One week ago, a small group of Mormon feminists encouraged Mormon women who wrestle with gender inequality to renew their courage and find sisters in spirit -- simply by wearing dress pants to church this Sunday, Dec. 16.
Mind you, wearing pants to church is not against the Mormon religion. Nowhere does LDS Scripture or church policy command Sunday dresses for women. In fact, since Wear Pants to Church Sunday was announced, one spokesman for the Church said, "Church members are encouraged to wear their best clothing as a sign of respect for the Savior, but we don't counsel people beyond that."
But even a gentle break with Mormon social convention, even a modest effort to help progressive Mormons feel less alone in the faith is enough to engender a national reaction, as Wear Pants to Church Day organizers have since discovered.
Their call-to-trousers has drawn strongly positive and negative (even vicious) reactions from LDS Church members. And it's made it clear how deeply thoughtful, civil conversation about gender is needed in Mormon communities.
Those conversations were largely silenced after a few high-profile excommunications of Mormon feminists during the 1980s and 1990s made it seem that feminism was a forbidden subject and questioning souls were not welcome. But over the last 15 years, the Mormon feminist movement has come roaring back on blogs like Feminist Mormon Housewives, in magazines like Exponent II, and on Facebook and Twitter.
In these forums, thousands and thousands of Mormon men and women have asked simple but timely and powerful questions about how Mormonism handles gender. While Mormon doctrine does recognize differences between men and women, they ask, are there not more powerful similarities that we share as children of God? And setting aside the issue of women's ordination, why are some non-priestly responsibilities in our all-volunteer church restricted by sex? Why, for example, do only men handle the Church's finances? Why do women appear so infrequently in Scripture and even in some contemporary Church lesson manuals? Why have decisions and doctrines impacting women around the world been made without consulting the presidencies of the Church's global women's auxiliaries? Why do Mormons routinely downplay our belief in a Heavenly Mother and refuse to talk about her in church on Sundays?
Are these practices based in doctrine? Scripture? Or are they simply traditional cultural gender inequalities that have been mixed into our faith? And as Mormonism continues to grow around the globe, attracting in many areas more women adherents than men, can this all-volunteer church accept a fuller range of contributions from all of its members -- regardless of their sex?
Fifty-two Sundays a year, Mormon men and women who wrestle -- sometimes mightily -- with such questions stand in unity with their fellow Latter-day Saints. We pray, sing hymns, teach Sunday School lessons, lead youth activities and pay tithing. Most of us have watched parents, siblings, children, friends, college roommates and former missionary companions walk away from the LDS Church, often out of frustration over lack of dialogue about or respect for matters like traditional gender inequalities that concern them deeply.
And yet, we stay. We stay because we have experienced God in Mormon contexts. We stay because Mormonism is a faith rich, powerful, demanding and dynamic enough to command our loyalties. We stay because we believe, and we stay because Mormonism is our spiritual home.
And yet we also stay silent. Most of us never say a word on Sunday about how and why traditional gender inequalities matter to us. Some of us fear harsh judgment and outright rejection by members of our families and congregations. We fear upsetting or losing our faith community.
But hiding our differences and questions has costs as well -- to those who maintain silence and to the larger faith community. It fosters fearfulness, timidity, inauthenticity and intimidation. It fosters the assumption that all Mormons think and believe alike, and with this is fosters unintended thoughtlessness and carelessness. Not only toward Mormons concerned with traditional gender inequalities but to anyone who doesn't fit the cookie-cutter Mormon model: from the stay-at-home father and the gay teenager to the new convert and the interracial family.
This Sunday, on Wear Pants to Church Day, thousands of Mormon women and men will take a wordless first step toward ending their silence. They won't take up time at the pulpit. They will break no rules and contest no doctrines. But just by wearing pants, they will say to themselves and each other:
We are here. We are faithful. We are not alone. We are setting aside our fears of rejection and judgment to bare our hearts to our faith community. Because we are hopeful that the faith that unites Mormons is strong enough to sustain honest and heartfelt questions about traditional gender inequalities. And because we believe the answers are worth staying for.