Women don’t get a fair shake in the Mormon church. They are barred from the ministry. They can’t even join a lay priesthood that is open to boys as young as 12.

Boys also have the opportunity to be troop leaders in the Boy Scouts, which have a “pronounced role” in the church, “but girls have no similar outlet with the Girl Scouts.” More surprising to an outsider is that women are not expected to go on the iconic two-year missions to spread Mormonism (the same missions that form the backbone of the plot of “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway).

Some women have decided it is time for them to get the equal treatment they deserve from their religion. As a symbolic and peaceful first step, on Sunday, December 16, some Mormon women wore pants to church.

This was revolutionary, even though there is no official church policy against women wearing pants. The Facebook page that had been used to organize the event saw a comment posted threatening that “Every single person who is a minority activist should be shot … in the face … point blank … GET OVER YOURSELVES ….”

The overwhelming reaction was negative. The New York Times reported that some women decided “they could not participate because they were fearful of ridicule or reprimand.” A bishop near Las Vegas opposed the initiative: “‘I think wearing pants is not liberating,’ he said. ‘Liberation comes from inside. I’m not sure they have a clear understanding of the church’s position on gender.’”

That position is “that women’s roles are different, not lesser,” Ms. Magazine’s Blog writes. But “Mormon women’s rights advocates argue that men are given complete control over church management, and therefore have power that women do not.”

The battle over pants vs. skirts is a familiar one to feminists, going back at least to the age of bloomers. While skirts can be nice and breezy on a spring day, they can also be the attire of the victim: they restrict movement, making it harder to run. They also provide easy access to the genitals. While these are never the explicit arguments skirts’ proponents make, and may not even be part of their conscious reasoning, it is hard for them to argue that women should wear skirts because they are more modest. The skirts Mormon women wear to church often reveal their legs, at least up to the knee, which pants do not.

Theorist Thorstein Veblen wrote of skirts that they disregard the wearer’s comfort, and in that way are “evidence to the effect that in the modern civilized scheme of life the woman is still, in theory, the economic dependent of the man – that, perhaps in a highly idealized sense, she still is the man’s chattel,” because her clothes restrict her from some economically productive activity.

The bedrock reason religious leaders want women in skirts is to mark them as different from men. Orthodox Jews follow the same principle: women and men shall not dress the same. This comports with the Mormon ideology that women are different than men, though “equal.”

Our nation had the sad occasion to witness up close the effects of that belief during the Jim Crow era. It doesn’t work. Either women have the same opportunities and authority as men, or they are not equal. Wearing pants is a peaceful and subtle protest against Mormon sexism, and I hope that the brave women who have begun the movement will see it through.

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