Shrugging my Shoulders

Article in the Salt Lake Tribune about the “resurgence” of Mormon feminism. The article was prompted, at least in part, by this column from the Guardian newspaper, written by Tresa Edmunds, one of the bloggers over at Feminist Mormon Housewives.

I have been reflective lately of why it is that my sisters and I turned out the way that we did. Last night, while at a friend’s house, Sarah was recounting her elementary school days, when laughing at the absurdity of a test question written about a balloon resulted in a trip to the Principal’s office for some old fashioned corporal punishment. After being paddled, a friend of hers saw Sarah crying and asked, “Why are you crying Sarah? It didn’t hurt that bad.”

Sarah replied, “I know. I am crying because this is going on my permanent record.” For Sarah, who in her free time drew up plans with two friends for their future law office they planned to open after attending Harvard Law School, the worst possible stain on childhood was a negative mark on the “permanent record” that would follow her all through her life.

At precisely the same time in my life, I was writing plays about saving manatees or dreaming about becoming a seismologist, after yet another viewing of National Geographic’s Born of Fire. Over the next few years, those career ambitions would take one bizarre turn after another – ballerina, astronaut, writer, meteorologist, economist and one day chair of the federal reserve (after sometime in middle school I learned from watching Peter Jennings that some considered Alan Greenspan the most powerful man in Washington) geneticist, virologist, diplomat, before ultimately becoming what Sarah had envisioned for herself when she was in the fourth grade, lawyer (although, without the Harvard law degree).

The only hint, in my childhood, that becoming whatever I wanted to be when I grew up might be seen negatively within my faith came when I was in Primary about the time I was in fourth grade. I was in my very specific goal phase in that at that time my career ambition was to one day be a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. That was exactly my reply when I was asked one Sunday in Primary what I wanted to be when I grew up. “Don’t you want to be a mother?” was my teacher’s gentle reply.

“No,” I answered emphatically. “Ballet dancers cannot have children during their career otherwise they will get fat.” I will never forget the look of disappointment and failure that crossed my Primary teacher’s face. (If my Primary teacher could see me now, I am sure she would have the last laugh because as it turns out, I didn’t become a ballet dancer, still got fat, and did it without having any children.)

In my household, I never felt like my ambitions or my sister’s ambitions were expected to be more modest because we happened to lack a Y chromosome. In middle school, sometimes the other kids who didn’t like me (who were many, if not most, of my peers) would tease me and call me a “feminist” meaning something very naughty and undesirable, but it didn’t affect me. It wasn’t until I became a student at BYU that I felt like I had to claim the term for myself, while at the same time remaining somewhat ambivalent about it. I went to the VOICE meetings once or twice (I have no idea what that acronym stood for), but those meetings just mostly caused me to shrug my shoulders about how affected everyone was acting.

It was the same reaction that I had last week as I attended the Relief Society in my new ward here and the first question anyone asked me, when I was supposed to be introducing myself was, “How many children do you have?” I shrugged my shoulders. In my new Relief Society, full of the wives of graduate students who are busy reproducing, I probably will just be shrugging my shoulders a lot, because I just don’t get it and I know that more likely than not, they won’t get me. But, that isn’t the point.

When I read these articles, and when I look at the Feminist Mormon Housewives blog, it starts to become more clear what I don’t get. I don’t understand, why everyone is so obsessed with this whole gender business as it relates to the church. In the political world at large, I am completely supportive of feminist causes. I believe in gender equality at work, paid maternity leave policies, and even am probably more pro choice in a political sense than most of my Mormon peers. But at church, I just don’t get it. I don’t understand why we have to put labels on something when it comes to women and religion. I just long for the simplicity of childhood perhaps, when Sarah could obsess about her permanent record and I could blissfully study earthquakes and feel like those choices didn’t signify anything in a religious context. We could just do what made us happy without concern for what those choices would mean to others in our religious community. The more people put labels or make these grand statements about what the proper role of “women in the church” should be, the more I feel like this obsession with gender will ensure that we never really are equal one way or another.

Women within the church are guilty of judging the lives of others, things that are by choice, by accident, by necessity, or by misfortune. I shrug my shoulders, because frankly, I just don’t want any part of that, and where these days it seems like everything is politicized, I just feel like a policy of non-participation is best.

What I mean is this, I long ago realized that I don’t go to church to prove anything to anyone else. I go, because I feel like that is where I am supposed to be on Sunday. I go, because in my faith, I recognize that Sunday worship is a commandment. If, when I am at church, I learn anything new or meet anyone fascinating, then that is just a bonus. In other words, I have long ago reconciled myself in my faith to know that most matters of a spiritual nature are personal and internal to me, and what I get from other people is just a bonus. Therefore, I no longer get offended when someone says something overtly political at church with which I don’t agree. I don’t get offended when someone, out of ignorance of the larger world or the lives of others, says something offensive. I just shrug my shoulders. And, if I hear a fantastic talk or meet someone wonderful, like I did on many occasions in the Capitol Hill Ward in D.C., then all of that is just gravy on top of the fact that I am there because I need to be there.

So what does that have to do with the whole idea that Mormon feminism is coming back into vogue? Well, it has to do with this – I don’t get why we as Latter-day Saint women have to seek out all of these affirmations of our self-worth. I feel like that in seeking it out, that is another way we are telling ourselves that something must be wrong with ourselves from the start. I know the times in my life when I felt like I had to hear reassurance from others, whether it be from the pulpit on Sunday or from a guy I was dating on a Friday night, it was because I felt lacking in myself. I don’t view it as a coincidence, that in my life, when I was looking for those kinds of reassurances, both types of reassurances were what I needed at the same time.

I realize, some people aren’t like me. Some people like have communities in the blogging world, like Feminist Mormon Housewives, where the feel like they can go for support and seek comfort in like-mindedness. I don’t mind just working things out on my own, and then maybe having a face to face discussion with a few select people with whom I trust. Thankfully, I have never been popular, so I have never known the distinct misfortune of having to seek wider approval for what I think and who I am. I have always been fortunate enough to be able to be polite and pleasant to the larger world, while sharing my thoughts with relatively few people who mean a lot to me at a particular time and place. Even for those people who may not always be in my present life, but with whom I felt a kinship at a time and place, they always will be beloved by me for that reason. But all of that is just gravy, too. It doesn’t change the fact that even in the absence of people with whom I may speak aloud my thoughts, it doesn’t means that I am not validated as a person. I just shrug my shoulders. Those are phases of life.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that all of this is just a shrug inducing waste of time. I think it is quite worthwhile for Mormon historians to tell us great stories of Mormon women. I think it is important that Mormon scriptural experts try to illuminate stories of women in the standard works, because those are painfully absent. It would be nice for little girls to have some scriptural role models so that those songs like Book of Mormon stories might not be so devoid of female characters. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of material to work from with the Book of Mormon (I know, I tried to write my freshman honors Book of Mormon paper on Women in the Book of Mormon and really had to stretch for material). So, I am all for rendering visible women within our religious community. I am in favor of celebrating all kinds of diversity within our religious community, do not mistake me on that point.

However, in addition to those things, wouldn’t it be nicer if we didn’t constantly needed to be told that we are okay? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just really believe that all of us are capable of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and working out our own salvation?

I am all for religious community as my favorite church memories all revolve around feeling a part of something larger than myself. But sometimes, I feel like that we mistake the larger point. Yes, it is great to be a part of a body of something larger than ourselves, but at the end of the day, these labels that we put on ourselves and each other do not matter one whit. At the end of the day, what matters is what are view of ourselves is and whether we can stand before God and be satisfied with our efforts. That is why it shouldn’t matter at all if I am a virologist, seismologist, librarian, mother, or nothing at all. If my path makes me happy, then it is good. We can be whatever we want to be because at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the personal relationships that we have with Jesus Christ, Heavenly Father, and the people around us. What matters at the end of the day is if we have been anxiously engaged in trying to serve others without regard to status, nationality, political view, or pretty much any of those other temporary, human-made distinctions.

I don’t know. I shrug my shoulders. It isn’t apathy, though. It is a shrug of the shoulders because I don’t think that these things shouldn’t matter in an eternal, religious perspective.

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