Saturday, December 15, 2012

but can't we all agree skirts are better anyway?

I have not really blogged in a very long time. Not since August 2011 I think. A lot has happened in our lives since then and it is sad that I have to give up the hope of ever catching up. The most significant event is the birth of our 5th child - 4th son - Truman Axel Wiley on June 2, 2012, but if you follow Scott or me on Instagram you already know all about that. It's been so long since I've blogged that blogger has changed so much and I don't even know how to use it anymore. 

I got really wrapped up in the recent presidential election and had high hopes of some exciting changes happening if Mitt Romney won. I spent a lot of time and emotional/mental energy following the issues and listening to the arguments on both sides and developing my positions, and when I felt it start to unravel near the end I got really frustrated because I felt like my voice was not being represented. I came out of that experience thinking I somehow needed to figure out how to communicate better and to be more willing to speak out for what I believe. I am surrounded by so many talented people and it is easy for me to discount my contribution on the content side in favor for my contribution behind the scenes. I do not seek the spotlight ever, however it was really hard to watch that election come and go and feel unnoticed. So here goes...

I am a 36-year-old stay-at-home mother of 5. I work full-time from home in a male-dominated field as a software engineer for a liberal-leaning, socially conscious and politically correct company in Silicon Valley. My husband, to whom I've been married for 15 years, is a record producer and a musician and we are both very active in the local artist and music community, which we find to be quite diverse and open-minded and culturally interesting, beyond just being ultra talented and inspiring. We live in Provo, Utah but come originally from Los Angeles. I'm a social and fiscal conservative. I'm an active Mormon. I am a walking contradiction.

Recently there has been a lot of talk about gender roles within our church, even going so far as several women proposing a protest where they wear pants to church on Sunday to show solidarity in support of women's rights and gender equality. A lot of it is not new. Some of it has come out more visibly since women's issues and Mormonism were such a big part of the election. But either way it is happening now and I have been confronted with the fact that this is really not my issue and it doesn't move me one way or the other, but then if that is so how can I  think of myself as enlightened and open minded? 

It has been very interesting to me to be close friends with Courtney while she's been going through so much introspection and self realization as she writes her life story, and also while she has been put into a position (and put herself into a position) where she is an advocate for women's rights in the church and in life in general. I respect and appreciate her thoughtful approach and her desire to think things through and discuss and consider all sides and form intelligent positions - we have thought-provoking conversations and she is always interested in my take and experience. I also appreciate her strong testimony of the gospel, her sensitivity to the Spirit, and her desire to be righteous and faithful. 

She tells me about real women who write to her, and tells me about her experiences in her own past, and they talk about how they are really hurting and frustrated with their position in the church with relation to men. At first it would just make me mad and impatient. I wanted to dismiss it as something these women needed to get over and something they are imagining and projecting onto the rest of us. But she has helped me to understand that while it might not be my issue, it is a very real issue to a large number of women, and we have a responsibility as sisters in the Relief Society and as Christians to be sensitive to them and help them if we can. And moreover it is a high-visibility social issue for the church so having strong women ready to speak out on either side is important.

On an issue like this there are women who speak out and insist on change, and then there are those of us who don't. The problem is that there are actually two camps of us on the quiet side, but because we are quiet it is easy to assume we are all the same. There are some who are unenlightened and unthinking and blind followers. Perhaps they are so entrenched in and brainwashed by the male chauvinist rhetoric that they believe it themselves or at least wouldn't dare speak out against it. But there are also those of us who are so confident in our identity as valued daughters of God that the presumed inequalities and perceived injustices do not affect us - either we don't notice them because it is not our issue or if we do notice we can chalk it up to creepy individuals and not a broader problem.

Courtney would ask me what EVIDENCE do you have that you are valued at church? What do we DO to SHOW young women that they are important and valued in relation to boys? It made me feel dumb that I couldn't think of immediate answers to support my position because I hadn't spent time thinking about it before. And why hadn't I spent time thinking about it? Was I just a blind sheep following along and doing what the men tell me to do? Of course not! So surely there must be EVIDENCE but why couldn't I think of it? Anything I would mention seemed so trite and inconsequential to me. 

Then it was an A-HA moment for me one day when I realized "why would it ever even occur to a woman that she's not valued or just as important as boys are to Heavenly Father" and right then and there I realized where I'd come from and why this is not my issue. 

I do not look for evidence or gestures to show me that I'm important because I already KNOW that I am. It's like asking, "what evidence do you have that you're alive" and your immediate thought is "why would you ask me that, of course I know that I am alive, it's not even an interesting issue or discussion." But for someone that is very sick and near death they might spend a good deal of their time paying attention to evidence of their declining or improving health. Now that does not mean that the evidence doesn't exist for me too and when pressed I can think through experiences and opportunities I've had at church and in life that reinforce my views, just like I could do if I really needed to catalog the checklist of things that mean I am alive.

I have discussed this at length with my mother and my 3 sisters, and we all share a similar position and view on these issues. It is really comforting and reassuring to have that support system to help reinforce my memories and understand my background better. 

So there are two things to be mindful of going forward. 1-How did we get here so that we can ensure we are raising our daughters and teaching young women at church to get here too; and 2-What can we do for women today who are not as confident in their value or feel like they need more evidence of their value.

On the first point, my mom obviously raised us to be strong, smart, independent women, just like her. We are capable and know we can accomplish great things because we saw her do it. For better or worse we know (or at least think?!) that we can do ANYTHING and gender has never been a factor in that at all. We were always encouraged (again mostly through example) to get married and be mothers and wives, but not because that is where we would find our place or value but rather because that is the Plan of Salvation and a path to happiness and fulfillment in this life. We were taught the value of taking care of our bodies and caring about our outward appearance (heaven knows I love clothes & shoes as much as the next girl), but it was never to an undue degree where our looks were equated with our value.

One of the most valuable lessons my mom ever taught us was to "assume love" and I have realized that for me that also extends to "assume equality". With the idea that I am not loved or that I am not considered equal off the table, it frees me up to interpret and understand other peoples actions in different ways and potentially to get outside myself more and realize it's usually not even about me at all. 

But I hadn't always given great credit to my dad in this effort of raising strong daughters until I heard stories of alternative experiences. My dad has always loved and respected my mom publicly and privately. I can't think of a single experience in my childhood where I saw him belittle her or speak poorly of her or suggest that she was anything other than strong and capable and smart and virtuous. He showed us how a man is supposed to treat a woman, and therefore what sort of man we should each look for in a spouse and what sort of men we should raise our boys to be. 

There is no doubt that he has some deep-seeded traditional views as to gender roles and at least for me part of my life experience has been to separate from that a bit and chart my own path. But even when he'd say to me "anything less than 6 kids is a waste of your talents" (sorry dad - I'm stopping at 5!) it was clear that he was not suggesting that my role as a woman was to be quiet and sit at home and have babies but rather that he recognized and valued my strength and capabilities and wanted to encourage me reach my potential. He was the one advising me in college to pursue a degree in a male-dominated field because he knew it suited me and it could provide flexibility that could be beneficial to my family in the long run (which it has). It has been eye-opening and disheartening to me to realize that not all dads were like this and not all husbands treat their wives this way. That is sad.

Having been grounded by this base-level understanding of my individual worth at home, all my experiences throughout my life have only served to reinforce and help develop my sense of self - from church, to school, work, friends, family, my marriage, and my roles in our home. 

I have hope that as I raise my kids they will naturally understand their value because I do and that these views will be instilled in them because they are inside me. Like the home I came from, everything I do in my home is with the base-level understanding that both men and women are loved and valued children of God so that any differences we see or pursue are not coming from a place of inequality or differing value but rather practicality, convention, or divine guidance. It does not take special effort or thought or planning for me to teach these things, they just are.

It is said that the role of the church is to support families and reinforce values taught in the home and I believe on this point that it does just that. If you come from a home where you are taught that men are better than or more important or valued than women, you can certainly interpret the doctrinal structure and cultural conventions within the church as evidence of this. But if you come from a home where gender equality is not an issue, it wouldn't even occur to you that anything at church suggested that either. But problems occur in places where there is a high concentration of views on one side or the other so that it becomes more acceptable to teach and reinforce in church things that cross the line from doctrinal to cultural in an unbalanced way. (I think you could find evidence of this in both an overly chauvinistic society as well as an overly liberal area, etc.) So then in the case where you have someone come to church seeking solace from the injustices they feel at home, they will be disappointed to find the same people teaching those things at home are teaching them at church too. Or on the converse if you are someone who comes to church assuming equality but then find an over-abundance of views, teaching and treatment to the contrary, you can start to question that and wonder if the church teaches the opposite from what you'd learned at home. 

So the second point above is where we're treading now. We must first recognize that this is a real issue to many women, and feel sorrow and sympathy for them as they try to make sense of their place in the church and in the world. And then we can listen and see if there are meaningful things that could be done to help them feel better. Things that don't threaten the doctrine or the divine source of the gospel. Things that are cultural or conventional that might not make a difference to us either way but could make a difference for others if they were changed. Even if many of these things wouldn't even occur to us as negative so we wouldn't have thought of the need to change them on our own, if it helps someone else to do it differently, then it should be fine with me and moreover I should be willing to actively participate in their change. 

I definitely do not like the idea of protesting at church. I find it distracting and disrespectful. But I'd like to somehow get the point across that while it is not my issue, I'm sensitive to the problem and interested in helping to seek resolution. The world will be the same for me either way and better for them, so that ultimately means better for everyone all around. I think there is room for more understanding on both sides, but in particular there needs to be a recognition that not everyone on the quiet side is antagonistic to their agenda so we do not need to be viewed or treated as the small minded unenlightened. 

This is why I do not like the label Feminist - not because I don't believe women are just as good as (if not better in many ways) than men and ought to be treated that way and not because I don't agree with many tenets of their beliefs - but because it is a loaded and divisive and inflammatory label. It is black and white in a very grey area - they want you to declare that you're either one or else you're not. Plus it's not even an adequately descriptive term - it still requires you to qualify what type of feminist you are or what type of equality you believe in. And this pants protest is the same way - it will be loaded and divisive and inflammatory and inadequately descriptive when the discussion doesn't need to be that way. 

I am anxious and willing to be a part of the changes that will help all women realize their individual worth in the eyes of God. Even if I'm wearing a skirt.
(because really, skirts are better anyway)


Gabrielle - Design Mom said...

I appreciate your sincere efforts at trying to see the viewpoints of those who see things differently than you. But I think you're working from some mistaken premises here. This one stood out most to me:

"But if you come from a home where gender equality is not an issue, it wouldn't even occur to you that anything at church suggested that either."

That's simply not true. Gender equality is not an issue in my home, nor was it an issue in the home I grew up in. So imagine my surprise when this happened: I was sitting at home with my (at the time) 5 kids and watching my 8 year old daughter study the poster of the apostles we had hanging on the fridge. After a few minutes she approached me and said, "Mom, boys are more important than girls, right?" I was shocked and confused but tried not to show it as I answered, "What do you mean?" "Well," she said, "Jesus was a boy, the prophet is a boy, and only boys have the priesthood. So boys must be more important."

She learned this way of thinking from the church.

And while I had never brought up my feminist views to my young children till then, you can bet I've made sure they know my opinions on the matter every day since.

If you want to show the women who struggle to find a place in this church that you are person they can talk to, a safe haven, an open-minded individual that won't judge them or tell them they should leave the church (as a blog reader told me in comments today), then a really easy way to do it would be to wear pants tomorrow. You can assume they know you support them, but that's not a safe assumption. If you wear pants, they'll know.

Geo said...

Sarah, I loved reading your thoughts on this matter. My sister-in-law has been making these incredible art crowns lately, and what I wish is that I could tie one around the head of each woman who comes through the chapel doors tomorrow.

I'll be working to reach out to my sisters tomorrow, so that if they are hoping for support (and who isn't?) they will be able to feel secure in mine, regardless of the clothing I (or they) have chosen. I don't want to mess around with sending signals that could be misconstrued. It may sound trite, but what I care about wearing to church is my heart. I want to clothe myself with the mantle of charity.

Zack said...

Hi Sarah, this is a very thoughtful response to a serious question. When I approach the question of Priesthood authority and gender, here's the conclusions I come to. Women are much better than men in the ways that matter eternally. They are intuitively thoughtful and caring and work tirelessly serving others. They are intrinsically charitable. Men are not. They are selfish and often lazy. They need external motivation to serve and help others. I think God has given the Priesthood to men on earth to teach us to love and serve others and to help us develop those qualities that we will need in the eternities, that women more naturally develop. I'm sure there are better words to choose in saying this, so I'll ask forgiveness of any that I may have offended in crafting this comment. Certainly there are exceptions to everything, but I think it is a pretty safe generalization.

Ie Li said...

I love this post. You expressed yourself very articulately. I had no idea this was going on. I, like you, have never felt undervalued in the church or at home. I just have a very different perspective. I don't know what others have gone through or what it is they are really seeking. Is it recognition? Is it position? Those aren't eternal goals. So it must not be that. I feel tremendously loved, respected, and valued by my husband, father, and leaders. I also have never felt for one second that what a man does at church or in the workplace is more important than what I do at home for my family. What evidence do I have that I am important? Probably nothing tangible. I've never had my picture in a magazine or even held a high profile calling. My evidence comes from my spiritual experiences, which confirm God's profound love for me. Nothing that I have experienced in the church or at home has ever contradicted that.

As you know, my mother worked outside the home when I was growing up. There were times when she felt judged by other members of the church for doing so, but it didn't deter her because Heavenly Father gave her peace. She returned the criticism with love and was never dissatisfied with the church. She knew that they were not perfect and she forgave them.

Maybe my security in my calling and worth has left me blind to some issues, but I'm sure I couldn't feel dissatisfied in the church even if I tried.

Ie Li said...

That last part of my comment sounds really insensitive. I really do love all of my sisters in the gospel. I hope all will someday feel peace about their value in the church.

Bethany said...

Some things:

1. I think you were spot-on when you realized you didn't need "evidence" that you are valued at church. The truth is, I don't need to be valued at church. It's nice, sure, but completely unnecessary. The only thing I need evidence of is that my actions are pleasing to God. And that happens at a personal level -- not over the pulpit, not in ward council, not by the church calling extended to me, but by how strong my relationship is with our Savior. The funny thing is, is that that cannot be measured by anybody else -- which is why what people think of me is not important to me. Remember, for instance, what people thought of Job.

2. I also agree with your "distracting and disrespectful" take on the "protest." 100%. I think the way we become one of those approachable women is by being a friend to those around us. Women trust their friends. Frankly, in this particular instance, just because a woman wears slacks to church doesn't mean she's going to understand you anyway.

3. I do, however, agree with Gabrielle on the point that just because you come from a home that values both sexes equally does not mean that you will not find the opposite to be true in your ward, stake, among General Authorities, etc., etc. (You can take it pretty far up there, unfortunately.) I believe there is, sometimes, gender inequality perpetuated by some Priesthood leaders. But again, that's okay when you realize that to a certain extent it doesn't matter what even your own bishop thinks of you. All of the church leaders on earth today are imperfect -- to varying levels, of course, but sometimes to an awfully, painfully, hurtful and even wicked level. That is why when Christ talks about cleaning house (as in 2nd coming cleaning house), He's says He's going to start IN His own house (see section 112:24-28). Unfortunately some bad things happen under the guise of the Priesthood. But again, as painful and hard that can be, in the scheme of things, it does not matter.

4. I disagree with Gabrielle, though, when she says that her daughter's "mistaken thinking came from the church." It sounds like her daughter is a thinker (which is awesome), but the mistaken conclusion came from an incomplete picture, typical of an 8-year-olds conclusions. And that's where parents come in to play. (And awesome church leaders/teachers, and awesome Bishops, Home/Visiting Teachers, etc., etc.) Yes, Jesus is a boy, and yes the prophet is a boy, and yes, only boys have the Priesthood -- she's right. BUT, she's wrong to conclude that that means boys are more important, and as soon as that mistaken conclusion is brought to a parent's knowledge, they need to prayerfully correct that. Unless there has been false doctrine taught in her class, that thinking didn't "come from the church."

5. I also agree 100% with (and like) your take on the label "feminist." I've nothing to add.

and a couple more things:

6. You should also be a writer! I like your writing style.

7. I wish we'd had longer than a few months before we left South Pas to discuss interesting topics -- I enjoyed those discussions!

sarah said...

Gabrielle - What a great teaching moment you got to have with your daughter! So great that you have a relationship with her where she could come to you with that question and could trust what you teach over anything she'd come to understand elsewhere. And you can believe if I discovered any teacher or leader teaching those things to my children it would not go unanswered. But I like Bethany's point that young minds can come to incorrect conclusions based on incomplete information and that's where parents step in. "The church" doctrine certainly doesn't teach that, so if she learned it overtly it was from some seriously misguided and imperfect people there. And it is important for even kids to understand that difference too.

And I agree there are certainly examples of these negative views of women creeping into the teaching or leadership at church, but my point was that if you are secure enough about your position already you might very well be disappointed and hurt by them but they shouldn't rock your sense of self-worth. But that is not to say it is ok or should be left alone.

Bethany - I totally agree with the point about being friends with people in order to feel comfortable with each other and better able to support one another. And not just friendly and superficial - we have to cut through the small talk and get to a place where we can be vulnerable with each other. This is exactly what Relief Society ought to be about and while I'm not very good at it I desire and strive for that. We all like to question and feel overly burdened about visiting teaching but what an invaluable program that can help us to that end if we use it well.

Thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments. I don'd mind at all the chance to have meaningful conversations with friends.

B said...

Sarah - I have always looked up to you and all that you do. I can relate to you on so many levels (in not a creepy way :) ) so I was thrilled to read your post and hear the same thoughts I have been having the past few days.

I too have been so riled up about this issue because I am in your camp. I think you hit the nail on the head that whether or not you feel belitted or judged in this church stems from confidence in who you are and your divine worth.

I have never been one to go looking for external proof of my worth - thus I was never a very popular kid in school or church. I was happy to move about my world doing what I felt was important without others giving me the thumbs up or assurance that I was awesome. I didn't need it then and I still don't. I suppose some people do need continual reassurance that they are valued - which isn't a bad thing and I agree that the church might look for more ways to better communicate their divine view of womanhood.

I too came from a home where my father raised us to be tough and never pass up any opportunity because of our gender. I also watched my confident and strong mother do womanly things with pride and finesse - such as sewing, cooking, nurturing, etc... I wanted to impress my Dad by proving I had no limitations and I wanted to be just like my mom and raise kids with style and confidence. As I've read the other blogs and comments, I suppose I was indeed lucky to grow up this way and I do feel badly for those women who didn't. I can see how that would be difficult.

No experience can define our roles as men and women more clearly than the experience of having a baby. I learned so much about myself this summer when Grayson arrived. I learned what I can accomplish and I learned how much I rely on my husband for his support, strength, and yes, priesthood power.

When I hear the comments about this event, I keep hearing women say, "this is not about pants." I would have a much easier time supporting this cause if it actually was JUST about pants. But underlying the rhetoric I hear comments about women deserving the priesthood and that is where I have to firmly draw the line. My testimony of a loving Heavenly Father confirms to me that we are not denied any power or blessings because we do not have the priesthood. The priesthood works in a very specific and special way and I am so grateful for the worthy and respectful men in my life who honor their priesthood and bless my life because of it. I could go on and on about this, but will spare you.

I am not a feminist - I am a confident feminine woman. I also hear feminists talking about equality, but their actions suggest that they really believe they don't need men at all. I disagree with this 100%. I do not want to raise my son in a world where he feels that he has no value and no contribution to make. I do not want him to believe the the woman around him are superior and can raise babies and support families without the hard work and dedication from a man. I want him to grow up realizing that women are equal partners in this life and that each gender is given different but equally important responsibilities.

Any movement that seems to drive our church and society away from that ideal scares me and I have been very nervous about where this is going. And like you, that doesn't mean I don't care about women who are hurting or am not Christlike. I am just concerned. This feels to me to be a very slippery slope.

Thank you for your thoughts and sharing them and thanks for listening!

Rachel F. said...

I have so many more thoughts to share, but I wanted to share this beautiful article titled "I Am a Mormon Because I Am a Feminist" written by a Catholic convert. She so clearly outlines the thought process.

marcie said...

Maybe we should wear skorts? :)

Christy said...

Sarah-- I love this! You have expressed my exact thought process on this issue. At first I was upset about this idea. But I kept thinking about it. Mainly because I am raising 4 daughters and was thinking about how I would talk to them about this issue. So I read some more about it and basically came to the same understanding you have. I was raised completely different. My parents and leaders always made me feel empowered and important. But I realize I need to be sensitive to those who have not.

Anyway, I'm not going to get into more detail about it but I LOVE this post. I always love to hear what a Zackrison has to say on an important issue. We were bugging Annee for days to get her input on the election. Lucky for us those babies gave her a minute to respond.

Thanks for this. I'm going to refer to it often.

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Isaac Kurth said...

I'm a feminist, and I like pants, but I'm a man. Does that mean I should still wear a skirt instead because skirts are better?

Haha, that was a joke. Anyway, I feel like the feminist movement is not just something that can benefit women - it has helped me gain more respect for women and a better understanding of myself. Also, feminism is not just an issue in the LDS church - there are plenty of issues in the world at large where women ought to have rights equal to men's, but they don't.

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