FOR THE WASHINGTON POST
The Book of Mormon sits on a coffee table as Mormon missionaries make home visits in South Carolina in January 2012.
This week All Enlisted, a group of Mormon feminists, invited women to wear pants to church on Sunday in order to challenge cultural expectations and start a conversation about gender equality in the Mormon church. These active, faithful members of the church have strong testimonies of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a desire to serve God and His children by, among other things, attending church meetings and fulfilling callings. They recognize that church is primarily the place we go to worship God, covenant to follow Him, and minister to others. But it is also a place where differences between men and women are often exaggerated, boys and girls receive unequal access to resources, and adolescents are told to prepare for vastly different futures. Men dominate leadership positions, supervise women’s organizations and activities, and control church finances.
This event appeals to me because I am currently raising a daughter within the LDS church. My husband and I can show her that we are equal nurturers and providers, that her opportunities in life are not limited by her femaleness, and that she is entitled to be treated as a child of God. But she will also be influenced by her peers, the media, her school teachers, and what she hears and sees at church. She will receive cues about what she can do and be from all of these sources. I hope that this Pants Day can continue a conversation that may eventually transform our church into a place where my daughter consistently receives messages that she is an equal partner to her future spouse, capable and worthy of being a spiritual leader to men and women, and deserving of respect and resources (and not just praise).
Unfortunately, much of the focus on this event has shifted to the intense animosity shown in comments on social media sites, blogs, and news articles. These commenters, many of whom claim to be Mormon women, are calling event organizers unfaithful, stupid, disobedient, and crazy. They accuse Mormon feminists of attempting to disrupt worship services, ignoring differences between men and women, undermining the family unit, and dictating to God how things should be. Some suggest that those participating in the event should leave the Mormon church.
I know that women who choose to wear pants to church on Sunday in the spirit of supporting this event are women who love the gospel. These women want to reconcile what they know in their hearts about God’s love for all of His children with what they see in the policies and practices of the church they call home. They have probably arrived at their conclusions with faith and prayer, and they are likely trying their best to do what they think God would have them do.
This weekend, Mormons on both sides of the issue have an opportunity to practice what we preach and learn to love each other regardless of our different opinions. We should also recognize that we may be talking past each other. Some Mormon women point to their relationships with their husbands, their ability to participate in the church’s women’s organization, and the praise they receive from church leaders to illustrate their experiences with gender equality in the church. Other Mormon women point to a large, bureaucratic organization whose policies and practices are not always dictated by gospel doctrine and may unintentionally marginalize good, worthy, faithful, and believing men and women. Both are valid, authentic perceptions, and we should respect each other for expressing our ideas.
Perhaps this weekend can also be the beginning of a different conversation – one in which we realize that different isn’t always wrong, change isn’t always the enemy, and sometimes the hardest neighbor to love is the person sitting in the pew next to us.
Catherine Jeppsen, a college sociology instructor, lives in Provo, Utah, with her family.