I confess I am terrified to post this, and I shouldn’t be. I wrote it several months ago, and have been sitting on it because I’m scared of saying something wrong. I’m scared of retribution. I’m scared of inadvertently hurting other people, or giving the wrong impression. But falling to our fears has never gotten anyone anywhere.
I have decided to post this at long last because of Kate Kelly’s call to a disciplinary hearing.
The Sunday prior to the news the lesson in Relief Society was on the importance of Priesthood keys. This is supposed to be a great and important lesson, and in my ward parts of it were. However, at some point multiple women in my class took over the conversation and said how women are supposed to support the men and make sure they go on missions.
As a human, I think supporting others is great. It is a necessity for healthy relationships. That said, I don’t exist to support other people. It wasn’t my responsibility in high school to make sure my guy friends went on missions. It isn’t my responsibility to make sure they remain worthy Priesthood holders. I will gladly talk, love, and support. But that isn’t my purpose of existence.
Neither is my sole purpose to pop out babies, as another woman in my class mentioned. It was the tired remark of, “Men have Priesthood, but women get to have babies.” There are so many things wrong with that statement, the most obvious being that fatherhood is the parallel to motherhood, not Priesthood. But whenever someone tells me I get to have babies, and that that is the greatest contribution I can make, I think, “So… what you’re saying is that thus far in my life I’ve contributed nothing? And that so long as I remain single and childless I will continue to contribute nothing?” I know enough of my Heavenly Parents to know they value me for much more than my potential to give birth. But it is tiresome to hear it over and over again.
I bring up this Relief Society lesson for two reasons: One, it is another point on the lengthy list for why we need feminism in Mormonism. Motherhood and family are wonderful, wonderful things. But womanhood is not defined by them. Two, in this particular lesson I didn’t speak my opinion. It was one of those times when I just wasn’t sure what to say so instead I tuned out for the duration of that conversation and started writing a fairy tale, made a list of what my bakery would be like if I had one, and wrote a few affirmations including, “I am me, I am independent, I don’t exist to support men.” It was a long discussion. Or maybe I just temporarily turned manic and did a lot in a short period of time.
After that lesson, I was frustrated I didn’t say anything because I don’t want women to think that they are damaged or there is something wrong with them or they are sinners for having goals beyond marriage and family. A few days later, however, I was somewhat relieved I hadn’t said anything. My bishop sat in on that class and with the news about Kate Kelly, I had a sudden fear that if I had spoken up, I could face at the very least an uncomfortable interview just because I have feminist values and talked about them in Relief Society. That is a horrific thing to feel a few days after church.
I don’t want my church to be one where people with questions–be they questions about doctrine, tradition, culture, or anything–feel fear in the face of speaking them. I want the church I have loved for 25 years to be a safe haven. Where questions and concerns–as taboo as they may be–are greeted with the compassion I so easily imagine Christ showing to everyone he meets. So it is with that in mind I am taking my fear head on declaring as loudly as my pen–or in this case, keyboard–will allow, that I am a Mormon Feminist. I believe my Heavenly Parents see my gifts and voice as assets just as valuable as my fellow brothers. And with that, read on.
Feminism at large can be tricky because there isn’t a “Feminist Rulebook,” meaning there can be many feminists who have different ideas of what feminism seeks. This seems to be especially true in the Mormon feminist realm. However, despite differing opinions on many topics, feminists will agree that overall what we seek is gender equality.
I have decided to make my thoughts on the subject more well known because I see brave women reverently but proudly declare how they feel. And then I see people turn them away or call them sinners or tell them they should just leave the church. How can I turn my back on these brave women by omitting my affiliation with them? And it is a form of turning your back when you remain silent in the face of people or events about which you feel strongly.
So what does it mean to come out as a Mormon feminist? Again, all feminists–both men and women–will have slightly varying opinions on different matters. So what I believe can’t speak for all Mormon feminists–but hopefully will positively represent many and will be in line with the general philosophy.
As an adolescent making my way through the Young Women program, I generally felt frustration. I saw all the activities that the boys did and hated that as young women we were never taught any useful life skills. I hated having lesson after lesson about how I need to get married ASAP. I hated that “Girls Camp” consisted of beauty regimens as activities and despite being “certified” to tie knots and light fires, I never lit a fire at girls camp until my final year when I insisted I do so.
In short, I hated being treated like a dainty, pedestal-ridden baby-maker (Before anyone gets mad, let me clarify that having babies is awesome and wonderful and should never ever be frowned upon. Also, if one is dainty, that is also wonderful. I, however, am not therefore don’t enjoy being treated as such). The scouts and young men received all manner of attention, budgets, and accolades while we young women painted cardboard picture frames (Seriously–that was an activity one week. I painted mine solid red as quickly as I could then said, “Okay, I’m outta here,” and left. We didn’t even learn how to make frames, we just painted them!).
And then I graduated from high school. One of the first Relief Society lessons I attended was in my home ward when my Bishop taught and answered any questions the women had. For some reason, most of the questions pertained to sex. I have to admit, it was somewhat weird learning intimate details about the sex lives of the people in my ward, most of whom are of retiring age. But what I remember most is the brief summary that all men think about sex constantly, and that if a girl hugs a guy he is immediately thinking about having sex with said girl, regardless of relationship status. I started to wonder if I should repent for hugging my recently departed missionary friends goodbye.
Let that sink in: I was wondering if I should repent for giving out HUGS! Hugs! A fairly universal sign of affection and comfort! Gee, whiz.
The lesson implied, as is ever implied and/or bluntly stated in the church, that women are responsible for men’s actions when it comes to sexual purity and appetite. Let me point out that that teaching is completely false and is in fact contrary to our doctrine of agency.
I have since realized that hugging is perfectly fine (obviously).
Leaving Young Women and entering Relief Society as a Young Single Adult (YSA) is about when people earnestly begin to ask you when you’re getting married. If you are an unmarried YSA there is a general attitude (yea for places and people to whom this hasn’t happened!) that there is either something wrong with you (you’re a psycho, you’re lazy, you’re not living in line with the gospel, you’re too picky) or that you are hopelessly unfortunate and deserve pity–especially if you are a woman.
I have never been married so can’t speak from first hand experience, but I am absolutely sure marriage is incredible and wonderful when you find the right person. But that’s the key component: You have to find the right person! I have observed that there is a huge emphasis on marriage as a sacred Third Entity instead of encouraging people to find the right person. Thus people get married lickety-split because they think it is their duty to the church. Sometimes this works out. Other times, it results in hasty divorce or a lifetime of misery.
At the age of 25 I am old enough to realize that I am absolutely okay being single. Is that to say every guy I’ve ever dated was horrible? No! I have had the privilege of associating with some truly great men. But my life’s success is not measured by my relationship status, and likewise my personhood is not defined by it. And besides that, I’m only 25! That is by no means old! And in all honesty, I sort of resent the fact that so many people think my primary concern should be getting married as opposed to furthering my education or seeking financial independence or travelling the world or basically just being me. Anyone who is a counselor or married can correct me, but it seems that if you put marriage as the sacred Third Entity before yourself or before your potential partner, you are setting yourself up for an unhealthy marriage. One must be happy and okay alone before one can be happy and okay as a partner. Right?
Now, what’s all this rambling about? It seeks to explain why there is a need for a feminist movement within the church. And let me tell you, there is a need.
Let’s jump back to when I was in high school. For the most part, I have been blessed with good self-esteem and a positive body image. But then I heard Elder Oaks’ talk in which he told the young women we become porn when we don’t dress to the church’s standard of modesty (the first time I felt objectified, by the way). Shortly after that, my bust grew rapidly to a size 34DDD. With a size 34DDD, shirts, dresses, swimming suits, sports bras, regular bras don’t fit properly. Even shirts that are designed to be “modest” are tighter and lower-cut. Most clothing is designed to fit a C-cup or smaller so busty girls just have a difficult time.
With my large bust and increased difficulty in keeping everything covered, Elder Oaks’ talk stalked my mind. I became paranoid and felt guilty–felt guilty for something I have absolutely no control over! I stopped swimming, I stopped working out because swimming suits and workout clothes are too pornographic for the young men (my mentality then, not what is in any way true). I developed a belief that if only my boobs were smaller I’d be happier. I’d date more. I could run a marathon (While I have not yet run a full marathon, I have run three half-marathons–all with a large bust! Lesson: Don’t let your perceived body “flaws” stop you from doing what you want.)
One day I was crying because I needed something to fit and it wouldn’t. I tearfully explained to my mom about my concerns over being immodest and that I didn’t want to become porn to men and make them sin, and quoted Elder Oaks. I know my mom loves Elder Oaks (I do, too). But she looked at me and forcefully declared, “Elder Oaks has never had boobs!”
And she’s right, obviously. That is a mistake made over and over again by men in leadership positions, and not just about anatomy. As hard as they might try to understand what we as women live through, they have never been women. They might think they have a grip on what we need and want and experience, but they are trapped by their male biases simply because they are men. Does that make them bad people? No. But it does mean that without the help of women, they can’t meet the needs of women because they do not understand.
It took me years to really let what my mom said sink in, and thus years for my guilt and insecurities to begin to dissipate, but they did eventually start to dissipate. Unfortunately this was followed by the realization that this event is a direct result of rape culture, wherein women are taught it is our responsibility to prevent illicit thought or action on the part of men. Yep. The Mormon church has a major rape culture going on.
I have a gazillion (yes, that many) more experiences I could call upon to examine why the Mormon church needs a feminist movement. But as the hot topic of the day is female ordination and the Ordain Women movement, I think it is time to move onto that.
I have thought long and hard about female ordination. It has consumed many hours of thought and those hours of thought have reshaped the way I listen to talks and lessons at church. This new lens is frequently heartbreaking, yet I persevere because even when my world and my church are tumultuous and painful and seemingly unbearable, I do have faith in Christ and it is his guidance and example I want to follow.
I just have two more experiences before I really move onto what I think about all this.
First, from my childhood. I grew up in a single-parent household. Before my parents’ divorce, my dad was around but not involved with the church so there really wasn’t a Priesthood presence in my home. And after the divorce, well, obviously there still wasn’t Priesthood around.
I remember sitting in Sunday School classes, Primary lessons, and Young Women’s lessons about Father’s Blessings and feeling like those lessons didn’t apply. I felt outcast and like I was being punished for the choices made by others.
But what if women had held the Priesthood? My mom could have given me blessings. She could have healed me, sent me off to the first day of school with a Mother’s Blessing, given me blessings of comfort and guidance. And what is the reason she wasn’t able to? As a lifelong member of the LDS church, I don’t have an answer other than tradition, and tradition is not good enough.
Another experience: A year ago I was called to be an Activities Committee Co-Chair in my singles ward. I thought it an odd choice since I never go to activities, but I accepted the call with the assumption I have with all callings: That the Lord and the Spirit know more than I do.
I’ll be honest, it wasn’t my favorite calling. It seemed like instead of actually planning activities we just rehashed all the activities set down by the very first activities committee for that ward.
At any rate, we were preparing for the ward campout and had a basic plan. Maybe it was a bad plan, I don’t know. But I do know that one day we had a plan, the next day that plan was changed without consulting or telling me–a co-chair, need I remind you. How did that happen? Well, my Priesthood holding co-chair discussed it with a Priesthood holding 2nd Counselor of the Bishopric.
What did I learn from that experience? I learned that my opinion and plans and presence don’t really matter. What matters is the Priesthood and since I don’t have it, plans can be completely changed without consulting me, despite that at face-value my opinion is supposed to matter.
One grand theme Mormon feminists talk about is being excluded from decision-making circumstances and opportunities. An activities committee might not be the most important example one could come up with. But, as we are constantly reminded, every calling is important. So why was my voice ignored and shut out?
Is it necessary for women to hold the Priesthood in order for women to be treated better and to be truly valued as much as church leaders claim women already are? Maybe, maybe not. Many will argue that the Priesthood isn’t necessary for women to have a more inclusive role in the church and that may very well be true. However, it seems that as long as only men hold the Priesthood, women will continue to be devalued and not taken seriously. It is reminiscent of the “separate but equal” mentality used to justify segregation.
As I said before, I have spent a very long time pondering these things and working them out in my mind. I have worked out that it makes absolute sense that women hold the Priesthood and that we will at some point do so, in addition to learning more about Heavenly Mother and her roles. I am now in the “bring it to the Lord” phase of figuring out what will happen in the church. As I am still in that process I don’t want to proclaim to know everything (even if I were finished with the process I still wouldn’t want to claim to know everything! This is a line upon line church, right?). However, as I read and watch and listen I find more hope and peace and love within the Mormon feminist community than I do in other places.
I had a teacher in high school who, among other great words of wisdom, said, “Pay attention to what makes you cry.” And I do. I pay close attention. Sometimes I work out exactly what triggers the tears, other times I don’t. But when I watch video footage of women request entrance into the Priesthood Session of General Conference, I cry. When I read the experiences of women who desire Priesthood authority, I cry. When I think back to my childhood and remember how much of an outcast I felt simply because no one in my household could give me blessings, I cry.
And, with the exception of my memory from childhood, I am not crying out of sadness. A bit of heartbreak, yes. But more so out of beauty and hope and love. These women aren’t rabble-rousers who know nothing about the Gospel. They aren’t protesters. These are men and women who have served missions, are active in the church, who know and understand the Gospel, and who have strong testimonies of Jesus Christ and His church. So what is really making me cry? I believe it is the Spirit. The Spirit is strong with these women and it touches my heart.
And to be completely and brutally blunt, these women remind me more of Christ than the people who turn them away or beat them with scorn. Because what are they doing? They are asking for opportunities to be closer to and learn more from God. Christ is our ultimate example. He sought wisdom from our Heavenly Parents. Why are women being shamed and turned away for doing the same thing?
I’m still working things out through prayer. But I find it increasingly hard to believe that a God who truly loves his sons and daughters equally would allow a culture to persist that holds one gender on a caged pedestal and allows the other to be free and make decisions.
And so I pray. I pray for answers. I pray for a healthy dialogue between the Brethren and concerned women of the church. I pray for patience and peace. And I hope that by the time I have daughters, they can be a part of this church and feel their talents and opinions are truly valued, and not just whether or not they have fertile, fertile loins.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is truly beautiful, and it is a message of hope and peace. But we can’t wear the name of Christ like a badge of courage while even one person feels fear because of their questions. He went after the one. It is our job to dispel fear and include all our brothers and sisters with the same love and compassion as our Savior.