Much has been written about President Elaine S. Dalton’s now infamous talk where she argued that LDS women, understanding our roles and responsibilities, would see no need to lobby for rights. There is an understandable amount of confusion as to what she meant by this; was she referring to Mormon women lobbying within a Mormon context or women lobbying for rights in general?
Recently, Elder Dallin H. Oaks expounded on President Dalton’s words, saying
Of course we see the need to correct some longstanding deficiencies in legal protections and opportunities for women. But in our private behavior, as President Gordon B. Hinckley taught many years ago about the public sector, ‘We believe that any effort to create neuter gender of that which God created male and female will bring more problems than benefits.’
I find this problematic for a number of reasons but for the sake of this post I want to examine that last statement–that eschewing traditional gender roles in our private behavior leads to more problems than benefits. I would like to know what these problems are specifically.
There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that equality between the sexes in societies is highly correlated to decreased violence against women. Countries where women have the same political freedoms, educational and employment opportunities, and the right to control their reproductive choices show lower rates of sexual assault and intimate partner violence. A lot of these rights have been instituted into law. I can only take Elder Oaks at his word that he is in favor of these policies that address, and in many cases solve, “some longstanding deficiencies in legal protections and opportunities for women.”
Of course, the same correlation is seen in private relationships as well. Relationships that exhibit characteristics of equal partnerships and reject rigid gender role understandings are much less likely to be violent. But the above quote makes it unclear whether Elder Oaks thinks that this is a good thing. As he states, any effort to “neuter gender” in private behavior is more problematic than beneficial.
I am perplexed by this because research clearly shows that this is not true–at least when it comes to violence against women. So I am left to wonder what the problems Elder Oaks is referring to that make the decrease in intimate partner violence less beneficial than if rigid gender roles that can encourage violence are left in place.
Perhaps Elder Oaks believes that the legal protections many Western countries have put in place to address violence against women are sufficient and the private realm should be left alone. Unfortunately these policies are not enough. While mandatory intervention laws, such as mandatory arrest in cases of domestic violence are better than nothing there continues to be high rates of domestic violence and a disappointing amount of recidivism. Violence against women does not happen in a void, we cannot expect it to disappear unless misogyny is rooted out wherever it exists, and that includes in our private behavior.
To bring this a little closer to home, over the years I have counseled a number of LDS women who have lived by Elder Oaks’ ideal and maintained strict gender role boundaries in their private relationships. Without fail, each one of these women has confided in me that this has been used to further abuse them and their children. We cannot afford to pretend that there aren’t consequences to prioritizing traditional gender roles over relationships built on a less rigid ideology.
I give Elder Oaks the benefit of the doubt that he truly believes there are more problems than benefits to equalizing gender roles. And perhaps he is right. But we need to know what these problems are if we are to decide the price of women’s physical, emotional and spiritual safety is worth paying.