"Kissing versus bacon? Honestly, I don't know which I'd choose." - Optimistic.
Question #89493 posted on 04/28/2017 8:28 p.m.
Q:

Dear 100 Hour Board,

I've always felt that the patriarchal order within our religion is, for lack of a better word, infantalizing towards women. Do any of you feel the same way, or have opinions that may help to assuage the negative feelings of this notion?

-My Name Here

A:

Dear all,

Well snap. I put a placeholder to answer this question and then realized that I know...not nothing, but certainly not a lot. 

I used to feel similarly about the patriarchal order, and then something changed; I'm still figuring out exactly what that is. The writers below have excellent answers, so I'll leave you with some thoughts I've been developing recently:

-From the life of Christ we learn that there is a great power required to lead, and there is a great power and an even greater peace required to submit. 

-As women, we emulate Christ as we

  • bear what a soul cannot for a time, until we are broken to yield life. This happens physically but also emotionally. 
  • are often charged to visit the sick, needy, and lowly of heart
  • listen to our moral compass over the calls of conventionalism. 
-Men emulate Christ as they
  • protect what is sacred
  • preside over what is theirs
  • provide order, council, and means to accomplish good
    • (Admittedly, as a woman, I have a better grasp on the role of women. I'm starting to look into etymology, history, and examples of the duties above, but that will take more time than I currently have.)

I think the feelings of infantilization may occur when people try to preside over what is not theirs, or confuse presiding with controlling. Also, I've noticed it's hard to work under imperfect leadership if they don't acknowledge their imperfections; coincidentally, it is hard to have the confidence to lead when you realize how imperfect you are. 

Thankfully, in the church we are encouraged to keep on trying

Take care,

-Auto Surf

A:

Dear name,

I want to probe what exactly you mean by "the patriarchal order in our religion." I think traditional attitudes towards women, Gospel attitudes towards women, and modern attitudes toward women are three very different things. The church's position uses some of the same vocabulary (e. g. patriarchal) as the false traditions of 17th century (apostate) Christianity. So, I ask, does the orthodox LDS view really bother you, or do you just disagree with the 17th century apostate view and its lingering adherents? Bear with me while I elaborate. 

During the apostasy, obviously there was a view that women were the lesser sex, should have restricted legal rights (property ownership, right to vote, right to make decisions & act on their own behalf), had little or no role to play in the church, etc. Some incremental progress occurred through the centuries but things were not great. Obviously this is not how things ought to be.

Then the Restoration happened! Joseph Smith revealed that women have important roles to play in the Church (cf. the establishment of the Relief Society, the revelation in D&C 25, etc.), that men can't be exalted without women (D&C 131:2), that although men preside over their families in the priesthood "no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood" (D&C 121:41), etc. The Pearl of Great Price and, even more so, the Temple ceremony make it obvious that man and woman have different roles to play in the divine plan and different relationships to God, but that both are equally necessary and loved by God. (Woman/Eve brought a needed element of independence from God through the Fall, providing the agency of man, while a reconciliation with God happened through Adam/Man and the priesthood.) Utah under Brigham Young took this doctrine to its logical conclusion with women's suffrage in 1870, earlier than any other state except Wyoming. Early Utah also had many influential, independent women whose stories were approvingly published (not just the fine tradition of "binders full of women," but whole booksworth), many by counselor in the First Presidency George Q. Cannon. The Proclamation on the Family and continuing discussions in conference are all in this same vein.

So the Church has been preaching the same basic themes about men and women through its whole history, and used to look quite progressive. Unfortunately, the modern secular position has overshot the mark.

The prevailing modern secular attitude seems to be something like "there are and should be no significant differences between women and men." This at least provides political rights for women, so it's obviously preferable to a 17th century apostate view of women, and it's easy to be sympathetic to the modern attitude when comparing it against 17th century apostasy (which really did infantilize women). Some Church members no doubt sympathize with the false 17th century attitude, and some members no doubt sympathize with the false modern attitude. But the Church has a clearer view of humanity's value and purpose (as it relates to both men and women) than either.

The "no power or influence" by virtue of priesthood (or by extension, patriarchy) point is fundamental. Obviously men mess this up all the time, in word and deed, as is even discussed in D&C 121. By all means, hold those men accountable. But direct any negative feelings towards those who violate the Church's doctrine about women; don't dignify their action with pseudo-doctrinal status by lumping it under a vague "patriarchy" label.

I do think there is plenty of doctrinal room for more policy tweaks, like those we have seen in the last few years, and I hope cultural attitudes in the Church can throw off worldly influences that sinfully denigrate women. I bet the huge increase in the number of female returned missionaries will be positive for both those dimensions. I think these are areas where hope is in order. 

TL;DR The church has a clear, eternally rooted conception of gender roles that uses the word "patriarchal" and affirms men and women are not the same, but its doctrine doesn't have much to do a the 17th century apostate concept of patriarchy; the true doctrine in fact recognizes the value of women and provides for their rights. Maybe that helps you. 

~Professor Kirke

P. S. Of course, maybe the orthodox Church view really does bother you because you think there are really no spiritually important differences between men and women, women should hold the priesthood, etc. If so, I don't think that's really reconcilable with the teachings of the Church as expressed in the Proclamation on the Family (defines men and women as "equal partners" in marriage, with separate responsibilities) or the Standard Works, so I won't pretend to reconcile it: I could only encourage you to weigh the truth of the Church and adjust less central beliefs as necessary. 

P. P. S. If you just can't get enough of my going on about gender roles and so forth, here's another one for you.

A:

Dear Anonymous,

(Wow, this answer got way longer than I'd planned. Terribly sorry about that.)

I've thought a lot about this question and given due attention to points like the ones raised by Professor Kirke above. He's right: there's a big difference between 17th century western patriarchy and contemporary LDS patriarchy, and with changes like women being able to get their endowment independent of marriage or mission and the introduction of sister training leaders in the field, we are certainly making progress. I love the Church—dearly—and being Mormon is a central part of my identity that I'm not likely to give up anytime soon.

Nonetheless, a big part of me still aches over the position of women in Mormondom. This is a perspective that I've come to slowly, haltingly, over the last several years but that I've held with increasing conviction as I've tried to navigate the restless waters of faith and doubt. Above, Kirke argues that the Church has always emphasized the importance of women through both revelation and politics, but I hardly think that his examples are proof that women's roles are equal to men's. He mentions the Relief Society—a women's organization, to be sure, but one that has always functioned as an "auxiliary" (a word defined as "additional, supplementary, reserve" whose antonyms are words like "chief, important, necessary, superior") under the direction and authority of men. He mentions D&C 131:2—but that scripture doesn't actually talk about women; it just talks about marriage. It defines exaltation in terms of what men must do and thereby makes women little more than a means to an end. He mentions the temple ceremony—but (acknowledging that I can't go into too much detail) it's no wonder that some women come away from it feeling like they don't have direct access to God. 

Like you, I can't shake the feeling that my role in the Church is somehow less valued than that of the men around me. Too often, our discourse dismisses sincere concerns about the patriarchy by attributing them to sin, pride, or a lack of faith; I am dismayed by the derision with which many church members speak of Ordain Women, for example, and by the swift rebuke I saw on Facebook of those who were foolhardy enough to point out that only one woman spoke in this month's General Conference. ("Griping over nothing," they said.) Gender inequality is a big reason that many women decide to leave the church, and, I think, one of the biggest sources of pain for many who decide to stay. It's not an issue that we can simply stick under a rock and wait for it to disappear. 

Don't stop reading! I know some of you are already contemplating skipping to the next answer either (a) because this one is waaay too long (okay, yes, that's true) or (b) because it makes you uncomfortable when people talk about women's roles in the Church. You'd rather not think about it, or it feels unrighteous to have concerns about the way the Church works. But please, hear me out—because if we don't listen to and try to engage empathetically with others' sincere grievances, we are falling short of the commandment to be Christlike. 

I hope to do a couple of things in this answer. First, I want to explain why I believe that church structure, culture, and doctrine often infantilize women. These are thoughts that we often reject without giving them a full hearing; we feel like we have to suppress them or risk being unfaithful to Christ and His gospel. I don't think that's true. I think you can listen to and even share these concerns and still stay a member of the Church, and I hope at the end of my answer to offer some suggestions as to how that's possible. Admittedly, my answers are imperfect, and they're probably not kosher Sunday school farethey definitely rub against the grain of traditional Mormon thought. But maybe they'll be useful to you as you try to find a way to maneuver through some of this really thorny ground. Ready? Allons-y.

The Case For Why Inequality in the Church is a Very, Very Real Thing

First, an ostensibly unrelated history lesson. In 1954, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in the case Brown v. Board of Education in which Chief Justice Earl Warren argued that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," in large part because of "intangible considerations" like the "ability to study, to engage in discussions and exchange views with other students, and, in general, to learn [a] profession." Justice Warren recognized that there were elements of an education that couldn't be measured or perhaps even adequately defined but that were nonetheless crucial to intellectual development. He continues, "To separate [students] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone."

Now, I'm not trying to suggest that God should be bound by Supreme Court rulings. I readily acknowledge that there are plenty of things that human logic cannot compass and that, perhaps, this is one of them. But what Justice Warren says resonates beyond the particular case he was addressing. Mormon women have long been told that their roles are separate but equal, and while that has been answer enough for some, I'm sincerely worried that separating women from men solely because of their gender generates "a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone."

I want to talk about the reasons women in the Church may feel inferior and about the effects those feelings may have on their sense of worth. Before we move on, though, it's important to recognize that women's inequality in church doctrine and structure stems largely from the inability to hold the priesthood. I know that female ordination is a sticky issue that raises hackles in both camps, and I won't go so far here as to suggest whether you should support or oppose it. But whichever side you're on, you should recognize that a male-only clergy is the root of many of the problems I'm going to discuss, some of which may be impossible to solve without seriously considering the possibility of admitting women to priesthood orders. 

Let's start with women's opportunity to participate in the leadership of the Church. Take a look at this page, which catalogs all of the general authorities; it's worth noting that of 129 people listed there, only 9 are female. That's not quite 7%. Women are left out of many discussions where important decisions (even decisions directly affecting them) are made. On a ward level, that's the Priesthood Executive Committee, which consists of the bishop, ward clerk, executive secretary, high priest group leader, elders' quorum president, ward mission president, and young men's president. Note that all of those callings are filled by men. The handbook says that "as needed, the bishop may invite the Relief Society president to attend some ward PEC meetings," but her input is limited to "confidential welfare matters and [coordinating] home teaching and visiting teaching assignments." On a higher level, women are left out of the Council of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, a weekly meeting in the Salt Lake temple in which "all major Church appointments and policy matters" are discussed and decided. While the general presidents of women's organizations (Relief Society, Young Women's, Primary) have been invited to serve on other high-up councils in the Church, there are still no women in the one that is presumably most central, the one that represents the most direct conduit to God. While men speak in women's meetings all the time, from the bishop teaching Relief Society to the apostles speaking in the General Women's Session, women never speak in men's meetings. Ever heard of the Relief Society president teaching Elders' Quorum? The unspoken implication is that while men have valuable things to teach both genders, women only have valuable things to teach other women.

It's really distressing to me that women's voices are entirely absent in the highest of our religious councils. If men are working without women's input, it means both that they're likely to overlook female concerns and insights (not maliciously, just ignorantly) and that we're really only doing lip-service to the importance of women in the functioning of the Church. And don't think that this slides past the notice of children, either: I remember asking my mom when I was six or seven why girls weren't allowed on the stand during General Conference. We're told all the time how essential we are to the work of God, but the facts don't quite add up to proof.

Take as another example that women are also "auxiliary" in forming wards. According to the handbook, a branch cannot become a ward until it reaches a certain number of regularly-attending, Melchizedek-priesthood-holding men—yet there is no minimum requirement for women. Any of the basic units of the Church can exist entirely without a single woman present.​ Women have fewer formal responsibilities to care for and maintain the ward, too. Many callings do not require the member to hold the priesthood but are restricted to men anyway, like those of Sunday school president, ward clerk, ward mission leader, even president of BYU. The differentiation begins as soon as kids turn twelve: the handbook instructs young men to prepare, bless, and pass the sacrament, collect fast offerings, care for the meetinghouse and grounds, serve as home teachers, assist the bishop, baptize, and contribute to missionary work. It lists no duties for young women

Of course all this makes girls feel inferior! They hardly see themselves represented among the important leaders in their lives. They have few opportunities to contribute to the building up of Zion. They sit in the pews while their brothers are asked to take on important responsibilities. They are told again and again that they are a central part of the Church, but never shown how that might be true.

If any concrete centrality is offered them, it revolves around the potential for motherhood. Did your Young Women leaders say, as mine did, that motherhood was the female equivalent of the priesthood? That women don't need the priesthood because they can be moms instead? I find that extremely problematic. Consider how intimately invested we Mormons are in the Church as an institution. It takes a huge part of our time, our money, and our energy throughout the entire span of our lives, so it's where we form key parts of our identity and devote enormous emotional capital. If your biggest contribution to the Church (the most important institution in your life) is your ability to produce more little churchlings, what does that do to your sense of self-worth? Your identity and your value are suddenly bound up not in your relationship with God but in the mechanical functions of your body. And what happens if you never have the chance to get married? What happens if you find that you're attracted to other women and decide that, to remain both sane and chaste, you'll never marry? What happens if you do get married but find you can't get pregnant? Your purpose collapses, your contribution dissolves. You don't have the same power to build the kingdom of God that men do.

I want it to be clear that I'm not railing against motherhood here, which I believe to be beautiful and sacred. I'm railing against motherhood as the primary signifier of value for women in the Church. It's a damaging side-effect of the patriarchal order with terrible repercussions for women. Too often, it drives them to marry before they're ready or to marry the wrong person or to pine and panic when they're not married by 24 because (the horror!) they know they'll hit peak fertility at 29.

This Cult of Motherhood creates some of the most damaging and infantilizing parts of Church culture. For one, it makes women feel like their only acceptable role is motherhood in a way that men would never feel like their only acceptable role is fatherhood. Men are encouraged to prep for a career and a family, while all too often I hear girls in my classes say, "I'm majoring in _____ just in case I don't get married." Not only does this pose problems for women who graduate and are still single, but it also limits the fulfillment women women can get out of their professional and extracurricular lives. Those who don't get married feel sub-par because they're following "Plan B," and those who do feel guilty for choosing to work or do other things outside the home.

(Note: the double standard between men and women when it comes to family/career balance does not mean that everything is perfect for men. The pressure to marry and be able to support a family drives college-age guys away from things that would be really fulfilling for them, like majors in the fine arts and humanities whose corollary careers aren't practical enough to offer a steady salary. They get hit over the head with that pithy but harmful claim that "single men over 25 are a menace to society." Attitudes like this limit men's roles in much the same way they limit women's.)

Even once women are married, there are cultural structures in place that continue to make them feel inferior. Men in the Church "preside" (definition: to occupy the place of authority or control) over their homes. Of course, different families interpret this different ways—the only way my dad has really taken authority over my mom, for example, is in calling on people to say prayers at dinner and home evening. Nonetheless, it's hard to deny that the instruction to preside inherently requires that the husband's will take precedence over the wife's. Even when the man presides "in love and righteousness," it doesn't automatically mean that his wife is his equal. You may be a loving, attentive poodle owner who never does anything cruel or unkind, but that doesn't automatically mean that your dog is your equal. It seems unlikely to me that two people can be equally yoked in a marriage if one is presiding in any true sense of the word over the other.

I could keep going ad nauseam, but since I've got like an hour left before Alumni Week ends and my writing privileges disappear for another year, I'll just point out a handful of other examples: 

  • Stay-at-home moms do as much work as their husbands (or more), but because childcare isn't rewarded by the economy, their husbands are the financial providers. This gives men a club to hang over the heads of their wives; they feel justified in saying, "I make the money, so I can decide how to spend it." The lack of financial parity is one of the biggest things that keeps women bound to and restricted by men.
  • A mission president's wife sacrifices just as much as her husband and is just as crucial to the running of the mission (at least, she was in mine). Yet she is always defined by her relationship to her husband. We don't call her the Mission Co-President or even the Mission Matron—just "the mission president's wife."
  • The lack of female representation means that girls don't have good female role models to emulate. Think about it: even in the scriptures, I can only think of, like, three women with virtues I want to cultivate myself (Esther, Mary, and... uh... Eve? Maybe?). We have plenty of examples for how to be great prophets, husbands, dads, warriors, missionaries, and men, but who do we look to for examples of how to be great mothers, wives, leaders, teachers, and women?

How Silencing Women Who Talk About These Issues is Also a Very, Very Real Thing

If you've read this far, then at this point I'm probably just preaching to the choir. But my heart breaks for the women who feel or express concerns like these and are told that they're being unfaithful. There are lots of ways in which people try to smooth over these areas of discomfort. Women are promised that even though they can't hold the priesthood, they have access to it through the righteous men in their lives. That should be enough, right? They're told that just because men have the priesthood, it doesn't give them power to exercise unrighteous dominion. That should be enough, right? They're told that even though they are supposed to obey their husbands, their husbands are supposed to obey God so it should all work out. That should be enough, right?

The truth is, sometimes all of those reassurances don't feel like enough. But instead of listening and loving and trying to find solutions together, I think many Mormons are inclined to slam the door. Just today, my visiting teachers came over and shared a lesson from the Ensign, where this month's Relief Society message is on the priesthood. One of them made a vague reference to "those people who caused all those problems a couple of years back because they wanted women to have the priesthood" and said something about how she wished she could explain away all their doubts with her insights about the gospel.

I don't mean to harp on my dear visiting teacher, who is a strong woman herself and probably more of a feminist than she realizes. But I think her attitude reflects the way we treat women who voice concerns about inequality in the Church. We dismiss them; we assume that because they have doubts, they must be lacking faith. We accuse them of not sustaining the prophet and other Church leaders. We insist that they're making trouble, that they're aspiring to callings for their own aggrandizement, that they're blowing things way out of proportion. Most of us don't for a moment consider that their doubts might be valid. 

You may think that this silencing doesn't actually happen. It does. High profile cases include ones like Lynne Kanavel Whitesides, who was fired from BYU and disfellowshipped in 1993 for suggesting that we ought to pray to our Heavenly Mother, and Kate Kelly, who was excommunicated in 2014 for advocating women's ordination. (I know that both of these are tough cases for a church where authority is so centralized. I'm not sure myself how I feel about the disciplinary actions taken against them, but they are a good example of how strongly the Church reacts to outspokenness like theirs.) You may think those examples are an anomaly, since they don't happen very often. But the silencing is a lot more widespread, and it can be much more subtle than outright excommunication. Take a look at this quote from a devotional Elder Ballard gave during Education Week in 2013. He insists that "through the years many have asked questions implying that women are second-class citizens in the Church. Brothers and sisters, nothing could be further from the truth." But later in the talk, he says, 

Now, sisters, in speaking this frankly with men, may I also exercise a moment of candor with you. While your input is significant and welcomed in effective councils, you need to be careful not to assume a role that is not yours. Ward and stake councils that are the most successful are those in which priesthood leaders trust their sister leaders and encourage them to contribute to the discussions and in which sister leaders fully respect and sustain the decisions of the council made under the direction of priesthood leaders who hold keys.

I can't help but see in that quote an admonition that women should be less assertive, that while their council is welcome and significant, they are not to be the ones making the decisions—that after they've said their bit, they should sit back and let the men stay in control. The talk is titled "Let Us Think Straight," as though anyone who thinks differently has their head on wrong.

And, frankly, it hurts.

Some Important Disclaimers

I realize that I’ve painted Church culture with rather a broad brush. Every stake, ward, branch, and family encounters these problems differently, and the same symptoms of patriarchal influence don’t appear everywhere. Uffish Thought mentions below that she served as her ward’s Sunday school president; where I served my mission, there’s not nearly as big a taboo against working moms. I don’t mean to imply that these problems are universal or that all women feel (or are) equally victimized by the system.

I also realize that in painting with such a broad brush, I’ve glossed over many of the beautiful and empowering things about women’s culture in the Church. I’m grateful for the fabulous examples of full-fledged womanhood that I have in my mother, my grandmothers, and the women in my ward. I’m grateful for the camaraderie that the Relief Society can cultivate. I’m grateful for the traditions and the strengths that have been passed down to me through generations to make me the person I am today. I am often overwhelmed by the power of the women of the Church when they come together to strengthen and lift others.

Finally, I also realize that the way I reconcile everything, which is what I explain in the following section, may be my own golden calf. It’s possible that I’m trying to make God in my own image. What I’ve said is basically, “Look at all these symptoms of inequality! God couldn’t possibly want women to be inferior. Ergo, this must be something on which the Church is not following God’s will.” It’s pretty arrogant to assume that I know best, that my sensibilities are so perfect that God’s couldn’t possibly be different. Nonetheless, I cling to that reasoning because I don’t think I’ll ever be able to believe that the present situation is what God intended for women in His Church. If it’s a choice between my faulty logic and leaving—which is what it sometimes feels like it boils down to—I’ll pick my logic every time.

How to Reconcile All the Terrible Things I Just Said with Continued Activity in the Church

After that unreasonably long explanation of the problems I see with gender inequality in our faith, you may wonder why I’ve stuck around. Welp. I love the gospel of Jesus Christ, I have felt the power of His atonement, and I want with all my heart to believe that the Church is true. Like I said earlier, Mormonism is a core part of who I am; giving it up would be akin to cutting off a leg, so I’ve decided to embrace it, warts and all. (In this case, it may be more like a broken femur than a wart. But broken bones can heal, and I trust that the Church can, too.) (I acknowledge without reservation that I carried that analogy way too far. Sorry.)

This may not work for you, but here’s how I make it work for me. In order to live with the contradictions I see all the time in LDS worship, I’ve come to accept that there is a sort of hierarchy of truths. On one side, you’ve got the Big Truths: God is God, we are His children, Jesus is the Savior, the law of justice requires perfect payment for sin, 2 + 2 = 4, etc. You might call these absolute truths. They don’t change with time or culture or era. They simply are, the way that the law of gravity simply is.

On the other side, you’ve got Small Truths. These constitute the majority of what we’re taught in Church, and while the Restoration was largely about restoring Big Truths, it’s come with an abundance of Small Truths to construct what we know today as the LDS Church. I think of these as relative truths, ones that have specific historical or administrative utility but that may not have permanence in the eternal scheme of things. As evidence that some truths are relative, I take the fact that God has revealed different things to different people at different times, like the contradictory commandments to Jacob that “there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife” and later, to Joseph Smith, that he should reinstitute polygamy.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think that all Small Truths come from God. Many do, and I’m certainly not qualified to proclaim which ones they are and suggest that we as a religion throw out all the rest. But since I know that there are relative truths, I can take comfort in hoping that the things that grate against my sense of justice, equality, and compassion are Small Truths, not Big Truths. As evidence that not all Small Truths are divinely inspired, I take the Church’s current position on race. Previous apostles and prophets have used various excuses to justify withholding the priesthood from black men, and these were accepted as truths during their time. But the Church now maintains that “none of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.” Recently, I’ve been reading a version of the Bible that has tons of scholarly footnotes to give context, clarification, and additional research where necessary. I’ve been astounded at how much more nuanced my understanding of scripture is when I comprehend its historical context, and it’s made me realize how true that is of revelation from any era: you have to take everything with a grain of salt, because however inspired your leaders are, it’s impossible for them to completely escape the moral paradigms and social mores that shape their societies.

For me, part of reconciling the cognitive dissonance that comes with being Mormon is learning to accept that while the relatively few core tenets of the gospel of Jesus Christ are absolutely true, the Church as a whole has lots of cultural and doctrinal imperfections. It may be God’s Church, but it has been built by fallible women and men who have at times introduced their own biases into its structure or teachings. The other part is learning to follow the Spirit in deciding for myself which ones those are—which truths I need to believe in to be a faithful member and which ones I can hope are relative or uninspired.

Personally, I think that much of the doctrine and culture surrounding women’s role in the Church, the home, and the public sphere are not God-given. In fact, I suspect that with time, the women-and-the-priesthood issue will turn out much like the race-and-the-priesthood issue—that is, a product of its time that has no place in the eternal kingdom of God. I believe the temple offers a glimpse of how it’s supposed to be: while I’m not convinced that what goes on inside is all absolute, perfect truth, it nonetheless shows us that women are worthy and qualified and able to use God’s power to perform sacred priesthood ordinances. That’s encouraging to me, and it gives me leverage to speak up in defense of more equal roles for women in the Church.

I think the Church could be better about acknowledging its imperfections. We’re taking positive steps in that direction—the essays published on LDS.org awhile back offering a less white-washed version of Mormon history are great. But some claims, like the ones that we should unquestioningly accept everything our leaders say or that what’s spoken over the pulpit at General Conference is akin to scripture, are increasingly untenable because of their logical contradictions.

From my conviction that the Church is true but imperfect come two important corollaries. First, given the flaws that are marbled through even the highest levels of Church authority, I think leaders should be way more open to insights from people lower down on the food chain. Sure, only the Quorum of the Twelve has the right to receive official revelation for the whole Church. But shouldn’t lay members be able to foment discussion, to bring issues like this to the table, and to start the process of change on a personal and family level? The Church isn’t very good at permitting this yet—we tend to be suspicious of grassroots movements—but I’m just not convinced that the process of change has to be limited exclusively to top-down revelation. I think lay members should encourage change by making their voices heard.

The second corollary follows closely on the first. Part of the reason I’ve stayed in the Church is from a conviction that change will only come from within, and only if there are people who are willing to make it happen. The patriarchy runs deep. It’s embedded in our very language in ways that we don’t even recognize, in words like “auxiliary” and “preside.” I’d felt the inequality my whole life, but didn’t have the tools to articulate it until I studied feminism in college. But maybe I can help the people around me see it sooner. As new generations encounter these same old problems and find themselves facing the same old answers, attitudes about gender will not change unless good, stalwart teachers are there to provide new answers, or at least more nuanced ones.

So I stick around because, however hokey it sounds, I want to be the change I hope to see in the world.

-------------------------------------------

This answer was probably way longer than you wanted to read. Sorry if I was projecting at all—I probably imputed a lot of feelings to you that you don’t actually share. But if you made it this far, I hope it was worth it. If you take issue with any of the things I’ve said and want to discuss it in more depth, I’m always available to chat, comfort, or engage in witty banter if you email me at heidibook (at) theboard.byu.edu. Let me know if I can help!

Yours, &c.

Heidi Book

A:

Dear too sacred:

I wrote my senior thesis on the concept of "l'empechement continuel" in Madame Bovary: a constant obstacle or impediment to self-actualization. Here's the relevant passage in English.

A man, at least, is free; he may travel over passions and over countries, overcome obstacles, taste of the most far-away pleasures. But a woman is always hampered. At once inert and flexible, she has against her the weakness of the flesh and legal dependence. Her will, like the veil of her bonnet, held by a string, flutters in every wind; there is always some desire that draws her, some conventionality that restrains.

Flaubert published this novel ten years after the Mormon pioneers settled in Utah. It seems facile to ignore the legal and social realities of women who were simultaneously put on a pedestal and disenfranchised in Western European and American Christian civilization in the mid-nineteenth century. These are therefore the conventions that informed the early LDS Church, and I'd argue you see the downstream effects today. 

There's lots of behind the scenes validation and discussion about your question, with a variety of decisions made by individual women. Mico agreed with me that people whose views on women's roles support the status quo, without allowing the potential for change, actually makes it harder to maintain one's faith if this is already an issue.

I've found the work of Dr. Joanna Brooks at San Diego State University to be both illustrative of a woman who was able to successfully navigate re-entering activity in the Church (she acknowledges that being married to a Jewish man helps her, personally, avoid some of these cultural minefields) and excellent academic research on the narratives of Mormon women, by Mormon women, especially outside the cookie cutter models. Check her stuff out.

Also, on the topic of infantilized women, A Doll's House shakes me by the shoulders every time I read it.

---Portia, in solidarity

A:

Dear,

I see what you're saying, and I'm there with you.

I think (I hope) the church is shifting its habits in regard to women. We're praying in Conference now. Elder Ballard gave a talk all about how our voices and revelation are valid and necessary. Some of the big committees are opening up to have women on them. 

At the same time, I see a difference between our theory and our practice. There are fewer women in the leadership that I would hope, for people whose gifts are necessary. A token woman on each committee is not enough, especially since women have been culturally taught to be passive and accepting, and may have a hard time taking a hard line when they see a problem. 

I found myself annoyed when Relief Society was interrupted a year or so back to ask us to donate to Friends of Scouting, which helped our young men to have such excellent experiences. But I didn't want to be divisive, and I did want to be be positive, so instead, I donated a sizeable chunk to be used for the Young Women to have excellent experiences with. A few weeks later, my bishop told me that there was no analogous group to give the money to. No activities committee or stake fund or anything that was to enrich the girls of the church. I ended up giving it to the perpetual education fund, instead, but I cried myself to sleep that night.

I have many times been pooh-poohed by men (and some women) in the church when I talk about how these things are painful to me. A friend asked, if men and women can both have revelation and feel the Spirit, why it should make any difference to me that women had never prayed in church before. He didn't understand that I expect my church to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. If the leaders really believed that women were equally capable, wouldn't they be equally represented? To be honest, I'd never noticed women didn't pray at Conference until someone pointed out that it would be the first time. I find that terrifying, that I was so used to the way things were, that I never noticed. I'd internalized the idea that women shouldn't pray that publically; it was part of my understanding of the world, but it was all below my conscious notice. Similarly, when women speak in Conference, there is a part of my brain that automatically feels like what they have to say is less important. I have to consciously fight that bias when they speak, and remember that their insights are just as valuable. I have to remind myself that the soft, airy delivery is not a reflection on the content of the lesson, and I can't switch my brain off just because I dislike the delivery. (This isn't just a church thing, btw. I also generally liked my male teachers and professors more at school, and I argued for years that women aren't as funny as men, and I felt freer to interrupt women than men, even though I wasn't consciously aware of it. These are societal problems, but they've bled into our theology, and I want to work on fixing them everywhere, but especially where it concerns my eternal salvation, dang it!) It kills me that we know nothing about our Heavenly Mother. It kills me that we don't have an example, as the men have an example, of what comes next for us. And yes, we've been told that we're equally important, that we have great skills and gifts, and if we live right we'll go on to happiness, and most days I believe it. But what I see of Heavenly Mother is nothing. We're not supposed to pray to her, we don't talk of her communicating with us, we don't know how she fits into the plan, and we don't know what she does with her time. She's a blank. And I don't want to be a blank in my spiritual children's lives. I want the future that the men talk about having, that they assure me I can have. But I don't see, in our theology, a single example of a woman who has it. So those promises ring a little hollow to me. 

I try to fill in the gaps where I can. I imagine to myself that Proverbs 31 is about our Heavenly Mother. I take comfort in teachings from other religions with a mother goddess, (woo Durga! And the yin doesn't quite count as a goddess, but I'm applying it anyway) and hope there is some truth in them I can bring back to Mormonism. I hope that when the scriptures talk about God, they're talking about both parents. But I also am annoyed when every time she's mentioned in an official capacity, the stories about her are made up, hypothetical--someone imagining that she would be proud, or make heaven glisten for our homecoming, or that she would have loving things to say. I hate when other people do what I do (imagine what she's like), because I would like more certainty, but all I have are suppositions.

I am developing confidence in my own voice and gifts. I share it when I teach Relief Society, and even though that's only other women, perhaps some of them will be in wider meetings where they can feel empowered by my words and speak up when they have something to add. Perhaps some day I will have a calling where I can make a difference. (Let me be clear; I don't like responsibility, personally. I don't WANT to be bishop or hold the priesthood or any of that. But I do want women representing me in leadership, and I think most great leaders didn't want their callings--I don't think a lack of desire is a good excuse.)

I remember with fondness the time an old bishop called me to a role usually reserved for men (Sunday School President), and I did a good job, and didn't feel like I was missing anything I needed. I remember that the roles of women in the church have expanded a lot in the past decade or so, and maybe someday that calling (and similar other callings) will be open to all women. I remember that ours is a church of revelation and progress, but that also means we are an unfinished church, a church with flaws. I remember that that's my favorite part of this church: that it works as an object lesson for us as individuals. It starts off well-meaning but imperfect, and with time and mistakes comes wisdom and progress. I love that our flawed church has a space for flawed me. And just as I try to forgive myself for my imperfections, I try to forgive my church for its imperfections.

I know it can be dangerous to anticipate the ways in which the church will grow, or to gain a testimony of what you think/hope will be a future tenant of the faith. It can breed some discontent, and if the church ends up going in a different way, it might cause a faith crisis or a faith reevaluation. And yet, the church has also been verbally explicit (even if its actions haven't kept up as well as I'd hope) about the need for women in its organization. So I have faith in that, and I comfort myself when the church's actions don't always match up with its words, because I am also imperfect. 

My decision has been to stay in the church and keep hoping and pushing. To keep sharing my voice and gifts and perspective. To keep expressing my interest in learning more about my Heavenly Mother, in the hopes that the people qualified to get revelation for everyone will ask more about her. To keep reminding myself that love and leadership and patience and wisdom are qualities that the church promotes, and qualities that I believe in and want. 

I know it's painful. I wish I had better answers. I think our church has some great and true principles and teachings, and I try to focus on them without going too far beyond, into what I want to believe is true. I haven't found peace in this area yet, though. Ask me again in 5 years. 

-Uffish Thought

P.S. One of the most comforting theories, to me, is symbolic. Humans cannot save themselves. Once we mess up, we're essentially damned, until the grace of Christ comes into the picture. Thus, we must learn to accept help, and to rely on someone else. In ordinances such as the sacrament, women do not and cannot bless and pass the bread; they can only receive it. The men who perform the ritual cannot give the sacrament to themselves; they must turn and accept it from another. Women in the church often fall into this receiving role, and though it's uncomfortable, within that symbolic framework, I can accept it. No one can do it alone. We all need help.

P.P.S. I absolutely hate that "women are naturally more spiritual than men" stuff. I think it is done, usually, by men who are trying to show their deep respect for their wives, but I hate it. I have not noticed that my female friends are inherently more spiritual than my male friends. It also makes me feel like a big fat failure, not only at spirituality, but also at femininity, when I sin. I don't want to be on a pedestal. It's an inaccurate expectation, and it causes damage when it's not met.

A:

Dear MNH,

Yes. The patriarchal order of the church has a lot to do with why I left. I do not believe it is respectful to women.

A thing we hear a lot in the church is something along the lines of "women are so great we have to push them to the side to make men at the same level." This should infuriate you, because it's incredibly misogynistic. Nobody in any situation should ever put women at a disadvantage so men can keep their egos. The world has been rotating around men's egos for far too long, and this type of speech only exacerbates the issue. If you want your church/business/life to run well, you put the people who are most likely to make it successful at in charge. Saying "women are just too good" is just a way to keep women quiet.

I don't want to get into specific doctrine, because the Board probably can't publish my opinions, but another problematic mindset in regards to women is the lack of discussion about a Heavenly Mother. In my personal opinion, saying that one exists but cannot be spoken about *ever* is another way to keep women placated and quiet.

I also have a rough time with "we've been teaching the same things forever, but now the world has gone too far" argument. No. So many things have changed since the church started. Women are allowed to show their ankles and necks now. Black men are allowed to have the priesthood. In my opinion, if either of those original bans stemmed directly from an unchanging God, it shouldn't change with the times. I cannot comprehend how when we're the only church with a direct line to God, intense principles have been modified so frequently.

To actually answer your question: yes, I agree. I feel like much of the doctrine on women and their place in the church is spoken with the feel of "women are just the best" so that it doesn't feel like they're second-class.

-Ace

A:

Dear Reader,

This is only tangentially related, but you might be interested in this recent question where we discussed the role of Heavenly Mother.

~Anathema

A:

Dear you,

Yes, I do think the Patriarchal Order is infantalizing towards women.

Marzipan

A:

Dear you,

As a man, it was difficult for a long time for me to see the degree to which the patriarchal order marginalizes women, especially in the Church. The more I listened to women's voices, the easier it became to recognize. This is a really thought-provoking article written by an LDS woman speculating what life in and out of the Church might be like if the roles were reversed and there was a theoretical matriarchal order. It was jarring to read as a man and even for someone who considers himself a feminist it made me re-evaluate a lot of my preconceptions. I share it in the hopes that it may foster meaningful dialog for you and your loved ones, or anyone who may not understand the degree to which gender influences society.

-Cognoscente