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Natalie Brown: LDS women need a platform where they can safely and freely speak out

Social media fills some of that role, but risks can arise from haters.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Latter-day Saint faithful walk to the Conference Center for a women's session of General Conference in 2022. Tribune guest columnist Natalie Brown argues Latter-day Saint women need a way to safely and freely speak out within the global church.

Nearly three months later, the speech by general Relief Society first counselor J. Anette Dennis about the power and authority of Latter-day Saint women in the church continues to create a stir.

In the immediate aftermath, thousands upon thousands of members, mostly women, commented on the Instagram post by The Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints about the sermon, prompting Dennis herself to respond and thank the masses for reaching out.

Never before have I witnessed so many Latter-day Saint women speak with one another and to their general leaders about how the church impacts their lives.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) J. Anette Dennis, first counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency, speaks during a devotional in March 2024.

Indeed, mainstream Latter-day Saint women are more typically noted and praised for their silence on issues pertaining to women’s status in the church. Women who desire change are often dismissed as a disgruntled minority whose yearnings are inappropriate or entitled. For example, then-church President Gordon B. Hinckley famously stated on “Larry King Live” that women were not “complaining” about lacking the priesthood. In this instance, Hinckley fell into the worn pattern of delegitimizing female desire by framing it in the language of complaint. His assumption about women, however, was based partly on lack of information, because Latter-day Saint women have no effective way to directly communicate with their leaders.

We cannot truly know what Latter-day Saint women think about most issues pertaining to the church as long as many risk being potentially threatened with harassment, church discipline, loss of welfare assistance, breakups of the marriages on which they financially depend, or ridicule when they speak up or step out of line. In such a context, expressing opinions and desires is a calculated and often claustrophobic exercise in adhering to and pushing the boundaries of prescribed convention under the gaze of male authority.

Finding a forum online

Like many women, I turned to conversations on social media because I had no other effective way to express my opinions to men with authority to make changes. While members are encouraged to work through their bishops or stake presidents, they have no way of being heard through official channels should any leader in the chain of command disagree with their concerns. Too often, local lay leaders are part of the problem. This structure is particularly ineffective for making visible women’s concerns, because the leaders with the power to enact most reforms are men.

The internet, by contrast, can potentially amplify all voices. It remains, however, an unrepresentative and imperfect mechanism for meaningful discussion partly because of the hostility directed toward women brave enough to share their concerns online. Some of this hostility takes the form of the routine dismissal that male and female members too often inflict on one another: Women telling other women that their concerns are not valid because they feel equal. Women being labeled as “complainers” for raising concerns or suggesting reforms. Men questioning whether a woman’s personal experience, in fact, occurred.

Increasingly, however, hostility on social media has moved beyond routine and important disagreement to harassment targeted at individuals, leaving many feeling unsafe. Sometimes, for example, women are told by anonymous voices, some of whom assert to be acting with priesthood authority, that they will be struck down by God. In a society in which gendered and gun violence is constantly in the news, this harassment leads to a pervasive feeling of anxiety as to if and when harassment might cross the line into something more. As allusions to violence have become routine in the political sphere, it has become more difficult to distinguish serious threats to safety from rhetorical bluster.

Speaking about gender in connection with the church is particularly likely to elicit misogynistic and threatening comments. The Salt Lake Tribune has reported on the #DezNat (Deseret Nation) movement, which is unaffiliated with the church but seeks to defend its often anonymous participants’ interpretations of Latter-day Saint practices. Researchers Amy Chapman of Teachers College at Columbia University, and Spencer Greenhalgh of the University of Kentucky studied the movement and found that “many of the posts were aimed at gender and women’s issues.” Greenhalgh told The Tribune, “A lot of conversations and complaints I’ve heard about DezNat focus on questions of politics and race, but it was clear to [us] that gender and sexuality were also major themes in DezNat postings. That’s especially important because, while the church has encouraged members to take steps against racism and has condemned white nationalism and political violence, it’s harder to tell whether the church would disapprove of the aggressive stances on gender and sexuality that we saw in our posts.”

Chilling effect

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ordain Women co-founder Kate Kelly speaks about her excommunication from the church in 2014.

It is unsurprising that women are often the targets of such posts within a religious culture that gives them less formal governing authority. While the church has disassociated itself from online extremism and encouraged civility, it has disciplined members for speaking about the question of women and the priesthood. Most recently, its highly publicized excommunication of Ordain Women co-founder Kate Kelly cast a chill across members’ efforts to understand women’s relationship to the priesthood.

It is disingenuous to point to women’s silence as evidence that they do not desire the priesthood while also threatening to oust those who advocate for their ordination. In such a context, women may be told that they might lose their membership if they do not conform to the proper script. Latter-day Saint women know that they are susceptible to being labeled as apostate or reported to church leaders by members who seek to police their sincere questions.

A community that cares about women needs to provide platforms in which they can safely and freely speak. Within the church, that might mean a forum in which members can privately provide feedback directly to general church leaders. Within the online communities adjacent to the church, it might mean agreement to adhere to community norms, moderation of comments engaged in explicitly violent speech or harassment targeting individuals, and rejecting incentives to create harmful clickbait. Members would do well to listen to church President Russell M. Nelson’s calls for greater civility and stop engaging in rhetoric that perpetuates hate and dismisses people. How we share the gospel is as important as the contents of our message.

And, yet, it seems probable that these conditions will not substantially improve in the foreseeable future. For those of us who sometimes feel scared to speak due to patriarchal structure and harassment, it is important to ponder whether we are overestimating the cost of a scolding by a local leader or an encounter with a troll and underestimating the cost of our silence, particularly if it contributes to family, friends and future generations leaving the church because they feel alone in their concerns and see no hope for change.

(Courtesy) Natalie Brown, Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist.

Natalie Brown is a Latter-day Saint based in Colorado. She is writing in her personal capacity. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the church or her employer.