13 December 2012

The Sisterhood of the Pants

There's been a lot of uproar in my neck of the Facebook woods lately about an event taking place next Sunday encouraging women to wear pants to church.

For my non-Mormon friends out there who now think that we are even more puritanical than you had originally thought, it is the cultural tradition - particularly in America - for women to wear dresses or skirts to a Mormon church service.  It is a tradition passed down through our English ancestry that culturally promoted clothing in women as a sign of her marital status.  Women's clothing has always been subject to such ideas - you don't see it as much in the men.  The modern motto behind this tradition is that we wear other clothes throughout the week and that dressing up is a way to show respect to sacred meetings.  For women, this generally means a modest dress or skirt, for men it means dress slacks, a white shirt and tie.

Welcome to not the 1840s, girls.  
The issue then is coming from women who are hoping to change the cultural tradition of dresses and skirts being the only option for women.  The church itself has nothing that says it is required for women to wear them to church.  The exact wording in the handbook, in fact, makes a point of saying that "The Church has not attempted to indicate just how long women's or girls' dresses should be nor whether they should wear pant suits or other types of clothing."  But there are still some pretty violent cultural stigmas against the action - as seen in this particular article that highlights the arguments on both sides.

This is what they see in their heads.
Like the author of this article, I didn't really see what the big deal was.  Although I don't mind (and actually kind of enjoy) wearing skirts and dresses to church, I don't really care what other people around me wear on the whole.  I can think of many circumstances in which pants would be completely acceptable wear to church for practical reasons or otherwise.  A woman working in nursery, for example.  Or just because it's winter and the building is cold.  It makes sense.  And I think that, on the whole, most people agree with that fact.  Christianity is built on the foundation of loving (and not judging) your neighbor.

So why is it such a big deal?

I think it is because there is a bit of a conflict of standards.  We have days after major school dances where girls wear their prom dresses to church meetings and boys wear their tuxes.  Is that appropriate?  What about the boy passing the sacrament in an untucked and sloppy shirt?  Or super long hair?  Or the men or boys wearing sneakers?  Is it alright to pass the sacrament in a blue shirt instead of a white one?  What about those cheap Old Navy flip flops?  Are any of these alright?  I think most people would agree that they probably aren't the most respectful dress options in church - but do we accuse the girl showing up in her ball gown of going apostate or the boy with the long hair has going against his priesthood duties?

Feminism itself is such a huge buzzword in this culture.  I suppose I can see why.  The word itself conjures up some rather violent images of bra burning and man-hating women.  In a church that promotes traditional family structures, this can be a little unnerving.  It leads to a culture full of women who cannot say anything related to typical "feminist" ideas without being labeled as an extremist who wants to be equal to a man in every way, when that isn't always the case.

This is more accurate.
What they are really looking for in this particular case isn't really the pants.  To me it goes deeper than that.  It's the same stigma that comes from people who rather violently oppose infant girls in spaghetti strap sundresses in the summer time (as if an infant's shoulders are already arousing.)  It's the attitude that comes when we teach our young women that they should dress dress modestly so that men don't think bad thoughts and turn to pornography.  It's what makes stuff like this happen.  Suddenly the girl herself can become worried that she's a walking sin waiting to happen if she happens to choose a shirt some guy doesn't like.  And then women who have perfectly legitimate reasons for working outside the home, or for pursuing higher education, or for not having a huge family suddenly feel the need to justify everything and fight for it.

I think back on my own experiences.  After college I was ready to move to Seattle.  A good portion of that reason, honestly, was that I was hoping to get married.  I had heard from friends that the wards there were good.  I was tired of BYU Student wards and how transient they always are.  People move from one ward to the next always looking for the bigger fish.  I was hoping for something more steady. But that's not what the Lord had in mind for me.  I was told pretty firmly to stay in Utah.  And now I'm living in a small town where the closest single's ward includes primarily 18 year old teens living at home with their parents (some of which are former students of mine.)  I don't know why I'm being taken down the particular path I'm on.  I do know that I've battled through feeling guilty over not being married (or not wanting a large family, or loving my job) because of those cultural pressures.

So what does this have to do with pants in church?  It has to do with women wanting not to be equal to men by robbing them of their priesthood.  These are not women going apostate from the church.  Trying to make a positive change is not equivalent with any of these things, particularly when the change seems to be primarily cultural and not doctrinal. Women should be able to ask questions about their divine role in the universe without feeling badly about it.  We should be able to talk about our Heavenly Mother without feeling awkward or wrong.  We should be able to discuss what we think our Celestial experiences will be.  And we should be able to discuss them without being given the toss-off answers so often used.  We may not have the answers - but fear is not a productive or constructive or even respectful response to a legitimate question.
Relief Society

I won't be participating on Sunday.  At least not directly.  I am afraid that some of these women will find that wearing pants to church is morphing into an act of "rebellion" in mindset, which distracts from the spirit of church.  That shouldn't be the goal.  They aren't "rebelling" against the church - just trying to influence the culture.  At the same time, I return to what I said before: it shouldn't be a problem in the first place.  Cultural expectations that become doctrine are scary to me - especially when they lead to this kind of terrified extremism in response.

The problem is that cultural change can't be mandated.  Not really.  And as one of my friends put it - it is really hard to walk the line between respect and change.  So to those who will be participating, you have my support.  As a woman living an unconventional path in the church, I appreciate you.

9 comments:

Robyn said...

Amen to so many of your points here! I'm surprised and saddened that so many (including a lot of my friends) have jumped to conclusions about those supporting this event, and I can't believe how closed-minded, threatening, and condemning some of the comments and reactions are. I agree that we should be able to discuss issues and questions calmly and without fear. Why is this such a sore point for so many people, and why are reactions so vitriolic? It seems to me that this shows there is actually an issue. Why are we afraid to even consider that in our culture, there are problems? Every culture has problems. I could say so much more... anywho, I'm always very happy to find a friend who is a moderate voice of reason. We should definitely talk more about this! :) - Robyn, from your Bountiful Court days. :)

Suzanne Tanner said...

I find this "wearing pants to church" movement to be quite amusing, actually. It was such a great thing for me to move outside Utah and see how the church works in the "mission field." We have women who wear pants to church all the time, because they are converts or because they come from south side Chicago and don't own skirts or dresses. One of these women is our stake primary president. No one judges, we are all just happy that they come.

I suppose there are doctrinal questions I have about women and equality, and there are things I find abhorrent about Mormon culture. But those battles seem very insignificant out here, compared to the real work of bringing salvation to people.

Joni said...

Suzanne - I agree. Outside of Utah it really isn't an issue. As one of my friends brought up: usually you're so happy they came to church at all that it's not even worth mentioning!

Robyn- I remember you! I've blog-stalked you for years. I'd love to chat more. I miss all of you and your wonderful apartment.

Robyn said...

That's funny, I haven't blogged in years! :) What little town do you live in?

RORYJEAN said...

I really appreciate your words. Thank you.

Prism said...

This judgmental mindset can happen over so many things--it reminds me of a friend in the '90's who's 12 year old son grew his hair long so he could participate in Revolutionary War Reenactments while they lived in Washington DC. When they moved back to Utah, he was not allowed to pass the Sacrament because of his long hair, even though other young men were sporting Dennis Rodman type 2 tone bleach jobs (which were "more fashionable" =less offensive, apparently). He was humble and cut his hair. I am still proud of him. Our Primary President regularly wears nice slacks. We are glad to have her!
I love living "in the mission field", and the cultural biases that are lessened here.

My favorite quote that sums up the loving attitude that should be at our core comes from a former Bishop in our Ward "I love the smell of tobacco in church on Sunday morning--because it means they are here with us where they belong!"

Prism said...

This judgmental mindset can happen over so many things--it reminds me of a friend in the '90's who's 12 year old son grew his hair long so he could participate in Revolutionary War Reenactments while they lived in Washington DC. When they moved back to Utah, he was not allowed to pass the Sacrament because of his long hair, even though other young men were sporting Dennis Rodman type 2 tone bleach jobs (which were "more fashionable" =less offensive, apparently). He was humble and cut his hair. I am still proud of him. Our Primary President regularly wears nice slacks. We are glad to have her!
I love living "in the mission field", and the cultural biases that are lessened here.

My favorite quote that sums up the loving attitude that should be at our core comes from a former Bishop in our Ward "I love the smell of tobacco in church on Sunday morning--because it means they are here with us where they belong!"

Micah said...

I have to agree with the commenters here and on many other related posts -- we who live outside of Utah have no freaking idea what you are talking about. I've been parts of 6 congregations in 5 states on the east coast, and everywhere women wear classy garb of all sorts and no one cares whether there is an inseam or not. This is just another example of the conflating of BYU with the Church, which never ceases to amaze and infuriate me.

That said, if it really is such a big deal in UT, I think this one-time pseudo-protest is stupid and will accomplish nothing. Ladies, if you want to change a culture, you don't do it in one afternoon. If you really feel this way, then pledge to wear pants to church each and EVERY Sunday until you stop feeling prejudiced against. Otherwise this a forgettable gimick that accomplishes nothing.

Joni said...

Thank you all for your comments. I do think this is more a Utah thing than a universal church thing, which is why I've spoken about the issue as a cultural one, not a doctrinal one. It's the culture that needs adjustment. I agree, Micah - one Sunday won't do it. It would take much more than that. And Prism - you may appreciate CJane's comments on the matter, which are in line with what you say and much more eloquent than anything I've said. You can read her blog post here: http://www.cjanekendrick.com/2012/12/the-worst-thing-is-pants-part-ii.html