Claiming Our Name

Several years ago someone made a surprising and hurtful remark to me. This person was aware that I was working through painful memories of childhood sexual abuse perpetrated by my father. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, because she had previously implied she did not believe these horrific events really happened. On this particular occasion, she said, “It seems if it were as bad as you say it was, you wouldn’t want to keep your father’s name.” I had legally taken back my maiden name a few years earlier after divorcing my husband. So, indeed, I carried my father’s surname. I still do.

After recovering from the initial shock of her remark, I responded by saying, “I wasn’t the one who sullied this family’s name. I am not the one who corrupted its value in the world and made it into something ugly. In fact, I am reclaiming the name and cleaning up generations of familial destruction perpetrated by a long line of abusers. So, actually, I deserve to bear this name even more than my father does.”

This experience empowered me, not only because I declared the truth of my life to someone who wanted to deny and invalidate it, but also because I claimed my name – with all its sordid history—and, by so doing, I transformed it into something beautiful and ennobling for me and for my children.

Feminism (the name and the cause) has been made to seem ugly by those who are not comfortable with the intent and meaning of feminist efforts. For many Latter-day Saints, feminism equals selfishness, un-womanly-ness, unrighteousness, or simply “Not The Lord’s Way.” My own opinion is that even the most radical of feminists have been and are working to ennoble and uplift women. For me, this is an important part of the Lord’s work in mortality–to lift and empower all His children.

I may be preaching to the choir, but perhaps there are those among our readers who are uncomfortable calling themselves feminist, uncomfortable with the word itself because of negative connotations. I can understand this. I kept a safe distance from the word for quite some time. Until I remembered how it felt to claim the truth of my family name—the truth of who I am and where I come from.

Melody and Hannah Melody

Melody with her grand daughter, Hannah Melody.

My four sisters and I call ourselves The Newey Girls. Our daughters are Newey Girls too, as are our granddaughters–regardless of their surnames. They are part of a legacy of courageous work that we, their mothers, have done for ourselves and ultimately for them and for their brothers. By stating this fact clearly, firmly and without apology, we bring beauty and honor to a name that might otherwise be held in derision. I have a secret hope that many more LDS women will find the courage to bring their particular goodness to the name Feminist. What a wonderful, powerful, legacy this could add to the already rich history of the LDS church organization and to the community of saints whom we love.

Last week I linked via social media to an essay written by Neylan McBaine. I highlighted this:

If you care about the spiritual, emotional and intellectual development opportunities available to you, your wife, your sister or your daughter, you are a feminist. Period. Based on this definition, the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is inherently feminist . . .  - Neylan McBaine

One of my friends, Meg, responded as follows:

You know, I’ve stopped calling myself a feminist because of the unwanted (by me) baggage of the word. Its true definition and the definition assigned by other people are often so at odds. Perhaps when we reclaim its real meaning (and understand that is an umbrella that covers so many different schools of thought), I will begin to use it again. Until then, I guess I am a child-of-God-ist. All of us together, male, female. No patriarchy, no matriarchy. Just united in true equality. It happens in my house…so it can happen in the world at large, right? Maybe? Someday?

My response to her:

Meg, I love your thoughts. I’m a feminist ;)

As a result of this brief interaction, Meg reflected on her negative associations with feminism and wrote an essay about a shift in her perspective. I think her words may help Exponent readers who are reluctant to fully acknowledge their feminist heart. Here is the essay. And here is one quote I particularly love:

It is not owned by any one person, any one ideology, any one movement. Feminism belongs to every girl that hoped to make her life better. It is the birthright of any woman that has looked into the night sky and felt the heat of the stars reflected in the chambers of her heart. It belongs in holy places and in the workplace and around kitchen tables. It isn’t radical. It is right. – Meg Conley

The act of naming ourselves is an act of empowerment and self-respect. We are Christian, we are Daughters of God, we are Mormon (a name reclaimed by our religious community).

My name is Melody Newey. I am a kind, compassionate, courageous, hard-working, nurturing and maternal, morally sensitive disciple of Christ.

I’m a feminist.

 

Who are you?

What are some of your names?

If you have felt to call yourself feminist, can you do so now?

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Pioneers: Just Surviving Their Own Journey

Ours was not a family whose heritage was lauded. Although both maternal and paternal ancestral lines are rich with faithful pioneers, their stories were not recounted during family home evenings in my childhood or held up to remind us of our relative specialness in the Latter-day Saint community. We celebrated pioneer day with other ward-members. I don’t recall it being any more significant in our home than any other ward picnic. That our forebears had been among those saints who suffered and worked their way across the plains to relative freedom in the harsh Utah desert was simply a matter of fact, a remote history of which I was vaguely aware.

I mention this because I’ve heard people say that pioneer day celebrates the heritage of a relatively few Latter-day Saints. I suppose this is true. But, you know what? I only found my place among those good folks out of desperation. It had little to do with family history. And there is a place for everyone who needs or wants a place among her pioneering brothers and sisters, related or not.

I raised my kids as a single woman. I maintained swamp coolers, changed flat tires on my car in six inches of snow (I kid you not), rode my bike to a from work when the car was broken down, killed the occasional rat when the compost pile drew them to the backyard, scraped and painted fifty-year-old true divided-light windows . . . I could go on and on.

One particular day I was fighting with weeds alongside the garage — trying to create a stepping-stone pathway to a side door. It was hot. I was sweating. I was tired and overwhelmed. I was pretty much ready to curse God and die because I’d had it with how hard my life was. I remember crying as I worked. Literally. (You know how pioneer children sang as they walked and walked and walked? It was like that. Only crying.) Somewhere in the midst of my angst I began to pray for help and strength. I spoke aloud as I worked. I told God how unfair it was that LDS men could look to the scriptures and find all manner of good male examples of faithful endurance, but women had nothing. Nothing by comparison anyway.

“Seriously!” I whined, “What’s up with that?”

As you might imagine (because this is, after all, a metaphorical pioneer tale) the heavens opened and, with characteristic kindness and generosity, I was reminded of something my little sister had given me earlier that year: an excerpt of journal entries from my great, great – I honestly don’t know how many greats – grandmother, Sarah Pippen Jolley. Sarah had come to Utah with the early saints. I stopped my work and went to the house post-haste to search for the document. When I found it and read it, I wept and wept and wept. Kind of like pioneer children.

Here are some of her words:

Broken Wagon Wheels 1846, we left Nauvoo, crossed the river on the 5th of May into Iowa, Van Buren County. There we lived a little over two years. We had traveled around until we had not much to travel on, but a large family. We were getting ready to start for Salt Lake City when my husband was taken sick and was ill twenty days. He died on the 29th of April, 1849. Then I was left with ten children, no home, among strangers and a babe in my arms three months old. I was broken up. When he was on his deathbed he would tell me what he wanted me to do, a little at a time. He said he was going to leave me for a time, but he wanted me, as soon as I could, to go to the valleys of the mountains to the bosom of the Church and bring the children with me. I buried him the 1st day of May at Kearoch Way graveyard, Van Buren County, Iowa.

The second day of July the children and I started for Council Bluffs.

Sarah is my grandmother. She is also your grandmother. She is Everywoman.

She couldn’t possibly know that her life, her humble, often meaningless life with its particular hardships, would find me a hundred-and-some-years later in my backyard, screaming to the sky for a crumb of feminist hope in the scriptures, for a God-given example of how to be a woman in the world. All she was doing was surviving her own journey. And writing a few words about it. That’s all any of us can do. We are all pioneers. We have no idea how the actions we take now will offer hope, strength or greater freedom for those who come after us–perhaps many generations after us. But we do it. Just like Sarah.

You are part of my family and I am part of yours. We’re on this journey together.

Wagons ho, sisters! Wagons ho!

 

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Eschewing Approval and Validation

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“You are forgetting one thing,” I pause and stare directly into the eyes of the man sitting across from me, “I do not need your approval or validation.”

This sentence is a feature of many of my daydreams. I have never actually said it out loud but it is my secret fantasy (or not so secret anymore) to be able to say this phrase and mean it. In my daydream I am strong and competent, self-assured and bold. I do not worry about what people think about me. I trust myself more than those around me. I do scary things. I do not care about being liked as much as I care about being right. In my daydreams the only approval and validation I need is from me. “So….” you might ask, “why are these daydreams and not reality?”

Over the course of the last decade I have made a conscious effort to distinguish between the thoughts and behaviors I actually desire and those I have acquired via enculturation in the Mormon culture. There are silly things like discovering that I do not actually like to wear dresses and skirts even though they have made up my “nice” wardrobe for the past thirty years. Likewise, I have discovered that I do not mind disagreeing with those around me. I’m comfortable with pluralism. I have learned that we don’t all have to think alike despite thirty-plus years of Sunday School enculturation instructing me otherwise. I have also made more serious discoveries. I have learned that I have a deep rooted instinct to acquiesce to male authority figures. I think this stems from our all-male church hierarchy where men will always have more power and authority over me. I did not realize I had internalized these thoughts until I witnessed my non-Mormon colleagues talking back to an academic leader and my first thought was “You can’t do that.” Since then I have paid closer attention to how I interact with males in power. I’ve discovered that my behavior completely changes in front of church leaders. I am quiet and deferential. I hold in my thoughts and opinions. Because I have no social capital or source of collegiality without their endorsement, I am reliant on their approval and validation for my sense of worth.

I am convinced that LDS culture produces women who are constantly seeking the approval and validation of others to justify and legitimize their own thoughts, beliefs, appearance and worth.

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When DIMK Met ESL

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My story starts like this: I was very excited when the Church released Daughters in my Kingdom, the new history of the Relief Society. But months went by, and despite my best intentions, I didn’t read it. I know. I suck. Yet I felt a bit frustrated that the book was not incorporated into Church curriculum. At the very least it seems like it should be studied in Relief Society itself.

Meanwhile, it came to my attention that a few women in our ward were struggling with their English. In another lifetime I taught English as a second language and so I mentioned to our ward’s welfare specialist, Carrie, that I’d be happy to help them. This is where things got tricky.  There are procedures and handbooks and certain members of the ward council who feel they needed to be involved in Every. Single. Decision. So while Carrie thought it would be very helpful to have such a group, it might take ages to set up and then would be controlled by well meaning leaders who just can’t keep their fingers out of other people’s pies. No me gusta.

So I cut out the hierarchy. I started a group on my own, just as friends. If it’s not a calling, then I’m under nobody’s jurisdiction (can you tell I have issues with micromanagement?).  As soon as I made that decision I felt so good about it. I invited a few women, found a time that worked, and tried to come up with a study plan. What these women really need is to just talk. But we needed a text to read monthly as our springboard, something that would be interesting but also spiritual.  And as I pondered this last September at the Exponent Women’s Retreat, it hit me—DIMK was the perfect solution.

It’s not an easy text for a non-native to read, but I don’t regret my choice.  A couple of the women are recent converts and I’m proud to have them learn about the early sisters and how kick butt they were. We’ve had fascinating discussions about polygamy (“yes, Joseph did indeed have multiple wives”), the temple, how RS was disbanded and started again. And of course the big cliché is true: I swear I am learning more from these women than they are learning from me. I usually end up crying at some point because I am overcome by the strength and determination of these sisters who are all pioneers.

Let me share what happened this month and then I’ll stop my gushing over my Haitian/Nepalese/Dominican sisters.  As is the case with many wards, if you are not on time to ours, you will sit in the foyer. My 13 year old loves when we’re late on Fast Sunday because we get to play “Name that Testimony.” We were on the couch and hear a woman bearing her testimony. I’m usually really good at it. But this time I was stumped. I sat there, entranced by the lovely testimony, and when I stood up to peak in the chapel, I could not believe my eyes. There was Yvette, my shyest, quietest, least fluent friend up there being articulate and totally proficient. I just cried. After sacrament the entire ward was atwitter about the dramatic change in Yvette.

We had our meeting that night. We were reading Chapter 4 and there’s this part where Eliza Snow is encouraging women to speak up: Some women felt reluctant and unprepared to speak in public. Sister Snow gave the following counsel to such sisters: “Do not let your president have to say all. … Has not God endowed you with the gift of speech? … If you are endowed with the Spirit of God, no matter how simple your thoughts may be, they will be edifying to those who hear you.”  When I finished reading that out loud, I told Yvette how proud I was that she spoken in front of the entire ward, that that is no small thing. Yvette smiled coyly and said she had been reading the assignment the night before. When she read that passage, she felt as if Sister Smith was speaking directly to her and she knew she had to get up and share her testimony on Sunday, no matter what. She really was endowed with “the gift of speech.”  Is she miraculously fluent now? Is she reciting the Gettysburg Address? No.  But something is different. She’s more confident and is striking up conversations.  I’d love to take the credit, but it’s the Spirit of God and more specifically, the Spirit of Eliza. God bless you President Snow.  You do good work.

Have you read DIMK? What do you think? How would you like to see if used in the Church?

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Shades of Power

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I have been thinking a lot about power, empowerment, and disempowerment recently. For me, the root of religious empowerment is access to decision making power. As such, I feel that the structure of the church disempowers women. There are many things we can do to empower women in the church (as has been discussed often on this blog). While these things are helpful, true empowerment needs to come in the form of actual decision making power on all levels of church hierarchy. This raises the question: without this major step what access to other forms of power do women have?

INFORMAL POWER: One of the most common reasons I hear from women of why they “do not feel unequal in the church” is because they have access to the formal structure of decision making through their callings and husbands. They feel like their voice is heard and considered to their satisfaction by the males in their lives. While this is a positive thing and something that is obviously “lovely, of good report, and sought after,” it still places the apex of power singularly in the hands of males and women’s access to it dependent on their good will. Unfortunately  not all men are interested in women’s contributions and there are no formal structures to ensure this. The other difficulty with informal power is that it is not something that is granted or assumed. Unlike the priesthood responsibilities which all members are taught about regularly, informal power is not discussed, taught, or even regularly encouraged– so that empowered women tend to find a niche where they are happy with their informal power and disempowered women do not even realize informal power exists or how to access it. How can we better empower women to utilize informal power? 

FINANCIAL POWER: Many of the women mentioned in the New Testament after Christ’s resurrection were benefactors who housed, fed, and financially supported Paul and his missionary efforts. For the most part, rich women are mentioned at a higher rate in religious texts than poor women. This tells us something about the power of financial wealth. I have a handful of very very wealthy friends and they have access to church leaders on a level that I will never have. If there is a tabernacle, a BYU project, a temple, a mall, or a cause that the church does not want to spend tithing money on, they reach out to their wealthiest members and ask for donations. This is no different than any other organization on the planet. Money gives you access to leadership. Whether or not those leaders listen to you is another matter.

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The Weak Will Be Made Strong, One Calling at a Time

Two things to know about me: I love fiction, and I dislike Church books.  I try to keep an open mind when some well meaning friend gives me the latest Deseret Book on faith or discipleship, but I rarely make it past the intro. Way too didactic. And boring. But when friends gave me a copy of For All the Saints by Kristen Smith Dayley, I knew I had to read it. The book is based on hundreds of interviews of Boston saints, many of whom I know, and many of the interviews I personally transcribed for what was then a High Priest project. So reading the book was like visiting old friends.

The theme that resonated with me is how tempting it is to deny people growth opportunities in the church. It is so much easier to call competent, experienced people than to train newbies. How many times have you said, “this will be easier if I just do it myself.” But as I reacquainted myself with these Boston saints, I was inspired to make a few changes in how I did my calling with satisfying results.

As the homemaking/enrichment counselor, putting on the RS opening social is my job. I have a lovely little committee and had assigned each to do things I thought were within their comfort zone. One sister, whom I’ll call Salma, is a very shy convert with amazing organizational skills. As we were welcoming almost 20 new sisters that night, I had tasked Salma with emailing the visiting teachers to make sure each new sister was given a personal introduction. Totally in her skill set. But right before we were to do the intros, I thought about the book and realized that I needed to have Salma be in charge of welcoming the group and facilitating  the introductions.  She started to protest but I insisted she could do it. Salma looked terrified as she stood in the room of more than 50 women, and I felt awful for making her do something that would have been nothing to an attention hog like me. But she rocked it. Salma shone that night like I’d never seen before. She was the perfect MC: witty banter, silly observations, great transitions from sister to sister. I just basked in her awesomeness and wondered that it had taken so long to see this Salma. I overheard many women praising Salma and she glowed. She seems different now. People treat  her differently now.  They can better see her depth.  She could serve in any calling and succeed.

I now know that while my job is to arrange RS events, my calling is to take the women on my committee and help them blossom. It’s not just about comfort zones and getting things done most efficiently. One of my favorite exchanges in the book was two men discussing the pros and cons of calling “the weak.” One brother wondered if he had called the right person because he felt he was having to spend too much time doing follow up. The other one relied, “if you don’t need to check up on them, then you haven’t  asked the right person.” I look back at the callings I have held and see where I was fostered along the way. Some jobs have been a natural fit, but others have stretched me.  Like the one I have now. We are supposed to focus on emergency preparedness.  Tomorrow night’s event is all about 72 hour kits and all I can think is how many cans of Diet Coke can I fit into a backpack? But as it says in Ether 12, if we have faith and are humble, the weak will be made strong. So as I am trying to be less snarky about making ready for an apocalypse. And as I am given assignments, I try to be prayerful about which jobs to give to my committee.  I have learned that while doing it myself might be easier, but it is not necessarily better.

What callings have stretched you? Have you seen people transformed by their calling?

 

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