Rebbie Brassfield: I always wondered how Mormon women survived crossing the Plains. Then I played pickleball with them.

With kids in tow, they’re “serving” and spending time in the “kitchen” — but this is a whole new game, a whole new kind of Latter-day Saint feminism.

(Courtesy) The meetinghouse pickleball gang: Ashley DeHart, left, Becca Preator, Rebbie Brassfield, Amanda Beardneau, Beth McLean, Julie Davidson.

You probably know pickleball is sweeping the nation. Did you also know it’s ushering in the third wave of Latter-day Saint feminism?

It all started last winter when my neighbor invited me to play pickleball at the church meetinghouse. I asked her when, thinking this was some one-off social event, until she said, “Every morning at 6 and 9.”

I had played pickleball, of course, enough to be terrible and also obsessed. But nothing could have prepared me for the cult I was about to join.

I showed up at the church gym (forgive me, cultural hall) to find seven other women and their 10 collective children who aren’t yet in school. Some got to work setting up the nets, a few climbed up to the stage to skillfully jimmy-rig a “slide” using two plastic folding tables that had been left out for this purpose. Someone plugged in a phone to a speaker and started playing hits from the early 2000s — think Black Eyed Peas, Fergie, Usher and more Usher, songs that instantly made my blood pressure rise as they are reminiscent of so many angsty BYU dance parties. Someone propped open a door to the hallway so we could keep an eye on the kids, who then indulged every urge they have to stifle on Sundays: riding bikes through the halls, raiding the nursery for toys, watching Cocomelon on full volume.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pickleball player is shown in 2023. Latter-day Saint women, young and old, are increasingly gathering at their church meetinghouses to play pickleball.

I greeted the women awkwardly, ready to make whatever small talk was required, but all they asked was my name and whether I wanted to serve first (no please). I whiffed my first ball and sent the next one out into the foyer where it got stuck under the floral couch. And everyone was just like “great try” and “so close,” and I thought: Is this the Celestial Kingdom?

People across the nation are playing pickleball, but no one at the degree of difficulty we are. Jamie plays with her 4-year-old son nearly attached to her hip. He orbits her as she serves, runs to the net when she does. Melissa frequently serves while holding her 6-month-old daughter. “Do you want us to wait?” we ask as Amy’s kid parks her princess scooter in the middle of the court.

“No,” Amy responds. “If she gets hit, she’ll learn.”

There is an unquestioned sisterhood at cultural hall pickleball, which I will tell you is not a given in most all-female gatherings. Sometimes a new person joins, and we have to teach her what the “kitchen” is. She is awful, and it’s not super fun to play with her for a while, but we are patient and helpful because we were her once. Also because we have so many kids.

I can’t tell you how not mad this feminist movement would make you. One Saturday over the holidays, we showed up to play and were greeted by the stench of man sweat: lo and behold the priesthood was just finishing basketball. One of my now BFFs commented sarcastically, “It’s wild none of them brought their kids.”

Everyone laughed, and I held my breath, ready to dog-pile about inequality, like many of us recently did on the church’s Instagram — ready to rally us all to wear pants.

But no one bit. The women just took their positions on the court and started playing. I have wondered ever since, why. Do they feel more content than I do in the church? Are they just there to pickle? Are they the well-behaved women Laurel Thatcher Ulrich was talking about, who change the world but seldom make history?

Pickleball at the church reaffirms the deep love, almost patriotism, I have for Latter-day Saint women. Once, my current pickleball partner asked which ward I was in. When I told her, she said, “Oh! I was a visiting speaker in your ward last Sunday, but you probably don’t remember.” I squinted at her, mentally adding a dress and mascara, and there she was. Of course I remembered her talk, about the need for more love at church. She had praised what she called her “modern family,” including her brother and his husband, who she said were two of the most Christlike people she knew. I remember wishing I was friends with her. Turns out, I already am. Pickleball at the church embodies the community we are so, so good at building, the one I watch friends who have left mourn and wonder how to replace, and I wish they didn’t have to.

I will not speak for all Latter-day Saint women because I’m not an idiot. For me, it’s often tricky to be a woman at church, but never when I’m playing pickleball. At pickleball, I am free. I’m loud and joyful and athletic. I am, as I believe Usher might put it, a lady in the chapel but a freak in the gym. And there are dozens of us. Dozens!

Whenever my mother-in-law used to come into town, she would want to play pickleball. She would lose every game and keep wanting to play. This deeply endeared her to me, given I am a small person who avoids playing anyone better than me and once actually, shamefully, yelled “eff you” at my husband when he hit a great shot. For her birthday, one of us gave her a pickleball paddle called “The Duchess.” It was purple and frilly and perfect. Six months later, she came to town, Duchess in tow, and schooled us all.

“Have you been playing a lot?” I asked her.

She said, without taking her eye off her opponent, “Every morning at the church.”

(Rebbie Brassfield) Tribune guest columnist Rebbie Brassfield.

Rebbie Brassfield is a writer and creative director in the advertising industry. She lives in Saratoga Springs with her two young kids, where she spends most of her time picking things up. You can find her overanalyzing at @MormonsInMedia on Instagram, or see more of her work and writing at www.RebbieBrassfield.com.