Mitt Romney’s Best-Known Mormon Critic Tells it All. One Last Time.

For years, now, the press has been beating down the door of Judy Dushku, a Mormon feminist, global women’s rights activist, and professor at Suffolk University. It was Dushku who during Romney’s Senate run in 1994 broke the now infamous story of Romney’s pressuring a woman in his congregation not to have an abortion even though her life was in danger. That’s a brave stance to take in a community that prizes conformity and group loyalty. 

But Judy Dushku is ready to stop serving as the media’s go-to on Romney’s issues with women. She’d like the whole story to be told. But she’d like the press crush to end. After all, she’s busy these days founding an initiative to foster economic self-sufficiency among women in Uganda. 

I’ve known Judy for twenty years. With her graying hair in its bobbed cut, her twinkling blue eyes, her African jewelry, and her matter-of-fact presentation, she’s a beloved figure in Mormon feminism and a role model to young Mormon feminists. We sat down for breakfast in Boston recently. Our goal? To get the whole story of Mitt Romney’s most famous Mormon critic told once and for all. Her message? Yes, Mitt has issues, and no, he does not represent the whole Mormon story.


Joanna Brooks: Judy, you’ve been busy fielding press requests. But I understand you’ve got more important things to do than focus on Mitt Romney—like, helping women in Uganda build their own homes and businesses. So for one last time let’s tell this story from the beginning. Tell me about how the press found you.

Judy Dushku: I’ve had calls from all over the world—newspaper outlets, public television, NPR, panels, morning talk shows. People want me to talk about how I knew Mitt when he was the leader of my congregation.

And he was.

My bishop and stake president. Because he held those roles, it meant that I should be respectful and welcome him when he came to my home and that I should accept callings (church service assignments) from him. I’d had other bishops I’d felt comfortable talking over personal or spiritual issues with. I learned, though, that probably Mitt was not that person. 

Not all bishops are alike in their pastoral or counseling abilities.

Right. Later bishops treated me with respect. But Mitt was still adored by many people in our ward, especially many who wanted to learn to be in business. He was a great influence in that regard. Some successors even emulated and reflected his style. My family was a bit different, though. It was the 1980s, and I was a divorced single mother—not typical for Mormonism—and I felt that in the Belmont, Massachusetts ward where the Romneys and others lived, my children were not perceived as useful or as having any contribution to make. I considered moving to a different congregation where they would be valued, but was told by my bishop that Mitt (then the stake president) felt my moving away from Belmont would be a disservice to my sons because in the Belmont ward, they had role models for being good Mormon men. My gut told me differently: that if I kept them around Belmont, they would leave the Church because this group made them feel unusual. There were times when I would ask the congregation’s Boy Scout troop leader how my boys were doing, and he would say “pretty good, considering.” And I would ask, “Considering what?” and he said, “Considering they don’t have a father.” This was in the 1980s. 

Mitt Romney came up through this highly conventional, by-the-book LDS environment where young men are groomed for leadership from the time they are 12 years old, if not younger.

Yes, he was very invested in the grooming of young men, and the families most valued in the ward were cohesive and had successful strong husbands. I do know Mitt took his home teaching [an LDS program that assigns male members to visit families in the congregation monthly] very seriously and there were families who loved him because he would really go out of his way for them. But I was different, somehow. I was not “weak” in terms of “to be worried about in a pastoral way,” but different in that I had needs, but had some idea of ways I might be served. I felt that he wanted to tell me what I needed without my input. He did not want to hear what I said.

One of the major questions I’ve been hearing from the press is how Romney relates to women as peers.

I was in China when Mitt launched his Senate campaign in 1994. When I arrived home, the tape on my answering machine was full of messages from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and so forth, all saying, “We know that you’re a Mormon feminist and a political scientist and you’re in his ward. You’ve worked in Massachusetts politics around women’s issues. Please talk to us.” I immediately called Mitt’s home, and Ann answered. She encouraged me to go down and visit with him at the campaign office. When I entered the office, there was a table to my right where I saw women from the ward working. I said, “Hi,” and he asked, “What brings you here?” I told him I was interested in politics, that I heard he was taking a pro-choice stance, and that I was wondering if, as a Democrat and fellow Mormon, maybe I could work for him. I wanted to understand his stance better. “Yes, I’m definitely for choice,” he said. And I said, “Great, we agree on that.” Then, he said, “In Salt Lake, they told me it was okay to take that position in a liberal state.” I said, “That doesn’t make me quite as happy. I’d rather know you really believe it.”

At this very historical moment, in the early 1990s, Mormon feminists who voice pro-choice sentiments are taking a hit from Church-owned institutions. BYU Professor Cecilia Konchar Farr was effectively fired in 1993, one of the factors being her giving a pro-choice speech at a political rally. It’s striking that Mitt believed he had been authorized by LDS Church leadership to take a pro-choice position.

Right. And that’s why I continued to try to understand his point on the issue. I asked, “What about women who might be on public assistance?” He said, “I would never have the state provide for abortion.” I said, “For a lot of Massachusetts women that won’t work.” He got very restless and stood up and said, “I am pro-choice; is there something else?” And so I asked him how he planned to address the recent excommunications of Mormon feminists, which had been covered in the New York Times and Time magazine. And he said, “What’s your question?” I said that a lot of people think they were not excommunicated for misconduct but for their views. Mitt said, “With any bishop who excommunicates a woman, I will not question his reasoning. I will support the bishop.” Then, he said, “Well, I don’t think we have much to talk about,” and I told him that I had at least wanted to try, and I gave him my best wishes. But I realized that I could not work for him. 

I think these stories are consistent with what we’ve seen of Romney so far in the campaign: deeply pragmatic, by the book, to the point of being abrupt, dismissive of other points of view, and petulant when pushed or questioned.

I felt too that people should understand that he was ambivalent about being pro-choice. So I went home and called the Boston Phoenix, and I told the abortion story, and they published it. Then, the Boston Globe said they thought it was an important story. We had previously published the story in the Mormon feminist publication Exponent II. I went on record for the Globe as the source of that story. I was fairly intentional because I felt people should know that when he says, “I’m pro-choice,” he has a lot of ambivalence about that.

Once the story came out, Mitt said, “What are you trying to do to me? I thought we were friends. And now you’ve come out from the woodwork. You’ve never been active in politics.” I told him, “I’ve been very active in politics; you just don’t know what I do. I teach politics, my office is next door to the state house, I’ve been in the Massachusetts women’s political caucus.” Mitt said, “Well, I didn’t know that.” I said, “That’s not a surprise; you’ve never asked.”

As the campaign went on, other issues came up. Like when Ann was talking at an event and showed herself to be quite out of touch with what workfare was and what it was doing. She was booed by mothers who had babies in their arms. She had told them to stay home with their babies and they tried to explain that the law would not allow it. Most of them were black. She was just unprepared, and I felt sorry for her, and mutual friends in Salt Lake City asked me to get in touch and help her be more prepared. I knew that wouldn’t work, but I did want her to get help. 

I know the press has contacted you from the beginning seeking “the dirt” on Romney. There’s just not that kind of dirt, is there?

Right, I’ve told reporters they were barking up the wrong tree. Mitt is a loyal husband, and he is conscientious. But he is incredibly entitled and feels like his story is the most important.

Which he tries to balance, as I have seen happen in Mormonism, with very humble roll-up-your-sleeves hands-on service to the most vulnerable members of a congregation or community. But your experience seems to suggest he’s not comfortable with a robust give-and-take exchange of ideas, especially with people outside his circle.

If you were ever at a ward party and sat down with your plate of food and found yourself at a table with Mitt and five other men, you would just expect that you wouldn’t be in the conversation. No one was particularly unkind, but there was an in-group made of up those who were in the circle of male leaders—many Harvard Business School types—and their wives. I was spouseless, and I didn’t live in Belmont, but Watertown, which is economically less privileged. I tried and always came to church, but it was often awkward. 

So even though you told the press that there was no “dirt”  of the kind they like best, they kept seeking you out.

I kept interviewing about Mitt. It was not that I had specific horrible stories to tell, it was that I felt people should know that he was not a caring man, particularly when it came to women. He once said to me, “Judy, I don’t know why you keep coming to church. You are not my kind of Mormon.”

You know, giving interviews—that’s breaking some unspoken Mormon cultural rules: like speaking outside the official chain of command, and only saying positive things about Mormonism in public, even if it skirts a complicated truth. 

I felt like I never exaggerated and told it like it was. Once Mitt called me and demanded, “Why does the press always go to you and not to women who admire me?” I told him, “I always give them five or six names and numbers, and the press says, ‘we’ve gone to them, and they won’t talk.’” I said to reporters, “I can only tell you my experience, and my experience is that he’s not accepting of people who are different, particularly women who are single who he has to deal with one-on-one.” Lots of women told me, “Don’t give the press my name anymore,” some because they had negative things to say and were afraid; others were just afraid because they didn’t want to talk to the press. 

For example, I went to the gym one day, and in the locker room met up with two young Republican Mormon women from our ward. I said, “How are you? What’s new?” And they said, “We’re working for Mitt at headquarters.” “That’s fabulous,” I said. “It’s a great way to get to know Massachusetts. Are you having a good time?” One told me that he put Mormon women to work only in a particular place in the campaign. She said, “Sister Dushku, you’re right. He treats women from outside [of Mormonism] wonderfully and with such respect. Women from the New York Times and businesses in Boston come, and he is the most respectful and relaxed person. He says ‘hi’ to us but we are so clearly on the sidelines. We’re not criticizing him, and we still support him, but we do think of you when it happens.”  

There have just been so many things that were said—so many indicators of his disinterest and a certain attitude towards frivolousness of women’s issues, that I took that away with me and it stayed as my image of him. I did not seek the press then, and I have not sought the press now. After Mitt lost his Senate campaign, I went up to him, and I asked, “Can we be friends now?” He said, “No, never.” Someone called from Mitt’s inner circle and told me that the inner circle had met the night after the election and decided that more than anything else, I had ruined Mitt’s chances.

They blamed his election outcome on you? And they called you to say that?

I said, “Thank you. That flatters me to think that I had that much influence over a whole state of voters. I’m flattered you think I’m that powerful. I think there were a lot of things in the campaign that fall on Mitt’s shoulders and yours.” “But why did you fight him so much?” the inner-circle guy asked. “Because we disagree,” I said. 

This contravenes another cultural norm, which is that Mormons should stick together. How did you come to be so independent?

I grew up as a “military brat”—living all over the country, but going to high school in Michigan. I went to BYU and tried very hard to fit in like the kids from Arizona, California, and Utah. I dyed my hair blonde. I joined the Young Republicans. I went to Cleon Skousen lectures. And I wanted to get married, go to Washington, and work in the State Department. At the very last moment, with no boyfriend to talk me out of graduation, my professors talked me into applying to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, and I got a scholarship. It shocked me, but I went to Boston and the Fletcher School. I was the very straight arrow Mormon girl; the one who drank from the separate punchbowl. Then the Vietnam War swept me up, and I began to question everything.

I was hired by Suffolk University and I fell in love with teaching. Suffolk was an iconic working-class university—in the 1960s that meant working-class first-generation-college white immigrant families. I had young men negotiating grades with me because if they didn’t get a C, they’d get drafted. I investigated how people avoided the draft and became very aware of class divisions in Boston and America at large. The war really turned me into a social critic, a thinker, introspective about who has power and who does not and the role of interest groups and elites. That’s when I met Boston’s Mormon feminist community and got involved in the women’s movement in politics. I’d gotten married and was facing workplace challenges—no maternity leave with my first child, and I had to pay my own substitute. My husband was a working-class immigrant from Albania, so I learned a great deal about immigrant life. In my life and in my teaching politics at the university, I became a strong critical thinker about power. 

At the same time, I always wanted to stay a Mormon and fit in. I was able to do so in more diverse congregations, even after my husband and I divorced and I was a single woman with four little children in tow. I have had every intention of being an enthusiastic active Mormon mother.

And you’ve always been active. Now you hold the position of Stake Relief Society president, which is a position of authority over the women in several congregations—parallel to the position of “stake president” once held by Mitt Romney. And you’ve started your own humanitarian organization.

When I was in Africa on university-related business, I learned a lot about child soldiers in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and I wanted to do something with reintegration after war ends. Liberia and Sierra Leone were not safe enough, though. I designed a course in 2008 to focus on the rehabilitation and integration of child soldiers and sex slaves in the Lord’s Resistance Army war in Uganda. I went to Uganda, and it was an incredible experience. I came back, and a number of Mormon feminists said, “We want to go with you.” I organized a trip of Mormon women to build homes for the most vulnerable women in vulnerable neighborhoods. The first week we arrived, there were bombings. We slept at St. Monica’s, a tailoring school for girls run by nuns. Night commuter children came to sleep on the school lawns during the war—it was a refuge for thousands.

Now we have founded an NGO to build a center in Gulu, Uganda, that teaches adult literacy and juvenile literacy, and facilitates leadership training, rights training, and women’s empowerment groups. Mormon women are selling Ugandan women’s crafts in the U.S. to support their home enterprises, and we helped to build a bakery for Mormon Ugandan women in Gulu—a business of their own. My organization is called THRIVE-Gulu, Inc.  

And this is what you’d rather be doing than talking about Mitt Romney. You’d rather be focusing on women in Uganda.

Yes, but people ask me why I’m hiding out: feminists and the press urge me to talk. Young Mormons in the press reach out for a story. Anything I can say about the current campaign I’ve come to from afar, like anyone else. My only real life encounters were before he went to the Olympics. I don’t feel contentious. I haven’t got any fight in me, but it’s true that I do know him. As a feminist, I’m telling other people, don’t be afraid tell your story. But I don’t want to sound defensive. I don’t want to be involved in the fight, but when I am asked an honest direct question, I don’t like to say no comment.

It’s a challenge of this “Mormon Moment,” to convey to the press what we really care about—to respond on our own terms, not theirs. This is your chance to tell the press what progressive Mormon women do care about.

I would like for the Mormon Church not to be associated with the “war on women” because my experience is that some of the strongest and most powerful women in my circle of many friends are well-informed, active Mormon women: lawyers, writers, poets. The idea that Mitt has come to represent Mormonism makes it sound like the church has no progressive women, and I would like that misrepresentation taken away. Mormon women in my experience tend to be quite active on the same kind of issues that progressive women around the world are: women’s health, education, being at the table for policy making, ending abuse. Half of all child soldiers in Uganda were girls. All of our child mothers in Gulu were “wives” of LRA officials, so they are in their 20s now with children born in captivity, and they miss opportunities for education. They are our sisters. 

I don’t like it that we have come to be represented by a man who has no interest in a social safety net and blames those in need for being in poverty or without work. Mormons don’t believe that. He is not us. 

I get requests from Mormons around the country to do service projects in Gulu and work side by side with Ugandans. We are very clear about not imposing our ideas on the Ugandans. We have a local staff from the community who have worked all their lives with child soldiers. I feel that my humanitarian impulses are connected to the humanitarian impulses of Mormon community around whole church. The LDS Church is doing great things with global water humanitarianism. I collaborate with the local Church leaders in Gulu.

It’s a much bigger world for Mormon progressive women than Mitt Romney.

So true. And as for me, it’s certainly not that I hate him. I just love Mormons so much I hate to see us all represented by Mitt Romney. It reflects so badly on a religion that stands for better things.