On Saturday, August 18th 2012 I attended the We Are Woman Rally in Washington, D.C. which was organized to protest the war on women, evaluate the current state of women’s rights and make our interests known to our representatives; to communicate that we won’t sit back and remain silent while women’s rights—for the first time in more than a century—are not only being threatened, they are moving backwards. I was invited to speak about The Equal Rights Amendment and the importance of women getting the same constitutional guarantees and protections as men. I represented Mormons for ERA and talked about how my religion shaped my moral imperative to fight for equality, social justice and rights and protections for women, children, mothers and families. I argued that for too long we have let the conservative right co-opt religion and families as the motivation for their legislation even when it is evident how many their laws and policies harm women, children, mothers and families. I concluded by encouraging everyone to press forward in the fight for women’s rights and led the masses in the now 50 year-old chant: “Hey! Hey! What do you say? Ratify the E.R.A.”
Hearing hundreds of voices join together in support of what I consider one of the greatest travesties of legislative justice in American history was one of the most moving experiences of my life. Unfortunately, another memory from that day stands out just as clearly.
Mormons for ERA were gathered on the West lawn of the U. S. Capitol holding signs, mingling with fellow protestors, and wrangling our children when a family approached us. They were a Caucasian seemingly upper-middle class family of four on vacation to the District of Columbia. They saw our signs and wanted to know more about the rally and our organization. We explained briefly and the wife inquired about our Mormons for ERA sign. “Are you for or against Mormons?” she skittishly asked. “We are all Mormons” I cheerfully explained. A look of relief flushed across her face and she reached out to connect, “We are Mormons, too” she enthused. We soon got talking about banal subjects and the husband interrupted to ask what the ERA was. I had not even gotten through a basic description of the 24 word amendment when he interrupted me again to explain why what I was saying was wrong because “God makes those decisions, not humans or governments” he assured me. “Excuse me?” I asked. I was certain I had misunderstood him because his statement made no logical sense in the context of what we were talking about. “The scriptures clearly show that marriage is between one man and one woman. That is God’s truth and humans or governments have nothing to do with it.” He preached and then reached out, gathered up his family and began quickly turning his back on us. “Well, do you want to talk about this or are you leaving?” I asked trying to be considerate of their family vacation schedule and not wanting to debate in front of his children unless he was game. He turned to look at me exasperated. His visage was scrunched with annoyance that tacitly communicated, “I’ve already explained it to you little girl. What more can be said?” I was not intimidated. I dared to suggest, “Actually our scriptures have many forms of marriage sanctioned by God: polygyny, polyandry, concubines, marrying the eldest daughter, widows marrying brothers, etc. More importantly, however, what does this have to do with women’s rights and the ERA for which this rally is gathered?” He ignored everything that I said then he rolled his eyes and shook his head as he reasserted his point about the bible, God, and governments with “the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant” (Solnit 2012). When the last phrase left his lips he turned and walked away without so much as acknowledgment that I was still standing there or that I might want to reply. He made sure that his was the last word. As he made a hasty retreat his wife and children were left to awkwardly say goodbye and rush ahead to catch up to him.
Despite being an interloper at a rally for which he had no knowledge of and approaching me for elucidation, he proceeded in explaining “the way it is” in a completely arrogant, condescending and paternalistic way even though his reasoning was absolutely off topic, erroneous and fallacious. He was appalled that I would deign to “talk back” to him and then responded by repeating trite phrases rather than critically engaging the actual subject at hand. What was the most shocking to me was his assumption that by virtue of being a Mormon male he obviously had more knowledge than I did irrespective of the fact that I was an invited speaker at this rally who has invested enormous time in researching the ERA, women’s rights and even marriage equality (even though it was a digression from the original conversation).
“The out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men. Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence” (Solnit 2012).
I have only ever experienced this type of over-confident inanity with masculine presumed knowledge in my interactions with Mormon males. I have never been treated with such disregard in my job or community exchanges and no other person at the rally behaved thus (including the picketing male pro-life groups). It reminded me of a time last year when I was called in to talk to my bishop about the fact that some of the women in the ward were upset by my participation in LDS WAVE, Exponent and Mormon feminism. My bishop said, “Well, everyone knows that feminists hate stay-at-home-moms and since you are feminist many women feel judged and like you don’t value motherhood.” He said this in such a blasé, nonchalant manner that I responded without even thinking. I laughed. I said, “Now bishop, you know that that is not what feminism is, right?” He at least had the courtesy to look uncomfortable and mumble for a minute before I continued, “I am actually a stay-at-home-mom right now and contemporary feminism promotes women’s and mother’s rights and protections.” He still looked disbelieving and avoided looking at me as he awkwardly twisted in his chair. “You can’t possibly hold me accountable for the erroneous assumptions that other people have about feminism” I questioned. He ignored everything I said then quickly changed the subject and began to instruct me on how I might better fit in with relief society sisters even though I had never asked for his advice and was not told why he wanted to set up a time to meet with him. He encouraged me to not speak so forcefully (“It is not what you say, it is how you say it” he explained), to conform more and to wear more skirts. At the time I was shocked. Now I feel horrified. Horrified that we live in a culture that teaches men that their uninformed opinions are not only more important than women’s but that they can and should be used to help instruct and explain things to women.
Sonia Johnson termed this concept The Churchmen’s Voice and gave perfect examples of this in her book From Housewife to Heretic. I discussed one of those examples in a previous Exponent post where an admittedly uniformed Stake President “teaches” a fireside to an educated audience about a subject he knows nothing about. Below is another example of the churchmen’s voice where Sonia Johnson was in a senatorial hearing with Senator Orrin Hatch.
“When Senator Hatch spoke to me, his voice changed. He put on his churchmen’s voice for me–unctuous, condescending; I was not alone hearing it. Several people asked me afterwards whether I had noticed. Indeed, I had, and said to myself incredulously at the time, ‘For heaven’s sake, Sonia. Do you mean to say that men in the church have been speaking to you like that for forty-two years and you’ve never noticed it?‘ It is incredible how we blind and deafen ourselves so we will not see the truth of how men really feel about us and really treat us. I suppose the only reason I heard it that day was that such a tone was wildly inappropriate in the marble chambers of the Senate Office Building, so out of place that even I, whose ears had become inured to that insufferably patronizing tone from hearing it since birth, was shocked into awareness. This was not church, he was not my spiritual superior in this room, and he was not supposed to be functioning as if he were-that is, as if he were a Mormon Male. But he forgot himself and related to me as pompously and arrogantly as he must have related to women in the church all his life, this style came to him with such ease and naturalness” (Johnson 1989, original emphasis).
In light of these experiences, Representative Akin’s recent comments about “legitimate rape,” and Rebecca Solnit’s recent brilliant article “The Problem with Men Explaining Things” I want to start a discussion about The Churchmen’s Voice, mansplaining and Mormons. We have had wonderful posts and discussions at Exponent about “mansplaining” and I want to take those just a step further. What is it about Mormon or religious men in general that increases the frequency or degree of mansplaining? Can we have productive cross-gender discussions without the churchmen’s voice? Do men notice or ever experience this phenomenon themselves? What is the best strategy to reduce this? How can we best respond when we encounter it?
“Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. Things have certainly gotten better, but this war won’t end in my lifetime. I’m still fighting it, for myself certainly, but also for all those younger women who have something to say, in the hope that they will get to say it” (Solnit 2012).
How can women fight this particular battle? Will we ever win the war?