Guest Post by Emily Holsinger Butler
A Catholic friend of mine once offered the idea that world religions exist for one single purpose: to control women. “A bit reductive, no?” was my response. But this guy was wicked smart—never flippant, never glib. And his assertion has stayed with me like a compass point. I refer to it whenever “things happen” in our Mormon universe. Who is trying to control whom, I ask.
I’ve been controlled, sure. In fact, I’ve often given courtesy control to people out of sheer politeness—like all those times on my mission when I submitted to a young district leader’s efforts to foist a personal priesthood interview on me. That was how the game was played. If there was a priesthood leader present, a sister would hop out of the driver’s seat and let him commandeer the wheel. “Take ‘er for a spin, Elder! Don’t scratch the paint!”* Results varied. It was usually fine, and sometimes funny.
Controlling women—have I been complicit? Heck yeah. I’ve collaborated. I’m not proud of myself. Holy cow, I’ve been Vichy France with a temple recommend.** Like that Saturday in 1994, at some church basketball tournament. As a very lovely break from law school exertions, I played on our ward’s women’s basketball team, coached to great effect by our Stake President. It was super fun. We made it to some sort of regional event, and drove down to a building in southern Virginia on the appointed day. Men were playing in a separate but equal tournament on the full-sized court. We were playing on a smaller one, and I wasn’t about to look that gift horse in the mouth, believe you me. As the female players gathered together, we were addressed by a priesthood leader who may or may not have also been the referee (I don’t recall). He outlined a few basics of the tourney, and then, in all seriousness, admonished us to dress modestly on court.
Incredulous, I looked at my teammates. We were for the most part women of a certain age, some of a more certain age than others. Our power forward was a professional nurse of repute. Our best shooter, the only one who could almost dunk, was the Stake President’s wife (and mother of many). Then there was me—I was a terrible player, but was equipped with two sports bras (worn simultaneously) and shorts that covered my thighs very adequately. I honestly don’t remember the other women’s names, but do remember their tolerant, almost vacant expressions as the brother went on about the necessity of sleeves and such. Nobody batted an eye. We regarded him with distant benevolence. We permitted him to tell us how to dress.
And so it was that we were unprepared for the vision that was unleashed upon us a few moments after the good brother concluded his remarks. It was then that the men’s teams emerged from their changing area. Unlike us, they had actual uniforms with actual numbers. On the other hand, it was clear that said uniforms had been handed down through generations of Mormon men, languishing in a Stake Center closet between basketball tournaments that began sometime in 1972. Sleeves they had none. Manufactured from some sort of skin-tight polyester fabric, the shorts stopped mere centimeters south of the groin area, which (how to put this) was exceptionally pronounced, if not practically articulated—so clingy they might have been codpieces for all intents and purposes. The men’s teams were composed primarily of middle-aged priesthood holders who (like us) were in it for a good time, and who (like us) could stand to lose a good twenty or thirty or forty pounds. It would have been a tender mercy for me to offer my second sports bra to any number of those players. Yeah. Their costumes left very little to the imagination.
Again I looked at my teammates. Bless them, their faces were frozen in alarm, not at what they were seeing, but at what was about to happen. We removed ourselves at once to a secluded area behind the bleachers, and fell to the floor where we rolled around unleashing howls of laughter. Personally, I laughed so hard I pulled a muscle in my abdomen, which didn’t help my game at all. We laughed until the tears ran. Someone almost choked. It wasn’t pretty.
What did I learn that day? Can’t say, really. But it does occur to me that we have a ways to go in our church before we can say that we love each other more than we love controlling each other.
Play on, sisters.
*It was, in fact, literally the case that sisters did not drive cars in my mission. That privilege was reserved for the missionaries who worked in the mission office. Who, incidentally, were all elders.
**I’m paraphrasing the wonderful Caitlin Moran, here. Email me if you want the original quote, which is pretty salty.
Emily Holsinger Butler is a hausfrau living in Utah with delusions of grandeur & survival, a writer of books, a hoper of all things and a believer in several of them.