It’s Not the Pantaloons

Sybil-in-Downton-Abbey

Everyone loved that episode of Downton Abbey when Sybil wore the pantaloons, right? She made a statement to her family, and Branson fell in love with her. But then she fell in love with Branson who claimed he fell in love with her for her independent spirit, and he started belittling her opinions, her work, etc. But he didn’t mind that she wore those pantaloons. He was happy with a good pantaloon wearing lady, so long as she went along with his plans for life and gave up any of her own ambition.

It was in seventh grade the first time I heard a boy call me a “feminazi”. It was the same year I first called myself a feminist.  In middle school, I was a one women campaign against cheerleaders.  When I was in college at BYU, I was routinely mocked and disliked because of my beliefs in regard to female empowerment.  I remember the day I brought it to the attention of my bishop that I had a huge issue that in sacrament meeting, a month and a half into the semester we hadn’t heard from one single female speaker (we had, however heard from the bishopric, the Elder’s Quorum Presidency, the Sunday School Presidency, the football players in the ward, and the men’s basketball players in the ward).  I remember penning a letter to the Daily Universe blasting another law student who thought there was a need for a “Men’s Law Forum” at the law school because there was a Women’s Law Form (part of my response that I still love, “BYU has one of the worst female to male law student ratios in the country. Most of our classes are roughly the equivalent of a ‘Men’s Law Forum’.”).  My outspokenness did not make me popular and well-liked.    I remember that even my good guy friends thought it was okay to use the nickname “Lesbo” when they talked about me and spoke to me, in place of my name (100% wrong for so many reasons!).  And yet, being outspoken about who I was and what I believed in with regard to gender equality also made it so that it was very easy to make some really great friends who held the same beliefs that I did.

Since I have never been cool and have long since gotten over what other people think about me, it is really hard for me to understand women who, like me, claim that gender equality in the church matters to them and who don’t feel comfortable self-identifying as feminists.  This is why, fundamentally, I don’t get the need to wear pants to church to identify yourself as a feminist this Sunday. To me, being a feminist isn’t about the clothes that you choose to wear, it is about the values that you choose to stand for. I think most of us Mormons who self-identify as feminists see the gospel of Jesus Christ as a potentially tremendously liberating force for good for women in the world (other women in the world outside of our faith tradition are 100% entitled to see it differently). However, we see institutional and cultural barriers that also have kept us from realizing that potential.  It is my humble opinion that in order to change those barriers over time, we have to be actively engaged and fearless, not afraid to speak out.

So that gets me to this whole wearing pants to church thing. I have no problem with women wearing pants to church. Women should be able to judge for themselves whatever they deem appropriate to wear for Sunday worship. If they want to wear pants because they think they are approriate to wear to worship in their cultural tradition, then that is 100% appropriate. This doesn’t just go for pants either.  If someone else tells that woman she shouldn’t be wearing pants, it is that other person’s problem, not the woman wearing pants. So, I am on the record being fine with wearing pants. However, I think this whole protest about pants has become about the pants. The message about equality for women in the church is being completely lost when it just becomes about whether or not it is appropriate to wear pants to church. It isn’t about the lack of support a woman can sometimes feel from a bishop who doesn’t treat women well, or about the fact that women can’t give prayers at General Conference for some unbeknownst cultural reason, or about how women get to the point where they realize that for the most part, they are just passive participants in making decisions that affect the future of their congregations and all the big things get left up to the men. It is about the pants. And that is dumb, in my opinion, because why is an action that is supposed to be about something greater instead focused on a woman’s appearance?  Isn’t that part of the problem?

The other thing that I see is that because wearing pants is a surface level thing, then it is plenty of people to claim that they are like-minded and think they don’t have a problem when it comes to the treatment of women because they don’t care about women wearing pants. “See,” they say, “I don’t have a problem with this woman wearing pants to sacrament meeting. So, I must be so open-minded and I don’t need to evaluate anything that I am doing that could perpetuate treating the ladies as inferiors.” It’s Branson and Sybil.  And yet, these same people, comfortable with the “surface” things will be the same ones to ignore anything that comes out of a woman’s mouth in a ward council meeting, or a meeting with a bishop, or refuse to let their wives have any control over the joint checking account, etc. So yeah, I don’t think the pants are the issue.

(Also, why is our outreach and awareness raising the exact same thing is a fictional character from 1913 who is around 17 years old? Is anyone concerned about that?)

If we were not afraid to open our mouths and be honest with the people around us, then there wouldn’t be a need to resort to these kinds of clothing stunts to make ourselves visible. We would be visible.

Furthermore, I will say I don’t think the big issue about clothing for women in the LDS church is anything having to do with pants versus dresses for church. I think that the big issue is the way we teach modesty to youth and the messages.  That’s why I think instead of focusing on pants at Sacrament meeting, how about we talk to Young Women about modesty in a way that isn’t demeaning to them as women able to make decisions for themselves? How about we stop focusing on appearances from the point of view of “what the men think” and instead focus on the agency and opportunity for a woman to determine for herself what is appropriate and why.  To me, that is the much bigger issue. Let’s have a slut walk and say, “My choice of clothing has nothing to do with a young man’s ability/inability to control himself. That’s on them.” (My ideas probably reflect why I am in Young Women’s anymore.)

At this point in my life, I have approximately 242 dresses and 59 skirts in my closet. I have two pairs of trousers. I have two pairs of jeans. I like wearing dresses, and I like being a feminist in a dress. Pants look terrible on me. Furthermore, as uncomfortable as I get in Sacrament Meeting some weeks in regard to the attitudes and opinions I hear expressed, I have no problem being myself in church and being honest about the issues that I see.  But I know that is hard for some women who are afraid of standing out and who have not felt comfortable with the “feminist” label since they were in middle school. So if wearing pants makes that person feel empowered, then by all means do so. But please stop making this about the pants.

Advocate for the long-term institutional and cultural changes regardless of what you wear to church. Have a voice. That is what matters more.

**I am editing this to add one additional comment. You shouldn’t have to “identify” yourself as a feminist by how you dress. What you believe should be who you are.  If you believe in the equality of women, it should be reflected in everything about you, including the words that come from your mouth. I don’t like identifying people by surface level characteristics, like what they wear. There is too much of that in our world.  We so often judge based on the external, and that is something we should be making efforts to get away from, not to reinforce. You shouldn’t have to “come out” as a feminist, it should be reflected in the things you do and say every day.  If you feel like you have to self-identify as a feminist by doing something like wearing pants on a designated day, then it is highly possible that your committment to equality might only be fabric deep.

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