The 2012 campaign urging Latter-day Saint women to wear pants to church was always about more than Sunday dress.
Ultimately, it was a symbolic act in the drive toward gender equality in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
After all, men still wore the pants — literally as well as metaphorically — in the hierarchy.
Now, some six years after Wear Pants to Church Day, the Utah-based faith has made significant strides toward female empowerment — putting more women on leadership boards, boosting their visibility at General Conferences, allowing female missionaries to don dress slacks, and, especially, implementing the latest temple changes, equalizing the covenants made to God by men and women.
The question becomes: Did the relatively restrained pants push help pave the way for these and other historic shifts?
More Latter-day Saint women are comfortable in trousers at church, especially outside Utah and in far-flung regions. But do those who pick pants today view it as a symbol of equality — or simply changing fashions?
Either way, normalizing the wearing of slacks at church is a win for women, says Pants Day founder Stephanie Lauritzen. It’s about independence.
A movement is born
To Lauritzen, the skirts- and dress-only convention at Latter-day Saint chapels was evidence of outdated and discouraging stereotypes.
The church did not — and does not — have any rule about clothing at church, but the cultural expectations of dresses and skirts on women have been strong and fairly uniform.
The 2012 pants promotion was intended as the first act of All Enlisted, a group dedicated to increasing gender equity in the church.
“We do not seek to eradicate the differences between women and men, but we do want the LDS Church to acknowledge the similarities,” the group’s mission statement said at the time. “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.”
It was, “Book of Mormon Girl” author Joanna Brooks, told The New York Times, “the largest concerted Mormon feminist effort in history.”
But the move — and subsequent media publicity — also attracted critics.
Many devout Latter-day Saints saw exchanging skirts for slacks that December day as an act of rebellion (several declared that it showed disrespect for Jesus). They viewed it with horror, suspicion and scorn, while scolding, lecturing, harassing, even threatening any who dared to participate.
Several of Lauritzen’s closest Latter-day Saint friends told her if she was unhappy wearing skirts, she should just leave the church.
“Many took it as a threat against their lifestyle and choices,” Lauritzen, a high school English teacher in the Salt Lake Valley, says now.
Organizers wanted women to have more choices about their bodies, families, education and careers, she says, and to recognize that there is not “one template that fits everyone.”
The Pants action happened in 2012 and 2013 before quietly fading from view.
It took a back seat to the more controversial Ordain Women movement, which launched in 2013, followed by the excommunication of OW co-founder Kate Kelly. It later was upstaged by the faith’s November 2015 policy, dubbing married LGBTQ members as “apostates” and barring their children from baptism until they turn 18.
Pants marked “a distinct and important wave in Mormon feminism but one that, I think, eventually got overshadowed in the communal consciousness,” says Neylan McBaine, author of “Women at Church.” “Since that time, we haven’t seen organized efforts to keep the members’ and leaders’ attention on women’s issues, and I think that is unfortunate.”
Still, the “tyranny of the dress” that Pants Day organizers highlighted remains largely a regional and generational pressure.
According to a survey by writer Jana Riess, the Latter-day Saint women most likely to always wear dresses or skirts at church are “white, older, not college-educated, and living in Utah.”
Women who are “younger, nonwhite, at least college-educated, and living outside of Utah are somewhat less likely to wear dresses or skirts,” Riess reports, “though they’re still a minority.”
Indeed, there is a 20-point gap between Utah (93 percent) and non-Utah (72 percent) respondents when it comes to favoring skirts at Sunday services.
Growing up outside of Utah, McBaine says, “I've seen all kinds of clothes in the chapel. … The church seems to be going to greater lengths today (compared to 2012) to welcome all kinds of people to our community.”
Outside the Mormon Belt
Latter-day Saint scholar and writer Rosalynde Welch wore pants to church last month in her St. Louis congregation and got “several enthusiastic compliments, which I think were kindly meant to put me at ease and telegraph acceptance.”
In her area, it is “unusual but not unheard of for women and girls to wear pants,” Welch explains in an email. “The occasional pants wearers, I think, fall into one of three categories: those who simply disregard social approbation or are unaware of gender norms (some of our Young Women and a few converts fall into this category); those who want to send a message of feminist critique of LDS gender culture (rare in our ward, but we have one Young Woman in this category); and those, like me, who want to send a message of inclusion and solidarity to women who are uncomfortable with LDS gender culture.”
The Pants to Church campaign was “ultimately too focused on the concerns of a slim slice of progressive white Mormon feminism,” she says. “For many other women interested in greater justice and equity in Zion, the politicizing of clothing choices (a category so fraught with racial and socioeconomic signification) within the meetinghouse simply was not compelling.”
Brooks echoes that sentiment.
“Mormon feminism has made real efforts to grow more intersectional, which I think has put issues like gendered dress at church into broader perspective,” she writes in an email. “Initiatives like Wear Pants to Church were incredibly important in raising consciousness among white Mormon women about rules of gender that have been used in white Mormon culture to include and exclude, to reward and to hurt, but that have ultimately nothing to do with building Zion. This work has to include redressing racial inequities white Mormon women have benefited from and contributed to at the expense of Mormon women of color.”
But don’t many black believers dress up for church?
Women of color
The first time Janan Graham-Russell wore pants to her Latter-day Saint services, she felt self-conscious. Was it because she was a convert? Because she was black? Or simply because she had on slacks?
“There's a sense of reverence as well as a politics of respectability that encompasses ‘dressing up’ in the black church,” says Graham-Russell, who attends a Haitian-Creole ward in Boston. “At times, wearing a dress or skirt of a certain length (including stockings) is expected because it's a social norm. Black Mormons tend to dress up for church as a remnant from their black church experience.”
Like many other materials in Mormonism, she says, “clothes hold aesthetic and symbolic value — an aesthetic that shapes culture, politics, and theology, and vice versa.”
Any strong response for or against a Pants Day, she says, “stems from varied interpretations of what pants represent.”
To Latter-day Saints, “fashion often is attached to ‘worthiness and chosenness,” says Graham-Russell, a doctoral candidate in religious studies at Harvard who also writes a fashion blog. “In spaces made of up of mostly white members, black members are hypervisible. Being one of a handful of black people in a given ward, the message they send with their clothing choices may not send the same message as their white counterparts because of stereotypes that exist concerning black men and women’s hypersexualization.”
What about millennials?
Last month, Sarah, a Brigham Young University junior, saw that it was snowing and decided it was too cold to wear a skirt to church. So she donned slacks and a matching blazer.
“I had not done it before,” she says, “but it felt good.”
Sarah says she got nothing but compliments from other women at church. Then she tweeted about it, and a firestorm erupted.
“Random men were telling me I was doing it for attention,” says Sarah, who asked that her last name not be used because of the flak she received. “They were making a bigger deal about it than I had intended it to be.”
The social media assaults escalated until she was compared to a “Nazi.” “In certain groups of millennial men in the church,” she says, “there’s still pushback and the mindset of toxic masculinity.”
Despite the critics, Sarah says, it was an “empowering experience.” She plans to do it again, saying it also sent a message that she is open to discuss issues within the church without judgment. And that everyone is welcome.
“No matter what you’re circumstances,” Sarah says, “we want you to be here and partake of the gospel.”
In the mission field
In December, the Utah-based faith loosened the dress code for “sister missionaries,” allowing those in its 400-plus missions around the world to ditch their dresses and wear pants — at “their own discretion” — when they proselytize.
The new rules minimize the risk that women will contract vector-borne diseases from mosquitoes, ticks and fleas, Bonnie H. Cordon, Young Women general president, said in a news release.
The changes also make it easier for missionaries to ride bicycles and fend off the cold.
“It puts the woman’s comfort and practicality ahead of this perceived traditional look, which I think is a very positive development,” McBaine says. “I also think it has larger implications for the church to show that we can be accommodating to various cultures’ sense of modesty and propriety.”
The only catch? Skirts and dress are still required for worship services and even at missionary conferences.
“Without a hint of irony, this list of no-nos comes immediately after the assurance by Sister Cordon that the choice to wear pants vs. dresses is ‘truly optional.’” blogger Deborah writes at sistersquorum.com.
This move is, she says, “quite possibly intended to celebrate the benevolence of the rule-makers rather than promote the well-being of female missionaries.”
While women’s clothing standards have become more flexible, some worry that such diversity could undermine a collective sensibility.
“There is merit in emphasizing that Sunday worship is a time to show respect through our clothing and be set apart from the rest of the week in the way we physically prepare for it,” McBaine says. “We are becoming less and less a community tethered together by cultural practice and more of a community tethered by adherence to our covenants, but I do think it would be a shame if that cultural connector of respectful dress — whatever that means to the person — were to be lost altogether.”
For her part, Pants founder Lauritzen celebrates new dress standards for women.
“Our ultimate goal was to make pants at church seem normal and not a big deal,” she says. “If that is the case, then we won.”
Someday, Lauritzen predicts, “women holding the priesthood won’t be a big deal, either.”