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.
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.