Four Years of Mormon Feminist Activism

Photo and graphic by Karen Ferguson

Photo and graphic by Karen Ferguson

Almost four years ago, I wore dress pants to church for the very first time and wrote about it in my journal afterwards.

March 3, 2013

Last Sunday I wore dressy trousers to church, but it was Stake Conference and we ended up sitting in a nearly-empty overflow room. I was nervous, but no one really saw me. Having an easy first time helped me to get over my nerves about wearing pants to church and I did it again today in my ward.

My ward really surprised me. No one commented on my gray pants, though I did get one dirty look and a Primary leader was visibly startled when she saw my pants. But no one commented. I’m sure there will be some gossip about it, but I’m hoping it will quickly become a non-issue. I plan to continue wearing pants to church.

As I’ve thought about it these last few months, there are lots of reasons why I want to wear pants to church. Here are some of those reasons, in no particular order.

Reason: I teach a class in junior primary (currently the 5 year olds) and we do a lot of activities on the floor. Wearing a skirt or dress is impractical. There is a reason that you never see preschool, kindergarten, or first grade teachers wearing skirts or dresses in this day and age. It just doesn’t work.

Reason: I don’t actually like wearing skirts or dresses, unless it is too hot to wear anything else comfortably. I only ever wear skirts or dresses for church. I really dislike tights/pantyhose and so when I wear skirts or dresses, my legs are bare and then I freeze in the winter. I’m an adult and I can make my own clothing choices.

Reason: The purpose of Wear Pants to Church last December was to raise awareness about the pain that some women and men feel over gender inequality in the LDS church. I know that not all LDS women feel pain over this issue and that is fine. I feel this pain and I want to raise awareness about gender inequality. I didn’t wear pants last December. I didn’t yet have nice dress pants and I had the flu on the actual day, but I am wearing them now.

Reason: In 2013, women can dress up and still be wearing pants. I’m not quite sure when or how this cultural shift happened during the last century, but it did. I googled “when did women start wearing pants” and got a poorly cited wikipedia article and a bunch of websites addressing whether or not the Bible says it’s ok for women to wear pants. I think this is a little ridiculous, because I get the impression that just about everyone in the Bible wore a long tunic or dress. If Western society dealt with men wearing pants to church hundreds of years ago, we can cope with women wearing pants in the twenty-first century.

Reason: In wearing pants to church, I am not breaking any church rules. If my pants offend anyone, I am offending their sense of cultural propriety, but not church policy or doctrine. I’ve seen Scottish men and boys wear kilts to church and I’ve seen Pasifika men and boys wear lava-lava to church. If Mormons can find a way to cope with skirted men, surely we can do the same with trousered women.

I’ve thought a lot about this action and its impact on me. For most of my life, I’ve just wanted to blend in and be normal, though achieving that was often difficult. This was the first time that I fully embraced the discomfort of difference. Several people stopped making eye contact at church and people that had been friends were distant. Some of that recovered, but only after a year had passed. I never wore a skirt or dress to my LDS ward after that. I was called in to speak to my bishop, who let me know that there had been complaints, but that he was supportive. I was never again invited to speak in Sacrament Meeting.

Ultimately my pants took on a different meaning. I wanted to show people, especially young people, in my ward that it was possible to resist cultural norms and remain a member in good standing. I wanted to demonstrate that it was possible to be openly, visibly different within Mormonism. I wanted to demonstrate that I could be a little different and still belong.

I have mixed feelings about that now. For me, the spiritual practice of pants, and many others events, took me outside of Mormonism. I was not able to resist cultural norms and be perceived as a member in good standing or be visibly different and feel acceptance. My experience with my pants showed me the extent to which lived Mormonism is tied to meeting cultural expectations. I hope that will change. I don’t know that it will.

Nancy Ross

Nancy Ross is an art history professor by day and a sociologist of religion by night. She lives in St. George, Utah with her husband and two daughters and co-hosts the Faith Transitions podcast.

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20 Responses

  1. Lisa says:

    I really like your final reason. I think it is a cultural thing. I’ve attended meetings all over the world and the women frequently wore slacks. In my ward, and my mother’s there are women that always wear slacks. My dad and one of his friends wore lavalavas to church after spending the summer in Hawaii. Of course, they only did it once…

  2. Kristine A says:

    Nancy I’ve looked up to you, thanks for sharing this. I’m also holding out hope that culture can change. Wearing pants today in your honor. ?

  3. Most of this post could have been written by me. I relate so much.

  4. Karen Ferguson says:

    I respect you with all my of my heart, brain, and soul. I know you were a huge influence on my personal journey. Your Christ-like behavior set such a wonderful example for all of your students, that it made me want to give church a chance again.

    I still hope for change, but I look for it everywhere now, and work for it where I can.

  5. ForeverSeeking says:

    The cultural expectation for women to wear dresses and men to wear suits just pushes more people away. Not everyone can afford or feel comfortable wearing dressy attire.

    Personally, I would have rather woren trousers when I worked in Nursery. It’s not easy working with young kids in a dress.

  6. I hear this so many times. A local priesthood leader calls a woman in to tell her there have been “complaints” about her personal behavior. She didn’t break any rules, and there is no action to take on his part, but he wants her to know about the complaints. Why? Why does he want her to know? Why can’t he just tell the complainers to mind their own business, and why can’t he do likewise? This is just another way to police women into conformity, and by making them conform, make them invisible.

  7. Carolyn Nielsen says:

    I feel more than mere sadness that Mormon culture is so deeply invested in outward appearances. It’s seen everywhere from expectations of dress to always being a good example. I’ll quickly note that there is nothing wrong with being a good example particularly when it reflects one’s inner values and convictions. However, over emphasis on appearance may short change deeper personal development of a truly Christlike character.

  8. Mary says:

    In our small twig of a branch of the church here in Oklahoma, we are thrilled when anyone comes to church – even if they are wearing pants — blue jeans, sweats — you name it. No one says anything, looks at them in a strange way, or has the branch president talk to them. We are just happy that they decided to attend church. Talk to me about Christlike character.

  9. Kristie says:

    I remember in young women’s, we were encouraged to submit any question we’d like to the bishop to be answered on a weeknight. My question as a 16-year old girl who was always uncomfortable in frilly dresses was, “Why do boys get to wear pants to church, but girls have to wear skirts?” The answer was basically, “Because that’s just the way it is.” That always rubbed me the wrong way. Thank you for your post. It definitely hit home for me.

  10. Liz says:

    Ugh, Nancy, I’m with you. I had so much hope that the culturally-acceptable aspects of Mormonism could expand, even as we waited for doctrinal aspects to expand, and I was really disheartened when it felt like neither budged (and, honestly, both seem to have shrunk a little). It just makes me sad. But it also makes me want to wear pants more often. 🙂

  11. Cherie Pedersen says:

    I wore pants to church yesterday as I sometimes do along wit my 17-year-old granddaughter. I wish someone WOULD comment on it so I could explain why I do so, which is not to thumb my nose at anything but rather to make people re-think cultural expectations. For instance, why is it more acceptable for a woman to wear a jeans skirt and flip flops than for me to wear dress pants and dress shoes? My husband supports me and doesn’t think it’s a big deal but I have gotten looks, although ward members have already typed me as a liberal feminist, I’m sure. Can’t say it bothers me.

    • Andrew R. says:

      No one would bat an eyelid in my ward. There would be no re-thinking of cultural expectations. I would say that at least one sister (we only average attendance of 90 at sacrament meeting) is wearing trousers. The sacrament was passed a few weeks ago by a brother in sweat pants and a t-shirt. Our EQP almost always wears a blue shirt.

      We also have younger marrieds who tuck their garment sleeves in, or let them show. Many of them go up to the stand to bear their testimonies proudly showing the hems of their garment bottoms several inches above the knee.

      We also have endowed sisters in strap tops, not wearing their garment at all.

      We accept all comers – because being at church is what matters!

  12. Ziff says:

    This was a really interesting read, Nancy. I love your list of reasons. But I think your concluding uncertainty is spot on. Mormonism is so much about conformity that it’s difficult to see this emphasis being reduced anytime soon. It’s really unfortunate. But I’m glad you’ve found a good place elsewhere.

  13. Caroline says:

    Thanks for this post, Nancy. I wear pants to church occasionally. I’m not sure when I started, but I’m pretty sure it was ten years ago or so. A couple people have been curious as to why, but I’m lucky to not have experienced/noticed any dirty looks. The last time I wore them, I was so glad I did. A new convert from Iran had come to church wearing nice dress slacks — and I was so glad that I was sitting near her wearing my bright magenta pants. I hated the thought of her getting the message that she was violating (stupid) Mormon norms by wearing nice pants.

    • Andrew R. says:

      I don’t believe that your use of “(stupid)” was warranted. That you don’t see the value in them, or keeping them, doesn’t invalidate them.

      As the father of 6 daughters I have found that having a standard has been useful. Some of them would, without quite a strict baseline, have ventured beyond what I would have tolerated Church or not. We have allowed shorter shorts and bare shoulders for beach wear. And we have had children who pushed. But the pushing has never been extreme because there are standards.

      My 14 year old daughter who wants a lip ring will not get one because there are standards. She may change her mind in adulthood, but at least she will not allow a friend to give her a piercing that gets infected.

      • Caroline says:

        Sorry, Andrew, but I stick by my word “stupid.” Norms against women wearing pants to church are stupid, in my opinion. Nice dress slacks are often more modest, more comfortable and warmer, and just as professional/dressy as skirts. There is no reason on God’s green earth why we as a culture have stuck with this norm (that I can ascertain) other than that there seems to be an inclination in Mormon culture to hold onto a 1950s vision of what men and women should look like when they dress nicely. The cultural prohibition against pants wearing by women is utterly nonsensical and has nothing to do with making permanent body alterations (lip rings) or immodesty (short shorts).

  14. Moss says:

    I got a tearful, concerned talking to by a friend when I wore pants to church last summer. She obliquely threatened me (that continued non-dress code conformity would threaten my calling with the youth). Don’t tell me for a second that pants aren’t a big deal.

    Just for the record, I live nowhere near Utah.

    • Andrew R. says:

      Just for the record, where, generally, do you live?

      The only actual policy, that I can think of to guide this, is that sisters are actively discouraged from wearing trousers (pants) to the Temple – though no one would be turned away (certainly not at the temple I am an ordinance worker at). Add to this that youth are instructed to come to the temple in “Sunday Best” and you get the notion that pants are not allowed as Sunday clothes.

      However, For the Strength of Youth speaks only of modest dress – and nothing about what actual clothing is modest. Just like Tithing, how we use the Sabbath, and a host of other topics, individuals have to decide for themselves what they should do. My wife would never wear trousers to church on Sunday, she would wear them to a Relief Society meeting during the week. That may be, in part, due to how she has been raised – but it is what she feels comfortable doing. However, she would never say to anyone else that they were wrong for doing so.

      Unless this “concerned” friend was the Bishop by what authority were they speaking? And if it was the Bishop, he may well have been exceeding his authority, which sadly happens.

      • Moss says:

        West coast, US. In my experience women are by far the biggest police of other women’s behavior- perhaps because they see non-conformity threatening the validity of their own choices. Your wife sounds like someone secure with her own choices. I like her already. I was also raised not to wear slacks to church and my mother would be horrified to know I had.

        I don’t know if the bishop would have released me if she complained or not, but at the end of the day I chose to preserve a friendship and conform. I still wear slacks to things like firesides and broadcasts and, boy oh boy, do I still get the “up down” look from people.

        I wore slacks to the General Women’s Session of conference at the Conference Center in Utah once and I actually had a great experience because everyone around me was super nice because they thought I was an investigator.

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