Of Sharp-Tongues and Binders

One of the more interesting aspects of this presidential election has been to view Mitt Romney through the lens of Mormonism. Having been born and bred in this culture myself, it has been fascinating to see how Romney exudes Mormonness even when not engaging with it. Like it or not, we are all products of our culture and Romney exhibits both the best and the worst that Mormonism has to offer. This post isn’t so much about Romney as it is about the culture of Mormon men that Mitt Romney embodies.

I first noticed it after reading Romney’s opinion of the daytime talk show, The View.

[The View] is high risk because of the five women on it, only one is conservative and four are sharp-tongued and not conservative.

This soundbite was a dog whistle to my Mormon woman ears. We are socialized to behave in certain ways and we all know that being sharp-tongued is a bad thing. Rather, Mormon women are:

[N]ever be like women of the world. The world has enough women who are tough; we need women who are tender. There are enough women who are coarse; we need women who are kind. There are enough women who are rude; we need women who are refined. We have enough women of fame and fortune; we need more women of faith. We have enough greed; we need more goodness. We have enough vanity; we need more virtue. We have enough popularity; we need more purity.

Of course this rhetoric has an effect on women but it also impacts Mormon men. Women who are assertive, opinionated and willing to speak their mind can be viewed as rude, course and sharp-tongued. Instead of engaging with actual women with actual ideas, Mormon men may mistakenly believe that all women should be like this caricature set forth by our culture.

Another example of typical Mormon men culture was in this week’s debate where Mr. Romney made the now infamous “binder full of women” comment. Mitt’s comment, while rather clueless, is not especially offensive. What is remarkable is despite 25 years in the upper-echelons of the private sector, Mr. Romney was not aware of any qualified women to fill positions in his gubernatorial administration. Or rather, it is unremarkable because too many Mormon men remain generally clueless about women and their lives. Mr. Romney did not see women until they were brought to him and put in front of his face.

This pattern can be seen in the way the Church considers women. Take, for example, this stunning moment from Elder Christofferson’s most recent conference talk:

Brethren, much has been said and written in recent years about the challenges of men and boys. A sampling of book titles, for example, includes Why There Are No Good Men Left,The Demise of Guys,The End of Men, Why Boys Fail, and Manning UpInterestingly, most of these seem to have been written by women…

Has he never seen this book? Or this one? Or this one? Or this one? Or this one? How about this talk? Or this PR piece? Should I go on? Because I can. Fellow Exponent blogger, Spunky had a brilliant comment on this:

It was clear that he pointed out this thing that he deemed ludicrous with the intention of gaining a laugh (which he did)…In doing this, he exposed how wholly absent of empathy or comprehension in regard to the countless male-authored publications, texts, assignments, definitions, etc, that the church and its policy uses to label and discuss women.

This is our reality as Mormon women in the church, men define who we are, what we do, how we should behave and feel. Some Mormon men remain completely unaware that women have experiences outside of our relationships to them as their mothers, wives and daughters. We are never ourselves…We are never fully human…We are the other.

That the most prominent Mormon in the world publicly displays his awkwardness and ignorance of women–characteristics that stem from our cultural practices–should be very concerning to us as a people. We are certainly doing harm to our daughters but we are not giving any favors to our sons either. Mormon men should be comfortable engaging with assertive/sharp-tongued women. They should know that in addition to providing invaluable service to their families and community, women are capable employees whose meaningful inclusion brings strength to whatever organization they are a part of. That there are some Mormon men who do not know this is shameful and we need to acknowledge our cultural culpability.

Mraynes

Mraynes lives in downtown Denver with her husband and four children. She spends her time lobbying at the Colorado Legislature, managing all the things and preparing Gospel Doctrine lessons.

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44 Responses

  1. unknown says:

    You are faulting him because he wanted a diverse administration that had a variety of viewpoints, incluing those of women? This makes no sense. If you listened carefully to his remarks at the debate the problem was created because he did not have enough women applicants to the positions in the state government he was trying to create. If anything, this was a problem of the prior democrat adminstration for creating a climate that women did not feel safe applying to. Rather than simply accepting who applied, Romney proactively sought to include women’s voices in his administration. In the end, the was nationally recognized for his success in doing so.

    Those women who were involved in the process in Mass. have had nothing but good things to say.

    Romney’s attention to this issue is exactly the kind of thing that feminists have been seeking for years. Say what you want about his other viewpoints, and positions, but this is not an area in which he is susceptible to valid criticism. Romney should be lauded for his efforts here, despite his poor word choices.

    The feminist cause is put back when it allows itself to be taken in by political dogma like Obama is putting out here instead of looking at the facts.

    • Mraynes says:

      Unfortunately you are wrong and Romney did not go looking for qualified women to fill out his administration. These candidates were provided for him by a bi-partisan woman’s group interested in having more women in government. See here: http://blog.thephoenix.com/blogs/talkingpolitics/archive/2012/10/16/mind-the-binder.aspx

      Setting aside the issue of Governor Romney appropriating the efforts and work of women, I am in no way faulting Romney for wanting to include women in his administration. I think this is a good thing and you would know that if you had read the post carefully. I also never argued that Romney was a bad boss to women, I believe the women who have come forward to say that they had no problem working with him.

      What I am faulting Romney for, and the Church by extension, is his/our lack of efforts to actually see women. Romney did not go looking for women candidates for his administration and he did not have women in high positions working for him during his tenure at Bain Capitol. Those things have been independently verified by any number of news sources. My argument is that Romney failed because we as Mormons fail to appreciate women outside of a confined role. This is not a partisan attack as much as you would like it to be.

    • Diane says:

      Unknown
      As Mraynes stated you are wrong, a woman who had collected the resumes of all of women actually went on National TV and did an interview with Scott Pelly of CBS evening news. Romney flat out lied. He never asked to see any of those resumes. period. end of story.

  2. KayG says:

    Brilliant contextualization that puts “Binders of Women” in a framework that will last beyond the election. Thanks, mraynes!

  3. unknown says:

    One more thing: there is an application process in most state governments that requires paperwork to be submitted and reviewed before a hiring can be considered. There is no question that Romney was aware of “qualified women” at the time he was elected. Indeed, he mentored several that were in upper level corporate positions at the time. Nevertheless, Romney could not hire these qualified women unless they submitted applications for him to review. These applications are what were likely given to him in the binders. Thus, the women Romney was aware of made no difference unless they applied for the job.

    Again, we are looking to hard for things to criticize. Romney should be praised for not accepting the status quo in Massachusetts here. He was looking to do the right thing. As feminists, we should be pleased when that happens.

  4. Unknown says:

    The simple fact is that Romney did not have to make he hires he did. He should get credit for doing so. It is also true that none of you know what was in his mind or heart and are not in a position to judge. His actions in involving women in his administration are the only hard evidence you have to evaluate. There are all sorts of highly partisan people out there telling stories because that have an agenda to grind. That does not mean they are true.

    Again, we do feminism a disservice when we adopt partisian rhetoric in place of true feminist thinking. Why is no one evaluating how many women Obama has employed over the years? Romney has an excellent record in this area.

    • Diane says:

      FYI

      There was a bill called the Lilly Ledbetter fair pay act which essentially says that employers wouldn’t be able to pay men more for doing the same the same work as women. Mitt voted against it. During the last debate Mitt refused to answer the question from the person who asked him about the issue. I think that says everything we need to know about how Mitt really feels about women and women’ issues

    • mraynes says:

      Once again, I’m not being partisan and you’re off topic. Go back and read the post and if you have something to add to the actual point I would love to hear it.

    • dankrist says:

      He should get credit? Like a pat on the back for going out the way to hire some ladies? That is the whole problem. You aren’t doing women a favor by hiring them. You are doing what you should: hire people based on their capabilities no matter their gender.

      And as long as we are evaluating him, it’s well worth pointing out that the number of women in his administration declined every year he was in office.

      Mostly though, you are missing the point of the post. It’s not about Romney. It’s about the Mormon man he represents and the way that Mormon everyman is further illuminated for us by the brilliance of a national spotlight.

  5. alex w. says:

    Sidenote- I watched the clip of the Christofferson talk you quoted, and the laughter that comes after and the way he presents it just puts a pit in my stomach. 🙁

    Your essay is spot-on. I think it points out a really disturbing and saddening problem that comes with privilege. Sigh.

    • Vinniecat says:

      Yes, me too. Kind of like the laughter that followed Elder Nielson’s joke about the big bang theory. Like we can mock and discount those with opinions differing from ours. It was disappointing.

    • Angie says:

      Coincidentally, I listened to the Christofferson talk yesterday, and I understood that quote differently. I understood him to be saying two things: 1) Women are telling men about their weaknesses, and 2) Men should be listening. I thought his entire talk was basically “seconding the motion” that women’s and children’s experiences with unGodly men are evil and unacceptable.

    • DTR says:

      Whatever one thinks of Mitt Romney, or of the institutional sexism of the Church, Elder Christofferson’s talk is being unfairly maligned by Mraynes, Spunky, Alex W. and others. His observation that women were the authors of many books chronicling the challenges facing men and boys was manifestly not intended to signal that such views were “ludicrous,” or that these authors lacked credibility. How do I know this? Because he proceeded to quote them, at length, and to endorse their conclusions. He even dedicated a very lengthy footnote in his printed talk to providing additional quotations from the women who wrote these books. Indeed, it would be challenging to find another conference talk that relies so heavily on research and analysis of society by women. Surely this is something for Mormon feminists to applaud. I am flabbergasted by those who misread him as mocking or discounting the views of these women, when he is actually taking them and their arguments quite seriously.

      The laughter that followed his observation can only make sense as an acknowledgement of the (laudable) rise of female ambition contrasted against the (deplorable) decline of male achievement. The fact the women wrote these books is in itself an additional evidence of the books’ central point: that women are surpassing men in many measures of success (hence the laughter). Indeed, Elder Christofferson’s talk encourages young men to stop drifting and to become more like the young women who are admirably “checking their day planners and asking for recommendations for law school” instead of frittering away their lives playing video games.

      There are plenty of General Conference talks that can reasonably be read as anti-feminist, but this just isn’t one of them. And by accusing Elder Christofferson of advancing an idea that is the exact opposite of what he actually said, it cheapens other criticisms that have a more valid basis.

      • Emmaline says:

        “The laughter that followed his observation can only make sense as an acknowledgement of the (laudable) rise of female ambition contrasted against the (deplorable) decline of male achievement. ”

        I don’t think that’s the *only* way the laughter can make sense. Here’s another way:

        In the address, Elder Christofferson didn’t mention to the men that he was quoting the
        women or endorsing ideas, he simply presented them as common-sense ideas. His tone with the “written by women” comment was one of almost-mockery, and he waited for the laugh that he fully expected to come. You can hear both of these things clearly in the audio of his talk. He knew he would get that laugh because of the men in the audience and their attitude that women writing about men would be ridiculous. Basically a joke of “Oh, look how cute the women worrying their pretty little heads about us menfolk are!”

        See? There’s another way it can make sense.

  6. galdralag says:

    Excellent, astute observations, Mraynes! Really great post.

    I didn’t get as much of a partisan vibe from your post as some other commenters here. Instead, I get the impression that you are giving voice to some of the subtleties of Mormon cultural constructions of masculinity and their (often unintended) consequences. I agree – every time I hear candidate Mitt Romney speak – regardless of venue or topic – I can’t help but hear layers of Mormon subtext. It’s fascinating to watch responses to it on the national stage.

  7. Miri says:

    What’s funny about Unknown’s comments is that there’s nothing remotely partisan about the actual post; it simply talks about Romney. There’s no comparison to Obama, no mention of a general Republican attitude, or anything of the kind—only Mormon men were addressed—and we don’t even know from this post how Mraynes feels about Obama. But because she said something that wasn’t specifically positive about Romney, Unknown assumes that therefore she is a supporter of Obama. That’s where the partisanship comes in.

    And it is a great post, Mraynes. I’ve spent so much time thinking about how Mormon women are affected by the patriarchal nature of the church, but it’s always interesting to think about how much men are affected by it, too—not just by their own privileged role in the patriarchy but by how their perceptions of women are shaped as well.

  8. Vinniecat says:

    I believe our Mormon culture conditions men, especially those in positions of authority, to see the contributions of women valued only as long as they fit in with the church’s gender structure. I know not all believe this or have had the same experience, but I have had it with many men in church leadership positions. I’ve seen with men who have authority in the church who feel that their authority also spills over into the workplace. In our Mormon culture we are often blind to it.

  9. CatherineWO says:

    Thank you for this excellent post. I too have found it very interesting to hear the “Mormonness” in Romney in so much of what he says and how he says it. Just as interesting is how obviously unaware he is of what I see as blatant sexism. It is hard enough to listen to it at church, but I find it even more difficult to hear it on the national stage.

  10. amelia says:

    You express beautifully much of what has frustrated me about Romney’s comments on women in the presidential debate. The “binders full of women” comment was tin-eared, but there’s nothing especially wrong with an elected official making a concerted effort to hire both men and women. In fact I think that’s a good thing for elected officials to do.

    The problem with Romney’s answer was it’s paternalism, which I think derives directly from the “benevolent” patriarchy of Mormonism. You see it in his comment about needing flex time so female employees can be home in time to make dinner–in other words, so that if they must work, for whatever reason, they can continue fulfilling their god-given role as cook and cleaning lady. And you see it, in my opinion even more blatantly, in his comment about women finding work in the boom economy he alleges will follow his (mathematically impossible) fiscal policies. Here’s what he says:

    “We’re going to have employers in the new economy, in the economy I’m going to bring to play, that are going to be so anxious to get good workers – they’re going to be anxious to hire women.”

    What I hear him saying there, implicitly, is that it takes employers being desperate for good workers for women to be hired. There’s also the utterly false implication that in boom economies issues like equitable pay and flex time are not issues.

    In this part of his answer in particular I see Mormon patriarchal attitudes towards women at work. The typical Mormon male response to “women’s problems” is to pretend they’re not there and instead wax eloquent about how “incredible” Mormon women are, pointing out how they do all kinds of wonderful things while still doing what God (as channeled through Mormon patriarchs) wants them to do. That’s precisely what Romney is doing here. Ignoring the actual problems, presenting solutions that keep women in the roles he thinks they should be in, and all the while treating women as poor little creatures who need a pat on the head from him.

    I can’t stand the man. For many reasons. But one of the biggest is that every time he opens his mouth I can’t help but hear the paternalistic Mormon patriarch speaking. Even when he’s addressing the current president. And when it comes to gender issues, it just really ticks me off given the terrible positions he has taken in order to sell his soul for power get the nomination.

    • Deborah says:

      As he was giving his answer in the debate, I turned to my (non-LDS) husband and said, “There it is — that’s benevolent patriarchy. ‘I am generous enough to use my rightful power to bestow blessings on those less fortunate.'” I didn’t hear the “binders” phrase as amiss — I heard the whole tone of the story as amiss.

      • amelia says:

        exactly. Every time I read a defense/apology for the binders comment, I bristle because the problem is not that specific line, nor the fact that he sought out female candidates. It’s the whole attitude and tone of the comment taken as a whole.

    • Ziff says:

      Great analysis, Amelia. I may be overstating, but it seems that in general, what he says isn’t offensive so much in its explicit content as it is in its implicit messages. Not unlike so many General Authorities.

  11. Lorie says:

    Truly excellent post, mraynes. And the of the juxtaposition of the graphic of the book Woman with Christofferson’s remarks was inspired. The irony of the book’s title and male authorship wasn’t lost on Mormon feminists years ago when it was published, nor is it any less problematic now that men in the Church continue to define and circumscribe women’s lives and experience. What makes me heartsick is that women are often complicit in accepting his process.

  12. April says:

    Great job Mraynes, at explaining how Romney’s cultural background, which we both share with him, affects all of us. I often notice how hard it is for Mormon men to “see” women, because of the extensive training in female invisibility.

    • Deborah says:

      April: Your comment makes me think of Luke 7 — where the male disciples are shocked that Jesus is allowing a “sinful” woman to wash his feet. He responds: “Do you see this woman?” and then describes what he has noticed about her that they have failed to see. Their judgement and blindness to this woman’s spiritual power (she anoints the savior, for heaven’s sake) seems to be a remarkably and painfully contemporary lesson for our current leadership structure.

  13. Naismith says:

    I generally support much of what is said here, that women in the Church should not hesitate to speak with boldness when we are in leadership or serve in ward councils. However, just because a permablogger says something does not make it true. Spunky’s interpretation of Elder Christofferson’s remarks was not the only possible version, as comments on the original post had pointed out. Saying that is was “clearly” or “with the intention” does not mean that it was that.

    Humor in relations between the genders is a tough thing. Should we refrain from anything that might possibly elicit laughter for fear of offense? I was at a party a while back when people were talking about replacement of the stake president, and various people talked about what recommendations they would give of qualified people. A male friend, who actually was called into that presidency, quipped, “I told them that Naismith would make a great stake president!” And we all laughed. He was not ridiculing me; it was done with love and the acknowledgment that of course women could serve exceptionally well if that was our assignment.

    I remember when the WOMAN book was being sold, and it was designed as a tribute of women by men, the kind of thing that a husband gives his wife for mother’s day. It’s not that there weren’t books by women available at the same time. It filled a niche.

    My experience of being an assertive, opinionated, and willing to speak my mind woman in the church has been that I get called into leadership a lot and the men love working with me. They don’t have to wade through the passive aggressive games of some women. One can be assertive without being rude. And when you are advocating on behalf of something that you know is right because you prayed about it, hopefully through the Spirit, the male leaders will know that this is right as well.

    The only man who defines me as a woman in the church is Jesus Christ.

    • Jessawhy says:

      Naismith,
      Sometimes I wonder if you are my mother in law. That is exactly the same thing that happened to her. She had 2 different men recommend her as the next stake president.
      Very interesting, indeed!

    • Ziff says:

      Humor in relations between the genders is a tough thing. Should we refrain from anything that might possibly elicit laughter for fear of offense?

      Did mraynes say this? Put away your strawperson. She called out Elder Christofferson for one tone-deaf comment. Just because you say she wants to therefore ban any gender-related humor for fear of offending someone doesn’t make it so.

      • Naismith says:

        Um, I didn’t say that mraynes said that we should refrain from laughter. *I* was asking an honest question because I really do not know the answer. Should I have laughed when my friend said that? Or should I have glared at everyone and reminded them that it wasn’t funny because it is so unfair that I can’t serve? in that way I really do not know the best way to handle these things. I invite anyone to say how they would handle it.

        “She called out Elder Christofferson for one tone-deaf comment.”

        I am not sure it WAS tone-deaf, nor did a lot of listeners find it so. I don’t think that he found it ludicrous that women would write such books, nor that he thought it was absurd that women would take on that research. Rather, he was rubbing it in their noses that they even needed women to do the research for them. And the fact is that the most-publicized books lately (at least for those of us who listen to NPR) have been those written by women. To me, the laughter was along the lines of someone saying, “I was so upset that I was diagnosed with diabetes that I ate a hot fudge sundae!”

        I have no quarrel with anyone saying that they were offended by what was said. We all have different impressions and filters that we bring to these things. But to definitively speak to Elder Christofferson’s motivations is something else again.

  14. Jettboy says:

    This was a VERY partisan blog post, even if the poster doesn’t think this is so. Some topics are, by the very nature of discussion, partisan. You don’t have to mention Republicans/Democrats or Conservative/Liberal to be a partisan attack. Most Republicans that I have read and heard on this “bunders” thing consider it a silly, manipulative, offensive, and laughable subject to talk about. They consider it nothing more than a Liberal Democrat talking point created out of thin air when there are many much more important challenges this nation faces. Like unemployment and high gas prices.

    • Emmaline says:

      It’s automatically partisan to say “Mitt Romney’s Mormon upbringing shows though in interesting ways. Wouldn’t it be nice if we, as a church, could contribute to equality rather than taking cheap, gender-based shots at each other”?

      I’m tired of hearing people say that members of the church shouldn’t criticize Romney just because he’s “one of our own”.

      Any candidate, regardless of party, has an upbringing that shapes them and says unfortunate things that should be held up for scrutiny. It’s not partisan to point that out.

    • Ziff says:

      It’s difficult to take your response seriously when you offer no evidence of having read any words in the post other than “Romney” and “binders.”

  15. MormonDeadhead says:

    Thank you for your post Mraynes. Excellent analysis! Much appreciated and much needed!

  16. Jessawhy says:

    Comment

  17. Jessawhy says:

    Great post, MRaynes. I’d like to see this highlighted as why many Mormon feminists are wary of a Romney presidency.

  18. Ziff says:

    Great post, mraynes! I particularly like your noting Elder Christofferson’s complete tone-deafness in his laughing about women writing books about men, given the Church’s long history of having men write books about women.

  19. Naismith says:

    Sorry, I forget to say…did anyone see Ann Romney’s explanation when she actually went on The View? Was that supposed to be charming or actually disengenuous?

  20. Jettboy says:

    “It’s automatically partisan to say ‘Mitt Romney’s Mormon upbringing shows though in interesting ways. Wouldn’t it be nice if we, as a church, could contribute to equality rather than taking cheap, gender-based shots at each other’?

    Yes it is. That you don’t understand that means you haven’t talked with many Republicans or conservatives (don’t have to be Mormons) or they aren’t actually wanting to talk with you.

    “It’s difficult to take your response seriously when you offer no evidence of having read any words in the post other than ‘Romney’ and ‘binders.’ ”

    Ziff, there doesn’t have to be any more reading on the subject to know its partisan. They are what is called in politics “dog whistles” where the mere mention of them have meanings far beyond themselves. Mention “abortion” for example and depending on what political side it doesn’t matter what the whole of the article says. You know the writer is liberal or conservative and the basic conclusions can be determined. Its not as if Feminists (predominantly liberal and Democrat) haven’t talked about everything this article touches on since the start of the modern movement.

    You are under the same mistake as the MSM when it comes to politics. It takes two to tango, and therefore it takes both sides to agree something is bi-partisan. You can claim moderate or bi-partisan all day long, but if the other wing doesn’t flap with you then its lopsided.

    • Emmaline says:

      I dunno, I talked at length with my staunchly-conservative always-votes-down-the-ticket-Republican, 74-year-old grandmother at length yesterday about criticizing candidates. You assume I’m a Democrat, but I’m not. I live in Ohio, I like to remain independent/undecided and learn as much as I can about both parties’/candidates’ positions….because since I live in Ohio, I can actually make some semblance of a real difference. Hence talking with my grandmother – she’s a smart lady, I like to learn from her opinions (though I think her characterization of Obama-the-baby-killer isn’t the best thing she could be basing her vote on….but I digress)

      She seemed to think that it’s good to call the biases of both candidates into question, and mentioned some of Obama’s along with Romney’s positions that trouble her.

      Mraynes didn’t say anything at all about Romney’s political affiliation, voting for him or not, or how the “binders” comment differentiates Mitt from a Democrat. She simply pointed out that the mindset reflects a broader trend in Mormonism, and suggested that members of the church might want to tune in to the message that we’re conveying to the rest of the world.

      And I thought her analysis of that message was brilliant, by the way.

      So maybe only those conservatives who think everyone should always agree with them, are the ones that call an issue like this partisan?

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