It’s not really accurate to say that there’s only been one instance of realizing – oh wow! This is really messed up! Because it’s happened so many times. I was raised by a man-hater (not a feminist per-se, I think she would love the patriarchy if the patriarchs weren’t such lying bastards – her words, not mine) and spent much of my life rebelling against her ideas. If she were more faithful, if she would be more humble, I told myself, she wouldn’t be so unhappy. Simultaneously though, I learned about feminism in school and loved being smarter than all the boys and relished anything girl-power related. Still though, I loved that I could use my femininity to get attention from boys and milked it for all it was worth.
Then I went to a liberal university in California and it went to a whole new level. As a thin, blonde former cheerleader in a pure-sciences major, I experienced sexism like I’d never imagined before. At the same time, I was immersed in social ideas I’d just barely been introduced to before by my awesome high school teachers – ideas on culture and gender and race and sexuality that totally blew my mind. That was the first real awakening.
Following a broken heart at the hands of a high school crush in my ward, I had had a vastly unsatisfying dating experience. In church, we were told that we were these awesome goddesses-in-embryo, so I was expecting to find an equally awesome counterpart. It also helped that I grew up surrounded by good, strong families with awesome, valiant, respectful young men. In college, all I found were spineless, unmotivated video game addicts or patronizing, self-superior Peter Priesthoods – none of whom could handle a Sister Scriptorian with a headstrong feminist streak. Even worse, having been raised Jack Mormon without much of a testimony of modesty, I came to realize that the LDS boys I dated really were objectifying me because of the way I dressed. I had assumed that I’d be able to have mature, intellectual relationships with them like I could non-LDS guys, but nope! I was the target of every conquesting pre-deployment serviceman and summer sales rep who passed through my singles ward. It happened so many times it was ridiculous. Needless to say, I started covering up – not out of any great sense of duty or self-respect, but because I’d lost faith in LDS men entirely.
I had much better success dating a couple of non-members and actually had several rewarding, grown-up, mutually beneficial relationships that I can look back on fondly – I was treated with respect and dignity, like an intelligent, sexy, package-deal type girl. I’d never been treated that way before, definitely not by any Mormon boy, like my personal worth was more than the sum of my merits as a future babymaker. It was wonderful. Then, at the onset of one of my most promising NoMo relationships yet, I met my husband, a clean-cut RM from a Jack Mormon family like mine, and very abruptly, we were engaged. It was one of those Twilight Zone courtships that I always used to make fun of – I thought they only happened at BYU. But no, here was this guy who was 100% not my type, I knew next to nothing about him, but I just Knew down to my bones that I’d be happy forever if I married him.
I haven’t regretted it yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy. Despite my Jack Mormon upbringing, I knew nothing about sex beyond the basic mechanics and had a miserable, traumatic wedding night and honeymoon. Sex was painful and humiliating and I hated it. I would try my best, then wait till he fell asleep and sob for hours, shaking with rage and indignation. This went on for several years, through the birth of our first child. Fortunately, even though he’s dense, my husband is one of the most patient human beings alive. He has worked with me and my physical and psychological issues to the point where now, we’re seeing occasional success (that journey is subject matter for another post). But in those first dark years, I still felt SO very keenly the agony of generations and generations of women suffering in silence under the oppression of unrighteous dominion: if I was this miserable with a sweet (but clueless) husband, how much worse must it have been for the billions of my sisters before me who married too young, were beaten or raped or hated sex like I did? I felt their pain as if it was my own, felt in my own rage the echoes of millions of angry, objectified, marginalized daughters of God, as if I had been there with them. Who knows, maybe I was.
I questioned my faith bitterly during that time. Where was my happy ending? I had done everything right. I had kept myself pure and virtuous, saved myself for this husband who, although well-intentioned, had no idea how my body worked or how to please me or even how much his own pleasure cost me physically, emotionally, and spiritually every single time. All the sexual education I had ever received came from church, and that education had set me up for this very misery. If I had been “bad” as many of my friends had been, slept around and experimented and learned how this whole sex thing worked, then repented, I would be a much happier person now. I actually still believe that. In my specific circumstances, with my own psychological and physical limitations, I really would have been better off being unchaste. I spiraled into deep depression and contemplated suicide for a long time.
So I went back to basics and focused on my relationship with Christ during that time, focused on the knowledge I had that He had suffered the agony and humiliation of generations of women too, and could help me through it. I found some books that helped me work through my own issues. I never stopped going to church, but I still felt that restless dissatisfaction in what I’d been taught in young womens. Sex is so vitally important to marriage, so why don’t we talk about it more in church? How many eternal marriages could be saved if there was some kind of instruction to prepare these legions of clueless virgins who get married every year for fulfilling, well-rounded relationships? I realized with bitterness that it was mostly because those kinds of decisions are made 100% of the time by men to whom sex was simple, natural, and largely one-sided.
Dissatisfied with marriage and motherhood in general, I threw myself head-first into domesticity. Through various channels of personal revelation, I already knew that my main focus right now is not education or career, but marriage and family – something I’d always felt to be a slap in the face considering that all of my personal fulfillment has always come from work and academia. So I decided to get really, really good at it no matter what. I taught myself how to cook, read all the parenting books, and eventually (very recently) got the hang of keeping my house clean. I wouldn’t call it real happiness (that comes only from my children, and in small doses) but I at least had a minute sense of accomplishment.
Then I got called into the Young Womens organization. A lot happened there, but one thing that will always stay with me is our stake YW president, who seemed like a nice lady but whose teachings and ideas in general I had a really hard time sustaining. The worst of all anecdotes from that time was listening to her rail on college girls who are “too independent, too self-sufficient, and too proud of all the things they can do better than the boys.” These girls were shooting themselves in the feet, she claimed, by not leaving room for young men to be chivalrous and feel more masculine. I couldn’t believe it. It was one thing to talk like that at leadership meetings, but then another time she gave an entire talk to our girls about it, using Disney princesses as anecdotal evidence to support her claims. I seethed for WEEKS. I was surprised how angry that made me.
Fast forward to last December, I learned about the Wear Pants to Church movement and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I had heard tidbits here and there over the years about Mormon Feminists and women wanting the priesthood and thought it was silly – I had never thought very hard about it, but to me it seemed like trying to be less feminine and more like men. To me, the core of feminism at the time was celebrating womanhood and appreciating femininity more than equality. I like being feminine. I like wearing dresses to church. My ancestors trekked across the plains in dresses, I have no qualms about wearing them under any circumstances. So I wrote it all off.
The thing that changed it all for me was not the Wear Pants to Church movement…. it was seeing the ignorant, hateful backlash against the Wear Pants to Church movement. It was realizing that there is NO rule written anywhere dictating that women wear skirts and dresses to church, it’s 100% cultural. And yet the backlash made it seem like these women were violating their temple covenants somehow. These women got death threats, for pete’s sake! THAT was when it all started coming together. That was what turned me around and made me start doing real research into Mormon feminism. If we’re this violently protective of a simple, stupid, meaningless facet of Mormon culture that has nothing to do with doctrine, what else was I missing?
A lot, it turns out. So here I am, still learning and researching. I still love my church, and like many outspoken feminists, I really think this church that I love can operate more closely to the Gospel it proclaims. I think we can do better.
I also think Mormon Feminism can do better, I’m in search of a more peaceful sub-circle to lend my support to that doesn’t sit around waiting for something to get offended about or roam around the internet looking for fights to pick. I’m all about being assertive, even aggressive, if necessary, but we’ve got to be smart and there’s a lot of aimless, thoughtless rage out there that hurts us more than the patriarchy does.