Why All Mormon Women Should Wear Pants to Church

pantsuits

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All groups have their idiosyncrasies.  Mormons are no different, although there are days when I suspect we have more than our fair share of quirks.

Today’s little bundle of weirdness:  A cultural ban on women wearing pants to church.  You have to love a church in which the sight of a woman wearing dress pants in 2011 is controversial.

I haven’t settled on an explanation for this, although my list of possibilities is short: a) a mindless slavishness to past dress standards (think the 1950’s), b) an inability to either recognize the socially-defined nature of dress standards or to accept that social norms—including dress standards—evolve over time, c) a desire to keep uppity women from being able to sit in any other position but with their legs demurely crossed, or d) a desire to simply ignore everything around us and keep doing what everyone else in our tiny church bubble is doing (and avoid rocking the proverbial boat).

I suspect it’s a combination all four.  Here are a few quick observations:

1)  Society defines what kind of clothing should be worn to show reverence, respect and deference.  The Mormon Church, contrary to the beliefs of some members, is not in charge of these standards.  Sure, the church can dictate that its members wear purple polka-dotted underwear, but that’s not going to change societal norms.  We’re only 2% of the population (and that’s counting all the folks that never show up).  Hence, society has, in its infinite and mysterious wisdom, decreed that men shall, in formal settings, wears neck ties.  I’m sure ties have a rich and glorious history—although I’m not familiar with it.  It’s seems odd for me to tie what appears to be a large phallic symbol around my neck on Sunday morning to show reverence and respect, but what the hell, right?  That’s what’s done.

2)  Society—today’s society, not 1950—has defined what women should wear to show reverence and respect.  Hint: It’s not a denim skirt and flip flops.  It’s not a Laura Ashley floral print dress with an appropriately modest cut and sleeves.  It includes. . .  (and I’m whispering here) conservative pants and other similar attire.  Here’s a handy link to a few pantsuits on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/b?ie=UTF8&node=1045108.  Before you pat me on the head and explain that the Church sets its own standards and we shouldn’t pay attention to what “the world” tells us, I’ll let you explain why there is such a convenient correlation between how men dress professionally “in the world” and how they dress at church.  I notice that the dress norms that apply to men have evolved in lock stop with societal norms, so why hasn’t the same happened to women’s dress norms?

3)  If you’re a woman and you don’t believe that social dress norms have evolved, go to your next job interview in a dress.  Let me know how it goes.

4)  If you’re a woman and a professional of ANY type (really, about ANY type), would you wear a dress to work?

5)  Many women volunteer in the primary (where the chairs are pint-sized) or in the nursery (where they spend much of their time seated on the floor).  I’ll bet you a pair of Super Bowl tickets that if you put all the men in the Church in skirts and sent them to the primary or the nursery for 10 minutes, the norms against women wearing pants would disappear before they could say “kilt.”

6)  Can you show respect and reverence by wearing a dress?  Sure.  Can you show respect and reverence (and keep from flashing all the six-year-old boys in primary) by wearing dress pants?  Absolutely.  If you are a woman and you understand this, then why would you continue to restrict your attire to dresses only?  Is it because you care more about what other people think than you should?

7)  Much has been written in the academic literature on social norms about control freaks, OCD types, busybodies, mother hens, gossips, etc.  Whatever the term, these are the folks that seem to take delight in communicating how “things are done” and then sanctioning those that don’t play along.  These are the folks that seem to get their underwear in a wad every time someone deviates from the norm—regardless of how silly the norm may be.  The people that were purported to play these roles always seemed like caricatures to me—and I didn’t really believe they existed.  Surely people have better things to do with their lives than enforce mindless rules they can’t provide a reasonable explanation for enforcing?  Nope.  These folks are real.  I meet more than one everyone Sunday morning at church.  Do you really want to be one of these folks?

8)  For those of you that are into mindless rule following, here’s a quote from the first presidency on the matter: “The Church has not attempted to indicate just how long women’s or girls’ dresses should be nor whether they should wear pant suits or other types of clothing.  We have always counseled our members to be modest in their dress, maintaining such standards in connection therewith as would not be embarrassing to themselves and to their relatives, friends, and associates.” This quote is from a directive entitled “Dear Brethren” and dated April 12, 1971.  It is taken from a book entitled “Statements of the LDS First Presidency: A Topical Compendium” by Gary James Bergera (with a foreword by Dale C LeCheminant).  ISBN-13: 978-1-56085-195-0.

9)  The church handbook does not prohibit pants.  A search on the church web site doesn’t return anything useful.  ”For the Strength of Youth” doesn’t mention it.  The norm makes no sense in terms of modesty (actually, the dictates of modesty tilt things in favor of pants).  The norms make no sense in terms of social norms (social norms dictate that dress pants would be more appropriate, in many cases, than what many women wear).  Unless we intend to dig a hole in the ground and live in it, sooner or later we’ve going to have move into the 21st century.

10)  Aren’t adult women capable of choosing how to dress?  Can we trust adult women with the task of deciding what constitutes modest dress that communicates reverence and respect and is appropriate for Sunday worship?  We let women get driver’s licenses.  We let them vote.  Can we men in the church let them dress themselves?

Anyone else have any thoughts here?

P.S. My wife wears dress pants to church.

*****

UPDATE: This post was also posted on another blog (http://www.dovesandserpents.org).  Here is a link: http://www.dovesandserpents.org/wp/2011/01/why-all-mormon-women-should-wear-pants-to-church/.  Some very smart people commented on the post and a lively discussion ensued.  As a result of that discussion (and others), I’ve reached the following conclusions:

1) The Mormon church is one of the few places where traditional stay-at-home mothering is the norm and where it is both encouraged and rewarded.  It is one of the few places where stay-at-home mothers are validated.  It is one of the few places where the difficulties and sacrifices of mothering are assuaged by religious doctrine and the assurance that one’s life choices are in compliance with the wishes of a wise and benevolent diety.

2) Cultural norms against wearing pants serve a purpose.  These norms contribute to the continued differentiation of gender roles within the church and serve to reinforce the primacy of women’s roles as mothers and helpmeets.

3) Unfortunately, wearing pants often produces a defensive (and often negative) reaction from the women who, either consciously or unconsciously, have internalized (and may have structured their lives around) the existing normative and cultural structure of the Church.  For these women, pants seem unsettling because this type of clothing symbolizes the cultural shift that has occurred in broader society over the past 50 years that has, in many ways, blurred traditional gender markers and both deligitimated and devalued the traditional roles of wife and mother.

4) In social groups the process of validation and the maintenance of cultural norms are often zero sum games that require lines of demarcation and negation.  In other words, the Church may not be culturally capable of validating both the traditional roles of wife and mother and simultaneously making normative and cultural room for different lifestyle choices.  To make room for one is to diminish the other.  Validation requires differentiation and exclusion.  The “in” crowd is defined by the existence of an “out” crowd.  If there are no unpopular kids, then there are no popular kids.

5) The Church’s silence, or at least ambiguous stance, on this issue is understandable.  It is in the best interests of the Church, considered as an institution, to be as many things to as many people as possible.  It makes no sense to clarify, for example, that pants are acceptable Church attire if such a declaration would do more damage than good (in terms of diminished normative or cultural value for women committed to the traditional roles of wife and mother).  The smart thing to do, unfortunately, is to allow these issues to be negotiated locally (and largely through majority-wins processes).

That, in short, is why there is currently a fairly uniform cultural ban on women wearing pants to Church.  What to do about it is an entirely different question.

*****

About the author

Brent D. Beal is an associate professor of management in the College of Business and Technology at the University of Texas at Tyler. In his spare time, he enjoys debating religious and political issues, reading and writing short stories, playing Scrabble, and hanging out with his wife and their three kids.

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