Guest post by Elyssa
I am an East Coast Mormon. I used to have to do things like defend my deep personal desire to want to be a mother to my friends. They would all inform me that I was setting feminism back 30 years. I thought I was pretty cool and pretty feminist for advocating for my right to make my own choices.
I was raised in a ward where we didn’t care what you dressed like; we just wanted you to show up. No one EVER gave me a chastity lesson with a smashed cupcake, nasty sucker, or wilted rose. My YW leaders and parents taught me about sex, and we typically avoided weird phrases from the manual like “heavy petting”. My parents raised me to have a brain and a voice, and to use them both. I was taught that modesty was about my body and my respect for it, and wasn’t judged when I rolled up my shirt sleeves or wore tank tops. My priesthood leaders asked for my input and support in regards to planning and encouraged me to pursue higher education. I even disagreed vehemently with my bishop on more than one occasion. His response to that was a frank and honest discussion where he tried to understand me. I say this not to rub it in for those who had much different experiences, but to set the stage for why my feminist awakening was difficult in a different way than most I’ve read.
My first time around a large number of Western Mormons was my freshman year at BYU-I. I absolutely hated it. I hated all these people pretending to be nice to me, even when they didn’t care. I hated that they didn’t seem (to me) to have testimonies. I hated that when we read something that even smelled of being from a general authority, I was labeled a heretic when I expressed my struggles with it. I hated that I wasn’t Mormon enough for these people, despite that fact that I was pretty certain that I’m thoroughly Mormon. After a while, I let go of needing people to be honest about their doubts, emotions, and ideas. Then I decided that if they wanted to pretend to be nice and have to go home and be full of aggression for not expressing themselves; that was up to them. I found like-minded people and reconciled how these people who were very Mormon could not view me the same way, graduated, and to this day adore my time there.
I then went to get a Master’s degree. No one had ever told me that being a proper Mormon meant not seeking higher education. I spent two years out of the Mormon world, and fell quite nicely back into where I belonged. My non-Mormon friends loved and respected how incredibly Mormon I am.
After graduating, I have now come to BYU to get my PHD. It is here I discovered FMH. Right after the missionary age change, I read a blog about it, and I proceeded to spend the next 72 hours neglecting my friends and school work to read all I could.
My initial reaction was utter joy. I’ve never quite fit into super Mormon land and I thought, “Perfect, I can have a place now!” The sadness I had come to terms with (and had always written off as people taking the church and going too far) felt like it was about to go. The more I read, however, the more sadness I felt as I began to realize that I was too liberal for orthodox Mormonism and too conservative for feminist Mormonism. I didn’t seem to have the same problems they did. To me there seemed to be two options for that: 1) I was too dumb to realize these problems or 2) They were wrong.
I struggled with Mormon feminism because I read these things about women not having a voice, and men treating their wives as less then, and young women’s being about becoming a perfect wife and mother, and I had no frame of reference for them. Those were not true for me. Those didn’t happen in my house, ward, or life. I didn’t see those things and didn’t know what other people were seeing. On top of that, growing up outside of Mormon-land, I was regularly confronted with funny little historical things that people find incredibly off-putting. So many of the faith shaking historical facts, I had discussed openly and had come to terms with. (Admittedly, there were a few new ones, but I had a framework for how to deal with things like that personally.)
When people wrote of their fear and trepidation of questioning, I thought “My stake president taught me that when we question things, that’s where we find our testimony.” And so I didn’t understand what they were afraid of. I don’t know who decided Mormons were afraid of questioning things, but I knew I certainly wasn’t.
Despite the fact that I didn’t understand, and I felt like I didn’t belong, there was something so gripping and compelling about it, and I continued to come back. (I realized later that what kept drawing me back were the stories. These were people and their stories were important, even if I didn’t understand them.) It was in my return that I stumbled across a conversation about orthodoxy. Individuals were discussing their journey in the gospel and when they departed from the idea of orthodoxy and started wandering their own path to, from, and through the church. It was in that moment that I realized why I didn’t seem to fit. I had never been told that my path should be orthodox. I didn’t even quite know what an orthodox Mormon was. And I thought about how BORED I would be if I ever tried to follow an orthodox road. And how PISSED I would be if anyone tried to make me. In my life, orthodoxy seemed to be synonymous with artificial. Finally I understood how people who had been taught their whole lives that they should adhere to orthodoxy, would struggle to the point of breaking with a faith crisis!
That was where I decided that I could fit in this world. People deserve to discard the notion of orthodoxy. If someone follows their own path that fits so perfectly into what orthodoxy means, that’s perfect and wonderful for them, but they deserve to find it and choose it.
Deep down, my wish for everyone is that they have leaders and parents somewhat like mine. People who teach you how to think and decide. People who love you when those decisions are brilliant, and don’t love you one ounce less when those decisions blow up in your face. So the task then, for both men and women, is to be these leaders and parents. This requires awareness, advocacy, kindness, understanding, education, and sometimes a healthy kick in the pants. That is my place.