President Elaine S. Dalton, General Young Women’s President, recently spoke at a devotional at BYU. Her original remarks can be watched here or read here. Some of her comments were received unfavorably; in particular, her statement that “Young women, …you will understand your roles and your responsibilities and thus will see no need to lobby for rights” has caused somewhat of an uproar in the bloggernacle. Jimmy Jones wrote a letter to her in response to her comments, and he has given permission for it to be posted here as well.
Dear President Dalton,
Recently, women in India, a country where the church has a presence, have protested the cultural acceptance of sexual intimidation and abuse. This was sparked by the death of a young woman, a college student who was gang-raped and severely beaten while riding the bus. In Saudi Arabia, a long-standing ally of the United States, women have been arrested and ostracized because they have elected to drive cars. They face threats, imprisonment, and lashings or beatings for doing so, yet a brave few refuse to be deterred. In several countries (again, many in which the Church has a presence; in 1997, nearly 200,000 women in the US were believed to be victims), women have stood against a process obscenely referred to as “female circumcision.” It involves the genital mutilation of young girls, a multifaceted operation which typically involves removal of external genitalia including clitoridectomy. These girls, usually ranging from newborn to preteen in age, are then sewn up, their remaining flesh fusing together in ways that inhibit bodily function, and may have their legs bound together for over a month to allow the wounds to close up. When a woman’s (or girl’s) husband wishes to make use of her body for pleasure or procreation, he will slice her open, only to sew her shut again afterward.
Here in the US, legislators have attempted to remove rights which the Church concedes to victims of rape and those whose lives have been endangered. They do so in ignorance, based on a false belief that it is impossible for a woman to become pregnant if she has truly been raped. Not only does this preclude options for women which the Church allows, impinging on our religious freedom, it casts pregnant rape victims in a demeaning light. Many women, without the upper-class luxury of staying home with their children, are breadwinners for their families. They labor with all the capacity and diligence of their male counterparts, with the interest of their children at heart, yet have a difficult time getting equal rates of pay and promotions for which they are qualified. All of these things are done under the guise of God’s will, or a natural order and natural roles for women. All of the women who lobby for their rights and the rights of their sisters are looked down upon, threatened with violence, shamed, and told to accept their divinely instituted roles.
The activism of women has not always been limited to women’s issues specifically: In 2011, a courageous young Egyptian named Asmaa Mahfouz called her country to revolution against a dictatorship, unafraid to stand alone. She stood when the men in her country were still unwilling and afraid. Many claimed that as a woman she had no business lobbying for rights. She said to them, “If you think yourself a man, come with me on 25 January. Whoever says women shouldn’t go to protests because they will get beaten, let him have some honor and manhood and come with me on 25 January. Whoever says it is not worth it because there will only be a handful of people, I want to tell him, ‘You are the reason behind this, and you are a traitor, just like the president or any security cop who beats us in the streets.” She sparked a largely nonviolent revolution for democracy and human rights, which inspired other nations throughout the Muslim world to stand up against their oppressors. And of course in our own nation we have Sister Rosa Parks, whose courageous stand against institutionalized racism was a catalyst for the likewise nonviolent civil rights movement. She was willing to stand alone for the rights and dignity of all people, not just her own.
There are innumerable splendid examples of the bravery of women in standing for their beliefs and their rights and the rights of others, from octogenarian labor organizer Mother Jones to suffragette, activist, and Relief Society President Emmeline B. Wells. Sharing them is not my primary motivation in writing to you, however. I doubt that your recent comments condemning women who lobby for rights were directed at these brave sisters. However, I hope you will be aware of the impact your remarks may have on a worldwide church, as you hold an office which serves every daughter of God. Women who have the temerity to “lobby for rights” do so with the same sanctity as men, and perhaps more, as the inherent risks may be greater.
Those recent disparaging remarks are the object of my concern. In the context of our culture and recent history in the church, I assume they were directed at women who have, as a gesture of goodwill and acceptance toward their sisters, worn pants to church or those who believe it would be uplifting to hear a female leader pray in General Conference. Of course, I am not a woman. I am at this time unmarried, and I do not yet have daughters of my own. I do have seven sisters and stepsisters, however, ranging in age from 8 to 27. I hope that they are members of a church where the freedom of belief and opinion and voice that Hugh B. Brown championed is a reality. I hope that they are members of a church where diversity in culture and thought as championed by the much- beloved Chieko Okazaki is a reality. I hope that when they have faith, when they have hopes, when they have dreams, they know that they are free to express them. I hope that when they have doubts or fears or grave concerns, they feel comfortable expressing those as well. I hope that the honest dissent of the faithful will be treated with compassion rather than scorn. If they wish to see changes made, I hope they can call for them or act on their best impulses without fear of public shaming or belittlement from their leaders. Are we so strong, our numbers so great, our growth so unfettered, that we can afford to alienate those who care enough to speak and to act according to the dictates of their consciences? Can we call ourselves disciples of Jesus Christ even as we ridicule the needs of others simply because they differ from our own? Will we allow our differences to divide us from one another? Or will we recognize our differences, reach out to one another in love, and unite as the body of Christ in His church?
According to the scriptures, Moses was rare even among prophets in that God spoke to him face to face. However, the daughters of Zelophehad approached him fearlessly to lobby for rights which direct revelation denied them. Rather than mock or dismiss them, Moses took the issue to the Lord, who stated that these women were right to do what they had done, and He changed a law He had given directly (Num 27). The Relief Society itself was founded at the behest of the women in Zion. Their paper, the Woman’s Exponent, advocated for the advancement of equal rights for women in the church and in the world. Up to this date, many policies of the church have been altered because of the needs of sisters in the church, from lowering the missionary age to a more equitable temple experience. Women throughout our history have recognized their roles and responsibilities to think and to speak and to act with courage. We must not take a jingoistic attitude, imposing a paradigm of perfection on our current place in history. Zion has not yet reached its zenith. We must not believe that all past speech and action was holy, but any steps beyond our current position would be “taking things too far.” We must never harden our hearts to change, when God has so much yet to reveal. Most of all, we must not harden our hearts to one another. We must not exclude, we must not drive away the individual. Should we dismiss the one in favor of the ninety-nine, we shall fall away from the tenets of our Savior. I have no wish to criticize you harshly, nor to bring shame or diminish in any way the remarkable service you have given to the Church. I do hope that you will consider what I have said and become a champion for all of those within your reach.
With warmest regards,
Bellevue YSA Ward, Bellevue Washington Stake