Mormon 'Pants Day' — debate heats up as women prepare to dress down
Sunday best • Debate heats up as feminists urge Mormon women to dress down for 'Wear Pants to Church Day.'
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Mormon feminists planning this Sunday's "Wear Pants to Church Day" could point to an unlikely ally: Brigham Young.

In the early 1850s, the LDS prophet came up with a "Deseret Costume" for women that included pantalets, or "bloomers," worn under a long tunic, with an eight-inch top hat. Young conceived this outfit as both practical — it used less material and was more durable than fine dresses — and distinctive for Mormon women.

It didn't catch on, however. The women thought the costume was hideous and, well, too masculine.

That's precisely the point for those modern Mormon women who see the skirts-only convention at LDS chapels to be evidence of outdated and discouraging stereotypes. So they proposed the "Wear Pants to Church Day" and posted an announcement on Facebook.

The event is intended as the first act of All Enlist, a group dedicated to gender equality in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"We do not seek to eradicate the differences between women and men, but we do want the LDS Church to acknowledge the similarities," the group's mission statement says. "We believe that much of the cultural, structural, and even doctrinal inequality that persists in the LDS Church today stems from the church's reliance on — and enforcement of — rigid gender roles that bear no relationship to reality."

Within hours, the page had hundreds of commitments to participate, and even more hostile comments. Critics questioned the organizers' motives, their spirituality, their loyalty to the faith. A second group posted its own, opposing event: "Wear Skirts to Church Day."

Mormon writer Holly Welker dubbed the online hysteria over Sunday attire as the "pantspocalypse" or "trousermageddon."

To many women, however, the clash was no laughing matter.

"The vitriol we've heard this week exposes a particularly wide divide in the church," Andrea Radke-Moss, a historian who teaches at Brigham Young University-Idaho, writes at juvenileinstructor.org, "between those who see absolutely no gender inequality whatsoever, and seek to categorize anyone who suggests otherwise as some kind of apostate, and those on the other hand who see the church as an unabashedly sexist organization that is beyond any hope for gendered progress."

The truth, Radke-Moss suggests, must lie somewhere in between.

Organizers of "Pants Day" had hoped for a more civil dialogue about the issue.

The idea came to Stephanie Lauritzen when she was on the phone with her sister, while perusing sales racks at Target. She wondered aloud what simple act could bring attention to the LDS Church's gender inequality.

"I wanted to do something that would be a sign of solidarity and visibility for those Mormon women who don't feel included or accepted in the church," Lauritzen says. "We thought it would be a sign of sisterhood to wear pants to church one day, to show other women that Mormon feminists are here [at services]."

Lauritzen and other "Pants Day" organizers did not see their plan as a protest, rally or political statement, but merely an attempt to "make the church better."

The 26-year-old mother from Murray personally knows the pain of feminism. Even as a lifelong Mormon, Lauritzen felt she didn't conform to her church's roles. That dissonance prompted her to stop attending for a while. She is back, she says, but wants to raise awareness about issues many LDS women face.

"Jesus bent and broke cultural norms to show people how to love one another better," she says. "Nobody's planning on standing up and breaking up a meeting or making big declarations. We just want to show that we are here to love our brothers and sisters who are struggling with gender inequality."

The pants movement is an important step forward for the Utah-based church, says Joanna Brooks, an LDS writer and professor at San Diego State University.

"Mormon feminism has been gaining strength for 20 years in quiet places online, building relationships and talking about issues, but it has not found that same community at church," says Brooks, author of the popular memoir Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith.

"The goal now is to help make it more visible to those who love the church but carry a weight on their hearts about gender issues," she says. "For so long women have felt they had to be silent at church to be safe. This is the end of that silence."

Many feminists, though, have been surprised by the intensity and fury of the opposition.

A few critics have told Tresa Edmunds, a Mormon writer and activist in Modesto, Calif., that "Pants Day" supporters "should just leave the church, get out."

Such opponents "have deeply internalized all these church messages as the only appropriate way to be a Mormon woman," says Edmunds, on the board of WAVE (Women Advocating for Voice and Equality). A simple act like wearing pants "rattles the windows of the house they've built for themselves."

To be sure, Mormons, like those of many religions, wear all kinds clothes to worship services. Some women don delightful dresses while others — especially new converts — opt for nice jeans. And attire can vary greatly around the globe. Still, LDS leaders expect members to dress up, not down, for Sunday meetings.

"Attending church is about worship and learning to be followers of Jesus Christ," LDS spokesman Scott Trotter said this week in a statement. "Generally church members are encouraged to wear their best clothing as a sign of respect for the Savior, but we don't counsel people beyond that."

Mormon convert Jana Riess has been wearing dress pants to her Mormon services ever since she was baptized into the faith years ago.

"My friends from other faith traditions can't believe this is an issue in the 21st century," says Riess, who has served in LDS leadership positions in her Cincinnati congregation. "Our church is unique in emphasizing more formal dress for men and women. [Mormons] don't have a cultural understanding that an elegant pair of slacks can be just as dressy as any skirt."

The rest of society — and even LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University — gave up expecting women to wear only skirts or dresses in public decades ago. It is now a more relaxed atmosphere everywhere, Riess says, including most churches.

In a 2011 blog post, the Mormon writer and editor defended her pants-wearing habit, saying it meant she could get down on the floor with the nursery children, she could be warm in below-freezing winters, and she could avoid accidentally exposing her LDS temple garments.

More important, Riess writes, she could make first-timers feel more comfortable if they showed up in trousers.

Riess rejects opposition to "Pants Day," she says, if it is built on the "misogynist belief that women should not dress like men because men and women have different roles."

But she does share the concern of those who see the effort as being overly politicized.

"There is something holy about what we do on Sunday," Riess says. "I hope this doesn't interfere with a person's spiritual experience."

This weekend's "Pants Day" isn't limited to women. The group is encouraging men to show support by "wearing a purple shirt, tie, socks, or ribbon, purple being a color historically associated with the suffrage movement."

In response, some LDS men are now asking: When is No Neckties Day?

pstack@sltrib.com