Several weeks ago, in a beautiful city on the water, I spent Friday evening (oh, sweet luxury of a night out!) with a handful of brilliant women who care about issues related to women and church. With the soundtrack to Once playing in the background, we poured glasses of wine and water, slid slices of mini cheesecake and decadent mousses from the local patisserie onto tiny dessert plates, and shared bittersweet morsels of our personal stories. We talked about relationships with men, and parents, and children. Talked about sexuality and shame and redemption and strength. We talked about people who had failed us, and friends who still uphold us. And we talked about our voices — strong, sweet, powerful female voices. We spoke of times when we’d lost them, those this-changes-everything moments when we’ve rediscovered them, and our passion for speaking up and out today in a way that can change the world.
Our chatty voices that night were particularly resonant because all of us in that room had, in some form or another, at one time or another, been silenced. We all shared connections to various brands of religion that discourage the speaking out of women; religion that has little-to-no room for the strong, clear tones of the female voice. We all knew how it feels to be blindsided, cut off at the knees, to have our microphones metaphorically unplugged. To be told that our voices don’t matter and — worse — that using them is a sin. For decades (roughly age 9 to 29), I believed that being my full self would make me unacceptable: to men, to the church, to God.
It is only now that I see hell as what it truly is for me: not a place where an angry God will send me if I dare to step forward and claim my words, my dreams, my future, but the place where I was stuck all those years when I let myself be intimidated, when I deferred to those who told me what to think and who to be, when I was far too frightened and confused and discouraged to raise up my head and open my mouth and speak.
I am reminded of these things as the showdown unfolds between local authorities and Yearning for Zion, the breakaway, polygamous sect of the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints, outside of Eldorado, Texas.
As I take in the allegations of sexual abuse and forced marriage, I scan the photos of women and children — leaving the compound by bright yellow bus, the children running and playing in the dirt while in state custody, and grieving mothers, alone and in groups, hunched in their stiff prairie dresses. As startling images swirl in my conscious — women and children in pastel period costumes, incongruent “grandma” upsweeps on young women’s heads — anger and heartache bubble up from somewhere deep, though our circumstances are entirely different. Even in my darkest days, I never suffered anything even remotely comparable to the pressure or abuse these children and women may have faced.
In my early church experience, I was told not to question doctrine. Was told that I couldn’t teach or have authority over men. Told that women were the descendants of Eve, and our entire gender is “cursed” because she disobeyed God. That my role was to submit, to complement, to defer.
But I also was allowed to sing and lead music; I could laugh out loud, come and go as I pleased, and was responsible for my own choice of a mate. I was free to leave my blindered spiritual community (threats about the consequences of backsliding and disobedience and an eternity in hell notwithstanding) and, in time, I did leave. Things could have been much worse for me — in fact, are much worse for countless women today, who attend churches where they are taught, implicitly or explicitly, that they are less than men. I know of churches where young men are taught to seek mates who will be obedient, where husbands of opinionated women are ordered to “control” their wives, where women apologize and feel shame for wanting anything other than the prescribed marriage, home, children, and perhaps a snappy apron or two. All good things, worth wanting. As are things like college degrees, world travel, time alone, an equal partnership, creative space, and – perhaps most important of all, and even within the closest reach – the practice of using one’s own voice.
There is much in the Yearning for Zion story to give us all pause. Details are sketchy, but certainly something seems terrifyingly amiss. Were the sect’s girls sexually abused? The facts should come out in time. Right now, I’m particularly haunted by a Today Show interview with the mothers of Yearning for Zion, in which the women seem to find it difficult to speak much above a whisper. Obviously these women must be totally overwhelmed, sad, and afraid, so I don’t judge them harshly for their trembling voices. Instead, when I think of them, I think how much I’d like to hear them speak more loudly, more confidently. I remember how it felt not to trust my own voice, and how trembly I felt when I first started to quietly question out loud, and how having children changed and added to the number of questions I had, and I close my eyes and wish for these women the ability to find and use their own deepest, truest words.
I imagine driving to Texas with boxes from the patisserie and bottles of water, imagine sitting across a coffee table and saying, “Tell me your story.” I picture a day when all women brazenly practice the sacred rituals of listening and speaking. And I keep writing down ideas, and clearing my throat, and promising myself that I will take every opportunity I can to speak, speak, speak.