April 6 is the five-year anniversary of the launch of Ordain Women. Many of us met in person for the very first time at that event at the University of Utah, during the male-only Priesthood Session of General Conference.
Some in the audience shielded their faces from the press, afraid to be targeted by their family or ward members, even for passively attending a public meeting. Over the last five years many have boldly joined the movement at great personal risk, and have reinvigorated the conversation about gender inequality in the Mormon church in a new and open way.
So much has changed since those first days, but, what hasn’t drastically changed is the way the Mormon church treats or responds to women. Of course there have been some cosmetic and incremental changes with regard to women in the church, like putting up portraits of women in the Conference Center, and allowing female employees to wear pants to work, but the fundamental patriarchal order remains intact. The church has also recently amped up its public-facing rhetoric regarding women, using more women as spokespeople. But, this is nothing new, as it has long used pedestalizing women as a political tool.
Martha Hughes Cannon is often hyped by the church, and other organizations trying to pinkwash Utah’s complicated history with women. It’s true, Cannon was elected the first female state senator in U.S. history, famously beating her own husband, a church leader and polygamist with six wives.
Yet, while Cannon publicly toed the Mormon line, she privately agonized about the oppression of polygamist women, and wrote to her husband, “How do you think I feel when I meet you driving another plural wife about in a glittering carriage in broad daylight? I am entirely out of money, borrowing to pay some old standing debts … after all my sacrifice and loss you treat me like a dog — and parade others before my eyes — I will not stand it.”
Treatment of Mormon women as subhuman while simultaneously promoting and praising them to the outside world continues to be the contemporary modus operandi of the Mormon church.
When I founded Ordain Women many thought that the success of our movement would be measured by the response of the men who lead the church. But I emphasized all along, perhaps seemingly paradoxically, that our success never depended on them. Our true triumph was strong women coming together, standing up for ourselves, and meeting in public to raise our collective voices.
Though the church as an institution continues on largely unchanged, what has transformed are the ways that Mormon women are speaking up for themselves and fighting back. I am in awe of young Mormon women and the radical self-respect they are displaying. These valiant young women make me confident about the future.
In 2016 Brigham Young University student Madi Barney helped shape the national debate about sexual assault on college campuses and called into question the Mormon university’s policy of punishing rape victims. BYU tried to punish her for “violating” the Honor Code when she reported her assault to the police. But, in a miraculous display of strength, Madi turned the narrative against BYU and the church for draconian policies that punished survivors. Madi herself told me that reading about Ordain Women and other women speaking out when she was at BYU, “made me feel not so lonely there.” Her courage was a game-changer for the movement against sexual assault on campus.
In May 2017 a 12-year-old Mormon girl named Savannah touched the hearts of people worldwide as she came out to her entire congregation publicly at the pulpit. Her bishop cut off her microphone, but that cruel act just gave her a platform to help other queer kids feel less alone.
Savannah’s mom, Heather DeKlerk Kester, had a profile on Ordain Women’s website, and told me that Savannah first learned about Ordain Women because when she turned 12 she assumed she would be getting the priesthood along with her male peers. The realization she faced gender discrimination upset her, and the public actions that Ordain Women carried out made her feel more brave, and helped her speak up.
Each time a woman stops suffering in silence and speaks her truth, our collective ability to be bolder grows. This is the contribution of Ordain Women. We leaned on each other and learned the hard way that our success isn’t something men control. We helped ourselves and the next generation be a bit more unflinching.
We will no longer plaster smiles on our faces and suffer indignities in silence, like Martha Hughes Cannon had to. Our feminist family tree is filled with ferociously soft Mormon women. Audacity is our intergenerational gift to each other: a legacy all our own.
Kate Kelly is a human rights attorney and the founder of Ordain Women.