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What Do Ex-Mormon Women Want?

After spending a year and the space of several essays telling ex-Mormon men what they are doing wrong, a few of them have (apparently genuinely) asked me for some advice about what they should be doing better. *Sigh* A part of me wants to say — do your own work! I’m tired. Why is it my job to help you be better? You’re a grown-ass man. You can figure things out on your own. Women and ex-Mormon women are all around you. They’ve always been all around you. How can you have remained so blind to them all this time?

Then I try to exercise some compassion and remember that leaving Mormonism is incredibly difficult emotionally and that it brings with it a lot of anger. The idea that in addition to all the work of leaving Mormonism, there’s another mountain to climb of figuring out the patriarchy is probably too much for many people. (And we’re not even talking about the mountain of racism that should come up, too.)

I’m going to try to offer some hints here. I say hints because whenever I try to talk about “women” as a general term, men come back at me and say, “But my wife isn’t like that” or “The woman I’m dating right now isn’t like that.” So, dudes, yes, not all women are the same. Are all men the same? You know hundreds of men. You know very well that if you asked them what they wanted, you’d get at least a hundred different answers. Please don’t expect me to give you the “golden key” to all women. Wanting that is part of the problem. Women are not a monolith. We’re all different, surprise, surprise! You have to figure us each out individually. But there are similarities. So here we go.

The first thing I suggest is to spend the next year reading only books by women. Here are some to start with:

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates

Untamed by Glennon Doyle

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

I’m not going to offer you the full and complete list of books written by women to certify you as a “feminist” because such a thing is ridiculous and impossible. See above. Not all women are the same. Every book you read by a woman will be a different perspective on what it means to be a woman.

What I’m hoping is that once you start reading books by women, you will begin to see the gulf in your reading career. You grew up in a world (as did most women) where you read books written by men about men. You learned to think of men’s experiences as “universal.” You thought of women’s experiences as “niche.” You laughed about women’s movies being “chick flicks” that weren’t for you. Romance novels were “fluffy.” What I’m asking you to do is to reconsider all of those ideas.

So besides the list of nonfiction books by women I’ve listed, I’m asking you to start seeking out fiction in whatever genre you love that is written by women. Yes, it will naturally have women as the stars of the fiction. Most of the time. (I’m looking at you, JK Rowling.) Men will not be entirely written out of these stories, despite your fears. Women writers don’t do to men what male writers often do to women, reducing them to pawns to motivate change in the male heroes or as mere helpers along the way. This is because women have grown up in a world that has always taught us that men are human. You, unfortunately, have not grown up in a world that has taught you that women are human. And I know as soon as I say that you are flinching and ready to argue with me that of course you’ve always seen women as human.

Now I want you to make a list of your favorite novels, movies, and TV shows. How many of them are written by women? How many give as much speaking time to the female characters as the male characters? How many pass the Bechdel test (where two women are speaking to each other about something other than the dudes)? How often do you watch media in which women dominate the storyline (yes, these stories exist if you are looking for them)? If you want to find such stories, you might try asking women. It turns out women seek out these stories a lot of the time.

I feel like what I’m asking you to do is a bare minimum of seeing how you’ve lived in a patriarchy all your lives and never noticed the air you’re breathing. But it will probably feel like a huge effort to you. You will probably feel depressed that you don’t get to watch your favorite shows and that in women’s stories, men are not always the heroes. This is the world women live in. ALL. THE. FUCKING. TIME.

So just a few more thoughts before I finish this very, very simple, beginner’s list of seeing women as humans. Women grow up socialized in different ways than men. We are taught from a young age that we aren’t the heroes of the stories. We are taught to speak in roundabout ways (which men then complain about because we’re not as blunt as they are allowed to be). This is about power structures in patriarchy. Within Mormonism, the very structure of the religion separates men and women from the age of ten. Separate young men and young women’s classes, separate Priesthood and Relief Society, separate chairs in the temple for God’s sake. What other Christian religion does this? (No, please don’t give me a list.) It has created a world in Utah where the wage gape is worse than anywhere else in the country. Men aren’t used to seeing women as equals at work. They don’t know how to interact with them except as mothers or as sex objects.

Now, ex-Mormon men often imagine that it’s the job of women, once they leave a religion like Mormonism, to do all the work of undoing those lessons of speaking gently and manipulating those men in power around us to get what we want. But it’s very difficult to do the work all on our own without the people who already have the power listening to us. God, I can’t tell you how exhausting it is for me to be faced every damned day with the reaction of fragile male egos when I call out what is obvious to almost every ex-Mormon woman I know. If no one has told you any of this before, it’s because they don’t consider you a safe space to talk about such things. That is not a badge of honor, my dude.

As for spaces outside of Mormonism being safe in general for women, unfortunately, the patriarchy is alive and well in American secularism. It exists in Hollywood (Harvey Weinstein, anyone?), in politics (Bill Clinton?), and everywhere else. The job of dismantling the patriarchy is everyone’s work. Despite the “Lean In” mindset that women should just become more like men, it doesn’t work. Women who are loud, brash, and blunt (as I often am) get shut down. They get attacked and treated like the enemy (Welcome to the last two months of my life). Some women (very, very few and I’m not among them) can still work within this very male world and succeed.

I’m tired of this work, The gender binary is a concept that traps us all, men, women, and non-binary folx. It’s not always my job to teach you. You are all capable of doing this yourself. You are capable of finding women to listen to, support, encourage, and promote. I’m not asking you to agree with me every time I write something. I don’t agree with me every time I write something. But I am asking you to do a little more work and to check your assumptions at the door. I’m asking you to consider the possibility that you are living in a male echo chamber because it suits you by confirming your idea of yourself as a “hero.” I’m asking you not to say, as one dude said to me, “But there aren’t any women making the media I like to consume.” I assure you, there are. Look a little bit harder. Don’t ask your male friends. If you don’t have female friends you can ask, well, why is that?

Written by

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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