BYU: A Feminist Reflection

View of BYU from the top of the SWKT, 2014

As a teenage convert to the LDS Church from New York City, going to BYU and studying in Utah was the equivalent of going to the Vatican or Mecca–– I would be studying on holy ground. BYU was the place where all good Mormons went (at least, according to my bright eyed and bushy tailed new convert self). So despite acceptances to other colleges such as Mount Holyoke, Pratt Institute, the University of Michigan, and others, I put my deposit down at BYU. And, much to the dismay of my non-member parents, I attended.

I arrived in Provo ready to be among my Mormon brothers and sisters. I was ready to embrace all that Mormon culture had to offer. I would finally be accepted for who I was as a faithful Latter-day Saint! Well, that was the idea, at least.

Back home in New York, after being introduced to the Church, I was considered a conservative among a vast sea of liberals (this was New York City, after all). As a result of my affiliation with the LDS Church and because of my desire to fit in with my new faith, I embraced conservative ideals–– I was anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion, believed a woman’s place was in the home, supported Republican leadership, et cetera. This was part of joining the Mormon Church, right? So I went through my four years of high school defending those conservative ideals, believing it was what the Church wanted for me and was the way to true happiness.

In Provo, all those beliefs started to unfurl. I saw what I supposedly believed in the faces of others. When people I knew at BYU began to express homophobic tendencies (including one friend who believed that homosexuality was a choice), I cringed. When the female friends I associated with only aspired to be stay-at-home mothers with no other contingency plan or any further hopes or passions, I was in shock.  When my friends believed that people outside the Church were lacking in happiness or true joy, I was saddened. Did I really believe that? Did I really support those things in high school? Are these really the ideas the Church espouses and wants me to embrace? Obviously, my testimony began to fall apart and unravel as I tried to figure out the difference between doctrine and culture. However, that is for another day and another post. The point here being that I kept my testimony, but BYU eventually turned me into a diehard liberal and feminist.

Okay, so I became a liberal and a feminist. Now what? Who was I supposed to relate to? Who was I supposed to confide in? The only way to find that out was to just be myself. I wasn’t completely in-your-face about my new ideology, but when people said things that offended my newfound liberal and feminist conscience, I spoke up. I got to know people who also spoke up and expressed similar views as I. Essentially, I put out feelers as to who I could trust. They didn’t necessarily have to be as liberal or as outspoken as I was, but I did have to trust them enough to speak my mind. And I was lucky enough to find quite a few friends who were openminded and loving. Even a few feminists, much to my joy. Finding online support groups such as Young Mormon Feminists and Feminist Mormon Housewives helped with my sanity a great, great deal. I was not alone.

As I prepare to graduate from Brigham Young University (by the time you read this post, I’ll have probably walked across the stage at commencement already), I look back at my time here and realize that as a feminist, things weren’t so bad.

A text as my friend was sitting in her Marriage and Family prep class at BYU

Yes, I had to deal with people mocking the sincere and faithful members of Ordain Women. I had to restrain myself from verbally lashing those who blatantly insulted and demeaned our homosexual brothers and sisters. And if I had a dollar for every time I heard “those feminists”, I would be able to afford quite a few Cafe Rio pork salads. But overall, I was able to find my niche. BYU helped me develop into a feminist I don’t think I would have become had I gone somewhere else. I suppose it’s because it was easier to stand up for what I believed in, after being confronting with viewpoints I didn’t believe in. BYU was a refiner’s fire. And as I began to shine brightly with that feminist glow, others were able to draw nearer to me. I found dear friends who felt the same frustrations as I did and celebrated the same victories as I did. The friends and associates I found here truly saved me here from suffocating here at BYU. And though many of my friends wouldn’t consider themselves liberal or feminists, they are openminded. And that’s all I really ask for in friendships. Some of my good friends are among the most conservative Republicans you’ll ever meet. But we’re friends because they’re able to listen to my views, respectfully disagree (or, reluctantly agree), and still continue to be my friend. I am grateful for those friends, as well. Those who listen, regardless of political or religious belief. Those who are able to not let politics or religious conservatism get in the way of a fruitful friendship. It also helped my sanity a great deal that I studied within a fairly moderate and left leaning department here at BYU, with decidedly openminded and caring professors. I was also able to take classes from and identify other feminist and left-leaning professors here, and that has given me great hope for BYU. Even my church leaders, conservative as they were, were empathetic and listened to my concerns and were extremely caring.

So, looking back at my time here at BYU, I can honestly say as a feminist that I enjoyed and appreciated my education and experiences here. BYU helped me to define my beliefs (politically and religiously), introduced me to the most amazing and interesting people, and learn patience and empathy. I realize that many people with similar views did not have the same positive experience as I did, and that saddens me. But at least for this New York City convert, attending BYU proved to be a character defining experience that has shaped the person I am now, feminism and all.

I wouldn’t change it for the world. (Well, maybe a few things….)

For those who went to BYU (either in Provo, Idaho or Hawaii) what was your experience? Looking back, would you have chosen another school to attend? How did you survive? Would you encourage others to attend? What were some feminist successes or failures you had while studying at a Church school?

If you didn’t attend a Church school, how were your experiences elsewhere as a feminist or liberal member of the Church?

East River Lady

24 years old. LDS Convert. New York Native. Mormon Feminist.

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22 Responses

  1. Corrina says:

    Yup, I can definitely relate to this post. I am from PA, and I only applied to BYU, b/c as you said, it was the place where we kids from the mission field all aspired to go to. But it was at BYU where I definitely solidified my feminist roots in the early 90’s. (Here’s a shout out for the BYU feminist club VOICE!) Participating in VOICE totally spoke to my soul, as I attended their many fascinating lectures/presentations/events. As an example, I remember Dr. Valerie Hudson coming to speak to us about her ultimate belief that polygamy will not be practiced in the afterlife, and it was a total balm to my soul–the first time I had heard anyone deny the stance on polygamy in the eternities. Even though it was such a raw time during the firings of BYU feminist faculty members, I remember feeling the energy of feminism not willing to roll over and die at BYU.

    My sister attended a very small, all female, liberal arts college in CA, and she ended up being much more conservative than I am. I never thought how our opposite college experiences may have formed us, as you say, in our political/church leanings.

    If I were to do it over, I would have attended a smaller college, but hind site is 20/20. I will encourage my daughters to visit and apply to other universities, and I hope they ultimately choose to go elsewhere.

    I don’t know if I would have lasted at BYU during Prop 8. I admire you younger feminists at BYU for keeping strong!

  2. Em says:

    I am also from outside the Utah/Idaho area. I didn’t even apply to BYU as an undergrad, because my mom sat me down and told me she didn’t think it would be a good fit for me and she wanted me to go somewhere where there was more intellectual freedom and encouragement of inquiry. I applied as a grad student only to have a member of the department himself contact me, after I had been accepted, to point out that while they really wanted me, actually going there would be a terrible career choice and not a great use of time, unless I was just on the hunt for a husband. So I didn’t go, which turned out to be wise since the next year that department lost their master’s program. I am happy to find that some thrive so well at BYU. I would say I didn’t really start thinking of myself as a feminist until I was in grad school and really only strongly outspoken after I got married. So it was a very different sort of experience, because the combination of PhD work and not being in a student ward means I don’t have a strong LDS-student identity. I’m a feminist who happens to go in to the university every so often.

  3. Tinesha says:

    Thanks for writing this. I wish I could say I have had a good experience going to BYU in Provo, but it hasn’t. However, with that said, going to school here has given me tremendous opportunities to do really cool feminist stuff–opportunities I would not have gotten other places where feminists are the norm.

  4. Emily U says:

    “BYU helped me develop into a feminist I don’t think I would have become had I gone somewhere else.”

    That’s a familiar sentiment! I also left BYU more progressive and feminist than I entered it. My family moved to Utah when I was 12, and I had conservative opinions because that’s mostly all I’d been exposed to (although I think I’ve always been a feminist). Now that I think about it, the first Mormon Democrat I ever knew turned out to be my husband!

    I can’t say how I would have developed if I’d gone somewhere else. I’d like to think I’d have the same core values I have now, but who can ever really say. I don’t think I would enjoy the BYU environment now, although it was a good fit for me in my college years. I’d strongly encourage my kids to look closely at other Universities before going there.

  5. Laura says:

    I didn’t want to attend BYU, but succumbed under family pressure. It was hard for so, so many reasons–the judgment, the criticism, the “you must not really love God if you believe X, Y, Z.” I didn’t handle it as well as some others, and I suffered from bouts with depression the entire time I was there. I’ve self-identified as a liberal since high school, but, like you, I absolutely think my BYU experience helped cement my political leanings.

    I was able to go to the school I wished I’d gone to as an undergraduate for my master’s degree, and I had an amazing experience there. So all’s well that ends well. 🙂

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  6. Melody says:

    Wonderful post! Thanks for sharing your experience. And for opening what looks like a great discussion. I live in Provo and attended only a few classes at BYU for a leg-up on college during my senior year of high school.

    The beauty of growing up in the shadow of The Everlasting ‘Y’ is that I gained a tremendous amount via university programs with the arts, sciences, and resources like the HB Lee library, simply because I was local. I eventually earned my nursing degree at what is now UVU. So, I was able to enjoy the good stuff at BYU without being submerged in the culture that felt suffocating to you and others.

    I think we find what we need to find for our growth where ever we go . . . and contrasts provide a wonderful mirror to parts of ourselves we may not want to keep. Congratulations and good luck in the days and years to come, East River Lady! I’m sure you’ll do a lot of good where ever you go.

  7. Cherie Pedersen says:

    I graduated from high school and went to BYU in 1966 because I HADN’T gotten in to Mount Holyoke. Also, growing up in New Jersey I wanted to know how it would feel to be among many other Mormons. My father’s hometown was Provo and I had grandparents and other relatives there who thought it was the best university in the world so I packed my bags and went. I had aspirations for my life that went beyond wife and mother but I can’t say they were encouraged there at that time. I did meet my wonderful husband during my sophomore year and unlike many of my female friends, I did graduate with him, albeit with three-month-old twin babies in our arms. (We did have a two-year courtship– a record for BYU, maybe??) As a freshman transplant from the East I remember chaffing from time to time at what I thought were stupid restrictions (what– I had to wear a skirt on a hayride????) but managed to have a reasonably good experience, so much so that I was fine when three of my four children also enrolled there a generation later, even though by then I was an avid Exponent II fan and more socially and politically liberal than I had ever been at BYU.

    I now wish with all my heart that one daughter had gone somewhere else. Lacking a strong ego and caught up in the marriage mentality that pressures young people to find an LDS mate before graduating, she married the first boy who asked even though she hadn’t known him for long. We had met him once and had reservations but our pleas to wait a little longer (at least until her twin sister came home from her mission three months later) fell on deaf ears, even after a call to her bishop, who like many bishops, may have been too focused on the “get ’em married before they disqualify themselves from the temple” line of thinking. To encourage short courtships for marriages that are for eternity (without even requiring marriage prep classes) is nothing short of insanity but that’s another topic altogether. Bottom line, 19 years of an unhappy marriage and four children later, she is going through the trauma of an ugly divorce. Although we are all ultimately responsible for our own choices, I blame the intense marriage culture at BYU for heavily influencing her choice at a vulnerable time in her life and wonder what she would have made of her life had she gone elsewhere.

    Now I have granddaughters fast approaching college age. Both want to go to BYU. It is still Mecca. It is heartening to know that feminists have a voice there these days and that more women who enroll are also graduating. But most of the young high school Mormon girls I know still don’t look beyond the roles of wife and mother as they consider the possibilities for their lives. And most of us who consider ourselves feminists and are asking hard questions are still viewed with suspicion by our more traditional peers. At least we can more readily share our experiences, thanks to blogs like this one. Who knows what changes may yet transpire? It gives me hope.

  8. Big L says:

    I’m from Upstate NY and went to BYU. Though I loved being there at the time, I wish now that I had thought of attending somewhere else. I was so set on making my pilgrimage to Mecca, that I didn’t even apply to another university. The culture was so foreign to me and I fully embraced it, mostly because I thought that was what a good Mormon should do. I married when I was twenty and was pregnant with my second baby when I graduated. My degree is in Linguistics and I had no intention of using it at the time of graduation. I sincerely believed it didn’t matter what I studied or even what my interests and talents were because I would stay at home with my kids. I didn’t come up with this notion on my own and I wouldn’t have thought it was a matter of faith if I hadn’t been at BYU. I think I would have ended up with the same heart and mind that I have now even if I had stayed back East to go to school, but I am sure I would have made vastly different choices regarding studies, career, and family. The choices I did end up making when I was so tender in age have caused some incredible heartache and trials. Good for you for making the best of BYU and becoming better because of/in spite of it.

  9. Stargazer says:

    Didn’t go to BYU. Grew up in small town near but not in UT and knew that ultra-Mormon was not for me. Went to college in southern California, thoroughly enjoyed Institute and our smallish student ward, but did feel stymied by some cultural trickle downs: Lambda Delt, which had a weird combination of feeling like Mutual somemore and actually honoring women in the acriptures, which I liked, and just never quite meshing with any guys at church. Love to dance but I completely rejected YSA dance. Got engaged to a convert junior year, engaged 2 years. Had professional plans, moved forward with them while planning a wedding. Fairly moderate for a California uni, but found myself pretty liberal and outspoken in an LDS context. What is it about LDS young men that they are intimidated by a career planning, outspoken, opinionated woman who does pretty well in academic classes?

    • East River Lady says:

      I’ve had several friends deal with the problem of LDS men being intimated by their intelligence and ambition. The problem is exacerbated here at BYU, in my opinion. It’s unfortunate. I’m hoping moving away from the BYU bubble will help me to meet more men who are okay with–– and even encouraging of–– academic and career equality, as I fully plan on having a full-time career.

  10. TopHat says:

    I went to BYU solely for financial reasons. My parents were both converts and so I had no familial pressure to go at all. But they made it clear that I had to pay my way for college 100%, so even though I got a scholarship at a state school (I lived in Illinois), BYU was still cheaper, so that’s where I went. Now I consider my grades and ACT scores and extracurriculars and wonder why I didn’t try for a more prestigious university- except no one really suggested them to me. Yes, I made it through school with no student loans, but I wonder if maybe some debt would have been worth the experience of another university. I can’t do much about that now, unfortunately.

    I did take Intro to Women’s Studies at BYU and loved it. I always sort of pushed the cultural boundaries because I was confident in my testimony. How can anybody think of me as anything but faithful?

  11. Caroline says:

    Thanks for these reflections, East River Lady. I chose to go to a small liberal arts women’s college in CA, which I loved. It was formative in making me the feminist I am today, though I entered already identifying as feminist and liberal. I’m glad to know that you have been able to form and embrace your feminist identity at BYU. I have a friend who entered BYU as a conservative and exited a flaming liberal and feminist. She said BYU radicalized her. I love that that possibility is there.

  12. MargaretOH says:

    Thanks for such an interesting post! I decided to attend BYU after spending a year after high school in AmeriCorps and getting thoroughly sick of all my friends spending every weekend getting drunk. I wanted to enjoy the goofy fun of young adult Mormons.

    Except that my first year was just as lonely and isolating as AmeriCorps. I was pretty miserable and came very close to transferring. It took me a while to find my people on campus. When I did, I realized that the brilliant thing about 20,000 Mormons in one place is that there are bound to be at least a few that are right for you. Those friendships became some of the best of my life.

    Overall I’d say I left BYU with approximately the same relatively high level of feminism and liberalism with which I entered it. However, having smart conservative classmates and dear orthodox friends made me more understanding of those who disagree with me and more willing to reach out to those within my faith who are different from me. That was a good lesson.

    • East River Lady says:

      “However, having smart conservative classmates and dear orthodox friends made me more understanding of those who disagree with me and more willing to reach out to those within my faith who are different from me. That was a good lesson.”

      Amen to that. I learned that lesson, too. It was a hard lesson for me, but a good one nonetheless.

  13. Isaac says:

    My experience was very similar. I grew up mormon in Barcelona, Spain, so like you was looked at as “conservative” among my peers here. Long story short, I too went to BYU Provo, and was in shock at what mormon culture really meant. In the end, because I was gay, I was ostracised and kicked out of school with 2 classes left…

    • East River Lady says:

      Isaac, I am so very sorry that that happened to you. It should not have happened. One of the biggest issues I have with BYU is how it treats LGBT students. I hope you were able to finish your education at a healthier and more welcoming school.

  14. Kim says:

    I graduated from BYU and had a great experience there. I did not have firm political leanings or even firm ideas about career and family when I began there but by the time I graduated I knew what I didn’t want and that I felt different than many of my friends- unsure of why. I did want a career that was compatible with family and I knew I had many doubts about the absolutes of some church teachings. I studied in the science dept and had a few professors who really taught me to think and question in a productive way. I actually found a few of my favorite open minded friends teaching at the MTC. I have never been big on LDS culture (I was an EFY counselor one summer and this solidified my understanding of this) but I am big on the basic truths of the gospel and that has always kept me going.

  15. EmilyCC says:

    I chose not to go to BYU because I suspected it wouldn’t be a good fit. Though I had lovely Mormon friends in high school, they didn’t share my social or political views. I had hoped that I would find those liberal Mormons in college, but I didn’t. I studied anthropology, religion, and feminism in college, and often felt alone at my Institute. I think those years did prepare me well for being (often) the only liberal or feminist Mormon in my ward and helped me realize how others (divorced, never-married, no kids, non-white, and LGBT) who don’t fit the “ideal” member mold might feel.

    I love hearing your assessment fresh from graduating. Congratulations!

  16. Lise says:

    Hi! Do you know if there’s an existing feminist club at BYU? If not I would be really interested in forming one.

  17. Meli says:

    The fact that fellow LDS liberals and feminists like you exist makes me so happy. I’m at a small Liberal Arts College in Ohio and I’m very happy here, though sometimes I wish I wasn’t the only member on campus. Then again, I think I would have drowned at BYU. I love the intellectual freedom at my college. Still, I wish I could meet you guys in person!

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