Beliefs Columns Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Why this Mormon girl wanted to be a Mormon boy


Guest blogger Mette Harrison in 1979.

A guest post by Mette Harrison

This photo shows me as I looked in fourth grade. At age nine, I made a conscious decision to masquerade as a boy as much as possible, mainly at school, because I hated being a girl. Specifically, I hated being a girl in the Mormon world. I’m aware that this evaluation at my young age lacks nuance, but I also think that it showed some keen observance of differences in opportunities in Mormonism.

What I saw as a nine-year-old was that in church, many of my interactions with women were corrections about things I was doing wrong, ways I wasn’t being a proper girl.

I didn’t do my hair and nails properly. I sat “wrong,” with my legs spread apart, forgetting that my underwear showed when I didn’t cross my legs. I hated fancy shoes and tended to wear sneakers to church if my mother didn’t notice (she had ten other children to worry about).

I got stains on my clothes, sang too loudly, talked too much. I answered all the questions and didn’t let anyone else have a chance.

Now, I could chalk most of this up to what has turned into an adult diagnosis of autism, but I think it was more than that. While autism has certain social disabilities, it also has some wonderful aspects that allow me to see through social expectations to deeper issues, including the lack of respect for women and girls that permeates almost all patriarchal cultures.

Mormonism is not exempt.

From my child’s perspective, boys didn’t have to wear uncomfortable dresses because they were supposed to look “pretty.” Boys didn’t have to cross their knees. Boys weren’t hushed and told to let other people have a chance to speak.

Boys learned that they were going to get the priesthood when they turned twelve. Boys got to pass the sacrament. Boys went on missions. Boys stood up and conducted meetings. I saw clearly even at that young age that women were invisible to the power structure of the church.

So that year, I asked my mother to cut my hair as short as a boy’s, and she obliged. She thought that all she was doing was giving me a “practical” haircut. Then I asked if I could get new clothes for school and for my birthday, which was at the beginning of the school year. My mother insisted we shop at Sears because their clothes were durable and affordable. That was fine with me. After we looked at the impractical girls’ section, I directed her to the boys’ section and collected corduroy pants and dark-colored shirts. My mother was glad to get them because they’d be easier to keep clean.

Because we had just moved and my name was mangled in translation, I became “Ette,” which I told everyone at my new school was pronounced “Eddie.” For the next several months, I had a chance to see what it was like to be a boy at school. I got to play rough and tumble and say gross things, and there was no stigma.

I can’t say that in the end, I wanted to stay a boy. It turned out there were things boys couldn’t do that I’d taken for granted as a girl: play jacks, give hugs, cry, and have close emotional friendships. At the end of fourth grade, I went back to being a girl and grew out my hair. In fifth grade, it was no longer a question since I started growing breasts and was obviously a girl.

But the experience lingered in my mind and I suppose I became a budding feminist, even if I’d have rejected that label.

I asked questions in church in my teen years about what it meant when people talked about “the path to the celestial kingdom” when what was described was a purely masculine path. All the examples given were of men, either in the scriptures or in church leadership.

Did you have to have the priesthood to become like God? Did you have to serve in a leadership position? Did you have to serve a mission, love scouting, and wear a white shirt and tie? Often, I was told to be quiet (again), that I took up too much time with my silly questions. I was told that of course there was a slight difference for women, but that it didn’t matter.

But it did matter. It mattered to me that we rarely talked about the women’s path, even in Relief Society. We lionized male church leaders, but didn’t seem to have the same view of female leaders. Be like these men, we were told. But don’t be like men. Be women. It was honestly quite confusing.

Because of all this, I think I saw gender roles as precisely that—roles people play, not inborn qualities that are attached to one sex or another.

As an adult, I see some “updates” on the roles of women in the church, but many of the same strictures that frustrated me as a child. The emphasis on women looking a particular way seems obvious in images of women in leadership who seem to wear similar outfits and even have similar hairstyles and makeup.

I hear less about the sole purpose of women being child-bearing and child-rearing, but when Mormon women quote leaders, they are male authorities. I’ve watched as feminists in the church push for more talk of “Heavenly Mother,” but am honestly not sure that this is any help if Heavenly Mother’s just refashioned in the same image of a caretaking, submissive, “proper” woman.

That was what I wanted to escape from at age nine anyway.

Also by Mette Harrison:

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • Except for the brand of religion, this sounds like my life. I left Christianity in all forms at 14 years of age. Until the age of 17 I went through the motions to appease my father. At that age a decent paying full time job had me working Sundays.

  • I admire this woman’s strong desire at an early age to present herself to the world exactly the way SHE wanted, not the way other people were telling her she should. It’s always encouraging to read about such confident, self-assured young people. It gives me hope for the future. Kudos to her parents. They obviously raised her well.

    The bravery she exhibited in trying to be true to herself in a culture that actively sought to suppress her freedom of expression at a young age is truly admirable. It’s also admirable that she could immediately identify the inequality between between the sexes in a patriarchal structure, resist it, and call it out for what it is (if only to herself.)

    So many people are petrified at any deviation from strict gender norms. It tends to make the delicate house of cards on which they’ve built their entire lives come crashing down. So they lash out whenever someone threatens their gender normativity out of a place of fear. I can appreciate their fear – but only to a limited degree.

    In life, we often have to learn how to grow, move beyond the absurd limitations we place on ourselves, and accept the fact that everyone has both X and Y chromosomes in them, along with varying amounts of estrogen and testosterone. In the end we’re all just a bunch of chemical reactions swirling around together.

    Which begs the question why Mormons and other branches of conservative Christianity expend so much spiritual and emotional energy trying to get everyone to fit into neat little boxes. It’s all so unnecessary – and draining!

    Nature delights in God’s wonderful diversity. It’s a pity people don’t. They’re missing out on so much. And they just end up being miserable because of it. Life’s too short and Shakespeare was right: “to thine own self be true.”

  • Mormonism cannot be the answer here when Mormonism is the source of the problem. It is the sad conclusion that every abused Mormon kid comes to once they survive the abuse and find healing as adults. The scary thing is in the number of abused Mormon kids that never really overcome it enough to heal.

  • Even though I am not Mormon I live in a state that is home to a huge amount of Mormons. Mette, what you did as a child was brave. Your mom was super brave. I would guess your dad was often challenged by the leaders. However, taking on those issues at such a young age is hard but wow so worth it. It does sadden me that your questions went unanswered because you are female. I find it really inspiring! Thank you.

  • I understand her childhood issues perfectly. As a non-feminine budding lesbian, I was not only bullied by the other kids but had a bishop who for eight years verbally abused me not only in his office but also in front of the other youth. At the age of 20, I realized that no matter how hard I tried I was never going to be the kind of woman the church demanded. I ended up leaving the church so I could be me. Thirty years later, I know better than to believe the line I would be accepted. Honestly, I couldn’t even meet the dress code!

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