Mormon women and the “Sisterhood of the Modest Pants”

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Desiree Miller

(courtesy of Desiree Miller)

pantsThe last of our three winners in the New Mormon Voices blog contest is here, a fresh and fun take on women’s solidarity within the LDS Church. (Click here to read the other honorable mention essay, “Love That Cries with You,” and here to read the grand prize winner, “Pork-Belly Up.”)

In “Sisterhood of the Modest Pants,” honorable mention recipient Desiree Miller describes the “culturally rule-breaking pants” her younger sister wanted to wear to church growing up. As an adult, Miller ventured forth to church in her own transgressive trousers on Wear Pants to Church Day, wondering what kind of reception she would receive . . . [JKR]

“Sisterhood of the Modest Pants” by Desiree Miller

At eight years old, my sister addressed her distress at being female. She began wearing “boy” clothes, had her hair chopped off, and discarded me, her older sister, in favor of hanging out with our brothers.

Our mother fought with her for years over the appropriate clothing to wear to church. At first, she forced dresses and skirts upon my sister. Eventually, they compromised on dress pants and a modest feminine blouse. Other Primary children asked about my sister’s clothing, curious about or perplexed by the culturally rule-breaking pants.

Adults, on the other hand, criticized.

Due to Selective Mutism, an anxiety disorder which renders one unable to speak in certain social situations, I’ve always been known as the “quiet one” and have often gone unnoticed. Growing up, I overheard many rude comments and condescending lectures about my sister’s pants. I once stood behind two women complaining to each other about my awful mother who allowed her daughter to wear pants to church. Truly, our Heavenly Parents must have been turning over in their kingdom to see a young girl so disrespectfully comfortable.

My family became inactive due to various illnesses, and my sister’s gender identity continued to twist and shift as she grew. Happily, the inactivity allowed my sister to explore her gender identity without a constant barrage of shaming at church.

I was re-activated when I received a calling in the nursery. I love being with young children because they are the only people I can reliably talk to without my anxiety being triggered. You don’t worry about being judged when you are talking to someone who might unabashedly poop their pants in the middle of the conversation.

I became more involved in feminist Mormon spaces online and the idea of Wear Pants to Church Day came up. The thought was for women to wear pants as a way of showing solidarity with those who might feel on the fringe or even ostracized from their Mormon communities. There is no doctrinal rule against women wearing pants to church, but it can certainly be seen as a cultural transgression.

I decided I would don the divisive pants in honor of my sister’s fluid gender identity. I wore the best pair I had and wondered if anyone would lecture me, an adult woman, on my clothing choice or talk about me like they had my sister.

As I sat through sacrament, I thought about a conversation I’d had with one of my nursery kids a few weeks prior.

She had informed me that girls had to wear dresses or skirts to church and that they had to cover their shoulders. She asked if I knew why girls had to cover their shoulders and I told her I did not know. She leaned in close to my face, whispering, “Because shoulders are a secret, shh!”
She then warned me that if you wore a dress without sleeves, you had to wear a sweater over it so “God will still love you.” Taken aback, I tried to tell her God loves everyone, no matter what they wore, but she seemed dubious.

So as I walked to nursery in my black slacks, I feared, for the first time in my life, that a three-year-old would judge me. I worried I might confuse or even distress her by breaking the rules she’d been taught and that she might cope by lecturing me.

I made it through the after-sacrament hubbub without incident and arrived at nursery to find the three-year-old already sitting at a table alone, coloring. When I walked in the doorway, she looked up at me and exclaimed, “Miss Des, I LOVE your pants!” She then invited me to sit next to her and color while we had a lovely discussion about play-dough.

I felt free those two hours in nursery. Free to move without worry of having my skirt accidentally pulled down or up by little hands. Free from immodest judgment. Free to genuinely love everyone for who they are. Free to hope we can all look past the culture dividing us and instead simply see our fellow brothers and sisters as people to sit with, work with, and have respectful discussions with.
Last week, my mother wore pants to church, explaining, “I have nothing else to wear.”

I smiled and said, “Mom, I LOVE your pants!”

Desiree MillerDesiree Miller calls Massachusetts home. She has a B.A. in English from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth and hopes to pursue a master’s in education soon.

She is currently a stay-at-home mother to her infant son and likes to write poetry during his naps. 

In honor of Desiree’s winning essay, a $50 donation has been made to the charity of her choice, the Women’s Center.

  • Corey

    I LOVE your story !

  • Me too. Thanks, Desiree, for having the courage to share it.

  • Eric Facer

    Excellent, Desiree. Most enjoyable.

    Several years ago, an inactive girl in our last ward, after considerable prompting by some of her Mormon friends, attended Young Womens one evening only to be publicly remonstrated by a leader for wearing a skirt that was too short. She was told not to return until she could dress more modestly. That church leader got her wish—the girl never came back.

    My daughters witnessed this episode and have never forgotten it. Today, they are both wonderful mothers and very active in the church, but they are quick to come to the defense of those who are on the receiving end of Pharisaical intolerance.

    Thanks again for your essay. I look forward to the day when the Ensign will muster the courage to print stories such as these.

  • john

    Oh Eric
    I am saddened to hear of that experience. Too often leaders have acted rashly or harshly – wanting to apply the rules but doing so in a way which is not helpful.
    Can I say more generally to the story – I enjoyed it and found it very cute.
    If any of the nursery leaders in our ward wanted to wear pants to better fulfil their callings I certainly would have no issue with it and can’t imagine anyone else would.
    IMHO what you wear is entirely immaterial to the spiritual motivation for your attire. If you come with a humble and reverent attitude of devotion you will be welcome in our sacrament meeting whether you are in jeans, a sack, or a suit.

  • David

    Yes, yes, yes! For the love, let them wear pants!

    On my mission in South America a recent convert arrived the day after her baptism expecting to be confirmed. But she was wearing pants and the Bishop said it would have to wait. I don’t blame South Americans, they were clearly following Utah’s lead. But what message are we sending to a new convert when we deny an ordinance because of pants? It’s the same message we send to all women.

  • David

    I should add that after a conversation with the Bishop he decided to confirm her in pants.

  • Liz

    The pants drama reminds me of when “they” cracked down on flip-flops at church. I remember a similar incident in young women’s where an inactive girl came wearing flip flops and they talked about it in church that day. I felt bad for her–having to feel insecure over her shoe choice. How was she supposed to know?

    And of course now I know that it was a silly thing to crack down on in the first place.

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  • I’m glad to hear that he changed his mind . . .