13 Lessons Learned as an Organizer of Ordain Women during its Infancy
The Ordain Women movement is celebrating its fifth anniversary, and asked me, as one of its original organizers, to share some thoughts about its early days at the recent Sunstone Symposium. Here are some things I learned while helping to start this activist organization.
1. The only avenue to communicate with the Brethren is through the media.
When I served on the Ordain Women board, we actively sought to initiate discussions with Latter-day Saint (LDS) leaders, including five written requests to LDS Church headquarters for a brief, private meeting with any General Authority available and willing. These requests were ignored. A source at church headquarters later informed me that a General Authority had implemented a silent treatment policy against any Ordain Women leader, which began almost at its inception. As such, we found that the best way to communicate with church leaders was through the media and our only way of knowing their response was through PR statements.
2. A long-term movement must find a sustainable pace.
During those first few years, we communicated daily via Facebook, in addition to regular conference calls, videoconferences and in-person actions. Everyone had an idea for action; we seriously explored most ideas and implemented many of them. It was exciting and exhausting and completely unsustainable. No one can volunteer full-time indefinitely for a cause while maintaining their full-time day job and personal life. Movements need to find a sustainable pace to stay alive when the initial adrenaline rush comes to an end.
3. The face of a movement should not be one face.
In the beginning, too many media interactions were delegated to one person, Kate Kelly, because she was charismatic and willing. We quickly realized that this strategy was backfiring. Kate had a target on her back and the focus on her was giving the wrong impression—that Ordain Women was the pet project of one person instead of a movement with broad and diverse support among Mormons. We quickly pivoted and expanded the number of spokespeople. I took on one of these spokesperson roles long before our first public action. But the damage had already been done. Even now, many people assume that the Ordain Women movement is over because Kate Kelly is no longer on its board.
4. A big ask makes incremental change more palatable.
In an organization so conservative that a rebranding of the home teaching program is seen as historic, even the smallest request for progressive change shocks the system. Asking for the real, global change we actually wanted put those baby steps into perspective. Since Ordain Women launched, the Church has changed long-standing, seemingly permanent policies that discriminated against women, adding women to policymaking councils that used to be male-only and ending discriminatory policies targeting female Seminary and Institute teachers.
5. Taboos can be broken.
Before Ordain Women, even talking about whether Mormon women want the priesthood was taboo. Almost instantly after Ordain Women’s launch, conversations about women and priesthood became commonplace. Church leaders have adapted and changed their focus from priesthood as a manifestation of masculinity to preaching about a more expansive, less gendered view of the priesthood, accessible to women through callings.
6. The internet doesn’t protect us.
When Ordain Women launched, we hedged our bets on the belief that the internet had some sort of magical power to prevent the kinds of purges of Mormon feminists that the Church had orchestrated in the past. In the internet age, we thought, there were too many venues where we could raise our voices and too many of us to excommunicate. We didn’t think the church would risk the bad PR that would result from silencing us. We were wrong. The church doesn’t need to punish every activist; going after just a few public faces is enough to scare most people into submission. Censorship and coercion do bring bad publicity to the church, but the church appears to welcome this kind of publicity. Instead of using the media to spread the gospel to the whole world, the church appears to be targeting a certain socially conservative segment of the population, as well as using the media as a tool to keep current members in line. Publicity about censorship and coercion is actually conducive to these goals.
7. Obeying the rules doesn’t protect us.
Although we were expressing unorthodox opinions, we were careful to follow church rules. We believed that if we followed the rules we could evade church discipline. In fact, church policy gives ecclesiastical leaders a wide range of power to punish parishioners simply for not following their counsel, even if they don’t break any written rules.
8. Women are more expendable to the Church than men.
While Ordain Women had both male and female supporters, most of the supporters who were informally disciplined by their local ecclesiastical leaders were female. When the Church disciplines a man, they risk losing a priesthood holder. Since women are already banned from the priesthood, losing one is no big deal. Additionally, cultural expectations about feminine behavior may make female dissent more shocking to male ecclesiastical leaders than the same behavior by men like themselves. Formal discipline policies codify women’s expendability. It takes a regional council of 15 men to excommunicate a Mormon man, but a woman may be excommunicated locally by only four men. At a man’s excommunication trial, six men are assigned to advocate for the accused. No one advocates for a woman who is excommunicated by her local bishop.
9. Censorship backfires.
At one point, my stake president used my brother’s temple wedding as leverage to coerce me to censor my writing about the need to ordain women. This act of censorship brought so many views to the Exponent, where I blog, that the website crashed, leading to coverage in national news. Readers almost immediately found copies of my censored blog posts on internet archives and shared them. Most of these were old posts that weren’t getting a lot of traffic anymore, so censorship probably put my writing in front of more eyes than would have been the case otherwise. Church leaders beware; censoring women may not have the effect you are going for.
10. Formal recruitment efforts aren’t necessary.
Church leaders seem to believe that feminist ideals spread like a contagion from one woman to another, and can be blotted out by silencing or casting out the original vector. In my observation, Mormon feminists usually do not learn their ideals from other Mormon feminists. Instead, the need for equality is innate; it springs up seemingly from nowhere without outside influences. We found that supporters of women’s ordination existed throughout the LDS Church. Any publicity at all, whether good or bad, led to influxes of new people supporting the cause, not because we persuaded them, but simply because they had found other people who believed what they already believed. That said…
11. Diversity requires effort.
The lowest hanging fruit within a Mormon movement are people like me: white, middle class, multi-generation Mormons living in Mormon-dense areas of the Intermountain West. To build a more global movement, informed by more diverse perspectives, we had to reach out and adapt to accommodate diversity. Without an intentional and sustained effort, the movement would have stayed homogenous.
12. For most Mormon feminists, activism is a short-term gig.
Simply being Mormon and coping with Mormon patriarchy is more than many women can put up with over the long-term. Add to that the exhausting work of activism and coercive pressure from ecclesiastical leaders and the Mormon community, and it is not surprising that most people do not stay involved in Mormon feminist movements for many years. Continual turnover brings with it the need to relearn the same lessons over and over because few role models are still around to train up new activists.
13. There is a lot of support for the Ordain Women movement.
But it’s harder to see within the walls of our own churches, where oppressive church discipline policies force many people to hide their opinions. As an Ordain Women spokesperson, people reached out to me everywhere (in airplanes, bus stops, grocery stores, etc.) to express support, and these supporters were both Mormon and non-Mormon. Sexism doesn’t only affect members of our church. People working to combat sexism In the wider community need the help of religious feminists because one of their greatest barriers is the sexism people learn to tolerate at their places of worship. Since participating in Ordain Women, I have begun the Religious Feminism Podcast to support interfaith dialogue among people working to combat sexism in many faith communities. We can do more to work with our allies across faiths.