by Jackie Ball
To me, the Church’s relationship towards women alternates between benign patriarchy and austere rigidity. This was demonstrated to me from a young age, as I heard from my leaders about the woman I was supposed to be.
This lesson came from the top-down, most notably during General Conference. In the dearth of female speakers, we listened to the aged men before us tell us about their saintly mothers and persevering wives. They taught us to be ministering angels, selfless spouses, and gentle advocates for Christ. We were their better halves, with a divine nature that was to be both celebrated and protected, at all costs. The ideal woman supported and upheld the men in her life, from infancy to adulthood, never asking for a thank you or recognition in return. For her entire life, she would be a silent witness in the home as her man achieved prestige and recognition, both professionally and in the Church.
The majority of lessons and activities for LDS girls seemed focused on molding each of us into this “ideal” woman. In conduct, thought, and language, we had to be pure. Cultivating the Spirit was essential to this end; and so we had to regulate our music, television, movies, conversation, and, most importantly, our dress. We were repeatedly counseled that, for the modest young woman, wearing sleeveless dresses or short skirts was anathema. A glimpse of shoulder or thigh could easily cause a young man to have sinful thoughts. In that case, the sin was equally ours.
Never were we encouraged to work outside the home; this was only a last resort, if our husbands turned out to be unable to provide. I remember feeling a secret shame for that archetypal, incapable husband. Correspondingly, we were encouraged to pursue higher education, but it was only to complement our future roles as spouses and mothers. Education was, at its heart, a contingency plan. I can only remember a single lesson, in the five years that I was in this youth program, when the girls had a career night—one of the highlighted careers being a stay at home mom.
Nearly every significant role in the ward was, and still is, held by men. The Bishop served as a spiritual guide to the ward. He and his male counselors always sat at the front pulpit on Sundays, directing the meetings. Our male counterparts, the young men, carried out the sacrament. For a few moments every Sunday, these goofy boys would transform into solemn priesthood holders as they meticulously repeated the words of the sacrament prayers and blessed the bread and water. Then, in a uniform, white-shirted column, they passed the sacrament to the congregation. In this way, the entire sacrament became, not only a moment to remember Christ, but an opportunity to see the overriding patriarchy of God’s Church in action.
As a youth, I struggled against this institutional inequality; from my insistence on wearing pants (so I could somehow feel equal to the men) to my failed attempts to organize the first-ever white water rafting trip for young women. Not until I entered the the rigorous intellectual environment of BYU Law School, however, did I consciously address the consequences from my LDS upbringing for the first time. I realized my childhood in the Church had cultivated in me a feeling of worth as a child of God, a strong sense of right and wrong, and an inquiring mind. However, one of the reasons I even attended law school was because I had graduated college with no career plans. No one in my Church experience had prepared me for the “what ifs” of life as a single adult. I was terrified of being a working adult with an undergraduate education, because my degree did not guarantee me a rewarding and satisfying job.
Then, as a lawyer, I found myself confronting this same anxiety. Why, I wondered, as a well-educated adult, would I still feel ill equipped and frightened of going out into the work force? Goodness knows my parents had always encouraged me to have a prestigious career. I can only point to the messages I received from the Church, both stated and unstated, as the root of this anxiety. By differentiating us at a young age, often with separate activities and separate doctrinal lessons, I was taught that I was different from the young men. The General Authorities and local leaders then answered the question of how I was different. At heart, I was a foil to them—more sensitive, tenderer, more spiritually inclined. I was not to compete with the men in my life—I was to complement them. My highest calling in life would be to raise and nurture children, and so any vocational aspirations would take away from fulfilling this goal. Ultimately, I was at no loss to explain my inadequate and fearful feelings of being a career woman—it’s a wonder I contemplated pursuing a legal career at all!
I support the doctrine of the family and the priesthood; but I am troubled by the control that men have in nearly all aspects of Church administration, both temporal and spiritual. Does it take having the priesthood to manage the finances of a ward; to conduct a sacrament meeting; to organize ourselves as women and young women? Why is there this overriding need of the men in the Church to elevate women on a pedestal while denying them full expression as human beings? I am not a foil to you men. I am not a complement to you, your other half, or your ideal spiritual being. I am a child of God, and the standard I should be held to is how my character emulates Christ’s—not your sainted mother, your silent wife, or your revered pioneer ancestress.
I hope, as men and women of my generation assume leadership roles in their wards, stakes and areas of the Church, this cultural inflexibility towards women’s roles will change. The young women of today need us to be their examples, need so-called “feminist” women to speak up, assume more leadership roles, and prepare for futures outside of the roles of mother and homemaker. Let us grow and develop as individuals, not to be viewed as lesser or greater than you men. In the end, we are all equal before God.
Jackie is an active feminist Mormon, attorney, and part-time stay at home mom.