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4 November 2009

i remember the day i proclaimed to my history class at BYU that i was a feminist.  i was 23 years old.  i had just done a group presentation about the women’s rights movement.  i covered the question of abortion rights, since it would be incredibly ill-informed to explore the women’s rights movement without talking about abortion rights and no one else was willing to do it.  i was alone in my proclamation.

the entire experience of that presentation was a little surreal.  it was a cold war history course.  one of the biggest assignments was to participate in a group presentation on the various civil rights movements of the 60s (and the moral majority movement of the 80s).  i naturally chose to cover the women’s movement.  our presentation was to last 40 minutes.  we were supposed to make it multimedia, to dress our part, to decorate our classroom, etc.  so we did the following:

  • a video-taped sketch of a woman experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace
  • another video sketch of a protest for women’s rights
  • each of us painted protest signs covering our aspect of the movement
  • in-depth research and oral presentation of our findings
we gathered on campus one saturday afternoon to film our sketches and make our decorations for our classroom.  doing my part, i painted a sign that read “it’s my body! abortion on demand.”  and then we proceeded to the cafeteria to stage our mock protest.  i innocently leaned my sign face out so i wouldn’t get wet paint on the wall, not thinking at all about how people would react to seeing it.  we decided to move on to a quieter part of the student center so we wouldn’t disturb the few people present.  we did so and began filming for our protest video, only to be interrupted by an irate woman who screamed at us about how she couldn’t believe that we would do such a thing on BYU’s campus, that she was going to send her children there and would not tolerate such sentiments which obviously went contrary to church teachings, that what we were doing was immoral and illegal and that she had called the police.  one of the members of my group quietly explained that we were simply doing a homework assignment, which sadly did little to placate this woman.  apparently she didn’t fancy the idea of us even learning about protests for abortion rights any more than she fancied the idea of us actually protesting for them.  the police did come and we explained ourselves and then the police left.  the next week we were written up in the daily universe‘s infamous police beat.
after that experience, i realized i better really know my stuff about abortion before presenting the issue in class.  so i did my research–hours spent in the library and media center reading and watching documentaries.  i learned a lot doing my research; here’s a sample of the more interesting points:
  • prior to legalization, botched abortions accounted for thousands of deaths per annum, comprising close to 50% of the maternal mortality rate;
  • abortion has a long history: the earliest recorded evidence of an abortion dated to something like 1500 b.c.e.
  • it was only in the 1880s that the catholic church came down hard against all abortion (prior to that it was generally acceptable for a catholic woman to abort a fetus in the first trimester and later term abortions were not deemed as serious as murder)
  • one of my roommate’s mothers recalled one of her roommates being advised to attempt to induce a miscarriage by a doctor in the BYU health center
armed with this knowledge and other similar facts, i was fired up to make my case.  in class, i stood on the table, dressed like a hippy, with props at my feet–a bottle of bleach, a wire hanger, etc.–,which represented the methods of back-alley and self-induced abortions.  from that tabletop, i delivered a rally speech regarding the right to abortion, every bit as impassioned as the original protesters for the right.  you see, i had become so persuaded by the evidence i had gained that i had moved from being intellectually pro-choice to being adamantly pro-choice (a stance i maintain).
at the end of the hour, my group and i resumed our seats in the classroom and our professor took over.  he asked the class who among us would call ourselves feminists.  i was the only one to raise my hand.  i did so immediately, with no hesitation.  i remember being slightly shocked that i was the only one out of fifty students willing to claim “feminist” as a self-descriptor.
a few days later, another group presented on the moral majority.  their presentation naturally included a pro-life segment, since anti-abortion sentiment was a primary fueling force in the moral majority.  they ended their presentation by holding a press-conference where the rest of the class acted as the press.  armed with all of my stats about abortion and the horrible consequences of its illegality, i hammered the woman who had covered the pro-life movement.  relentlessly.  i called her out on her hypocrisy when it came to valuing the lives of unborn fetuses over the lives of very alive women, women who may have other children or family members dependent on them.  i threw statistics at her about the numbers of women who died annually, the lengthy history of abortion, and its dubious status as “murder.”  i thoroughly enjoyed giving her hell.  and watching her squirm as she had no answers for my questions.  (i really shouldn’t relish making other people squirm, but sometimes i do.)
it was an interesting class for many reasons, but i’ll remember it for what i learned about the women’s movement, abortion, and the culture of my church.  i was honestly surprised that not one other person in that room would identify as feminist.  i knew that feminism had something of a bad rap in the church, but i also felt very strongly that christ’s gospel supported the objectives of feminism, as did many of the church’s teachings.  it was hard for me to realize that i was so alone in my stance on women’s issues in the church.
that realization remains a hard thing.  today i learned that BYU is closing its women’s research institute at the end of the year.  and that makes me sad.  because it again underscores that my church and my culture do not value women’s issues as fully as they claim to; that all of the rhetoric about women’s equality and value is just that–rhetoric.  the realities don’t really support the rhetoric.  mormon women remain second-class citizens and will for a long time, i’m afraid.
when the day comes that the majority of a history class at BYU identifies easily as feminist, or, even better, that the question doesn’t even have to be asked because the affirmative answer is taken for granted–then i may believe that the church values women equally to men.  when we can talk openly of and pray to both of our heavenly parents–then i may believe that the church values women equally to men.  when my worthiness is not questioned because i believe in the radical equality of all of god’s children–then i may believe that the church values women equally to men.  but right now i’m afraid i do not believe that the church values women equally to men.

if you’d like to voice your opinion about the closure of the women’s research institute, there are some great suggestions at the exponent blog.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 November 2009 11:55 pm

    Hi Amy!Jessica and I were discussing the news about BYU closing its program on women's studies, and she showed me your blog. Thanks for sharing this. I agree, it is unfortunate that the Church is the way it is on this issue.One quick comment: If you're looking forward to the day when Heavenly Mother will be openly discussed, you might be setting yourself up for disappointment. Compare the recently updated 2009 version of the Gospel Principles manual to the previous version, and you'll notice that the concept of "heavenly parents" and a mother in heaven has been completely removed by the Church.Charles Hicks

  2. 18 November 2009 2:39 pm

    the church isn't the one closing the women's research institute. you may want to be careful in distinguishing between the church and byu. just an idea.

  3. 18 November 2009 6:49 pm

    anonymous–i know very well the distinction between the church and byu. i also know that the church owns and runs byu, that the board of trustees is comprised primarily of general authorities, etc. they are so interconnected that to make a sharp distinction is simply naive. and the women's research institute aside, it is the church, its organization, and its teachings that generate the culture that would lead to the kind of sexism i address in this the way, you can post your name. all you have to do is select name/URL when it prompts you to "comment as"; or maybe you don't have the courage to use your own name when criticizing others?

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