Note: Morgan Lyon Cotti is the Local Program Director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.

In December of 2012, a new LDS feminist group called “All Enlisted” organized a “Wear Pants to Church Day” to advocate for gender equality within the LDS faith.  They wrote “We believe that much of the cultural, structural, and even doctrinal inequality that persists in the LDS Church today stems from the church's reliance on – and enforcement of – rigid gender roles that bear no relationship to reality.”[1]  The group encouraged women to wear pants to church on Sunday, December 16th, in solidarity with other LDS feminists, and as a symbolic statement that there are “much larger issues that require addressing.” [2] This is not the first time in LDS Church history that feminists have made a very public stand, nor is it the first time they encountered a very negative reaction.  This paper will put this event into an historical context, and address its importance alongside three other important events in LDS history: the founding of the Relief Society and evolution of women’s role in the early church, opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, and the excommunication of the September Six in the early 1990s.

Wear Pants to Church Day

On December 9th, 2012, a new feminist group called All Enlisted created a Facebook page asking LDS women to wear pants to church the following Sunday. [3]   They asserted that LDS leaders had not discouraged women from wearing pants to church since 1971.  The church released a statement just a few days later saying “church members are encouraged to wear their best clothing as a sign of respect for the savior, but we don't counsel people beyond that.”  The group had chosen the wearing of pants as what appeared to be an innocuous statement, saying “it is merely an invitation to entertain the notion of wearing pants, and to help others overcome the fear of being faced with discrimination and disapproval when they challenge the cultural norm so that all may feel welcome to worship.”  However, they soon learned that using pants as a “symbolic first salvo in a larger struggle over gender inequalities” would prove to be incredibly polarizing.  Strong statements in support or against were quickly posted on the event’s Facebook page, and just a few days later, a death threat led to the original page being taken down.

Despite this backlash, the members of All Enlisted created a new page and still encouraged women to wear pants and men to wear purple, the historical color associated with the women’s suffrage movement.  The following Sunday arrived, and women inside and outside of the United States wore pants to a surprisingly positive reception.  Newspaper articles and social media reported that women who did wear pants, generally had positive experiences. [4]

Although women had positive experiences in their meetinghouses, the negativity on Facebook and other social media sites was pronounced, and reveals that many within the church have very negative views about feminism. [5]   A cursory review of the Wear Pants to Church Day Facebook page shows that supporters were called all manner of things, from silly to idiotic, and accused of either not understanding the gospel or not having enough faith in it.

This is not the first time in LDS history that women rose up in support of a movement, and then seen it halted either by cultural pressure or formal church policy.  This paper will examine how the current wave of feminism compares to previous ones. Perhaps the experiences of early LDS women, or those who fought for the ERA in the 1970s, or those who were excommunicated in the 1990s, can show us what types of experiences the current batch of feminists will encounter.

Mormonism’s First Feminists

Two important events occurred early in the history of the LDS Church that empowered Mormon women.  First, Doctrine and Covenants Section 46 was published in March of 1831.  This section discusses and lists the gifts of the spirit, including the gift to heal or be healed, to work miracles, to speak in tongues or to interpret the speaking of tongues.  A vitally important part of this section is that these gifts are dependent on righteousness, not on gender, and this created an environment in which LDS women participated in religious rites and practices traditionally reserved for men.  It quickly became commonplace for women to speak in and interpret tongues, and to give blessings of healing.  As early as the 1830s, LDS women participated in blessings of healing and it became common for women to bless other women just before giving birth. [6] There is even evidence that a formal prayer was said during the “washing and anointing” of women during labor and delivery. [7]

The formation of the Female Relief Society in Nauvoo in 1842 was a second important event in early church history that gave women responsibilities and opportunities uncommon at that time.  Joseph Smith organized the “women under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood,” the idea of a unique organization, composed of and presided over by women who had been given divine authority through the proper channels was powerful and potent. [8]   As said by Susan Young Gates, a daughter of Brigham Young, “The privileges and powers outlined by the Prophet in those first meetings [of the Relief Society] have never been granted to women in full even yet.” [9]

Bestowing such power on women was revolutionary, and some early Saints questioned the “propriety” of it. [10]   Joseph Smith answered those who took issue with women giving blessings by saying “If the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues.” [11]   However, as time passed, more members of the church voiced concern over women acting in this manner, and church leaders began to urge caution over speaking in tongues and women giving blessings.  Eventually, women were instructed that they should only give blessings to members of their family, and early in the 1900s, it was asserted that only men with the Melchizedek Priesthood had the right to “lay on hands for the healing of the sick.” [12]

Just as those who thought it was improper for women to act in this manner spoke up, so did those women who wanted to continue to exercise these gifts.  In answer to a question of whether it was necessary for women to be set apart in order to administer to the sick by the laying on of hands, Eliza Snow emphatically stated, “Any and all sisters who honor their holy endowments, not only have the right, but should feel it a duty, whenever called upon to administer to our sisters in these ordinances.” [13]   Additionally, when only men were allowed to participate in the endowment ceremony in the Kirtland temple, the women became, in the words of George A. Smith, “right huffy.” [14]

Despite the protestations of these women, policies regarding how spiritual gifts were acted upon changed.  As the church membership grew, the organization of the church became more centralized and the power structure became more hierarchical. [15]   A result of this was that women were no longer permitted to practice the same type of spiritual gifts they had in the past.  This occurred slowly, mostly through letters sent to church leaders or in talks given at church meetings from the late 1800s to the 1950s. [16]   It is also argued that as Utah was granted statehood in 1896, the LDS Church was moving away from some of its “curious” practices, like polygamy, speaking in tongues, and having women participate in the laying on of hands. [17]  

The opportunities LDS women were given in the early 1800s were ahead of their time.  The Relief Society was formed even before the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, an early and influential meeting of women’s rights activists.  Conversely, the withdrawal of these opportunities came at a time when women’s suffrage was receiving renewed attention, and even after women in Utah had already rallied for and been granted the right to vote [18], and after Utahns had elected the first female state senator in the country. [19]  Despite the fact that LDS women in Utah were very active in the Progressive Movement and enjoyed civic and political rights before women in other states, the increasingly hierarchical structure of the church stripped them of some of their early power. [20]

The Equal Rights Amendment

A second event of vital importance to Mormon feminist history is the debate over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), with special emphasis on the now-notorious International Women’s Year Conference held in Salt Lake City in 1977.  As the Women’s Liberation movement gained traction in the 1960s, the LDS Church “unquestionably subscribed to the broad range of conservative attitudes where women were concerned.” [21]   This conservatism did not initially translate into direct opposition to the ERA, even from church leadership. [22]   However, by the time the ERA was being voted upon by the states in the mid-1970s, the church began to repeatedly condemn the events and issues. [23]  

The influence of the church’s opposition to the ERA can be seen in polling data from this period.  In 1974, nearly two-thirds of Utahns supported the ERA. [24]   By early 1975, after church leaders had started vocalizing their opposition, only 40 percent supported it and nearly 50 percent of Utahns opposed it. [25]   While a majority of LDS men and women were united in supporting traditional family values, there was actually a large dichotomy in opinions about the ERA. [26]  While women like Helen B. Andellin wrote and spoke strongly against the women’s movement, LDS feminist Sonia Johnson co-founded Mormons for the ERA and even testified in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution.  Others like Lavina Fielding Anderson, the associate editor of the Ensign, tried to forge a middle ground. [27]

These divisions appeared in a number of places, but none as forcefully as at the International Women’s Year Conference in June of 1977.  These meetings were being held throughout the country to drum up support for the ERA.  However, conservative groups such as the Eagle Forum, the Conservative Caucus, Let’s Govern Ourselves and the John Birch Society flooded the Utah convention and voted for a number of conservative ideologies, some of which were contradictory. [28]   By this time, 35 states had ratified the ERA, three short of the necessary 38 for ratification.  Despite Congress extending the ratification period, no other states ratified the ERA and it eventually failed.

What did all of this mean for feminists within the LDS Church?  Sonia Johnson was excommunicated shortly after she delivered a speech entitled "Patriarchal Panic: Sexual Politics in the Mormon Church," which criticized the LDS Church’s stance on the ERA, at a meeting of the American Psychological Association in 1979.  Utah journalist Linda Sillitoe wrote a personal reaction paper to this excommunication, but titled it “Don’t Use My Name,” a reference to a phrase used by many women she interviewed.  It also had double meaning; Sillitoe was worried about the safety of her own church membership and career. [29]   It is clear that LDS feminists were vary wary of speaking out, and even labeling themselves as feminists.  Many of these women would not feel comfortable speaking out for another decade.

The September Six

In the early 1990s, there was an upwelling of Mormon feminism.  This was in part due to the fact that BYU had hired more women faculty in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including several notable Mormon feminists. [30]  These feminists began to publish articles, books and plays about the history of Mormon women and their beliefs about women’s role in the gospel.  However, this resurgence was short-lived.    In 1992, it was revealed that a group composed of general authorities and was charged with monitoring the publications of church members for possible criticism of local and general leaders of the church had been formed; it was called the Strengthening Church Members Committee. [31]   Scholars and feminists denounced the existence of this committee, and Paul and Margaret Merrill Toscano founded the “Mormon Alliance” to counter what they described as a growing pattern of “spiritual intimidation.” [32]

One year later, in September 1993, six high profile LDS scholars and feminists were excommunicated or, in one case, disfellowshipped, for apostasy.  These six individuals were soon called, “The September Six.”  The disciplinary actions against the September Six, received national news attention, prompting the church presidency to issue a statement explaining the matter. [33]   This statement in part denied that the disciplinary actions were – as many observers believed – an orchestrated “purge” intended to enforce orthodoxy in the Church. [34] LDS officials asserted that claim was false, and that local church officers were responsible for disciplinary actions.

The September 1993 excommunications were momentous for Latter-day Saints who saw themselves as having feminist or liberal leanings.  Many Saints attended candlelight vigils held outside stake centers, or attended a prayer service during the midst of the controversy, or delivered white roses to General Authorities as a symbolic plea for reconciliation. [35]   In addition to all of this, several notable feminists were fired from BYU during the early- to mid-1990s, including Cecilia Konchar Farr and Gail Turley Houston. [36] Once again, a group of feminist Mormons had watched their movement be blocked, this time, it would be nearly two decades before LDS feminists once again began identifying as such.

A New Resurgence

Within the past few years, feminism in the LDS Church seems to be experiencing a gentle resurgence.  Because of social media and blogs, new feminist groups and leaders have emerged, and older groups have gained a new and wider audience.  Feminists once again have begun to voice their opinions on Mormon Stories, the Feminist Mormon Housewives blog, and at LDS WAVE.  Popular mommy bloggers such as Courtney Kendrick (aka CJane) have identified themselves as feminists (ironically enough, these mommy bloggers have quite a following from feminists outside the LDS faith). [37]   Additionally, Joanna Brooks published her memoir Book of Mormon Girl, which seemed to bring added attention to the feminist upwelling.

This quiet resurgence found a louder voice with the Wear Pants to Church movement, as this event caught the attention of those beyond the “bloggernacle.”  Feminists suddenly felt compelled to defend themselves from the many attacks on social media, though it seems few women actually had to do so while actually wearing pants on that Sunday.  While the reaction on blogs and Facebook clearly show many still hold a great deal of animosity towards feminists, the LDS Church has not made any official statement or apparent move to quell this movement.  Indeed, the fact that the church simply reiterated the fact that women are not required to wear skirts or dresses in the days leading up to Wear Pants to Church Day was also seen as a good omen.  Additionally, when the President Thomas S. Monson announced that the mission age for women would be lowered from 21 to 19, many feminists saw this as a step in the right direction.

It seems that others gained courage from these events as well.  Shortly before the General Conference in April of 2013, two new groups formed with very clear purposes.  First, one began to circulate an on-line petition calling for women to pray in General Conference.  While members of the General Relief Society, Primary and Young Women had spoken in Conference for many years, a woman has never given the closing or opening prayer.  This petition quickly gained traction and received 750 signatures.  Despite issuing a statement saying those who were assigned to speak or pray had been given their assignment already, Church leadership seemed to heed this request, and Sister Jean A. Stevens closed the morning session of conference on Saturday with a prayer.  Mormon feminists rejoiced, and then enjoyed an encore when Sister Carole Stephens gave the invocation for the Sunday afternoon session. 

The Ordain Women movement also began at this time.  This is a group of men and women who call for the priesthood ordination of all worthy women in the LDS church.  In their words, “Ordain Women aspires to create a space for Mormon women to articulate issues of gender inequality they may be hesitant to raise alone. As a group we intend to put ourselves in the public eye and call attention to the need for the ordination of Mormon women to the priesthood.” [38]   They argue they are righteously agitating for this change, a reference to Gordon B. Hinckley when he told a reporter that the policies for priesthood ordination could change, “But there’s no agitation for that.” [39]   Thus far, this group has not encountered any disciplinary actions. 


In the context of LDS history, what does this latest reemergence of feminism mean, and where will it lead?  The latest brand of feminism seems to be quite broad.  Rather than just referring to the stereotypical militant feminist of the 1970s, today’s feminists are housewives, scholars, bloggers and everything in between.  In addition, while certain groups do advocate for specific actions, like wearing pants to church, having women pray in General Conference, or even allowing women to be formally ordained to the priesthood, the majority seem to be yearning for greater dialogue. 

Interestingly, the reemergence of LDS feminism is coming at a time when others are questioning the relevance of mainstream feminism, and as some of the most successful and powerful women in the country are distancing themselves from the feminist label. [40]  The timing of this should not be overlooked.  During the decades that the women’s movement gained followers and attention throughout the nation, feminists within the LDS Church were discouraged and even silenced.  Now LDS feminists are once again asking to be heard.  Whether their pleas for greater dialogue or visibility will be lead to large-scale changes is unknown.  If the ending to the previous three waves of feminism is any indication, the current movement will continue to hit roadblocks, and what Laurel Thatcher Ulrich calls “the great disappearance” of women within the LDS Church will continue. [41]   However, perhaps the current feminist movement is broad enough to survive, and perhaps LDS feminists, both men and women, will feel welcome in their ward houses and within the broader church membership as whole.



[1] Wear Pants to Church Facebook page, available at: http://www.facebook.com/WearPantsToChurchDay [Back to manuscript].

[2] Ibid. [Back to manuscript].

[3] Ibid. [Back to manuscript].

[4] Timothy Pratt, “Mormon Women Set Out to Take a Stand, in Pants,” New York Times, December 19, 2012. [Back to manuscript].

[5] Feminist Mormon Housewives, “Wear Pants to Church Day – Images and Photos,” available at: http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/2012/12/wear-pants-to-church-day-images-and-photos/. [Back to manuscript].

[6] Jonathan A. Stapley and Kristine Wright. “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism, Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 37, pp. 1-85, Winter 2011. [Back to manuscript].

[7] Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, 2nd ed., University of Illinois Press, Chicago (1994). [Back to manuscript].

[8] Ibid. [Back to manuscript].

[9] Linda King Newell, Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective, edited by Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson, University of Illinois Press, Chicago (1992): 114. [Back to manuscript].

[10] Ibid, 117. [Back to manuscript].

[11] Relief Society Minutes of Nauvoo, 19 April 1842, pp. 31, 33, quoted in Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspectives, 117. [Back to manuscript].

[12] Young Woman’s Journal 14 (8 August 1903): 384, quoted in Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspectives: 128. [Back to manuscript].

[13] Woman’s Exponent, 1884 quoted in Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspectives:122-123. [Back to manuscript].

[14] Linda King Newell, Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective, edited by Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson, University of Illinois Press, Chicago (1992): 113. [Back to manuscript].

[15] Ibid. [Back to manuscript].

[16] Ibid. [Back to manuscript].

[17] Ibid. [Back to manuscript].

[18] Thomas G. Alexander, Utah, The Right Place, Gibbs Smith Publisher, Salt Lake City (1996): 178. [Back to manuscript].

[19] Thomas G. Alexander, Grace and Grandeur: A History of Salt Lake City, Heritage Media Corp., Carlsbad, CA (2001): 57. [Back to manuscript].

[20] Thomas G. Alexander, Stewardship and the Creation: LDS Perspectives on the Environment, edited by George B. Handley, Terry B. Ball, and Steve L. Peck, Religious Studies Center, Provo, Utah (2006): 24. [Back to manuscript].

[21] Martha Bradley Sonntag, Pedestals and Podiums: Utah Women, Religious Authority and Equal Rights, Signature Books, Salt Lake City (2005): 65. [Back to manuscript].

[22] Ibid, 66. [Back to manuscript].

[23] Ibid. 69. [Back to manuscript].

[24] Dan Jones. (1975, February 5). Poll shows a plurality of Utahns oppose ERA. 
     Deseret News[Back to manuscript].

[25] H. Knight and Dan Jones. (1974, November 15). Majority favors rights bill. 
     Deseret News[Back to manuscript].

[26] Bushman, Claudia. “Introduction,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 6 (Summer 1971): 7-8. [Back to manuscript].

[27] Lavina Fielding, “Problems, Solutions: Being an LDS Woman Today,” Ensign, Mar 1976: 16-22. [Back to manuscript].

[28] Thomas G. Alexander, Utah, The Right Place: The Official Centennial History, Gibbs Smith Publisher, Salt Lake City (1996): 430. [Back to manuscript].

[29] Martha Bradley Sonntag, Pedestals and Podiums: Utah Women, Religious Authority and Equal Rights, Signature Books, Salt Lake City (2005): xi. [Back to manuscript].

[30] Joanna Brooks, The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories From an American Faith, Free Press, New York (2012): 133. [Back to manuscript].

[31] Peter Steinfels, “Religion Notes,” The New York Times, August 22, 1992. [Back to manuscript].

[32] Joanna Brooks, The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories From an American Faith, Free Press, New York (2012): 135. [Back to manuscript].

[33] News of the Church, January 1994. Available at: http://www.lds.org/ensign/1994/01/news-of-the-church. [Back to manuscript].

[34] Lynne Kanavel Whitesides, Paul James Toscano, Maxine Hanks, D. Michael Quinn, and Lavina Fielding Anderson, “Spiritual Paths After September 1993,” Sunstone, (December 2003): 13. [Back to manuscript].

[35] Ibid. [Back to manuscript].

[36] Joanna Brooks, The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories From an American Faith, Free Press, New York (2012): 137. [Back to manuscript].

[37] Emily Matchar, “Why I can’t stop reading Mormon housewife blogs,” Salon, Jan. 15, 2011. [Back to manuscript].

[38] Ordain Women website, www.ordainwomen.org. [Back to manuscript].

[39] Compass Interview with President Gordon B. Hinckley, November 9, 1997, ABCTV. [Back to manuscript].

[40] Hanna Rosin, “Marissa Mayer Thinks Feminists Are a Drag. Is She Right?” Slate, March 4, 2013. [Back to manuscript].

[41] Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Mormon women seeking middle ground to great equality,” Salt Lake Tribune, August 16, 2012. [Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Cotti, Morgan Lyon (2013) "Women Wearing Pants to Church: Putting the Current Wave of LDS Feminism into Historical Context," SquareTwo, Vol. 6 No. 3 (Fall), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCottiMormonFeminism.html, <give access date>

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