A letter to my daughter

Dear Daughter,

As you know, my views on gender differ radically from Mormon orthodoxy, and I don’t make an effort to hide that from you and your brother. I think it’s important to be honest with you. I hope I’m giving you an example of intellectual and spiritual integrity that will serve you much better than pretending to be OK with things I am not OK with. I do worry about the beauty of Jesus’ gospel of love getting lost in the noise of all that is wrong with the Church, so I hope I focus on the good, too, so that you have positive associations with religion.

You’ve already noticed some of the Church’s sexism, which makes me sad. Not sad that you’ve noticed, sad that it exists. Yesterday at bedtime you suddenly announced that it was better to be a boy, and that you wanted to be a boy for two reasons. Your first reason was basically curiosity about having a penis.  I reminded you that it’s normal to be curious about the differences between girls and boys, and that your body is perfect the way it is. Your second reason was so you could be like your brother and be baptized. I reminded you that both boys and girls are baptized; it’s later when kids turn 12 that boys are ordained and girls are not. I said that this is unfair and wrong.  And then explained that even though this is a crappy thing about our church, no church is perfect and there are good things about our church that we can appreciate.  I have no idea if this line of reasoning will hold water for you in the long run. Frankly, I’ll be surprised if it does.

You said you wanted to be like your older brother and do the same things he does. And of course you do! So far you and he have done all the same activities. You went to the same preschool, the same elementary schools, you’ve both done Tae Kwan Do and soccer, you both play a string instrument and the piano.  You both love stuffed animals and Legos.  Putting aside the pay gap and all the ways in which our culture demeans women, as you grow up the opportunities available to you will be no less than your brother. That’s as it should be (thank you, feminist foremothers and fathers). The only place you’ll encounter sexism in this particular, ossified, patriarchal form will be at church. Why should you tolerate that? You won’t need my permission to decide Mormonism isn’t for you. And if it isn’t, you’ll have my full support, like you will in everything. I hope the decision to leave isn’t too painful, but I also hope you’ll choose a spiritual path of some kind, a struggle to see beyond objective, quotidian realities and to let faith be an expansive force in your life.

Your wish to be a boy surprised me. I guess it could be an early sign of gender identity questions, but I really don’t think that’s what this is about. It’s an equity question. You’re a very observant and bright little girl, and no doubt have picked up on many silent messages of male dominance at church (and there’s so much more that you can’t have noticed yet). Inequity bothers you because it offends the truth of fundamental human equality; truth that you’re already aware of.  And being a boy appeals to the all-too-human appetite for superiority.  Who’s never felt tempted by the allure of being just a little more special than someone else?  Your preference for being a boy clearly shows where the specialness lies.

In a more-perfect world the Church would catch up with the 21st century before it loses a generation of kids like you and your brother.  It probably won’t.  It will be the Church’s loss.

Love,
Mom

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16 Responses

  1. Violadiva says:

    This letter breaks my heart. In the good ways hearts are supposed to hurt when we can’t give our daughters the answers we wish were found in our world. My baby girl is only 2, and has two older brothers. I foresee the day when I write a letter just like this to her….
    Id feel so much more motivated to persist if I didn’t feel that all the problems you list aren’t likely to be much changed in their lifetimes. That prospect makes me feel hopeless sometimes.

    • Andrew R. says:

      My baby girl is 14, and just yesterday evening (before reading this) we were on our way home from Young Women and in the conversation this same daughter (and her older sister, 16) expressed how very little she wanted the priesthood and that it was for boys and men. She knows that she has other qualities and attributes that are every bit as important. This is a daughter who has desires to be an architect (a seven year post secondary) education path. She is confident about who she is.

  2. Andrew R. says:

    Emily,

    As I read this I couldn’t decide if I liked it or not. The intent was great. I genuine desire to help your daughter understand who she is. And yet the delivery is mocking of the Church (The Kingdom of God on the earth). Includes an element of twisted doctrine. And belies the importance of the Church in our Eternal path. Some of your assumptions are also a means to expressing your opinions.

    “all that is wrong with the Church”
    In my experience there is nothing wrong with the Church. There is, from time to time, a problem with the members of the Church. Their understanding, implementation and general difficulties of operating across continents, countries and societies. But to tell your “daughter” there is much wrong with the organisation that offers covenants to bind her to Christ and allow her to fulfil her Eternal Destiny seems odd to me.

    “this is a crappy thing about our church”
    This is Church Doctrine. If you don’t like it fine. There is much about the Catholic Church that leaves me cold – which is why I have chosen not to leave this one and become a Catholic. I am not saying you should leave the Church. I am saying that you need to be sure of what it is you believe. I am an “all in” kind of person.

    ” I guess it could be an early sign of gender identity questions, but I really don’t think that’s what this is about. It’s an equity question.”
    Way to go with the projection there. It is almost universal for children to question why they are the gender they are. It doesn’t mean they are having a gender identity crisis, nor does it mean they have picked up on gender equity issues. It simply means they have notice differences and wonder what it would be like to be the other gender. “It would be great to stand up to pee” for instance. As you note, she has done everything her older brother has done.
    And being male or female doesn’t make our interests different. I hated playing football (soccer), and most team sports. Why? Because I am no good at them. I do play violin, piano, clarinet, tuba, electric bass and the organ. Why? Because I am good at them.

    “You won’t need my permission to decide Mormonism isn’t for you. And if it isn’t, you’ll have my full support, like you will in everything.”
    I will support my children in everything they do. However, where I see them breaking covenants I will be seeking to help them change – for always.
    You seem to be indicating (and sorry if I am reading you wrong) that Mormonism, or the Church, is a good place to be for a Spiritual path, but not the only one. This is THE Path. I would be very upset if the scenario in which you consider – and would hope she followed some other path. No other path will get her where you should want her to be.

    “many silent messages of male dominance at church”
    Really. I grew up in the Church. That was back in the days before the 3 hour block. Every Friday evening I attended Primary. Apart from my Blazer teacher (whom I still know and meet with, and who was a major influence in my life) everyone there was female. At 11 I was told (by a not very good female pianist) it would be a long time before I was good enough to play for Primary. I moved wards and was, on turning 12, called as the Primary music director/pianist; where I remained until the 3 hour block come in and I had to be in priesthood class instead.
    I also attended until I was baptised Junior Sunday School – another place devoid of men (except those young men assigned to administer the sacrament). My post baptismal Sunday School teacher was also female.
    In a sacrament meeting with equal numbers of male:female speakers only the person conducting the meeting was always male.
    I am no convinced that young children do not think the Church is run by women.

    Finally, in the ossified quotidian lives of my children I doubt any of them (all seven) has ever encountered the latter word and rarely, if ever, the former. Using these words in a letter your daughter just seems out of place – why not use more common language?

    • Ziff says:

      Geez, Andrew, her daughter is having a hard time. Writing a lecture that explains how you think the church is perfect is hardly helpful.

      • Andrew R. says:

        Her daughter isn’t having a hard time, she is being a normal child at that age. I may not be a woman, but I am the father of six girls – none of whom have ever expressed a desire to pass the sacrament, bless their children, or be Bishop. They do want to, and do, succeed in their professions, as parents (those who are).

        Penis envy and castration worries are common in young children. I remember myself distinctly thinking that I might at some point lose my penis and become a girl – not because being a girl was a bad thing, more because it was, in my mind, a possibility.

      • Ziff says:

        I don’t care how you frame it or how many daughters you have. Lecturing Emily on how the church is perfect is ridiculous and rude.

    • Guest Post says:

      ADMIN WARNING: Andrew, you are in violation of our comment policy which states, “This is not the place to question another’s personal righteousness, to call people to repentance, or to disrespectfully refute people’s personal religious beliefs.” Telling someone that their beliefs include “an element of twisted doctrine” clearly violates this policy.

      Please study the comment policy before you choose to comment again on this blog. If you continue to violate our comment policy, you will be permanently blocked.

      If you are unsure about how to offer a different perspective without being disrespectful and rude, a good rule of thumb when commenting is to speak in the first person without telling others how they are wrong. Ex: “I have a different perspective. I see it like this, xyz.”

      • Andrew R. says:

        Thanks for this. If only people were censured every time I am told I am wrong in my thinking, beliefs and opinions. But I guess equity only goes one way.

  3. Ziff says:

    Wow, Emily, this is heartbreaking. It makes a ton of sense, though. Church isn’t an easy place to be female.

    • Andrew R. says:

      It’s really not an easy place to be male either.

      • Ziff says:

        It’s a heck of a lot easier place to be male than it is to be female.

      • Andrew R. says:

        How do you know? I am constantly being called out here because as a man I can’t know what it is like to be female in the Church. I call snap!

        As a boy I had no choice whether I would be ordained, and at 18 whether I would take upon me the Oath and Covenant of the priesthood. If I wanted to continue to progress in the gospel these things are a must.

        My church callings take in excess of 25 hours a month on average – that is probably equal to my wife and four adult children’s callings in total. And I’m not a bishop or stake president.

        And that’s just two examples.

        Being a member of the Church – and trying to do all that that entails – is not easy. In fact, I submit, it’s not supposed to be.

      • Ziff says:

        It’s not supposed to be? Hmm. So God put all the sexism in for our edification? I’m never disappointed at the bizarre positions you’ll take to defend the status quo.

      • Ziff says:

        Also, I’m male. It’s not that you’re male that makes it hard for you to imagine women’s experience in the church. It’s that you’re convinced that it’s *perfect* as it is, so you’re unwilling or incapable of seeing the very real ways women suffer by being marginalized, ignored, or treated as objects. You could see these things just fine if you would get past your belief in church infallibility.

        I don’t disagree with you that there are hard things for men too. I do disagree that these are all good. It’s far too easy to just wave your hands and say “God doesn’t want it to be easy” and thus excuse all kinds of bad behavior. It’s crucial to take apart the things that make it not easy and see which ones are actually doing good (the requirement to love our neighbor, for example), and which ones aren’t (the requirement to participate in discrimination).

      • Emily says:

        No choice whether or not to be ordained? I understand feeling that way because it never occurred to me to not get baptized when I was eight…but that’s totally not doctrinal. No one should be baptized or ordained before they feel ready, and if you didn’t want to be an elder when you were 18 you absolutely could have said, “you know what, I need more time” without just saying, “well, this is my only option for spiritual progression and if I don’t do it now I’ll never be able to”

  4. Caroline says:

    What a beautiful, heartbreaking letter, Emily. I can see myself having similar conversations with my daughter someday. Thank you for articulating the complexity of our positions as feminist women in this patriarchal church. I too see some wonderful things in this faith tradition, but I also see so much room for improvement — particularly when it comes to issues of gender. I loved this sentence and I hope for the same for my kids. ” I also hope you’ll choose a spiritual path of some kind, a struggle to see beyond objective, quotidian realities and to let faith be an expansive force in your life.”

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