By Dana Haight Cattani
Or right-click here to download the audio file: The Stubborn Ounces of My Weight
…But I am prejudiced beyond debate
in favor of my right to choose which side
shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.
—Bonaro W. Overstreet
THE TRIGGER MIGHT have been the cancer center staff member who said ovarian cancer was too rare to warrant a support group. It might have been the center website that included only two hotlinks—and both were for fundraising, not cancer services. Perhaps it was the nurse navigator who knew of no one in the hospital’s 13-county region who could answer questions from a newly-diagnosed pancreatic cancer patient. The trigger doesn’t matter. Two years after I finished chemotherapy, I began to advocate for change.
My cancer center is partly funded by local charity events that have raised over $250,000 annually in recent years, and its disappointing quality and scope of services frustrated the women in my gynecologic cancer group. We decided to invite the director to attend one of our bi-weekly lunches. When she did, we told our stories of missed opportunities and unmet needs, and we shared our cancer center wish list including a voluntary cancer-specific registry to help patients with similar diagnoses find and support each other. We estimated that setting up a registry would cost $1,500, or roughly 0.6% of the annual donations.
To us, improvement seemed straightforward enough: identify the issues, propose specific solutions, and volunteer to help implement them. Check, check, check. Who could object to thoughtful proposals or question the expertise of emaciated women in various stages of baldness?
No one. But no one had to. There are tidier ways to dispatch inconvenient ideas. Time and inertia did the trick. Gradually, our suggestions were shelved behind ironclad alibis: the webmaster can’t, privacy issues prevent, or the legal department doesn’t. When we persisted, the answers became more direct: there was no money available for our programmatic suggestions, but would we like to organize one of the center’s annual fundraisers?
We would not.
Instead, we set up meetings and lobbied for our proposal with nursing staff, foundation administrators, and public relations people. After nearly a dozen meetings across eighteen months with no tangible results, it became clear to us that we had no forum or standing for raising our concerns and no direct access to decision makers. We lost patience, and then we lost hope. As a last resort, we wrote a guest column highlighting the cancer center’s finances for the local newspaper and took our concerns public.
Three days later, the director called to invite us to meet with some high-ranking hospital administrators. At the meeting, they listened and promised to implement the cancer registry as soon as possible. In fact, they said, it was a great idea that could be expanded to patients with fibromyalgia or diabetes. When we brought up the estimated $1,500 cost, one executive waved his hand dismissively. “We can handle it,” he said.
My cancer friends and I high-fived each other in the hospital parking lot and then hurried home to take naps. Advocacy is an exhausting, thankless slog. It’s no job for sick people. Then again, who but people accustomed to poor odds would keep charging a well-fortified castle? We were accidental activists, driven to roles we never wanted by the absence of a process for raising the serious and legitimate concerns of a key constituency: cancer insiders. Patients.
IN NOVEMBER 2015, a week after the revisions to the Church handbook were leaked to the public, my husband Kyle and I sent a letter expressing our deep disappointment to our stake president and to our bishop. Then we bought a roll of rainbow grosgrain ribbon at a hobby store, cut 6” lengths, and glue gunned them into loops. We emailed a few friends and invited them to pick up ribbons from a box in the foyer that next Sunday morning. About 20 people did. Moments before sacrament meeting began, a visiting member of the stake presidency confiscated the box and locked it in the bishop’s office.
Church policy expressly discourages rank-and-file members from writing to general leaders about doctrinal issues.1 Instead, we are directed to counsel with local leaders to resolve difficulties. However, some issues are not local in nature. Local leaders have authority to enact and enforce policy, not to interpret or change it. To whom, then, can we express our cankering concerns?
What precipitates rainbow ribbons in sacrament meeting?
I DATE MY time as an activist at Church to 1987, when Ezra Taft Benson’s talk “To the Mothers in Zion”2 appeared in pink pamphlets in the foyer of a singles ward I attended in Palo Alto, California. Most of the women in this ward were either students at nearby Stanford University or young Silicon Valley professionals. Both groups took umbrage at this talk’s counsel for all mothers to stay home full time with children, presumably for decades. Convinced that Church leaders simply did not know the ire this talk caused, I decided to tell them. I saw no reason to take my concerns to the bishop, who understood the problem but had no jurisdiction to address it. Instead, I wrote to Gordon Hinckley, then a counselor in the First Presidency. In my letter, I explained that the Benson talk had caused “great distress and a sharp sense of betrayal” and that I hoped “in the future the women of the church [could] expect more vocal support from church leaders in our various worthy pursuits.”
To my surprise, a week later a signed reply from President Hinckley arrived in the mail:
April 22, 1987
Dear Sister Haight:
I have read with appreciation your letter of 15 April.
In it you recount the problems of some of the women who have spoken to you.
Certainly many women these days are having great difficulty in feeling at peace with themselves and their circumstances.
I pray that you may be blessed with wisdom and inspiration in counseling with those with whom you work. Please be assured of our interest and concern.
Gordon B. Hinckley
Emboldened by a response, even a politely dismissive one, I persisted in communicating my concerns. A few months later, I wrote to the editor of the Church News expressing my disappointment at its coverage of the annual general women’s meeting. I believed that a women’s meeting should highlight women. Yet the remarks of the three members of the Relief Society General Presidency—Barbara Winder, Joy Evans, and Joanne Doxey—each merited only a sidebar on page 7, while Apostle Russell Nelson’s talk earned a prominent two-page spread. I noted, “A reader who did not attend the conference could infer that Elder Nelson was the keynote speaker and the Relief Society General Presidency served as the warm-up entertainment.” I received the following response:
November 3, 1987
Dear Sister Haight:
Thank you for your letter and comments regarding coverage of the General Women’s conference. You noted that the Church News featured Elder Nelson’s talk as the most significant of the four. We did this because Elder Nelson gave the keynote address. We always feature the keynote speaker. You may be interested to know President Barbara Winder expressed her approval and appreciation for our coverage of the conference.
We want to thank you for being one of our valued readers and we appreciate hearing from you.
Dell Van Orden
When the November Ensign arrived in my mailbox a few weeks later, I wrote a letter to its editor calling attention to the placement of Russell Nelson’s talk to give him first billing.
16 November, 1987
I am puzzled by the Contents page (3) in the November issue of the Ensign. The talks from the various sessions of General Conference are listed in the order of presentation at the meetings—with one exception. The speakers at the General Women’s Meeting are out of order. Joanne Doxey spoke first. Joy Evans, Barbara Winder, and Russell Nelson followed in that order. [In the Ensign, the order was Nelson, Doxey, Evans, Winder.]
I can think of no reason that these talks would be listed out of order, and I would appreciate knowing more about your decision to print them as you did.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Dana K. Haight
The editor took me at my word and tried to un-puzzle me:
December 4, 1987
Dear Sister Haight:
Thank you for your letter of November 16, in which you inquire about the order of presentation of some addresses published in the November Ensign. The addresses are to be printed chronologically, unless for some special reason in the past it might have been thought helpful to have them otherwise.
Thank you again for writing and I wish you every good wish as you savor the great addresses given at the recent General Conference.
Elder Hugh W. Pinnock
Editor of Church Magazines
Two years later I wrote again to the editor of the Ensign about the absence of women’s leaders on the center poster “General Authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” This time I was not as oblique:
As I understand the term “general authority,” it refers to a person whose authority is not local but general to the entire church. If my understanding is accurate, then I wonder why the General Primary, Young Women, and Relief Society presidencies and their board members are not included in any listing of the “General Authorities.” Are not these women General Authorities? If the Ensign publishes pictures in order to help members become familiar with their leaders or in order to honor those leaders for their service, should not these women be included?
I received two responses, including one from the secretary to the First Presidency:
22 November, 1989
Dear Sister Cattani:
I have been asked to acknowledge your letter to the editor of the Ensign magazine, which was forwarded to this office for response.
The brethren of the First Presidency, Council of the Twelve Apostles, Quorums of Seventy, and the Presiding Bishopric constitute the General Authorities of the Church.
With regard to the presidencies of the general auxiliaries of the Church, you may be interested in the enclosed two-page feature which appeared in the Church News November 4, 1989.
With best wishes, I remain
Secretary to the First Presidency
In a separate reply, the managing editor of the Ensign wrote:
December 13, 1989
Dear Sister Cattani:
Thank you for your letter of November 14, in which you suggest that photographs of the general auxiliary leaders be included in the display we publish of the General Authorities.
As I understand it, the display chart is that of the presiding quorums of the Priesthood of God on earth. Leaders of auxiliary units help oversee what are known as “aids and helps” to the priesthood, and these helps, and thus their unit leaders, are subordinate and in an ancillary position to the priesthood and its presiding quorums.
Thank you for sharing your idea. I hope this response is helpful.
Jay M. Todd
After these disheartening replies, it took me five years to muster the will to try again. In October 1994, I wrote to President Howard Hunter about the voting process to ratify a new First Presidency during general conference:
In this procedure, each of the priesthood quorums votes separately (and in ranking order) and then the general congregation votes. I was surprised and disturbed to see 12-year-old deacons voting before grown women. I was sorry to see the emphasis on the hierarchy and rank of the quorums instead of the commonality of church membership. I was puzzled to see that men voted on two occasions (with their quorums and with the congregation) while the women voted once.
To me, the symbolism of this procedure suggests that men of any age outrank women, that members are not equal in the eyes of the church, and that women’s opinions are valued less than men’s. I find this message—intended or not—hurtful and objectionable.
Could the voting be done all at once, with general authorities and women and priests and children all raising their hands together? This procedure would be more inclusive.
Again, I received a response:
October 14, 1994
Dear Sister Cattani:
President Howard W. Hunter has asked me to respond to your letter of October 3, 1994. He appreciates your taking the time to write and share your thoughts and feelings about the recently concluded general conference.
The President also extends his love and best wishes to you and your family.
Lowell R. Hardy
Secretary to the President
At this point my correspondence ends. Perhaps after reading so much tortured prose, I felt a degree of compassion for the people who struggled to answer my letters. Perhaps the birth of my first child the next year or the demands of graduate school sapped all my righteous indignation. Perhaps I simply lost interest.
WHEN I BEGAN writing letters 29 years ago, I wondered: who could object to thoughtful proposals or question the expertise of a faithful lifelong sister on women’s experience at church? Now I know the answer: anyone. Telling a woman that her concerns are trivial or flat-out wrong is not considered discourteous or boorish at church. It is simply stating the obvious. The response formula—humor her, thank her, dismiss her—is a tidy way to dispatch inconvenient ideas. For a flourish, imply that change is impossible and probably heretical.
Of course, it is not. Change happens, even at church. Heresy is often more a matter of who is speaking than of what that person is saying. The ideas that I (and presumably others) proposed were ridiculous only until they were adopted. Since 1988, the talks within the September general Relief Society meeting have appeared in the Ensign in presentation order. (The keynote speaker has yet to be a woman, and that entire session is still printed out of chronological order after all the October general conference sessions.3) In 2008, when members voted to ratify a new First Presidency, women voted as a separate block, as did members of the Young Women.4 Women still voted after all the men including the deacons, but women were recognized as a constituency and did vote twice, like the men. In May 2014, photos of the general Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary leaders appeared in the Ensign center poster for the first time.5
In retrospect, the matters I raised were trifling and skirted the real issue: second-class status for women. In this era of Wear Pants to Church and Ordain Women, of Feminist Mormon Housewives and Mama Dragons, of blogs and online petitions and marches on Temple Square, my correspondence seems strikingly unambitious. I met microaggressions with mircrosuggestions. Did they make a difference? Was my voice one among many? I hope so, but I’ll never know.
Our leaders are loath to be seen as responding to external pressure of any kind. Their model allows for revelation to descend, not to rise up, as if God is not in the grass roots. Did the January 2013 online campaign Let Women Pray trigger Jean Stevens’ historic benediction in the April 2013 General Conference?6 Church spokesman Scott Trotter took pains to imply that the decision had been made months before Church leaders received 1,600 letters on this topic.7 His explanation strains credulity. What else could have prompted the abrupt break in tradition after 183 years? A coincidental revelation?
HERE IS A MODEST proposal: let’s institute a suggestion box—physical and virtual—where members can offer feedback, anonymously if they wish. The Church has public affairs directors “in every corner of the globe” who form “a vital bridge between our congregations and the communities they call home.”8 What if the role of public affairs director included not only broadcasting information to the outside world but also collecting ideas from a key constituency: Church insiders. Members. When Congressional staffers collect constituent feedback, they do not forward every email, but they do quantify trends such as favorable and unfavorable communications about gun control, veterans’ affairs, or taxes. With explicit training and modeling from general Church leaders, public affairs directors could be trained not to evaluate, censor, or correct member feedback. Instead, they could be praised and recognized for accurately compiling data and forwarding illustrative examples of recurring issues to general Church leaders.
Let’s have an annual accounting at the stake, regional, and general levels. It would be healthy to know and discuss, as a people, the issues that trouble us and the ways they may vary by gender, class, race, or region. Which policies, manuals, and programs work well? Which do not? What good ideas are incubating in the far stakes of Zion? How can these issues influence our leaders’ agendas, priorities, and prayers?
Activism does not spontaneously erupt in a vacuum. Rather, activism is the inevitable result of mounting pressure held too long in check. Activists are not born but made, often driven by the absence of a process for raising their serious and legitimate concerns with some prospect of dialogue and perhaps even change.
As a church, we desperately need a transparent two-way process for giving and receiving feedback without judgment or recrimination. At this point, I would be grateful even for a culture that could tolerate feedback without bunkering down or battering the already-bruised messengers. The alternative is grim: continued attrition, greater insularity, irrelevance.
We believe that God will yet reveal many great and important things. But, as Joseph Smith knew, only if we ask.
- Handbook 2: Administering the Church, 21.1.24, https://www.lds.org/handbook/handbook-2-administering-the-church/selected-church-policies?lang=eng#21.1.24 (accessed 16 January 2016).
- Ezra Taft Benson, “To the Mothers of Zion,” http://fc.byu.edu/jpages/ee/w_etb87.htm (accessed 2 January 2016).
- Table of Contents, Ensign, November 1988, https://www.lds.org/ensign/1988/11?lang=eng (accessed 10 January 2016).
- “The Sustaining of Church Officers,” April 2008 General Conference, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2008/04/the-sustaining-of-church-officers?lang=eng (accessed 10 January 2016).
- “General Authorities and General Officers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Ensign, May 2014, https://www.lds.org/ensign/2014/05/general-authorities-and-general-officers-of-the-church-of-jesus-christ-of-latter-day-saints?lang=eng (accessed 10 January 2016).
- Peggy Fletcher Stack, “First Prayer by Woman Offered at Mormon Conference,” Salt Lake Tribune, 12 April 2013, http://archive.sltrib.com/story.php?ref=/sltrib/news/56116507-78/church-women-general-prayer.html.csp (accessed 15 January 2016).
- Joseph Walker, “Will a Woman Pray at LDS General Conference?” Deseret News, 19 March 2013, http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865576256/Will-a-woman-pray-at-LDS-general-conference.html?pg=all (accessed 15 January 2016)
- “Welcome to Public Affairs,” LDS.org, https://publicaffairs.lds.org/ (accessed 16 January 2016).
Dana is absolutely right, as usual. In fact, if the Church had adopted her suggestion a few years ago to implement some form of emeritus status for apostles, we’d probably find today’s members enjoying a much greater voice in the Church.
I’ve had the same experience with letters to Church leaders. It’s hard to tell if any have had an impact because, as Dana notes, authorities want change to be viewed as emanating from above, not below.
Among my letters were a couple urging the Church to get rid of “totally” in the temple recommend interview (“Are you totally honest . . . ?”). I have no idea if the letters made any difference, but “totally” was eventually dropped.
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