How Do You Raise Feminist Sons (or Daughters) in a Patriarchal Church?
[Image: Superhero Kid by Laura Powell on Flickr]
A friend recently posted this on a private social media group I belong to (reprinted here with permission):
“This morning, my son (11) came into my room and asked if it was okay if he could fast today. He’s been sick and hasn’t been recovering well, so I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea. He was so disappointed, and when I asked him why my heart broke open. He said, “I wanted to fast in remembrance of Heavenly Mother. It’s the best fast purpose I have ever thought of in my whole life. Can you and Dad fast for Her for me?” Raising a son who cares about women is probably the most important work I have ever done. My mama heart is so proud of him and his thoughtfulness. . . . Does anyone have any additional thoughts on how to include Heavenly Mother with their children? Or on raising sons in a way that helps break the cycle of patriarchy?”
Here is my response:
I don’t have any sons, but I have two small daughters. Ever since the birth of my oldest daughter, I have felt a lot of angst about raising daughters in a patriarchal church and have racked my brain about what I can do (if anything) to try to protect them from its toxic effects. Here is what I’ve come up with so far.
We refer to Heavenly Mother by name often in our home and have taught our daughters to begin prayers with “Dear God in Heaven” to be inclusive of Her. (I often begin nightly prayers at their bed side with “Dear Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father.”) There’s an inordinate amount of emphasis on patriarchy at church, including the overemphasis on the male/father God in prayers, talks, quotes from the scriptures and general conference, exclusive male leadership, and in the exclusively male priesthood that it feels imperative to me to focus on Her almost exclusively at home. So anytime I can make a scripture or story from the Friend magazine inclusive of Her by including Her name or changing “Heavenly Father” to “Heavenly Parents,” I do. This is painstaking, but I also go through the Friend and edit these phrases by hand and remove entire pages that don’t reflect our family values or beliefs.
We hold Family Home Evening at times by reviewing the kids’ lessons from primary and nursery that week and emphasize the Feminine Divine and the girls’ divine nature and potential because of Her.
We also purchase books that depict strong, powerful, intelligent, capable girls and women (Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls is a favorite) and we try hard to steer clear of books that involve a helpless girl or woman being rescued by a boy or man. That means we own few Disney movies or books (Frozen and Moana being exceptions). When my 5-year-old daughter occasionally questions this restriction, I explain to her that it’s my job as a parent to protect her from images or ideas that are not healthy for her. I feel fortunate that there are many quality books and even a growing number of kids’ shows and movies with strong female protagonists or prominent characters.
As far as church-related publications, Deseret Book has published a series of children’s books called Girls Who Choose God. There are two books in the series so far: one featuring biblical women and the other focusing on women from the Book of Mormon. Deseret Book also recently published a book called, Our Heavenly Family, Our Earthly Families, which contains images of Heavenly Mother throughout and mentions and her on nearly every page. These books are so well-written and have such quality content that I bring one of them to church every week to read to my daughters during the sacrament. I’ve even had women turn to me after the meeting to ask what I was reading so they could recommend the book to a family member.
During sacrament meeting my girls and I color the limited-edition coloring book, Illuminating Women: A Coloring Book of Mormon Women, which was created and printed through the volunteer efforts of talented women from the Exponent II community. Each page contains a detailed bio of a notable Mormon woman—starting with Lucy Mack Smith—and has an accompanying illustration. It’s like Good Night Rebel Girls for Mormons! But even better because you get to color in it! This book is a tangible way for me to teach my children about strong Mormon women and the powerful impact they had on their communities. (You can order them individually or in bulk online at https://www.etsy.com/shop/exponent2store )
Finally, my biggest piece of advice as parents is to model for your children what sharing power and decision-making as a couple looks like. In my opinion, the most effective effort one can exert to mitigate the damaging effects of patriarchy is to counteract it at home by coleading your household with equity and mutual respect. It sounds like you and your husband are doing a phenomenal job already since your son is so sensitive to the Feminine Divine. And yet we all have internalized sexism (even women do!) so I feel like the biggest gift I can give my daughters is to live a full, rich life in equal partnership with their father. My husband and I are continually reexamining how we can more equitably share domestic responsibilities like child care, homemaking, cooking, laundry, bill-paying, and cleaning. The more changes we make to distribute these tasks fairly, the healthier and happier I feel we are as individuals, as a couple, and as a family.
Oh, one more thing! I have begun planting the seeds of critical thinking for my 5-year-old so she has a framework with which to understand the skewed gender balance that is on dramatic display at church every week. I talk to her in age-appropriate ways about my nuanced beliefs about the church (that it contains both good and bad, like everything else in life) and that what some people teach is truth, I sometimes think is false. So far I have only said simple things like, “You’ll hear people say at church that the prophet knows what’s best for you, but I think you should listen to the Great Still Voice and to your heart; they will guide you and tell you what is right for you.” I’ve also told her that she may see or experience things at church that make it seem like only boys or men can be leaders or do important things. I’ve told her that her dad and I don’t believe that is right and that we believe someday this will change. This is my subtle way of teaching her about continuing revelation and that the narrative that is presented at church doesn’t always square with the truth (see the church’s Gospel Topics Essays, especially “Race and the Priesthood” and “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham” for prime examples of this).
Despite the patriarchal organization of the church, I appreciate the valuable aspects of the church. I want my children to inherit the good while questioning the bad. I’ll admit that more often than not this feels like an up-hill battle. And yet, we soldier on in our quest to raise feminist daughters in a patriarchal church.
Readers: How do you try to counteract the negative effects of patriarchy for yourself or the children in your life?
For those with sons or boys in your life, what have you found to be helpful in teaching them about the damaging aspects of patriarchy? How do you encourage them to treat girls and women equitably (and not just idealize or pedestalize them) despite what they see modeled at church?