Demise of the BYU Women’s Research Institute

On October 29, 2009, Brigham Young University announced that it would be closing the Women’s Research Institute, the program which housed the university’s women’s studies minor. I am fortunate enough to know someone who was previously affiliated with the WRI — my wife Ariel, who taught at the WRI in the summer of 2006. I have invited her to share her thoughts on this event.

Three years ago, I had the opportunity to take a break from my Ph.D. program at Duke and spend a summer as visiting faculty at the Women’s Research Institute at Brigham Young University. Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, director of the Women’s Research Institute, invited me to teach Introduction to Women’s Studies, the core course requirement for the women’s studies minor, during BYU’s spring term. In need of both teaching experience and money, I agreed to teach the course even though I had a number of reservations about doing so. First of all, I had been a student at BYU for 5 years and had never even known they taught women’s studies courses at all. Was anyone going to enroll? But more importantly, I was fresh out of a graduate women’s studies course at Duke, an institution with a “real” women’s studies department and an active feminist agenda. I did not want to teach anything but a serious women’s studies syllabus—something I could teach at any university that would deal with touchy issues such as female sexuality. And was I even allowed to say “feminism” at BYU without ending up in my bishop’s office? Would it be like my previous two summers of teaching Book of Mormon in the religion department, where veteran religion professors regularly snuck into the back of my class to evaluate my orthodoxy?

I was glad to find that my fears were largely unfounded. Ballif-Spanvill, a highly intelligent and well-educated woman with the kindly appearance of an elementary school teacher, had mastered the art of treading lightly around the powers that be in order to keep the WRI largely autonomous. Because of her political savvy, the WRI was a haven of academic freedom for feminist scholars such as myself. While there, I was given free reign over what I could teach, the materials I could use, and the topics I could discuss. Ballif-Spanvill even tried to help me get through the BYU “honor code” computer filters to conduct my research on pornography. But what amazed me most about the WRI is the freedom I felt there not only as a feminist but also as a LDS scholar. While discussing issues such as sexual abuse, lesbianism, body image, and sex work, I was able to speak more openly and confidently about women’s issues than I ever had before because of the religious demographic of the classroom. While we discussed many of the same subjects that would have been part of the curriculum at any other university, there was also a place for testimony and for the reconciliation of fact with faith. It was a unique experience and one that I will never forget.



I had toyed with the idea of returning to the WRI one day when BYU was willing to put more resources into women’s studies and would finally fund some regular professorships in the WRI. Instead, the administration has decided to eliminate the WRI altogether, supposedly “streamlining and strengthening” the women’s studies minor by relocating it to the sociology department. I am skeptical. While the elimination of such a relatively-unpopular minor may seem like the logical choice in the midst of a serious economic recession, the administration of BYU must consider the long-term results of this choice. Women’s studies is not only a department but a symbol of social progress and a commitment to equality at universities around the world. It can be of no coincidence that the WRI was founded in 1978, only shortly after LDS African Americans were allowed to hold the priesthood and in the midst of debate over the Equal Rights Amendment, an era in which both BYU and the Church were seeking ways in which to express their dedication to racial and gender equality. Has the need for such visual symbolism ceased in this time of Proposition 8? Hardly.

In emphasizing the symbolic value of the WRI, I do not wish to demean the actual academic value of women’s studies at BYU. The WRI has served over the past thirty-one years to pursue specific goals central not only to the feminist agenda but also to the Gospel of Jesus Christ: to promote the education of women, to recognize and eliminate the exploitation of women, and to end violence and abuse of women. In light of these considerations, one might even argue that the goals and achievements of the WRI are of greater social, political, and even eternal importance than those of most other departments at BYU. Yet in eliminating the WRI and burying the women’s studies minor in the sociology department, the administration is marginalizing these aims and reinforcing to the world (once again) that money-making lawyers and accountants glorify God better than engaged citizens sensitized to social injustice and committed to change.

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17 thoughts on “Demise of the BYU Women’s Research Institute

  1. Thank you for this post. I was a Woman Studies minor at BYU and I worked for projects funded by the WRI; I can't tell you how unbelievably sad this move makes me. I think you're right; the WRI is a symbol and with its closing I feel the church is tacitly saying that they think anything progressive is dangerous. I hope I'm wrong but it's becoming more and more obvious that I'm not.

  2. unfortunately, i'm really not surprised by this move. but it is indeed a tragedy. i completely agree that if the church and BYU are in fact committed to gender equality, they should not be closing the institute. of course, i'm not really convinced that the church and BYU actually are committed to gender equality beyond the rhetoric that gets spouted at conference and in the ensign about equal partnership. the reality is one of inequity.i wish there was something realistic that we could do to protest this closure.

  3. You aren't making any sense. From your description of the Institute, there was nothing being taught or done that couldn't have been in other departments and programs across campus. Eliminating it makes sense because you can have the exact same content and work being done without the overhead. The church has always stood for gender equality and whether BYU has a women's research institute or not doesn't change that.

  4. This is beautifully said.Anonymous, I entirely disagree with your claim that the things the WRI does can be done just as effectively in other departments. Yes, many individual research projects can be done well in other departments, but as soon as you remove the central, collaborative, multi-disciplinary element of Women's Studies, other forces inevitably crowd out these important research projects. Furthermore, like Ariel said, the decision to shut down this program impacts more than the BYU community – it sends a message to the world that this prominent LDS university doesn't value women. Whether that's true or not, that's the message this decision will send. Heaven knows it's already hard to help people outside of the church see the church for the pro-women organization it truly is.

  5. I appreciate your perspective. I worked as a research assistant at the WRI for 2.5 years. I learned a lot, and it helped me see that I could pursue graduate studies and be successful if that is what I chose to do. What makes me sad is the loss of that work experience for the students that support the research projects. It was invaluable for me.

  6. It is hard to say it is going to send some big message to the world , when many people are saying they never even knew the WRI existed in the first place. ( I didn't!) It is possible that MORE people will find this and take more of the classes if it is tucked in a bigger mainstreamed Sociology department ( I totally might have! ) Especially if they make it so those classes fulfil a GE that my sociology class filled. Now that I think back on it, I totally did a project on gender, and expectations IN my sociology class.

  7. Thank you for this post. As a BYU graduate, I am embarressed by the closure of the Women's Research Institute. Moving the courses and staff to other departments not only changes the symbolic value of the program, but is also bound to influence the academic approach taken as well. This should be a serious academic venue, not an afterthought. Thank you for your comments.

  8. @Amelia, Anyone who thinks that the Church does NOT stand for equality of the sexes doesn't understand the Church. Mormon scripture and temple ceremonies are swarming with "sacred feminine" stuff. Just because men have penises doesn't mean they're better, and the Church knows it. Just because Mormon men have the priesthood doesn't make women any less powerful in the Church.-A Feminist Mormon Wife and Mother

  9. Dear Esteemed Blogger,The Institute has been a central location for all aspects of academia at Brigham Young University that related to women. Its main accomplishments have been: 1) educating female students regarding gender-related personal challenges, 2) providing women throughout the Church with opportunities to learn about and discuss women’s issues particularly as they pertain to spiritual development, 3) improving the professional life for female faculty members at Brigham Young University, and 4) promoting the scholarly study of women’s development and contributions to families, communities, and societies.Within the last twenty years of record-keeping, no other university in the country has eliminated its center of research concerning women.This is a BIG deal. We, as students at Brigham Young University are speaking out for those who cannot or will not speak for themselves. This is our legacy. We have already begun speaking up and reaching out to those involved in the decision-making process. We want answers from the people responsible, and we would like you to help by spreading the word, as well. We implore you to make this a topic on your blog within the next few days- time is of the essence!Please add the following links to the official press release, our Facebook group, the WRI blog, and MOST IMPORTANT, ask your readers to inform themselves and SIGN THE PETITION!!!!http://supportwri.blogspot.com/This is the official website of our movement and has a copy of the petition to electronically sign.It also includes addresses where people can send letters and links to other sites with more information.http://wri.byu.edu/index.phpWRI's offical sitehttp://news.byu.edu/archive09-Oct-womens.aspxBYU's official press releasehttp://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleWRIFarewell.htmla slightly different view of the whole thinghttp://www.facebook.com/home.php?#/group.php?gid=169442383235&ref=tsour facebook group page KEEP IN MIND: This is not an action AGAINST the LDS Church or its Leaders. This a human issue affecting those who are involved in the research of the WRI and those who would benefit from that research. Thank you so much for your help! Your voice is an invaluable assett to the cause. Kind Regards, Cassandra ScheererKatie VaggalisSara Vranes

  10. Thank you for posting this. I have had the opportunity to be one of the main student organizers of the movement to preserve women's studies/WRI at BYU. After reading your post again, I feel encouraged that our voices will be heard. And I hope that one day you will find that BYU will be able to offer a professorship in Women's Studies. Please pass along the online petition for this cause, found at http://www.supportWRI.org Again, thank you.

  11. Is there a Men's Research Institute? Is there gender equality with one but not the other? I don't think so.Well, maybe. But to be fair, do we have to send the message to the world that women are treated unfairly and thereby convince women that they have fewer opportunities? I was in Logan and talked with a Black returned missionary who fell on hard times with the Church because after his mission, a woman told him how good it was to see a black man in the temple. Until then, he had never felt different. Yeah, he had a different color of skin but he had never been treated differently. Her comment mas the first time he'd been spoken differntly to and he wasn't prepared for that. So we keep on telling women, oh, you are so special and equal to men, implying with our patronizing message that they should have some reason to believe otherwise.Hey, this isn't the 1970's when doctors were men. We don't have to keep telling women that they, too can be doctors. What is it that you have to tell women that they can be?Do you really believe a man's or a woman's worth is greater outside of the home? Start teaching Heavenly Father about how His purposes for our happiness are centered in careers and if He listens and believes, maybe His prophets will get the message too. In fact, I bet they will. But first you have to let God in on your secret and do it fast. Get His ear before the sociologists who are discovering that it is family relationships that bring the deepest joys.

  12. So I ranted. Yeah, maybe we need a WRI. I can't tell. But to believe that men who don't have the strongest commitment to patronizing messages is absurd. Sometimes adults need a little patronage. Many people whose comments appear here imply a belief that women need a healthy dose of that. I'm sure some do. I could have used a healthy dose of patronage as a man, with all the male bashing that women have given themselves to in recent decades. I didn't get any and I'm having to recover from it on my own. Just remember that there are two sides to every coin. Some commpent complains about "conservative old men" not patronizing women but the moment one sounds patronizing, there goes up a howl of accusations and complaints. Just remember that some of you impose impossible standards on men (and on women) as to how we are to fund and speak to and about women – that we must send the patronizing messages in subtle yet glaringly obvious ways so we can appear patronizing without appearing "patronizing." It's a no-win game that some feminists impose on everyone but themselves. No wonder some commenter inferred that the feminists at BYU are not among the men's eligible dating pool. Too bad for the co-dependent men that haven't realize this! I'm glad I finally have. I prefer women with a testimony of God over women with a false testimony of feminine inequality. A woman who has a testimony of God knows her equality and doesn't have to continure trying to prove it to herself – or to others in hopes that they will give her permission to abandon her testimony of inequality. The Twelve know that they can't do your work for you. They can only try to give you permission to abandon a false testimony of inequality. If you have struggles with your female identity – whether struggling to not feel exceedingly superior, or inferior, to men or to God's standard for you, you might try the protocol on a free download at tatlife.com It's helped me. Believe me, women's messages about men are brutal. Even at the Church Women's Conference some speaker pretended to know something demeaning about all men, saying that the priesthood brothers just can't understand women getting together without anyone competeing to be the top dog. Oh, come on! I've never seen such competiton among the priesthood in all my youth or adult years! And this is a leading woman in the Church? Such drivel! Such sexist teachings! If I were to believe that she were a prime example of LDS women, I'd think my fear of marriage was appropriate! But I give a lot of LDS women better credit than that. If she isn't struggling with her sense of vast superiority, she should. If you know who I'm speaking of, you can forward her the link.

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