Guest Post: Sitting in the Dark

By ElleK

A woman I know was told years ago by her husband that she wasn’t to open her own doors because he wanted to open them for her as a sign of respect. Throughout the years of their marriage, he has opened her car doors before she enters and exits the vehicle. Once, I drove with this couple somewhere in a large, full SUV. We arrived at our destination and piled out of the car and were halfway across the parking lot when we realized the woman was missing. I ran back to the car and saw her still sitting inside. I opened the door and asked if she was coming, and she said, “My husband gets mad when I open the door myself. He wants to do it for me.” But her husband, distracted by so many other people in the party, had forgotten her. She sat in the hot car by herself, waiting for someone to do a task she was perfectly capable of performing.

Obviously this example is extreme and a bit silly, but it illustrates something I frequently witness at church: women are placed in positions where they have to go through a man for something they could easily do themselves. Sometimes there is good reason for this: any organization must have order and run large items up the chain of command. Schedules must be coordinated and budgets secured in order for things to run efficiently. However, women frequently must ask permission for the smallest of things. Sometimes this is required by her micromanaging priesthood leader, and sometimes it is the woman herself who feels pressured by culture or others to seek approval for minutiae that falls under her stewardship.

We cannot blame this only on a local phenomenon. Several months ago, some meeting notes of the Quorum of the 12 were leaked. One of their agenda items was to approve the opening song for the General Young Women’s Meeting which had been changed by the general young women’s Presidency. These capable women, entrusted with a large stewardship, were not even permitted to choose the hymns for their meeting without oversight and permission.

My stake has rules in place that prevent women from using church buildings without priesthood holders present. I am sure there are reasons for this; however, the logic is flawed (suggesting that an 80-year-old priesthood holder is needed to “protect” 25 adult female volleyball players with access to cell phones is absurd). My stake also has men at Girls’ Camp keeping 24-hour watch (no such policy exists for boys’ camps). Such policies treat women like they are children and in need of governance and supervision, not to mention inconvenience men.

A friend of mine is arranging a camping trip for LDS women in her area. It’s not an official church activity; it’s just friends and acquaintances camping and swimming and having a good time together. But on the bottom of the flyer it says, “Although not a church sponsored camp, two priesthood brethren will be on site for emergencies.” I assume this means that if someone gets hurt or sick, two men will be available to give a blessing. I have no problem with priesthood blessings or with men pitching in to help, but I was confused and, frankly, distressed that the capable and competent women organizers thought that, should an emergency occur, they wouldn’t be able to handle it on their own (let’s not forget that our foremothers gave prophet-sanctioned blessings, including anointings, for a hundred years). This notion that a blessing given by priesthood holders is more effective than a prayer using priesthood power given by women is as toxic as it is widespread. If such a thing were true, then women (or even a lone man, since he can’t bless himself) should conceivably never be further than yelling distance from a priesthood holder.

Despite the new insights we’ve received in recent years regarding women’s relationship with priesthood power and authority, there is still an overarching sense that women need men in every circumstance for approval, for direction, and for access to priesthood power. I’m not bashing on men (or priesthood holders) here–it’s important that we all work together. The problem is when it is assumed (by men or women or the institution or all of the above) that women need babysitting and aren’t capable enough (or allowed) to make decisions without extensive oversight.

The story I related earlier of the woman stuck sitting in the car brings to mind the analogy given by Elder Anderson in a recent General Conference: “A man may open the drapes so the warm sunlight comes into the room, but the man does not own the sun or the light or the warmth it brings. The blessings of the priesthood are infinitely greater than the one who is asked to administer the gift.”  While it’s a lovely thought on the surface, my mental picture of this analogy is not one of warm sunlight coming into a room, but of a woman sitting by herself in the dark, perfectly able–but not allowed–to open her own drapes, waiting for a man to come and do it for her.

When possible, we must challenge this culture that insists women need supervision in all things. Until we both confront the sexist and patronizing policies employed by the institution and allow ourselves to seize the drapes and let the sunlight pour in, we’re sitting in the dark.

ElleK listens to NPR in the car, sings in the shower, and crusades from her couch. Women’s issues in the church are not a pebble in her shoe; they are a boulder on her chest.

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25 Responses

  1. Dani Addante says:

    It’s absurd that the general officers needed permission to change a hymn for their own meeting! I didn’t know about that. I’m sure that the leaders would give permission, but it’s strange that the women have to ask for permission with something so simple. That’s interesting what you said about the analogy of the drapes. I hadn’t thought of it from that angle. Thank you for this article!

    • ElleK says:

      Yes, it is absurd. That every decision made by a female general auxiliary leader–down to the hymn selection–must be approved by the Q12/1st Presidency is mind-boggling and so unnecessary. I feel like I’m generally a competent, responsible adult human, but I’m not treated that way all the time at church.

  2. Heather says:

    Wonderful post. You’ve articulated so well an issue that makes me beyond frustrated. How do we fix this?!?!

    • ElleK says:

      I wish I had an answer. I try to bring attention to it when such instances happen, but the culture in the church is such that I usually get shut down pretty quickly for being dissident. I think my next step is going to be to give my bishop and the members of my stake presidency copies of Neylan McBaine’s Women at Church. I don’t have much faith it will accomplish anything big, but awareness is the first step.

  3. AGC says:

    I’m a Primary chorister in my ward, and it infuriates me to no end that I am supposed to ask the bishop for permission to sing anything that’s not in the Children’s Songbook. This rule applies even to songs that have been published in the Friend. I refuse to do it, because it’s so infantilizing. If you call me, you also call my brain. And I’m going to use it. And, thanks, I think I know whether a song is appropriate or not by using my own discernment.

    • ElleK says:

      I’m with you. I understand getting the Primary President’s approval, but I really hate how auxiliary heads basically have no power: everyone goes over their heads straight to the bishop.

      I’m the ward music leader, and I recently spent a lot of time with the ward choir director and choir president picking out some sheet music to buy for the ward. I sent our selections to the first counselor (who’s over music), and he liked the songs, but then he sent them to the bishop. Even though I’d stated several times that I needed approval before a certain date so I could get the music ordered in time, it took the bishop 2 weeks to get back to me. It was so frustratingly unnecessary.

  4. Janell says:

    All other things aside, I would think bishops would be annoyed to no end by requests for permission to sing Primary songs and every other such ridiculous request. Like they don’t have enough demands on their time?!? Would that every bishop in the world refused such asinine tasks and told their SP so… Sad that many probably think keeping tabs on the minutae of the auxiliary leaders’ decisions is a necessary task, rather than pushing for the auxiliarys to have full control in the stewardships to which they have been called.

    • ElleK says:

      Sadly, we’ve created a culture where we don’t trust people to make decisions for themselves. My favorite quote from Joseph Smith is “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.” I wish that we actually practiced that.

  5. Tania Lyon says:

    Wonderful post. The whole piece resonated but the line that really jumped out at me was from your bio: gender issues are not a pebble in my shoe, they are a boulder on my chest. YES.

  6. Elizabeth says:

    This is so important. Ugh, and that quote! Why do I need someone else to give me sunshine? Yikes.

    • ElleK says:

      I think my exact thoughts after hearing that anecdote in General Conference were, I’ll open my own damn drapes, thanks.

  7. Violadiva says:

    You’ve shined a light into a nasty crack in the crag of Mormon leadership.
    When I was primary president, my motto was, “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission” and I just went ahead and administered my program in the way I saw fit. I never bothered clearing songs with the bishop, or asked his permission before asking someone to be a long-term sub for a class who wasn’t getting the teacher called any time soon.
    It worked out well. Primary ran smoothly, and he could spend his time doing other things. Micromanaging your middle managers (the quorum and auxiliary presidents) is just a shabby way of showing that you don’t trust the competency of the people you’ve called into the jobs. And letting people lead their own groups and maybe even make a few mistakes along the way is a great way to spread the leadership development all around

    • Dani Addante says:

      I like your motto. I’m glad you administered your program the way you wanted. As the president, running the primary should have been up to you, not the bishop. Doesn’t he have enough to do already? Bishops are supposed to delegate.

      • Moss says:

        If you’ve ever spent much time in any of the facebook groups that support auxiliaries you see a culture of “go ask the Bishop” and “take this to the Bishop” when most issues and questions that arise could and should be handled within the auxiliary. It looks to me like women doubt other women (or themselves) to make decisions. They don’t see them as authorities. Either that or they feel they get soft power from submitting to male authority, but that never happens, right?

      • ElleK says:

        Moss, I have noticed the same phenomenon, even among my group of friends. It is frustrating to me that the default advice is to go to the bishop with any small grievance, even when the first line of contact should be with the auxiliary president, or when the matter is something they should decide themselves. In church culture, we’ve outsourced our moral authority to church leaders, and we’re all the poorer for it.

    • ElleK says:

      Good for both you and your bishop. It sounds like you were a great asset to him and he was a good “superior” to you for letting you do your job. If only all women were as practical and confident and all men were as trusting and competent, we’d be in a much better place as a church.

  8. M says:

    Yes, yes, yes!

    As newly weds, my husband was once out of sorts with me when he found me fixing the washing machine on my own. “Why do you have to try and do everything?” he said “Can’t some jobs just be for the men?”. I laughed, handed him another screwdriver and invited him to join in.

    20 years on, we still have washing machines to fix, but we’ve learnt to work on them side by side. And it gets done a lot quicker. No one leads, no one stands behind waiting. There’s probably a moral to this story (other than buying better washing machines!)…

    I often ask myself why, as a grown woman, church is the only place that I feel like a grumpy teenager. This post really hit the nail on the head.

    • ElleK says:

      “I often ask myself why, as a grown woman, church is the only place that I feel like a grumpy teenager.”

      Yes! This sums it up exactly.

  9. Jeannie says:

    Oh…it feels so good to hear this from others! I work outside the home where, not only am I confident, competent and capable, but I am treated like I am….. I help real families make life altering decisions…Then, church…ugh! Can relate to the comment, feeling like a “grumpy teenager”… Thank you for this great post!

    • ElleK says:

      I think this is what will ultimately change the church: as women go out into the real world and see that they are equals of men in pretty much every way, they won’t tolerate this treatment anymore. And hopefully, men will have the same realization.

  10. Andrea C says:

    Regarding the leaked meeting notes…I guess this begs the question of whether the Q12 approve songs for all churchwide meetings regardless of the gender involved. Similarly, are YM, EQ, HP, and Sunday School leaders asked to have Bishop signoff on program decisions? I don’t know.

    There is a difference between procedure and doctrine-based actions. We need to be more comfortable discerning the difference.

  11. ElleK says:

    I think it’s likely the Q12/1st Pres (can’t remember which it was) does approve of all songs in general conference sessions, but that’s understandable to me because they are the leaders/responsible parties for those sessions (including the priesthood session). The songs in question were for the Young Women’s Meeting, which wasn’t considered part of general conference. I’m not aware of any other auxillary having a worldwide meeting besides the RS (and this of course took place before the meetings were combined and Incorporated as an official session of general conference).

    I feel like I’m pretty comfortable discerning the difference between procedure and doctrine, and I think that’s one reason why church is so hard for me: there are sooo many policies in need of overhaul, and it’s just not happening fast enough.

    • Andrea C says:

      I think the points you made in your articke were valid, as are those of many of the commentators.

      Actually, I wasn’t saying your discernment was off… but that of others whose knee-jerk reaction is to presume heresy or pit stirring or unrighteous malcontent. Humans are creatures of habit…and dome in the church wrongly assume that procedures that aren’t doctrinally rooted are still somehow doctrine anyway. Because that’s just how it’s done because that’s how ut’s been done since 18xx or 19xx. And if you ask whys and wherefores they becomes instantly uncomfortable. It’s possible that there are very good and right reasons for things and general membership simply isn’t privy to it.

      All we need to do is love the Lord and each other the best we can.

      • ElleK says:

        Yeah, I didn’t take your previous comment as a personal attack at all. I understand what you’re saying. If you look at church history and procedure as black and white, you have two options: either the policy in question was directly inspired by God and thus continues to be His will, or else the policy is a purposeful, mean spirited attack on [insert marginalized group]. The truth usually lies somewhere in the middle, and I try to look at things in the church–be it leaders or policies or history or doctrine–with a nuanced eye.

        I remember when the first woman prayed in General Conference. I was aware of the “Let Women Pray” campaign, but hadn’t participated. I remember saying to my mom, who I was watching it with, that it was cool a woman had prayed. We both got a little snarky about how “all those people made such a big deal about it, and the brethren were probably like, gosh, we just never thought about it; okay, cool, let’s fix it.” And I laughed a little smugly, but something rankled that I couldn’t give words to. And these years later, the words have finally grown like a vine and I can say, “Even with giving these men the benefit of the doubt–that maybe they never thought of it and once they did, they fixed it–it speaks to the enormous blind spot our church has when it comes to women: their voices, their opportunities, their leadership, their input. If we don’t even notice when they’re not represented, how likely is it that they’re represented at all?”

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