ARLINGTON, Mass. — Three decades ago, Carolyn Caci, a recently divorced Mormon convert, joined a congregation here presided over by a young church leader named Mitt Romney. As the local bishop, Romney conducted annual interviews with all the members of his flock, and he used his time with the newcomer to express both his disapproval of divorce and to remind the middle-aged woman, who had begun dating again, about the church’s opposition to premarital sex.
“I got awfully mad,” said Caci, now 80. “I told him it was none of his business and he said it was.” Romney persisted, she said, and also warned her to avoid consorting with a group of devout but independent Mormon women who had eased her transition into the church. Caci said she reported her “run-in” with Romney to those women, who published a Mormon feminist journal titled Exponent II.
They were “appalled at the fact that he was harassing me, which is basically what he was doing,” she said.
Caci left the church soon after.
Romney’s interaction with Caci marked a low point in what she and the contributors to Exponent II describe as Romney’s pilgrim’s progress from tone-deaf enforcer of doctrine to a more mature and tolerant pastor of the feminists in his flock.
Romney, who declined to comment for this article, is now a potential Republican nominee for president. In this election, he has embraced his long and active membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to parry accusations that he lacks consistency and a “core.” But some of the women who witnessed Romney’s tenure as the highest-ranking Mormon authority in Boston, the epicenter of the church’s women’s movement, offer a more nuanced portrait.
“He evolved,” said Barbara Taylor, a former president of Exponent II who went on to serve as personal assistant to Romney in the Massachusetts governor’s office. “He is an entirely different person now.”
Romney, fresh from graduation from Brigham Young University, arrived in Boston in 1971 to enroll in a joint program of Harvard’s business and law schools. His wealth and pedigree as the son of a former governor and presidential candidate made him stand out. But at that time, he was far from the only young and brilliant Mormon on Harvard’s campus. Many of those Harvard and MIT graduate students came with their wives. Animated by a spirit of intellectual freedom and historic scholarship blowing out of Salt Lake City, and a feminist movement sweeping the country, those women started discussing where they came from and where they were going.
In Harvard’s Widener Library, one of the women stumbled across a volume of a turn-of-the-century Mormon women’s publication called Exponent. The long-forgotten journal revealed that Mormon women, despite a reputation downtrodden from polygamy, had been among the country’s most vocal suffragists. The discovery inspired the women in Boston to pick up where their ancestors had left off.
On a recent afternoon in this Boston suburb, Nancy Dredge, a 67-year-old descendant of Mormon apostle Brigham Young, carried a brittle sheaf of Exponent II newspapers into her living room and read aloud from the top of the stack.
“Exponent II,” she read. “Poised on the platforms of Mormonism and Feminism.”
The early years of Exponent II coincided with the so-called “Camelot” period in the church, marked by uncensored scholarship and debate.
“Suddenly things that seemed unchanging, you realized, my goodness, things change,” said Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a historian at Harvard, co-founder of Exponent II and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize in history. She said that Romney and other prominent church members “may or may not have liked it, but they were aware of it. I remember holding events in the church.”
The glasnost was short-lived. The church unceremoniously removed the intellectual movement’s figurehead, Leonard Arrington, who had backed Exponent II with early seed money, from his official position as church historian.
The hierarchy also waged an aggressive campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment, which the church considered a threat to its central emphasis on childbirth. Church elders then demanded that Claudia Bushman, the editor of Exponent II, “shut the newspaper down,” Bushman said in an interview. She explained that the church feared that the status of her husband, Mormon scholar Richard Bushman, as the Boston area’s top church leader, would create the impression that Salt Lake approved of the paper. A letter-writing campaign by the Exponent II women led the church to allow the paper to continue publishing, but Bushman had to resign. “Being as they told me directly,” she said, “I did feel as though I had to quit.”
“It was sometimes terrifying, because Salt Lake started excommunicating all these people,” Taylor said.