They’re women. They’re LDS. And they’re speaking their minds on politics.

Hundreds of Idahoans joined Mormon Women for Ethical Government, eager to shape Idaho politics

By: - September 28, 2022 4:30 am
Four women sit on a sofa and chairs in a living room

Members of the Idaho chapter of Mormon Women for Ethical Government who live in the Treasure Valley got together in August to discuss Idaho politics. Shown are, from left: Cindy Wilson, Kathy Sasser, Margaret Kinzel and Rebecca Bratsman. The group has members in all regions of the state. (Courtesy of MWEG)

Women from across Idaho joined a Zoom call on a Wednesday evening in mid-September. There were teachers. A school board member. One woman who is running for office, and one who ran in 2018. They gathered virtually from their corners of the state to talk about public schools — and how they, as members of the Idaho chapter of Mormon Women for Ethical Government, could influence education policy.

The Idaho group began taking shape about five years ago, following the creation of the national nonprofit Mormon Women for Ethical Government. Many of the members are women who — faithful to a religion that tends to be culturally conservative and Republican-aligned — describe being alarmed by the increasing vitriol and manufactured outrage in Idaho politics.

The women of MWEG are politically diverse, said Jennifer Walker Thomas, co-executive director of the national organization. The group is nonpartisan, with members whose beliefs span the liberal-conservative spectrum. They are stay-at-home mothers, employed outside the home, single, married, “they just really run the gamut of what women experience,” she said.

Nationally, the MWEG organization is focused on protecting democracy, bipartisan immigration reform, environmental issues and anti-racism efforts. State chapters have leeway in what they choose to work on to further MWEG’s mission at the state level, Thomas said.

Like the greater MWEG organization, the Idaho chapter hit its stride when the pandemic pushed gatherings online.

The Idaho MWEG discussion group on Facebook welcomes members into conversations about Idaho policy and politics, but it sets boundaries to keep those discussions productive, members said.

The main MWEG organization has thousands of members who contribute money, volunteer time or advocacy work and who participate in online discussion groups whose rules stress civility and finding common ground.

There are about 250 women affiliated with MWEG who live in Idaho. The Idaho MWEG private discussion group on Facebook had about 200 members as of mid-September.

The organization’s membership is open to all women — even those who aren’t part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “as long as you don’t mind that most of us are,” the membership website says. Members must abide by the group’s “Six Principles of Peacemaking” — such as choosing “love over hate” and demanding “great tolerance for people and none for injustice.”

Men cannot join, but they can choose to support the group through a “Friend of MWEG” membership.

There are a lot of women who, six years ago, would have said, “Oh, I'm absolutely Republican.” But they now no longer necessarily identify as Republican, but they still feel inherently conservative.

– Jennifer Walker Thomas, co-executive director of MWEG

Looking for a place to talk about politics with truth and respect

Rebecca Bratsman grew up in a family with mixed political beliefs. That made conversations around the dinner table more interesting and thought-provoking, but they were respectful and fact-based discussions, she said.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, it was like people lost their minds,” said Bratsman, a 40-year-old writer from Boise who joined MWEG in March 2020.

She was teaching English to students in China when the pandemic hit. As Bratsman witnessed her students living through the early days of the novel coronavirus, the virus was already politicized in the U.S.

It was “around the time people were calling it the ‘Chinese flu,’ and I was like, ‘That is racist. You know that, right?’” Bratsman said.

She went looking for a forum where she could talk about what was happening in the U.S. and the world. She found the MWEG Facebook group.

“I joined the group, and I came in swinging. I was ready to argue,” she said, laughing.

But the group has ground rules. One of those rules is that some topics are off-limits — same-sex marriage and abortion, for example — because they have proven to be incendiary even in a group that strives for rational debate.

“Part of the discussion group is to teach women, you have to have boundaries to discuss things,” Bratsman said. She has learned to apply those boundaries in her conversations, pausing a heated discussion to say something like, “What you said to me is a personal attack, so please rephrase.”

Bratsman took on a role for MWEG in helping to inform members about media literacy and misinformation.

Her research and practice over the past two years has helped her to reach across political divides in her own family. Her siblings and friends with differing political beliefs now approach what they read online with more skepticism, sometimes sending her a meme or article with a request to fact-check it with them.

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Idaho MWEG chapter shows up to the Capitol

The state chapter of MWEG has the same political goals as the national organization: protecting democracy and the environment, bipartisan immigration reform and anti-racism efforts.

The chapter encourages its members to participate in the legislative process and contact lawmakers to advocate on the issues that are important to them, their families and their community, Idaho chapter coordinator LaRae Harris Wilson said.

Wilson was among several Idahoans who testified at a hearing in March against a bill to create new reporting requirements for organizations that help refugees.

A woman stands at a lectern to deliver a statement to Idaho Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee, with a few people sitting in chairs behind her
LaRae Harris Wilson testifies before a legislative committee in March 2022, opposing a bill by Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, who is seated at left. Wilson is the Idaho chapter coordinator for Mormon Women for Ethical Government. (Screenshot of video recording, courtesy of Idaho In Session)

The LDS church and its members are active in support of refugee resettlement efforts.

Wilson described her own experience with those efforts, urging the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee to consider the bill’s potential unintended consequences — such as religious organizations losing their tax-exempt status.

MWEG wanted the committee to hold the bill, she said.

“… When we start talking about a presumption that reporting and vetting in refugee resettlement are lacking or inadequate, (that) usually leads to conversations that foment fear and increase anti-refugee sentiment, and we don’t want to see that conversation take place again on the Senate floor,” Wilson said. “So we ask that you hold this bill in committee. We feel like, at best, it would have a chilling effect on community assistance; and, at worst, if enforced as written, it would be government harassment of private charitable organizations.”

The bill died in committee after the hearing.

Mormon Women for Ethical Government plans for upcoming legislative session

The next legislative session begins in January, and MWEG will continue to follow bills that relate to refugees and immigration. “That is informed by our faith: that we are all children of the same God,” Wilson said.

They also will focus on efforts to preserve voter rights and fair elections.

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“That will be something we will have our eye on all the time,” Wilson said.

One of the chapter’s roles is to help “encircle” members in the Gem State, to build supportive relationships within the group, according to Wilson.

“That encircling is pretty comforting when you’re trying to figure out what to do with your angst,” she said.

The women who gathered on Zoom this month were eager to improve education in Idaho, for all students. MWEG’s Idaho chapter hosted the hourlong meeting on education because members were hungry for information, Wilson said. “This continued to come up over and over again.”

One of the members of MWEG is Cindy Wilson, a longtime educator who ran as a Democrat in 2018 for Superintendent of Public Instruction. She was defeated by incumbent Republican Sherri Ybarra.

Wilson got involved with the Idaho chapter of MWEG about a year ago, she said.

Members of MWEG support the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that was attractive to her as a member of the LDS church, Wilson explained. The church’s doctrine is not partisan, just like the group, she said.

She believes many of Idaho’s active LDS women would feel at home in the organization; she hears from women whose experiences and beliefs don’t align with the intense polarization that drives politics at the Capitol. Wilson attended an in-person meeting in Boise this summer, and discovered that two MWEG members live in her neighborhood in Meridian.

Wilson saw a role for herself as an educator and advocate for policy that makes education accessible to all Idaho children and young adults.

The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it shall be the duty of the legislature of Idaho, to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.

– Constitution of the State of Idaho

Wilson is a board member of the nonprofit Idaho Children Are Primary and found her work dovetailed with her conversations in MWEG, she said. “That’s when I really started getting much more involved in it and aligning with (MWEG) at the state level.”

Idaho MWEG members met throughout the legislative session, and some worked to support all-day kindergarten, she said.

The previous year, the chapter penned a letter to state legislators, urging them to accept funds for early childhood education in Idaho.

“One of the things that I get excited about is, because we have so many women in the state who could participate in this group, we could be a powerful voice for ethics, for peaceful resolution, for kindness,” Wilson said. “I want to see this group grow and really become loud advocates against extremism.”

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Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Audrey Dutton, senior investigative reporter, joined the Idaho Capital Sun after 10 years at the Idaho Statesman. Her favorite topics to cover include health care, business, consumer protection issues and white collar crime. Dutton hails from Twin Falls. She attended college at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York City. Before coming home to Idaho, Dutton worked as a journalist in Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Dutton's work has earned dozens of state, regional and national awards for investigative reporting, health care and business reporting, data visualization and more.

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