Like many of you, I’m never entirely sure what the word “feminism” or “feminist” is supposed to mean. Sometimes it’s used as a scandalous epithet, other times it’s worn as a badge of honor, but in most conversations the precise definition intended by any given speaker remains opaque to me. Nevertheless, I’m going to tell you precisely when I first became a “Mormon feminist”. And by this, I simply mean that I’m going to describe the “moment” (and its aftermath) when I first realized not all was well in Zion with respect to our discourse about and treatment of women.
In the Fall of 1990, I enrolled in a BYU Freshman writing class taught by Tessa Meyer Santiago. About half way through the course, Sister Santiago passed out a document for class discussion entitled, “I Want to Be a Woman”. The document was a letter written by a single Mormon woman to her future Mormon husband, and it was obviously designed to inculcate certain values about marriage into LDS girls. It wasn’t clear when the document was originally written, or by whom, but we were told it had appeared in an LDS Girl’s Camp manual at least until the late 1980s. I can’t remember if we all read the document aloud together, or if each student read it silently, but you may now read a version of it for yourselves:
I want to be a woman – your woman. I want to be attractive to stand tall and straight to look clean and neat, and sweet, so that you can take pleasure in looking at me and pride in being with me.
I want to be kind and gentle and patient so as to listen to your heart’s trouble and to understand. I want to be wise and good and serene so that I can help you when things get sort of mixed up.
I want to be weak enough to cry on your shoulder and to have you boss me now and then – and feminine enough to have you do things for me like carrying something heavy, or opening a jar, or even the door.
But I also want to be strong enough to bear your children and to rear them strong and healthy. I want to be full of fun and laughter and gaiety so that we can always be filled with warmth and hope, not dull and dingy.
I want to do little things that please you, like cooking somehting special or keeping the house fresh and new or even bring your slippers after supper or just being quiet and holding hands and sitting close to you when you’re out of sorts at the end of a hard day.
I want to know about the things you know about in politcs and business and money matters so that we can talk together and share ideas so that our minds can form some kind of union. But I never want to know quite as much as you, and I want to share your other interests in sports, reading, gardening, or whatever you want to do. And I want to be a part of you dreams, and help them become reality.
Because I want to be with you during these moments is perhaps the reason why most of all I want to share a common faith with you, so that we can worship God together and take, not send, our children to Sunday School and Sacrament Meeting and always have Christ’s presence in our home with us. We bless our meals whether hash or sirloin, and bless and guide every phase of our married life.
And finally, I want to be warm and soft and tender and affectionate and responsive, so that you will desire me.
This my Dear, is the woman I hope to become – no, the woman I shall become for you.
After our initial collective reading, the whole class just sat in stunned silence. For me, this was my “moment” of awakening. Another male student — who happened to be an outspoken conservative — must have felt similarly, for he broke the silence by exclaiming, “This is BULLSHIT!” I had never heard the word “shit” used in a BYU classroom before, and in 4+ years, I would never hear it again. But in this context, no one in class objected to the outburst.
I can’t remember precisely why our professor shared the document with us, or what our subsequent discussion consisted of. But after class, I started sharing my copy of it with others. One group of male and female friends in another of my classes took particular interest in it. After an initial bout of disbelief, consternation and fury, we decided to devote ourselves to its mockery: Standing in line for dinner, I’d inquire in a sickeningly sweet voice if we were having “hash or sirloin”. After dinner, a female friend would sarcastically ask if she could fetch me my slippers, I’d say yes, and she’d start barking like a dog. We enjoyed running jokes about opening jars of jam for each other and crying on shoulders. We’d avail ourselves of every opportunity to exclaim melodramatically, “This is the woman I hope to become. No, no, the woman I shall be!!!”
Sometimes our experiences were less humorous. During a study session in the BYU Library one afternoon, several of us took a break to discuss the document’s contents again. A late 40-something woman nearby overheard our discussion and condescendingly assured us we’d come to see the letter as wise and inspired once we had a little more age and maturity under our belts. Her comment was not well-received, and the conversation descended into ugliness. Later, during a visit home, I shared the document with my mother and grandmother during a long car ride. Our ensuing discussion was a textbook example of generational difference: My mother also found the letter offensive, but somewhat less than I did. Meanwhile, my grandmother was very defensive of its contents, and could only bring herself to tactfully say, “If you don’t want a woman like that, then don’t marry one!” (I didn’t). By the end of our car ride, the most I could get her to admit was that another hypothetical letter from an LDS Young Man, setting forth his own personal goals to please his new bride, would have provided some needed balance. I guess that’s something.
Look, I realize the social views of earlier generations are all-too-easy targets for scorn. It’s inevitable that social norms change, and perhaps a bit unfair to criticize our predecessors for not holding the same modern, enlightened views that we think we do. But when these antiquated, noxious messages are perpetuated in current curricular materials designed to indoctrinate our modern Mormon youth, some vigorous and vocal objections are in order. In fact, if I learned anything from “I Want to Be a Woman”, it’s the need to be vigilant over what messages my children are imbibing, both inside and outside the Church. (I don’t know if the letter still resides in any current Girl’s Camp literature;
I suspect it doesn’t alas, I’m told some Young Women are STILL being given this document in 2010). As the father of a 4-year-old daughter — who also has another child on the way — you can be sure I’ll be keeping a watchful eye out for troglodytic views on gender masquerading as Gospel insights.
Finally, I don’t pretend that sexist monologues in our youth manuals are the only — or necessarily the most important — “feminist” concerns facing modern LDS women that are worth worrying about. But hey, you gotta start somewhere, and this is where I started.
When did you first become a Mormon feminist?