Note and/or WARNING: The following post is a response–or not really a response, but a sister post, if you will, to this piece at Feminist Mormon Housewives. If you are uncomfortable reading about anything having to do with menstruation, I suggest you cast your eyes round about for a more genteel blog today.
Last year my oldest child had her first opportunity to do proxy baptisms for the dead at the temple. A bit of background: my daughter has Asperger’s Syndrome. Church is difficult for her for a variety of reasons, but she is particularly concerned with (and fixated on) gender issues. She was anxious about going to the temple for the first time, not really knowing what to expect (and not being totally down with this church thing in the first place). Her Young Women leaders asked me to come along for this trip to help her feel more comfortable and show her the ropes. (Not that I would have any clue about “the ropes,” as I hadn’t done proxy baptisms myself in about 14 years and never at this temple–but it’s the thought that counts.)
So at the temple they herded all the youth into that little room where they tell you all about what you’re going to be doing. I still had to change into my white clothes, but I realized I had to tell my daughter something first, so I went into the little room and the older gentleman addressing the youth then turned to me and asked, “Sister, are you here to ask The Question?”
“Uh…what? No.” What question, I wondered, but I didn’t think anything more of it because I was in a hurry. I just discreetly conferred with my daughter and went upstairs to get changed.
Walking down the hall on my way back to the baptistry, I heard the familiar and unmistakable sound of my daughter starting to Freak Out. My daughter has a history of getting upset over something at church and rapidly escalating to Freak-Out Mode without any care or consideration to how loud or inappropriate she’s being, so you can bet I hustled my person to where she was, wondering what on earth could have set her off so early in the game.
Well, what happened was that after I had left the little room, another sister walked in and asked The Question:
“Are any of you girls having your period?”
As it happened, my daughter was having her period. (Thanks for asking!) In fact, it had arrived that very day. She was wearing a tampon (and had brought extras), but that didn’t matter: if you were on your period, you could do confirmations, but you could not go into the baptismal font.
My daughter was offended and humiliated (mostly humiliated). She did not want to stay and do confirmations; she just wanted to go home. Frankly, I didn’t blame her. So I went back upstairs, got changed again, and we went out for pizza instead. (Sorry, dead people.)
As far as I can tell, this business of not letting menstruating females into temple baptistries is not some universal, top-down church policy. Some temples don’t have this policy, but enough of them do that it is a fairly common experience for young women to make the trip to the temple only to be told that they won’t be allowed to do the thing they came there to do. (Why they spring this information on girls at the last minute, I do not know. Maybe they’re afraid too many will choose to just stay home. That’s what my daughter did when the next temple trip came around and she was on her period again.) I don’t remember this policy from my own youth, but I was the sort of girl who would have taken any excuse to get out of a church activity, so I’m probably not the most reliable source.
My point is that I have no idea where this policy comes from or why it’s there (in those places where it is there). My daughter’s initial reaction was to wonder if it was some weird Old Testament-y thing about menstruating women being unclean; I assured her that this wasn’t the case–because I’m pretty sure it isn’t. My suspicion is that there are just a bunch of people in charge who are selectively overzealous about hygiene and sanitation, and some other people in charge who probably don’t know why this is the rule but that’s the way it’s always been (as far as they know) and who are they to change it. But neither of these explanations offers justification for a policy that (probably) isn’t intentionally sexist but is nevertheless effectively sexist.
Because here’s the thing, kids: a menstruating young woman using a tampon presents no more danger of contagion than your average young man. (In fact, she may well present less danger of contagion than your average young man, since teenage boys aren’t exactly known for their superior hygiene, no offense to them.) Used correctly, tampons will prevent any blood from getting in the water. And trust me, if a girl is comfortable wearing a tampon, she has inserted it correctly.
And here’s the other thing: menstrual blood is hardly the only bodily fluid that could possibly get into that baptismal font. Yet we don’t ask if anyone has current or recent diarrhea or any open sores. We don’t ask people to shower before they enter the baptismal font (the way we do at public pools). We only ask the young women if they’re shedding their uterine lining and tell them there’s no way to make that sanitary–which is [baloney].
It grieveth me that I must use so much boldness of speech before those whose feelings are exceedingly tender and chaste and delicate. But facts are facts.
Teenage girls–particularly the younger variety–tend to be easily embarrassed. They don’t like talking about their periods. No girl wants to make an announcement that she’s on her period. It’s hard enough to make that announcement in front of other young women and any YW leaders (or random temple matrons) who happen to be in the room. Understand that they are also imagining that everybody in their group, male and female, will know why they are not doing baptisms that day. A grown woman realizes that men are clueless about this stuff and probably none of them notice that your hair is still dry, but a teenage girl does not have that perspective. She is very likely to be mortified.
Then there’s the subtle suggestion–unintentional though it may be–that her perfectly normal bodily function–which is easily and routinely dealt with hygienically by millions of women worldwide–is somehow too dirty for temple water (even if that water is chlorinated). What her body does every month as a matter of course–because she’s female and healthy–is just too gross to accommodate. That’s not very edifying either.
Before anyone’s eyes roll too far back in their head, I’m not saying that young women are so emotionally and psychologically fragile that they’re going to be devastated by such an experience and doubt their own self-worth and never want to come back to the temple again. We are certainly more robust than that. (Even my daughter–who loves to hold a grudge–eventually went back to the temple and did baptisms and enjoyed herself.) I’m saying that turning menstruating women away from the baptismal font is a) unnecessary and b) unnecessarily offensive. It may not scar us for life, but it does tick the living heck out of women like me–who aren’t particularly prone to fits of feminist pique, but who get tired of being told that such and such is the rule even though there’s no good reason for it. We have to accept enough mysteries on the doctrinal front. Random policies that affect only us and have no discernible purpose behind them remind us that when it comes to our problems–even those very small problems that could very easily be solved–we are at the mercy of people who have no idea what it’s like to be us.
There is no rational basis for this policy. It needs to go. Period.
(Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)