A Snowflake in the Global Patriarchal Tradition

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by mraynes

As a feminist, I have been encouraged by the Church’s rhetoric on the equality of women and men, especially as it relates to marriage.  I think that we can all agree that an increase in egalitarian language is a good thing and benefits both men and women.  But language can only take us so far and I am truly afraid that the church’s language on equal partnership is just empty rhetoric.

Since the 1970’s, the Church has steadily become more progressive in its treatment of women…allowing women to speak in most meetings and giving them an increased presence in leadership councils.  Church leaders also started promoting the idea of equal partnership in the home and then subsequently backed off draconian birth control restrictions and limits on women leaving the domestic sphere.  But I have to wonder how much of this has been done out of political necessity; American women saw greater equality in mainstream society and so the church had to follow suit.

Before I go on, I want to say that I sincerely hope the church believes its own rhetoric and that it isn’t a ploy to mollify us Western women.  I want to believe that our leaders have been inspired by God to reach for equality because that is the kind of God I believe in.  Perhaps I am, as my brother-in-law lovingly suggests, a “fringe” Mormon but even so, I love my religion just as much as any true-blue Mormon there ever was.  I have stayed a Mormon because I believe that progress is slowly being made and I want to be among the snowflakes that finally break the branch of inequality in our religion.  Mostly, I want to live the religion of my heart.

But recently I have felt my heart break because I am not sure that I can continue to believe in the slow progress.  Yes, we have seen an increase in the language of egalitarianism but the Church’s actions do not back it up.  Until recently, most of us believed that the Church remained neutral in political matters, however Mormon activism to protect the traditional family around the world has been going on for at least a decade.  Mormons have played a leading role in a global alliance of conservative Muslims and Christians who have joined together to defeat threats to their patriarchal tradition.  Perhaps you have heard the now folkloric story of the BYU professor who attended a United Nations conference and gave a speech based on the Proclamation on the Family and changed the anti-traditional family course of the conference.  Spurred on by this success, BYU created the World Family Policy Center, holding annual conferences for “pro-family” entities around the world.  The Church also became involved with organizations such as United Families International (UTI) and the World Congress of Families (WCF).  In fact, the Church is a major funder of the World Congress of Families and sent Bruce C. Hafen to speak at their conference in 2007.  (As an aside, the WCF’s screed on feminism and the family is the funniest thing you’ll read all day). 

It is the mission of these organizations to influence international policy in pro- traditional family and anti- gay marriage and abortion ways.  I am not against protecting, supporting and promoting the family; generally I am pretty pro-family, as evidenced by my two children in three years, but families that do not guarantee an equally beneficial experience for all those involved should not be supported.   These organizations have, unfortunately, targeted International treaties like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which call on signatory countries to foster equality and make progress towards eliminating sexism in both national laws and cultural practices.  CEDAW is basically the international bill of rights for women.  As somebody who practically ate, drank and breathed CEDAW in college, I know the immense good this particular convention did for women around the world but also how ineffectual it could be because of the conservative factions of signatory countries that refused to follow all of the guidelines. 

The executive director at BYU’s World Family Policy Center told a reportert hat the United Nations conventions are an issue because they “appeared to be a pretty concerted effort to shape customary international law into, essentially, the Equal Rights Amendment.”  But is anyone else wondering if an Equal Rights Amendment for countries like Saudi Arabia and India would be such a bad thing?  Would it be such a bad thing for female fetuses to be guaranteed the right to life or for little girls to go to school without acid being flung in their eyes?  Is being able to escape an abusive marriage really a threat to the traditional family?  The answer is, of course, yes; any gains made in the rights of women are a threat to patriarchal tradition.  The question is now, does our church really want to follow this tradition?

It would seem that the lack of answers is really the answer.  Of course our church leaders could change things if they wanted to.  The preside language is incomprehensible and could be gotten rid of tomorrow without changing the majority of Mormon marriages.  Likewise, the “hearken” covenant could be done away with without fundamentally changing the endowment.  And yet neither is likely to happen; they are not likely to happen because their is no desire or impetus to change.  Instead we have gotten into bed with facets of religion and culture that hold equal partnership between men and women in complete disregard.  I am afraid that here, actions speak louder than words.

As for those of us on the fringe, all we can do is keep hanging out on that tree branch and hope that God sends an avalanche some day soon.

Mraynes

Mraynes lives in downtown Denver with her husband and four children. She spends her time lobbying at the Colorado Legislature, managing all the things and preparing Gospel Doctrine lessons.

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21 Responses

  1. imarxists says:

    Who hasn’t heard tales about so-called “progressive” churches and the kind of politicians who support hem, with their promotion of “families”: which really means attacking homosexuals and one-parent families? When homophobia is written into “the book”, or is a fixed part of its main interpretation, how can there be any meaningful talk of equality? Religious equality is equality with restrictions.

  2. cornnut32 says:

    the church talks about equality, but like you, i think it is a lot of talk.

    last week i found out something that really bothered me. my husband’s cousin just got a job as a seminary teacher with ces in utah. he was talking about his experiences and mentioned something that really upset me.

    the church encourages women to teach seminary, all the way through their first pregnancy. after their child and any subsequent children are born, the church will not hire them or allow them to teach seminary as a paid teacher until their last child has grown up and moved out.

    so much for equality, huh? i was really upset when i heard this. that completely takes away a woman’s choice to work or not, at least if she wants to teach seminary.

  3. Jessawhy says:

    Mraynes,
    Thanks for this thoughtful and well-written essay.
    I, too, hope to see changes soon.
    My own bishop is very open towards my feminist ideas. His understanding of my perspective encourages me that it’s possible for some of the sting of patriarchy to be taken away at the local level.
    Oh, and I had a woman seminary teacher who left 3/4 of the way through the year because she had a baby. I was pretty sad about it, both because I missed her, and because she didn’t have a choice.

  4. rachelcervantes says:

    I have long been intrigued in the struggle to fit together feminism and Mormonism (I apologize if this is the wrong term; no disrespect intended).

    I would like to follow your blog, if I may. I am not a Mormon, or even a Christian. But I am rooting for you.

  5. H. Cixous says:

    Thanks for a timely post. These same topics came up this week in discussions with family and friends. Regarding equality it’s so interesting that for the most part our society categorically rejects the notion of separate but equal, with a few notable exceptions. One of them being the roles of men and women in the Church; in which separate but equal is claimed to be a divine structure.

    One of the reasons the language used by our leaders rings hollow is that separation itself is a expression of the desire for inequality. If women were really believed to be as holy and as spiritually powerful as Mormon cultural doctrine claims them to be, keeping them out of the highest levels of institutional decision making, and keeping them away from the direct spiritual leadership of the Church would be nothing short of radically irresponsible, potentially putting the theology and the institution in jeopardy.

    We are frequently cautioned to look out for the ways in which the philosophies of men are mingled with the gospel. This caution provides us with one of the most powerful critiques of the institution there is. When we see open homophobia, racism, sexism, etc. being held up as divine structures we have the most clear examples we can find of the mingling of the philosophies of men (literally men) with the gospel. This creates a specific problem for More thoughtful Mormons. We want the gospel we love to fulfill it’s potential in the Mormon community and yet working in that direction can easily put one in direct conflict with the community and the institutional leadership for the reason you suggest; that reactionary politics have been conflated with our theology. The willingness to institutionally join with the nasty groups you mention above being prof positive of this.

    You mention CEDAW. My sister is a lawyer who does some work on both CEDAW and another newer international treaty that addresses the rights of people with disabilities as a human rights issue. She is thrilled at the speed with which this new treaty is being ratified but notes that it is being ratified much more quickly than CEDAW or any of the other international agreements that address the rights of women have been.

  6. amelia says:

    thanks for this, mraynes. i have to agree with you that ‘actions speak louder than words.’ which is what has me questioning more than i ever have whether i can continue trying to realize my most deeply treasured beliefs inside the church. i just keep butting my head against the fact that not only many individual mormons but also the church as an institution stands against principles and values i treasure (amusingly the same principles the church in large part helped me adopt). i don’t know that i can continue existing inside it.

  7. Caroline says:

    Love this post, mraynes. And all the comments. I too see a big disconnect between rhetoric of equality and the actual structure of the church. Though of course, there is dissonance in the rhetoric as well, since the church insists on retaining patriarchal language like ‘preside’ and ‘hearken’ within marriage.

    Seems like the church is trying to have it both ways – retaining patriarchy in language and structure, all the while insisting on its belief in equality for men and women.

    I didn’t know about the church jumping into bed with those conservative pro-traditional family organizations. Thanks for writing all this up.

  8. Kiskilili says:

    Great post, and good questions! We often take comfort in the fact that patriarchy in the Church is “just cultural” as a convenient way of dismissing what we disagree with. But, as you so well point out, the incipient feminism that we catch glimpses of in the Church is every bit as “cultural.” (What isn’t “cultural”? Culture refers to human behavior–i.e., everything we do.) In other words, if we don’t believe wives should obey their husbands because this attitude was entrenched in Joseph Smith’s era, shouldn’t we equally question whether women should be equal to their husbands, since this attitude is currently in vogue in the broader culture? It’s depressing, but equality has a terribly tenuous doctrinal foundation.

    (As a sidenote, I’d love to see someone do an academic study analyzing the ways in which feminism has influenced Church doctrine since the ’70s. It undeniably has, and you rightly point out several areas.)

    In the last General Priesthood meeting Elder Scott said the following:

    “I encourage any man who is reluctant to develop an equal partnership with his wife to obey the counsel inspired by the Lord and do it.”

    Uh, an equal what-er-ship, in which the wife hearkens to her husband? This sort of statement floors me. I’m sure it’s intended innocently, but unless our leaders are willing to change the temple ceremony and root out injunctions for men to preside and lead in the home, this kind of stance is duplicitous. “Equality” can’t just be about adopting a new attitude. It can’t just be about hastily slapping some feel-good statements onto a thoroughly patriarchal structure. It also has to be about changing your old attitude. The Church is talking out both sides of its mouth.

  9. Caroline says:

    “uh, an equal what-er-ship?”

    Kiskilli, that’s awesome. Hah!

  10. mraynes says:

    Thanks for all the comments so far. I have to say that it is nice to have a forum where I can share some pretty serious concerns and not be excoriated.

    imarxists, I appreciate your comment although I might not go quite as far as you do. I believe that religion has a lot of good to offer individuals along with the rest of society. I hope that someday we can have religion and equality without restrictions.

    cornnut, I agree that the Church’s policy on women in the CES program is disturbing. This policy is so unfortunate because young people should have spiritual role models of both genders.

    I agree with Jessawhy that having good local leaders does take away some of the sting of patriarchy. I just wish it wasn’t up to a priesthood leader’s benevolenceon whether women will be treated well or not.

    rachelcervantes, welcome to our blog. Being a Mormon and a feminist is indeed a struggle but I know that I am not alone in enjoying the complexity. Thank you for your support, you will always be welcome here.

  11. mraynes says:

    H. Cixous, thank you so much for your comment, you expressed so well many of the thoughts I have had recently. I like your theory about the philosophy of men, mingled with scripture. I agree that that the sexism, racism and homophobia we sometimes find in the church is a product of our fallen state and not of God.

    Amelia, you are not alone in your increased questioning. I also am having a hard time reconciling the actions of the church and my understanding of the gospel.

    Caroline and Kiskilili, I couldn’t agree more that the Church is trying to have it both ways. You are right about the tension in the language. If you combine all the aspects discussed here, the case against equal partnership is pretty damning.

    Oh, and Kiskilili, it is my new goal to try and work in “equal what-er-ship” during Relief Society sometime.

  12. Douglas Hunter says:

    mraynes,

    Thanks for a thoughtful post that speaks honestly of the doubts, difficulties and pain of life on the fringe.

    1) I was speaking with a friend two weeks ago who is an Episcopal priest. We were addressing how the Episcopal church has seen so much change in the last 40 years. My friend credits institutional changes that really empowered the laity. Such institutional changes are probably not going to happen in our church any time soon, but during prop 8 did we see an empowering of the laity on a blog such as this? Did it, or does it, empower the laity to the extent that it fosters dialogue and allows for minority opinions to be expressed publicly with a degree of safety? Does is serve as a place where we can practice articulating ideas that we can then take to Church on Sunday? Taking it further, can it can also be a place where we work together to create a positive vision for minority participation in the church? Far too often the narratives we see of intellectuals or feminists, etc. in the church are failure narratives or exit narratives. Granted, the marginalization that you describe is a real and compelling experience and may naturally lead to leaving the church or being exed. but I am really hoping that this is not the only direction we can go, are there positive stories of participation or spiritual growth on the margin? The margin is, in many other contexts, a position of power and influence. Is there a way in which the Mormon fringe can be such a place?

    2) I understand very well the idea that we are not to be critical of the leadership of the Church but your post raises an important question. To what extent do we have to be silent when the Church as an institution aligns itself with reactionary, right wing, hateful groups? Is there an extent to which we can and should say “not in our name!”? After all when the Church takes official action they are speaking and acting for us. Can we contact local and general authorities to express, discomfort or displeasure with the Church entering into partnerships that are both spiritually and politically unsavory?

    3) Is part of the reason we are on the fringe that we don’t have adequate language to describe our various points of view in ways that are inviting, that relate to scripture and practice in a way that is understandable or even appealing to those who view us as marginal? For me this was one of the big lessons of prop 8, that language is essential, that an invitation goes so much further than a critique. Personally, I am not so good at creating that kind of language but I know that I am inspired when I hear it. Language that can be broadly inclusive, that invites the so called main stream to get out of their spiritual and ethical rut and join the with the higher ethical and spiritual standards of the fringe! Or, at least create a dialogue between different groups that is not defined by the tendency to process everything through the lens of a narrow and calcified notion of orthodoxy.

  13. CatherineWO says:

    What an interesting discussion. I am so appreciative of this blog, and particularly of this post, for it verbalizes many of my own feelings and struggles. I am very interested in Douglas Hunter’s comments and thoughtful questions, particularly his third point concerning language and communication.

    As I have worked with local Church leaders over the years in various assignments, I have seldom brought up the subject of equality (or inequality) between women and men in the Church. However, this past year, as I have worked closely within our stake to achieve better accomodation in our meetings for people with disabilities, I have struggled to have my voice heard and to be given equal weight with those of the priesthood leaders. I finally came to the conclusion that the real problem was language and perception, as Douglas mentions. It wasn’t only that they weren’t listening, but that even when they did, they weren’t understanding what I was saying. Heirarchy truly got in the way, along with preconceived ideas of what can and can’t be done, based on what they saw as orthodoxy and I saw merely as tradition.

    Eventually, I quit speaking, communicating almost exclusively through my husband, who is also a stake leader. Then, the rest of them listened, and some accomodations have been made, but most of them still don’t really understand. In the thick of the battle a few weeks ago, I knew my husband understood when I expressed my frustration at how I was being treated. As a woman, I don’t want to be treated like someone “special”. I don’t want to be admired or worshiped or given a special place to make me feel good. “No,” he said, as the light really dawned in his eyes, “You just want a seat at the table.”

    Well, I did get a seat at the table (literally in a meeting with all the bishops and the stake presidency),but it was brief and very hard-won.

    So, I share all of your concerns. I don’t have answers, but I do agree with Douglas, that we have to find a way to “create a dialogue.” Perhaps one way is to work through those few leaders who do understand what we are trying to say, who at least make a true effort to be inclusive. Elder Wirthlin, who died yesterday, was one of those on the general level, and my husband is one on my own local level. Surely there are others.

  14. Douglas Hunter says:

    imarxist writes:

    “When homophobia is written into “the book”, or is a fixed part of its main interpretation, how can there be any meaningful talk of equality? Religious equality is equality with restrictions.”

    But that is just the thing, for some Christian groups such as the UCC, many Jewish congregations, and the Episcopal church among others, homophobia is not part of the interpretation, and has been rejected as part of the tradition. So it’s not a problem with religion per se. Perhaps the problem arises when a specific interpretation is understood as being an ultimate truth rather than an interpretation.

  15. Violet says:

    Oh I hope that avalanche comes soon meanwhile I’ll keep holding onto the branch. Love the post and the links. Your right the screed on feminism is pretty funny. I have thought an awful lot about this and it’s a tough one. How does the church support equality and patriachy at the same time? Definitely problematic and not very well. Some days I feel great about church other times it’s a huge struggle. Outside the church it’s much easier for me find and work towards equality I have a voice, the language is there to use and I feel like I have a seat at the table. So much more freedom to be me outside of church – inside the church is a struggle. Somedays are good some are not, but I don’t like hiding my whole self at church.

  16. Kirsten says:

    The CES policy must only apply to those paid positions in Utah and other areas where they actually pay the teachers. I was asked to be the Seminary teacher this past summer– I have two kids, ages 10 & 12. I turned down the offer (it isn’t a calling…) because it would have wreaked havoc with the morning getting-to-school routine at home.

  17. James says:

    This post (and discussion) highlights the great complexity I perceive at the intersection of feminism and Mormonism (and yes, rachelservantes, that is a perfectly acceptable term). We in the church obviously have much room for improvement, but I want to pose what I think may be a challenging question…maybe it’s not but here goes:

    You mention the abuses of women that take place in cultures (such as accessing education or escaping abusive marriages without fear of retribution). However, neither of these particular practices (or anything like them) would be tolerated by church membership or leadership. Based on this, could there be an argument that the church is actually a feminist organization?

    You could answer that question both “yes” and “no” within different contexts. Still, I don’t think it’s that simple to just say the church is sexist or patriarchal, end of story. I can think of many actions of the church at both institutional and local levels that speak loudly to its commitment to women’s issues.

    I don’t raise this question to argue your points or minimize actual problems or challenges that exist – that would be a huge mistake. There are real issues and they need discussion, just like this post. But I feel allowing them to overshadow the larger good going on within the church and the lives of its members lives would also be a huge mistake.

  18. mh says:

    I’m going to hang in there (or as you said, “keep hanging out there”). The movement continues to be in good directions. I’ve been watching it for half a century. Large, powerful ships don’t turn quickly nor do they accelerate rapidly, but when they are moving in the right direction it takes more than the puny efforts some of its resistant passengers to get it off track.

    And never confuse executive directors at BYU with “the church”. The church may own the school, but the university has got it’s fair share of bureaucrats who carry their personal world views with them into their jobs in spite of their best efforts. And we are under no obligation to take them as authoritative or representative voices on matters.

    Hang in there. There will continue to be some stumbling along the way that will make you cringe (there always is when you’re dealing with mortals) and the progress is not lightening fast (not everyone on board could handle that and we’d like to help all of them make the journey, not just leave the slower ones behind) but the course continues in good directions and the best is yet to come.

  19. kmillecam says:

    I am really enjoying this post and the subsequent comments. I have been thinking in these very same terms lately as I have decided what my role should be in the Church. Honestly, I sometimes get discouraged thinking how much work it will take to make a tiny, tiny difference (or maybe no difference at all). But I also have days where I feel like I still have a place in the Church that I should defend and speak out about. I’m still on the fence as to what I will do personally. The idea of hanging on to the branch until the avalanche comes is the type of thing to give me pause on those days I want to just walk out and not look back. Maybe the Church IS changing…

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  20. Ziff says:

    I have nothing useful to add, but I do want to thank you, mraynes, for the post, and all you commenters for your great comments. You all articulate well things that I kind of feel but don’t express well.

    And Kiskilili, I love your question “an equal what-er-ship?”

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