My son was at Trek this week and I had a crisis over the pictures of the part of the trek called the Women's Pull. I've spent a lot of time thinking, researching, talking to people about it and I need to write down what I've learned so I don't forget.
Here are my problems with the Women's Pull portion of trek:
1. It is often based on historical lies.
Many stakes are still using the Mormon Battalion and men called on missions as the reasons justifying making the women pull the handcarts alone. These are lies. The Mormon Battalion ended before any but Brigham Young's vanguard pioneer company left (of the official pioneer companies--there was one independent one that left in 1846, but ended up overwintering in Pueblo, CO, and didn't make it to Utah until after the Mormon Battalion was released). That was ten years before any handcarts left. And, while many missionaries traveled home from their missions with the handcart companies, the handcart men were not called on missions from the handcart treks. The families were largely immigrants, still trying to get to Utah. They were not known by the leadership in Utah who were calling people on missions. I have found zero evidence of any family on a handcart trek being divided by missions.
Also, the women are usually forced to pull through a difficult, sandy, uphill track because "that's what the pioneers did." But we have documentary evidence from the women there that pulled alone showing that when they reached difficult, sandy spots, they went off the trail to pull on the harder ground around the sandy worn places because it was easier. Remember, these women were ON the treks because they were problem-solvers, trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. They didn't do things the hard way when an easier way was clearly evident. We should not be telling people they did and therefore we must do it the hard way, too. Sometimes we have to, thanks to the rules of the landowners letting us use the land, but we shouldn't say the pioneers did when there is first-person evidence saying they didn't.
There are valid reasons to have the women pull alone. Many women pulled handcarts without adult men in their group. Overwhelmingly, the women who pulled alone planned it that way. Additionally, there were a decent number of women whose husbands died during the treks of the Willie and Martin companies, so that could be a reason (although there were also men whose wives died--so why not do a men's pull?). Also, there was a great deal of "sprawl" on the actual treks, so a group could find itself facing a tough part with no help unless they waited for someone to catch up or for the company to notice they were missing and send rescuers. I can't find any other valid reasons to stage a women's pull, though.
Why does this matter? Because if people have a highly emotional experience, they're likely to remember it. And a lot of people cite the women's pull as a time they learned a lot. If people have intense learning experiences and later find out they were centered around a narrative that was a lie, it can be faith-shaking or even faith-shattering. Plus the Holy Ghost can't testify of untruths. So why take the risks? Also, the church has put out a trek handbook that specifically says to not use the Mormon Battalion as justification for an optional women's pull. So we ought to follow the instructions.
2. We don't teach people to do right things by forcing them to do wrong things to see how it feels.
Often, for the women's pull, they purposely set the women up to have a very difficult time, and purposely line the men along the track to watch but forbid them to help. The most common thing I've heard about the women's pull is that the boys learned so much by being forbidden to help when they knew they should, and feeling so sad watching the women suffer and not helping.
I'm sure it's a powerful lesson. Just like having the boys rob a bank and take the consequences to know that robbing a bank is a bad idea.
There must be a better way of teaching them to notice when people are struggling and step in to help than by forcing them to do a wrong thing so they realize it's wrong. We don't force people to do wrong in order to show them it's wrong.
3. It's not okay to teach people to stand by and watch people struggle or suffer without offering to help.
When we are participating in a simulation, we are practicing behaviors. That's why we do driving simulations in driver's ed. That's why we role play to teach kids behaviors we want them to have. The pioneer trek is a simulation.
When we line all the boys up and have the girls pull carts through a very hard part down the gauntlet of boys, what are they practicing? Watching people suffer and not helping. They are practicing telling themselves things like, "I can't help that person because it might offend them," and they're practicing wanting to help and seeing that it turns out okay without their help, so they don't really need to follow that urge to help.
I have been the one struggling and had people tell me they had the urge to help but figured I had it all together, or they'd seen me pull through before and figured I'd be okay. It was devastating. I had actually needed help.
We do not want to train our youth to suppress the urge to help. This is inexcusable. No matter how many words you use to justify it, or what you think you are teaching them, the thing they practiced and rehearsed doing was the wrong thing.
4. The risk of emotional manipulation is huge.
The women's pull deliberately sets up a highly emotionally charged situation--that is fake--and then tries to use those strong emotions to teach a lesson. I have a serious concern about deliberately setting up a highly emotional situation and then telling the kids it was profoundly spiritual. Maybe it was for some people, but the risk is huge that as a result, kids will learn that huge emotional reactions are the Spirit, or that they aren't hearing the still small voice if it isn't big and loud. Remember, the scriptures state explicitly that the voice of God was not in the whirlwind. The voice of God is still and small but pierces to the center. When we are emotionally manipulating people by setting up situations that are inherently emotionally powerful as part of our lesson, we actually risk confusing people about the nature of God's voice and how to hear and obey Him, or even how to identify Him.
This is not to say people have powerful spiritual experiences doing the women's pull. Who am I to say what's going on in their hearts? But it's awfully hard to distinguish between highly spiritual experiences and highly emotional experiences for most of us, and it's very risky to teach the youth that the voice of God is in the emotional whirlwind, when for many of us the emotional whirlwind has to blow away before we can hear the voice of God at all.
Also, setting up emotional situations to try to force people to feel the way you want them to feel (sad, strong, excited, etc) may be effective, but it's also manipulation. Some people don't mind--they love being made to feel things, and it helps them remember. But some people hate being manipulated and feel very bitter and angry about it. Any time you are deliberately trying to create emotion, that's a manipulation and needs to be done cautiously (if at all) because it can turn people away from the lesson you are trying to teach, or even away from the gospel.
Emotional manipulation from someone in charge to prove a point potentially damages trust, and is not a tool that should be in a teacher's tool box as a matter of course, but it is often a huge part of people's trek experiences (burying flour babies, or being attacked by mobs, for example).
5. There is a huge risk of accidentally teaching that women really are weak and always need help.
My son came away from the women's pull saying, "They had it. They were fine. They didn't need our help." That's the right lesson. When the girls have to run a gauntlet of boys while doing something difficult, we are reinforcing to the boys that women are weak, even if they succeeded at the end. What they see is that women just need help. What they don't see is that men just need help, too. It reinforces the men are strong, women are weak narrative. The reality is men are strong and weak, and women are strong and weak.
I would be much more comfortable if everyone had to pull through that section short-handed, with too few people on the carts, even if we gender segregate them (historically, there were as many carts pulled by small groups of men as there were by small groups of women). That way everyone learns that they should help everyone else because they all felt how hard it was to go through a bad experience with no help. We learn to help by needing help, not by watching someone else need help and practicing not helping.
6. We should never make a spectacle of people who are struggling. People, in the midst of trials, are not object lessons.
Having women run a gauntlet of able-bodied people who are declining to help when they could use a hand is just cruel. Making them work hard is great. Making them work hard and struggle while people gawk is horrible. And in appropriate. We recognize this in real life: we don't have women labor to give birth in front of an audience, we have people get help for poverty in private, we don't make people deal with the flu in front of the whole congregation while they sit and stare. I mean, who even thinks this is okay?
So, this all sounds like I think the activity should be cancelled permanently. I don't. As a designer-of-educational-experiences, though, I think it needs to be restructured and carefully designed to teach the good things people learn, to stick firmly with the truth, and to avoid the bad lessons that come from the structure of the activity and the habit people have of just doing what the previous people did. My own son didn't seem to have trouble with it, thanks to his perception that the girls weren't struggling at all to pull up the hill, and also his ability to laugh off the historical errors they introduced with the activity. But I really think you can influence more people for good if you design things that stick to truth so the Holy Ghost can testify of truth, and design things in a way that teach only good and light and right messages.