My Feminist Beginning: The Joseph Smith Seminar

It has always intrigued me to hear about people’s “realization moments”–for it seems that, often, women and men come to understand feminism in a sudden moment in time when it became clear, or a series of common events that string together to form the sentence, “Something is not right here.”

I have these moments, and I’ve often thought how interesting it was that my first self-identifiable “feminist realizations” floated around in one single summer, the summer I studied at the Joseph Smith Seminar.

These moments stand out starkly in my memory–they still feel like moments when I first began to let myself realize something, something very important.  And I think they underscore and exhibit many problems we have with assumptions, how hegemonic they can be, and how difficult it is to live in a world where you do not fit those assumptions–you are essentially either ignored or mislabeled (misunderstood/without self-actualization).

Scene: Joseph Smith Graduate Student Seminar BBQ, Provo, UT.  It was the kick-off party to a summer of Mormon Studies scholarship and all the seminar participants were invited to come (and bring their families, if they had any) so we could all meet up in a casual setting.  It’s important for you to understand that I was one of the selected seminar participants, and I’m female.

Memory 1:

I walk into the small home of the Drs. Bushman and find a table with sticker name-tags and a bunch of markers.  As I’m writing my name, another (male) friend I had met at MHA that year and fellow seminar selectee who I will call Mike, also arrives at the sticker table.  We both put our name-tags on and chat a little about our summers.  As we turn around, we are greeted by a man and a woman with their accompanying infant.

It becomes obvious very quickly that they have assumed Mike and I are married, mostly because they keep asking questions about where we live and what he “does.”  I noticed that regardless of who was asking, all the questions are only directed at Mike.

Mike and I are obviously flummoxed as to how to extricate ourselves from an increasingly embarrassing situation, especially since we keep answering honestly and the hints aren’t being taken (“Well, I live in Boston and Mike lives in D.C.”   “Wooooowwwww, that must be really hard on your relationship.”)…so the assuming continues.  Within about ten seconds, Husband A has already pulled Mike to the side to ask him about what he wants to focus on during the seminar.  Wife A has similarly pulled me aside and asks me about what I’m planning to do with my day in Mike’s absence from home.

Memory 2:

As the BBQ continues, I notice that, while many of the male participants are approaching each other warmly and starting up conversations, no one approaches me or my fellow seminar and single female participant, Lynette.  We end up sitting together on a blanket outside.  When Dr. Bushman asks for everyone’s attention and points all the seminarians out one by one, I cannot help but notice some very surprised faces from men I had attempted to introduce myself to only a couple minutes earlier, but had been politely rebuffed.  My attempts at making conversation with them went something like this:

::approach person I know is a seminar participant from past eavesdropping::

::hold out hand::

“Hello!  My name is Apame and I overheard that you’re interested in the fundamentalist revivals?  Is that what you’re going to focus on this summer?”

::tight, awkward-looking smile::

“Yes.  Nice to meet you.  Oh, I need to go help my three year old get some food.  Goodbye.”

Memory 3:

Halfway through the seminar we are all invited to another BBQ at a BYU religion professor’s house.  As Lynnette, Mike, and I have become friends over the course of the seminar and since we are the only single seminarians, we arrange rides.  I end up riding to the BBQ with Mike because he has a car and I don’t.

When we arrive, Mike is greeted by the professor at the door and I’m simply told that his wife is in the kitchen–in a tone that would suggest helpful directions to a place I asked about going to…though I hadn’t said a word.

He seems to be waiting for me to hie to the kitchen…which is really awkward, since I was told the reason for this BBQ was for me to actually discuss my particular research with this man since my paper shared academic interests with his own.  I could have just outed myself right there, but to tell you the truth, I was confused and hurt, realizing that, once again, I had been assumed out of my actual role without any question.

So, I resignedly (and also because I had be well trained to never cause a stir–to embarrass someone else) wander into the warm and bustling kitchen, where I am promptly given a knife, a cutting board, and tomatoes.  Only women are helping in the kitchen while all men are talking in the living room or on the porch.  I note this fact–it is striking.

I feel sort of helpless since I don’t want to be rude by not helping with the food (I didn’t want these women to think that I was “above” the work or anything lame like that), but I also knew that my job at this BBQ was to talk Mormon History with this professor just like every single other seminarian was doing at that very moment.  By now, Lynette had arrived.  But she had not been directed to the kitchen, I suppose, because she had come by herself and had not been assumed to be Mike’s wife…again.

It wasn’t until the Drs. Bushman arrived that Claudia Bushman saw me cutting tomatoes and loudly exclaimed, “Apame!  What are you doing in there! You’re supposed to be talking to Professor ____!”  She took over my slicing and promptly bustled me out to the porch.  Again, there were more than a few surprised faces on both sides of the kitchen island that day.


In all three of these memories, I was very clearly assumed to be something that I wasn’t, without anyone thinking that I could possibly be anything otherwise. It wasn’t that I felt indignity or dismay at the thought of being “a wife” or not a scholar…it was the realization that I couldn’t have been anything else in the minds of most of those around me.  Even if I had been a wife, why couldn’t I have just as easily been the seminarian while my hypothetical husband supported me?  That was clearly not anywhere near anyone’s radar, and that was so very telling to me.

I would have to say that the Joseph Smith Seminar was the first time I began to see how I was so often assumed to be an “other” or someone’s attachment.  The JSS was the place I first became a feminist, not only because of the feminist scholarship and critical thinking I was exposed to in lectures, but even more because of the way I was treated by many of my very own peers and colleagues.


  1. This totally breaks my heart. Unfortunately, the world of Mormon academia at BYU, especially in religion and Mormon history, is surprisingly dominated by men. I would have hoped for better from your younger colleagues.

  2. I’m a single female law student and aspiring legal academic. Your Memory 3 really resonated with me. That sort of thing has happened to me at JRCLS events on more than one occasion. It’s maddening. Like you, I want to be polite and helpful in the kitchen because it’s the Christ-like thing to do and it takes a burden off of my hosts, but it does cut into my networking time.

  3. Why can’t men do “kitchen networking” in settings like this–professors and spouses alike preparing the food? Just sayin’. I am perpetually astounded by how behind-the-times Mormons can be.

  4. If I may, I’d like to share a positive story about how one woman I know dealt with this.

    This woman was a prominent investment banker who now operates a hedge fund with a famous LDS business academic. At a visit to BYU, one of the dean’s there ignored her. When she finally insisted that they meet, he asked her if she was the famous LDS guy’s assistant. She was stunned since she’d never experienced this kind of blatantly ignorant sexismher career outside of LDS circles.

    She went up to him later and privately confronted him about it, asking him why he thought she was his assistant. He was of course embarrassed and apologized. She used it as a teaching moment and noted that half of his students were women and that they lacked senior LDS women role models in business. He invited her to come to speak on campus. She was able to confront him in a constructive way that hopefully would change his behavior and lead to an opportunity for her to address BYU students.

    These kinds of confrontations have to be done very delicately, and sometimes it may be the case that it is more effective, for whatever reason, to not do them because the point has been made in other ways, but they can be a good way of helping people see how their behavior is hurtful and offensive.

  5. My feminism really took off when I got married and was automatically placed in the types of situations you describe. Even though my husband and I met in our MA program, after we got married, mutual friends from that program would just ask me about my husband’s work. Church became a bit of a nightmare–the unending questions about what my husband was studying, the surprise that not only was I still in school, but that I intended to go on for a PhD. Now that we’re both in PhD programs, Church gatherings are even more awkward. Nobody quite knows what to do with me, since the other couples segregate along student/spouse lines which coincide quite neatly with gender lines.
    It’s not just a church problem. During our MAs, my husband and I spent a summer at another institution, both taking classes, and the day we showed up to get our ID cards, the card office took care of his card, and then turned to help other students, even though I was standing in line right after him. They were utterly flummoxed when I asked for my card. Once we attended a conference together, and the organizers handed him his registration material–and then turned to the next person in line. It took several minutes of explaining until they realized that we were both presenting.
    It all just boggles (and enrages) the mind.

  6. My husband and I earned our BS and MS degrees from the same department at the same time, marrying a few semesters before the BS degree. I was already well known enough that being his wife wasn’t an issue.

    When we moved for my PhD, several people in the ward weren’t sure how to handle us, since I was the PhD student and my husband had not found a job yet. Two years later, I still don’t have friends my age in the ward, because they are all SAHMs with husbands in school. Their husbands, several of whom I’ve been a TA for, only have the briefest of conversations with me in church settings, and never started by them. But maybe this is all simply a reflection of my superior social skills.

  7. I had a similar experience to Keri at a JRCLS event (I almost considered never going to another one after my first), but then discovered something really awesome: I could be awkward and not know who to talk to (and of course the guys had no idea what to do or who I should talk to) OR I could take advantage of the fact that I could be friends with both the women AND the men and talk to everyone. So I do. And last year’s awkwardness where male students talk to male students and female students talk to…wives?? male students? is now gone. It helps that everyone is fairly young – no one is set in the “can only talk to men” or “can only talk to women” mode yet. But I completely sympathize with everything that’s been said – it can be so frustrating in these sorts of situations, where your academic or professional status is ignored because of your gender.

  8. Oh! Right after I submitted my comment I remembered my most interesting experience with being assumed to NOT be a student: last year the JRCLS at my law school hosted a dinner with a member of the 12 (I’m being purposefully vague but I’m pretty sure anyone can figure out what I’m talking about). I was assigned to sit next to said member of the 12, who looked at my name tag, and, because there’s another member of the JRCLS with the same last name as me, asked if I was so and so’s wife. I said no, I’m a student, and that the student and his wife weren’t attending the dinner. Our conversation after that went like this: “Are you married?” “No…” “Did you serve a mission?” “No…” “Oh.” After that we transitioned to discussing first year education, where we could find some common ground 🙂 I wasn’t offended and it was definitely an understandable mistake to make (two people with the same last name in a very small group of students) but the mistake probably wouldn’t have been made in the reverse.

  9. I don’t get the whole thing about women going in the kitchen. When DH and I were first married, he was the PhD student and I was the SAHM. But I prefer to discuss history and philosophy in the living room, and anyway, DH is better at chopping onions.

  10. Wow, that’s a horrible set of experiences! That would be enough to drive me straight into the arms of feminism, too.

    The JRCLS experiences wouldn’t happen in our chapter (Chicago). We meet in various law firms (not in homes with spouses), and there are no spouses, so if a woman comes it is assumed she is there in a professional capacity.

  11. This happens over and over and over, doesn’t it?

    Just last Sunday I found myself in the foyer with my infant, and a man in my ward I know by sight was also in the foyer with his infant. So we struck up a genial introductory conversation about our kids and how long we’ve lived here. He had just revealed his field of study when another man passing through the foyer evidently overheard the phrase “graduate school.” He turned to my conversational partner and started his own conversation, effectively shutting me out, presumably because I wouldn’t have anything to say on such a subject. (I’m guessing neither of them knows I’m painfully and perpetually in graduate school, rather at this point as a pig perpetually returns to her wallowing in the mire.)

    For whatever reason I was more amused than annoyed, partly I suppose because I’m getting old enough that an intense young man who takes himself very seriously and is on the verge of revolutionizing his field makes me laugh. I figure it will eventually get back to him that I’m a graduate student too, or it won’t, and he’ll see me differently, or (more likely) he won’t. (Or, even more likely, he’ll be afraid of me because I am.) Either way is fine with me. We can just talk about kids, or if we really have to dig, I guess there’s always that mission I departed for more than seventeen years ago. (One begins to see why women who are not married, have no kids, and didn’t serve missions are effectively incommunicado in such company. What oh what does one say to such a person? they almost visibly wonder.)

    But it’s a vexing, intractable problem that so many Mormon men can’t seem to view Mormon women as colleagues or as their intellectual equals. During my brief stint at BYU I found that my male professors were more supportive of my educational pursuits than professors at other universities have been–but some male students were suspicious and downright hostile.
    More than one assured me that his wife would never, under any circumstances, do the sort of thing that I was doing.

  12. UGH, Apame, I am so sorry. As a woman in computer science, I have been there time and again. I was at a conference because I had been invited to present my work. My dad was also at the conference. At one point I was chatting with my dad and saw The Big Wig in my research area, so I scurried over to introduce myself and try to make a networking connection. He recognized my dad and said hi to him, then turned to me and I excitedly introduced myself and said I was a student at [x] University. To which he responded, “Oh? What’s your major?”

    It was like a kick in the gut. I guess I should try to be more resilient, but it took forever to get over that moment. It is bad in my field in general, but the concentration of bad goes way, way, way up anytime Mormon men are involved.

    Sexism sucks. What sucks even more are the guys who have told me over the years that I’m so lucky because I have it so much easier than they do because everything is tilted *towards* my benefit in the field. Gahhh!!

  13. Wow, these anecdotes are so painfully familiar to me; I have had countless similar incidents over the last 24 years of my life.

  14. I experienced the problem a bit obliquely in the Summer Seminar–I went the year Claudia directed and it was on women’s history. There was a deliberate decision to include only women as participants and call them “Summer Sisters” instead of Fellows. I can understand some of the reasons for this but it was really unpleasant for me to see women reproduce the “separate spheres” in an academic setting. The reception of us 8 “Summer Sisters” was generally positive, but also sometimes just a bit too congratulatory, too effusive, as though it were freakishly anomalous to have 8 (count them, eight!) bright women working on these topics. (It may not have helped that 6 of us were blonde 😉

    The most galling thing to me was when we had a morning to spend with the guys who were doing the New Testament seminar at the same time–a special lecture on the women of the New Testament was prepared for us, even though no one was working on that topic, and the person who delivered the talk was clearly not an expert. (I almost walked out of the room when he said that Priscilla was “like an early Relief Society President). Because we couldn’t possibly just be interested in what they were doing…

  15. I have seldom had an experience anything like this with professional or academic Mormon historians. The notable exceptions are a retired academic who is basically a jerk toward everyone, acting as if he knows everything and no one else knows anything — no sexism there, just personal assholiness.

    The other is a lawyer who does history on the side. If any program committee ever schedules us to present in the same session again, I will insist on a change — *I*will*not*share*a*session*with*him*ever*again.*

    The first time, he was scheduled to give the second paper, but he reached the room before I did and plugged in his own PowerPoint equipment and flatly refused to remove it so that i could plug in my own slides. Short of a physical altercation, there was nothing for me to do but proceed without slides.

    The second time, he answered all questions during Q&A, even ones that were specifically directed to me or that directly referred to my topic, not his. He spoke louder and faster and acted like I wasn’t even in the room.

    With such a limited sample, I don’t know whether it’s sexism or one incredibly boorish, arrogant jerk who would treat a man whom he judged to be inferior in the same way. I know how it made me feel, though. Not sure what I would do if it were a pattern I faced in the way you do.

  16. I do want to defend Mormon men though. In my experience they do tend to put more distance between themselves and women and they do have more trouble seeing women as colleagues, at least initially (as in the examples given). But I really like most Mormon men and feel that once they become more familiar with their female colleagues, they are respectful, supportive, and always well-intentioned, more than the average person, male or female.

  17. That is true, E. But so much of the important interactions in academia are on the fringes or just outside our circles of acquaintances that I can’t excuse the problems there. Well-intentioned or not, men who can’t get it together in these areas do cause real harm to women.

  18. I’m not excusing anything, sister blah 2. You are right that the general awesomeness of Mormon men does not excuse this kind of behavior. But, admit it, every Mormon man who is reading this is making a commitment to himself that he will never do it again! Good intentions.

  19. This is depressing reading tonight, partly because I don’t have the spare energy it takes to muster a positive outlook about it. But at least now I understand better some of the ways my career went south before I chucked it all to be a SAHM.

    There is one bright spot however. ZD continues to add sparkle to my vocabulary, this time courtesy of Ardis. “Assholiness” — how apropos.

  20. Home teachers are, in my experience, the opportunity to bring this sort of exclusion and assumption right into your living room.

    Just a few weeks ago our home teachers were over. We were on the back porch for some reason and on the way back inside one of them spotted my rocket launcher> He asked my husband a few questions about it, while I awkwardly stood there not wanting to rudely insert myself into the conversation and feeling ignored.
    To my husband’s credit, in his mind launcher was so obviously mine that he didn’t feel the need to say “That’s Starfoxy’s. she built it.” When I pointed it out to my husband later that day, he agreed that they had assumed it was his, and his actions did nothing to counter that. Then he laughed because, of the things on the porch,- the rocket launcher is mine, and the flowers are his.
    I know it sounds petty, but the fact that my home teachers never once ask about me, my interests, my schooling, my life means that I don’t trust them. I can’t, because I know that they don’t know me. They’ve demonstrated that they have a habit of leaping to conclusions about me, about my place in the family, about my relationships. I don’t think I could bring myself to ask them for help if something went wrong in my life for fear that they would, again, leap to conclusions in ways that would continue to hurt and ignore me.

  21. Starfoxy,
    1–you built a rocket launcher. You are awesome.
    2–So I’m not the only one who feels that way about her home teachers! It’s not just me!

  22. I sort of get the impression from all the people in my various wards that they just don’t know what to do with me. First of all, I’m not married, and had no children until the last few years when I adopted my teenage son. Secondly, I’m an engineer and project manager, and that’s not a typically female job, particularly not for Mormon females. (I do know one other Mormon female engineer, though. She lives in the Caribbean at the moment.) Thirdly, I’m not particularly crafty and I’m an indifferent cook. I’m not so great at small talk.

    I hang out with guys all the time in my professional life, and in college and high school I was always friends with groups of mixed men and women. My best friend growing up was a guy. The absolute worst most torturous years of my life were 4th through 8th grade, when it was totally unacceptable to hang out with guys in school. I was forced into all girl groups, and they despised me and took joy in tormenting me.

    In Relief Society I feel as though I’m thought of as that lame sister who isn’t good at anything, and of course none of the men will talk to me. I’m totally a kickass engineer and can organize a job-site and get projects accomplished in no time flat. Kids like me, and I’m good with animals. But there just is no job the Mormon women do that I’m particularly skilled at, now that wrestling oxen across the plains and building houses and designing machinery isn’t called for so much anymore.

    I assigned myself the job of welcoming all visitors and new people in the ward, and making sure they feel someone cares about them. Other than that, and volunteering to do any work that needs doing, like washing dishes, deploying chairs and tables and putting them away, I just don’t have anything to do at any ward function, and I approach them as jobs I’m required to perform, rather than thinking of myself as an actual member. For me church is always an effort. I have to force myself to go, when I’m well enough. I feel like someone who is there as a janitor or something like that. I don’t anticipate being able to make any friends there ever.

    I’m fine with that, since I have friends aplenty from work and online, including lots of LDS friends I’ve made online, but it does seem like sexism is basically keeping me from being a real part of any of my wards so far. The total gender segregation at church is what does it, I believe. Guys don’t treat me as a person, and so the women don’t either. I don’t know what to do about it but what I’ve done which is give up on making any friends there.

  23. Just stumbled on your post – thought it was intriguing. I’m a happily married guy. I don’t know much about feminism, but my general impression is that “feminists” are strong, self-confident, self-assured women. So, why all the whining about and blaming “insensitive, boorish, uneducated, and/or unenlightened” men? or women? and their perceived insensitive comments?

    I could possibly trump some of you with the times I have been in situations where it was assumed I wanted to be in the other room with the guys watching a football game (ugh), discussing sports (more ugh), or playing sports (even more ugh), or going hunting, fishing, and on and on. I’d rather be in the kitchen cooking, or on the piano playing some nice music, if you’d like to know. How many times is it assumed I know anything about plumbing, electrical, construction, auto repair? What about the guy who is expected to fulfill some priesthood ordinance duty, but is currently working through some worthiness issues? Or how about the guy who is ‘expected’ to help with the ‘work’ in the church, but is unfairly judged because he doesn’t help with the chairs, tables, move-ins, etc. – did anybody check to see if he’s got a bad back or bum knee?

    The church/world is full of “insensitive” people, who really are well-meaning people in disguise, who just don’t know the whole picture. So, all self-confident, self-assured people step forward – and with kindness and compassion enlighten the other guy you assume is ignorant. I learned long ago assumption goes both directions.

    Good grief – if I was offended or hurt everytime someone said something “insensitive” to me…..I have much more important things to worry about. Like my testimony, my relationship with my wife and kids, and (very important) how I treat others.

    My favorite mantra: (attributed to Confucius, and Brigham Young) He who is offended when offense is not intended is a fool. He who is offended when offense is intended is a bigger fool.

  24. Perhaps these home teachers are taking their cues for how (not) to talk to women from the temple movie.

    HT 1 checks watch: Oh, yeah, we’re post-lapsarian now, what would be the point in addressing her? Ever since she made that special wise and wonderful choice that allowed humankind to exist and for which we all perpetually honor her by telling her what to do, she hasn’t said a word.

    HT 2: But even before that, when she could still talk, God wouldn’t talk to her. There must have been something dangerous about her even then.

    HT 1: Well, she’s not like the rest of us. She didn’t exist before this life. She was just made up on the spot to give him a hand. Oh, and have the kids. For which we perpetually honor her.

    HT 2: Well, I’m not really enthusiastic about having her here. This is a sacred special priesthood thing we’re doing. She might contaminate it.

    HT 1: Maybe if we ignore her long enough, she’ll leave.


  25. As much as I want to, I can’t understand why Starfoxy didn’t proudly and exuberantly inform her home teachers that the rocket launcher was hers and that she built it. That would have given them some valuable information about her and her interests, and unless these men are troglodytes I’m betting that they would have been completely at ease knowing the real situation and happy to know it. But instead we have stewing, brooding, offense and distrust when just a few words by the offended one could have changed the dynamic for good, not just on that occasion but on all occasions that follow.

  26. unless these men are troglodytes I’m betting that they would have been completely at ease knowing the real situation and happy to know it. But instead we have stewing, brooding, offense and distrust when just a few words by the offended one could have changed the dynamic for good, not just on that occasion but on all occasions that follow.

    Not in my experience. When I first got married, our new home teachers came over to introduce themselves and saw all my books. They turned to my husband and said, Wow, are you a philosophy major? How cool! I said, no, he’s not, I was, they’re mine. They were dumbstruck and embarrassed. They didn’t know what to say or how to deal with me, and they quickly changed the subject back to my husband and ignored me. It was as if I’d committed an embarrassing faux pas which they kindly overlooked.

    A few words can indeed change the dynamic for good. But I’ve learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, when they don’t think women are worth their attention or their respect, to be unpersuadable by any contrary data whatsoever.

    Think of it this way: if someone’s decided you have nothing to say, by definition there’s nothing you can say to persuade them otherwise.

  27. unless these men are troglodytes I’m betting that they would have been completely at ease knowing the real situation and happy to know it.

    I don’t know about completely at ease- happy to know it maybe, but I’ve had this conversation before, and they just could not believe it. Every lull in the conversation was punctuated by a “You really did that? You’re not just pulling my leg? Wow!” That sort of inability to process the information doesn’t say ‘completely at ease’ to me. That is of course when they don’t react the way ZD Eve described, I had that happen too.

  28. With all due respect, Mel, there are some differences between prejudice against men and prejudice against women. Yes, it is bad when we make assumptions or stereotype others based on gender. However, we need to remember that we live in a society in which, by in large, men have more power and authority. It is difficult for someone with less power and respect to speak up and enlighten someone in a position of more power. I am not arguing that we shouldn’t speak up, but that the situation is a bit more complicated that you assume.

    Beverly Daniel Tatum explains this issue within the context of racism in her book “Why are all the black kids sitting together?” She explains that yes, people are racist against all kinds of people including whites. However, by in large, white individuals have more power in our society and, there is a system of advantage based on race through which white individuals benefit the most. Because people of color have less power and respect, you can see how it would be harder for them to combat negative stereotypes against them.

    Imo, the examples given in the original post are more than examples of insensitivity, they demonstrate a systematic tendency to not take women or their interests seriously. You will notice from the examples, that even when the author told people that she was enrolled in the seminar, or attempted to talk to them about her academic interests, she was brushed aside. I don’t think that you would get this kind of reaction if you told a mixed gender group that you liked to cook or play the piano.

  29. Starfoxy, I do know about completely at ease, it wouldn’t bother me and I can’t see it bothering any of the men I know. “…if someone’s decided you have nothing to say, by definition there’s nothing you can say to persuade them otherwise.” applies to the hometeacher and the hometeachee, shouldn’t it?

  30. Then maybe all the men I’ve had as home teachers *are* troglodytes. But then that means all the men I’ve had as home teachers are troglodytes- so at least in my experience we have a serious troglodyte problem.

  31. Mel–Thank you for your comment. I really do agree that there can often be a thin line between legitimate issues and the tendancy to assume issues into situations because you’re “looking” for things that actually don’t exist. That really can happen, and I’m the first to admit how easy that can be.

    I also appreciate your comment as it points out one of many misunderstandings about feminism in that it is a movement that seeks to appreciate individual aptitude and aspirations for both women AND men, not only for women. It may be telling to you that, after reminiscing with “Mike” yesterday, he told me that in “Memory 3” he had actually asked if he could help in the kitchen and was told that “there was nothing to help with.”

    In a feminist paradigm, Mike wouldn’t have been assumed that he could not help in the kitchen, just as I shouldn’t have been assumed to belong there. Just as you shouldn’t be assumed to be a football fan. Just as you shouldn’t be assumed to have no interest in the culinary arts. It’s the assumption of role based on gender–either one–that was my feminist realization.

    From this point of view, I mainly wanted to get the point across that my first feminist realizations weren’t a “whiny” complaining of others’ unintentional assumptions–they were realizations at how pervasive and controlling cultural assumptions can be for both genders, in people who are generally well meaning. Sometimes, sexism from the kindest people can hurt the most because it reveals how entrenched and acceptable a hurtful and discriminatory idea has become.

    Finally, I think that one way to perform a litmus test on whether you are being “whiny” and whether you are truly experiencing a form of gender discrimination is to notice how often these things happen to you from a number of different people. Before the seminar, I thought sexism was just the relic of a bunch of jerk face mean people being jerk face mean people. However, the seminar showed me that sexism, at least in this Mormon Scholarship demographic, was so subconscious and pervasive that even kind and good people regularly fell into its traps in obviously consistent ways.

    Essentially, it was too much evidence for me to ignore anymore and too much evidence for me to simply brush aside as being rare or the sexism of “the few.”

  32. I also have to agree with Beatrice. Many people have told me (and some have repeated on this thread) that hurtful assumptions are simply small misunderstandings that could be easily averted by being up front and vocal.

    The problem, as Beatrice notes, is that many women (myself included) find this mandate to be more openly communicative a deeply difficult thing to do. I would say that it is even a psychological block when it comes to challenging gender stereotypes especially in church related settings.

    Furthermore, as Eve points out, it doesn’t do you a lick of good to be vocal if the people listening refuse to be open to the very possibility that you aren’t what they think you should be.

    In these comments, I get the feeling that people say, “Well, if you speak up, things would get fixed,” as if the silence is the problem.

    I would counter that, no, the silence of women in these situations is actually the symptom.

  33. This thread is full of Privilege-Denying Dudes! You women couldn’t possibly be having the experience you think you’re having! I, Privilege-Denying Dude, will tell you what you are experiencing, because I am so very objective and rational.


    Speaking up doesn’t usually help in these types of situations. It’s probably just a totally random coincidence, but men who hold these problematic assumptions about women are often very, very sensitive to being corrected by women even in the nicest possible way, and tend to think that confident, outspoken women are shrill, angry b*tches, and to treat them badly in future situations because of it. So it’s not like speaking up is some great solution.

    But more importantly, it’s not just about having unpleasant experiences and bruised feeeeeeelings. It’s because this kind of behavior is a peek behind the curtain, into how little certain men know about women and the inaccurate assumptions that they hold. If they act this way in person, who knows what they do when women aren’t around. And speaking up might help if one happens to be present, but what about all the decisions that are made without women around? Especially in the professional context, it’s extremely troubling. And in the context of a religious community that is supposed to be mutually supportive and nurturing, it might be nice not to have to start every interaction by debunking stereotypes, and instead to be taken seriously and given the benefit of the doubt as to education, aptitudes, and interests.

  34. I do find a hard time speaking up in church and family settings. My husband and I both got our Ph.D.s at the same time, but most conversations centered around my husband’s schooling when we were in school, and his job now that we have graduated. This happened over and over and over again. I had a difficult time knowing how to navigate these social situations without sounding like a shameless self-promoter. For example, if someone was asking my husband what he was doing, I didn’t want to jump in and say, “Well I also got a Ph.D. and I am currently blah, blah, blah…” Sometimes I put in the effort to tactfully speak up, but sometimes I am just caught off guard or too discouraged to figure out a good way to interject.

    This is especially difficult in church settings because if I interject with comments about my career goals all the time, I can come across as someone who is more focused on my career than my family. Recently I have been applying for jobs and have been really excited about working again. Since I am so excited, I tend to talk to other people at church about it when they ask what is new in my life. Some people respond positively, but some people act kind of surprised and ask, “but what about your son?” I understand why they respond this way, but it is hard for me to balance how I should talk about myself and my life while navigating other people’s expectations and assumptions about me.

  35. z, I wasn’t going to comment again but since I’m probably one of the privilege denying dudes you are so fond of…

    Did I ever say anyone could not possibly have the experience they have related? I’m not going to deny anyone the privilege of owning their own experiences. But I spoke up for one specific reason, the OP is about men making wrong assumptions about people because they are women. I found it troubling that some respondents to that post in turn had made their own wrong assumptions about people merely because they are men. And I offered my take on that situation not because as a man my experience automatically trumps a woman’s, but because I hoped it would illustrate that my take and another’s take on the same situation are both anecdotal and both shaky ground for extrapolating intentions and character.

    No, speaking up will not solve all problems but speaking up is a way to find out if your assumptions are right or merely your own prejudices rearing their heads. How does one know for a fact that his home teacher is not trustworthy because they didn’t ask you but asked your husband about a rocket launcher on the porch? I suppose that assuming the worst about someone who is actually making time to fulfill a church responsibility is one approach but I’m not convinced it is the best for the rocket launcher maker, for the home teacher or for their relationship.

  36. Wow, this brings back memories. I remember only one woman in my cohort. And I was definitely guilty of befriending just the fellow guys. But I do remember my astonishment at meeting Claudia. If my exposure up to that point to Mormon feminists had been limited to the Smith Institute, then I was in for quite a surprise. I just wish the egalitarian example of the Drs. Bushman had rubbed off on more of us men, both then and since. But in my experience, so many Mormon male academics find it necessary to marry a homemaker so that they can devote their time to extremely long hours of scholarly pursuits.

    I appreciated Starfoxy’s story. I always deliberately split my time as a hometeacher between talking to the husband and wife. I can’t imagine treating one or the other like their views aren’t worth considering or that their experiences aren’t worth discussing.

  37. While I was not a participant in the summer seminar that year, I was in attendance at the BBQ at the unnamed BYU professor’s home. And for what it’s worth, Apame, one of the only things I remember from that evening was being introduced to you (and Lynette), and hearing about each of your respective academic backgrounds and research interests, and thinking you each had selected fascinating and important topics for the seminar. It was good for me to read your account of that evening, though, and I want to offer my apologies for not doing a better job of getting to know you and letting you know how interested I was in your scholarly pursuits. The loss was entirely mine, I’m afraid, and your post serves as a useful reminder to me to strive to be aware of my own subconscious gendering in these sort of settings.

  38. Hey Chris! I do remember you, actually, and I thank you so much for the conversation we had. Perhaps some of my recollections (as is often the case with memories) have been skewed toward the general feeling I had that night, but I do remember having wonderful conversations with Richard Bushman, Terryl Givens, Claudia Bushman, and a few other people closer to my age.

    It therefore seemed so odd to try and approach other men who I knew would be my colleagues and get the feeling that they didn’t think I was really qualified to strike up an academic conversation with them and/or not qualified to even approach me in the first place.

    I think you and the people I knew at the seminar who were so kind and accepting know how odd an idea that is.

    I deeply appreciate your comment and want you to know, along with many other people who were there, that at the time all these memories left me feeling mostly confused and uncertain as to how I should react rather than righteously indignant. Any feelings of deep hurt I may have about them came later as I began to see more and more examples of discrimination in my academic/spiritual/personal/everything life and connected them back to my time at the seminar.

  39. Ardis: Thanks for your comment. It made me laugh–not because the situation was funny…but its absurdity kind of was. 😉

    It got me thinking about our different experiences and I was trying to pin down why they are so divergent (minus jerkiness of man in that one conference panel).

    I’ve thought that maybe it’s because I look really young–like really, really young. I’m often assumed to be 18 years old, even though I’m 26.

    I also thought that maybe its because most of your experiences within this demographic have been in more professional settings–where people already knew who you were because you had a presenter’s name tag, or because you were clearly doing research in an archive when they first meet you. However, in the particular memories I laid out above, the setting was very casual and with a “family-social” appeal. I highly doubt any of these memories would have occurred if my first interaction with those in these stories had been in a conference or in a classroom.

    I don’t think I’ve ever felt “assumed away” (as I like to put it) when I’ve been introduced in a clearly professional/official setting–indeed, I’ve often felt very respected (though, as Kristine notes, I’ve sometimes felt a little too respected, almost as if I was an anomaly being female and being in scholarship). It has only been in these button-down, casual encounters that I’ve been assumed into my traditional gender role, over and over and over.

    I also think that most of these memories show how I was much more decisively assumed to be something I wasn’t when people thought I was married. I think it’s a lot easier for my Mormon scholar peers to see me as an intellectual equal if they first assume I’m single…

    Just some thoughts.

    Regardless of these ideas though, the assumption that I could only be one thing and never possibly anything else is still demeaning–and very difficult to combat in the moment. When you’re facing people who seem so VERY sure they know exactly who you are, you start to wonder how it could be possible for your weirdness to even exist. 😉

  40. Beatrice: I think we are the same person.

    LOL, I really appreciated your post. I guess the next question is other than trying to speak up, what can be done to address the underlying problem instead of just the symptoms of the problem.

  41. I find this really fascinating, in part because I’ve almost never experienced even mild discrimination like this, from Mormon men or otherwise, although of course I’m not doubting the experiences of those who have. It’s actually been a fact for me more generally that my feminism has been much more based on my perceptions of injustices against others rather than injustices against myself, since my own life has been almost blissfully free of prejudice against me.

    I wonder sometimes why I don’t have a catalogue of these experiences like everyone else does–I’ve certainly been an ambitious and scholarly Mormon woman, and I’ve certainly been in environments like the parties described. I’ve always assumed it’s because I’m not pretty enough, which I think probably raises a host of feminist issues all on its own.

  42. I wonder sometimes why I don’t have a catalogue of these experiences like everyone else does . . . I’ve always assumed it’s because I’m not pretty enough, which I think probably raises a host of feminist issues all on its own.

    While I would like to believe that my feminist run-ins are proportionate with my dazzling beauty, I think it’s more an issue of the difference between our personalities.

    You’re much more straightforward than I am and much more . . . is there a positive form of “confrontational”? Maybe, “ready to debate”? Regardless, that makes you harder to dismiss and more likely to speak up in a circumstance in which you were at risk of being dismissed or passed over.

    Also, I think you’d be less likely to pay attention to subtle slights than I am. One of the maddening things about being in a sexist environment (or any prejudiced environment) is the large number of interactions which seem vaguely sexist but for which you don’t have enough information to be sure. (I.e., the first time you’re passed over for something in favor of a less qualified male candidate, you can’t really be sure why. The fifth or sixth time it happens, in different circumstances and with different people, you start to be aware that something is going on, but you still can’t pin down which of the situations or how much of each individual situation was due to sexism.) Anyway, I think you’d be less likely to pay attention to that sort of situation than I would, although I can’t say if you genuinely don’t notice them, or if you just don’t feel that you have enough hard data to conclude that sexism is at fault.

  43. Yup, I agree. I think what I really mean by “not pretty enough,” if I analyze it, is more like what you’ve described above. It’s harder to perceive me as a nice little Mormon girl in the first place, and I’m quick to correct anyone who tries, so I don’t think I encounter as many of these subtle slights. Or, as you suggest, they’re happening and I’m just not noticing them, or blaming it on other circumstances of the individual situation.

    This is hard to tease out, though, because I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that everyone else on this thread does look like a “nice little Mormon girl,” or is too afraid to speak up, or is not, as you put it, “ready to debate.” Maybe I’ll just attribute it to my own failure to connect some sexist dots:)

  44. Oh no. You’re onto something because I’m actually drop dead gorgeous. Like, seriously, it’s almost unfair to everyone else in the world.

    Okay, so not really.

    But I do think that it’s easy to perceive me as “a nice Mormon girl” what with my affinity to J-crew cardigans and an almost debilitating fear of confrontation–but I’m working on that.

  45. This is hard to tease out, though, because I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that everyone else on this thread does look like a “nice little Mormon girl,” or is too afraid to speak up, or is not, as you put it, “ready to debate.”

    Right. But perhaps we can agree that you’re on the skinny end of some bell curve and that those nearer the middle will have more problems. (Plus, you’re not suggesting that the solution to this problem is for us to just become more like you.)

  46. Having been a linguist for more than 20 years, and enjoying the accompanying cultural studies that come with that, I know that there are few countries in this world where it is acceptable to ask about someone’s profession in casual conversation. It’s just plain rude.

    We do it in the United States all the time. In fact, I think it is one of the top 2 questions we ask when meeting someone: What is your name? What do you do?

    The response to question #2 will give us all of the information we need in order to know how we compare to this person. It tells us how much schooling someone has had, approximately how much money they make, what their lifestyle is like, what their IQ is (real or perceived), how they spend their work day and much more.

    I wonder if men ask each other these questions, and don’t ask women typically, because they are doing a primal “who’s the king of the hill” type of thing. Hmmm.

    At any rate, I hate moving into a new area just because I dread the home teacher visit when they talk to my husband about all of his interests, work, sports, etc. while I try to figure out a way to let them know that I’m in the room and that I am a human being as well.

    Just last week I wrote a note to a man in our ward to thank him for his recent kindness and friendship. I told him that he is the only man in the ward (I’ve lived in for 16 years) who has had a ACTUAL conversation with me and really wanted to hear my opinions. He let me know that this is probably because all the men in the ward are “intimidated as hell” by me.

    What are you thoughts about intelligent, opinionated women being intimidating to men. Could this also be a cause of the problem as my friend suggests? Or is it like some posters have said that they just don’t care about us?


  47. bones, people have told me the same thing–that men find intelligent, well-educated women intimidating. I am a university professor, but I am often tempted when meeting ward members for the first time to tell them simply that I teach. It is probably self-demeaning to be hesitant to share about myself, but often it is easier than having the subsequent awkward conversations about my specialty (medieval literature, i.e. the apostate Dark Ages to Mormons) and about my marital status (single, i.e. selfish professional woman to Mormons).

    I think it is human nature to reject things, people, and situation that are different, because different could be dangerous. One of my goals as an educator is to help my students realize how important it is to engage with the Other to grow.

  48. Petra,
    re: personality or prettiness or directness, etc.

    I have had similar discussions on topics where everybody concerned is seeing a trend while I could’t recall any examples in my own experience.

    For example, diverse bloggers reporting cliques and exclusivity in their wards. Having never noticed an “in group” or “out group”, I now accept that I’m oblivious to social dynamics, and am probably always “out.”

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