In September 1996, six women in leadership roles in either the pro-life or pro-abortion-rights movement in Massachusetts laid down their political armor and met secretly in a windowless basement to have a discussion.
That initial discussion lasted five years.
Following murders that took the lives of two women at abortion clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts, on Dec. 30, 1994, women on both sides of the abortion debate felt it was their responsibility to find peace and establish an understanding so such an event would never happen again.
Jennifer Walker Thomas, co-executive director of the nonprofit organization Mormon Women for Ethical Government, told the Deseret News the bravery of these women to choose peace is a lesson that everyone could use in today’s political climate.
Earlier this year, the nonprofit group, referred to as MWEG, combined efforts with Younify to share the documentary “The Abortion Topics,” which delves into the story of the determination of these women to find common ground when they were faced with polar-opposite views.
“Our politics don’t currently offer many examples of true peacemaking,” said Walker Thomas. “And it is hard to do what you don’t see. ... No matter how strongly women feel about an issue, they can and should talk to others who feel differently, which is exactly the sort of skill we work on at MWEG.”
But, in addition to calls for peacemaking, as MWEG’s name suggests it seeks to weigh in on ethics in government.
On Tuesday, the group released a statement ahead of a vote in the House of Representatives for a new speaker. While it didn’t directly challenge the current Republican nominee for speaker, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, it raised questions about whether he was the right choice.
The statement said representatives “have the opportunity to demonstrate their enduring commitment to our constitutional system of government” and called on them not to install “a speaker who previously voted against the certification of the 2020 election.”
Notably, Jordan was one of 147 House Republicans who voted to reject the 2020 election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
MWEG’s statement continued, “As leaders and members of Mormon Women for Ethical Government, we ask all members of Congress, regardless of party affiliation, to find a pathway to the election of a speaker who has proven they will support the peaceful transfer of power.”
Like the contentious battle in the House over a new speaker, MWEG has not shied away from partisan issues where its leaders say they feel they can make a difference. Their stated goals are to foster nonpartisan peacemaking, but the organization has also seen its fair share of internal and external conflict, testing its desire for civil dialogue and bipartisanship.
The group, which decided to stick with the moniker “Mormon,” while members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints adopted descriptors such as Latter-day Saint, has received local and national attention.
In addition to its most recent statement on the speaker debate, the group called for an independent investigation during the contentious confirmation process of conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which was cited by Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey during the hearing. They also legally challenged Utah’s congressional boundaries, which were drawn by the state’s Republican-heavy legislature.
Supporters say this work is desperately needed, and focuses on nonpartisan ethical issues such as fairness and process. The aim is to unite at a time of division. But Republican critics contend MWEG has a habit of ignoring conservative voices.
Influencing public policy
In a crash course on how a bill actually becomes law, a room full of women sat in the Senate Building at the Utah state legislative complex. Two women brought their children, who crawled back and forth underneath a row of chairs. Another woman brought her husband.
The women were there for a “Day at the Capitol” hosted by MWEG.
MWEG defines itself as “women of faith building a more peaceful, just, and ethical world.” And in an article published in BYU Studies, MWEG’s leaders link their cause to that of Martin Luther King Jr., while finding inspiration in abolitionist Theodore Parker’s famous words:
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see, I am sure it bends towards justice.”
During their trip to the legislature, the women were given practical advice, like the importance of committee hearings and how to reach out to their local legislators. The two then-Utah chapter chairs who led the discussion — Melarie Wheat and Elizabeth Vanderwerken — said they managed to reach their local representatives by text and phone.
“Don’t be surprised” when they actually want to dialogue with you, they said.
One woman spoke up to express her frustration that her local lawmaker was someone with whom she frequently disagreed. “It’s almost more important to reach out, so they’re not hearing a monolithic view.”
The list of bills MWEG took a position in support of during Utah’s last legislative session ranged from expanding the state’s ranked choice voting experiment to a bill that would require training for police officers about hate crimes to Medicaid expansion.
In an interview with the Deseret News, Emma Petty Addams, co-executive director of MWEG said the organization tries to engage in areas where they believe they can make a measurable difference.
“We try very hard to not make these decisions rapidly, but to make them methodically — to make sure that there is a broad base of support amongst our members, to make sure that there are people that we can have relationships with that we trust that we can get good information from, and that it has the potential to be effective and bipartisan,” she said.
Bipartisanship is a tricky balancing act during a time when one’s partisan political identity often serves as a stand-in for your larger belief system. The partisan divide became more vivid during the years Donald Trump was president. Some on the political left saw him as a unique and dangerous threat to the nation and democracy, while some on the right didn’t just like Trump; they loved him.
Six days after Trump’s inauguration, MWEG was born.
Genesis of MWEG
Beginning as a Facebook group, MWEG has now amassed thousands of followers with chapters in all 50 states. Although the group is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, most of MWEG’s members are also members of the church. One of MWEG’s tenets is that it will not criticize church teachings or its leadership.
In fact, the first of four core attributes they uphold as “inviolable” state that MWEG “will never oppose a stand taken by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
But this of course begs the questions — what about the group’s name?
In August 2018, President Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, released a statement emphasizing the full name of the church rather than the term “Mormon.”
The church’s style guide reads, “When referring to Church members, the terms ‘members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ or ‘Latter-day Saints’ are preferred. We ask that the term ‘Mormons’ not be used.”
Walker Thomas told Deseret News this is a decision that’s constantly being revisited in their organization, despite sticking with “Mormon” some five years after the directive.
“We are not just a faith-based organization or just a Christian organization, but unabashedly and proudly one that draws from and is motivated by belief in one particular faith,” she said. “Our name as it currently stands communicates what motivates us, actually works to communicate a clear distinction from the official Church, and doesn’t pull Christ’s name or our discipleship into politics in a morally manipulative way.”
Nonpartisan or bust
Members of MWEG describe themselves on their website as watchdogs and activists who fight for ethical government and nonpartisan principles. They insist they don’t discourage political party affiliation among their members but do ask women in the organization to always choose country over party.
“We’re going to push out from both sides we’re going to ask questions, we’re going to see what doesn’t work, we’re going to add perspectives that maybe one side didn’t add, or the other one didn’t add. And then we can come to a conclusion about something that ideally will have a lasting effect, because one thing that is absolutely true is that bipartisan legislation tends to last longer,” Walker Thomas said.
But MWEG hasn’t shied away from wading into controversial — and sometimes partisan — issues. In September 2018, the group issued a statement about the sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, calling on four Latter-day Saint senators on the Judiciary Committee to suspend his confirmation until after an “independent” investigation.
In some ways, the Kavanaugh hearings were a litmus test for those on the left and right. Those on the left were outraged over the allegations, while those on the right were outraged that sparsely corroborated accusations were treated as fact and leveraged in what proved to be a highly partisan and contested confirmation hearing.
“We are not taking sides,” MWEG’s founder Sharlee Mullins Glenn told The New York Times at the time. “We are saying, because of the seriousness of these allegations, we have to suspend the confirmation proceedings so an investigation can be conducted.”
On Tuesday, its statement called on key House Republicans to “stand fast and work to elect a speaker who has demonstrated respect both for their colleagues and for legislative norms and processes,” adding “we earnestly plead with members of the Democratic caucus to work across the aisle with Republicans who are committed to upholding the rule of law.”
Legally, MWEG isn’t allowed to be partisan. MWEG is filed under the IRS as a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization that is connected to the MWEG Foundation, which is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.
If they were to express support for a particular party, they could be challenged by the IRS as being a lobbying outlet posing as a nonpartisan group and have their tax-exempt and other nonprofit benefits removed from the organization.
This is a balance leaders within the organization say they work hard to strike. But not everyone agrees.
In an article published in SquareTwo, former MWEG member Alicia Alba began her story with a warning: “I feel obliged to write this as a word of caution for any women who might consider involving themselves with this organization as it is not nonpartisan, does not follow its own rules, and can be arbitrary and capricious (instead of ethical) in its own governance.”
Alba was there at the beginning when MWEG was nothing more than a Facebook group where women of faith could express their concerns about the political state of the country. She said what drew her to the group was their vision of embodying a “peaceful, proactive, and nonpartisan organization.” But as the group gained footing, Alba told the Deseret News she started to notice conservatives were being silenced.
“So in March of 2017, I started raising concerns. Other people started raising concerns. Just saying, ‘We say we’re nonpartisan, but we’re actually not friendly towards anybody who’s expressing anything right of center.’ And there’s a lot of ostracizing, targeting, dogpiling and things like that.”
After recommending the leaders create a survey for the women to anonymously express their thoughts on the issue of political openness and see where women identified on the political spectrum, Alba said she got a lot of pushback for the idea and was told that it wasn’t a real issue.
After several months, MWEG sent out a survey. Alba said it was analyzed by a BYU research group, and the results showed that less than a third of the group identified as conservative, and that conservative women were 96% less likely to post in the group. The Deseret News was unable to independently verify the survey results, but Alba says among the reasons shared for not posting were fear of expressing a contrary opinion and intimidation from other group members.
To MWEG’s credit, Alba said, the “leadership noted the deficit and vowed to work on it, but the problem persisted.”
In 2018, Alba resigned from her leadership position to give her a needed break, but she kept her membership in the group and occasionally interacted with other members online.
Then, “On June 9, 2021, I abruptly received an email from one of the current senior directors of MWEG, notifying me that I had been removed from MWEG’s Facebook group. I was given no warning. No due process was followed. I was not told how I broke any rule. While claiming to be an organization grounded in ethics, MWEG’s current leaders ignored their own policies, procedures, and principles to remove me,” she shared in her Square Two article.
Alba stressed that although what happened to her in regard to the breaking of her connection with MWEG, she hopes it will ultimately be successful and achieve its vision, saying she believes its core values are important and valuable for women of faith who want to make political impacts.
In an interview with Deseret News, Addams addressed the issue of Facebook as a toxic environment and said “the algorithms — of social media — reward people coming in and, you know, owning each other. And so we’re very careful about how we use those spaces now and are constantly kind of evolving and changing our strategy to make them work for us and our membership.”
Walker Thomas added, “I think some of the tension has come out of the Facebook group because it’s just not the only thing we’re offering anymore. Lots of women are able to work productively in many, many different spaces and engage in what’s meaningful to them, which was always our vision. We never wanted to be an organization where women were just sharing thoughts. That’s an important part of coming to understand yourself politically. But always the drive was towards action.”
Women who join MWEG, the organization says, are encouraged to foster an educated and nuanced view of politics in order to cultivate a more informed and discerning society. As a unified group of women and as individuals, MWEG strives to advocate for ethical governance, combat injustice and actively pursue peace.
On Tuesday, the group said “we are in a moment when it feels as though much of the world is in chaos. Sadly, the chaos we are experiencing at home is being recklessly self-inflicted. It is time for our leaders to make choices that will benefit the nation, and the members of the U.S. House of Representatives can begin this week by choosing to vote in defense of constitutional government.”
The group, which seeks to inspire women of faith “to be ambassadors of peace who transcend partisanship and courageously advocate for ethical government” said it asks the nation’s leaders to “prioritize preservation of the rule of law, protection of national norms, and an absolute and unshakable commitment to the peaceful transfer of power above all other political objectives.”
In her interview with the Deseret News, Walker Thomas said her message to women was more direct and simple: You can make a difference and play a role.
“American politics needs them, it needs their participation, it needs their influence, it needs their voices, but that they don’t have to give over all the other wonderful things in their life to make that happen.”
Correction: An earlier version of the story attributed a quote to Jennifer Walker Thomas that should have been attributed to Emma Petty Addams.