Illustrations by Sister Mary Lisa
Do you remember the first time you ever watched Johnny Lingo? I imagine if you’re typical of most of us that were raised Mormon from childhood, the memory of that first viewing has been lost, mercifully, in the bazillions of subsequent times you were subjected to it. Or perhaps it has gotten all runny in your memory and blended with bazillions of viewings of The First Vision, Our Heavenly Father’s Plan, Man’s Search for Happiness, all those old Tom Trails film strips (complete with beeping sounds when it’s time to move the filmstrip forward) and La camioneta de Jos in Spanish. Perhaps it’s all mutated in your subconscious into a bleating, chaotic, multi-lingual, audio-visual nightmare that surfaces to torment you in the lonely stretches of the night, long after the Spirit has put on his footie pajamas and trundled off to bed.
Not that that’s ever happened to me.
Because, unfortunately, I don’t have any such luck. I remember very precisely the first time I saw Johnny Lingo. That day represents a very clear line drawn in the sand of my young life. It was an unmistakable demarcation, a loud and obvious signpost announcing that Things Had Changed. Of course, I had to live out some of the changes in order to figure all that out. And, as often happens with these things, it wasn’t Johnny Lingo alone that marked an initiatory of sorts for me. Context is very important. So I’m going to give you some.
I was always a pretty curious kida questioner if you willfrom the time I was very small. I didn’t question authority really (that came considerably later); I just had lots of questions. About everything. Why is the sky blue? How do the people get inside the TV? Where do dead people go? How do they get there? Why are you bald? And so on.
Naturally, being pretty steeped in Mormonism, I also had a lot of questions about that. I never remember once during my early childhood being told not to ask those questions. I never got so much as a whiff of discomfort from anyone that I asked questions ofnary the tiniest hint of a frown or withdrawal or change in tone of voice that would indicate that my asking a question was in any way inappropriate.
In fact, the reaction was quite the opposite. First and foremost, my parents and the adults in my extended family always answered my questions with relaxed ease and openness. (OK, I take that back. My mom did give off a distinctly freaked-out vibe with the sex questions, when my brother and I were in second and first grades respectively. And she got mad when we laughed at her answers. But she did answer.) Not only that, but I got all kinds of positive reinforcement for thinking and asking questions, lots of praise and proud reactions. My father, in particular, liked to field my questionsespecially once I got up into fourth, fifth and sixth grades and my questions became rather more complex. He took me very seriously, spoke to me in a relatively adult way, and laid a lot of complicated and difficult ideas on me, with confidence that I’d be able to handle them. I didn’t always understand, but it always stretched the boundaries of what I knew.
In church, I sensed a little bit less confidence from teachers, but more because they didn’t seem to always have the answers to my questions. No one seemed threatened or angered by them, just kind of sorry they couldn’t always answer them. I grew up in a branch that was like a small village in some ways, with everyone taking an interest in everyone else’s kids. I felt a sort of quasi-parental pride coming from the adults at church when I would engage them in discussion and pepper them with questions.
In my last two years of Primary I had a very young teacher (though she seemed very old to me, she was probably only about 22) who was a stay-at-home mom with a couple of small children. She was my teacher for both the Merrie Miss years and I got to be quite close with her. She reacted to my many questions in much the way the other adults in my life did. When I graduated from Primary, she wrote me a long personal letterwhich I kept for yearstelling me that my desire to understand and my willingness to ask the “why” of things, was something that she deeply admired about me. She encouraged me to maintain that “fine attitude” for it would help me “go far in life.”
At this point, when I was at the threshold of moving from Primary to Young Womenfrom childhood into my teen yearsI was very invested in this vision of myself. A lot of my identity was tied up in it and I felt a lot of confidence in my ability to learn and figure things out. I had an itch to know “why” that I had never once felt guilty for scratching. In fact, my experience had been very positive and clearly this behavior had the stamp of adult approval. The culmination of that feeling for me came in that letter and when I received it and read it, I felt in some inchoate way that I really was poised and ready to move on with the important business of growing up, of discovering the world for myself.
Famous. Last. Words.
Little did I know I was about to step into an arena that would trigger in me a whole other level of questioning. And this time, I was not going to get patted on the head for it.
But meanwhile, like a tender lamb to slaughter, I was thrilled to move up into the wonderful and mysterious world of Mutual. Of course, to “welcome” you they have what are euphemistically known as “Standards Nights.” I’d never been to one before, of course, and I don’t recall hearing that term applied to the meeting we went to, but in the intervening years, I think I’ve figured out that that is more or less what it was.
We lived in a district at the time (we were made a stake when I was 15) and there were probably fewer than ten other girls in the whole district that were my agenone of them in our branch. So my mom and I traveled to what is now the stake center for this welcome meeting for all the new Beehives in the district. (Oy. Merrie Miss. Beehives. Why can’t they update those names? Please, won’t someone think of the CHILDREN!!!)
The woman giving the presentation was from our branch. Her oldest daughter was a year younger than me, so still in Primary. This woman was a good friend of my mom and we gave her a ride to the meeting. It all felt very grown-up to merollin’ with the ladies. Although I would get very cynical about Mutual fairly quickly, at that point I was extremely excited, enthusiastic and wide-eyed about the whole thing.
Everybody was all dressed up. There would be elegant refreshments afterward (or my mom promised me elegance anyway. As it turned outnot so much.) We were going to have a “talk” about serious stuff and this was not going to be some little baby, Primary thing involving songs with hand motions. It was going to be the real deal, and I couldn’t wait to start digging into it!
We met in the Relief Society room. There were maybe three, four other girls therenone of whom I knewwith their moms. My mom and I sat down on the first row and watched as my mom’s friend–we’ll call her, oh, Sister The Speaker–got set up on a small table in front of us. Somebody from the district YW presidency sat down by us on the front row and everybody else sat huddled together a row or two back from us (my first small brush with the cliqueishness in our stakeoh, there were all kinds of omens happening that day).
We sang a real hymn for the opening song (none of this “In the Leafy Tree-tops” business). Had the prayer and some kind of welcome speech from the district mutual presidency. Then she turned the time over Sister The Speaker who would be giving the program.
This womanfriend of my mother, mother of my friendwas and is incredibly intelligent, talented, and capable. She should have been President of the United States. Instead she got married, stayed home, and had twelve children (only seven of whom had made their appearance at that point in time). She introduced herself and her topic and let us know that she wanted this to be a discussion as much as a talk by her. If we had questions we should just raise our hands and she would try to address them. Oh, this was just getting better and better!
We pause here in our narrative for another dose of context. This was 1973, and second-wave feminism was in full swing. The Vietnam War had ended only a few months previously. Protests and counterculture and “bra-burning” were the then-current btes noirs of good, conservative Mormons. My folks were moderate Republicans (what today are called Democrats) but of an independent mind. They didn’t bother to do any concerted indoctrinating with us on most political issues. So I picked up what I knew about feminism from the zeitgeistat least that part of it that a 12-year old might tune in toand the essential rightness of it seemed self-evident to me.
Of course, one of my big questions had always been “why can’t girls have the priesthood?” I got any number of the standard, unsatisfying answers to that question. I won’t bore you; you’ve heard them all too. When I protested that this wasn’t fair, I was assured that it was fair, I just didn’t understand. Did Heavenly Father like girls better? Of course not. He loves them just as much as boys and they are equal to boys. And being a trusting sort at that age, I accepted that it was all fine and that I just didn’t understand it, but that I would some day. I bought that rationale because they were sure right about one part of it: I didn’t get it and, as it turned out, when I finally did, my conclusion was different than I had expected in those early days. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As I said, I trusted the authority figures in my life when they assured me that I was as loved and valuable as any boy. I took it on faithagainst all the evidence that I had perceived up to that pointthat the whole system was actually fair and equal and that my status within it was as good as any male’s. After all, I was just a kid and didn’t get it yet. Our church wasn’t unfair to women. Our church didn’t treat men and women unequally. And as I grew and learned and matured, I would understand that all these things I sawthings that were glaringly apparent to me from the time I was four or five years oldwere not evidence of inequality and injustice and lower status. They were actually evidence of the opposite! And when I was grown up and had a testimony of my own, I would know why.
So when I heard things about “women’s lib” I could feel a little smug, because I knew we were on their side. They were on our side. They wanted fairness, equality, justice for women. Well, hey, sistahs! So do we! In fact, we’ve GOT that in our church! Isn’t that COOL? I couldn’t exactly explain how what we had was fair and equal and just, but it was. Those men (and the women they presided over) told me so. And the men in our church weren’t “male chauvinist pigs.” Didn’t every one of them from the prophet to the branch president to my dad insist that women were equal to men in the eyes of God and of his church? In fact, they thought MORE of women than the World did. Didn’t they give men the priesthood just to make them equal to the vastly superior women?
In short, I had quite a positive view of feminism at that point and felt a lot of solidarity with it. (Well, the bra-burning thing did give my Victorian grandmother quite a serious case of the vapors, so I couldn’t exactly approve of itbut I secretly thought it was kind of funny, in much the same way I did when my mom tried to explain where babies came from.)
So I was somewhat confused when it became apparent that the evening’s presentation was going to be about feminism and that feminism wasahemnot so good. The message wasn’t subtle, as you shall see.
My first clue came when Sister The Speakerfriend of my mother, mother of my friendput up a pair of carefully drawn and colored, home-made posters on two small table easels. Using my descriptions, written from memory, our own Sister Mary Lisa has kindly re-created them for us here:
I am not making this up.
Naturally, the images stick with me most clearly, but while I don’t remember much of the exact wording of her talk (it’s been more than three decades, after all), I can give you the basic jist.
You see, feminine is a very wonderful thing to be. It’s lovely, beautiful, kind, tender, compassionate, selfless and sweet. When you’re feminine you act like a girl, think like a girl, dress like a girl. You do things that are appropriate for girls. You know who you are and what your destiny is. You love your Heavenly Father and so you do what he made you to do. You don’t need or want to do the things boys do. You have your own special role.
Feminist, on the other hand, is something very different. Feminists try to make being female an ugly thing. They are strident and shrill and selfish and slovenly. They try to act like men, think like men, dress like men. They want to BE men. They don’t understand Heavenly Father’s plan for them. They don’t realize or they reject who they really are. They want to do everything the boys do. They want to abandon their true roles. Feminism is a wile of the Adversary to try and lead women down a path to destruction. It is his counterfeit of true femininity.
This is just a summary of course and there was quite a bit more to it, including a generous sprinkling of wise and somber quotes from venerable old men. However, the most vivid thing I recall about listening to this sweetly-delivered screed is of feeling growing confusion and alarm. I felt more and more agitated inside. I did not understand. Finally, right in the middle of one of her sentences, I raised my hand. Well, she did say we could ask questions! She stopped and aimed a saccharine smile at me that I should have recognized as a warning.
“Yes?” she said.
“I don’t get it. Don’t feminists just want equality for women? Don’t they just want equal pay for equal work and stuff like that?” She conceded that this was more or less what feminism was about. Or so they said. (Although as an adult, I will now concede in turn, that “stuff like that” covers an awful lot of diverse ground. Give me a break. I was twelve.)
“Well, don’t we believe that women are equal to men? Don’t we agree with them? What’s wrong with all of that?”
Yes, she assured me, of course we believe that women are equal to men. Heavenly Father loves and values his daughters every bit as much as he values his sons. But he has different roles for his sons and his daughters. They are both important roles. Men’s role is to lead, provide and protect. Women’s role is to support and nurture. Both things are equally important and we mustn’t do anything to erase those differences.
“But why does that make what feminists say wrong? They just want men and women to be equal and things to be fair. I don’t see why–”
At this point my mother, sitting beside me, leaned over and grabbed my knee (a little bit harder than she needed to, I might add).
“Shush,” she said, very sweetly.
“But I just–” I began.
“Shhh,” she repeated, a little more forcefully. “Let Sister The Speaker finish her talk.” And then I clearly saw her and Sister The Speaker exchange a smilea bit embarrassed and apologetic on my mom’s side, understanding and condescendingly amused on Sister The Speaker’s. But there was also something so knowing in the looks they gave each other that it froze me where I sat. Something was going on, something strange had happenedsomething beyond a simple case of a young adolescent talking out of turn. There was some sort of coded understanding between them that I was unable to decipher. The words Sister The Speaker spoke seemed to have meanings behind them that were completely unfamiliar to me. Yet clearly my mother understood what she was saying very well. And because I had not understood the meaning behind the meaning, it was obvious I had committed some kind of faux pas, the nature of which was completely mysterious to me.
About then, I happened to glance behind me and I swear all those other girls and their mothers were glaring daggers at me. There was a hostile, scandalized energy coming from them that was utterly unmistakable and that I actually felt wham into my stomach. I whipped my gaze back to the front, feeling the blood rush into my face. I slumped down in my chair and my mother leaned over and hissed at me to sit. up.
I sat up ramrod straight and started to feel myself drift loose from my body. Sister The Speaker was going on to explain that feminists wanted to pull women out of their homes and away from their families into the workplace. They wanted to be the SAME as men, not just equal to them. They wanted to leave their own roles and usurp those of men. (How my mother, who had worked full-time almost my whole life, sat through this with a straight face, I do not know.) Men and women weren’t the same. They were equal but very different and belonged in different places in life. God had made them that way. But feminists wanted to be just like men, were dissatisfied with the place God had made for them and wanted to be in the place that God had assigned men. That was the difference. Still confused, but now thoroughly chastened, I assiduously hung on her every word, nodding and listening to myself make little murmurs of assent and understanding as if it were someone else doing it. “Ohhh, mm-hm, uh-huh, OK, ahhh, I see now. Separate, but equal. OOOOkaaaaaayyy”
So, I had been appropriately silenced. Sister The Speaker went on and finished with The Speaking in Somebody Else’s voice. My mother sat beside me and smilingly listened to her life and accomplishments in the professional world be shat upon and demonized by her friend in front of her young daughter. And all the cliquey girls and their cliquey moms eased back into their cloud of comfort. The planets were aligned, the initiates had been prepared and all was in perfect readiness.
Thenand only thendid we watch Johnny Lingo.