The Gifts of Not Going Viral

After Jan Sanders van Hemessen A Young Woman Writing about 1530 Oil on oak, 28.2 × 24.2 cm Probably presented by Queen Victoria at the Prince Consort’s wish, 1863 NG622 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG622

One year ago I published my first guest post for The Exponent. After reading Mormon feminist blogs and magazines for well over a decade, it was my first publication in the field outside of my own social media pages.

My post was regarding a letter I received from the Office of the First Presidency in response to a letter I sent requesting that more women speak in General Conference. I included a scan of the letter along with my continued plea that the First Presidency overcome their self-imposed policies limiting female voices so members can hear from female leaders in numbers that reflect and encourage true partnership among women and men in the Church.

I was nervous to publish the post. When I shared my first open letter on the topic on my personal Facebook page in 2017, I received a lot of pushback from friends and family members who thought public advocacy of any kind for change in the Church was unbecoming of a faithful woman, to put it lightly. I lost some friends and was unfollowed by others.

Admonitions I received growing up in the Church echoed loudly in my mind: don’t share your doubts or you risk sparking doubts in others. Be a member missionary at all times. Look at what happens to feminists and scholars who speak up—they get excommunicated.  

Essentially, I had internalized the message that I was personally responsible for the faith of everyone around me and that any doubt or criticism or advocacy for change by me risked my belonging now and for eternity. It was a weight that dragged me under, drowning my spirit, stifling my voice and creativity.

My fear was personal, too. I carry scars from childhood trauma with a mother who violated my privacy. Multiple times she read my journal or even writing I had crumpled and thrown away that she retrieved from the trash. If she found things she didn’t like, her penalties were swift and outsized. I learned that writing down hard feelings was not safe.

At times there are significant consequences for speaking truth to power in the Church. I have friends and acquaintances who have lost marriages, jobs, fellowship with family members, and wide swaths of friends and community relationships for their public advocacy. I know people who have been bullied, harassed, and sent death threats. For members of marginalized genders, sexualities, or races, the cost can be incredibly steep. 

The costs are intentional to silence minority voices. As Brene Brown shares in her Dare to Lead resources, there are different structures of power, with significant differences between leaders  who hold power over others compared to leaders who share power with, extend power to, and inspire power within. The “power over” structure maintains that power is finite and must be protected; it uses tools of fear, manipulation, and division in order to hoard power. It is this kind of power structure in the Church that creates a culture where ideas and information and even requests for a seat at the table are seen as subversive and dangerous and worthy of punishment.

Despite my misgivings, I submitted my guest post. When it was published, I braced for impact. What happened? Both not much, and everything.

My post received a couple of handfuls of supportive comments on the blog. Across social media platforms, my post had a few hundred likes, several shares, and dozens of comments. I got a couple of DMs that pushed back on a some points, but they were from friends who were kind and fair.

My post did not go viral. It did not change the Church. General Conference in April and October of 2020 were different than ever before due to COVID-19, but they were not dramatically more female.

What a relief.

Of course I am sincere in my desire to have more women and people of marginalized genders speak in General Conference and for there to be true partnership in the Church. However, I was relieved of the crushing fear that my every word might be shared, analyzed, and used against me; that every sentence must be unimpeachable. It was humbling in the best way to see that I can publish something I believe even if I know it will make some people uncomfortable—they will most likely ignore it anyway.

My post largely stayed within the Exponent community, where I felt welcomed, not shunned. I got support, not trolls. This specific space was carved out over decades by the hands of feminist women and allies who knew that when, in the name of correlation, Church leaders ended the Relief Society Magazine, Mormon women needed a space to speak. Between the magazine, blog, and Facebook group, the Exponent has become a gathering place for many thousands of people. At the risk of sounding like a visiting teaching message about the importance of visiting teaching, having a space to speak among friends has meant more to me than ever in a year when safely gathering with friends in person is challenging or impossible.

My post didn’t change the world, but it helped change me and chip away at my fear of sharing parts of me that I had been conditioned to hide. I don’t think it is simply naivety that leads me to believe that words have the power to bring comfort to the weary, strength to the weak, and lay forth an expansive vision not of what the world is now, but of what it can become. God sets a pattern in the Bible of speaking forth creation. We can speak of a better, more inclusive Church and watch as the words of one find the words of another and lift the hands and hearts of many to create that which has not been heretofore formed.  

My first post didn’t go viral, but it gave me room to speak and grow. What a gift.

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5 Responses

  1. Elisa says:

    Hey, I remember that post! And sure enough, I commented. Re-reading that letter though, ugh! (His, not yours.)

    I used to be really scared of putting my opinions out there, especially opinions on things that feel really personal to me. Something shifted in me this year – I am still afraid, but not as much. I’m more willing to own my opinions and not worry about disagreeable disagreers. Some of that is because things got so completely nuts this year on so many levels that I couldn’t stay quiet. Some of that is that the older I get, the less I care about what others think. But a lot of that is, as you suggest here, having been able to share those opinions in safer spaces and receive validation so that I know there are at least some people in my corner!

  2. Anna says:

    I remember that post too. And I remember Mr. whoever’s reply to your request for hearing more women speak. My impression of that letter was that it basically said that the male leaders are unable to change it because that is how they set it up. And it left me frustrated with a bunch of men who seem to think they are so gawd awful important that they just have to speak a couple of times each and every conference. The official and full time leaders are so much more important and they need to be heard, each and everyone of them needs to be heard, and there are 200 of them, so we are really unfairly leaving out the important men, so too bad that the women are not official or important and it is just a matter of numbers and importance. They want the women to feel important so they make women’ session an official part of conference. They think that the first presidency has to speak at the women’s session to make it more important and more official now that it is officially part of conference, so now we hear from fewer women so that our women’s meeting can be more important. See how that works? We want women to *feel* important, so we put the *actually* important men speaking at the women’s session.

  3. EmilyCC says:

    A beautiful post, as is this one. So glad you’re here!

  4. Heather says:

    Oh Katie I love this. I’m so glad you are part of the community. I remember your post well and while it may have changed the church it was validating for so many of us. Thank you for speaking our truth!!

  5. I love how you talk about how sometimes we don’t change the world, but we do change ourselves. So true.

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