My Ordain Women Testimony

The Ordain Women event on Saturday was absolutely wonderful from start to finish.  It was the best Mormon-related thing I have done in ages.

It helped that it was a truly beautiful autumn day, clear and calm, though quite chilly in the shade and downright cold once the sun set.  Salt Lake City was beautiful, so it was just one more reason people were in good spirits.

You can find all sorts of accounts of the event, including something I wrote for Religion Dispatches and this really great Storified account on Exponent II (which includes a great tweet about the infamous garbage truck they parked in front of the door–I hope someone got in trouble for that).  So I don’t feel the need to give another rundown of that sort here.

Things could have turned out very differently.  The church had a number of options.  It could have let us attend the meeting in the Conference Center–not that I ever thought that would really happen. (Though I was the very first person, back in February, to point out that we had to be prepared for that very unlikely contingency.  Before that, everyone worked only from the assumption that we would be turned away.)  They could have let us into the Tabernacle and just had us sit there, out of sight, and then not let us into the Conference Center once the meeting started.  I’m sure there are other things they could have done–apparently the OW planning committee had come up with dozens of possible scenarios.

Once we arrived on Temple Square and were met by Ruth Todd and told, “Nope, you can’t come in,” a lot of people figured we had done all we could.  They were ready to go back to the park and sing more hymns.  Kate Kelly is who said, “No. We’re not done asking.”  She was the one who had us line up and told us, “They’re going to have to turn down each one of us.”

And for whatever reason, perhaps because they were caught off guard, the church let us.

It was…. weird. Shocking. Deeply confusing and utterly intelligible at the same time, this bizarre juxtaposition that caught you off-guard because it was new, but somehow readily recongizable because it mirrored so many other contradictions we were trained to accept.

Many women said that they were surprised at just how much it hurt to be turned away from the priesthood session.  It was strange to see the line get shorter and shorter, to watch woman after woman (and the occasional man) in front of me be turned away, while all these guys just marched right into the Tabernacle.

And yeah, I was surprised at how emotional I was when it was finally my turn.  But part of that emotion was because I felt so empowered.  It was a really big deal to stand there and to force this representative of the church to acknowledge and recognize me on terms I had helped shape.

I looked the smiling, jovial man tasked with turning us all away right in the eye and said, “I have been told that I am physically and spiritually unworthy to attend this meeting, and I am giving you an opportunity to override that immoral and unjust decree.”

He smiled. (He smiled a lot, and it was never a smarny, dismissive smile or a smirk.  He really, truly smiled, for well over an hour.) He told me that he couldn’t imagine who would have said that because I seemed like a lovely person, but that the meeting was only for dudes, so he didn’t have the authority to let me in.

I asked him if he thought that was fair; he said it wasn’t his place to decide.

I told him that Heavenly Father was very disappointed. (I really did.) He just smiled.

I am utterly sincere when I say that I was very impressed that he managed to remain so pleasant after saying NO to well over 100 people. I heard someone say that they overheard him tell someone else that it was one of the most emotionally taxing things he had ever been asked to do in his job.  Not everyone was so good-natured, though: just beyond him stood a grim fellow from Church Protective Operations. (That’s what the church calls its security detail.  Supposedly they planned ahead and had 13 guys, eight of them “under cover,” assigned to monitor Ordain Women. It seems excessive, given that we always said we planned to be well-behaved, but maybe they wanted as many people as were at the Last Supper.)

After that, I walked across the lawn to the bathroom in the Visitors Center because I needed to use it, and I washed my very cold hands for a very long time in very hot water, which felt good, and then I realized how badly I was shaking, and not just from the cold.

I had an hour-long interview with Kate Kelly about a week ago.  She said that she envisioned the Ordain Women action as “a way to assert radical self-respect* and to claim the narrative as our own.”

I figured I knew what she meant: standing up for yourself, claiming your own identity, expressing what you want and how to be treated. It sounded good.

But there was a visceral element I didn’t get at all.  I spent some time yesterday and today trying to process why I felt so different.  And I realized that Kate was right and that the action had radically increased my self-respect.  I felt better, stronger, more connected–in all sorts of ways.

Even though I dropped out of the planning in April because I wasn’t as invested as the women who still go to church, I always planned on participating in the action itself, out of a sense of duty and curiosity and solidarity with my sisters, and because I planned to write about it.  I figured it would be historic and I figured I’d be glad after the fact that I was there. I didn’t expect it to be transformative.  But it was.  It absolutely was.

It was also just fun.  I got to chat with local friends I hadn’t seen in months and catch up with friends from out of town I hadn’t seen in years and meet people I’d interacted with online but never met before in real life.  A couple dozen of us went to dinner and talked, then some of us went to someone’s house and watched and read coverage of the event until the wee hours of the morning.

I am much more hopeful about Mormon women and Ordain Women than I was Saturday morning.  I have nothing but the utmost admiration and respect for Kate Kelly.  She has a vision and a clear sense of how to make it real.  She knows what she’s doing, she is profoundly dedicated and unstintingly generous with her time (I can’t imagine how many interviews she has done in the past three or four weeks), and she has a very pragmatic approach to the spotlight she’s in: she doesn’t seem to mind or crave it–it’s just part of what she has to deal with as part of accomplishing this goal.  This really does seem to be about healthy self-respect and not ego.  That’s remarkable and rare.

I don’t know what’s going to happen next.  I still think it will be at least a couple of decades before women get the priesthood.  But things are possible now that were not possible two and a half days ago (I can’t believe it was only 50-odd hours ago!), and the years until women are ordained will be a lot more interesting from here on out.  This is real activism and it will make things happen.  I can’t wait to see what Ordain Women does next–or how the Church responds.


*After the RD piece showed up on Facebook, someone wrote to let me know that I had actually written “serf-respect,” which neither I nor the proofreading services Australia editor caught when we proofread the piece.  I was mortified and wrote instantly to ask the editor to fix it–that’s one nice thing about writing for the web: you can always edit typos!  Anyway, after slapping my forehead a few times, I realized that serf-respect was a better name for what the church gave me.  Serf-respect is about all the church lets women have.  If they want self-respect, they have to find ways to create and claim it.

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24 Responses

  1. chanson says:

    Wow, that is amazing!! I so wish I could have been there!

    So they had 13 security guys to keep you from trying to break in to the priesthood session? I had no idea how threatening girl cooties are.

  2. Suzanne Neilsen says:

    Real activism– ’bout damn time. And gee, I feel anticipation towards conference in April. I gonna start singing–We can never know about the days to come
    But we think about them anyway

    serf-respect– that is so now part of my vocabulary.

  3. Just Jill says:

    With today’s social media climate there’s no way to hide this event away. OW did a good thing.

    There have always been activists in the church; agitating for what they feel is right and good. But Saturday, and leading up to Saturday, there was a well thought out and a well executed plan.

    Way to go ladies and gents of OW. Give yourserves a pat on the back. :o)

  4. Holly says:

    @1: Yep. I guess we still outnumbered the Protective Ops guys (I love how paramilitary that sounds) by more than ten to 1, but there were plenty of regular dudes who gladly would have tackled or picked up and hauled away some woman making troubling for the Lord’s church.

    @2 Now that I’ve accidentally coined that term, I wonder how I lived so long without it. 🙂

    @3: Yes, there has been activism before, and I’ve been part of some of it. I was initially a bit irritated by the claim that OW was doing something different, especially since it followed so closely after Pants and Let Women Pray, and since its efforts would not be possible without the work of people like Janice Allred, Margaret Toscano or Lorie Winder et al, some of whom have paid a very high price for their efforts.

    But I’m here to tell you: this really was somehow different. As you say, Just Jill, there was a well thought-out and executed plan.

    Kate is an international human rights attorney who travels the planet helping people advocate and argue for their rights. It makes sense that she would have figured out a few things about what works from watching other people’s struggles and being professionally trained to help them.

    the rest of us have been things like teachers and writers and housewives. We haven’t been any less sincere, but we have been less professionally adept.

    I think the pants people showed enormous courage and dignity, especially after all those threats of violence. But they had no idea of the backlash they would release. I don’t think they were naive about the fact that what they were doing could upset people–they just couldn’t anticipate the media scrutiny they would get, or how that would bring them to the attention of haters.

    Kate knew all along what could happen and prepared for it. I didn’t go, but there was a training session Friday night on de-escalation techniques. Nothing like that turned out to be necessary, but they wanted people to be prepared.

    So it’s not just the social media aspect that has changed things, so certainly that’s part of it. It’s also that Kate brings a level of organization and political and professional know-how that has heretofore been lacking.

    And that’s really cool.

    (Not that any of this is going to get me back to church, btw. I’m not that transformed. But I can imagine that it’s easier for people to feel good about going to church again in the short-term. We’ll see if this initial success makes it harder for them to stay in the long-term if it’s followed by major failures.)

  5. aerin says:

    I admit I was concerned about threats and escalation. In particular, I thought some would be arrested (like a sit in). Not from the OW side, not that anyone was trying to get arrested or that it was a possibility.

    I’m glad things remained calm, but everyone was prepared for what could happen.

    One thing I haven’t read a lot of is questioning the bona fides of the participants. Maybe I haven’t been looking in the right places. Haven’t read anyone suggest the participants aren’t /weren’t real mormons. Usually that’s the next step…the statement that real mormon women don’t want the priesthood and want things to remain the same.

  6. Jeff Laver says:

    Don’t forget Sonia Johnson, who in 1977 stood up to the Church as Mormonism fought to kill the Equal Rights Amendment. We all have forbears to thank, even if we disagree with some of their ideas and tactics.

  7. Holly says:

    @5: One thing I haven’t read a lot of is questioning the bona fides of the participants.

    A survey went out to participants after the event, asking about things like church participation. Over 75% attend church regularly. Joanna Brooks mentioned it in her writeup.

    the statement that real mormon women don’t want the priesthood and want things to remain the same.

    Ruth Todd said that for the cameras. You can find it in some of the video circulating from the local TV news channels.

  8. Holly says:

    @6: Absolutely. Sonia was hugely important, and I’m old enough to remember all those goings-on, though I didn’t have much context for making sense of them. When I finally read From Housewife to Heretic sometime around 1999, I was surprised at just how much I liked it.

  9. chanson says:

    I have been trying to figure out the CoJCoL-dS’s strategy here in turning the women away. Obviously the contents of the meeting are not confidential, and if they’d simply let the women in, it would almost have become a non-story.

    Once women got a foot in the door, they might start attending in increasing numbers, but maybe not — it’s not like it’s terribly interesting or anything.

    It almost seems like it’s important for them to keep exclusivity as part of the draw. If just anybody could attend, then maybe it’s not clear why anybody would attend…

  10. Alan says:


    It’s the same strategy and logic that underpins a lot of how the Church thinks about “bad” behavior: “Too much tolerance equal acceptance.” In the Church’s eyes, Ordain Women is “sinning” because of how the members aren’t sustaining church leaders as revelators on the matter. If the Church let them in, it would be a media-covered crack in the system, which could lead to further problems…. kinda like if there was knowledge of someone in a same-sex relationship holding a temple recommend. It’s just not supposed to happen until the leaders say it can.

  11. Alan says:

    It almost seems like it’s important for them to keep exclusivity as part of the draw. If just anybody could attend, then maybe it’s not clear why anybody would attend…

    On this point, though, I can see what you mean. If both men and women could be ordained, then a lot more people would opt out, because it’s not “special” anymore. “Priesthood” has become so entangled with “malehood” in the Church that I don’t think the Church would know how organize itself. Perhaps part of the discussion needs to be, “Okay, women ordained. Now what?” so that the vision might seem more feasible. (Part of this has to do with a substantially different view of the meaning of kinship, IMO…because surely, most Mormons know in their gut nowadays that the Church’s definition of “family” is imperfect vis-a-vis men’s and women’s roles that mimic the 1950s in terms of Church service, but in the home and workforce are substantially more egalitarian).

  12. Just Jill says:

    Remember brothers and sisters there is nothing wrong with being a feminist just don’t live the lifestyle. Don’t wave your feminist flag in our face we have been told to be wary of too much love and tolerance.

    We don’t know if you were born feminist or if you chose to become feminist but you need to get with the program; it’s your cross to bear and you need not choose a feminist lifestyle. Sit with us at the table and eat our crumbs because that’s what love and charity means to us.

    Okay, I’ll stop enough said. 😉

  13. visitor says:

    I remember the ERA era and what happened to Sonia Johnson too. I’m not Mormon but at the time it was a frequently followed event in the secular news and it made a profound impression on me at the time.

    So, what does anyone think will happen next? Are women who participated discouraged? Used up their willingness to be publicly rebuffed? Feeling negative pressures in their own homes? Concerned about church discipline? Galvanized to repeat at a future GC?

    When the church has taken the strong position of denying OW and targeting “feminists” in the public non-church sphere can sites like Feminist Mormon Housewives escape consequences? If you’re not aware, Huffington Post has picked up the story and other stories from GC and there is an active non-Mormon audience for details.

  14. Holly says:

    @13 I know that a lot of my friends have had mass unfriendings on facebook and stuff, but I think people are pretty energized. People are talking about doing it again in April…. I guess we’ll have to see what the next six months bring.

  15. visitor says:

    My hat’s off to you! It was brave and will need to get braver, no doubt.

  16. chanson says:

    @14 It might be harder to get people excited about doing it again if they know that they’ll just be turned away (and that it will be that much less newsworthy the second time).

    If the CoJCoL-dS had let the women in, it would have taken the wind out of the story’s sails for this news cycle, but I think it would have made it easier to recruit more women each half-year to participate. The precedent would offer faithful Mormon women a non-confrontational way to demonstrate that they are ready for the priesthood.

  17. Alan says:

    @16: Yeah, that’s probably true. With other groups, not being let into a place could create a rallying cry so that more people show up next time. But with non-confrontational Mormon culture, not so much. Maybe that too was part of the Church’s strategy in not letting them in.

  18. chanson says:

    Probably, sadly…

  19. visitor says:

    …but…but…but…don’t Mormons always celebrate the pioneer spirit of their ancestors and lionize the hardships they rose to?

    Do you really feel this will all go away because someone said “no”?

  20. visitor says:

    …or parked a utility vehicle in their way?

    I have a sneaking suspicion that that many women could probably have picked up that truck and placed it in the center court of the mall. Driver and all.

  21. chanson says:

    …but…but…but…don’t Mormons always celebrate the pioneer spirit of their ancestors and lionize the hardships they rose to?

    Of course. And if the leaders tell them to endure hardships (like accept inadequate food and shelter while serving a mission, for example), the will do it. But if the hardship is standing up to your priesthood leader when he’s wrong…? That’s a horse of a different color.

  22. Holly says:

    I can’t say I am particularly excited right now about the idea of doing the same thing again in six months, but others seemed quite enthusiastic about it. Who knows what will happen–as Morrissey says, six months is a long time. And now that the story about how the church will let women into local meetinghouses for the broadcast if they “insist” has been verified (I heard about it at the event), perhaps women will want to put it to the test at the conference center in April and just see what happens when they get insistent.

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