Monday, November 19, 2012

The "Truth" About Mormonism and Women

[Blog readers, this is a post about the LDS church. It's a response to a post on Mormon Perspectives called "The Truth About Mormonism and Women," and it is basically a point-by-point rebuttal. (1) You should read the original post to see what I'm responding to. (2) If it's going to hurt you to hear criticisms of the church, please consider not reading any further; I really don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, and this will be a very touchy one to read. I did not like the original post, and that will come across in my response. If you do want to read the post and are interested in discussing it with me, I will, as always, be glad to hear your thoughts or explain mine.]

Title: "A Post Which Claims to Speak for All Mormon Women and Solve the Problem of Feminism vs. Patriarchy Once and for All"
Date: November 19, 2012
Author: Steve P. (on the blog Mormon Perspectives)

Introduction

Statement One: A professor thinks Mormon men make all the decisions.
Statement Two: The Washington Post thinks LDS women are agitating for more institutional power.
Thesis: Professor and the WP imply that the LDS church disenfranchises women, but it doesn't. It empowers them.

Body

Paragraph One: The LDS church loves women. It has the biggest women's club in the world. Church leaders say women are more spiritual than men, and talk about Esther, Ruth, and Deborah all the time. LDS doctrine is that Eve was making "a conscious, enlightened, and necessary decision" when she took the fruit, and men can't be exalted without marrying women. Feminists think women don't need men.

Paragraph Two: If men and women are allowed to become equal, it will be bad for women because then they won't be exceptional or sacred anymore.

Paragraph Three: Separate but equal means everyone has value. Society claims to celebrate differences, but actually only wants parades.

Paragraph Four: Yes, but...

Paragraph Five: My mom is on a lot of committees. She is really intimidating to kids, and my dad always listens to her advice.

Paragraph Six: My sisters all went on missions and got degrees. In fact, one of my sisters is such a good leader that she was given a nickname describing the job in which she would have excelled if she'd only been a man (and therefore allowed to hold that job). So that's all the proof you need. Even The Huffington Post knows that all Mormons, including girls, are supposed to get good educations.

Paragraph Seven: The WP article kind of makes Lisa [who it quoted] sound like a radical Mormon feminist, but don't worry, she's not. She's really, really not.

Conclusion

Individual Mormons aren't any more perfect than anyone else. But we do know the truth. We know that men and women aren't equal, and we know that it's better this way.

So the thing is... I'm kind of tired of having men "explain" sexism to me. I think a lot of women are. And that's kind of where this post goes wrong from the very beginning. Steve is going to tell us why Mormon Women Have It Good. Well, all right, Steve. Let's hear it.

In the first place: "Mormonism empowers women. The LDS Church celebrates and reveres women and motherhood more than any other organization I know." That is fabulous. But guess what: Sentence Two does not mean the same thing as Sentence One. Being revered does not make you empowered. Being celebrated doesn't make you equal. This is called putting women on a pedestal, and it's a way of distracting them from the fact that they don't have the same rights you do. You know what goes on pedestals? Vases. Trophies. Pretty, shiny things that are For Display Only. Pedestals are not for people.

It is true that Mormon doctrine says Eve made her choice knowing that it was the only way God's plan could come to fruition. This is a beautiful piece of doctrine, and it is—as far as I know—the most feminist interpretation of the Fall that exists in all of Christianity.

But you know what's interesting? Even though Mormons have this glorious piece of information, we talk about Adam significantly more than we talk about Eve. When I read Steve's point about how church leaders "quote frequently" from the stories of Ruth, Esther, and Deborah, I thought I'd do a quick General Conference search to see how often their names came up. For those three, there were several results that were about someone else with the same name (like Ruth Faust, the wife of the former apostle) so I glanced through to find the ones that referenced the Bible stories.
  • Ruth: 15/60
  • Deborah: 0/1
  • Esther: 13/20
For contrast, I looked up a few other significant names—but with these, I didn't look to see which were relevant to the actual search. You'll see why.
  • Joseph Smith: 1700
  • Moses: 790
  • Adam: 437
  • Abraham: 361
  • Eve: 196
  • Emma Smith: 30
  • Mary: 273
This was a quick search, and I didn't go into very much depth. But to pretend that these results aren't indicative of something would be... well, just that—a pretense. Even Mary's 273 results seem incredibly misleading; I went through the first three pages and of those 30, only seven were actually about her. It's a popular name. So if we assume that one third of the results will be relevant (which is generous based on that initial count), that's 91. This means that if you add the results for all six of those women—the most important women in Christianity and Mormonism—there are fewer than there are for Abraham. No, Steve; it looks like our leaders actually don't talk about the women much at all.

"Feminists try to prove that women can do everything alone." There isn't really much to say about this except that Steve needs to do a little bit of research and come back later. This statement does not reflect any kind of understanding about what feminism is or does.

"By fighting for 'equality' on the terms dictated by traditionally male spheres, we can in fact do a disservice to women." How lovely of you to be concerned, Steve. Now butt out. We'll decide for ourselves whether we want equality, thank you. You don't have to worry your pretty little head about how you're doing us a disservice by letting us be equal (insert eyeroll here).

"Society often talks about celebrating our differences, but then absurdly cries foul whenever those differences entail any sort of real world effects beyond an annual parade." This is some seriously convoluted spin, right here. It actually took me several minutes to be able to unpack it enough to explain, because the problem is the word "differences"—it means two separate things, but is being used as though they're the same. The differences "society" celebrates (and by "society" I suppose Steve means "feminists and gay people") are individual, not categorical. Feminists do indeed talk about celebrating differences—in the sense that we would like people who are different to still be treated like human beings. People who aren't straight, or white, or male. You know. The others. But the differences Steve is advocating—those differences with "real world effects"—those are gender roles. Not individuals celebrating our diversity differences, but men go to work and women raise the babies differences. He's pretending that they mean the same thing, but they don't. In fact they are very nearly opposites. Feminism celebrates individual differences, and wants people to be respected as human beings—not categorized as genders.

"My mother is more of a leader than my father." My friend Emily pointed out the obvious: "His mother was empowered by something other than the church. That was her personality and the personality and privileges she was able to give to her daughters. The church did not do ANY of that." It is fantastic that his mother and sisters are such strong people. But who says their being Mormon has anything to do with it? Many non-Mormon women are strong leaders. Many Mormon women aren't. This point proves nothing.

The previous points prove nothing, too. The entire post proves nothing—nothing except that mansplaining is alive and well, which no one was doubting. Women are not equal in the LDS church, because you cannot have gender equality in a patriarchy. You just can't; it is semantically impossible. Women have no institutional authority in the church, and they must depend on men for access to the priesthood. Even that famous women's organization, the largest one in the world, is not actually run by women. It used to be; it was originally. Before correlation in the 1960s, the Relief Society had its own budget and manuals and even meeting houses. But now it has none of that, and all the final decisions are made by male leaders. The group itself is an auxiliary of the church—a subsidiary. And "subsidiary" is exactly the position of women in a patriarchy.

It would be really nice if I thought this response would cause men like Steve to stop explaining women in the church and listen to them instead. I don't think that. I know that because Steve knows some women who have no problem with the church, he will continue to dismiss the words of other women who feel differently—because, you know, there can be only one valid experience for a woman. 

The point brought up in The Washington Post is true—there is a pretty dramatic movement happening in the church, and I can't see it getting anything but bigger as time goes on. Every day, more women like me start to realize that feminism isn't just that thing that happened in the 70s with bra burning and protests. Every day more young women are learning that feminism isn't finished. There's a lot of work left to do, and more and more LDS women are ready to start doing it. 

26 comments:

  1. I happen to know Steve, he's my brother in law. He's a really great guy, but he's not married and has no female children, so he really was out of his league writing this piece given his lack of experience directly with women. You did a great job with this rebuttal! Thanks,

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  2. Such a good job, Miri! Thank you!

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  3. What is your opinion of this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhYW_td_n04

    This video is actually my experience as a female member of the Church of Jesus Christ of LDS. But I don't think this is what the core LDS culture rewards and supports.

    Angie
    Nevada

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    1. I think you're right, Angie, and that's the only problem I have with the video. I actually think it's an amazing video—it shows women from so many places in the world, women of all different ages and types, in fantastic careers and being close with their families. It is a beautiful video, and I would be absolutely thrilled with it if I thought it reflected actual Mormon life.

      The thing is that no Mormon girls are encouraged by church doctrine to become doctors. They're not encouraged to become pilots or lawyers or even leaders in any context other than Relief Society. Why is that video celebrating Mormon career women when real life doesn't? Mormon girls are told, absolutely, that their purpose in life is to marry and have babies. We're told to get education, yes, but we are not expected to make careers out of them. Even when we talk about women with careers, it is solely under the headings of "Until You Get Married" or "In Case You Don't." Mormon men are not encouraged to be stay-at-home dads. They are told from toddlerhood that they will be the providers, and girls are told from the same age that someday they will fulfill their purpose by becoming mothers. That's the party line. There are deviations, but they are not the norm and they are not supposed to be. That video is what I hope to see the church become. But it is not representative of what the church is now.

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  4. Thank you for articulating this so well.

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  5. The highest of fives.

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  6. I'm so sad that so many women in the church feel like they are undermined or looked at as less than a man (within LDS doctrine). I know it is a burden many women carry and I hurt for them. I however, have never felt that way. Your friend said "His mother was empowered by something other than the church. That was her personality and the personality and privileges she was able to give to her daughters. The church did not do ANY of that." On the contrary, I've always been empowered as a woman by church leaders, both male and female. I'm grateful that I don't have to feel this way. I love the video that Angie posted, and I too feel that my experience in the church was represented in part through that video. I was fortunate to be raised by very empowering women and very empowering men, and perhaps this is why I have never had to bare the burden of feeling "second class." Now I know what you may say, it's not about FEELING second class it's about FACTS. Well, I look at a talk like this https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2010/04/mothers-and-daughters?lang=eng and feel empowered where as someone else might look at it and feel like it is condescending or inadequate. For me, it is about my relationship with my Heavenly Father. I know who I am and I know my value in His eyes, therefore I have never felt anything different from church members and leaders.

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    1. Melissa, I am also very happy for you, that you were raised in such an empowering environment. You may be right that that's why it's hard for you to understand the feeling of disenfranchisement (and you're very blessed for that). You're also right that I'm going to say there is more to it than just how it feels. :) But the FACTS aren't things like that General Conference talk, because like you said, that's totally subjective. Facts are things like: There are no women in final decision-making positions. The entire church structure is organized around the priesthood, which women are not allowed to hold. Institutionally, women have no power. They can't plan activities without permission from a man. They aren't even supposed to be in the church buildings without a "priesthood presence." There are no positions in which women have authority over a man. This is disenfranchisement. We're not just talking about church culture that makes women feel less than. We're talking about actual organizational power, and the simple fact is that women in the church don't have any.

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    2. I should clarify that I DO understand the feelings of disenfranchisement, I just don't have them. There are clear reasons why people (both in and outside the church) feel like the church sees women as second class citizens. I think part of the reason why I don't feel that way is because I don't see the leaders of the church as being in charge in the slightest. I look at the church, and feel like it is completely run by God (although there are small decisions that I'm sure are not dictated by a higher power). The women of the church DO have organizational power, and lots of it. Maybe not in the highest form but the women are all organized under the relief society which is left up to the R.S. president. The Primary and Young Women are all organized and chosen by women, women act in the priesthood within the walls of the temple. So although we don't hold Priesthood positions, and we are basically subject to it, I don't see as being under the authority of my husband, or bishop, or Thomas S. Monson. Rather I understand that it is the power of God and it is by his authority that the church is organized and all other facets are just His servants. Perhaps that is why. I don't see the men as men and women as women, just all children of God working together. The church is such a "well oiled machine" and it is so organized I can't help but feel there is divine power at work, and I feel like we are all asked to "lift where we stand." There is a reason there are leaders and followers. Sometimes the men follow men, sometimes women follow men, sometimes men follow women sometimes women follow women. Maybe I'm not explaining myself very well. I just wanted to sympathize with you because I can TOTALLY see where you are coming from (would it be amazing to have the priesthood? Probably, I see men take it for granted every day...) but I'm lucky to have never felt the discrimination that so many of my sisters feel and for that I'm grateful...but I would never condone someone who DID because I understand it's a real and painful burden to bear.

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    3. I'm posting this comment on behalf of my friend Julia (I'll have my own comment to post later):

      I think it is important to acknowledge that two people can be in the same situation, and one can feel disenfranchised while the other does not. This doesn't mean that one is the correct feeling. In a lot of ways, as long as you stay inside the mormon-norms, there is room in the church for personal growth.

      It is great that you feel that God is in charge of the church, and is making all of the big decisions. That being said, there is a lot of injustice committed at the local level of the church--women being told to cover up for their abusers, women being told that it isn't their place to speak during leadership meetings when everyone else is asked to give ideas, women who have trouble developing divine attributes like patience and nurturing abilities, then are told that it should just be innate because they are female. All of these situations have been shared with my by friends, and do happen at the local level (and that's not half of it!).

      Women have some "organizational" power, but it is all soft power, not hard power. The RS President needs to ask the bishop to approve her counselors--then she needs to ask the bishop to approve her activities--then she needs to ask the bishop to approve the visiting teaching routes. Even the General RS president, once she finishes writing the monthly VTing message, she sends it to a panel of men (the Ensign committee, who all must hold the priesthood) who have to approve it. I think Miri really hits it on the head when she points out that adult women aren't even supposed to meet in the church building without a priesthood holder--and I've personally seen this priesthood holder be an old man who was too frail to walk without his walker and on another occasion, the teenage son of one of the women. The reasons I've heard for this need are varied and generally stupid in my opinion.

      We don't hold the priesthood so each of our decisions within the institution are subject to change based on the will of a man who may or may not be currently being guided by God. And read the proclamation, your husband is to preside over you. I'm glad that that counsel doesn't affect your marriage, but for many women it does and it has led to some unrighteous dominion and many women putting up with abuse because they think it is what God wants. I'm also glad that you have been raised and taught, having the privilege of understanding that you can speak out against things that you disagree with and that you're equal to men--that's such a blessing in a world where many are not treated equally. But because women have no institutional power within the church, many corrupt "servants of the Lord" have taken advantage of their position.

      Just like I said before, it is okay that we feel differently and see the chruch differently--it sounds like we're coming from two very different places. I wish that I could see men and women working together equally toward God in the church. I wish that women who had leadership qualities (or even accountant qualities, as women are not allowed to be auditors or ward clerks) would be able to use those talents equally before the Lord within the church. I see some of the rules as interfering with the well-oiled machine that the church could be if men and women were treated equally. And when in the church do men follow women?? I don't think I've ever seen that... maybe if it is regarding something women are "naturally" better at such as nurturing children.

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    4. First of all, I believe the incidents (a lot of injustice committed at the local level of the church--)you refer to are the result of imperfect people taking unjust actions and making personal assumption based on their own belief and I don't believe they are acting in accordance with the church. I agree that there is always room for personal growth within the church and that you can't say that one person feels more correct than another.

      Within the Relief Society there are many opportunities to teach, lead, and govern. Interesting (unrelated) story, I was asked by my husband to teach his priesthood lesson over fathers day as his gift (so he didn't have to prepare a lesson). I thought that was kind of weird and I asked the bishop if that was okay for me to do and he said something like "of course, there is nothing that says women can't teach priesthood lessons, in fact it would be refreshing." I didn't end up doing it because I am a big chicken and didn't want to hahaha (I've since been called to be a R.S. instructor so serves me right). So I guess in Nevada maybe we are a little more progressive. Maybe I've just been sheltered by most of this stuff and that's why I haven't felt the pain of it all.

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    5. It does sound like that is the case, Melissa, at least to me. I've never been in a ward that would have allowed a woman to do that. In fact, it's still pretty common for wards in less progressive areas to have outdated rules like that only men can give the closing prayer in sacrament meeting, or give the final talk, because the meeting needs to be "ended with the priesthood" or some such nonsense. I know a lot of people, myself included, who are dying to find wards like yours to move into. :)

      Here's something I don't get, though: You said in the comment before last that you don't see church leaders as being in charge "in the slightest," and you think all but the smallest decisions are made by God. But then in your most recent comment, you attributed major (and pretty common) problems to imperfect people acting unjustly. Those can't both be true. This is a well-known problem that Mormons have—we tend to think everything the General Authorities say is doctrine, that every person's calling is individually chosen by God, that everything that happens in the church is the result of direct divine inspiration (except for all the bad stuff, which is then attributed to "church culture, not doctrine" and "the church is perfect, but its people aren't"). That just isn't true, and General Authorities have made statements more than once saying so. Not everything a General Authority says in General Conference is now doctrine (which is lucky, when you remember how long Ezra Taft Benson spent talking about how Martin Luther King, Jr. and the entire civil rights movement were a Communist plot :) ). Bishops don't always have revelations telling them who should fill a calling. They aren't trained on how to deal with sexual assault and mental health issues, things that really require professional training. On local levels, there are problems like this all the time, and it isn't just because we have an awful lot of bishops out there who purposefully exercise unrighteous dominion.

      The point of all of this is that there are real, systematic problems in the church, and most of them stem from patriarchy—which is a human institution. These are man-made problems. The fact that women have no power of their own means that they have no institutional defense against unrighteous dominion (even if they go to their stake president or other leader, they're dependent on getting a man to help them). The fact that patriarchal culture makes women the "guardians of virtue"—a phrase that even church leaders have used as though it's a good thing—means that when women are abused, unless they are lucky enough to have a progressive bishop like yours, they will likely be told that it was their fault for having dressed "immodestly" or been somewhere they "shouldn't" have been; that it's selfish of them to ruin their abuser's life (like this case from just a few months ago); that they need to repent for having engaged in sexual activity (even if it wasn't willingly). All of these things have been said to women I know personally, and why wouldn't they? It's not like those bishops were all just bad men; that's what patriarchal culture teaches, both openly and through cultural undertones. Patriarchy is an unjust system that has dominated pretty much the entire history of the world. Like it did with the racism of our parents' era, the church needs to reject it. And I think they will. It's going to be a long time coming, just like the 1978 policy change was. Probably generations, still. But I think it's pretty much inevitable, if we give it long enough.

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    6. I think we see eye to eye here and I'm not expressing myself well enough. I don't believe everything church leaders say is doctrine. They aren't prophesying 24/7 and I think people who use highly esteemed church leaders as the end all be all really consider what they are doing. I do believe that people are called by inspiration, but they are still imperfect and often do things that are not in accordance with the church. So as far as they are righteous leaders acting in accordance with the Lord, I believe that the church can function perfectly. This is not always the case obviously because people aren't perfect. For example, my uncle is one of those priesthood holders that lords his priesthood over his wife and uses it to dominate over her. She can't call home evening without getting "in trouble" for example. So I hope I explained that a little better. It is all conditional, based on if the leaders are being righteous and following God.

      Side note, you are always welcome to move down to Vegas, we've got a great book club :) Adam actually had the idea for me to teach because someone did it in his California ward and he said it was the best lesson he'd ever had.

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  7. Thank you all for your lovely comments! This is such a difficult topic and I've been pleasantly surprised—on the original article, especially—at how thoughtful and respectful the comments are. (At least the last time I looked, they were.) It's really something that needs to be talked about, and discussed very carefully.

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  8. Is the theme connected with your professional status or perhaps is it more about your hobbies and ways to spend your leisure time?

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    1. I'm not sure what your comment is asking.

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  9. As a non-Mormon, I think it is fascinating and kind of great that some of the most active and articulate feminists in the U.S. that I know of, are in the LDS church! Go!

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