Changing the Church: One Pantsuit at a Time

Posted by on August 24, 2012 in feminism, Gender roles, Heavenly Mother, Mormon women | 19 comments

Young Mormon feminists fill me with awe. Intelligent and well-educated, they have or are working towards fulfilling professional careers—even if their current role is SAHM. Not so my generation. When I graduated from a small high school in Utah County in 1959, only five of the 55 girls in my high school class went directly to college. And why should they? The only jobs for women we knew about were teacher, nurse, and secretary. Smart girls took typing and shorthand during high school, went to work in a local bank or business, and saved their money for a trousseau. Girls who preferred filing fingernails to filing folders went to beauty school. Of course, many girls married within weeks of graduation. Only a few of us with no immediate matrimonial prospects opted for college.

It wasn’t that most occupations were closed to women in those days—it was mostly because we didn’t know any women in professional fields.  We also weren’t prepared for higher education. When I chose to enroll in Algebra II as a high school junior, the counselor asked why a girl would take that class. Those of us who did attend college mostly majored in elementary education—so we’d have “something to fall back on, just in case.” A few super-brains majored in English, but elementary ed or, at BYU, Human Development and Family Relations (HDFR) was preferred because we could use what we learned with our own children.

Although ERA failed to pass in the 1970s, the discussion changed American culture. Separate laws banning gender discrimination in the work place passed. Jobs opened—telephone operators and nurses could be male. Radio announcers could be female—it took a few more years for women to break into TV.

The ERA debate stirred reaction in Mormondom. Rhetoric ramped up on the sanctity of the home and women’s roles as homemakers and caregivers. Sonia Johnson was seen as an example of what happens to women who let Satan distract them from their divine role as mothers and followers of the Priesthood. In the mid-70s, I took a group of bright, talented14 and15-year-old girls from my Seattle ward out for ice cream. Every one of them had the goal of attending BYU and majoring in HDFR.

Yet, even the Church cannot resist outside change forever. One of the most influential laws passed in the ERA period was Title 9 which mandated equal funding for girls’ and women’s sports in schools and colleges. The YW sports program expanded to accommodate girls who learned competitive team sports in school. The ‘70s was also a time of serious last days’ speculation and angst in the Church, and the YW camping program was expanded to teach Mormon girls survival skills.

I doubt Church Authorities anticipated the effects of young women competing in sports and learning to survive in the wild. Girls who defeat opponents on the basketball court are not afraid to tackle male-dominated science and math classes. Girls who build a snow cave and sleep outside in sub-zero weather know they can go abroad and serve missions. When our oldest daughter received her mission call 19 years ago, she was the first girl ever to serve a mission from our ward. Within the next few years five other girls from our ward chose fulltime missions.

Pandora is out of the box. No way can these capable, confident young women be content in the kitchen and nursery. How can they not question a role that relegates them to “help meet?” They have much to offer, and they want that opportunity.

Mormon feminists are not trying to undermine men. They’re asking for participation in ordinances performed for their children—for the opportunity to hold their own baby during a Church blessing—for the opportunity to give a “Mother’s Blessing” to their children without criticism. They see the contradiction in a proclamation which states that husbands and wives are equal partners, but the husbands preside. And, in a Church that proclaims ongoing revelation, Mormon women long to hear more about their Heavenly Mother as their role model.

In the modern world, men have learned to work with and for competent women. Many young Mormon men recognize that the Church would benefit from hearing from the other half of the congregation in decision-making councils. Elderly leaders, however, lack these experiences. I suspect their wives and daughters are generally satisfied with the status quo—and I doubt many elderly gentlemen listen to their granddaughters.

Change in Mormon Church structure doesn’t always come from the top. Sunday School and Primary were begun by individual members who saw a need and acted. I suspect women’s role in the Church will be changed by individual women who are willing to speak their mind in meetings, who talk about Heavenly Mother, and who are even willing to show up in church wearing nice pantsuits.

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19 Comments

  1. I live in Switzerland and women wear pants to church without any strange looks at all. This phenomenon exists in the US and is strange, indeed. I wore pants to church and I realized that I was bucking a culture that frowned upon it. It’s nice to be in a place where it just doesn’t matter. There are more important things, though, aren’t there? I loved your post and perspective. As a mother to 2 daughters, my oldest already notices the inequities and it makes me feel bad for her. Helping her to feel empowered is my main objective and to not be afraid to live out loud.

    • Thank you for your comment, Susan! I have always hated dresses (I grew up in Utah) and when I saw many other women wearing pants to church in Brussels, I decided that I was fully in the right to do so as well! You’re right that it’s a US phenomenon and it IS strange, because there ARE more important things in life! I like tearing down unnecessary hedges around the law. I’m actually discussing the dresses vs. pants phenomenon in a new compilation of essays I’m editing. We hope to publish soon!

  2. I really like the emphasis you put on example, Course Correction. We have to be able to imagine things we’re going to do before we do them, and others who set an example (like your daughter serving a mission) do so much good by helping others to imagine that they can do the same things.

  3. I absolutely LOVE your post CC. As a staunch supporter of the ERA (maybe I bring it up too much on the blog?) it is nice to hear about it from someone else’s voice and perspective. I love the way you talk about title 9 and the effect that something as simple as women’s sports had on the broader culture. My mother remembers when her only real choices of “sports” were drill team and cheerleading. We tend to forget how far we’ve come when we contemplate how much further we have to go! So thank you for that. Personally, I wear pants to church about once a month (usually when I don’t want to shave my legs:) and I’ve gotten A LOT of flack for it. Oh well.

  4. Not that I doubt your town was like that, but my mother graduated from high school in 1958. She majored in French (never considered Elem. Ed. or Home & Family majors). She went on a mission and she wasn’t the only woman who did. She was a capable woman who never felt the church stifled her.
    You say “I doubt Church Authorities anticipated the effects of young women competing in sports and learning to survive in the wild. ” I absolutely think they knew the effects of sports or survival skills (why do you think they fought ERA…because of its possible effects). It is just that at a certain point the benefits outweigh the negatives and church leaders have to make that call for the members of the whole world in this particular time and in the future.
    I think where feminists fail to connect with leaders is when they can’t admit that anything will be lost by changing the current structure, they only see benefits. The other side sees what will be lost and doesn’t want that to happen.
    There are many of us in the middle who see what we would gain but also what we would lose. As time goes by, however, and the world changes, perhaps the benefits begin to outweigh the cost.

    • Can you elaborate on what would be lost please?

  5. I making this comment after watching the 30 Rock Episode w/Brian Williams showcasing the Mormon faith for an Entire hour. It was air whipped piece. I’m really disappointed by the fact that they spoke to mostly men. (i.e) the former exec. who founded Jet Blue And and author of a book( I forget the man’s name)
    oh yes, Mitch Mayne spoke for about 5 minutes, and then so did Joanna Brooks, And, I was even more sorely disappointed by the fact that they used her as the Tolkien Mormon women. See, you can be a feminist and not have to worry about being ex communicated like Sona. ( my eye balls were twitching during that part of the show) particularly because that’s exactly what Harry said.(eyes rolling in the back of my head)

    And the comments after broadcast, attacking Abby Huntsman as being anti and how woman are equal . Its really sad, Change may come, but, first it has to be acknowledge, and some are still refusing to do so, just go and read.

    • I liked some of the broadcast, but it was very narrowly presented. I, too, noticed that it was mostly men that they interviewed as active members of the church, apart from the mixed-race couple. Abby Hunstman gave some great insights, but a lot of that is overlooked by current members, simply because she is no longer in the faith. That’s fine, but there should have been many more views presented. Hers would be a great example of one reason people leave the church, even while retaining great respect for members. It would be great to have more views of why people stay in the church, and how they work toward change, and how they reconcile issues in their own lives and families. I was happy there was a positive segment with a feminist Mormon woman, Joanna, but felt it was a segment that deserved more than just the idea that you can have alternate views, and not be excommunicated these days. The validity of her cause is paramount, but I felt it was lost in that segment. Lastly, showing the garments was a bit uncalled for, as it made me cringe. But, I don’t really like seeing anyone in their underwear on TV, regardless of what that underwear looks like.

  6. Thanks for the history. I was born in the 70s so obviously I haven’t witnessed the changes you’ve seen. It’s nice to reflect on how far things have come in my lifetime.

    @ jks – I think you’re right that feminists fail to connect with church leaders on the point of what would be lost if things changed in the current structure of the church. We humans are a species that does not welcome change, generally speaking. And when I’ve started thinking through details of how things would be different if, for instance, women were ordained, I don’t get very far before my mind is overloaded – and I think it’s a good idea! As a feminist I want leaders to empathize with me, so it makes sense for me to try to empathize with them. Something to think about.

  7. I don’t usually comment but feel the need to thank you for this post. In my own personal Mormon feminist journey I’ve needed to feel a little more hope. After reading this I do. Thank you!

  8. In 1994, during my exit interview with my mission president, he asked what I was studying at BYU. When I said English and Cultural Anthropology he said, “Don’t you think Child Development would be a better choice? It would be so helpful when you become a mother.” A lot has changed and a lot has stayed the same. However, I did love reading this post. There are many positive changes.

    There is one other thing that has been eating at me as I read Feminist Mormon blogs–and I consider myself a Mormon and a Feminist. Occasionally the language seems dismissive and devaluing in regards to the choice to stay at home full-time to raise children. For example, in the opening paragraph…”Intelligent and well-educated, they have or are working towards fulfilling professional careers—even if their current role is SAHM.” I think there are some women who are truly fulfilled by their chosen role as a wife and a mother. They have an innate talent and love for small people. They are also often educated, talented and intelligent and their desire to be “only” a mother doesn’t make them less so. I think that Feminism generally needs to find room for them. Maybe I’m being completely idealistic, but I love that so many of us have a broad variety of choices and I believe that each of those choices should be respected as providing the individual with the growth and experience that they are seeking. I think as feminists we sometimes create another hierarchy and means of exclusion in the way we talk about those very personal choices, rather than creating a space where every woman can find mutual respect and understanding.

  9. I don’t have the guts to wear pants to church. But I’m working on it. We have an older convert lady who virtually always wears nice slacks but I haven’t got the nerve yet.

    • Mhana,
      Like the add says,” Just do it,” the first time will be hard but, after that piece of cake. I wore pants all the time.

    • I *always* wear pants when it’s raining on Sundays. Then again, I live in Southern California, where it rarely rains …

      Like Emily U, I was born in the 70′s. Most of the girls in my YW classes were bound for BYU, to get married. I was the strange one who wanted to actually get an education. In the sciences, at that! I remember never really connecting with what women were being taught, until I heard Chieko Okazaki speak. Her big-tent philosophy made me realize that women in the church could be more than baby-making-&-rearing machines. We could be disciples of Christ, actively using our individual talents to make the world a better place. It was revelatory.

      • X2 Dora

        Chieko Okazaki’s big-tent Mormonism inspired many of us. I think the blogs have taken up her example–diverse opinions are good.

  10. I liked the part of the post that mentioned “mother’s blessings”. My husband traditionally (as was tradition in our childhoods) gives the kids a father’s blessing the eve before the first day of school. Last year, and this year, I also gave them a mother’s blessing, as I feel is my right as their mother. I can’t speak for the whole church, but if motherhood is going to be touted as the female equivalent of priesthood, then I have every right to lay my hands on my children’s heads, and, commissioned to be their mother, give them a blessing of love and strength and wisdom as they set forth on the new year’s adventures. I don’t call on the priesthood, but I do give them a blessing.

    • sartawi

      Beautiful idea. Mothers have every right to give their children blessings of love, strength and wisdom. Congratulations for starting a great tradition in your family.

  11. Diane, “Tolkien Mormon women”? I didn’t know that Mormon women read Tolkein at all.

    • Kramer

      Did you have something intelligent to add to the conversation? I think not, I believe, that’s just you trying to be passive aggressive and instead of forming a real opinion you wanted to take a personal swipe at me. That’s what people like you who want to point out grammar mistakes do, especially when talking about topics like this. There’s no edit function on this blog, otherwise I would have used the function to find my own grammar mistake.

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