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 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.