Save the Women's Research Institute!

by mraynes

This morning I awoke to the terrible news that Brigham Young University had decided to shut down the Women’s Research Institute. This is a personal tragedy for me, one that I am deeply grieving.

I have written before about how lonely and isolated I felt as a young feminist at BYU. But that was before I found the Women’s Research Institute (WRI). I was in my junior year when I discovered that a Women’s Studies minor even existed at BYU and was housed in the WRI. I eagerly changed my minor in music to women’s studies and never looked back.

I took every class I could sign up for: Women’s Studies 101, The International Political Economy of Women, Women’s Lit, Women in Music, Sociology of Gender. These classes saved my college experience and had a profound impact on who I am today.

As I became more entrenched in the Women’s Studies minor, I started making connections with the teachers and eventually I was hired as a research assistant. That job took me in and out of the WRI office on a daily basis. There I met women who embodied Emmeline B. Well’s belief in”thinking women.” It was the staff of the WRI and its affiliated faculty that proved through their example that I could be a thinking woman and a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Almost three years ago I got a request from the Women’s Research Institute asking me to share my experience as a Women’s Studies minor and as an employee of the WRI. Unfortunately that letter came the day I gave birth to my oldest child and it got pushed aside as I fumbled through the first couple of months of motherhood. I deeply regret that missed opportunity. But today, I will endeavor to share what the Women’s Research Institute has meant in my life.

I do not exaggerate when I say that the WRI has affected every aspect of my life, both while I attended BYU and since I left the university. It was the professors affiliated with the WRI who opened my mind and allowed me to think critically about really difficult things. The director of the Women’s Research Institute took time to individually counsel me about my career and pointed me in the right direction after the disappointment of not getting into grad school. And then when I was working in the domestic violence field, it was the things that I learned as a research assistant that paved the way for me to frequently lecture to professionals and students about the effect of domestic violence on women worldwide.

Of more eternal significance, it was the lessons I learned in my women’s studies classes that influenced my ideas of marriage and motherhood. I have a happy marriage because I was taught gender theory and was looking for equal partnership. I love being a mother because my teachers not only validated motherhood as a feminist choice but provided models of how to be a mother without losing one’s self. I am still a faithful, temple-recommend holding member of the church because my teachers acknowledged the painful and problematic aspects of our doctrine and provided me with enough satisfactory answers to stay. And they were able to do this because of the safety and support of the Women’s Research Institute.

No where else on BYU campus were topics such as female sexuality, the exploitation of women and feminism safe to broach. The WRI was a haven of academic freedom, largely due to contributing over half  of their operating budget themselves. But the WRI was not just concerned with academic pursuits; they actively strived to make every lecture, film, and colloquia a matter of conscience, social justice and faith. This was their foundation.

In the press release, BYU says that they are trying to streamline their programs and there are other campus entities that address women’s issues. It is true that the Women’s Resource Center is specifically interested in issues that affect the female population at BYU. But they address them by offering activities like “Risk Free” Speed Dating.

While the contributions to BYU that the WRC and the Faculty Women’s Association make are important, the academic rigor and vitality that the WRI provides in the field of women’s studies is irreplaceable. For ten years the Women’s Research Institute has been studying the lives of women in a small town in Mali, and offering micro-finance opportunities to the women there. The WRI has published groundbreaking studies on peace and violence, specifically studying women’s perspective. And it was the Women’s Research Institute that almost single-handedly financed the WomanStats project when no other department on campus wanted much to do with the it. This project has since become the most comprehensive compilation of information on the status of women in the world. WomanStats is beginning to have a profound impact not only in the academic community but also where this information can do the most good, in government. Just recently, some of the contributors to this project were asked to testify before Congress. This project, and the many others that  the Women’s Research Institute have undertaken are a credit to BYU and something they should be very proud of.

It is for this reason that it is so hard for me to understand why Brigham Young University is taking this action, one that no other university in the nation has done in the twenty years that records have been kept! I understand the argument that having a separate institution for women’s studies further bastardizes the study of women because it keeps it isolated from the rest of academia. And perhaps this is what BYU is trying to do, mainstream women’s studies. But I fear that this is a premature action. Women and their needs have not been equally mainstreamed into American society, the Academy or the structure of the church. The WRI was the one lone beacon demanding that BYU, academia, the church and the world take notice of the needs and issues of women.

I don’t presume to know why BYU has decided on this course of action. In a time when good PR for Mormonism is hard to come by, shutting down a symbol of social progress and equality seems to be a very bad idea. But I would hate for the genuine frustration over the elimination of the Women’s Research Institute to turn into a conversation on how BYU/the Mormon Church are trying to silence women. While there may be some validity to that argument, I don’t believe it is productive.

Here are some actions I do think are worthwhile:

  • Join the Facebook group “Save BYU’s Women’s Research Institute”.
  • If you live in Utah, attend “Save BYU’s Women’s Research Institute” and Parity’s rally on Thursday evening from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. in room 270 of the SWKT.
  • If not write a letter to President Samuelson and tell him how you feel about this decision.
  • Or write a letter to the Academic Vice-President, John Tanner whose office has been in charge of this decision. His email is: john_tannerATbyuDOTedu
  • Write a letter to the editor of BYU’s Daily Universe.
  • Call BYU’s Alumni association and threaten to withhold further financial contributions.
  • Send a letter to the First Presidency. Yes, it will get sent back to your Stake President but at least leaders will begin to see that members are concerned about their decisions regarding gender.
  • Talk to anybody who will listen. Talk to ward members, family members, friends, media. The more public outrage over this decision the more chance we have of saving the Women’s Research Institute.

If these measures fail and the Women’s Research Institute closes its doors on January 1, 2010 then we need to keep BYU honest. We the alumni of BYU and the tithe-payers who keep this institution running need to demand that they live up to their word of “significantly expand[ing] resources for research and creative activities pertaining to women.”

This is an opportunity to show BYU, the leaders of the church and the outside world that yes, gender is important. This is an opportunity to demand that women have place and a voice in our religious institutions. Let’s not waste this opportunity.


Mraynes lives in downtown Denver with her husband and four children. She spends her time lobbying at the Colorado Legislature, managing all the things and preparing Gospel Doctrine lessons.

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21 Responses

  1. Bree says:

    I’ve felt sick about this all day.

    Chalk it up to my pregnancy hormones, my overactive imagination, and/or the fact that I’m in the middle of reading “The handmaid’s tale”, but this seems like the beginning of a similarly horrifying dystopian novel 🙂

    Thanks for this. I’ll do what I can.

  2. a wanderer says:

    thank you for this impassioned plea. one of my biggest regrets about my undergraduate education at BYU is that i did not even know of the existence of the WRI and the women’s studies minor. i blame this on the lack of good guidance counseling available to undergrads at BYU more than anything else.

    i truly think it’s a shame that the university would close this institute. while it is certainly true that other departments are situated to pursue women’s studies, it’s entirely likely that women’s studies and the work the WRI has done will become even *less* visible than it already has been. which will only serve to undermine it further.

    and don’t get me started on whether BYU and the church actually promote gender equity. the simple fact that they would close this institute indicates a lack of such promotion and commitment to women’s issues.

  3. Madam Curie says:

    Thanks for these suggestions for ways to show our frustration with this horrendous decision. I did not attend BYU, so I don’t necessarily feel that I have the same connect with this institute, HOWEVER, as a Mormon, knowing that my Church would do something like this makes me physically sick.

    I see this is as a blatant example of where women’s voices are being silenced within the Church. This would NEVER happen at a non-Church school. I can’t stand idly by and watch it happening – I have to do something about it. Thanks for showing me some ways that I can take a stand.

  4. RoseGirl says:

    Thank you for this heartfelt piece. What makes we curious is why BYU was not more protective of the Church’s reputation in this area. Surely someone at BYU should have thought ahead to what a black eye the Church would suffer because of the closure of the WRI?

  5. James says:

    What do people make of the fact that Dallin H. Oaks was the president of BYU when WRI was founded (immediately to be succeeded by Jeffrey R. Holland, who would have been there for the WRI’s infancy)?

    I don’t throw this out as a defense of explanation for what BYU’s reasons might have been (I certainly don’t know, and there’s always more to the story than the public press releases), or to challenge the feelings of dismay many are feeling about this. At the same time, this makes me wonder what the reasons possibly COULD have been.

    I have no answers, nor am I trying to imply that because certain former university presidents and now apostles may have been involved that this is all just “ok.” Just contemplating the possibilities, and am interested in anyone’s thoughts to this.

  6. amelia says:

    thanks for this. i hope against reason that somehow this won’t actually happen. if you’re interested in reading a bit about my own experience with feminism at BYU, you can here:

    i’ll be working up a letter to send out to president samuelson and academic vice-president tanner.

  7. I realize that in the article in the BYU paper today,, that the womens studies program will dissolve and the minor will be a part of the Family, Home and Living program? This disregard the hard work women have put in to have the WRI, not to mention that the Emmeline Wells grant to be open to any academia, not just those under the WRI umbrella. Isn’t the purpose of the WRI to enhance the quality of education/family and the individual? Women are not yet at the point where it can be categorized into home and family living. We still need to empower one another! I just wrote a letter to the heads of BYU, my stake president, wrote a letter to the editor of the BYU Daily Universe and sent emails to a professor I had at BYU Hawaii in womens’ studies and will get a petition started for the Portland, Oregon area. Any other ways to keep the WRI?

  8. RoseGirl says:

    The Salt Lake Trib has an article out now on the closure. Put some comments with it.

  9. kmillecam says:

    Just wrote to Pres. Samuelson, John Tanner, and put it all on Facebook. Hoping to hear back from someone. I also made it clear in both emails that I would be withholding financial contributions until the situation was rectified. I had a really good experience at BYU, so I hope they take my opinion seriously.

  10. Michelle says:

    I am so upset with this. I have to be a Debbie Downer and point out that BYU last year shut down its Social Work Major despite opposition. I certainly don’t mean to quell anyone’s desire to try, but it sure seems as if once BYU makes its decision to shut something down the decision is made come hell or high water. They’ll never admit they made a mistake. It is sickening…something about unrighteous dominion…if only I could ask that my tithing not be forwarded to BYU.

  11. Kathleen Koltko-Rivera says:

    Right on target and well said. This is a tragedy.

  12. suzann werner says:

    Thank you for alerting us to this current tragedy about to be inflicted upon the Women’s Research Center at BYU. Where I think it is important to try to save the women’s program from being assimilated into male dominated programs, I see no reason to believe women’s voices will be heard in this matter, or in any matter- ever.
    In order to emotionally survive all the male dominance in the church, I quietly accept what is happening, then focus my creative energy elsewhere. Because I am able to grow in positive ways outside the church, I have more to contribute in the church.

  13. kmillecam says:

    suzann, that comment just broke my heart wide open. sigh.

  14. Kelly Ann says:

    I wish I would have known their was a women’s studies minor. Not that I would have ventured anywhere near the social sciences …

    Mraynes, thank you for sharing your experience and perspective and passion. I told a friend about it today who went to a women’s college. She was appalled.

    I’ll try to be optimistic though and think some good could come from it but that is hard to do when it doesn’t make sense. I often thought if I was to teach I’d like to go to BYU to be a feminist faculty. However, I think it would be a hard place to be (besides the culture of living in Utah Valley).

    For the very least, I hope some good comes from the discussion surrounding this and that maybe Mormon feminism will get some light especially if the intent is to quell it.

  15. Sofia says:

    I just have to say again that I feel like BYU has no right to “quell” or quiet Mormon Feminism, especially in the church culture where we need to feel empowered and respected, in order to fulfill our unique individual potentials.

    I am going to mention this in Relief Society on Sunday and pass around a signature page, along with a statement… Anyone know someone who works at the WRI now or in the past?

  16. JennS says:

    Sofia, I am also eagerly awaiting to hear from someone at WRI. Anyone?

    This is what I wrote to Deseret News:
    BYU Admnistrators’ actions show a pattern of absorbing interdisciplinary programs into established disciplines. Absorbing Social Work and International Development means they are no longer choosing these fields as the points of departure for research. Likewise, dispersing Women’s Research means women’s issues will need to be discussed in conjunction with Sociology, Psychology, or Political Science. I am skeptical of the quality and effectiveness of women’s research that arises from no longer placing women on the forefront.

  17. Laura says:

    For the record: I believe, The BYU School of Social Work expanded its Master’s program when it discontinued its BSW program which in my experience reflects the state of the job market and the evolved requirements of the field as much as anything. Employers want MSWs.

    I graduated with my BSW from BYU a couple years before the bachelor’s level degree was discontinued. We were cautioned then and I can attest to now that having only a bachelor’s degree in social work is largely a dead end both financially and career wise. Of course there are exceptions but the gap is quite significant and to me the move made good sense and also reflected the departments general attitude.

    Forgive me to also mention that I had plans to complete the women studies minor while I was at BYU — taking a few really great classes that I am forever grateful for — but ultimately decided not to complete all the requirements in my eagerness to graduate.

    I am kicking myself now that I can’t say that I hold two obsolete certificates from BYU. That would just be a really great sob story to tell.

  18. Laura says:

    This is an outline of the changes in BYUs social work program.

  19. Michelle says:

    Laura, thank you for pointing out my error in mentioning the Social Work topic. If we delete that part of my comment, I believe it fair to leave the rest of my sentiments largely unchanged.

  20. WRI Affiliate says:

    The BYU administration still has not addressed the major drawbacks of discontinuing the WRI. Here is a statement the WRI sent to its affiliates in response to some of their questions:

    University departments are communities of scholars in specific disciplines. These departments facilitate faculty collaboration, which increases the quality of research projects and courses of study for students. The Women’s Research Institute provided such a community for over 80 affiliates studying women and gender from across the university. Collaborations also were established with scholars at other institutions, increasing WRI credibility at a national level in the face of preconceived notions of many in the academy about the attitude toward women at BYU.

    Dissolving the Institute will destroy its community of interdisciplinary colleagues. Researchers will be isolated from each other, eliminating the programmatic research of the Institute involving multiple studies that build upon each other to produce findings on many aspects of complex problems. Also, separating faculty engaged in research from those engaged in teaching will decrease the quality of both. Just as importantly, students will be deprived of interacting with teams of researchers, teachers, and other students addressing one of the most critical challenges of the 21st century: the need to improve women’s lives and increase their opportunities, which are now understood to be linked not only to peaceful relationships within families and societies, but even to peace between nations.

  1. November 15, 2009

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