A 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.