As an eighteen-year-old freshman at BYU, I caught fire with the idea of becoming a CES teacher. I’d spent much of the year, as many freshmen do, wringing my hands over what I should major in. When this thought struck, it came like lightning. I spoke to my religion teacher, who recommended that I speak to the head of the selection committee for CES candidates. Mustering my courage, I did. The man hedged, telling me that the selection process was very rigorous, that the classes were difficult. I responded with the bright eagerness of an adolescent who thinks they have found their purpose in life:
I’m not afraid of work. I’m a good student. I want, at least, to try.
He finally looked at me after pausing for a moment and said, point-blank, “It would be useless for you to apply. We don’t accept women.”
This was 1992. And while you might think that I would have been familiar with Title IX or had some sense that what he told me was wrong, in fact I was inexperienced and naïve. And in reality, there was nothing in my experience to contradict the truth of his words. I didn’t know of any female seminary teachers; it just hadn’t occurred to me to let that fact stop me. I left the conversation feeling embarrassed, as though I should have picked up on this truth and avoided the entire situation—embarrassed enough that for years I didn’t tell anyone what had happened.
In 2011, the opportunity opened up for me to return to BYU as a grad student. When deciding on which program to apply for, I visited the university website and was thrilled to see an MA in religious studies listed as one of the graduate programs. Maybe, maybe I could receive more of the formal training in theology I’d wanted all those years ago and have a second chance at teaching. But after clicking on the program to check the admission requirements, I saw that the MA was only offered to current employees of CES. The door, closed to me almost twenty years ago, was still tightly shut.
A few years ago my husband was asked to provide a musical number for the stake priesthood session—a session in which we had the rare opportunity to host a visiting apostle. I usually played the piano for singing groups he was involved in, and this time was no exception. We asked permission of our stake leaders for me to attend the meeting, which they gave. It’s one of the few meetings I have ever spiritually prepared to attend. I was that excited.
While waiting for the meeting to start, one of our stake leaders came down from the stand and walked over to me. He rather sheepishly said that the presiding authority had asked him to let me know that I needed to leave as soon as the musical number was over (the number was right after the opening prayer). He apologized and walked back to the stand. Blood rushed to my face and my stomach tightened. I was being asked to leave the table, hungry.
I played for the number and then left the chapel, half tempted to stay and listen through the door. But unlike the woman in Matt. 15:27, I was unwilling to eat of crumbs. I remember walking home alone, the smell of decayed leaves from the previous fall mingling with that of the spring grass.
The words and feelings of my Mormon feminist friends have been on my mind for the past few months. So much heartache, some of which I share. The two examples above are not my only brushes with gender discrimination in the Church, nor are they the most significant or painful. I understand that it can be life altering and emotionally devastating.
Yet I don’t seem to be able to find solid footing in many of the current discussions about the subject. Often when I read various perspectives I feel myself stretched to greater understanding and compassion, but lately it feels more like being pulled apart. The peace I’ve sought regarding my own experiences has been hard-fought and is still at times tenuous, and it’s not one I’m willing to surrender to online comment boards filled with entrenched opinions of people I don’t really know. Even when I agree with them.
In the virtual world where words pile up like slag as we search for a glint of resonance, the words of John the Beloved keep echoing through my mind: For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world.
Not to condemn.
Not to condemn.
For all of the words over the years that have rushed through my mind—and some through my fingers, and some through my mouth—relative to women and their position in the Church, these are the words that I now feel need to become operative in my life: no condemnation, in any direction.
And it is within the frame of these words that I am left to the work of finding, and using, my voice.