Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Closet Full of Sunday Clothes and Nothing to Wear

Okay, so today is pants-to-church day, which is, what? a movement? an outward expression of ideology? A cold-weather referendum? I'm not sure.

But I do know that I feel a little bullied into it. If I don't wear pants, am I an anti-feminist? Or am I someone who just bought a wool pencil skirt from Goodwill this week and kind of wanted to wear it? Can I claim ignorance on this thing or is it too late?

I wonder if my relationship to Mormon feminism or feminism in general isn't perhaps a little strained. I like to think of myself as heartily 3rd-wave, not old-school feminism. I recently read a book by an old-guard feminist, which I mostly agreed with but her philosophies (everyone is out to get us) and methods (a print magazine will solve the problem) seemed a little off-putting. I love Julia Kristeva's feminism, a feminism that isn't essentializing, and in many ways, what bothers me about many so-called feminists is that they want to re-make the female experience in their own image. I remember reading the Vagina Monologues, the later addition, and not only is Eve Ensler so smug in "speaking for womankind," but it took until the later version for her to include childbirth in the episodes of things that happen with a vagina. Hmm. Kind of a big deal for a lot of people, especially people who aren't just your circle of friends.

One of the things about 3rd-wave feminism that I like is that it recognizes that the experiences rich, white women have with their sex is different, sometimes dramatically different, than most of the women of the world. For instance, almost everyone on earth is against female gentile mutilation. That's oppression, but then, is wearing the hijab oppression? How about wearing a halter-top? Who gets to decide? It's not just a question of developed-vs-developing world feminism, but within rich, pluralistic societies or even within any society made up of individuals (read: all of them), there are going to be variances in what women count as the course of feminism, as with any philosophy or idea.

 I don't walk around all day thinking, "I'm a woman, I'm a woman, I'm a woman." I'm more likely to be defining myself by my course of study, my career, my religion, my hobbies and interests. In fact, it was kind of an ironic bristle when an African-American curator, encouraging me to write about the genius painter Henry Ossawa Tanner* in terms other than his race (I heartily agree), suggested "You could look at his portrayal of women." Pwhat? And why not his glazes? Or his expat status? Or his troubled apprenticeship with Thomas Eakins? (Okay, I totally wrote about that last one.) Just like Tanner consistently resisted being labeled a Negro artist, but wanted to be an American artist, or a religious artist, I don't want to be seen only in terms of my gender, but in terms of all the cool things I do and think. I want the right to define myself.

And so my easy answer is this: feminism, or in a wider-term, human rights, is about agency to make choices for yourself. Having the say to pursue, without being mocked, threatened, or under-compensated, a million choices for your own life--make cookies, play lacrosse, study gamma rays, go backpacking, wear pink, write ghost stories, teach Italian, work backstage or in the spotlight, enjoy slasher movies, enjoy romantic movies, wear pants, wear skirts.

Which brings me to my sartorial choices for the day. I don't have a problem with skirts. I like skirts. The 4--nope, Goodwill, so now 5--grey pencil skirts I own testify to that. I often wear skirts to work, for instance. I look good in skirts, because they look formal and they flatter my bulky upper-thighs and let me show off my often-tanned lower legs.  Yes, I have to keep my knees together in some of them, but my zombie-day costume demonstrates that I can run plenty good in a skirt (I ripped the tags off of 72 runners in less than 3 hours, including some elite runners). But this isn't about the relative merits of clothing that encases one leg at a time or clothing that encases both legs together, is it? It's about signalling my allegiance with a group.

And this is where my easy answer of feminism breaks down: we aren't just individuals making individual choices. We are constantly being acted upon by societal forces, both revolutionary and reactionary. If I wear a skirt, I may be aligning myself with patriarchy, tradition, and the unfounded, non-doctrinal tyranny of The Way Things Have Always Been. If I wear pants, I may be giving into the peer-pressure of all my feminist friends, or desiring to align myself with the cool, progressive element, or see myself as a part of a business-formal crusade. I myself become less myself.

This pants thing has demanded me to take sides, and to align myself to factions, rather than just opening my closet, choosing something comfy and pretty, festive, appropriately warm or cooling, goes well with shoes that I like, or puts me in a good mood, or that I just barely bought.

Maybe I will just wear a skirt with pants underneath. Or bloomers.

UPDATE: No one gets to tell me what to wear...grr... I'm wearing my new skirt.

* This Wikipedia article, too, is so restrictive because (1) Tanner was not the first African American artist to have international acclaim--there were other artists patronized by European royal families (2) Tanner's influence wasn't just on African American artists, but also on artists in general, including his American impressionism contemporaries and (3) that dumb restricting first line. Anyway, that is all.


Sarah said...

Love your thoughts on this, especially "I'm a woman. I'm a woman. I'm a woman. I'm a woman."

I have a couple of sick kids so I probably won't be going to church. Though I wasn't planning on wearing pants, I was looking forward to seeing who did! I'm feisty and certainly think women should be treated well, but most of the strong and narrow feminist viewpoint doesn't feel like my own.

Anonymous said...

I really love this, especially after this ridiculously absurd "movement" to be made in church buildings today. I think that something like that should be addressed with authorities in the church, and not paraded around in the Lord's church building where people are preparing to take sacrament.

Christian said...

This is something I ran into a lot of issues with while still Mormon but not "mainstream." And for me, it came down to realizing that everything we do/wear/explicitly support or don't support makes a statement, shapes our allegiances, defines who we are. To cite a currently fashionable bit of feminist theory, our identities are performative (though, funnily, Butler didn't actually quite mean it in the way most people take it), inscribed by actions and choices repeated over time. So I think it's interesting that you say it as "No one gets to tell me what to wear...grr... I'm wearing my new skirt", because as I percieve it, unless you choose to wear neither pants nor skirt, you're either choosing to let a more conservative, traditional or a more liberal, feminist-y version of Mormonism tell you what to wear.

I know this pants thing brought it to a head, but really, the choosing sides thing is just part of existing. Whether we want to or not :(

Sarah said...

Mary, if you just wanted to wear a skirt, I think that's great.

Christian, I don't quite share your perception. If I wear a skirt because I want to, it doesn't mean that I'm actually letting myself be told what to do by conservative Mormonism. I think making some drastic statement like going to church in my underwear would show strong influence on me by the various parties rather than demonstrating that I was not influenced by them.

Jamie Zvirzdin said...

Mary, great post. I wish it hadn't been seen by some as a skirt = conservative, patriarchal-system-and-Jesus-lover and pants = liberal, freedom-loving feminists who disregard the sacredness of the sacrament. It's not fun to be made to choose between a dichotomy that is so heavily laced with social and eternal implications. I personally think you look fantastic in pencil skirts, but then again I liked you in shorts too. I like you for you ("She likes me for meee!"). What I liked about this event was that women who WANTED to wear pants and were scared to be judged by their fellow members were encouraged by others to go ahead and do so. I wish it hadn't been a one-day spectacular but a general "Hey, if you want to, you can. Every single Sunday, if you like, or not."

I very much appreciated this portion of your post: "Feminism, or in a wider-term, human rights, is about agency to make choices for yourself. Having the say to pursue, without being mocked, threatened, or under-compensated, a million choices for your own life--make cookies, play lacrosse, study gamma rays, go backpacking, wear pink, write ghost stories, teach Italian, work backstage or in the spotlight, enjoy slasher movies, enjoy romantic movies, wear pants, wear skirts." I think that is spot-on, and it's a message that makes sense. You are cool and rad.

mlh said...

You know, I actually was thinking about Butler a lot when I was writing this, Chris. You may recall her theory's import in "reclaiming" symbols of oppression, like the word "queer." Why should we not approach skirts in the same way: not as something that someone else gets to tell us is a symbol of our oppression, but a symbol we re-opt and embrace.

N said...

For what it's worth: When I was in France, I noticed American sisters grumbling about French sisters wearing very nice, culturally appropriate pants-suits to church. Ironically, I heard those same American sisters criticized by the French sisters for wearing denim - culturally appropriate in Utah, but entirely too informal for a ward just outside of Paris. So I stopped wearing denim to church - I've never been in the habit of wearing pants, and don't own any suitable for Sabbath worship at the moment.
Interestingly enough, I'm currently in a Polynesian ward. I don't know if anyone would have noticed if I'd worn pants to church, since something like a quarter of the males in our congregation wear lava-lavas, which look remarkably like a straight, wraparound skirt. Made of suit material.
So the whole thing has a slightly different look from here, though I'm not sure if I can articulate it other than to tell the stories. Just thought you might appreciate them.

Marcee said...

I didn't make it to church that Sunday, sick kids, and I didn't even finish my blog post on the topic. Now I'm glad I didn't- I love, love, love, yours!! I don't know how I missed this post of yours for so long, but spot on, Mary!! Oh, how I love thee! And I was totally with you as you were reclaiming skirts, which I think is one happy event, for me, from this "movement," I've reclaimed them as well. Apparently I'm much to tired to be very insightful or interesting tonight, but thank you for writing this. My sis and I were talking about this again and also something that popped up on Mormon Feminist Housewives about nursing in church and our whole problem with the term "Mormon feminist." Which is ironic, because I have been identifying as a feminist for a long time. And I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Mormon. But I think the two terms together produce all sorts of mischief. I guess it's because I feel that the doctrine I believe in is the best feminism, or equal rights as you put it, and the point of identifying with feminism is to change the world, not the religion...
Also- gave my lesson on the sanctity of the body in YW last week and talked about objectification and fashion and mincing with cymbals. Good times. Remember how awesome you were to have in a RS class??
If you wrote a Mormon Feminist blog, I'd read it and promote and adore you even more.
That is all. seriously, I'm sleep deprived.