Questioning Women’s Place in God’s Plan

Women at the cross

This post is for the kind friends and family who have tried to understand my questions about women in the church. My experience has been unfolding over years, but here’s where the story begins.

The journey of considering women’s role in the church and eternities is neither new nor unique (and mine is perhaps a bit rudimentary for people who have considered and written about this for years), but this is my experience and I’m glad to share it with you.

It started with a list of study questions

Several years back, I wrote a list of doctrinal questions I wanted to study. Post-seminary and post-mission, this exercise was common practice for me.

I assumed I’d move through the experience much like I had any other time: I would study out my questions in scriptures and other good books, I would receive inspired insight and find answers I hadn’t noticed before, and I would move to the next topic of study in my spiritual development.

This time, my questions involved women’s role at church and in God’s plan. I couldn’t point to any one thing that brought these questions to mind, just some nagging discrepancies I needed to reconcile.

The plan + gender = ?

First in the equation: Mormon doctrine holds that our purpose on Earth is to become more like God. As God’s children, we are meant to progress in this life and the next to be like our Father in Heaven. We refer to this comforting plan consistently at church, complete with a familiar diagram of circles and lines on the Sunday School chalkboard.

Second: the LDS church makes much of gender. Between the Proclamation to the World on the Family, General Conference talks, new primary songs, and the church’s support of political actions (such as Prop 8), the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taken a stand that gender is divinely appointed and eternally important.

Those two points came together like this for me:

If gender is really as important as my church keeps insisting it is, with rigid roles for males and females, then the plan of salvation as I’ve learned it is the eternal blueprint for men’s progression. After all, Heavenly Father is characterized as distinctly and unequivocally male. According to the church, women have their own role, separate from men. In which case…

What is my blueprint for the eternities as a female?

It struck me that I didn’t have one. Not a clear one, anyway.

I had lived in the comfort of Mormon certainty for many years. And at that point, I was certain that I would find my answer quickly and move forward with a new sense of my divine calling as woman.

But then I came up empty.

The scriptures offered far fewer examples of women than I had ever noticed before.

Words from modern-day prophets didn’t clarify. Contemporary Mormon leaders contradicted each other, even contradicted themselves. Men preside over women, but women are also equal partners with men?

I found women referred to from the pulpit as possessions. As the best homemakers. As walking pornography. Take your pick.

I wondered, where in the gospel experience do women just get to be people?

Going to church, I felt a deep sense of unease, a blankness about my identity at church that I hadn’t experienced before. I sat through Relief Society lessons that spent air time discussing the dangers of sleeveless shirts, but didn’t mention Christ.

And what other kind of church culture could I expect? Women are supposed to read themselves into all-male stories, while at the same time, fulfill a role specific to female gender alone—a role that some would potentially sum up as: have babies and support the men who do the important things.

The eternal trajectory of women remains speculative in LDS doctrine. Mormons believe in a Heavenly Mother on the sly, but she is shrouded in mystery and conjecture. (Bring her up in a group of Mormons and someone may hypothesize that there are many heavenly mothers, polygamous wives to Heavenly Father—a folkloric idea tracing back to Orson Pratt). Rarely in pseudo-doctrinal theories about her is she discussed as an “equal partner.”

In the absence of actual doctrine that teaches what divine femininity looks like, Mormon women are left to fill the time talking about the length of other women’s sleeves.**

Eventually, I did find some answers, but not the ones I expected

During this time of discomfort at church, I felt surprisingly guided in my spiritual life. (Though, to my fellow ward members, I might have looked like I’d lost something. I asked to be released from my calling. I took a temporary break from attending church.) I went inward and looked upward. I fortuitously found people and communities—such as the women at Exponent II—who gave me clarity and support.

I won’t go into all the answers I’ve found (and I’m still finding), since they would take time to unpack, and that’s not the purpose of this post.

But I will say this. While church culture often overlooks women, or speaks of them as either less or more than human, Christ himself did not. The story of Christ in the New Testament recounts him speaking to women deemed outcasts or unclean. At a place in history when a woman’s testimony would not be allowed in a court of law, he allowed a woman’s voice to serve as witness that he had risen.

In certain vital ways, I believe our church culture does not follow the pattern of Christ in how to treat women. That may sound uncomfortable. I understand the impulse to defend the way things are, to explain how current practices and status quo are eternally relevant. Testimony of the church’s truthfulness can seem to depend on it. But what is the worst thing that could happen if you just ask? Honest, unafraid of the answer?

I can only speak for my own experience. I’m not suggesting that you should ask the same questions that I have, or that your journey should parallel mine. It’s not the same path everyone should take, just as your experience is not the one required of me. But we can all ask questions we truly do not know the answers to. I think that as we do, we put ourselves in a space to be taught, both about God and about each other. We open ourselves up to an even more active, searching spirituality.

In my experience, I’ve found increased clarity as described in the Doctrine & Covenants: in your mind and in your heart. When the mind is not satisfied and the heart is uneasy, the journey being prompted is likely worth pursuing.

—-

**You might read this and say, “But you don’t need female-specific doctrine because the gospel is for everyone.” Yes, I recognize that principles of the gospel apply to both men and women, that men and women are baptized and can take part in temple ordinances. I recognize that Christ-like attributes and Christ’s invitations to repent are not exclusive according to gender (Gal 3:27-28, 2 Ne 26:33). That’s the point. My church continues to emphasize that gender is rigidly divided with prescriptive roles, without illuminating what those roles look like in the eternities—which is problematic for a religion that also claims to have reliable and detailed answers about what happens to us after we die. I’m not looking for the same clear-cut certainty I had before. But I am interested in us having a more open, searching conversation as a religious community.

Image via flickr

Kathy

Kathy is a writer living in Phoenix, AZ.

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28 Responses

  1. Chris says:

    Great post! As I study and ponder Christ’s ministry as described in the New Testament, I have reached the same conclusion. I am profoundly touched when I read the account of the Samaritan woman who became one of Christ’s most ardent followers. Married multiple times and living unmarried with a man, a member of a despised culture, and a *woman,* Christ sought out this woman, knowing that she would be an articulate follower and bring many unto him. He didn’t hold a court, chide her about her lifestyle, demean her because she was a Samaritan or a woman. He treated her with respect and kindness, knowing that when she received his message, her life would change and that she would change others’ lives as well by her example and testimony.

    • Kathy says:

      Thank you for reading and for sharing this eloquently. I love how the story of Christ’s ministry defies so many conventions of his day—and in many ways, of ours still today.

  2. KEB says:

    Yes, thank you!! This has been my experience almost completely, and I have fought an exhausting battle over the last two or so years to stay active and work past these things. It hasn’t been entirely successful, as I have intentionally not been to the temple in a year and a half because of my pain at the endowment, though I still do my best to attend church, fulfill my callings, and bite my tongue.

    I have also learned to stop talking about it to most people (including and especially to male leaders). I have had at least two or three loving and well-meaning individuals flat out say to me “I don’t understand why this bothers you so much and why you’ve let it become such an impediment to your progression.” It’s exhausting to have them all say the same things about my issues and to bear their testimonies to me without addressing my questions. I think one of the biggest things is that none of them are able to see just how male-centric this Church and Gospel really are. They seriously can’t fathom it.

    As you brought up, they don’t see the issue in the lack of female role models, variety in the ideal life of a woman, or discussion on the female deity we allegedly have. They don’t see the restrictive gender roles prescribed, the benevolent sexism, and the fact that many women don’t actually want to live such a rigid life. They don’t see the potential pain in the fact that men generally have the world at their disposal in contrast (or the confusion we feel at being given talents, desires, and goals and then being effectively told it’s not our place to use them – at least until maybe the children are gone?) They see no inherent conflict in the concepts of “equality” and “presiding” and in the fact that women have almost no real authority, even in their homes, without a man. Yes, I have gotten confirmation from the Lord that He loves me, and yes, there are many more conversations He and I will have. But it doesn’t change the reality of our current practices, policies, culture, and even doctrine.

    Frankly, I don’t know what to do. There is much in the Church that I love and believe in, which is why I’m still here. But I struggle with the constant pit in my stomach and with the potential of teaching my as-yet non-existent children about things like modesty.

    I just live with the hope that there’s much we don’t understand and that things will change. Maybe not in my lifetime, but if I knew it WOULD come eventually, I think that would be enough.

    • Kathy says:

      Thank you for sharing your story. You’re not alone in not knowing what to do. I still hit impasses along the way. I don’t know if this is helpful to you, but right now, I’m letting the process just unfold a piece at a time.

      I think many well-meaning people in the church don’t understand the discomfort or pain, largely because it’s just not their experience. They can listen and learn, but they don’t HAVE to engage deeply if they don’t want to because these issues don’t affect them as personally. It takes a leap of empathy that not everyone’s in a position to take. I’m working on mentally allowing those people to have their experience and insisting that they allow me space to have mine. The people in my life who are willing to take the empathetic leap with me are golden.

  3. Spunky says:

    AMEN and amen! I was told once that when we pray or speak of the Father, that the Mother is included (but inappropriate to discuss) because it is based off of the plural term, Elohim. Even so, presuming this is correct, the female deity mentor is yet swallowed in male centred experience. It’s tiring and lonely to be in a church that so narrowly defines women.

    Thank you for expressing this so well. Knowing other women feel the same staves off some of the loneliness.

    • Kathy says:

      You’re not alone! And I agree with you that knowing other women’s stories helps the experience feel less lonely.

  4. Ziff says:

    Outstanding, Kathy. I really like your point that the plan of salvation is really a thing for men, and women are an accessory/possession/afterthought at best.

    • Kathy says:

      Thank you for reading. Coming to that conclusion felt like a gut-punch for me at the time.

      I’ll add here that in my line of thinking, the *if* is an important factor. *If* gender roles are as rigid and separate as church culture insists they are, then I have no place. But nothing in my mind or heart can get behind the idea that I am somehow meant to be eternally excluded and invisible because of my gender. It’s a constructed narrative that doesn’t ring true to me.

  5. Julie says:

    This articulated so well how I’ve been feeling for at least a couple of years, especially lacking a blueprint. Thank you for giving voice to my concerns; I’ll be sharing your post the next time someone calls out my heretical ways. 🙂

  6. Kelsi Moore says:

    Yes this! This is what I’ve been asking for about a year and a half now. Where do women fit in the plan of salvation? Where is Heavenly Mother in the plan? And in my life? And in the temple? If the temple is Heavenly Fathers house (which is the conclusion I have come to since I can’t find Her there) where is Heavenly Mothers house? Does the lack of female stories, especially in the Book of Mormon, mean that women’s spiritual experiences don’t matter? Same thing with priesthood and leadership, does the fact that there are no women mean womens spiritual lives and insights are less then mens?
    The really interesting thing is that if I am understanding you correctly I think I have received quite different answers then you. You appear to feel that gender doesn’t make a big difference but to me it’s still a big thing. I absolutely love being a woman and feeling feminine and wouldn’t change it or diminish it at all. But I feel like it is time for the feminine, especially the feminine divine, to step forward, at least in my religious experiences. I have realized that my way with interacting with Goddess and God are distinctly feminine but just as valid and important as the masculine way of interacting with the divine. And I wouldn’t have learned this or been on this journey if I weren’t a woman.
    I totally agree that we as a church must change to make way for the feminine divine or there will be no place for me as well in the church. I have also found peace in the story of christs ministry to women and feel that we are not living up to what he taught. I am trying to figure out how I can be the change that I wish to see in the church. And it’s slowly happening but this is not an easy path to be on. I often find myself “daring to stand alone” as president Monson once said. But occasionally I find sister spirits as I stand up and speak out. And for that I am grateful.
    But the most beautiful part about it is that we can both be right. I believe in your answer just like I believe in mine. I wish you well on this spiritual journey.

    • Téa says:

      I have come to the conclusion there are some people who think/feel more in terms of gender than others. The RS Declaration says that we find nobility in motherhood and joy in womanhood, and I have been trying to figure out what the latter means ever since it was published. I personally struggle with understanding gender outside of socialized stereotypes, despite many people I admire who speak encouragingly and positively regarding greater developments in feminine energy and the feminine Divine.
      I’m not saying gender doesn’t matter, I’m not saying it does–I’m saying I don’t yet understand what it means beyond earthly genetics.

    • Kathy says:

      Thank you for sharing, Kelsi, and for helping me see what I could clarify. I do think gender makes a difference, but I’m skeptical that the difference looks and sounds the way it’s outlined at church.

      I agree with you that we need a space for the feminine divine. Without it, our religious community is missing a vital element of spirituality that could benefit us all. I’m still moving through the experience of discovering and understanding the feminine divine. Articulating what is truly feminine vs what is just a socialized divide feels hazy to me some days.

      I think my experience is complicated by the urgency I feel for women to be seen and treated as people—both in the church and in the wider world. We’re all humans, but women’s femaleness has historically been used as reason to treat them as objects. I feel a tension between insisting that we’re all just people (without reason to treat anyone differently) and appreciating the unique aspects of feminine and masculine energy. I don’t have solid answers there, but I continue reaching and learning.

      Thank you for sharing your experience. It helps me! I wish you well on your journey, too.

      • Carrie says:

        Yes! THIS!!! This post is my life!! I am so incredibly happy to find out I’m not alone in this!

  7. Violadiva says:

    You described the conundrum really well. For me, it felt like trying to put together a puzzle of my identity with half the pieces missing, a few weird pieces from another puzzle mixed in, in the wrong box.

    I want to believe that if we had revelations recorded about Heavenly Mother (similar to the extent at which we have those of the Father), we’d all have a lot more guidance and clarity about what is expected of us. Since we don’t, we are left to create a Goddess in Woman’s image by reverse inferring what she must be like based on how women today are “supposed” to be. I grow weary of these descriptions of her. “She must be a nurturer, one who makes our celestial home all nice and cozy, one who supports her husband but doesn’t get in his way.” No. Just no. I’d much rather have a more accurate picture of her attributes and let that inform the type of woman I’m trying to be.

    There are a few nice nuggets of wisdom out there about her. The more I learn about her, the more confident I begin to feel, and the more limited I find the rhetoric surrounding prescripted gender roles to be….

    • Kathy says:

      Yes, puzzling indeed.

      That description has me picturing deity fluffing pillows and saying, “Oops, sorry for getting in your way.” It’s a ridiculous picture, and like you, I’d rather have a more accurate one.

      I love knowing that many women out there are puzzling this out at the same time, growing in confidence. Thanks for reading and sharing!

  8. Rob Osborn says:

    When one becomes focused on something, thats usually all they see. A while back I was car shopping and had a particular model in mind. For several months it seemed like all I saw on the road and for sale was that particular model in complete over abundance.

    If we become fixated on a certain problem in the church, or even a perceived problem, thats all we may see. I myself do not see a church that revolves around males at all, in fact, anything but that! I see the church revolving around Jesus Christ and his teachings, the Book of Mormon, service, families, morals, and community. Our church isnt sexist, we do however teach that male and female have distinct attributes as part of the plan of salvation. Even though we are both made in the image of God, male and female, we have very different qualities, respobsibilities, and stewardships. In many ways, each gender compliments the other from opposite sides of the spectrum. Its about an even balance. From a godly perspective, both female and male are seen as one being in essence, coming together to become whole. Even though the temple endowment doesnt specifically say it, salvation itself is dependent upon each of us finding a mate, becoming kings and queens, priests and priestesses. Its only through the marriage sealing itself that qualifies us to truly become the very individuals we were created to become fullfilling the measure of our creation.

    Recognizing this, I myself understand that in Gods kingdom here on earth, in mortality, the church is set up in such a manner that provides the correct roadmap to our salvation.

    I find it truly sad that some believe that the priesthood, held by men, is viewed as more noteworthy in our church over that of bearing children or being a homemaker. We do not measure equality by worldly standards, but should measure it by godly standards. In Gods eyes what is important? We are comparing apples and oranges here. We need to stop bickering over who thinks which gender related stewardship is most important. Husband and wufe combine to becime one and each attribute is held by each other as one head. It a team that forms to make one.

    • Kathy says:

      Rob! Given your activity on other Exponent comment threads lately, I was starting to feel left out that you hadn’t weighed in on my post yet 😉

      Let me add to your car analogy. When I wrote my list of questions about women, I expected just what you described—to turn my attention to something (in this case, the divine role of women) and see it everywhere. What surprised me most was finding so much absence. I was not looking for a perceived problem in the church. The imbalance found ME and it threw me off guard.

      You say there is “an even balance” between male and female, an idea that appeals to me. But if that is the case, I’m not seeing it in practice at church. We are imbalanced in our number of female role models, stories, and voices.

      Most importantly, I made quite clear upfront that this post outlines my personal experience. I personally know some of the most well-intentioned men who dismiss the pain and disorientation I described in this post, mainly because the experience does not match up with their own. Putting on someone else’s shoes can feel challenging and even threatening to a worldview, but making the attempt is essential if we are ever to become one in heart as followers of Christ. The amazing men I know who make that attempt have become wiser, more compassionate, and more truly Christlike because of it.

      The empathetic response in this case, Rob, is, “Wow, that sounds like quite a wrestle with your identity and your religion. Thank you for sharing with me so I can consider another perspective that I have not personally lived.”

      (Also: You brought up the whole priesthood=motherhood parallel and projected into onto this post. Do not pity me and find me “truly sad” for points not even mentioned in what I wrote. Stick with responding to the actual text, please.)

    • Lily says:

      The church and plan as we teach it revolves around men. You don’t see that because you are male. I also want to point out that the plan as you have described it leaves absolutely no place for a woman like myself, single and childless. Please don’t give me the in the next life speech, all that means is that my life now is worthless.

      My study of the Savior particularly from the New Testament leads me to believe that we make too much out of gender and family. He simply did not talk this way. He spoke of a broader love and service to all of our neighbors, not just our family and not just our spouses.

  9. Katie says:

    This was fantastic. I appreciate your thoughts and understand so much of what you have said. Two things that help me: laughing instead of crying, and speaking up and speaking out.

    someone in the stake presidency recently said a huge reason for the priesthood was to protect women. It’s become a huge inside and irreverent joke between my husband and i. Because some things are so ridiculous, there isn’t much more to do.

    The second? I have started speaking up and speaking out. In my ward. In social situations (I live in Utah now). I’ve had hour long discussions about Mormon feminism on long bike rides with women I just met, because I commented on a “modesty” note at the school. I teach on Sunday’s and am able to mention gender inequities in scriptures and lessons, always use gender inclusive language, etc. it’s a start. Not a very satisfying one, but a start nonetheless.

  10. H says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Kathy!

    If you don’t mind my sharing, my story has some similarities to yours. A few years ago I stumbled into feminism and questioning women’s place in God’s plan when I began studying the doctrine around the priesthood, mostly out of curiosity. Like you, I expected to reach conventional, satisfactory answers and move on to the next topic. Instead, it has been a heart-wrenching experience.

    The lowest point of my journey has been when I felt like I got the answer that as a woman I really am inferior. Since then, I’ve struggled to regain a sense of self-worth, and to rebuild a relationship with Heavenly Father, or even know if that’s a relationship I want or can believe in while maintaining a sense of self-worth. I’ve sought after Heavenly Mother, but felt more a sense of mourning than comfort. Like you, though, I have found great comfort in the ministry of Christ.

    I also like your comment about insisting we’re all just people and also appreciating the unique aspects of feminine and masculine energy. I think wider recognition of Heavenly Mother would strike that balance, and provide the much-needed blueprint you mention. Until then, I’m trying to draft my own blueprint, and I’m so grateful for women like you sharing your own version!

  11. Liz says:

    What a gorgeous post, Kathy. I think that this journey is all too common, where people are searching to understand more and find more questions than answers. My biggest issue has always been the discrepancy with how Christ interacted with and included women in his ministry and how the church operates today. We could do so much better.

  12. Emily U says:

    I loved following your thought process, Kathy. I’d also love to read (in another post) about some of the answers you’ve found, and are finding.

  13. Carrie says:

    Oh man, this has been all consuming to me lately! I finally landed on ” I guess the God of the Old Testament and the God of Joseph Smith think if women as more like cattle or a family pet. They love her til she serves her purpose ( analogy of women giving them children) and then put her in the pasture to love while taking another cow to satisfy his needs. ” It makes women a throw away object rather than a spiritual being with her own light. I decided I’d rather be an atheist than believe that is all I am as a daughter of God. Christ however is different. I’m not sure who to believe. It is such a conundrum. Thank you the post. You put into words the incredible emotions that got me here.

  1. October 1, 2016

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