Provo, Utah gave me feminism. It gave it to me like a gift wrapped up in so much brown paper and string.
When I tell people this, I’m met with one of two reactions. Sometimes they laugh because they think I’m joking. Other times they go silent, suddenly concerned I am one of those women who says she’s a feminist while insisting real feminism advocates for a pilgrimage to some birth control-devoid pastoral idyll.
I get the disbelief. I really do. Provo is a different place. It’s this little bubbling pot of Mormon history, culture and myth all simmered together until it can, at times, be difficult to separate each component from the other.
I always try to plead my case.
“Hear me out,” I say while the listener slowly backs away from me. “Yes, I know about every damaging policy at BYU. (Among other things, banned leggings, an honor code that was easily exploited to hide sexual assault and, of course, the only recently lifted prohibition on caffeinated drinks. Okay, maybe that last one was more annoying than actually harmful.) And sure, I’m very concerned about how MLMs thrive in the Happy Valley while really leaving their majority female consultants desperate and debt-ridden. And definitely, there are patriarchal excesses fermented in both Mormon and American culture that sometimes ooze out onto the sidewalks and stick your feet to the ground just when you think you’ve finally begun to move forward. And yeah, shoot dammit, even after great hope to the contrary, Provo ended up voting for a misogynist in the last election. I know. But the women! I cry, “The Provo women! Just wait. Let me tell you about the women.”
It was in Provo that I gave birth to two little girls and rejoiced that I could hand them a Mormon faith without walls.
At 20, I was fairly certain I knew what it meant to be a faithful Mormon woman. I could have drawn you a detailed map of the landscape of True Mormon Womanhood without pausing to look to my head or my heart. I thought True Mormon Womanhood was a small, square place cut through the middle with a river named Sacrifice. This river was wide, and off one bank it watered a forest called Historical Polygamy Doesn’t Make Sense But You’ve Got To Accept It (a dark, critter-filled outcropping if ever I’ve stumbled into one). The terrain was interrupted by two mountain ranges, one christened It’s Not Mine To Ask, and the other Without A Shadow Of A Doubt. There was a wall along each border, for at that point I believed Mormon Womanhood was a thing to be kept safe from the outside world. The walls were respectively named Preventative Modesty, What Men Think, Divinely Appointed Duties and Things You Cry Over But Are Afraid To Talk To Anybody About.
I wasn’t always comfortable with the sometimes-brutal topography of True Mormon Womanhood, but I was certain of its unchanging nature.
And then I moved to Provo. A place where just one street brimmed with more Mormon women than I’d ever met in the entire course of my very Mormon life. I thought they’d all be navigating the same terrain I was. But shockingly, not all of their maps held the outline of a square-shaped womanhood. Some of them walked around as Mormon women without any map at all! And gasp of all gasps, there were many I bumped into who had happily left Mormonism for new, uncharted places. I know that doesn’t sound like much of a revelation, but for me it was seismic. Within just a few months of living in Provo, the well-trod landscape of correct female existence had shifted and cracked apart into something more complex, wild and winding.
I spent 10 years in Provo. It was there during park playdates with toddlers, girls’ nights out and tired conversations on front porches that I was first introduced to nuanced arguments on behalf of abortion rights, met with wonder at the reality of working mothers who adored both their children and their jobs and was made to confront the destructive details in the historical records of both my religion and my country. It was in Provo that I gave birth to two little girls and rejoiced that I could hand them a Mormon faith without walls.
A 28-year-old mother of three who was born and raised in Provo was the first person to give me the space to consider my feelings on the place of women within my church and within America. An impassioned Sunday school lesson on the destructiveness of purity culture, given by a female member of BYU faculty, helped me realize my intrinsic worth might not be tied, even the littlest tiny bit, to what I did with my body. I lived on three different streets during my decade in Provo, and each provided Mormon mother women, neighbors and fellow church members a few decades older than me who bared their pain and questions without shame. They allowed me to bare mine, too.
Heavens (or hell), even the always-eager-but-rarely-profitable women selling oils and lipsticks and leggings that stretch (but were still not BYU-approved) forced me to confront the very limited options my church culture and our government policies leave for women who wish to help provide for their families while remaining overwhelmingly present in their everyday lives.
Of course, it wasn’t all sisterhood that lifts. There were women who thought my continued membership in the Mormon church voided my participation in matters regarding women’s rights. I understood and at times felt much of their anger and pain. I struggled, still struggle, to help them understand my desire to remain within the community of the church. And there were women for whom Mormon Womanhood was still a square and walled-off place. That was just fine. It still is. I can’t map their world. But some felt it was their God-given duty to help people like me remember where the angles were meant to meet. I was told by both groups, patiently and sometimes not so patiently, that someday I would understand the true and right nature of things. Even this conflict of ideals and ideology broadened me. I learned in Provo that women were not made to agree ― with each other, with men or with the institutions they revere or fear.
I learned in Provo that women were not made to agree ― with each other, with men or with the institutions they revere or fear.
It was in Provo I learned to love women wildly different from me, and it was in Provo that I learned to love the woman I am still becoming, even though she is wildly different from what I’d always been told to expect. For me, a natural result of this love has been a feminism as expansive as my now discarded map of womanhood was restrictive.
My family and I left Provo for the Bay Area three years ago. We moved to a community that has accepted us and instructed us with equal measures of grace. We love it here. Last week, I took a new friend out for lunch. When she found out we’d lived in Provo until just a few years ago, she hooted.
“I can’t imagine what that must have been like.”
I smiled and then said, “Well, first let me tell you about the women there.”