“Mark what I say: the woman who quarrels with her clothes, and puts on the dress of a man, is like the man who throws off his fur gown and dresses like John the Baptist: they are followed, as surely as the night follows the day, by bands of wild women and men who refuse to wear any clothes at all.” — The Inquisitor, St. Joan (Penguin Books, 1982).
George Bernard Shaw’s interpretation of the life of Joan of Arc reminds us of an element of Joan’s influence– her straining of a woman’s role by dressing like a man– that caused such discomfort for her contemporaries and partly led to her excommunication and execution in 1431. The zealous reactions to Joan’s gendered nonconformity in the 1400s allow us to think about similar ways that modern faith communities are also stretched by challenges to their gender expectations.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Wear Pants to Church day, scheduled for December 16, as part of a call for solidarity among Mormon women and men who hope to draw attention to what they believe are continued gender inequalities within church culture, practice and governance. The roots of the movement are traced to some feminists’ desires to follow the lead of earlier suffragists’ acts of civil disobedience that drew attention to their cause, here. And while I disagree with the author’s historical links between radical civil disobedience and why the 19th Amendment was eventually ratified, still I understand the frustration felt for some when change happens at a snail’s pace. As the movement has grown in the last week or so, the Facebook page dedicated to the event experienced a flood of activity, including supremely negative responses that included calling participants idiots, stupid, b—–es, apostates, and evil, as well as death threats, as described here and here. The FB page was even shut down. Still, many skeptics and observers have fairly asked: What exactly do Mormon feminists want? For a good summary, please refer here and here.
I have been admittedly circumspect about participating in Pants Day, for a few reasons which are perhaps valid only to me. Historical examples of public “protest” in the Church often have the counter-effect of creating reactionary backlash. I understand enough about how change happens in the Church to know that minority public movements like this are too often counter-productive and might even cause the reversal of progress. Second, I work for the Church at one of its three universities, and therefore must tread carefully as to what I’m willing to put my stamp on publicly; plus I live in a highly conservative community—even by Mormon standards—and I am not yet eager to engage neighbors, Church friends, and relatives in the uncomfortable positioning over women’s issues in the church—I’ve only partially carved out that niche for myself, and as much as I sympathize with much of what has been articulated, I’m willing to stay in a place of careful observation for now, contributing my occasional comments, podcasts, and historical writings in online blogs and essays. I admit that it’s a place of safety, but it’s also a middle-ground place of hopeful and faithful bargaining for me. So, in an attempt at some esprit de corps, here is my offering to what has unquestionably turned into a vicious battle of rhetoric over one relatively innocuous act of cultural civil disobedience.
Once again, the vitriol we’ve heard this week exposes a particularly wide divide in the Church– between those who see absolutely no gender inequality whatsoever, and seek to categorize anyone who suggests otherwise as some kind of apostate, and those on the other hand who see the Church as an unabashedly sexist organization that is beyond any hope for gendered progress. The fact that our Church membership casts such a wide net to include both groups suggests that the truthful reality most certainly lies somewhere in the middle. In fact, if everything was perfect, I wager that so many women would not be risking so much to express such great pain. If this week’s antics are any indication, I think it’s high time that our rhetorical net was cast as wide and as charitably as the diversity of our members’ opinions demands.
Mormon feminists have been in a similar position before. The battle over the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s brought a strong anti-ERA position from the Church, for reasons of the perceived threat to “traditional family values,” as well as legal concerns over no-fault divorce, custody battles, and the loss of protectionist legislation for women. Still, some LDS women chose to go the way of conscience by supporting the ERA, leading to an inevitable, and now scarily familiar scenario pitting Mormon feminists against anti-ERA traditionalists, with all of the accompanying exchanges of anger, judgment, and accusations of apostasy and “not following the prophet.” The conflict reached a boiling point in 1977 at the International Women’s Year conference in Salt Lake City. Thousands of Mormon women were mobilized to descend upon the Salt Palace and instructed to vote down most of the initiatives proposed. The civility of the conference declined rapidly after that. According to Martha Bradley, most of the blame goes to the Mormon attendees, who, in the words of one woman, “were to vote no on practically everything,” including less-politicized issues like education and sexual assault defense for young women. Some attendees resorted to boos, hisses, shouting, and interrupting speakers. The ERA supporters then responded by fostering even more tension with defensive responses in similar volume and tone. Conference interaction became so destructive that a conference leader appealed to General Relief Society President Barbara B. Smith to take the podium. She pleaded to President Smith: “You know, I think you’ve got to get up there and say something to calm this group down.” [Martha Sonntag Bradley, Pedestals and Podiums (Signature Books, 2005) pp. 190 and 197-201 and 204.]
In comparison, George Bernard Shaw offers a framework for St. Joan’s excommunication that exposes a similar divide that we’ve seen historically and currently. In spite of how good and Christlike someone might be, his or her heresy becomes the worst possible danger that trumps any other pure motives or qualities. Brother Martin Ladvenu, one of Joan’s only sympathetic mediators, asks the Inquisitor why Joan is such a threat. “But is there any great harm in the girl’s heresy? Is it not merely her simplicity? Many saints have said as much as Joan.” The Inquisitor responds:
“Brother Martin: if you had seen what I have seen of heresy, you would not think it a light thing even in its most apparently harmless and even lovable and pious origins. Heresy begins with people who are to all appearance better than their neighbors. A gentle and pious girl, or a young man who has obeyed the command of our Lord by giving all his riches to the poor, and putting on the garb of poverty, the life of austerity, and the rule of humility and charity, may be the founder of a heresy that will wreck both Church and Empire if not ruthlessly stamped out in time. The records of the holy Inquisition are full of histories we dare not give to the world, because they are beyond the belief of honest men and innocent women; yet they all began with saintly simpletons. I have seen this again and again.” (Shaw, St. Joan, p. 121.)
Perhaps this fear of heresy is what frames our discussions so firmly, both by those who uphold orthodoxy as much as those who challenge it. Why are conversations about gender still the last frontier of civil and nuanced discourse in the Church? I honestly don’t know, and I don’t know what or who should be the arbiter of “going too far.” In this very year, we’ve seen steps by the church to at least distance itself from past racist doctrines and folklore; and we’ve seen a recent attempt to engage members in an open and charitable way about gay Mormons here. And yet, the cognitive dissonance over gender remains unanswered and sexist folklore persists on a grass-roots level, leaving gender discussions to bring out the most disastrously terrible reactions, complete with calls for excommunication, accusations of apostasy, dismissive brush-offs, and so many offers of “Why don’t you just leave the Church?” that one could use it as a ring-tone. And for me, the most exasperating of all: “Well, I’ve never felt that way, so you shouldn’t either.”
Imagine if we approached fellow members’ other trials in the same way that we react to Mormon feminists’ honest expressions of pain over gender equality. It would go something like this: “Oh, I’ve never had a child die of cancer, so your experience is not valid to me. Get over your depression.” Or, “You’ve been through a divorce? Well, my marriage is good, so there must be something wrong with you.” Or, “So, you’re an alcoholic? Well, alcohol has never been a temptation for me, so it seems you should just try harder.” Ad infinitum. It sounds patently absurd, except when it comes to this. Somehow this brings out our inner nasty, perhaps more than any other issue. Then we all become members of the Court of Lay Opinion, casting our aspersions on worthiness and faithfulness, and taking it upon ourselves to demand that people leave the Lord’s Church. Well, some might say, members don’t often engage in protest over their other trials. True, but some hurt might be so raw and so deep that this kind of response is all that they have left.
In conclusion, an experience from my mission, while I share it reluctantly, seems appropriate here. In the final months of my mission, my companions and I experienced some teaching success that was quite unprecedented in our area and zone, and perhaps in the whole mission. My zone leader took great pride in “our” baptisms, and joyfully reported our numbers to mission leadership training meetings (that I, of course, did not attend.) When it was time for me to go home, he told me that he wanted to keep a favorite navy blue skirt of mine—yes, my skirt—as a souvenir, a trophy of sorts, to mark our time in Brazil. He called it the “Saia de Poder”—the skirt of power. An odd request, even a bit creepy, but I felt as though I had honestly earned his respect as a woman, as a missionary, and as an individual. I obliged him with the counter-offer that I might keep his well-worn khaki pants. In our last zone meeting, we exchanged apparel, and he even donned my skirt for a cherished photo op, an ironic reversal especially considering this week’s online debates.
As I thought about the developments of this last week, and especially the anger and fear with which so many have responded to the threat/possibilities of gender change in the Church, I recalled this experience. It seemed to me a fantastic metaphor for what the wearing of pants in Church might mean to Mormon feminists this week, and for what so many of us desire in the Church— not necessarily female ordination and certainly not an anti-family, anti-femininity, anti-motherhood, or anti-male agenda. It just means more areas of gendered sharing and fewer areas of rigid gendered separation, both in Church service for youth and adults as well as in families. It means less emphasis on hierarchies of power and more about co-equal partnering that match the realities of so many marriages, including my own. It means changing our tone from being condescending to women to being respectful to women. It means fewer traditions restricting women’s participation that are not grounded in doctrine or even prophetic authority, but culture and tradition. But whether you agree with the Wear Pants to Church or not, I hope that you agree that our discourse needs to improve, that our charity needs to include everyone– perhaps those within our own congregations even more than anyone. Or, as the Chaplain lamented when he watched Joan of Arc burn to death in 1431,
“I let them do it. If I had known I would have torn her from their hands. You don’t know: You haven’t seen: it is so easy to talk when you don’t know. You madden yourself with words: you damn yourself because it feels grand to throw oil on the flaming hell of your own temper.” — Shaw, St. Joan, p. 141.