— 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.”

Feminist spirit

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.

In 1981, at the nadir of the Mormon women’s movement in Boston — when a top apostle was warning the church’s intellectuals to tone it down because “some things that are true are not very useful” — the church called on Romney, then 34, to act as bishop in one of its most rebellious wards.

‘Bored, unhappy housewives’

The Mormon church is a top-down institution with a structure not unlike a corporation. The hierarchy sits in Temple Square in Salt Lake City, led by the church president, his two counselors and a body called the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, many of whom are former business executives. Those 15 men exercise total doctrinal authority over the church and are responsible for the lay officials, often businessmen like themselves, who report to them from around the nation and world. In 1981, that leadership directly approved the appointment of Romney as bishop of the Belmont, Mass., congregation, a labor-intensive and unsalaried position that is considered a calling and a high honor.

Only men can enter the Mormon priesthood, which acts as the authority in the church and has the power to perform sacred rituals rooted in the Book of Mormon. Mormons believe their prophet and founder Joseph Smith translated that scripture from golden tablets revealed to him in 19th-century New York, thus ending centuries of apostasy and restoring the true church of Christ on Earth.

As bishop, Romney exercised great power over his congregation. Besides appointing staff members, from the local church librarian to choir master, he interviewed people in the congregation to determine fealty to the church. He decided who could carry a “recommend,” a physical card that serves as proof of a person’s good doctrinal standing and suitability to enter the sacred temples.

As he carried out his managerial and ecclesiastical duties to the letter of the law, Romney proved remarkably impervious to the larger cultural tides washing over the church.

“Sometimes we would have conversations and he would ask about this or that,” said Philip Barlow, a Utah State University professor of Mormon history and culture, who at the time was studying history at Harvard and working with Romney in the church. “Feminism was in the air in American culture and Mormonism in Boston in particular. There was some of that we encountered, adjusted to and touched on. But,” he added, “his concerns were pastoral and managerial.”

Romney moved the congregation with his reflective speeches, including one after he had survived a dangerous staph infection. Dredge said he attributed his healing to a “faith-affirming” experience in which the priesthood anointed him in oils, placed their hands on his head and willed him cured.

But on a more personal level, Romney had a harder time connecting. During one meeting with the church’s women’s relief society, he encouraged the wives of his peers to look after less fortunate families in the congregation, but advised that the culture shock might be difficult for them. “ ‘Sometimes, people are wearing polyester in Medford,’ ” Dredge recalled Romney as saying. “I thought, ‘Oh my.’ ”

Romney’s most strained exchanges occurred with the women of Exponent II.

“Mitt was very anti-Exponent II,” Taylor said. “He thought we were just a bunch of bored, unhappy housewives trying to stir up trouble.”

In 1982, soon after his warning to Caci, an anti-Mormon movie called “The God Makers” made its way through the Bible Belt and to the East Coast. The church sent a copy of the movie to its public relations representatives around the country, so that they could prepare their congregations to answer its attacks. The Boston area’s contact happened to belong to Exponent II, and she proposed that the group view the film to prepare for any inquiries it might prompt

“Mitt found out about this and essentially forbade us to show this movie,” said Taylor, adding that Romney feared some of the women would be vulnerable to the film’s anti-Mormon sentiments. The screening went forward but, she said, “there were a couple of people who didn’t come because they felt intimidated.”

Dredge recalled one instance in which Romney called her into his office to discuss the women’s requests to play a more active role in the church. “He said, ‘I’ve got a great job for you, to write up the notes for the men’s meetings!’ He didn’t get it,” she said. “He thought we would be thrilled.”

There were more serious criticisms, too.

According to a personal account subsequently published in an edition of Exponent II titled “Abortion?,” Romney showed up at a local hospital to warn a married mother in the congregation against having an abortion, even though doctors had counseled the procedure as she underwent treatment for a potentially dangerous blood clot.

“At the time he hadn’t worked a lot with women,” Dredge said. “He went by the church’s position that the women’s place is in the home.”

‘He did protect us’

The Salt Lake hierarchy approved of Romney’s performance in Belmont, and in 1986 it elevated him to the position of president of the Boston “stake,” a regional area similar to a Roman Catholic diocese, a concept which, in the Book of Mormon, Jesus talked about as he appeared in the Western Hemisphere.

In 1993, Romney geared up for a U.S. Senate race against the Democratic incumbent, Ted Kennedy, a contest in which he described himself as supportive of abortion rights. At that time, Helen Claire Sievers, an active member of Exponent II and an aide to Romney in the stake, suggested that he address concerns of frustrated women in the church.

“He rightly pointed out that he’d get in trouble with Salt Lake,” Sievers said.

Romney decided to hold a meeting at the Belmont chapel. Standing in front of three pads listing policies he could change, couldn’t change and could consider, Romney listened for hours to dozens of proposals ranging from featuring more female speakers, to turning chapels into day-care centers during the week, to recognizing the accomplishments of young women, and not just young men, in church.

Taylor, who was at the meeting, said Romney followed through with Salt Lake.

“Some things did change,” said Taylor, citing the use of more inclusive language at church, among other adaptations. “I think he did protect us.”

According to Tony Kimball, a retired Bentley University professor who worked as a close aide to Romney in the church, Romney’s attitude toward the more headstrong women “was kind of ‘Why do they have to do this? And I don’t want to have to deal with it.’ ” According to Kimball, Romney received phone calls and letters from elder apostles of the church in Salt Lake saying, “ ‘What’s going on out there?’ ‘What are these women doing?’ He would try to placate them but not take action,” said Kimball, adding, “It was 20 percent that he thought [the women] had a right to do it, and 80 percent just that he had other concerns.”

It is not clear what brought about Romney’s change of heart, especially because it coincided with the church’s embarking on an excommunicating spree of intellectual and feminist dissidents. While some critics point to Romney’s political ambitions as a motive, many of the Exponent II women attribute his greater tolerance to a natural maturation from sheltered political scion to a more experienced and empathetic leader.

When Sievers, who was preparing to teach a church class on domestic abuse, learned of harrowing stories from the women in the congregation, she went straight to Romney.

“I said, ‘You ought to alert your bishops,’ ” she recalled, adding that Romney responded, “ ‘Oh, there isn’t abuse in our stake, except in a couple of wards.’ ”

But once Romney came to recognize the problem, he reacted. Taylor, who attended a meeting as the president of the local women’s relief society, said that Romney upbraided his bishops, telling them, “ ‘Okay, this is going on in your ward, in your congregation, you need to address this.’ ” She said Romney pressured Salt Lake to come out with a church-wide domestic abuse program for the bishops. “And they did that,” she said.

In 2002, after Romney had become governor and left the stake presidency, he called in Taylor for an interview to be his executive assistant. “He said, ‘You look so familiar to me,’ ” Taylor recalled, adding that she then identified herself as the president of Exponent II. “And he just kind of chuckled and said ‘Well, that’s interesting.’ And I said, ‘Well, Mitt, is that going to be a problem?’ And he said, ‘Not for me.’ ’’

‘You learn about people’

As the view of Spy Pond and the Boston skyline outside Dredge’s living room window turned dark, she left a stack of yellowed Exponent II papers on a side table next to a bookcase filled with Mormon women’s history volumes and walked out to her car. She drove down Route 2, toward the Mormon Temple in neighboring Belmont, where she performs proxy baptisms for the deceased and other church rites.

“The rumor is that Romney donated the temple organ,” she said, as the spire topped by the Angel Moroni came into view. She continued up the long driveway and pointed out the English stained glass window illuminated from within.

She talked about bumping into the Romneys at church this month, and recalled being invited to and attending the lavish wedding of one of the candidate’s sons.

“By becoming a bishop, you learn about people,” she said, the temple now fading in the rearview mirror. “You could see him change.”