The Breastfeeding Letter Writing Campaign of 2009

With the recent news about a stake president refusing to give a temple recommend to a woman for breastfeeding in church, there have been a lot of suggestion of things we can do as a Mormon feminist community to address the concerns and needs to nursing couples in the Church. As folks are thinking about options, I wanted to share my experience in gathering letters and sending them to the First Presidency on behalf of a friend of mine who was in a similar situation in 2009. I will share exact quotes from emails I wrote myself, as well as the cover letter I sent to the first Presidency after gathering stories. I won’t share any emails from other people as it’s poor form to share someone else’s email publicly.

In early October I received a phone call from S (initial used for privacy). She called me because her bishop told her she needed to either stop breastfeeding in church or go to a new ward. She pushed it up to her stake presidency and they supported the bishop. S then pushed it up to her Area Authority who said this was a matter she needed to take to the First Presidency. She didn’t know what to do and was in tears. I was known in the Mormon breastfeeding world because of blogging my own experiences of breastfeeding in my Provo ward and my experience in arranging the first nurse-in at Facebook in December 2008, so she called me and asked, “Should we do a nurse in at Temple Square?” Immediately I thought, “NO!” I thought before we did any action in Salt Lake, we should inform the leaders that there was a problem. Maybe they didn’t know this was a problem; after all, they are old men who might not have had mothers or wives who breastfed. And her Area Authority did tell her to take it to the First Presidency, so let’s do that. Let’s write them a letter. In fact, I knew a lot of women with both positive and negative experiences in church. It’ll be more powerful if we compile a collection of letters and send them all together.

S agreed to this. And on October 9, I sent an email out to people I thought might have stories to share. Excepting abbreviating names, it is in full here:

Hello everyone. This is being BCCed to the people I think would most likely be interested in this.
This is kind of a long story. I have a friend, S, who is struggling with a bishop who told her that she either needed to go to the mother’s lounge or find a new ward. When she suggested sitting in the front where no one could see her breasts, just her back, he replied that they would still know she was breastfeeding. There’s a lot more to the story than that- involving stake presidents and phone calls and being yelled at by members of her ward. I, myself, have been “asked to pray” about breastfeeding in sacrament and called on the phone by ward leaders about the “issue”. Whenever I share my story, I find other people have experienced similar stories. Anyway, S’s story of being asked to leave her ward was the last straw on this camel’s back. We need to let the Church know that women are being discriminated against and made to feel dirty and like lesser people because of breastfeeding. They need to know this is dividing families and wards. I am writing a letter explaining the importance of breastfeeding when your child needs it (as opposed to scheduling around church), the issues of shame and covering, that mother’s lounges are no longer something that’s nice for moms, but “required” segregated seating in the minds of members and leaders. I also plan on mentioning legal issues of a leader asking someone to cover or leave (in Canada, it’s considered sex discrimination and can be taken up in court).

The letter will also ask that the church make a statement of or mention to leadership in training that breastfeeding is an appropriate use of the bodies God gave us and is not sexual, inappropriate, indecent, lewd, etc.

The reason why I am emailing you all is because I’d like your stories if you’re willing to share. They can be good or bad. They can be stories of confrontations from ward leaders or members, like my story of my bishop asking my husband and I to talk with him. Or it can be as simple as “I don’t feel like my breastfeeding child and I are welcome during sacrament.” Or “When Sister Genericname said it was ok to stay in the class, I felt loved and accepted in my ward.” I feel the stories will be able to show how breastfeeding acceptance can help/hurt the confidence and trust of mothers and how families are welcomed into the church. I think positive stories are just as important as the negative ones.

If you have a story or know of someone with a story and would like to add that story to this compilation, please send it my way. I am not trying to “take on the Church” and I’m not trying to be antagonistic. I simply want the leadership to know that this is a problem in more than one ward and stake and needs to be addressed.

I will probably be able to send you a copy of the finished letter- and probably will send you all a draft or two for suggestions. If you don’t want to be involved with this, let me know and I’ll take your email off this BCC list for future emails. You may ask around for stories, but I send this email on with the trust that this endeavor won’t become something hugely public and attract anti-Mormon attention. I don’t want that at all. We are all just trying to mothers and care for our children as best we can.

So that went out. Over the next couple of months I received about 20 stories, both good and bad. As word got around and a few more people came out of the woodworks, I emailed more people about contributing their stories. I also wrote the cover letter and put everything into a nice packet. I prayed and fasted and went to the temple and felt we were really doing something good and that Heavenly Father wanted this letter to be sent. It was sent to the First Presidency the first week of December 2009. Because the cover letter was long, I won’t copy/paste it in this blog post, but you can find it here.

This is the 6th image in the Enos chapter of the Book of Mormon Stories book for children. Note the breastfeeding parent/child couple in the foreground.

We heard nothing for months. In April, my husband and I were called into my stake president’s office. He had received the packet and admitted to having sat on it for a while now and wanted to talk with us about it. He was supportive of breastfeeding and wanted to know if there was anything the stake could do. I told the story again about S and that I put this together for her and that she was told to go to the First Presidency, so we did and there’s really nothing he can do locally to fix this problem. And besides, we were moving at the end of the month so we weren’t going to be in his stake any longer.

I was so disappointed. That pile of letters stayed with him. It was probably thrown away. I have a few copies people emailed me but I don’t have the stories from people who wrote hard copies. S ended up going to church in another ward where she had some family members. My family moved to Oakland.

The personal and spiritual fallout for me was twofold. First, it was years later when I learned that some of the people I BCCed in my email started distrusting me and judging me for going to the First Presidency about this. I had noticed the relationships with those people were strained, but I didn’t know why. They thought it was inappropriate to write to the First Presidency, especially since there had been conference talks telling members to not go to the leaders of the Church, but instead go to the local ward and stake with problems.

Second, when the new Church Handbook of Instructions was announced at the end of 2010, I felt defeated. A year previous I had felt inspired and supported by the Spirit to bring this issue to the leaders so they could update policies. Then a year later, I learned that they had been working on a new Church Handbook and likely could have changed the policy but they chose not to. This was my first huge realization that as a woman, I am not heard in the Church, it just gets kicked down to the local leaders who can do nothing.

So here we are again, almost a decade later, with the same issues coming up and the male leaders of the Church ignoring our pleas. I do think we should keep up our activism. After all, we have a new First Presidency and new Relief Society leaders. Eventually we as a church will get this right. Let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later.

TopHat

TopHat is putting her roots down in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. She loves the earth, yarn, and bicycling.

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12 Responses

  1. Ziff says:

    Thanks for sharing this, TopHat. I love that you tried to push the issue up to the people who might actually be able to change church policy, but wow, that was a disappointing non-response. I hope you’re right at the end that the Church will eventually get this right, but I’m not holding my breath.

  2. Jenne says:

    You essentially followed the church instruction from the Handbook to take communication to the stake president so it could be forwarded to the First Presidency. Was that policy in the handbook in place before the new handbook was published in 2010? Did your stake president offer to send it back to the First Presidency?

  3. It’s so discouraging. When I was breastfeeding, I worked for two years to try to get local leaders to improve conditions for breastfeeding mothers in my own ward building; and no progress was made until my child was nearly weaned. Every nursing mom should not have to defend herself from the whims of local males, one mother at a time. We need a general level policy protecting nursing mothers and their babies. How insulting that they sent your letters (from many locations, clearly demonstrating a systemic problem) to a local leader with no authority to affect global change.

    • Ziff says:

      Yes! That’s such a great point that it’s a general problem and not a local one. But at the general level, it’s very hard to get GAs to see this, as they prefer to just pretend that it’s a random issue that pops up here and there.

  4. Steve LHJ says:

    I like that you went to the First Presidency after working through local channels. It’s clearly a harder road, but I think it shows sincerity. It may look like it didn’t make a difference, but I have a feeling this type of behavior will make a difference in the end.

  5. Mama tytonidae says:

    https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/publications/p0/p00165.pdf

    Appatently, in Wisconsin, asking a mother to move or cover up while breastfeeding “ in a public or private place, where she is otherwise permitted to be” is illegal.

  6. SC says:

    I am starting to wonder if we should be writing in to ask for more than just codified breastfeeding statues. Not only was the incident of the breastfeeding mother’s revoked temple recommend beyond scary, but the steady stream of narratives I’m hearing about bishops and SPs exercising unrighteous dominion over women and youth is getting crazier in recent years. Can we just write in and ask THAT to stop? Look what hit the front page yet AGAIN; more LDS bishops revoking privileges from young female sexual assault survivors:
    https://www.sltrib.com/news/2018/08/05/her-mormon-college-upheld/

    Where are the advocates for women in the church? Not at the LDSHQ, that’s for sure–these blogs are all we have, so I think we should put out the call to write in and request more general protections for women and see if we can’t reign in all of this ridiculous unfettered power and Bishop/SP tyranny. Bishops and SPs are *not* trained clergy and the church needs to stop giving them the kind of clout and power that other organizations restrict to leaders who first have to earn PhDs and licenses in pastoral counseling!

  7. Chiaroscuro says:

    This makes me so sad. If only women were given a say in policies (or non-policies) like these.

  8. Beth says:

    So then do a nurse in at temple square. You will finally get a response.

  9. Beth says:

    They aren’t taking it seriously, they aren’t seeing the hurt that it is causing, the disharmony on both sides when a mother chooses to feed her child and another member decides to interfere and then local leadership wants to involve themselves. This is happening all over the place that feels icky about breastfeeding. In a church that preaches about large families. I keep seeing women as a a non issue. Anything related to women. No big deal they will get over it. It’s all rug sweeping at this point. Remember that article written about the cheating Duggar son? Raise them to think they can breathe fire? You guys are sitting here feeling sad. Talking to local leadership hoping things will change. It’s been 10 years since the last time this blew up online. What about before that and before that? Are you going to keep asking them to ignore you? Are you going to keep asking them to slut shame and victim blame women who go to byu too? People don’t give up power. You go in there and you expect it. You don’t meekly accept what they offer. Do you want to watch this happen to your daughter too? Either actually do something about it, no matter the consequences or decide that this is the way of the church and will not change. You can’t make promises about hoping for change anymore. Breathe some fire.

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