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)


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.


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.


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.