Do Women Disappear When Women and Men Integrate? A Mormon Case Study
Pulitzer Prize winning historian, Harvard professor, Mormon feminist, and founding member of Exponent II, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, recently gave a talk in which she examined the history of theLDS Relief Society. In her talk she documented the rise and decline of this organization, originally developed in 1842 as a parallel to the men’s priesthood quorums. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, this organization opened hospitals, published its own newspaper/magazine, developed its own curriculum, participated in promoting women’s suffrage, managed the Church’s social services program, and engaged in various economic endeavors. However, as the 20th century wore on, the Relief Society lost much of its autonomy, as male priesthood channels took over many of these endeavors.
As Ulrich describes it, Relief Society history “from 1969 to the present was a history of the disappearance of Relief Society.” She mentions that these last forty years of Relief Society were in some ways an attempt to integrate men and women together, as they both learned from the same (androcentric) manuals, read the same (male-dominated) Church magazines, and more. In contrast, she reflects, “During a period when there was a notion of separate spheres, women… created amazing things,” discussing the temperance movement as an example and saying, “women’s voluntary activity was very powerful” in those days of separate spheres.
The pattern she sees in the 20th century, however, is this:
“…when men and women are integrated and brought together, women tend to disappear, and that’s what happened to the Relief Society in the twentieth century. I’m definitely not arguing for separate spheres and to go back to nineteenth century. I’m simply pointing out that a kind of integration that leaves women unrepresented in the authority structures end up with a continuing invisibility problem. We need to find a way to work together as full partners.”
Ulrich’s claims about the power of separate spheres and the problems that often accompany attempts at male/female integration immediately captured my attention. As a liberal feminist, I have always believed that integration is absolutely key for women’s empowerment, and in the past I have applauded steps that have led to greater male/female integration in the Mormon church. It’s sobering to contemplate the possibility that these integration attempts might have contributed to greater problems with women’s invisibility. My ultimate hope is to see women completely integrated into authority structures of the Church, thus giving women and men the same visibility, power, and ability to help shape the future of the organization.
I do have lingering questions, however. Even if Mormon women are ordained someday and integrated into Church authority structures, would patriarchy still rule the day? Would women be working within male dominated meetings, their ideas and visions pushed aside? Would they be present, but silenced? I fear they might be. Which is why I suspect that women’s ordination is necessary, but not sufficient, to eradicate the problem of women’s institutional invisibility within Mormonism.
Ulrich’s talk also made me contemplate the benefits of separate spheres and wonder if sometimes women might be better off with total autonomy over their own organizations, projects, and funding. Maybe women are sometimes better off when the entire focus of an organization is on women and women’s needs. While I lean towards being a liberal feminist integrationist, I do recognize that separate spheres has played a powerful role in my own life. I went to a women’s college and greatly benefited from a school environment that focused so completely on women’s education and issues. There I learned to speak up in my all female classes. There I learned to direct a feminist lens on every text I read.
I would love to know your feelings about separate spheres vs. integration. If you could have your pick, would you choose to have the Relief Society return to its former power and autonomy, with women engaged in big vision projects, designing their own curriculum, publishing their own papers? Or would you choose the integration route with women entering into channels of priesthood authority, as opportunities for them to be bishops, stake presidents, and more became open to them? Which do you think would serve women better in the end?