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Creating a Feminist Religious Counterpublic: RLDS Feminists and Women's Ordination Advocacy in America, 1970–1985

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 December 2023


The 1970s witnessed an efflorescence of religious feminism in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, particularly around the issue of women's ordination. We pose a model for understanding this development—the formation of publics/counterpublics—and explore how it illuminates our case study. Drawing upon oral history interviews and archival sources, we document how RLDS women created independent publications, grassroots consciousness-raising groups, feminist classes and conferences, and Women-Church–inspired worship to reimagine priesthood within their church. We conclude that the lens of a counterpublic offers a capacious view of our topic, one capable of integrating both social movement theory and network theory. Furthermore, we suggest that the RLDS example featured in this essay is simply a manifestation of a larger late twentieth-century American “feminist religious counterpublic” formed across many religious denominations and groups that held a shared feminist social imaginary.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s) 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture

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The authors wish to thank the following individuals who read and commented on earlier iterations of this essay: Elizabeth Pritchard, Mae Speight, Tillie Slosser, Amanda Hendrix-Komoto, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye, Jana Riess, Matthew Bowman, Patrick Mason, Carlotta Reinhardt, Cody Bloomfield, Sophie Askanase, Miriam Abrams, Nevia Selmon, Sadie Buerker, Zoe Kruse, Enely Turbi Alvarez, Indigo Sharp, Helen Sher, Louise Michel, Eva Kinnel, Laurel Kruger, Nora Mandelkern, Vivian Jacobs, and Bella Yaguda.

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9 Clare D. Vlahos, “A History of Early RLDS Spirituality, 1860–1885,” (PhD diss., University of Kansas, 1992).

10 Brunson, L. Madelon, Bonds of Sisterhood: A History of the RLDS Women's Organisation, 1842–1983 (Independence, MO: Herald Publishing House, 1985), 41Google Scholar.

11 Brunson, Bonds of Sisterhood, 41.

12 T. W. Smith, “Can Women Hold Office in the Church of Jesus Christ?” The Saints’ Herald, 37, no. 51 (December 20, 1890): 825–28.

13 E. G. Hodge, “Extracts from Letters,” The Saints’ Herald 38, no. 14 (April 4, 1891): 213.

14 Samuel A. Burgess, “The Position of Woman in the Church,” The Saints’ Herald 67, no. 25 (June 23, 1920): 593–94.

15 “President Smith Addresses Women: Outlines Ideals and Aims for Group,” The Saints’ HeraldConference Daily Edition, April 7, 1936, 54; Becky L. Savage, “A Journey toward the Ordination of Women in Community of Christ: A Historical Literature Review” (MA thesis, Graceland University, 2005), 30–31; “A Transcript of the Legislative Session,” The 1984 World Conference Transcript (Independence, MO: Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 1984), 142.

16 Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Cambridge, MA: Polity, 1962 trans 1989), 1–4; Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” Social Text 25/26 (1990): 56–80; Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics (abbreviated version),” Quarterly Journal of Speech 88, no. 4 (2002): 413–25; Pritchard, “Pilgrimages and Publics,” 68–69.

17 Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 32–36.

18 Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 91–92.

19 Pritchard, “Pilgrimage and Publics,” 80.

20 Pritchard, “Pilgrimage and Publics,” 80.

21 Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere,” 67.

22 Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere,” 67.

23 Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere,” 68.

24 Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” Public Culture 14, no. 1 (2002): 86.

25 Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” 86.

26 Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” 51.

27 Michael Warner, “The Evangelical Counterpublic” (University of Pennsylvania Libraries ASW Rosenbach Lectures in Bibliography, March 23–25, 2009),

28 Carolyn Raiser, “Women's Liberation in the Saints’ Church,” Courage: A Journal of History, Thought, and Action 3, no. 1 (1972): 44.

29 Raiser, “Women's Liberation,” 44; William D. Russell, “Courage: A Liberal Journal Foreshadows RLDS Doctrinal Shifts,” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 28 (2008): 137–56.

30 William D. Russell, “Ordaining Women and the Transformation from Sect to Denomination,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 36, no. 3 (2003): 61–64; Marge Troeh, interview by authors, March 9, 2022.

31 “The Process of Our Feminist Group,” Troeh Collection, Community of Christ Archives (CCA), Independence, Missouri.

32 Sharon Welch became a Unitarian in the late 1970s, but she continued to occasionally attend AWARE retreats and conferences as late as November 1984. Helen Pearson Smith, an AWARE supporter and member of the RLDS Women's Commission, joined the United Church of Christ in the early 1980s, but continued serving on the commission until 1984. Gary Burrell and Sharon Welch, “This Mortar, These Dreams: Sharon Welch and the Ethic of Risk,” The World (November/December 1989): 8–10; “Saturday Matins,” AWARE Conception Abbey Retreat, November 17, 1984; Marge Troeh, interview by authors, March 9, 2022; “Women's Ministry Commission, 1982–1984,” Marge Troeh Collection, CCA.

33 The exceptions prove the rule. See Claudia L. Bushman, “Mormons and the Public Forum,” Exponent II 6, no. 4 (1980): 4; Charlotte Alvoet Bleh, “BYU Women's Conference: A Gathering of Women,” Exponent II 8, no. 3 (1982): 9. For a general overview of LDS women's feminism, see Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Mormon Women in the History of Second-Wave Feminism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 43, no. 2 (2010): 45–63.

34 W. B. Pat Spillman, “Adjustment or Apostasy? The Reorganized Church in the Late Twentieth Century,” Journal of Mormon History 20, no. 2 (1994): 1–15.

35 “The Process of Our Feminist Group,” Troeh Collection, CCA.

36 Marilu Goodyear, interview by authors, June 30, 2022. Mary Lou Goodyear now spells her name Marilu Goodyear.

37 Mary Lou Goodyear and Joanie Shoemaker to Sisters, July 1, 1975, Troeh Collection, CCA.

38 Mary Lou Goodyear and Joanie Shoemaker to Sisters, July 1, 1975, Troeh Collection, CCA.

39 Heather Huyck, “Indelible Change: Woman Priests in the Episcopal Church,” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 51, no. 4 (1982): 388; Jane Hong, “The Asian American Movement and the Church,” Journal of Asian American Studies 25, no. 1 (2022): 67; James Treat, “Introduction: Native Christian Narrative Discourse,” in Native and Christian: Indigenous Voices on Religious Identity, ed. James Treat (New York: Routledge, 1996), 14–15.

40 Mary Lou Goodyear to Friends, April 21, 1976, Troeh Collection, CCA.

41 Lois Taylor Braby, “The Women's Liberation Movement in the Community of Christ,” ca. 2001, unpublished paper in possession of the authors; Goodyear interview; European University Institute, “International Women's Day 2020: Looking Back on the UN International Decade for Women from a European Perspective,” EUI Historical Archives of the European Union,

42 Nancy Ross, David J. Howlett, Jacquie Bethel, and Vicki Beebe, “The Women's Ordination Movement in the RLDS Church,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the John Whitmer Historical Association Conference, online conference, October 23, 2021,

43 “AWARE,” ca. 1981, Ruth Ann Wood personal collection, shared with the authors.

44 “The Process of Our Feminist Group,” Troeh Collection, CCA, Independence, Missouri.

45 Suzanne Trewhitt McLaughlin, interview by authors, March 10, 2022; Ruth Ann Wood, interview by authors, April 26, 2022.

46 “The Process of Our Feminist Group,” Troeh Collection, CCA; Sharon Welch, “Supplemental Bibliography,” Ruth Ann Wood personal collection.

47 “Summary of AWARE Goal-Setting Session,” November 23, 1981, Ruth Ann Wood personal collection.

48 Marge Troeh, interview by authors, March 9, 2022.

49 Mary Lou Goodyear to Friends, April 21, 1976, Marge Troeh Collection, CCA; Barbara Howard and Richard P. Howard, interview by authors, April 26, 2021; Sharon Welch Patton, “A Critique of the Hierarchical Nature of Priesthood,” AWARE Conference, March 1977, Marge Troeh Collection, CCA.

50 The AWARE newsletter never had a title or regular columns, but simply included announcements for the next gathering and often included a few photocopied feminist cartoons or a short article from Ms. magazine. Examples may be found in Marge Troeh Collection, CCA; and Ruth Ann Wood personal collection.

51 Ruth Ann Wood interview; Marjorie Troeh, “Laying the Foundation for Women's Ministry Including Ordination,” unpublished paper, John Whitmer Historical Association, September 25, 2009, outline, Troeh collection; “Policy of Inclusive Language in Church Publications and Other Written Materials,” RLDS First Presidency, November 1978, Troeh Collection, CCA.

52 Marjorie Troeh to Rev. Delores J. Moss, August 20, 1981, RG 30-2, f16, First Presidency Papers, CCA.

53 Marjorie Troeh to Sonia Johnson (draft), undated (circa 1979), Marge Troeh Collection, CCA.

54 Marge Troeh, interview by authors, March 9, 2022.

55 Ruth Ann Wood interview; Howard and Howard interview.

56 “Feminine Images of God” AWARE Worship Service, August 9, 1982, Ruth Ann Wood personal collection; “Our Vision—The Bonds of Sisterhood,” Conception Abbey AWARE Retreat, November 18, 1984, Ruth Ann Wood personal collection.

57 Charmaine Chvala-Smith, interview by Naomi Brill, Em Papineau, Raleigh Williams, March 26, 2020; Suzanne Trewhitt McLaughlin, interview by authors, March 10, 2022.

58 Mark Chaves and James Cavendish, “Recent Changes in Women's Ordination Conflicts: The Effect of a Social Movement on Intraorganizational Controversy,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 36, no. 4 (1997): 574–84.

59 Mark Chaves, Ordaining Women: Culture and Conflict in Religious Organizations, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 167–68.

60 Chaves, Ordaining Women, 172.

61 Chaves, Ordaining Women, 172.

62 Marge Troeh, “Notes from January 31, 1975 Meeting of RLDS Women's Caucus,” Marge Troeh Collection, CCA.

63 “A.W.A.R.E. [Phone Tree] 8/8/81,” Marge Troeh Collection, CCA.

64 Craig Calhoun, Dilip Gaonkar, Benjamin Lee, Charles Taylor, and Michael Warner, “Modern Social Imaginaries: A Conversation,” Social Imaginaries 1, no 1 (2015): 191.

65 Calhoun et al., “Modern Social Imaginaries,” 191.

66 James, Barber, Putnam, and Warner, “Revisiting the Publics and Counterpublics,” 251.

67 Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” 86.

68 James, Barber, Putnam, and Warner, “Revisiting the Publics and Counterpublics,” 245.

69 Carolyn Raiser, “Women's Liberation in the Saints’ Church,” Courage: A Journal of History, Thought, and Action 3, no. 1 (1972): 44.

70 “An Interview with Marge Troeh,” Courage: A Journal of History, Thought, and Action 3, no. 2–3 (1973): 75.

71 W. Wallace Smith, “Personally Speaking . . . Views on Concerns of Youth,” Saints’ Herald 117, no. 2, February 1970, 43.

72 Sharon Welch, interview by authors, May 27, 2021.

73 Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Should Women Want Women Priests or Women-church?” Feminist Theology 20, no. 1 (2011): 67.

74 “AWARE Worship: Feminine Images of God,” August 9, 1982, Wood personal collection; Wood interview; Trewhitt McLaughlin interview; Howard and Howard interview.

75 Trewhitt McLaughlin interview.

76 William D. Russell et al., “Initially Rejected: Pioneers Reflect on the Early Struggle for Women's Ordination,” Restoration Studies 7 (2012): 24.

77 Mark S. Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” American Journal of Sociology 78, no. 6 (1973): 1360–80.

78 Howard and Howard interview.

79 Everton, Networks and Religion, 161.

80 Troeh interview by authors; Caryn E. Neumann, “Enabled by the Holy Spirit: Church Women United and the Development of Ecumenical Christian Feminism,” in Feminist Coalitions: Historical Perspectives on Second-Wave Feminism in the United States, ed. Stephanie Gilmore (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 113–34.

81 Siobhan Chandler, “Private Religion in the Public Sphere: Life Spirituality in Civil Society,” in Religions of Modernity: Relocating the Sacred to the Self and the Digital, eds. Stef Aupers and Dick Hautman (Boston: Brill, 2010), 81.

82 Marge Troeh, interview by authors, March 9, 2022.

83 Russell, “Ordaining Women and the Transformation from Sect to Denomination,” 63–64.

84 Troeh interview; Goodyear interview.

85 L. Madelon Brunson, “Strangers in a Strange Land: A Personal Response to the 1984 Document,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 17, no. 3 (1984): 15.

86 Troeh interview.

87 Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” 89.

88 Mae Speight, “The Ministerial Reformation: A History of Women and the Mainline, 1920–1980” (Ph D diss., University of Virginia, 2020), 150–51, 220, 247; Radford Ruether, “Should Women Want Womenpriests or Women-Church?” 67.

89 Mary J. Henold, Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 137–66; Pamela S. Nadell, Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women's Ordination, 1889–1985 (Boston: Beacon, 1999), 118–69; Speight, “The Ministerial Reformation,” 265–310; Courtney M. Just, “New American Zen: Examining American Women's Adaptation of Traditional Japanese Soto Zen Practice” (MA thesis, Florida International University, 2011), 34–53.

90 For example, see Susannah Heschel, “Orange on the Seder Plate,” The Women's Passover Companion: Women's Reflections on the Festival of Freedom, ed. Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, Tara Mohr, and Catherine Spector (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003), 73.

91 Speight, “The Ministerial Reformation,” 214.

92 Judith Plaskow, “The Coming of Lilith: Toward a Feminist Theology,” in Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion, ed. Judith Plaskow and Carol Christ (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), 198–209.

93 Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” 53.

94 This noted, AWARE co-founder Joanie Shoemaker started a feminist bookstore in Kansas City only a year after she helped start the RLDS feminist group. Shoemaker's bookstore was not an RLDS feminist bookstore per se, but a feminist bookstore owned by RLDS feminist. Goodyear interview.

95 Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere,” 68.

96 For one Black woman, ordination came at the cost of creating tension within her marriage, as her spouse felt that ordination would take her away from her domestic responsibilities. Even so, her father, a longtime elder in the church, wholeheartedly supported her, and she was ordained in the second wave of ordinations in 1986. Similarly, two Diné/Navajo women who lived off reservation related both family and cultural support for women's ordination. Furthermore, in a 2005 interview, a Native American ministries specialist in the church related that two other Diné/Navajo women, ordained and living on the reservation at the time, believed that women's ordination was “more like the white culture's ideas of gender roles changed and finally caught up with what was already traditional for Native peoples and the Navajo specifically.” Gwendolyn Hawks-Blue, interview by Clara Brill-Carlat, Zoe House, and Esther Kerns, April 2, 2020; Keith Russell, e-mail to author, February 28, 2005; Fern Thayer, telephone interview by author, April 16, 2005, Iowa City, Iowa; Ann Russell, telephone interview by author, March 28, 2005, Iowa City, Iowa.

97 Edwards, Gemma, “Habermas and Social Movements: What's New?Sociological Review 52, no. 1 (2004): 113CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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