Guest Post: Why the LDS Church Needs Feminists

Posted by on July 1, 2014 in Gender roles, women | 21 comments

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.

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21 Comments

  1. “Why, I wondered, as a well-educated adult, would I still feel ill equipped and frightened of going out into the work force?” Many–perhaps most–of the new law school grads I know have some of those same feelings. And very few of them have any connection to the LDS Church.

  2. I have felt a lot of the same things, Jackie. I’m a stay-at-home-mom and while I love being home with my children, sometimes my brain goes to the “what ifs…” What if we were to divorce? Or my husband to die? Or be disabled? Or have a hard time finding work? My husband is incredible at his job but has a lot of social anxiety. On the other hand, I long to be with people and being home alone all day has been really hard on me. Due to our personalities, it would have made more sense for us to switch roles. But, I got a Master’s Degree in Voice Performance. I got a great education but it’s not a terminal degree for my area of specialization, I would need to get a DMA or a PhD to have a viable career, but we chose to have children instead, because this is what we had always been counseled to do. Now it leaves me in that scared place of hoping the lifeline of my husband’s employment remains a viable.

    I wish we taught our young girls not only to be prepared “in case,” but to be prepared in their own right–to seek out those things that pique their curiosity and passions in the workforce and that they learn how to care for themselves. In our world, it’s becoming increasingly necessary for women to be able to care for themselves. We should no longer treat women’s employment as a “just in case” issue.

  3. Very well written. I also think things will change soon in terms of men controlling most of meaningful positions at church. I see that the young generation of Mormon women is pursuing education with a clearer strategy in terms of career choices. I believe that more women in the church will be women working outside of home in the near future. This will change the rhetoric drastically and the practice will follow too.

    My understanding is that the rhetoric the church used regarding women and feminism is from the 1950s – when it was not simply the expectation for women to stay home but also a middle class american family could afford the middle class luxuries and necessities just with one salary. Economically, this is not feasible anymore in most of America. And as the church branches out more in international territories, a woman staying home is simply not the norm abroad. It is always the expectation.

    So things will change. If the church doesn’t want to allow feminists to change the rhetoric it uses, the economics and the diversity of people will do so. There is no escape from change.

  4. Can I say how much I love these sentences?

    “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”

    Amen. It’s time we as Mormons become less concerned with promoting traditional gender roles and more concerned with being disciples of Christ.

    • I’m pretty sure I agree with the point that there is no reason why a woman can’t manage the finances or conduct sacrament meetings such as well as a man can. I see no reason whatsoever to doubt this.

      What I do doubt (strongly reject would be more accurate) is that priesthood authority isn’t necessary to do these things.

      Sometimes I think we should be a bit clearer about whether we are objecting to authoritative hierarchies altogether or simply patriarchy.

      • Er, why does someone need priesthood to manage finances again? Or conduct a meeting? I realize that this is by now Mormon policy and practice, but I certainly see no reason why these things couldn’t be easily changed by leaders interested in more fully including women and utilizing their skills.

      • Because such a reliance upon skills and qualifications is exactly what the Lord does not want us to do. He wants us to rely upon Him and His direction to us and such direction can only come to those who are properly authorized to receive it as part of their stewardship. This is why hierarchy is very much built into the gospel as Mormons understand it.

        Of course, I this is not to say that a female could not receive just as much inspiration when put in that position. Hence, my distinction between hierarchy and patriarchy.

      • I’m a Mormon, and I believe hierarchy/patriarchy is Satan’s overlay to the truth. So perhaps “as Mormons understand it” should be “as Jeff G. understands Mormons to undrstand it.”

      • Well, yes, if you reject hierarchy, then you obviously reject patriachy… but I think it’s pretty safe to say that you reject an awful lot of the D&C as well.

        If, however, you merely reject patriarchy as being only one of many possible forms of hierarchy, then I don’t think D&C is nearly so problematic for you.

      • In places like Korea, where there’s few men in the church, women hold callings like ward clerk. In my branch, we were short on men so I was called to be the ward mission leader. If the church allows it in areas where there is a shortage of men, then they should do it everywhere. It’s not doctrine. It’s policy.

      • You’re right. Actually being ordained is not necessary to be uniquely authorized to receive revelation for many calling, including the ones she mentions. An authoritative setting apart, however, is necessary.

  5. I love this Jackie! It resonates with my experience too. I became a very young stay at home mom, so I haven’t really dealt with this until recently. But now that my kids are getting to the age of being in school and I am thinking about a career for the first time, I also have that anxiety that you described. I thought my life would be filled only with homemaking duties and now I am discovering that there is more to my path and it does scare me. I have pinpointed the same cause as you have for that fear. I was raised to be complimentary to a man, not to be a whole and complete person myself.
    I especially love these lines: ” 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.” Absolutely right!

  6. Can I just add that “I’m not your neck?” I grew up being taught that men were the “head” and that I was simply the “neck,” and that if I used my femininity successfully, I could be the one to turn the neck and steer it properly. I have no idea how widespread this teaching was, but I just remember furrowing my brow and thinking, “But I have my own head…”

    • I heard that, too. Blerg. Also reminders that while the bishop presides, he doesn’t always conduct. So while my (future) husband would preside, he wouldn’t always conduct in the family. Like I was supposed to be grateful that he’d let me practice being a grown-up once in a while.

    • No way, I’ve heard that too! I thought it was just an idea from a crazy sister in the ward. I felt like telling her, “No, I’m one eye in the head, and he’s the other eye and we work together.”

  7. Wow! So many clearly articulated points. Thank you for this wonderful essay. This was where I caught my breath: “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.” What a powerful and pervasive message in the church.

    I look forward to the day when parenthood is seen as the highest calling for “parents.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if vocational aspirations were viewed as a natural outcropping of the Christ-centered life? The kind of life that moves all women and men toward expression of our highest self in every way, including in our career.

  8. I could relate to so much of this post. I’m feeling pretty cynical about things in the church right now but I’m determined to do better for my daughters and the other girls in my influence.

  9. During the 1975-76 schoolyear at BYU, Eloise Bell, a BYU professor, gave a forum address to the students explaining why she was a feminist. She gave this address at the specific request of Dallin Oaks, then BYU president. She referred to him as a feminist. It is still available on the BYU website if you do a search for it in the speeches section.
    Read it. I think it will surprise you how forward thinking the Church was in the day.

    • Thank you so much for that. I joined the church at that time (1976) and found the church had already put into practice so many things that were described in THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE.

      But I am not sure that “feminist” as the same meaning nowadays. Last year I was privileged to meet Stephanie Koontz, and she mentioned she is no longer using that label because of the baggage. I live in a town where I have personally been told by the president of NOW that I cannot be considered a feminist because of my pro-life views.

      But I think the church needs everybody, whatever they want to call themselves.

  10. TopHat

    1. Agreed.

    2. No, the language in the temple does not “leave room for unrighteous dominion”. Men who exercise unrighteous dominion are violating their temple covenants.

    3. Here is the quote. You can still find it at http://ordainwomen.org/project/my-name-is-kate/: “The ordination of women would put us on equal spiritual footing with our brethren, and nothing less will suffice.” And she has made the “raise hell” comment at least twice.

    4. You’re characterization of the 6 Discussions is inaccurate. How are the Huffington Post, Dialogue, Sunstone, Signature Books, and the writings of ex-Mormons, feminists, OW members and various other left-wing sources “similar” to the words of the prophets and apostles? This is a classic case of the philosophies of men mingled with scripture.

    5. Maybe it’s not technically doctrine because it wasn’t presented to the membership for a sustaining vote, but it is “a guide that members of the Church would do well to read and to follow.” In what meaningful sense can feminists say they “sustain” the prophets and apostles if they reject the Proclamation on the Family? If you can disregard counsel from the prophets and apostles whenever it conflicts with your own left-wing agenda, how is that sustaining the prophets and apostles?

    6. Who are you to demand that the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve pray about your pet issues and give you an answer in the form you demand when and exactly when you demand it? “Only men are ordained to serve in priesthood offices.” (First Presidency/Quorum of Twelve statement) “Women do not hold the priesthood because the Lord has put it that way. It is part of His program.” (President Hinckley). “[The prophets and apostles] are not free to alter the divinely decreed pattern that only men will hold offices in the priesthood.” (Elder Oaks). “[W]hy are the ordinances of the priesthood administered by men?….When we speak of the priesthood, there are many things we do know.” (Elder Andersen). That’s the answer to your question. Only men are ordained and we don’t know why. You don’t get to set the terms of how the prophets and apostles choose to answer the question. What’s next? A group called Temple Marriage for Same-Sex Couples Now? Will they demand that the prophet pray to God and ask Him if the time is right for two homosexuals to marry each other in the temple? After all, the prophets and apostles have never said whether they’ve asked the Lord this specific question worded in this specific way.

    7. Mixing left-wing propaganda with scripture, mocking the prophets and apostles (“Patriarchy Bingo” anyone?), trespassing on Church property, and making thinly veiled demands under the guise of asking questions in an attempt to manipulate the media and public opinion is not the same as humbly seeking the Lord’s will and accepting the answer given by the prophet. OW’s approach is the Martin Harris approach. They won’t stop until they get the answer they want that uses the wording they demand.

    • Sorry, this is in response to TopHat’s comment on the Ignoring Logic post.

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