A Utah Feminist’s Tale of Activism and Perseverance

DENVER AND SALT LAKE CITY VIA PHONE: Kate Kelly—an activist and lawyer based in Salt Lake City, Utah—has long been a campaigner for human rights. She did a stint in Somalia addressing sexual violence accountability and once donned an orange jumpsuit to protest the Guantanamo Bay detention camp on the lawn of the White House.  Ms. Kelly, 36 years-old, even recently slid her hands into a pair of gold boxing gloves and spoke to thousands of women’s rights protestors at the Utah State Capitol following the Women’s March in January. All the while, presumably, keeping her cheerful personality and good humor.

But while fighting against global injustices, she’s known her share of personal adversity as well; one year after co-founding Ordain Women—an organization that advocates for the ordination and inclusion of women within the Mormon Church—she was excommunicated from the church, which she had been a member of all of her life. It was, she admitted, a rather devastating experience. “It felt very jarring to be able to speak up about all these other causes but not to be able to speak up about my own exclusion,” she said. Yet, she added, it was something she felt she had to do as an advocate for human rights. Ms. Kelly continues to work for gender equality and co-founded the grassroots Utah Women Unite in late 2016. She recently told her story to  EXCERPTS:


KIRSCH FELDKAMP: What made you interested in human rights in general and women’s rights in particular?

KELLY: Ironically it was my Mormon upbringing that channeled me into human rights because we’re taught all people are children of God. Also, my parents were intuitive feminists and raised me [to believe] that I was equal. Then I was a Mormon missionary in Spain. For the first time [I was] exposed to people I’d never been exposed to before. I met undocumented immigrants and worked with people suffering mental health issues, and got this very wide experience. So, when I came home it felt like a natural transition to want to fight for those people


Photo: Kate Kelly (wearing gold boxing gloves) addressing protesters in the Utah State Capitol.

Why did you start a movement to ordain women in the Mormon Church?

During Mitt Romney’s [2012] presidential campaign people kept talking about Mormonism. It’s just that perennial fascination that Americans have because of its quirks. Nobody was talking about what I felt was the most politically salient [point], which is that Mitt Romney participates in an organization that fundamentally excludes women from all positions of power. I had been gathering all these skills: I had a law degree, I participated in all these other groups.  So I was particularly well placed and trained and had the appropriate skills to make something like this happen.


Do you think it was easier because you were not living in a predominantly Mormon community at the time?

I was in the Washington, DC area and so I think that both allowed me a little bit of insulation and to be exposed to different people. In Utah, you’re largely going to be exposed to traditional Mormons depending on where you live. But honestly, I think the most important thing is how supportive your immediate family is. The thing that helped me the most and was the most unique wasn’t where I lived, it was [that] my family was so extremely supportive.


That must have been very important for you.

My parents, my brothers and sisters–all [of] my family for the most part is Mormon, so not everyone in my extended family was on the same page but the core people [were]. You know most Mormons or women involved in the [Ordain Women] movement have had their parents disown them. It’s a huge social shunning, that’s very painful. That didn’t happen to me.


Kate Kelly and other ERA supporters protesting.

In February a Mormon man wrote a letter to the editor in a local Utah paper that went viral. In the letter, he criticized Utah State Senate Bill 210, which addressed the gender pay gap by saying that men “are considered the primary breadwinners for families” and therefore should make more money. What were your feelings on that?

The problem is that the people who responded with horror are not the people who make decisions in Utah. The people who make decisions in Utah largely agree with him. So, I think people elsewhere were very shocked but women in Utah were like “Yeah, we literally deal with that every day.” I’ve heard people say that exact same thing at the Utah state legislature repeatedly, which is about 93% Mormon.


Since you started Ordain Women the question of whether to ordain women or not has become commonplace in Mormonism. Do you feel like that’s accurate?

100%,  yes.  Before Ordain Women started, the reason it was so brave for us to put our names and pictures on a website is because when we started you could count on one hand the Mormons who would publicly advocate for female ordination. It cannot be emphasized enough how taboo this subject was before.


Do you think you will see women being ordained in your lifetime?

Things can change. In 1978 they decided that they would ordain black men contrary to their previous policy and so you never know. I think the Mormon Church has two options at this point: To either become a more inclusive, open place or the other is to dwindle into obscurity like most major faith traditions.


So what does the future hold for you?

I’m starting my own law firm [in Salt Lake City]. It’s called the Gender and Intersectional Rights Law Center. The acronym is GIRL–so the Girl center. One of the only remedies to protect women is through the court system and I have a law degree so I decided to start a non-profit law firm to represent women in strategic litigation and to educate. So, we’re going to do “Know Your Rights” trainings, divorce clinics and [provide] wage claim information because the wage gap [in Utah] is the second largest in the country. The only one worse is Louisiana.

by Kristin Kirsch Feldkamp

All images courtesy of Kate Kelly. Photo of Kate Kelly in gold boxing gloves by Dave Brewer.


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