“Girls Can Be Leaders”: A Letter to My Daughter for Her 18th Birthday
Every so often my husband and I write future letters to our daughters, ages five and three. We email them to an account we set up in their names that we intend on gifting them on their 18th birthdays. This is a modified version of a letter I wrote my five-year-old daughter, whom I’ll call “H.”
I will never forget last Saturday, the day our family participated in the NYC Women’s March with a group of Mormon feminists. My favorite memory from that day is how boldly and proudly you held up your sign (pictured above). You were MAGNIFICENT! Every few minutes marchers would stop to ask us if they could take your photo. Your small but mighty frame clearly exuded your enthusiasm. You never turned down a request to be photoed despite how tired you were. You immediately stopped in your tracks, turned toward the cameras, met the gaze of the marchers, and with a fierce smile and radiant eyes squinted through the sun until they got their shot.
You have been a strong advocate for gender equity in our church ever since I started a dialogue with you about what you were observing in the exclusive male leadership at our church. At age three, you started looking up intently during the sacrament and carefully observing the boys who were blessing and passing the bread and water to the congregation. I saw you quietly observing the boys’ movements throughout the room and I didn’t want you to internalize that our Heavenly Parents think only men and boys are important, given the lack of female representation during this weekly church ritual.
So I started a conversation with you by simply saying that your dad and I believe girls and women will someday be leaders at church too, but that for now only boys and men can be leaders. I told you that your dad and I don’t believe this restriction is of God and that we believe it will change someday. To which your three-year-old self replied, “You mean how all the people on the stand are boys?” I said, “Yes.” Since that day I have tried to protect your believing heart by honoring your desire to learn about spiritual things and how to develop a relationship with the divine with the knowledge that the very place we bring you on Sundays discriminates against you, the LGBTQIA+ community, and is a long way from righting our history of racism in the church. But this is the church that your dad and I were raised in. The church our ancestors sacrificed their lives for. The church that we love. And yet the same church that also hurts us and so many others.
For the Women’s March last weekend you authored a sign that read, “GIRLS CAN BE LEADERS.” A couple of years ago when we were talking about women being leaders, you explained to me that despite the fact that the prophets don’t believe women can be leaders in the church, you matter-of-factly announced, “Someday I’m going to be a leader!” I believe you.
I love how strongly you stand up for injustice and oppression and are fearless in proclaiming your belief in gender equality. Because of our family’s values, your dad and I are struggling with whether or not to consent to your being baptized into the LDS Church at age eight when most of your peers at church will be. We think it is much too young to fully understand the shadow side of the church and how it will impact you; how it discriminates against children who are living with parents in same-sex marriages (there was a recent policy change forbidding them to be baptized until age 18, and only if they disavowed their parents’ marriage); and so many other aspects of church history and church policies that are troubling. Just weeks ago a policy change was made regarding baptisms for the dead in Mormon temples that allows teenage boys to baptize teenage girls as proxies for the dead. This added priesthood and leadership responsibility for young boys is another example of maleness being privileged and femaleness being subordinated. Meanwhile, teenage girls are still excluded from officiating in the ordinance of baptisms for the dead in the temple in any meaningful way, but were offered the same responsibilities as women currently hold in the temple baptistry. This includes tasks that are tangential to the baptisms, including handing out towels.
There are other shadow sides of the LDS Church that concern us deeply: regular “worthiness” interviews (every 6 months) beginning at age 12 involving questions about chastity (sex, and often masturbation) by male Bishops required for young women and men to go to the temple. We don’t want you or your sister to feel it’s appropriate for an adult man to ask you questions about your sexuality. Even if a parent is permitted to be present in the room. And we don’t want you to be put in physically compromising or uncomfortable situations with your male peers—or to make you feel like it’s okay for a male peer to physically dominate you (by holding you underwater even for a second during baptisms by immersion for the dead in the temple). And we especially don’t want you to feel like you were deceived or didn’t have all the information necessary to make an educated decision about whether or not you want to join a church that discriminates against you because of your assigned sex at birth. And that excludes other children from baptism until age 18 because of who their parents love and married. And the harmful doctrine forbidding the queer community to love who they love and be in full fellowship in the church. And people of color continuing to be marginalized despite official church statements to the contrary.
These inequities weigh on my heart heavily as your mom. I worry nearly daily about the possibility of your internalizing negative ideas about your worth, value, and potential because of how the church that brings you so much joy also limits your opportunities for spiritual growth. It denies you the ability to receive ordination to the priesthood as every male peer of yours will starting at age 12; it prohibits you from ever being a full ecclesiastical or administrative leader in the church; it forbids you from publicly praying to your Mother in Heaven (although I model that for you at home); it bars you from your spiritual birthright to give and receive healing blessings as your Mormon foremothers did; and it sets up unequal marital relationships in temple ordinances and sealings (marriage ceremonies) by setting up a male dominating hierarchy in marriage including the possibility of eternal polygamy (a man can be sealed to two women if his first marriage is dissolved through divorce or death, but a woman can only be sealed to one man while she is alive).
Your dad and I work every day to make our marriage more equitable. We are working hard to teach you and your sister that one’s sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation should not limit one’s private or public dreams. We want you to be free of the trappings of patriarchy, but we know that isn’t possible given the society we live in. I often justify continuing to bring you to the LDS Church—my spiritual home—by telling myself that if my daughters can learn to navigate and take a stand against sexism, homophobia, and racism in this church, then dealing with those things in society will be easier. But I don’t know if that is true. Mormonism is your religious heritage on both sides of your family. I want you to understand where you came from, but I don’t want to harm your powerful, intelligent, beautiful soul.
I will continue to fight for equality for all, in and out of the LDS Church, for you my dear H, for your sister, and for all who are marginalized.
I can’t wait to see what the future holds for you. You are determined and unstoppable already at age five. I can only imagine how phenomenal you will be at 25 and beyond.
I dream of a world where the sky is the limit for you.
All my love,