Pantspocalypse: It’s Time for Conversation about Mormon Gender Norms by Caroline Kline


Kline, CarolineA little over a week ago, hundreds if not thousands of Mormon women across the world participated in Wear Pants to Church Day, a movement orchestrated by some feminist Mormon women in an effort to bring attention to issues of gender inequity in the Mormon faith. Pants were the chosen symbol because there are strong cultural norms against women wearing pants to church. This event was conceived as an opportunity to make visible the fact that Mormons are questioning traditional sex-segregated customs in the LDS Church and want to dialogue about these issues. Supportive men were asked to wear purple shirts or ties to signify their solidarity.

What surprised everyone in the Mormon feminist community was the vicious response by some other Mormons to this proposed action. On the event’s Facebook page, other Mormons attacked idea, hurling insults at the women. One man even made what sounded like a death threat, saying that people who participate in activists movements like this “should be shot … in the face … point blank.” The negative reactions centered around two issues: 1) that it’s inappropriate to engage in any form of protest – no matter how subtle — in church and 2) that it’s inappropriate for women to wear pants to church.

These responses were shocking to Mormon feminists who expected the event to get little attention beyond the online feminist Mormon community. They were also shocking because there are not even official statements from Church leaders asking women to wear dresses or skirts to church. (Because Mormons believe in a living prophet, statements that come through official Church channels are given a lot of weight by members.) A Church spokesman, days before the event, articulated that the Church has no stand on the appropriateness or inappropriateness of women wearing trousers to church.

The strong reaction from some Mormons to this idea of women wearing pants in church is one example of Mormon people taking more extreme positions than the official Mormon Church has. Margaret Toscano highlighted this phenomenon when she talked about what has happened to discourse on Heavenly Mother in the last couple of decades. She writes that while believing in Heavenly Mother is mainstream, there is an overwhelming sense among many Mormon members that she should not be talked about – despite the fact that no Church leader has ever said that. But because Mormons almost never see Church leaders mention her, and because Church President Gordon B. Hinckley in 1991 said that he considered it inappropriate to pray to her, Mormons have leaped to the idea that even mentioning Heavenly Mother is treading on dangerous ground.

I think a similar phenomenon might be at work regarding this pants issue. Because Mormons never see female Church leaders or the wives of male Church leaders wearing pants to church or General Conference, they have assumed that it goes against God’s will for them to do so. Because Church leaders have encouraged members  to wear  “Sunday best” to church, and throughout the last several generations, “Sunday best” has meant skirts or dresses, that is what many Mormons see as decreed by our leaders.

I wore my pants to church on December 16. I was one of five women wearing pants in my congregation. Three of the other women who wore them did so mainly for me after I told them that I would be doing this. The cultural norms against it were so strong that it was a hard decision for them, but they did it to stand in solidarity with me. I am touched that they wanted to stand with me in signaling that questions about gender norms are questions worth asking. I was likewise heartened by the half-dozen men wearing purple shirts and ties.

This “pantspocalypse” with its storm of reactions is proof that it’s time for Church leaders and members to have serious dialogue about gender norms. When and if my leaders want to talk with me about how to increase women’s visibility and opportunities within my congregation, I’ll be there – wearing my pants.



Categories: Mormonism

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15 replies

  1. Caroline, thanks for writing about this, I would never have never known. I think it’s true that sometimes minor practices and conventions become so dominant in people’s mind and are held onto so tightly that any disruption of them throw people in a tizzy. I’m glad you wore your pants and had a community of supporters to be with you. Small things are sometime very big.

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  2. Holy cow! This sounds like you’re writing about the Taliban. Good luck with your church. It obviously needs brave women like you.

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    • Barbara

      As a former Mormon, that was my feeling as well, The Taliban, controls women by forcing women to wear Burkas,. They are allowed to shoot little girls in the face on school bus simply because a little girl is advocating for the rights of girls and women to be education, Another was beheaded on the spot for refusing to marry a male member of another tribe.

      In the United States, people (men/women) are not supposed to behave like the Taliban, but, in the Mormon faith tradition, male members, precisely, because they have the priesthood can shame women in repentance, They make women and girls responsible for all that ales.

      I went to Christmas Eve mass at the Catholic Church around the corner from my house. In an effort to support the movement, I wore sneakers, jeans, white turtleneck, and a purple sweater, and guess what, the world didn’t end, no one cared what I was wearing, because other people were wearing similar attire. People were more concerned about enjoying the nativity scene that was being acted out by the kids. And enjoying the Christmas music And that’s as it should be.

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  3. Caroline,

    My husband’s family is directly descended from Brigham Young’s first wife Mary Ann Angel. They are very, very religious. I came from a liberal religious background in Wisconsin and when married and in Utah had a difficult time with the whole atmosphere (we, liberal husband and I, have been happily living back in Wisconsin for years). Lack of tolerance of people of other kinds, faiths, and beliefs was one of my issues with Mormon religion. That is one of the main reasons for my years of biblical studies and historical research. That has led to my writing of two books, the most recent is the eBook, “A GENDER NEUTRAL GOD/ESS: Be Inclusive but MAKE NO IMAGES was the Religious Change” by J. J. McKenzie. If you wonder whether there is a feminine dimension in biblical material and justification for speaking of a “Heavenily Mother” have a look at this eBook. My in laws, who are currently on a mission, are very willing to talk about all of their religious doings but don’t even want me to mention my books (I don’t, and we maintain a cordial relationship, but you might imagine how I feel). My best to you and your pants project – things do need to change some.

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  4. Any challenge to patriarchal authority is a threat. You will be threatened with death by patriarchs, and it means you are powerful. Congratulations. Geez, we could send an army of butch dykes in our dapper three piece suits to a Mormon church. Hey, we can sing well :-)

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  5. Caroline – Thanks so much for writing about your experience. I actually read about this in the HuffPost and was wondering what Mormon feminists like you would do and how others would respond to you. You make a really interesting point about about the status quo being tied to gendered norms that themselves don’t have textual support or even authoritative teaching against it– it really shows how powerful tradition is and remains. The closest analogue I could think of was not so much the Taliban, but a handful of fundamentalist Christian colleges (e.g., Liberty University) that have an enforced dress code, where only men literally (and I guess figuratively) can wear pants (but again still, those are explicitly stated norms of those institutions, although what you are talking about is implicit rules of propriety). Trek on!

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  6. Here’s the deal. If a woman shows up to church wearing pants, almost nobody would notice. If they did, most people wouldn’t say anything. Women might wear pants for any number of reasons from extremely cold weather, to having a bad scrape or bandage on a leg, or perhaps being self-conscious about varicose veins. There might be a few old-timers who might think it improper, but there isn’t any doctrine or policy that mandates wearing dresses to Sunday services.

    What is bothersome is when a woman gets up and says “I’m protesting against you all because I think you’re a bunch of narrow-minded misogynists and then announces she’s wearing a dress as a sign of protest. It’s the intentional confrontation that’s inappropriate. It disturbs the peace of the saints. There are other ways to go about having this discussion. Contention is of the Adversary and not of God. Those who incite contention aren’t doing the Lord’s work, but someone else’s.

    Surely any member of the Church who takes it upon himself or herself to call the rest of the Church to repent is on shaky ground. They’re on their way out of the Church and will soon be persecuting those they once called “brother” and “sister.”

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    • I would like to know why intentional of protest of gender-specific norms is inappropriate, Gregory. From my perspective it’s not only appropriate, but imperative. The era of patriarchy is on the way out, and it is time to bring in the era of partnership. That means women have equal rights, leadership in our institutions, and bring their different values to bear on our culture, so that we can finally move out of the contentiousness that it foists upon us and nurtures in us.

      It seems that you only operate in either/or terms (something I see as the epitome of contentiousness). If someone protests then they are actually persecuting. Change is impossible within this set-up. Only the status quo can exist within it.

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      • Ms. Vedder-Schultz: I’m afraid you’re interpreting my comments very narrowly through a non-LDS lens. I visited your web site and I understand that you’re approaching this from a non-Mormon perspective. That’s perfectly fine with me, because I understand Mormons are a tiny minority. If you would have studied our religion and history, you would know that women occupy an exalted place within our theology. Indeed, we’re the only Christian faith that believes that God has a female counterpart who is his equal it glory, power, knowledge, and authority. We teach that the ultimate destiny for women and men is to become as our Heavenly Parents are in eternity.

        Mormon women have the oldest women’s organization in the world. Mormon women were the first to have their right to vote recognized. Utah was the first state that gave the franchise to women. Our views on women’s roles and equality have been progressive through the 180 or so years of our existence. As the Church expands in to countries where women do not enjoy comparable rights to those in the United States, the Church makes great effort to train its leadership in new areas to ensure women are included and have a voice in local leadership councils.

        Surely no Mormon bishop or stake president makes local policy decisions without in-depth discussions with the female leaders within their areas of responsibility. Women hold great power to influence the local policies and direction of the Church. Headquarters at Salt Lake City strongly encourages this approach.

        My point was that there are appropriate ways to sound one’s discontent that doesn’t disturb the peace. In a free country, people certainly have a right to choose another religion if they believe their own is misguided or in error. Hundreds of thousands of people convert to the Mormon faith every year because of that freedom to choose. They find something better here than what they had before. We respect the right of people who may be disaffected to leave the Church and go elsewhere.

        The Church does wonderful humanitarian work and it provides spiritual satisfaction and peace to those who are involved with it. If the Church doesn’t provide that to someone who is discontented with it, there is certainly no shortage of religious options available to them.

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  7. I may get the wrong idea about feminism and gender equality. I’m a women and I wear pants to church for a number of reasons and have not once ever been scoffed at or ridiculed.

    I think that no matter what religion or beliefs you subscribe to that there will always be extremists, fundamentalists, etc who’snvoicesbare louder and more abrasive than others.

    In this case, the movement itself had the right intentions, but the place for that kind of “protest” isn’t our meeting houses during our Sacrament Meeting. There are better channels for such a movement that are definitely much more appropriate.

    In response to a large number of butch women appearing at our meeting house in three piece suits, it doesn’t matter what you look like or how you are dressed or how well you sing or how many of you are there as long as you are there and reverent and are there because the Spirit moves you to be. You may get confused glances from some of the little ones but you would be welcomed with open arms.

    As for me, I will still keep my scars to myself and cover them with long dresses or pants as I normally do.

    Have a blessed day!

    Kitty G

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    • If one of the “sites” of women’s oppression or subordination (or anyone else’s) is the church or meeting house, then I don’t see why protest is inappropriate in the very place where (we would hope) all are accepted as equals.

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      • I think this is where I have to disagree and we’d have to agree to disagree. There’s a time and place for everything, and I’m not saying never “protest” in our meeting house, but I’m saying it’s a sacrament meeting. The most important part of that meeting is Sacrament, our time with our Heavenly Father, it doesn’t matter if we wear pants or dresses, or skirts, or shorts, or overalls or our hunting gear.

        What matters is Heavenly Father, His Son, and the time we spend with Him and our Brothers and Sisters supporting one another within those walls.

        There’s a time and place for everything, but causing discord during Sacrament Meeting, it seems that that isn’t the message that you want to send, especially if part of that message is the return of the priesthood to women of our faith.

        It’s one thing to show up dressed for church and ready for Sacrament and time together, it’s another to show up and disrupt.

        If we’re so focused on Pants or no Pants or skirts or whatever we happen to be wearing, then we aren’t focused on what is important.

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  8. I just remembered that in the 1960s at Stanford it was forbidden for women to wear pants in the Quad or to classes!

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  9. I’m fascinated at the scolding tone, in some of these responses, to Caroline Kline and the Mormon feminists who wished simply to “bring attention to issues of gender inequity in the Mormon faith.” I am not Mormon, but it seems to me if the problem is disturbing the peace of the saints, then aren’t those truly culpable of doing so more correctly identified as the men and women who delivered the “vicious response”? In what way are attacks on Facebook, insults to the women involve, and violent death threats more “peaceful” than simply wearing pants?

    It seems to me the Mormon feminists have clearly made their point: in its eagerness to blame women for any internal issues it may have, Mormonism is still painfully patriarchal.

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    • I am not surprised that even this small act of protest was met with vicious responses. Correct me if I am wrong, but I think this is a classic case of toxic masculinity. Mormonism may be afraid of change, especially when it comes to small acts of liberation of women. Like you mentioned above Mormonism is still patriarchal and might be in for a rocky road ahead, if they cannot adapt to women wearing pants to church.

      One way that we can combat toxic masculinity is through the political empowerment of women, and dare I say the empowerment of women in the church.

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