A few disjointed thoughts, first on the pants event itself and then on the response. I have a lot of sympathy for the goals of the pants-protest group, as I understand them. I too would like to see a broadening of Mormon femininity; I would be very pleased to see symbolic changes in practice that would underscore the spiritual equality of the genders; I think the church will benefit from a more open and more compassionate acknowledgment of Mormon feminists’ concerns. To that extent, I say Brava, sisters!
I think there were some errors in the conception and planning of the event. Framing something explicitly as a protest (or direct action) rather than an outreach will immediately put the community on the defensive, not only out of pure self-protection but also because an idealized unity is at the heart of the Mormon worldview and central to the felt power of Mormonism. Choosing as an arbitrary symbol (because it’s not about the pants, right?) something that appears to threaten a central social organizing principle of the community, gender difference, was unfortunate. And the rather mixed messages about the event’s aims, including mention of women’s ordination, together with the various groups that were drawn to the event, including hostile ex-Mormons who vigorously identified with the protest on the FB page, probably turned otherwise fair-minded observers against the group. In defense of the planners, it’s difficult to predict the life of a meme on the internet, and I’m sure the debacle that has unfolded, and the alienation experienced on both sides, was never their intention. (Though the resistance seems to have energized and organized the group.) We all live and learn. And after the abuse that these women have taken online, my instinct is just to give them all a hug.
About that abuse, most of which occurred on the Facebook event page that is currently inaccessible, I suppose the first thing to do is just to say it was entirely unjustifiable, uncharitable, unacceptable. Most of it was nasty, and some smaller fraction was truly horrifying misogyny. Please do not see what follows as any kind of excuse for the abuse. I condemn it. But I’ve also been thinking a lot about it. As for the plain old mean stuff, calling names and chastising or rhetorically excluding, what is it really about? (Because, together now, it’s NOT ABOUT THE PANTS!) It’s about the reproduction of culture, the transmission of existing cultural values and norms. It’s not surprising that lots of this came from women, because women have historically been active reproducers of culture: in children through teaching and nurture, and in men through the “domesticating” effects of marriage. It’s a commonplace that the fiercest enforcers of modesty norms, for instance, will be women. So the nastiness is largely an attempt, sometimes inept and mean but not surprising, to defend and transmit the culture that has made them. The good news is that as the culture changes, generationally and inevitably, women will embrace and reproduce that those changes with the same energy, transmitting them to their families and friends. The work that women to do reproduce culture is central to the stability of a community.
But what about the truly ugly misogyny, including sexual insults and intimations of violence coming from men? It’s inconceivable that one would hear this sort of ugly language in typical Mormon settings, and I know I’m not the only one who was astonished to hear it coming from men we might worship and socialize with. What can we possibly make of this? One interpretation that I’ve seen floated is the following: the ugliness exposes what is a mostly-concealed but always present virulent misogyny native to Mormonism patriarchy; the surprising strength of the resistance proves that the sexism is much worse than we thought, and thus the imperative to dismantle the social structure is that much more urgent. In other words, double down, sisters!
I think there’s some legitimacy to that response. But I think there’s another lesson to be learned, and perhaps a different conclusion to draw. It’s well known that virulent misogyny is disgustingly common on the internet. The cover of anonymity, which protects one’s real social status — that is, the temporary suspension of the social structures that usually keep our baser natures in check — allows gender hatred to erupt with shocking ugliness when a sexual provocation is sensed. Yes, men brawl with men online as women do with women, but the ugliest aggression occurs between women and men, and it’s depressingly common. Why is that so? The long-term incentives of men and women when it comes to sex and reproduction are different and sometimes seriously out of sync. We have the latent capacity to harm each other in so many ways: men can harm women with their physical strength and their control of resources; women can harm men by concealing or lying about paternity and by exercising influence over children and social networks. Stable, long-term, mutually beneficial relationships between men and women, whether in families or in societies, do not emerge spontaneously from our natures; when they occur at all, they are result of effort, commitment, and self-discipline.
On this view, there is a latent gender conflict always simmering in our natures; what is truly surprising is not the occasional eruptions of gender hatred but the fact that it erupts only occasionally. The fact that misogyny appears when normal social mores are suspended online suggests to me that cultural norms, rather than fostering misogyny, may actually work to control latent gender hostility. And the virulence of that conflict, when it does erupt, suggests what a complex and delicate task it is to align men’s and women’s interests, to get both groups to buy into a cooperative system when their incentives are so different. Patriarchy is far, far from perfect, but it has been a remarkably durable instrument for doing just that: getting men and women to work cooperatively to provide care and resources for one another and for their children, when there are a million reasons why they want to do otherwise. It needs to do better, it needs to adjust to drastic changes in the resources and incentives at play in modernity. But the difficulty of the task of getting men and women to work cooperatively — illustrated in all its ugliness in the misogyny on display today — suggests to me that we need to recycle and re-use as much as we can, and we need to be cautious and modest in our efforts. The price of deep structural social upheaval is so high, and it always falls on the most vulnerable, even when they are the ones (rightly) initiating the change.
Back to the pants. I won’t be wearing them Sunday, because I’m teaching Gospel Doctrine and I don’t want to shove a protest in people’s faces. But I will certainly give an arm-squeeze of acceptance and support to any women who are, and let them know that I’m glad they’re there. Then I will encourage them to join me in my own little cultural revolution. Raise your hand in Sunday School and comment with confidence, authority, and a mastery of the scriptures. Build a little social capital by sitting next to a high status member of the ward and getting to know them with genuine interest. Model inclusive dialogue in Relief Society. Start a conversation with a male member of the ward on a substantive topic, and if they mansplain just forge ahead with kindness and humor. Do it in pants, do it in a skirt, just do it.