In which I interview Courtney Kendrick

Monday 14 January 2013

Courtney Kendrick is one of my favourite bloggers. I know this because I always look forward to her next post, even though since giving birth last year I've found it hard to keep up with reading the number of blogs I did in the past. This past year, Courtney Kendrick's blog has made compulsive reading.

Kendrick – “C. Jane” to her readers, has been blogging since 2005. I came across her in 2008, when she was keeping the blogosphere updated on her sister Stephanie Nielson, she who may just be the most famous Mormon Mommy Blogger of all. Stephanie, who blogs at NieNie Dialogues, had been involved in a plane crash that burned over 80 per cent of her body. She survived, but it took doctors three months to declare that she was “out of the woods”. Meanwhile, Kendrick was blogging on her behalf and caring for her children. When the children were reunited with their parents and Stephanie started writing again, Kendrick found herself with a much larger readership.

In recent months she has been chronicling the story of her life on the blog, a process that has involved dredging up painful memories as well as reminiscing. Among other things, she's dealt with body image issues, depression, her first marriage – to an abusive man, and her second, much happier marriage that came with its own challenge: infertility (the topic that was, initially, the main subject of her blog). She admits that it hasn't been easy.

“I have so much more resolution and peace now that I've examined it and written down and shared it. The process was painful and redemptive.”

One of the things that's most interested me about Kendrick's blog has been her complex relationship with gender equality and its outworking in her life. In 2010 she wrote a post entitled “I am not, it turns out”, explaining her rejection of feminism and why she did not believe in gender equality.

"Equality has never done any good for me," she wrote.

The post received almost 700 comments. While her more conservative readers cheered her on with exclamations of “Wonderful!” and “Thank you!”, what seemed much stronger was the backlash. Tensions ran high in the comment section, with some readers declaring they would stop visiting the blog altogether. In addition to commenting, I even waded in with a blog post on the problem of privileged women rejecting the idea of equality, inspired partly by Kendrick's sentiments, partly by the comments she received in support of anti-feminism.

Kendrick admits that anger about gender equality was something she'd struggled with throughout her life, “ever since I was a little girl”, and had reached the point where she felt like giving up the fight.

“When I wrote that post it was like a white flag, I decided I wasn't going to carry this anger around anymore. I was going to give up, resolve myself to a life where I no longer cared about equality between me and the men in my life. Giving up seemed like what the 'good girl' would do. That post, interestingly, was the beginning of my journey to feminism. Hitting publish was the zenith of my anger. ”

The comments Kendrick received in response to that post served as a “wake-up call”. Reading through them and seeing the intensity and frustration therein made her realise what “team” she really wanted to be on: Team Feminist. She started to meet with other Mormon feminists and study what scripture had to say about inequality, as well as praying about it. But it was, in the end, writing her life story that made her realise how things that had happened to her had given her a passion for equality.

“Telling my life story was like putting together a puzzle about my life. I was able to see how my body image issues connected with the abuse I received, which connected with my feelings on gender equality.”

“Feminists are my people. I am one of them,” she decided, finally “coming out” by way of a post last month. It was entitled “I am, it turns out”. She had come full circle.

“I feel 'home' when I say I am a feminist, it feels like me. It feels peaceful,” she wrote, detailing how she grew up believing that women were less than men, and that she could only achieve worth by getting married and having children. It was the journey from this mindset to working towards an egalitarian marriage of blurred roles and shared responsibility with her second husband, Chris, that saw some of the biggest changes in her feelings.

Kendrick says she is now trying to be more proactive about her passion for gender equality, but recognises the importance of self-care and choosing to step back.

“I am a sponge for those who feel hurt, belittled or betrayed. My greatest temptation in life is to pick up everyone's battles and fight them with them - sometimes for them. I learned that I have to put boundaries around my battles, and choose them wisely, considering the energy and time I have to devote.”

She adds that one of the things (in addition to her local community of Provo, Utah, and women in the LDS church) she will never give up fighting for is her children. After five years of struggling to conceive, she's now a mother of three, something she feels she is still adjusting to. What surprised her most of all about becoming a parent, she says, was the strength of the love she would feel for her children, the capacity of her heart. Everyone loves Kendrick's posts about her children precisely because this is so evident through her writing.

Dealing with comments as a high-profile blogger can be tiring. Dealing with comments as a high-profile blogger who identifies as somewhat progressive yet remains a member of a decidedly conservative faith seems exhausting. In 2011 I wrote a guest post for Kendrick's blog, on being a Christian feminist. Considering my post did not once mention the abortion debate, it was interesting how the comments soon ran into the hundreds, a pitched battle between pro-life and pro-choice. Other readers were keen to tell me how, as a young woman, as someone who was not (at that point) a mother, I had no idea what I was talking about when I said equality was a good thing. When Kendrick wrote about her decision to vote for Obama last November, you'd have been forgiven for thinking she'd confessed to some terrible crime, or perhaps devil-worship.

The way Kendrick's blog often serves as a forum for incredibly polarised views was never more evident than last month, when feminist activism found its way into LDS church meetings, and a storm ensued. A group of Mormon feminists formed a collective called “All Enlisted” and declared December 16thWear Pants to Church Day” - a day for women to show solidarity, raise awareness of gender equality issues within LDS culture and increase the visibility of feminism in their communities. This provoked an astonishing amount of backlash from conservative church members and the members of All Enlisted found themselves on the receiving end of vitriolic attacks from men and women alike. One of the organisers received death threats.

Kendrick was one of the more well-known bloggers who came out in support of Wear Pants to Church Day, writing about it at length over several blog posts. Predictably, many of her readers weren't happy. Some comments were worded carefully and talked (in that way peculiar to the conservative religious blogger) of “disappointment”, some less so, calling her “pathetic”. So how does she feel the day changed things for LDS women?

“I went to lunch with some friends the other day and one guy said to me, 'Well, wearing pants to church achieved nothing'.”

“I said, 'What? Are you kidding me? It was the biggest moment in LDS feminist history! It was huge!' I had to realize that in my world, with my feminist friends, it achieved a lot. We are still talking about it, texting about it, emailing. It continues to inspire ideas and suggestions. And the extreme opposition, the heated comments, the death threats, I count as proof that there is work to do.”

Kendrick wrote about discussing the implications of Wear Pants to Church Day with her family, with mixed reactions. Her posts certainly have the potential to cause family conflict, so last year she took to emailing her relatives about the topics she was covering on the blog. She needed to explain her changing feelings on gender, church culture, and the family in the way she feels she communicates best.

“I gave up after a few months because I was too insecure and I often felt I was making things worse.”

Along with criticism of her feminist views, Kendrick receives a lot of pushback from commenters who take issue with the way she writes about her experiences. They have never, ever felt unequal to men, thank you very much, therefore her opinions on gender equality must be down to personal problems rather than LDS culture. In what's effectively a form of silencing, they accuse her of giving the church a bad name and being dishonest about the experiences of the LDS woman.

This almost certainly has a great deal to do with LDS blogging culture, typified by the oft-discussed stereotype of the Mormon mommy blogger, a blissfully happy mother-of-many who creates craft projects and hosts beautiful dinner parties, dresses in hip-yet-modest attire and lives an immaculately-styled life. Although she wants to make it clear that she only speaks for herself on this topic (there are, she says, “a bounty of Mormon Mommy Bloggers who would disagree”), she has a lot of feelings about it.

“When I portray myself as a traditional, creative, put-together, practically perfect woman I receive a healthy amount of feedback from readers of my faith thanking me for being a worthy representative of my church. It's like my people are accepting me into a place of respect and putting me up as a role model for their daughters or non-LDS friends.

“When I admit to challenging feelings, frustration, non traditional Mormon thoughts, or hint at ambiguity about church policy I receive a barrage of feedback to the opposite - I am a bad role model, I am damaging the reputation of my church, I am hurting the chances of our proselytizing.”

“Not all Mormon readers are this way, please know, I don't mean that at all,” she adds. “But the response is its own data.”

She admits that she doesn't always feel comfortable blogging about the more difficult aspects of life, but thinks it's time things changed.

“Mormon mommy bloggers should feel safe blogging from anywhere on the spectrum of humanity, but I am not sure they do.”

I wanted to ask Kendrick about her older sister, Page. Page appears occasionally on the blog – supporting her sister through the break-up of her first marriage, encouraging her on her journey towards feminism, spending hours at the hospital by Stephanie's bedside, mothering eight children. Commenters often mention that they wish Page had a blog. Kendrick admits she's one of the most important people in her life.

“Oh, my Page. She is a wonder. I honestly think Page couldn't blog because sitting down at a computer would contain her energy for too long. Really, she is one of the most complicated, intelligent, honest, earnest, intense, devoted and caring human beings I have ever met. She's a human whirlwind.”

When I ask if Kendrick has any final thoughts for me, she tells me how much she enjoys my tweets about public transport. It's weirdly representative of her personality, of the way she uses social media – from challenging to irreverent in an instant. Some people find it annoying, but I quite like it.


Vesuvius At Home said...

I love Courtney's blog and it's great to read about it from this perspective--the way it relates to and reflects culture and feminism from the outside. I love how you point out some reader's attempts to silence her, and by proxy other women and feminism, by saying she's hurting the church. I'm not Mormon, but I grew up in a church environment and hear many of these same arguments. The comment on publishing the first "not a feminist" post being the zenith of her anger was enlightening. And I am so, so glad to hear you mention the issues with privileged women rejecting the need for feminism. This was a great piece!

Jerusha said...

I loved this interview. And you know what? Jesus loves us feminists.

mandbrid said...

Found your blog through Cjane. Thanks for a wonderful post! Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts.

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