Men who grow up in Mormon communities in the Intermountain West don’t have a lot of familiarity with women shouting in the faces of institutional leaders. Even those like Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who came of age during the heyday of second wave feminism, would have had little firsthand experience with such forceful appeals. However, life in Washington, D.C., is different and has become more so in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. Like many others, I watched transfixed as two women confronted Flake in an elevator at the U.S. Capitol on September 28, after he announced his intention to vote in favor of Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court—a nomination that was ultimately successful and that Flake supported. And yet, just over a week ago, on live television, Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher told the senator in raw and direct language about their own experiences with sexual assault. In the fierce face-to-face interaction, Gallagher pleaded, “Look at me when I’m talking to you! You are telling me that my assault doesn’t matter … Don’t look away from me. Look at me!”
In a dramatic turn of events, Senator Flake later modified his position and called for an FBI investigation before the Kavanaugh confirmation vote. As the news broke, my social media timelines were filled with statements attributing his change of heart to the bold activism of that truth-to-power moment. I couldn’t help but reflect on the famous statement by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, herself a Mormon,* “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” While Ulrich’s expression is often invoked in the name of women’s defiance, it actually originates from an article that examined exemplary Puritan women and highlighted how their dutiful contributions are often overlooked by historians.
The direct action taken by Archila and Gallagher contrasts with the tactics used by a group of women agitating for political change from within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The group Mormon Women for Ethical Government (MWEG) released a statement last month calling for the Senate Judiciary Committee “to immediately suspend the [Kavanaugh] confirmation proceedings until a thorough independent investigation can be conducted.” There were no elevator confrontations, but it was still a bold letter. While MWEG’s statement was aimed at the entire committee, they specifically called on fellow Mormons—Republican Senators Orrin Hatch, Jeff Flake, Mike Lee and Mike Crapo—to take the charges seriously and make every attempt to ascertain the truth. Framing their concerns in terms of religious community, MWEG reminded the politicians, “Our mutual faith teaches that any sexual abuse or assault in any context is contemptible and worthy of the most severe condemnation.” While both groups of women denounced the normalization of sexual assault and encouraged Flake to vote in an ethical manner, the two intrepid women in the elevator have been decisively credited with influencing Flake. None of the Mormon senators have commented on MWEG’s letter publicly, and all of them voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court on October 6.
Scholars, journalists, and more broadly, the public, have a difficult time incorporating theologically conservative women into political and historical narratives as they do not fit easily into frameworks that emphasize triumphant progress. In recovering women’s stories, historians have predominantly used paradigms that have emphasized freedom, empowerment, and the contestation of male authority. As a result, women from conservative religious traditions are frequently neglected in scholarship and media or appear as distorted stereotypes that lack depth and complexity. In considering the controversy surrounding the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, it might be helpful to probe the assumptions and contradictions of the political actions of religious women. The paradoxical question often posed is how can Mormon women support a political campaign such as #MeToo while also defending a patriarchal religious institution like the LDS Church? How much influence can LDS women have on male political leaders whose religious worlds reify the moral authority of women while being simultaneously grounded in a structural sexism?
MWEG occupies this tenuous position: It is an activist organization initially formed as a Facebook group by founder Sharlee Mullins Glenn days after the election of Donald Trump “to vent frustrations and talk about ideas for saving the country.” And yet it says that it’s a nonpartisan group, one that decries political tribalism and fully supports the conservative doctrines and leaders of the LDS Church. The group grew swiftly, now boasting more than 6,000 members. MWEG occupies an isolated space, separated both from conservative women who led the charge to defend Brett Kavanaugh against Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations—some of whom might be members of their own congregations—and from protesters whose opposition to Kavanaugh is also related to his judicial conservatism and a commitment to protect Roe v. Wade.
Mormon women’s participation in the political sphere has been fraught with ambiguity for more than a century. MWEG’s form of protest can be understood as being historically rooted in Mormon women’s foray into the political arena in 1870. In response to the threat of anti-polygamy legislation, LDS women sought to protect their rights by organizing an “indignation meeting” as a specific form of protest. As Ulrich explains, “Indignation was more than anger. It was sympathetic outrage directed at an injustice.” Similarly, MWEG, frames their purpose as combating injustice and unethical behavior. The group aspires to an ideal of civil and respectful language, exemplifying Mormonism’s Twelfth Article of Faith, which seeks to uphold principles of patriotism and law-abiding citizenship. Advising MWEG activists to be courteous, respectful and direct, they uphold the rule of law and avoid name-calling and vitriol. This Mormon ethic that prioritizes restraint and working through established processes is reflected not only in MWEG’s tactics, but is also visible in the approach of Jeff Flake. Both are informed by the teachings of Church President Gordon B. Hinckley who emphasized the notion of “standing a little taller,” of good citizenship and community involvement. Flake is difficult to categorize and has faced intense criticism for falling short of his own stated ideals. He is frequently pilloried for his failure to follow through on the lofty rhetoric of his tweets. Like MWEG, Flake embraces some stances that liberals support while also upholding positions that are the result of being firmly rooted in conservative political positions and religious values.
These religious and cultural gender norms have circumscribed LDS female activism and the renegotiation of these terms has ignited debate within the LDS community. Mormon culture values decorum, politeness, and working in councils and committees to find solutions. Female activism still occupies a debated space. Last year, a former LDS women’s leader, Elaine Dalton, expressed discomfort over the Women’s March in New York: “We were in a cab, and as I watched those women marching and yelling, and should I say, behaving anything but ladylike and using language that was very unbefitting of daughters of God … my heart just sunk.” In contrast, there were Mormon women who participated in the Women’s March, including some members of MWEG, who experienced it as the perfect expression of their Mormon values and offered them an opportunity to connect with their religious foremothers. The challenge for MWEG is that in this political moment, concerns about the future of Roe v. Wade and the powerful rebellion of the #MeToo movement stands in contradiction to their conservative sexual values and commitment to civility. The collision of MWEG and #MeToo is an instructive example of the challenges that occur when religiously conservative women’s deference to authority comes into conflict with the abuses perpetrated by authority.
Over the past two years, media observers have wondered if Mormons could be the new conscience of the Republican Party. They have generally been proven wrong as principled statements from Republican Mormon politicians have ultimately given way to support for the president’s agenda. LDS politicians like Mitt Romney and Jason Chaffetz have critiqued Trump for his vulgar language and treatment of women, but ultimately pledged their support. Orrin Hatch expressed “discomfort” with the racial slurs that Trump directed at Omarosa Manigault Newman but remains one of his most ardent supporters. Flake has decried Trump’s divisive and unethical approach to the presidency, but at the end of the day, has supported the president’s policies. Unlike their male co-religionists, MWEG has displayed a commitment to a broader spectrum of issues without a history of reneging on that commitment. They declare that they have a “particular interest in defending and supporting the basic rights and dignity of our brothers and sisters throughout the world, whatever their race, gender, or religion.” As a result, MWEG’s activism has included opposition to the Trump administration’s travel ban, staging vigils against family separation, advocacy for peacemaking efforts in Syria, and calling for the abandonment of political posturing, duplicity, and pandering by Mormon politicians. In part to maintain unity among its members, and by extension, unity within the church, MWEG frames itself as an organization concerned with ethics instead of partisanship while negotiating the boundaries of Mormon womanhood.
In an inclusive moment, it was not the Republican Mormon senators, but the Democratic Baptist Cory Booker who introduced MWEG’s letter into the Kavanaugh hearings’ records. The confrontation that two female activists had with Flake in the elevator was an incredibly powerful example of direct “impolite” action that seemed to be successful. MWEG representatives met with Flake’s staffers the same morning, but their story became obscured by the drama and sound bites of the dramatic, less “well-behaved” resistance. It is difficult to know which type of lobbying affected a change in Flake and most likely it was a combination of many factors. Ultimately, none changed the final outcome, but changing the minds of politicians is, of course, only one metric of an organization’s success. MWEG’s numbers are growing, offering Mormon women a group that, while standing outside of the LDS church’s oversight, affirms its values and provides them with leadership opportunities and a structure for organizing politically in a manner that reflects their own sensibilities and concerns. A close examination of these factors allows us to develop a fuller understanding of this type of political positioning, shedding light on the relationships among conservative religious women, political protest, and the negotiations that shape American religions.
Kristine Wright is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Religion at Princeton University.
*The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently started discouraging the use of the term Mormon. We have not yet changed our style guide, but we are watching these developments closely.