A group of Mormon feminists have inspired cheers of solidarity and anger in equal measures after announcing a day of action to challenge gender inequality in the church.
Stephanie Lauritzen and Sandra Durkin Ford, members of new feminist group "All Enlisted", have declared this Sunday "Wear Pants to Church Day". As you can probably guess, those taking part will be heading off to church wearing pants (or trousers as I would call them - we're not talking underwear here), in the hope of giving a voice to and expressing support to Mormon feminists, women who don't conform to traditional gender roles and women who want to see greater equality in the LDS church.
I'm not a Mormon, so am not about to go into detail about the church's teachings or all its issues surrounding gender. For the uninitiated, Mormon women are not actually prohibited from wearing trousers in church. Many already do. But plenty don't, because culturally, it's not the done thing. LDS teaching tells women that they are equal to men, and places high worth on their roles as wives and mothers. At the same time, men are in charge of the church, make the decisions and occupy all the positions of power and privilege. Therein lies the problem for Mormon feminists. Writing on the Feminist Mormon Housewives blog, Ford said:
"[Mormons] openly criticize mothers who work to support their families. They ignore single women and women in part-member families and women without kids. Our leaders continue to publish manuals and write articles and give talks that alienate increasingly larger swathes of women. Faithful women who fail to conform to the traditional gender norms espoused by LDS church culture and doctrine, sometimes in spite of their best efforts, find that they can no longer call Mormonism their spiritual home."
On the Facebook page for Wear Pants to Church Day, the organisers tell us:
"We believe that much of the cultural, structural, and even doctrinal inequality that persists in the LDS church today stems from the church's reliance on – and enforcement of – rigid gender roles that bear no relationship to reality."
They have also invited men to show support by wearing purple items of clothing. While many women are excited that Mormon feminists are taking action and making themselves known, the backlash it has brought has been astonishing and predictably as is the case with many feminist actions, extremely misunderstood.
Check out the comments on the Facebook page and while you've got your usual misogynist antis referring to "feminist bitches" and "lesbians", there is just as much vocal opposition to gender equality from women as from men. Women who have blogged about supporting the cause have received numerous comments along the same lines.
"Suck it up and put a skirt on", "What is this trying to prove?" they ask. "Why does this have to be a competition?" "I'm a woman and I like wearing dresses - I don't want to be a man!"
There's a lot of disapproval for those who want to step outside the box and criticise strict gender roles, a lot of pursed lips at those who seem to want to rock the boat just a little bit and challenge the status quo. Looking in from the outside, I can see why many women have found LDS culture stifling. Many who don't support calls for gender equality are firm on the fact that as far as they can see, it's definitely not needed because women have a very special role to play: that of having children and being mothers. Asking for equality is trying to be like a man - and that's just not right.
The criticisms of those asking what these women are "trying to prove", calling them childish and asking them why they feel the need to stage a "protest" remind me of the complete misunderstanding surrounding the purpose of the Slutwalk movement. "So it's about dressing like sluts? How is that going to make men respect you?" Talk about missing the point.
At the end of the day, the act of wearing trousers is not the point of the whole thing. Being grabby about important positions in the church is not the point. "Wanting to be like men" is not the point. Writing about the issue yesterday, blogger Courtney Kendrick said:
"It's not about the pants. Women can wear whatever they want to church. I suppose it's a gesture of showing up with vulnerability. It's a way women, in solidarity, can come to church with their hearts on their sleeves. Not so much a protest but a peaceable way to say, 'I have mourned/I am mourning', 'I have burdens that weigh heavy on me,'"
Over the decades, women's movements have adopted different colours and symbols to display as a way of making themselves known and identifying with each other. These weren't the statements that they were trying to make; they were about awareness-raising, about sisterhood. It's always disappointing when people can't see past the little things to the real issues at hand, because it ends up derailing productive discussion. It also means the media get the wrong end of the stick, as can be seen by headlines such as "Push for LDS women to wear pants for church" - which in turn means that those who learn about feminism through the news get the wrong end of the stick too.
Because I'm a religious feminist and care about feminist movements within faiths, I really do hope that thousands of Mormon women turn up to church in trousers this Sunday. I hope that by doing so, they achieve more visibility for Mormon feminists, that they get to talk to their communities about why gender equality is important (and explain what it actually is to all those who just don't get it), and that as a result people will see past pigeonholing women into rigid roles. Maybe then they'll see that those who step outside the box aren't so terrible after all.
An interview with the organisers at Religion Dispatches
Mormon women talk about why they feel unequal in the church
"Women wearing pants at church bingo" - a handy guide to the sort of arguments those against equality are employing
Hannah Mudge writes about all things news and feminism-themed for BitchBuzz, and is currently adjusting to life as a new mum. You can also read her blog, We Mixed Our Drinks or follow her tweets as @boudledidge.