By July 1, 2017
“Women employed by the LDS Church may now wear pantsuits or slacks to work,” begins the Deseret News article that announced a number of new changes to the Church’s employment policies, including a six-week paid maternity leave, one week paid paternity leave, and new fitness space for employees in the Church Office Building. While all these changes are significant and deserve serious discussion, this post deals with what the Deseret News chose to announce first: pants.
My own encounter with the Church’s outdated “dress” code was in 2013, when I began work as an intern for the Church History Library. A few people had warned me that I might have to wear dresses and skirts only, but I simply could not believe them; after all, nothing in my contract mentioned this rule. I even bought a few new pairs of slacks to prepare for my job. I showed up on my first day of work wearing one of these new pairs of pants. I now quote from the blog post I wrote the night after I began my job:
The survey I posted on my blog to crowd source protest ideas
The first thing that I noticed when I walked into my first (out of four) orientations that day is that not one of the women was wearing pants. Even all the other new female hires were in dresses and skirts. That’s when it started to sink in that truly, my workplace does not allow women to wear pants. Just to get something straight, I don’t hate skirts or dresses and I don’t mind wearing them to work. But the notion of women wearing pants is symbolic. In the late 19th Century women fought for the right to wear pants right along with the right to vote. Sometimes I complain about my church being stuck in the 60s with how it deals with women’s issues. But in the 60s both conservative women and feminists wore pants. I want to write a letter to the leaders of the church and tell this how humiliating this rule is, and that as a member of this church I feel embarrassed both for myself and my church. I want to write a letter to the Prophet about how crazy I think this rule is but I can’t quite seem to form an argument in my head that doesn’t sound totally ridiculous. “Dear Church, Why don’t you let women wear pants to work?” just doesn’t seem quite right to me.
I could not get over the strangeness of being forced to adopt a particular kind of outward femininity while I researched women’s history.
I desperately wanted to protest the Church dress code, but I also wanted to keep my job. In her book, Bodies That Matter, Judith Butler asks: “What would it mean to ‘cite’ the law to produce it differently?” She rejects the idea that agency comes from rejecting regulatory norms and instead focuses on the agency and creativity of re-iterating norms in a different way. In other words, she discusses the subversive potential in performing rules or gender norms in ways that are both recognizable and new. Luce Irigaray also discusses this purposeful performance in her concept of mimesis. To mimic is to intentionally occupy a feminine position. It is when a woman “resubmit[s] herself” to “particular to ideas about herself, that are elaborated in/by masculine logic, but so as to make ‘visible’, by an effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible.”** If a woman employs mimesis to enact femininity in a way that simultaneously makes this masculine logic visible, she is enacting the exact process Butler referred to by appropriating the laws within a structure and repeating them in a playful way. I needed a form of protest that would enable me to simultaneously continue my employment and parody the rules.
I called my talented sister, Katie, who is a textile artist and loves collaboration. Together we formulated a plan to create a new kind of dress. I would still wear a dress to work, but the dress would be covered in the word “pants”. She designed a pants print for the dress, printed it on fabric, and I made it into a dress.
Close up of the pants print and me on my last day of work
Despite having a religious culture that disdains protest, the pants dress was an instant success among Mormons and non-Mormons alike. I mention this not to gloat, but instead to unpack why my dress was so loved. Why did the dress garner support but the “Wear Pants to Church Day” a few months earlier was a lightning rod for criticism? Perhaps it was because I was only one measly intern participating in this fight and my protest did not explicitly cite my concern with “gender equality in the LDS Church?” like the other protest did. Is it that pants politics are low stakes? Or is this a useful example of Irigaray or Butler’s ideas of simultaneously inhabiting and exposing a rule? I would argue that my protest was more acceptable because, in Butler’s language, the dress conformed to the law (the restriction on what clothing I wore), but at the same time the pants print playfully exposed the flawed logic of the rule.
I do not know why the dress code changed or who changed it. Many of these institutional processes are invisible to outsiders. One year ago the Church bent the dress code for female missionaries in order to accommodate the women vulnerable to the Zika virus. Additionally, female blue-collar employees of the Church who do manual labor or use a ladder are required to wear pants. It is easy to see why the Church made exceptions for modesty or public health reasons, but the cause of this new change is less apparent (except for the fact that, of course, it is 2017 and about dang time).
Perhaps my favourite part of the pants dress was that for a brief moment it gave me a voice in an institutional church whose decisions often seem opaque to me. Why was it that the Church continued this dress code until now and did not end it earlier? What was special about June 2017? More importantly, how can people express disappointment and invoke change in a Church that frowns upon protest? I do not claim to know the answers to these questions. But I do know that I felt empowered as I cheekily wore the pants dress on my last day of work. I do not pretend that it had any sway whatsoever on the policy change, but it was part of the resistance. The fact that my next roommate had heard the pants dress story before she even met me meant that it must have made someone smile along the way.
*Admittedly, the analogy between my protest and Butler’s idea of performativity is not perfect. Butler specifically discusses gender as a regulatory norm. She argues that while no one can escape the construct of gender, people can perform gender differently. I could have escaped that set of rules by opting out of my employment or indeed the Church.
** Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, Trans Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke, (Ithica, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), 76.
By June 13, 2017
Charlotte Cannon Johnston, Living the Principle: My Progenitors and Polygamy (Self-published, 2016)
Charlotte Cannon Johnston’s Living the Principle: My Progenitors and Polygamy takes seriously the idea that polygamy is fundamentally connected to the history both of Mormonism as a whole and of families ancestrally tied to plural marriage. She writes that “our past is our present” and argues for the need for Mormons to re-evaluate their relationship to their ancestors’ polygamous past. Many of the stories of early Mormon women, especially in the Church curriculum, are either sanitized or erased because of discomfort around Mormon polygamy. Johnston seeks to discover the history of polygamy through the ways that plural marriage was practiced in her own family. The idea for the book emerged when she wanted to record her own story. She soon realized that before she could make sense of her own story, “I first needed to tell the stories of my ancestors” who are “inextricably linked to the history of Mormon polygamy.” (xi) The reader, therefore, is consistently aware of the relationship between Johnston and her historical subjects. Her subjectivity as author, researcher, and descendant is never too far from the surface of her writing.
Throughout the book, Johnston revisits A Mormon Mother, a memoir in which Annie Clark Tanner discusses her painful and lonely polygamous marriage to and separation from Joseph Marion Tanner, a prominent Mormon educator. Johnston reviewed this book for the famous Pink Issue of Dialogue in 1971 and at that time called the book a representation of an “articulate minority report of a difficult era.” (Appendix A, 225) As Johnston continued to research the experiences of her own family, however, she increasingly recognized the nuance in the written records on polygamy. The book therefore represents a conversation between the viewpoint in Annie Clark Tanner’s memoir and Johnston’s own relatives’ history.
The reader follows Johnston as she takes them on a tour of her polygamous history. The first two chapters are about the lives and personal records of Leonora Cannon Taylor and Elizabeth Hoagland Cannon respectively. Subsequent chapters discuss Johnston’s later polygamous ancestors. As she switches from ancestors whom she knows only through archival records to people she knows from family stories and personal relationships, the tenor of her writing also changes; later in the book, it is harder for readers to keep up with all of the family names and she references. Additionally, it is difficult for readers to disentangle the increasingly complicated family relationships that included marriages “for time,” marriages “for eternity,” and Levirate marriages. Some of this might have been dealt with more clearly, but Johnston’s narrative also points to the basic challenge of representing complicated family relationships. What happens when plural marriage warps family into shapes that no longer resemble trees? How can we visually represent the different kinds of marriages and parental relationships that emerged in polygamy?
Much of the value of this book is the way that Johnston lays bare her assumptions and the process through which her research unfolded. It has more introductory material and appendices than I have ever seen. The book will no doubt be a resource to her family as well as to those interested in the process of making and documenting family history. Johnston is scrupulous, almost to a fault, about conveying her process and how she makes sense of her history. Finally, not only does the book map out familial relationships of the dead, but it also shows the ways in which Johnston’s living family helped her scan and research archival materials as well as edit and format her manuscript. In content and form, the book fulfills the Mormon call to “turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the heart of the children to their fathers.” (Malachi 4:6)
By February 28, 2017
Our Tuesdays with Orsi series continues today with a look at the sixth chapter. The series is a systematic engagement with Robert Orsi’s important and recently published book, History and Presence. Previous instalments are the Intro, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, and Chapter 5.
Heaven, like death, grounds us in the temporal world by enabling us to imagine a spiritual world. Imagining heaven enables “our short lives [to] acquire not only purpose but also grandeur and drama when they are set against the horizon of sacred history.” (204) Hope for heaven gives us moral purpose and embeds our everyday lives with meaning. Heaven is a reward for the righteous. Yet, despite the hope and virtue that heaven invokes in us, the idea of heaven has also been used to justify terrible things. Orsi’s chapter captures how heaven manifests itself in both our sacred cosmology and everyday activities. It represents our highest aspirations, our fundamental worldview, and also the most mundane parts of our existence. Orsi’s vignettes throughout the chapter reflect this: he tells stories end of life and childhood stories. He speaks about his respites from the playground bullies, interviews where men told him of their childhood understandings of heaven, and his parent’s relationship as his mother died of cancer.
The next chapter of the book is about evil, which is where he most fully discusses his fieldwork among people who have been abused by priests. Orsi draws out the ways that “predator priests” used sacred presence as an element of their sexual abuse. These horrible and shocking stories are easily framed within the chapter title “Events of Abundant Evil.” However, Orsi seems more reticent to talk directly of the “Happiness of Heaven” in chapter six. While the stories in the chapter on abundant evil reflect horror and trauma, the stories in the chapter on happiness and heaven reflect hope, disappointment, and ambivalence. “Heaven is the dullest and most obvious of religious imaginings,” he writes (204). This may be the most ambivalent statement I have ever heard about heaven, which may account for why the chapter is by far the shortest and most fragmented of the whole book.
Orsi draws upon a 1944 children’s catechism book that helps children memorize statement about heaven and help them make heaven applicable to their everyday lives. He summarizes, “In this way, heaven is brought close to everyday activities on earth and becomes less dull; or perhaps, brought close to everyday activities, heaven becomes duller.” (205) What does it mean to say that heaven is the dullest of religious imaginations? Consider chapter four’s discussion of printed presence, which is full of observations of the mundane ways that presence enters into believer’s lives through print. Clearly, Orsi does not think that the presence imbued in daily material culture or actions is uninteresting. Perhaps the happiness of heaven is not easily studied as a topic in and of itself; instead people’s hopes and fears about heaven continually emerge throughout all the chapters of the book.
Speaking of his late mother’s dying conversations with his father, Orsi goes beyond his initial definition of heaven: it is not (always) a sacred order, or a “banal” arbiter of moral authority. Instead, heaven is “the limit of knowing and an invitation to conversation, recognition, and accompaniment at the extremity of life.” (213) Presence is something that is not experienced in the abstract; people experience the presence of heaven through encounters with others. In other words, heaven can be understood as a justifying power for actions or aspiration for happiness, however Orsi finds these lenses of analysis banal and uninteresting. “The happiness of heaven” is unknowable and the only way we approach it is through meaningful relationships and dialogue.
By February 17, 2017
Imagine this setting: you are a Mormon attending a talk titled “Sacred Spaces, Holy Work: Perspectives on Mormon Temple Worship,” given at Harvard Divinity School by Juvenile Instructor’s own Tona Hangen, who is a professor of history and also a practicing Mormon. The talk is about temple worship, a topic on which Mormons famously do not love to offer details. The event is advertised both at Harvard and in my Sacrament program on Sunday. It is a public event and the room is full of people from diverse backgrounds. Scanning the room, I noticed people from the Divinity School who knew very little about Mormonism, Mormon professors and students from Harvard, three stake presidents (one whose wife brought treats), and people from my ward.
My point is not so much to belatedly highlight Tona’s awesome talk of a few months ago. Indeed, these situations happen all the time. Instead I want to bring attention to the complicated interplay of expectations of what one should say and how one’s audience expects you to say it. The experience of attending Tona’s talk, as well as subsequent experiences, has led me to think about the ways in which our audience (including believing Mormons and people with extensive or little knowledge of Mormonism) and our pedagogical spaces (such as classrooms, academic lectures, and sacrament talks) structure the ways in which we talk about our subject.
As an academically trained lifelong Mormon, I have learned several ways to engage with Mormonism. However, so far my experiences in discussing Mormonism have mostly been in homogenous groups and spaces. In Canada, where I grew up, there was little opportunity for mixed audiences because there were neither many Mormons nor people academically interested in Mormonism. Therefore, when I presented on Mormonism, I grew accustomed to being able to control who my audiences would be and how I would engage with them. Additionally, I could also manage how I presented my own subjectivity to the audience. Tona’s talk interested me because of the hybridity of the audience and subsequent messiness of expectations. Her audience understood Mormon temples in a variety of different ways: some non-Mormons had never heard of Mormon temples, others had participated in the sacred rituals in temples (and had different ideas of what should be secretive about those experiences), and the stake presidents in the room had the power to grant and bar access to temples.
So, as a speaker, writer, or teacher, how do you stay accountable to your hybrid audiences? How do you manage discourses of criticism and sympathy toward Mormonism? How do you frame your discussions in recognizable terms for mixed audiences? How do you manage different pedagogical spaces, such as BYU religion classes, in which learning expectations are both academic and devotional? How does your complicated relationship with the Mormon faith ? whether you are a believing Mormon, Ex-Mormon, non-Mormon, or anything in between ? enter into your academic discourse?
Please share your thoughts below in the comments.
By January 1, 2017
Happy New Year everyone!
Over my holiday I read On the Road With Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary, which offers readers a keen insight into Richard Bushman’s post-publication thought as Mormon and scholarly audiences reviewed Rough Stone Rolling. Likely many readers of the book will enjoy Bushman’s reflections on his negotiation of the roles of scholar and believer. My favorite part, however, is the window that the book gives into the daily scholarly practices in which Bushman engages, including refining ideas and engaging in dialogue with the public about his book. Luckily for me, Bushman’s book is not the only place to receive such insights: the JI does a great job showing process, sharing resources, and exploring and refining ideas. Here are some of my favorite posts from 2016 that did just that: