In the fall of 2014, I was 22 years old and considered myself a part-time feminist.
I mean, I couldn’t be a full-time feminist because I’d never burned a bra let alone walked around in public without wearing one, but I still believed that I was made for more than bringing slightly-less-than-average-tasting cookies to events. That had to qualify me as some degree of feminist, right?
In the fall of 2018 at age 26, I recognized myself as a full-time feminist during a two-month long spiritual breakdown (or was it a spiritual awakening?), a time period I call in my head “The Fall of the Patriarchy.” I’m a sucker for puns, so even in crisis mode I couldn’t help but jump on this kind of word play as I became very aware of patriarchy in a Latter-day Saint context. My “feminist awakening” had started before that autumn, amplified through Mormon feminist readings I discovered in graduate school, romantic relationships that had ended because boyfriends demanded a stay-at-home wife, and certain practices in the temple that bothered me, but all of these concerns peaked in the fall.
A few months earlier in the summer of 2018, a friend in Utah invited me to go on a temple trip “extravaganza” with his family, which meant visiting as many Utah temples as possible in a 48 hour time period. This was a foreign concept to me as I had grown up in a state with exactly one temple, and so for the sake of cultural exposure I agreed to go. The temple has never been the most spiritual of places for me, but I was still surprised when after just two temple visits I had a mini emotional collapse (okay it was hours of muffled sobbing while I tried to pretend everything was normal). I felt shockingly yet totally inferior as a woman in familiar temple practices that seemed somehow different. Only men scanned my temple recommend to allow me entrance to the temple and only men stood as witnesses for baptism, as if they were the guards of salvation, the access points to God’s house. These practices had never unsettled me before, but I also hadn’t previously taken the care to acknowledge gendered division of labor in the temple.
After feeling increasingly aware of these inequalities, the question came, uninvited and repulsive but strong: Does God love me less because I am a woman?
I insisted on performing initiatories after four other Utah temple extravaganza visits because those were and are my favorite part of the temple. I needed an ordinance performed for women by women. It is often during intiatories that I feel I can claim my power as a divine goddess, where I can have greater access to my Heavenly Mother and to my spiritual sisters. I love seeing all kinds of women comfortably perform saving ordinances, occasionally stumbling over words but full of confidence that they have direct authority from God. This visit was no different and I felt a great sense of peace amidst all of my inner turmoil while there. As I waited outside the temple for my friend and his family to finish the baptismal ordinances they had started, I picked up a conversation with an elderly man sitting outside by the fountain. In an expectedly Utah fashion, he almost immediately asked about my marital status and when I told him I was single, he assured me I’d find someone, to which I awkwardly said, “Okay.”
Then he mused aloud about how Jesus appeared to a woman first after his resurrection and told me to remember how important I was as a woman. I deeply appreciated this man’s validation in the moment, while also realizing that the fact I needed to be reminded of God’s love was problematic because when was the last time I heard how much God loves his sons? Regardless of this hindsight, his positive words and being part of uplifting initiatories left me slightly less of a blubbering mess and I let my question about God’s love for his daughters fall to the back of my mind.
And then the fall came.
In October, I listened to General Conference, like I do every six months, but something was different this time; certain themes and observations pulled that terrible question of gendered love back to the surface.
I believe that the messages of General Conference are created in a place of love and concern for members of the Church and other listeners. I believe in prophets and apostles as special witnesses of Christ. However, this belief did not prevent me from leaving five sessions of conference feeling drained, belittled, unsettled, and restricted because of implicit and explicit messages about the role of women in the church. Where were the female speakers? The female prayers? Where were the women leaders in a church where half of the members were indeed female?
I went to the Indianapolis temple the week after General Conference, searching for peace. I decided on initiatories, because I felt that this would be safe and legitimizing. This was where I had experienced female divinity in the past as I had watched young, middle-aged, and old women bless me, cleanse me, promise me. This is where women had power.
But I was too raw from conference and had overestimated my emotional stability. As I waited in the temple, I saw paintings of men blessing other men and even though they were beautiful pictures, I broke. I sobbed for an hour and a half in that quiet space as intiatory workers told me about Aaron covenanting with his sons and I could only wonder where were his daughters? I wept over questions of love in regards to inequality and sexism in a place I held sacred.
Things got worse before they got better. This marked the beginning of weeks of crying almost every time I walked into a church building, where I still regularly visited, though admittedly not for the whole three hours of meetings. This was the first time in my life where I felt like attending church was a negative experience and I was not sure how to feel comfortable as a woman in an institution I suddenly saw as full of patriarchy. The lack of a complimentary church matriarchy, of bold prophetesses, and of Heavenly Mother overwhelmed and unsettled me as absence overshadowed presence.
Nothing in church had changed. But suddenly seeing only men sitting on the stand of church, only men conducting sacrament meetings, only men blessing and passing the sacrament, only men having leadership positions aside from one female organization in my young single adult branch, only men determining worthiness, and hearing frequent references to our Father in Heaven without any to his female counterpart Heavenly Mother (an amazingly singular and feminist belief), wondering where the records of God covenanting with women in the scriptures were–it was too much for me.
I felt betrayed. I felt lost. I felt misunderstood. I felt confused.
When I told others about my struggles, I didn’t want them to explain to me why things were the way they were. I wanted them to listen, to try to understand why I worried that God loved me less as a daughter. I am amazed at the outpouring of resources during these trying months. Friends from my mission, friends from my time at BYU, friends from growing up in Colorado, friends in Indiana where I currently live, family members, and even random strangers from church circles took the time and energy to sit in the metaphysical mud with me for a little bit and listen and consider these personal as well as gendered weights.
I cried out for weeks to my Heavenly Father, and then cautiously to my Heavenly Mother, and finally and earnestly to my Heavenly Parents. I wanted them to take away the pain I was feeling from structures that felt marginalizing. I needed to know that I was loved as much as my brothers, that I was valued as an individual and not just for my potential for motherhood, that I had access to them without a husband or priesthood leader. I yearned to see examples of women leading rather than supporting within church structures. It felt like there was an inner war between my Mormonism and my womanhood and I couldn’t get it to stop.
The last Sunday that I broke down in tears during church was the beginning of December during a lesson on the priesthood. It wasn’t something I was ready for so I found myself leaving after ten minutes and finding a classroom where I could try to calm myself down and be real with my Heavenly Parents about how I was feeling: I was hurt that my access to them through priesthood blessings always had to come through a man.
Frantically seeking something to comfort my wounded heart, I turned to Google and searched “Heavenly Mother,” needing proof she was there (because if there is an electronic record of someone, that has to prove she’s real, right?). The Wikipedia page on Heavenly Mother provided a fairly good overview of this apparently singular Latter-day Saint belief. I quickly skimmed the article for meaning, hoping against the odds to find evidence we’d been worshiping God wrong all these years. Mostly I saw men speculating on Heavenly Mother’s nature, with some such as Erastus Snow arguing that the concept “God” included both the masculine and femine, while others like Gordon B. Hinckley asserted that out of reverence we were not to worship Heavenly Mother directly. This “extensive” research showed that there was no real consensus about how to connect with her.
And then I came across a testimony Glenn L. Pace had given during a BYU speech in 2010, twenty years after the September Six had been excommunicated for promoting various unorthodox belief through their scholarship (including praying to Heavenly Mother): “Sisters, I testify that when you stand in front of your heavenly parents in those royal courts on high and look into Her eyes and behold Her countenance, any question you ever had about the role of women in the kingdom will evaporate into the rich celestial air, because at that moment you will see standing directly in front of you, your divine nature and destiny.”
At the time, I didn’t care that it was another man saying this. In my mind, Wikipedia felt genderless and thus it was a message from the universe that once again gave me sorely needed hope for a relationship with God that extended beyond my current vision and satisfied some of my yearnings for the feminine divine.
I want to say I’ve resolved a lot of my questions of faith since “The Fall of Patriarchy” because church has been a generally positive experience since that December Sunday. But I’m not sure if resolution is the right word. Appreciating spiritual tension in my life, or at least trying to, gives me greater strength and deeper empathy. It is through tension that elements actually become stable. Being a woman and being a Mormon in a place where I have to claim power outside official structures fits my desire to embrace spiritual strains that can hopefully build something stronger. There is beauty and creativity in things that are yet to be resolved, however difficult it can be to see that.
I still long to see women teaching me about the nature of Heavenly Mother. It still bothers me when men try to explain my value as a woman. It pains me that institutional changes in the church that would help me feel equally loved and valued can only officially come through men. But I am thankful for men who have said things that have lifted me up. I am also grateful for the many women I have found since my first feminist breakdown who have empowered me. Inexplicable peace has collided with my personal spiritual tensions to make them more meaningful. In the weeks and months following December, I clung to Colleen McDannell’s Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy and books and talks by Chieko N. Okazaki. These gave me concrete examples of other women healing, organizing, and leading, helping me realize how women have influenced the church in the past. I have a better understanding of what things I can ask for and what I can seek after in my quest to connect with deity.
Going into fall of 2019, I am at a place where I believe that my Heavenly Parents value me as their daughter just as much as they value their sons. I believe in the core doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and love seeing the process of restoration. Its gems and the opportunities I’ve had for more spiritual and intellectual growth have been an incredible influence on so much of who I am. I believe that faith in and of itself is an elevating principle. For all of its imperfections, this church is one of my spiritual homes and I claim it as such, even when I find myself mourning growth opportunities denied for women solely because of a perceived connection between holding the priesthood and specific leadership callings. I’m in the process of building belief that extends beyond institutional faith, that gets to the core of my religion, namely, my relationship with my Heavenly Parents and how to become like them.
I’m trying to be patient with myself, with others, and with structures. I’m trying to practice kindness and hope as a woman who finds power in the struggle and beauty in tension.
by Claire Michelle