and female [genders] complement one another, have complementary duties and complementary skills. In marriage, but also in life, they are equally powerful, but they are not the same.
How do Mormon women’s roles limit their opportunities for leadership inside the church?
[In the film], one of the highest men in the church [an elder from the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a group of 12 men that rule the church], gave a talk called Women in the Priesthood about the fact that women are powerful and equal, but [that] in the end, women have motherhood and men have the priesthood. That’s the equivalent. [In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], all men are priests [and] they can perform particular religious duties. It’s a lay clergy, so you don’t go to rabbinical school or something to become a priest. Men are [also] called to become the bishops. Women can’t be called to those types of leadership positions. I think [the church] would say, “Well, they’re equivalent leadership positions in the Relief Society,” but they’re not the same. If you look at the highest leadership positions in the church and the ability to get there, the highest leadership positions are for men.
Has Ordain Women’s crusade to integrate women into the Mormon priesthood, including crashing the live broadcast of the faith’s General Priesthood Session, provoked any backlash from the church?
The most dramatic type of punishment that one could experience in the church is excommunication, and one of [Ordain Women’s] founders, Kate Kelly, was excommunicated for her participation. I’ve heard different accounts of exactly why she was excommunicated; I’ve read the letters that Kate put up online. My basic understanding [is] she was advocating for a doctrinal change within the religion via a very public platform—the Ordain Women website—and [because she and] Ordain Women refused to take down the website, she was excommunicated. When I spoke to women three months after she’d been excommunicated, it was [still] extraordinarily fresh and every one of them had an extremely emotional reaction. As one of the women in the film says, when [Kate] was excommunicated, it felt like all of [them] were excommunicated [because they’d] started to feel like she represented all of [them].
Now, the church would say bishops locally make the decision to excommunicate, so the First Presidency (the highest governing boards of the church) didn’t make that decision—the bishops did. But to say that that did not send a message would be naïve. It definitely sent a message to people that this is a serious matter. No one else has been excommunicated [since, but] Abby [Hansen, the protagonist in the film] did have what’s called her calling—volunteer positions in the church—taken away, and her bishop talked to her about the fact that [her participation in Ordain Women] could be grounds for excommunication.
What does excommunication mean for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
If I was excommunicated from the Catholic Church right now, I don’t think it would really affect me and frankly, I think I could go to church and no one would even know. But in the Mormon church, if you get excommunicated there are very particular things that you cannot do on the day-to-day. In predominantly Mormon places, [it’s] like losing your community in a lot of ways, and spiritually it means that you are disconnected from your family in the heaven. If you’re a believer, it’s really, really intense and that’s something that really affected the women in my film.
How did your perspective on Mormonism transform during the filmmaking process?
It was just a good reminder that just like everything, it’s complex. Religion is complex. I think if you exist more in the secular feminist world, [it’s] very easy to judge conservative religions and their rhetoric, especially around women. [But] then you get in there, people in it are diverse, their perspectives are diverse and the doctrine is actually quite celebratory of women in many ways. There’s a tremendous amount of potential, I think, to think about women in quite interesting and new ways in the church. And the conversations happening around women in the church are so similar to conversations happening about women in general in the United States.
It’s a complicated thing. If your church says, ”This is doctrine. Women can’t be priests. This is from God,” and you believe in God and you believe in your church, I have a lot of empathy for the complexity of disagreeing with that. I’ve gained a lot of respect for people who are trying to stay and make things better and [I’ve] also gained respect for people who don’t know yet.
The women of Ordain Women consider themselves both Mormons and feminists, two identities whose core values many feel are at odds with one another. What is your take?
I can’t tell you the number of secular feminists—and people in general—who [after] I’ve said, “Yeah, I’m making a film about Mormon feminists,” they just laugh. “Ha! That’s a contradiction!” I don’t think people mean anything by it individually, but collectively, that definitely sends a message about who’s supposed to be a feminist. I think when you’re young and you first learn about feminism and you start reading feminist literature and these ideas give you a lens to start understanding your own experience, it can almost feel like a religion. Like, this is it! I needed this language to explain, you know, the male gaze. That clicks something in my brain about my experience that I never put into words before and you can just start believing in it. [But] now that I’m getting a little older and then making this film, I think feminism, just like anything, has to grow and change with the times. It just made me realize that feminism is also a place to grow. Religion has to grow as a place of acceptance and tolerance and I think feminism should, too. No institution or body of thought is immune to the work that goes into making things more inclusive. I’m still a feminist, [but] feminism as an institution is not perfect. We can grow, too.
Do you have faith the Mormon church will increase representation of women in leadership roles?
Yes, absolutely. And there has been great change already happening within the church, it is so neat to see. [The Mormon church] has done a lot to increase the visibility of women in leadership. There’s been pushes in public institutions that are Mormon to have more pictures of female leadership on the walls, and I think that’s awesome. That whole idea of you can’t be what you don’t see, I love that and I can think of parallels [of] women in film [and] the burgeoning acknowledgment that we need better representation of women in positions of leadership in film. Then, at the same time, the church has made [same-sex marriage] an excommunicable offense. So it’s complicated, but I definitely have hope. The church is a part of our world [and] I have a tremendous amount of hope for things getting better in our world. [Look at] how much better things have gotten just in terms of talking about the representation of women in the media, for example. But that progress is not linear. It’s much messier than that [and] the road is long.
What is your hope for Where We Stand?
I have a small goal and a big goal. My small goal is that it makes people think more broadly about who are the people talking about real social change and that they might not always fit our expectations of what a change-maker looks like. Something that I love about the film and I’ve loved talking about with Ordain Women is that they don’t care about fitting the expectation of what a feminist looks like. They’re feminists and they’re working hard to make the world a better place and I think that’s really awesome. The bigger goal is for people to be less judgmental just in general and to see someone else’s struggle as something you can relate to on a more personal level. What’s been really cool showing the film at festivals is that now people [are] coming up to me who were raised Muslim, for example, and saying, “Wow, I had never related the experience of being Mormon to my own, but that really struck a chord.” I think that is the magic of film, that you get to sit and have an experience of someone else’s life that you wouldn’t have had otherwise. I hope that I can give that experience of other people’s lives to a bunch of people so that they realize we’re not as different as we think we are.
Want to help Where We Stand achieve broader distribution? Contribute to the film’s Indiegogo campaign here!
This interview has been edited and condensed.