This Sunday, December 16th, a group of Mormon women are planning a peaceful demonstration called “Wear Pants To Church Sunday”. This demonstration is only significant within the context of Mormon culture, which has very strong expectations for women to wear skirts to church. Pants aren’t forbidden; if a woman chooses to wear pants to Sunday service, no formal disciplinary action will be taken. From the outside, there seems to be no issue surrounding women wearing pants to church.
As the organizers of the “Wear Pants To Church Sunday” event are discovering, there is a deep antagonism within Mormonism against the idea of women wearing pants to church. Some of the comments from the event’s Facebook page include:
“I cannot support an event that seeks to question divinely inspired doctrine about the roles of men and women. We are not meant to be the same. I can't believe how many women are listening to the Worldly view and Instead of celebrating their divine attributes and differences they want to change who God created them to be so they can be like their male counterparts.”
“ In 1993 president packer said one of the greatest threats to the church is feminism within the church itself, looks like that revelation is starting to come to pass right before our eyes, way to bring more negative attention to the church ladies”
“While you're at it why not shave your head, have your breasts removed and get your tubes tied? that'll show em”
One of the women in my childhood congregation wore pantsuits to church every Sunday. She was the only woman brave enough to wear pants; members dismissed her actions by saying – “Oh, that’s just Carla*, she does whatever she wants.” Carla’s husband had served as bishop and came from a respectable Mormon family; no one dared to suggest that her pantsuits were a sign of apostasy.
Carla was an outspoken matriarch, a woman that many people feared, myself included. My first memory of Carla was as a five-year old girl returning to the chapel from the bathroom. I walked into the chapel and sat down next to my mother. Or at least, I sat next to the woman that looked like my mother from the back. I slipped into the church-pew and snuggled up to the woman I thought was my mother, only to look up at the face of Carla. I started crying – loud,anxious tears that scandalized my mother. Seeing my confusion, Carla put her arms around me and told me that I was welcome to sit next to her. I shook my head and ran back to my mother, who was sitting a couple pews behind.
Most of the people in our ward feared Carla. She was the organist and in charge of all of the musical activities. She possessed an efficiency and take-charge attitude that, as a child, I feared, and as an adult, I envy. Carla was the real deal, a woman who raised eight children on a professor’s salary, ran the church music service, and still had the guts to speak her mind. Over the years, Carla, with her usual blunt manner, has asked me if I was anorexic (all ballet dancers are anorexic!), why I dyed my hair red (people spend lots of money to get the blonde hair you already have!),and trotted me around her daughter’s bridal shower with the triumphant news that I had finished my first year of college with straight-A’s. Straight-A’s! she said. That’s something to be proud of! I had been doubting my achievements; Carla's praise made me proud again.
Carla was outspoken, which made many of the members uncomfortable, as there is an unwritten rule against dissent. Carla was also honest. She served as the Relief Society president when I was in high school; those were the years that my mother enjoyed Relief Society. After church, my mother recounted tales of Carla presiding over lessons – listing virtues, preaching values – only for Carla to end the lesson by saying – “Well, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t actually met anyone that can fulfill these criteria.” Carla was a rare flash of honesty in the sea of the Prozac-fueled “happy, happy, happy” denial that is Mormon culture. My mother was too quiet to wear pantsuits or to speak her dissenting opinions; Carla was the woman that gave voice to my mother’s unease.
My father didn’t like Carla much; he complained that she was too bossy, too opinionated, too controlling. Carla was in charge of directing the music and my father was a musician; the two of them had many battles concerning the musical numbers. Carla was the rare woman with the courage to contradict my father.
Carla also wore pantsuits every Sunday, an act of independence that no one dared to speak about. I am not sure why she chose to wear pantsuits; I don’t think she wore them to make a statement or to create controversy. I never questioned Carla’s pantsuits; I also never questioned the fact that no other women wore pants. I too dismissed Carla’s pantsuits as just an eccentricity.
I never really understood Carla. As a Mormon, I thought she was too outspoken. As an ex-Mormon,I didn’t understand why she stayed within Mormonism. Now that I have a deeper understanding of the courage required to defy Mormon conventions, I realize that I dismissed her too easily. There isn’t a lot of room within Mormon culture for women like Carla; there are strong expectations for women to be soft-spoken and submissive. Carla was none of these; the fact that she was able to be herself in a culture that was stacked against her is a testament to her strength of will. Carla was a path-breaker, the type of woman that walked to the beat of her own drum.
Carla was the woman that wore pants to church.
*Name has been changed