Finding words

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.

About Melissa Y.

(Emerita) is a native of Utah and lives in Mapleton with her husband and four children. She is currently working toward an MA in TESOL at BYU (and feels that is far too many acronyms for one sentence).

29 thoughts on “Finding words

  1. Great post! I appreciate your approach to these issues. My high school seminary teachers (graduated in 91) said that the rule was to encourage women to have a family and stay home. The older sister who taught said she was given exemption because she was past childbearing age. I guess I see the policy as evidence of the church trying to keep their policies in line with doctrine – which at the time was heavily frowning on working mothers. Now I think leaders are more understanding and open to working women but the reality of our focus on family makes their policies seem plausible but still awkward, especially in comparison to public policy. The fact remains that I’m troubled that any field of learning would be closed to women when prophets also strongly encourage us to continually educate ourselves.

  2. I really appreciate you sharing your perspective. Since I have never experienced gender discrimination in the church, I didn’t really understand what Mormon feminists were complaining about. Hearing yours and others’ experiences has shown me that this is a real problem that needs to be fixed.

  3. Gender discrimination (as well as racial, age, etc. etc.) is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet it exists, scattered among those who have taken upon themselves his name and covenanted to follow his teachings.

    As a disciple of Christ I believe three of his teachings particularly apply to our response to hypocritical discrimination when we find it turned against us, no matter the form it takes. Speak the truth, have your heart full of charity and compassion, and judge others and situations with the measure of mercy and understanding that you hope to receive when your sins are examined.

    Contrary to conventional wisdom, those are key and ultimately most powerful. And hard to do. Outrage and denunciation are easier.

    Cheiko Okazaki once spoke to missionaries at the Missionary Training Center and in that talk she was recorded as saying “Jesus could denounce the pharisees as hypocrites because He was Divine. We are not, so we cannot.”

    Hard to swallow when I know I’m right and want change NOW, but such is the nature of many of Jesus’ teachings. And my commitment is to him.

  4. Thanks Sandra. It’s always nice to feel like there is someone who can relate.

    Jendoop, you’re right that the most difficult aspect of my experience was that it was a field of study, not a job, though the job policies were obviously the root of his attitude. One day I may appeal the MA policy and see if I can take some graduate classes in religion. Right now I love what I’m studying, and while I don’t think that God directed the CES door to close for me, I do believe He has the power to make our experiences work for our ultimate good.

  5. Melissa, I’m glad you haven’t experienced discrimination yourself. And also that in spite of that, you’re willing to see that it does affect others.

    MB, the three teachings you listed are powerful, as is the idea that we cannot denounce even the Pharisees. Negotiating the tension between how to do that and still speak truth is a tough one. Maybe by recognizing that what we believe as truth may not be the whole of it.

  6. I empathize with those feelings. I have been down this road, though I have also never discussed it with anyone.

    I remember being young and thinking being a gospel teacher would be the most awesome career and then finding out it wasn’t an option.

    I don’t have the fire for gospel study I once did (which makes me sad) and reading your post has made me wonder if those early hurts dampened my fire a little bit. Pondering. . . .

  7. Thank you very much. I, personally, have not felt hurt by the gender discrimination in the Church, but my heart aches for those whose stories I read online. It’s easy for me, but I still have to wonder about the injustices on behalf of my less content sisters. This helps.

  8. Well put, Melissa. And ditto to MB’s comment above.

    It’s a wonderful time to be a woman in the world and within the church. I’m so glad to be a part of the consciousness-raising that seems to be going on all over the globe with regard to gender bias.

    And I personally believe everything is as it should be. If we believe that, indeed, God is in charge, then the shifts we are seeing and participating in at this very moment (each in her own way and even when there is dissent and relative termoil in some settings) will move us toward the best possible outcome for all concerned.

    I look forward to a time when perhaps my great-grand daughter will be offered a career in the CES. Can you imagine the wonderful contribution it would be to have as many female religious scholars within the church as there are male scholars? What a wonderful perspective that could bring? Such a thing would be a gift to our community and to the world. It’s nice to think about anyway.

    Again, excellent post. Thank you for taking time to find and write your words.

  9. I took a seminary teaching class at BYU (from Rand Packer, I think?). I graduated in 1993. They DID tell us that as women, the odds were against us. Once you got married you would become ineligible to teach full time seminary. I didn’t want to teach full-time, nor did I ever think that I’d live somewhere with f/t teachers. But I figured that sooner or later my number would come up to teach early morning seminary. I was asked about 6 years ago, but still had a nursling and an not-so-supportive husband, so I had to turn it down. I figure my time is still coming.

  10. It is frustrating to me to read comments that reflect the thought that as women the only way to becoming a female religious scholar is to take classes at BYU from men. So the BYU doors are closed to you, but other doors are not…especially the door to be directly taught by the scriptures and God. Do you want to be a religious scholar? Be one. Marie, find the fire in you that you had. God gave it to you for a reason…to know Him. You might not get to teach in CES (yes, this is a travesty), but there are always other opportunities.
    Melissa, well-written. The CES PTB are fools for not taking you then.

  11. It might be of some interest that a woman, Camille Fronk Olson, is the Chair of BYU’s Department of Ancient Scripture. Not sure what her total career path was, but she is there now.

    The reality is that our lives are so much longer now that one can raise children and still have a career of some sort. I personally know at least three people who didn’t get their first assistant professorship until in their 50s.

    A friend teaching early-morning seminary had a baby in December, and got a sub for that last week of the semester, then returned in January because her husband was supportive and she felt she needed the time off from mothering. The stake asked if she wanted to be released, but it was up to them.

    Great motto!

  12. I was lucky enough to have a full time female CES teacher when I was in high school in the early 90s. She was one of only TWO in the entire system. I had her for two or three years. She knew that she would have to quit when she got married, but she hung on as long as possible. She was amazing. These days we are in the same stake and she’s a friend.

    We need to do better. We will do better. Mormons are nothing if not ever-evolving. Let’s get it done.

  13. I echo what Carina just said: We need to do better. We will do better. One very real benefit of the Internet is our ability to tell stories like these–stories that wouldn’t have reached more than a handful of listeners just a decade ago. Or that might not have even been uttered for fear of being “the only one.” The more often we hear experiences that resonate with our own, the more likely we are to have the courage to tell the truth about our own lives. And if these stories don’t resonate with our personal experience? We have an opportunity to consider with compassion what others have experienced. Positive change is always rooted in this kind of charity. I have faith that this charity exists in our church.

    Thank you, Melissa, for a beautiful post.

  14. Thank you for the lovely and thoughtful comments.

    Melonie, you are right that there are other doors that are open, and I’ve tried to avail myself of as many as I can. But the fact remains that I am ineligible for formal religious education within my own faith. I looked into other universities, but the distance and the expense precluded any serious consideration. It has made me sad, but I also realize that on the scale of tragedy, it ranks pretty low.

    Naismith, I think it’s fantastic that Dr. Olson chairs the dept. of ancient history. From her bio on the BYU page, it looks like none of her degrees are in religious studies, so who knows? Maybe I can dust off my dreams to teach religion in a few years.

    And Carina, your comment emphasized for me the strange twist that the CES employment policy actually incentivizes women to not get married and have children–directly the opposite message the policy is supposed to support.

  15. See, growing up in the south, I really didn’t know that this existed. We had early morning seminary, and all of our teachers for all of our wards were female, so I had no idea that there would be discrimination. It still appalls me. I just cannot imagine this kind of silliness. and I would have listened, too, at that age, and now I’d not fight about it, but I’d certainly question it, as we are doing. Why would it make sense for our men to be better prepared theologically than our women? Many of those men will never be a bishop, unless they move far from the happy valley, except those few, of course. Our women, on the other hand, are constantly in just as much need of spiritual wisdom and understanding as our men are, and definitely as much in need of the added peace and comfort the gospel brings. (she said, having very nearly felt like throwing her potty training preschooler out of the window this afternoon, which she did not, but it was kinda touch and go there for a minute.). How can it be acceptable for this practice to continue? If there was any degree I’d want to continue at BYU, it would be CES…or is it only that I am allowed to take only early childhood education or family sciences, both of which I will also be using in my day to day life, but neither of which would help me as much as further spiritual education. How…very 1890’s.

  16. Thank you Melissa! This post very much echos my own feelings. My mantra has been “be patient,” though “condemn not” could have easily fit many circumstances.

  17. Just for the record–the CES recruitment site at https://seminary.lds.org/careers?lang=eng specifically states that “Due to the needs and circumstances, S&I employs some men and women as full-time religious educators.”

    So, whatever policy was in the past, women are indeed currently employable as seminary/institute teachers.

  18. Thanks for the link, Amos. As far as I know, though, the unstated stipulations for women to be employed by S&I as teachers (they may be employed in other capacities) is that they be single, married and childless, or that their children all be over the age of 18. Knowing that she will lose her job once she has a baby is a rather strong deterrent from entering the profession, though in my case I believe the professor I talked to extrapolated the employment policies to deter me from the educational opportunity.

    This is an explanation of the “ministerial exception” that enables S&I’s employment policies: http://www.pewforum.org/Church-State-Law/The-Supreme-Court-Takes-Up-Church-Employment-Disputes-and-the-“Ministerial-Exception”.aspx

  19. What resonated most with me from this post was the following paragraph:

    “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.”

    I have tried to enter the online “fray” several times to share my feelings, but they have been distilling and shaping over more than two decades, through intensely personal experiences. In a Twitter world, how do I begin to convey their complexity and depth? So I stay silent in social media, wondering what my silence conveys, but feeling the need to hold tightly to the “hard-fought” peace that I have come to.

    I have learned that most of the time, for me, “the virtual world where words pile up like slag” is not where I find the peace and clarity that I seek in matters such as this. I found your post to be a wonderfully-relatable exception. Thank you.

  20. I see what has occured and I visit a blog called theredheadedhostess.com of a woman who just this past year left her job as seminary teacher to have her first baby. Perhaps it was not your calling to teach. I don’t really know…perhaps your experiences were meant to occur to help you gain the perspective you have..a voice of reason in the call the arms that we hear so much about. I only know that Heavenly Father loves and cherishes His daughters. I do not feel slighted in the least…I have my hands full, quite honestly in living up to the responsibilities I have been given to be looking for more :)
    Your article is very well written. I sense your pain and I am sorry it is yours to bear…I pray for your comfort and continued strength.

  21. Trina, thank you. I also usually stay silent and worry that my silence is a message it itself, but it really is hard to “join the fray.”

  22. This conversation has come up quite a bit with me and my husband lately. And some friends. And in general. My frustration is that the YW, with whom I work, go to Girls’ Camp. Every year. The YM, at 14 and older, get to pick a spot and go there. River rafting. Tahoe. Lake Powell. And the girls go … to Girls Camp.

    When my son went to Scout Camp last summer, I asked how many times the boys went. Well, we keep it to the Deacons, I was told, because they get bored of going to the same place, or same two places, so then they get to decide where they want to go.

    While the girls go to … Girls Camp.

    I remember having a choice, so I don’t know what happened. I remember running the Colorado River with the youth of my ward when I was 14. Those 14 and older were invited to fundraise and go river rafting. We had a great time, with a lot of chaperones and youth.

    But now, the girls go … to girls’ camp. Every. Single. Year.

  23. Thank you for this post. You’ve stated so well much of how i feel as well.

    And Random, I completely agree. Growing up, while our YM were rafting and mountain biking, we had the craft tent. Girls camp didn’t do it for me.

  24. what i hear in this is that women are encouraged and indeed expected to do this work, but not allowed to be paid for it. i know it’s anecdotal, but almost every early-morning seminary teacher i’ve known has been a woman. do they even call men to that calling? but if it’s a career, i.e. something that pays, well, not allowed. sounds all too familiar.

  25. Yes, they do call men to teach early morning seminary and some do. I suspect women are more likely to say yes, though.

  26. I am working these days and don’t comment on Segullah anymore. But your story brought me down to the comment rectangle at the end of your incredible post. I feel strongly that everyone is tested and tried uniquely. My trials may not seem that tough for another person, but to me they are at times devastating. The feminist aspect of our religion may be your test and although I have not had the encounters you have and may not have them ever, you certainly have been confronted by this repeatedly. I am commenting to encourage you to stand strong and pray for strength and understanding to overcome your feelings about your life experiences.

Comments are closed.