When Pants Are Political

Did you miss the Mormon feminist day of action in December?  It was a small and significant moment for women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Wearing pants.  To church.  On a Sunday.

Joanna Brooks explained in a piece at The Huffington Post on December 14:

Mind you, wearing pants to church is not against the Mormon religion. Nowhere does LDS Scripture or church policy command Sunday dresses for women. In fact, since Wear Pants to Church Sunday was announced, one spokesman for the Church said, “Church members are encouraged to wear their best clothing as a sign of respect for the Savior, but we don’t counsel people beyond that.”

But even a gentle break with Mormon social convention, even a modest effort to help progressive Mormons feel less alone in the faith is enough to engender a national reaction, as Wear Pants to Church Day organizers have since discovered.

The New York Times wrote about the event, including some of the backlash and harrassment experienced by the women participating, like this comment:  “What is wrong with all you women??? If you’re not happy with the LDS church, move on, find another place of worship. You will not change Mormon Doctrine.”

It is the kind of comment and harsh challenge that religious feminists very often face.

Brooks offered her defense as a Mormon feminist who has chosen to stay in the church and work for change.  It strikes themes and tones echoed by so many feminists of so many faiths:

And yet, we stay. We stay because we have experienced God in Mormon contexts. We stay because Mormonism is a faith rich, powerful, demanding and dynamic enough to command our loyalties. We stay because we believe, and we stay because Mormonism is our spiritual home.

And yet we also stay silent. Most of us never say a word on Sunday about how and why traditional gender inequalities matter to us. Some of us fear harsh judgment and outright rejection by members of our families and congregations. We fear upsetting or losing our faith community.

But hiding our differences and questions has costs as well — to those who maintain silence and to the larger faith community. It fosters fearfulness, timidity, inauthenticity and intimidation. It fosters the assumption that all Mormons think and believe alike, and with this is fosters unintended thoughtlessness and carelessness. Not only toward Mormons concerned with traditional gender inequalities but to anyone who doesn’t fit the cookie-cutter Mormon model: from the stay-at-home father and the gay teenager to the new convert and the interracial family.

And thus is written yet one more story in the book of religious feminist activism.

Image via Jezebel.

About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • pagansister

    Interesting—my sister, not a Mormon, married a Mormon man. She has remained a Methodist, and he a Mormon. They have 2 daughters—and both were exposed to both faiths—and at an early age, one became a Mormon and the other a Methodist. Both are now in their 20′s and both have stayed true to their early faith decisions. Coming from a “mixed” faith background, my oldest niece is a bit more liberal in her Mormon faith, but still wears only dresses to church—and my other niece wears dresses also—and so does my sister—to the Methodist church. Guess it is a matter of preference, as my sister is a liberal. My oldest niece isn’t married yet, having reached the age of 25, while most of her Mormon contemporaries have done —so again not the typical, following the faith Mormon woman. She is more interested in getting her career started, again not typical for a Mormon woman. My sister’s influence I guess, as she has always worked and she is the example my niece has of what women can do.

    • Leah M.Christie

      This initial project was a fire starter catalyst, meant to inflame a societal norm of a non-issue in order to recruit others to their larger egalitarian social justice campaigns. These Mormon Feminists are just warming up.

  • Keith Pendlebury

    Wearing pants isn’t breaking any rules but doing it as an in your face statement of opposition to something is no different than openly demeaning the basic standards of the faith. The same could be said for women insisting on wearing a full Burka to protest something at the Catholic Mass or a clown suit worn to protest something in the Lutheran church. The same could be said for having using hair or makeup or behavior as a form of political protest about anything. How would you feel if an Ozark snake handling believer showed up to your church with a dozen rattlesnakes to protest your lack of faith in a commandment that means everything to him? He is entitled to follow his bleifs but would you agree that he has the right to put his belife right in your face. I think not.

    Any time you put yourself in open public opposition to the norm in any organization – even families – in an effort to attract attention or build a base of support for essentially personal or political reasons, you can expect some members of the organization or family to tell you what they think of what you are doing. You will note that it wasn’t any statement from the presiding officers of the church who are quoted as making the remark, It is claimed somebody said it but not attributed to anyone. The statement could have happened but it jsut as easily could have been fiction.

    If I see somebody openly opposing something in an organization they are nominally part of, I always wonder why. The Doctrine did not come as a result of deliberations of some individual or council many years ago. Mormon doctrine is considered to be revelation and from long experience we know that people who insist on trying to overturn that sooner or later leave the church. We are sad to see them go but go they probably will. Nobody cares what people wear. I remember a man who came to church in a farming community wearing bib overalls and rubber boots with manure still on them while his wife had on an old cotton dress and openly nursed her baby during the service. We all knew they were dirt poor and doing the very best they could. We loved them, nobody turned them away. Of their own accord, as they came to understand and recognize the standards and ways the Lord has urged us to live and act in so many ways, they decided to do what they could to live up to their potential. They were always incredibly kind and gentle and deeply spiritual people but had little of life’s blessings. As they learned to see themselves as children of God and worthy and able of much more they asked for help in becoming better farmers for other members who gave knowledge and help freely. As their economic situation improved they kept their spiritual focus but also decided to improve their appearance and home life. They grew to be real powerhouses in the gospel in their community and have been an example to many. That is how a community of believers loves and works and grows together. The Lord warns about those who would spread discord for their own reasons. Those who do that always claim some superior purpose but, when the truth is known, what they claim and what they try to get are two different things. Claim what they want, the Lord looks on their heart. Eventually, regardless of the worldly support, that is where the ultimate decision will rest.

    • Duwayne Anderson

      Keith said: “… doing it as an in your face statement of opposition to something is no different than openly demeaning the basic standards of the faith.”

      You’ve got to love it when Mormons slip and tell it the way it is. Mormonism is a leadership cult — and the worst thing a person can do in a leadership cult is to “oppose” what the leadership says/suggests. Thus, the Mormon “temple recommend” focuses roughly half the “worthiness” questions on issues of submission to the Mormon Church and its leaders (acknowledging them as the only true priesthood holders, affirming one’s support for them, affirming the Mormon Church as the only true Church, paying the cult 10% of one’s income, etc.).

      Yep — there’s nothing inherently wrong with wearing pants to Sacrament meeting. The “sin” is opposing the “leaders” of the Mormon Church who clearly do not want women wearing pants to sacrament meeting. Disagreeing with these profits is, as Keith said, “demeaning the basic standards of the [Mormon] faith.” After all, the first principle of the Mormon Church – the most basic standard of this corrupt “faith” — is *obedience* to the men who run the church and pretend to speak for god.


      Nothing more angers the aged, white, corporate CEOs/lawyers who run the Mormon Church than members who don’t obey them.

  • Graham

    As a practicing member and priesthood holder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I have great sympathy for my fellow sisters who feel marginalized when it comes to the social and theological mores of my faith. I have no specific suggestions as to how the situation could be mitigated. What I can point out is the crucial role women have played in the Christian narrative: (1) Eve, as I see it, was the crowning act of creation; (2) the first person to greet the resurrected Savior was a woman…Mary; (3) in ancient and LDS temples, women perform priesthood ordinances for their sister patrons; (4) my sweetheart has held many responsible positions in our local church, including Relief Society president, and states that she was never made to feel she was “under the thumb” of the bishop or other priesthood holder–she felt she had autonomy, in fact.

    For LDS men to get the true perspective on how they should conduct themselves in their relationship with their families and fellow church members, they need only ponder the words recorded in the Doctrine & Covenants, section 121:39-42.

  • MrNirom

    It’s not about the pants. It’s not about how opinions of most men feel their women look better in dresses than in pants. What it comes down to is that some are focusing on the things of the world.. and missing the eternal perspective. It’s all about the attitude.

    21 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (3 Nephi 13:21)
    34 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Luke 12:34)
    21 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:21)

    In this eternal perspective, the time we spend here on this earth is but a blink of an eye. But what we do and focus on in this blink of an eye.. will determine things of greater eternal importance than anything we can think is so important here… especially outside of the Gospel.

    The Lord has no problem calling 5 of the virgins wanting to attend the marriage party.. foolish. They had their minds and doings focused on other things and were not prepared. Just how important do you think the wedding festival was to them if they didn’t not spend the time and thought to be prepared? What did the Lord say to them?

    12 But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not.
    13 Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.

  • ktn

    I found this whole “controversy” so interesting. It is completely media created. I am an active member of the LDS Church. I attend church every Sunday in my city in Colorado. There have always been LDS women who wear pants to church–not many, but a few here and there, and I’ve never heard anyone remark about it. I think the journalists who swallow this story are being scammed. It is a non-story, created to get attention from those who believe everything they read or any complaint by someone calling themselves a feminist (and obviously don’t go check the veracity of the stories they are being fed). It’s pretty funny to see how gullible the news media really is (tell them what they want to hear and they swallow it hook, line, and sinker).