I’d like to say a few words about Wear Pants to Church Day. I’d like to be clear that my goal is not to change anyone’s mind. My goal is to explain why I feel the way I do about this event.
The purpose of this event is for women to reconnect themselves and those they love with the Book of Mormon assertion that “all are alike unto God.” Some comments on the event’s Facebook page have argued that church is an inappropriate forum for such a demonstration or that women already enjoy full equality within the LDS Church. To these views, I have two responses: First, church is a meant to be a place where individuals with all sorts of different views and experiences can come together to nurture one another as saints and to learn how they can use their unique and beautiful talents to glorify God. And second, it’s easy for the socially advantaged to see their view as normative and any differing stance as opposition.
The religious experience of a Latter-day Saint is inclusive. For as long as I can remember, I have seen my identity in terms of the LDS Church doctrine. From a young age we sing, “I am a child of God.” As young women we recite, “We are daughters of our Heavenly Father who loves us, and we love Him.” As adults, our Relief Society Declaration reminds us that “We are beloved spirit daughters of God and our lives have meaning, purpose, and direction.”
In addition to defining our very being, religion is a source of emotional strength, spiritual nourishment, and social support. When stressors arise, religion is a source of direction, of peace, of counsel. Religious worship provides a venue for us to commune with the Divine, to experience a sense of awe at eternity, or even to assuage the occasional existential dilemma. Particularly as Latter-day Saints, we spend hours with our ward members during several days of the week. Truly, for Latter-day Saints, the Church is central to every part of life.
Within the Church, be it in doctrine or culture, there exist constructs of womanhood that many women find exclusive and hurtful. These constructs are widespread enough to have been felt by women from diverse wards, stakes, states, and nations. When a woman feels that she is not included in the definition of “femininity” accepted by her ward or stake, she experiences a social disconnect between herself and her fellow congregants. Even beyond that social alienation, she feels that her very being, her identity, her ability to commune with her God, her right to spiritual healing, the applicability of church counsel, and her place within the Kingdom – all these are undermined.
In several posts on the Facebook page, I read comments that questioned participating women’s understanding of the words of the prophets or scripture, their motivations for participating in Sunday worship, their desire to fulfill God’s purpose for them, the integrity of their intentions, their sexual desirability, their testimonies, and the value of their opinions. Every part of these women’s place within their religion – their ability to fulfill their identities, their driving emotions, their ability to interpret spiritual guidance, and their place within the organization of the Church – was called into question when they made a plan to express solidarity by wearing a Church-approved item of clothing.
It’s fairly clear that the majority of people who oppose this event are comfortable with the status quo.These people are comfortable expressing their views in Church and are comfortable hearing others’ views. That’s because they are fairly sure that, overall, they and the rest of the congregation basically agree. This is their normal.
It isn’t mine. I’ve sat in many Relief Society meetings, hearing a definition of how men and women differ or of how women should find fulfillment, and felt the vague discomfort that if I were to express my true opinions, it would be seen as “political” or “contrary.” Whether or not anyone would actually do anything isn’t necessarily the point. The point is that a vast number of Latter-day Saint women across the globe have experienced the same thing. Clearly some stigmatization is being felt, even if those on the opposite side aren’t aware of it (Here’s a great source to learn more about the nuances of stigmatization).
No one has ever told me that I was bad at being a woman. They’ve merely repeated a definition of what women should be that didn’t include me. I’ve sat in lessons where the teachers and commenters assumed we all dreamed the same, that we all found fulfillment in the same way. They could comfortably say what they felt because they’d experienced a precedent of everyone agreeing and certainly no one contradicting. I, on the other hand, could not comfortably say what I felt. I’ve seen disparate views viciously shot down very few times, but I have seen it. Mostly what I’ve seen is the absence of disparate views. A gentleman’s agreement not to broach certain topics, which is a little bit the same thing.
I’ve rarely been told that my interests or skills didn’t fit femininity, or that I needed to pick up new ones in order to fulfill what God had in mind for my sex. I have been told, but it hasn’t been often. Mostly, I’ve attended activities from the time I was a Merry Miss that promoted pastimes and priorities that I didn’t share. My brothers were out sleeping in snow caves while I was practicing setting a banquet table and learning the tricks of makeup. They were learning to light fires while I was tying yet another quilt for some very fertile Young Women leader’s next child. I was working toward my YW medallion by creating a collage of the temple where I wanted to be married, while they were working toward their Eagle Scout by going canoeing. My male friends’ priesthood activities usually involve some form of meat and football, and my Relief Society activities usually involve a craft and cupcakes. Whether or not anyone is shoving ideas down my throat verbally, an atmosphere of narrowly defined genders has been set.
It’s natural for those who enjoy the way things are to see another view as opposition. They’ve been expressing their views among like minded individuals for years, and it has felt safe and comfortable. But to them I say, I don’t see your view as opposition. I see your view as valid, and I grant you the right to express it. To quote the Isley Brothers, “It’s your thing. Do what you gotta do.” Whatever brings you fulfillment and peace before God and man, you pursue that. You rock your identity. You live it up with your hopes and dreams. Be extraordinary and magnify the pants off your divine potential. I, and the women in this group, merely ask that you grant us the same privilege. When a woman raises her hand in Relief Society to express a sentiment you don’t share, don’t shoot her down. Don’t whisper to your roommate that views like that are why she’s still single. Instead, wish that sister all kinds of success. While you might not have the slightest idea how she could possibly be happy, be glad for her when she expresses the ways she finds fulfillment.
And when that sister shows up this Sunday wearing pants, I would ask you not to tell her church isn’t an appropriate forum for this kind of demonstration. Instead, recognize that this woman has been feeling very alone at church for a very long time. And be happy for her that today she can look around the congregation and identify other women who have been feeling the same way. Finally, within the Church she calls home, she has some proof that she’s not alone, after all.