I’ve Been a Mormon for 75 Years. Here’s What I Know About the Church and Assault.

Jennie Willoughby describes how her ex-husband Rob Porter was abusive to her. Photo: Courtesy of The Washington Post

The most shocking thing about the outing of Rob Porter this week is not that there is another accused wife-batterer in the White House — it’s who did the outing: his Mormon ex-wives. Mormon women pretty reliably show up in comedy and drama as naïve, passive, and sweet mothers; gentle women who do not take the reins in blowing up an abuser and a criminal. In bringing down Porter, Jennie Willoughby and Colbie Holderness defied their church bishops, who had dismissed their allegations about how he punched and choked them, and instead went public. They shared photographs, and details of the alleged abuse, and refused to back down — even in the face of a president who doubts them. To see Mormon women take on a Mormon man of such stature is quite a new image.

I’m a 75-year-old woman, and I’ve been a Mormon my whole life. I am so proud of these breakers of the mold, these bold and honest survivors who have taken a well-protected bull by his horns and refused to give up.

Mormon women often ask ourselves if we are “too nice” and “too timid.” In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we are urged to speak up and take a stand on important issues of the day, but we acknowledge that we are culturally socialized to be polite and gentle to the point of being submissive. In talks by our leaders, women held as role models are typically described as modest, humble, and kind, people who accomplish great things through quiet persistence or meekness. We tease each other about how often we begin a sentence with “I’m sorry, but …” Or if we decide to criticize something, we say, “I don’t mean to be mean, but … ” Often, we back down from our firmest declarations of disagreement and anger.

And if a woman acts in ways out of sync with this style, she is usually shunned. Administrative and teaching roles in Church congregations are filled by members who are “called to serve” by a local male leader. Women who are “called” are likely to be charismatic and energetic — but still able to appear docile and dutiful. Women who seem to have mastered the art of leading with an air of the eager harmonizer are the ones who rise to the “top” spots in a congregational or ward hierarchy.

Women habituated to this style of interacting with others are perhaps not the best prepared to fight back if they are mistreated. In our church, the abuse of women by men is not new. And in the last decade it has been widely discussed, and acknowledged as a problem. Yes, there are manuals for ward bishops that are intended to help them deal with the complaints of women who describe abuse — but everyone knows about incidents of spousal abuse in every ward, which still often go minimized or ignored. When Colbie Holderness confided in her bishop about Porter’s alleged abuse, he cautioned that filing a protective order could harm her husband’s career. Jennie Willoughby says her bishop did not respond to her complaints about her husband being “physical” with any great concern.

When I first heard about Rob Porter, I recalled all the other Mormon women who have sat in my living room telling me similar stories. The day Porter resigned, I posted an article on Facebook announcing the news, and before the day was over, more sisters reminded me of their abuse histories at the hands of Mormon ex-husbands.

All day I had emails or private messages telling me new tales of the same. I can say without exaggeration that over three decades I have heard at least 40 such stories directly from the victims. And I can’t count the number of reports from others who are conscious and concerned.

Are Mormons worse than other people? Of course not. But I have a special kind of sympathy for a very large demographic subset of women in this country, women who have not been well-taught to defend themselves.

I also know, of course, many fine Mormon men. But I also know men who laugh together in a group, often at church, enjoying the collegiality and sense of united brotherhood that they expect to continue, while ignoring the fact that at least one of them — I knew — had left a battered wife at home. Women have told me that sharply hypocritical moments like these are among the most difficult to recollect — those times when they had repeatedly told a bishop about how their husband hit or punched or shook them, and then went to a church event and had to watch that same bishop interact with the abuser/husband, as though he were the most innocent of men, enjoying a good time together.

Despite this, over the last five or six years, I have seen evidence that Mormon bishops are maybe learning to handle reports of family violence better. Many now recommend professional counseling, or in extreme cases recommend calling the police, even standing alongside a woman to support her calling the police and filing a claim. But this is still new. And these are not all Mormon bishops. Many are just like the ones that Porter’s wives described. They warn against going public or making an accusation to law enforcement, or even having the bishop talk to both of them to indicate that he knows what is going on, so as to keep the stories of abuse quiet.

It’s worth noting that this doesn’t come from nowhere. The church’s actions are coupled with attitudes preserved from the 18th-century writings of Cotton Mather, who praised the quiet, uncomplaining, long-suffering women in his congregation and called them virtuous because they never made a scene or called attention to their trials. He said, extolling them, “well-behaved women seldom make history.” His words were made famous by Laurel Ulrich, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Mormon historian who quoted them in an article in 1976, only to have them become a call to action for women who wanted to be the opposite.

But while Laurel was “our Mormon sister,” and she made us proud, many in our culture found it uncomfortable to rally around this phrase. I live near her in Boston, and there are more bumper stickers with her famous cry on the streets around here than in parking lots at Mormon churches. Most Mormons find Cotton Mather’s viewpoint more palatable than Ulrich’s: Righteous women are gentle, mild-mannered, and meek, particularly in the company of men of authority. It is common to hear Mormon women praised for being strong, but in truth they are being praised for showing that strength in self-effacing, deferential ways.

When these values permeate the culture, it is no surprise that women in Mormon marriages typically manifest humility, not boldness, in the face of conflict. Mormon women often discuss their ambivalence about being called “nice.” Are we too sweet, we ask one another? If there is a problem, it must be our fault, and that means it is ours to fix — but quietly, and without boasting or drawing attention to our success in the process.

When the Rob Porter allegations emerged, I wondered if this might be a moment of #MormonMeToo. But after throwing around the idea with me for an hour, a friend observed that for all the Mormon women posting about their anguish — privately, in direct messages on Facebook and Instagram — there was almost no Twitter patter. A #MormonMeToo hashtag existed, but there was no activity there. Which, she noted, was the whole point of #MeToo. Tell the world! Spread the word! Nope. As soon as we proclaim our truths, we Mormon women fall over one another trying to drag it all back under the rug.

What 75 Years in the Mormon Church Taught Me About Assault