Relief Society: Fight or Flight

Posted by on May 14, 2014 in feminism, Friendship, Gender roles, motherhood, Relief Society, sisterhood, women | 43 comments

A few weeks ago I sat in RS and realized it would be one of those lessons. You know, the kind that makes your skin crawl. A young mom who recently moved into our ward was asked to teach Elder Christoffereson’s talk “The Moral Force of Women.” It was clear she had no idea that this talk might be a landmine and I turned to my friend sitting next to me and said, “I may start to cough uncontrollably and leave. I don’t think I can sit through this.” I’m fairly outspoken and generally not afraid to rock the boat. But here’s how disagreement usually plays out in RS: Sister A says x, Sister B says not x, and a wave of horror passes through the room because women, God bless us, do not like conflict—especially when a lace tablecloth is present. Then Sister C says, “I think we are all trying to say the same thing…” and cobbles together an idea that satisfies neither A nor B and shuts down any real discussion. Pleasantness restored, honest dialogue? Not so much.

So I scooted to the edge of my seat and prepared to find sanctuary in the foyer. But I noticed who my back row buddies were and I stopped. In addition to my friend next to me, who has kids and works, there was my dear friend D who had fled from a Singles Ward because she often felt infantilized and undervalued there. Two thoughts entered by head: First, we belong in the trenches together; and second, I’m a coward and I suck. I decided to stay and be part of the resistance. D smiled at me and I smiled back and I started to sing in my head, “Will you join in our crusade who will be strong and stand with me” because I’m dorky like that and sometimes imaginary theme music comforts me.

The teacher put three quotes from Christofferson on the board and asked us to divide into groups to discuss and come up with insights to share with the group. I can’t tell you how much I hate that talk. I won’t post the quotes because I’d start rocking in a corner.  I vividly remember running errands that first Saturday in October and listening to conference via my iPhone. When his talk started I had just grabbed a Diet Coke and felt so paralyzed by his words that I could not drive but had to sit down and write my objections on the receipt, the only paper I had on me. Straw feminists! Fallacious arguments!  Gender reduction at its worst! It takes a lot to get me that riled up.

After five minutes the teacher asked for responses. I was afraid our back row band of feminists would be the only naysayers. I was wrong. A convert on the front row with a new baby told us she was returning to work that week and felt judged by the talk. And D raised her hand next, which she rarely does. She stood up and said, “I’m single and may never have kids. I don’t know if I even want kids. Does this make me less of a woman? I read talks like this and feel that is a poor yardstick of my eternal value.” D got teary and so did I. The sister next to her, an empty nester with 6 kids who loved the talk, took her hand. The low point for me was the teacher’s well meaning response to D, that the Lord would give her a husband and kids in the next life so we should all just be happy because in the end it’ll work out. I felt like the whole room collectively shook their heads at this drivel.

A woman on the front row also got emotional sharing how much she loved the talk. “I’m a stay at home mom with 7 kids and every time I leave my house I feel judged and invalidated for my choices. Christofferson’s words make me feel like what I do matters.” A few others chimed in that the talk was a balm to them as well.

I decided to weigh in on the list of feminine qualities written on the board: nurturing, intuitive, faith, empathy, virtuous, humble, etc. These are wonderful traits, but women hardly have the monopoly on them and to say so diminishes the women who’ve worked to develop them and sends a message to men that they belong to the ladies. Whenever I want to make a point that will be hard to shutdown I turn to my friend Jesus. Because every word in the “feminine” column can be applied to Him. Gender stereotypes break down with the man who said, “Oh how I would have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks under her wing.” Honestly, on my hardest mommy days it is the Savior who is my example of patience and nurturing.  And no one can argue with Jesus.

By the time class ended, most of the women had had their say. Some loved the talk. Some hated it. Many had never stopped to think how it made them feel. But it was a little miracle to me that such a divisive talk could have spurred so much honesty and compassion within my RS. There was lots of disagreement, but no contention. And I feel closer to the sisters in that room. The truth is we are not all saying the same thing, and we should never confuse consensus with connection.

When a lesson gets messy at church, do you:

A: find a baby to pinch and take out to the lobby

B. sit silently and play Angry Birds

C. stay and speak out when needed

D. other

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43 Comments

  1. Good for you! I focus on my baby when things get bad.

  2. Thank you for this, Heather. I used to be a fighter but I’ve become a frequent flyer more and more–sometimes the fight just feels so futile. But your post has helped me remember that we don’t stay and fight for ourselves, but for others. I’m sure your row of rabble-rousers added much needed support to the convert who was returning to work in the same way that those who felt comforted by that talk were glad to find each other. This has got be be a church for all of us or it’s not Christ’s church.

    I also love the way you break down how different points of view often get treated as inherently contentious. How can we really share who we are with each other if we’re afraid of each other’s differences? To minimize those differences in the name of consensus builds resentment rather than bridges. Thank you for showing how a variety of strong viewpoints can be held and “nobody’s mad.” I heart you, Heather!

    • Contention is NOT when two people have a different opinion.
      Contention is when one person tries to force, coerce or shame another into changing her or his opinion. By this definition (which is mine), the teacher or speaker who uses shame or self-righteous proclamation to silence another speaker is in danger of being contentious, and needs to re-read Doctrine and Covenants Section 121.

  3. “…we should never confuse consensus with connection.”

    Yes, yes, yes! I come from a family where consensus and connection are viewed totally interchangeably. I grew up afraid to voice a dissenting opinion or even ask questions. But the truth is we can learn so much when we disagree with each other, both about ourselves and others.

    Thank you for sharing this!

  4. My answer is C. I worry a little that people get sick of me talking all the time, though. I loved your last line: “The truth is we are not all saying the same thing, and we should never confuse consensus with connection.”

  5. I love this. I struggle between fight and flight. Sometimes I’m the lone reed and I speak out. Other times I feel defeated and either sit in sullen silence or, more often, just excuse myself to the hallway and write in my diary. I’m glad that you had a meaningful discussion out of it.

  6. I need an E) all of the above. But I also need that reminder to stay and be honest. As Aimee pointed out, there are probably women in the room who need my voice–just as there are probably women who need a model for disagreeing and still understanding each other.

  7. Yes. This.

    Every. Single. Week. I used to speak out more often than I do, but found I was giving the side eye and felt more and more ostracized in my ward. Now I more often than not spend RS in the hall, I usualy read the lesson or other conference talks or something. This is inspiring me to be more of a C, and less of an A/B.

    xox

  8. Love this. LOVE THIS!!!!

    Relief Society is such a hard place. I was a fighter for a long time, but have been in flight mode recently. I only started to go to Relief Society because of the Exponent Lesson plans. I often read those before a lesson and go in armed with some great quotes and information that helps me feel less alone. Still, lessons like these are painful and Christofferson’s talk was deeply offensive, ignorant and hurtful. I love that you have support in your ward, and I love that you know when to call it and go out. I often bring a book to church with me and just distance myself from the talks as a matter of my own mental and emotional salvation.

  9. I used to be C, but now that I’m a new ward – it’s usually A (if I go at all). It’s a bit unsettling to realize how unsafe a new ward can feel until I get to know people (and they get to know me).

  10. I love this article. This same thing happened to be last Sunday. The lesson was on priesthood keys (on mother’s day) and it quickly turned into a lesson about bashing ordain women. My first thought was to text my husband to bring me the baby so I could leave. It was going so wrong. I then decided to stay and I commented about why I would like to serve through using the priesthood. I was scared but I had several woman email or catch me after church to tell me they appreciated me offering my point of view. It also spurred some great conversations after.

    • I love that you did this, Sally! I love even more that it brought out other women who were in agreement, or at least interested in hearing more what you had to say!

    • Good for you. We had this exact same thing happen in our RS except it was on EASTER SUNDAY!! I had to leave. I went to join primary where they were talking about Jesus. Even if I had gathered the courage to say something, I was so upset, I don’t think anything coherent would have came out!

  11. I’d love to hear from women’s RS experiences in other countries. I suspect that this need to “all get along” is very anglo-saxon? I don’t know. I guess I’m just thinking back to the years I lived in Italy, and the sisters there often had no qualms at raising their voices at each other in disagreement over doctrine, etc, during lessons. But they didn’t hold onto it after. (Not saying they didn’t have other frustrations w/ each other…) It was awesome and often entertaining from my perspective–made RS much more fun and refreshing!

  12. “D smiled at me and I smiled back and I started to sing in my head, “Will you join in our crusade who will be strong and stand with me” because I’m dorky like that and sometimes imaginary theme music comforts me.”

    I’ll raise you one on the dorky level…sometimes, when I get ready to say something really scary, I imagine a Mormon feminist army (with my Exponent sisters on the front lines) standing behind me, nodding in agreement.

    • I *love* this mental image, EmilyCC! I’m totally going to keep it in my head for the next time I actually try speaking up in a circumstance like this!

  13. Love. This. Post. Heather, you are such a fantastic and funny writer. I know well that feeling of needing to go rock in a corner when I hear gender essentialist, feminist strawman, etc. arguments.

    I usually sit quietly in RS. I wish I spoke up more, but I don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings. Your post reminds me, though, that there should be a place for different opinions in these lessons. And that by speaking out, I make it that much easier for the woman next to me who is quietly struggling to come back next week.

  14. I love your comment about those qualities being Christ’s qualities. I am the primary breadwinner in our family and my husband is the primary caregiver of our children. He is definitely the more nurturing of the two of us. He probably feels more acutely people holding onto traditional roles than I do. It seems like many people in the church equate being a faithful LDS man with being a successful businessman. (I don’t think this attitude has anything to do with the gospel or our church, rather ignorant people who do not understand the gospel, as well as the influence of cultural norms.) That is something I loved about Elder C’s talk. I felt he pointed out that we would all benefit if both men and women worked to cultivate attributes that have been traditionally seen as feminine. I sometimes struggle with working full time and feeling like I don’t spend enough time in my home. This article comforted me. I am a strong moral force in the lives of my children and others, by nature of who I am, regardless of my personal circumstance.

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the article and love that you stayed and listened openly to others’ point of view as well as expressing your own. We need more of that in RS! More listening, more understanding, less judging.

  15. We had a RS lesson based on this a couple of weeks ago. I was only there for the last 15-20m minutes, because I’d had to stand in for the primary pianist. I did speak out.

  16. This is one thing I have a hard time with. I feel that it is almost impossible to be the voice of dissent in RS. I think you captured it well. I have no issue speaking up in SS or in meeting but RS does something to me. I am working on it. I dont leave but I play on my iPad a lot.

  17. This is a hard question. It depends. I’ve been a RS teacher in three different wards and education counselor in another, and when I’m teaching or in the presidency, I feel an obligation to speak out. But when I’m in the class, I struggle. I don’t love that we hate conflict, but the fact is we do, and I worry that introducing conflict will make other women feel uncomfortable.

    I am probably like the woman who would restate woman A and woman B and try to make it mesh to make the peace. I want peace, but I also want truth. It’s very hard.

    There was a lesson last month on Oak’s talk, and it got really down on other people, single mothers for their unmarried and poverty status, gay people, etc. I could not come up with a good Jesus-y way to banish the fear that permeated that lesson and bring love into play. So I made a stupid reductio ad absurdum remark that doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve been avoiding RS since but plan to attend Sunday. It’s not easy.

  18. I have been to RS about once in 2 years. It seems like every time, there’s Obama bashing, gay bashing, feminist bashing, liberal bashing, Democrat bashing, “other” bashing. I just can’t handle the attitude of “the horrible, evil world is out to get us”.

  19. ” I’m a stay at home mom with 7 kids and every time I leave my house I feel judged and invalidated for my choices…”

    You do realize that you are the source of much of this woman’s pain don’t you?

  20. I am the RS President and interject when the discussion start to get judge-y or politically charged. ;)

  21. I remember bumping into you in the parking lot at the grocery store, because I’d fled the house to avoid the talk, and you showed me your list. Nice to see it revisited here. I’ll confess that I usually take route A (except I don’t have a baby, so I usually look at my phone, act like I just got an important text, and leave), but I too stayed for this lesson and spoke up. Pretty soon there was another feminist throwing out his thoughts from across the room. The traditionalists got their say, but they were far from the dominant voice I imagined they’d be. Thanks writing this and bringing up both those pleasant memories.

  22. I love this, Heather! I have spoken up a lot more in recent years and gotten mostly positive reactions from women who wanted to speak up but were too afraid. One of the most meaningful for me was a year ago during a lesson about the temple. The whole lesson and all the comments were about how perfect and amazing the temple is. Remembering how painful those lessons were for me when the temple was the core of my faith crisis, I spoke up and said that for many years the temple was very difficult for me, that I cried a lot, that I tried various strategies for getting through it and wrestled with God about my membership in the Church, and that I still didn’t have answers to a lot of questions about it, but that what I had gotten out of that struggle was invaluable to my testimony. The teacher teared up and said, “THANK YOU. The temple is really hard for me too.”

    I was so surprised because she’d been giving this by-the-book lesson. I think even for some teachers it’s hard to step out of traditional parameters, either because of fear or just that it’s easy to return to what we know. I really believe that speaking up can be a gift that we give other people, not just something we do to make ourselves feel better.

  23. Thanks Heather for the reminder that we all do have something of value to say , even when saying it is hard. Especially in lessons line this one.

  24. I’ve only recently returned to RS from a long sojourn in Primary, and it’s lessons like these make me wish I hadn’t been released. I wish I had been brave enough to speak up but I just sat quietly through the whole lesson and left in tears after the closing prayer.

  25. Great post, Heather! I’m so encouraged by you (and everyone else on this thread) who speak up when people teach sexist lessons and the like. I don’t go to RS, but in SS and EQ, I’m very much a B responder. I sit and stew and never say anything. I’m just not very good at conflict, or even disagreement. So I’m not sure that it would be good if I did speak up, but I always appreciate others who do!

  26. Various quotes from this talk were part of a “Best of General Conference” RS lesson. When the bowl of quotes came around to me I pulled the quotes from this talk and struck them in my pocket. Sisters shared the quotes they had pulled from the bowl and I participated in the discussion, but I never shared the quotes in my pocket. I felt like I contributed to a spirit of peace and thoughtful discussion by keeping those words in my pocket.

    • You call it passive aggressive; I call it inspired.

  27. I resemble more a timid, quiet mouse than a fighter or a flighter, but I have a logic to that choice: I remember the old days before I was aware of feminism and stuff like benevolent patriarchy, gender essentialism, marginalizing and infantilizing of women, and such like, and I was content and docile, and sort of privileged as a SAHM at church. It didn’t seem to get in the way of my spirituality or curtail my growth, and I was happy. But now I have seen more of the reality of life in our fallen world, and depressing though it may be, I can’t unsee it. And I hate being the agent of that for some other poor benighted soul, though I fear that our changing world makes such ignorant bliss increasingly less possible.

    On the other hand, I do admire an energetic and articulate fighter, however, and I’m inspired to try harder to redirect the focus away from the “moral force of women” and more towards the moral force of Christ, wherein the answers to thorny questions can be found.

  28. Where is your ward? This is the kind of healthy discussion that is needed, but unfortunately, I live in a ward with a Bishop who takes away Temple Recommends if someone were to express this kind of disagreement with a conference talk, as happened with me. The church needs more wards like yours, if it is to survive and flourish as a healthy organization rather than the cult-like church it often is.

    • Monica I call that unrighteous dominion and I hope you told him so. I know I would have, then I would have gone up the chain of command. Unbelievable.

  29. Usually A. I don’t have a baby anymore but I make sure to sit next to someone who does :) Although, I’ve been feeling more and more like I should stay and speak up. I struggle so much trying to figure out when is ok to share a different opinion and when it would be better to stay quiet. Last time I was outspoken, it landed me in the bishops office, so now I am hesitant. But I can’t be The Only One who disagrees sometimes, I can’t help but think if I speak up that it could help others. If others speak up it’s like a life vest thrown out to me. Also, what a missed opportunity in your RS class. (By the teacher) All these women in different situations feeling judged by other women, why not take the opportunity to talk about that and what is wrong when someone feels judged for being a shm of 7 and someone feels “worthless” because they don’t have kids and someone feels looked down on because they’re a working mom of a baby. How can we fix this?! What can we do to support each other? This is why I didn’t like that talk. It tried to label all Women as the Same. I’m just me. I have some things to offer but not because I’m a women, but because I’m me. I hate being pushed into a stereotype.

  30. Actually I was liking this talk until about 2/3 of the way thru when he totally lost the plot.

    I wholly agree with his comments about the sexual double standard. I know two women who use sex as freely as going to the bathroom without any thought as to consequences for themselves or the men or the families of the men with whom they are engaging.

    In what I am sure is a gross over generalization, I am going to say that there are not many men who will refuse no-strings sex when it is offered, but I do wonder what the women think they are getting out of it. This in no way excuses the men, but I still think the women in such ‘relationships’ lose more. As much as I know women are the equal of men in all respects, that does not mean that we are the SAME.

    I have mixed emotions about the modest dress issue. I certainly think men should not be allowed to walk around without shirts and/or in skimpy clothing if women are going to be judged for not covering up properly. On the other hand, my 70 years of observing human behavior have taught me that men are very visual sexual beings. When they see a lot of female flesh, many will see it as in invitation. It is not fair, but it is probably true.

    It is like knowing that a female should be safe taking a walk alone at midnight and she has the right to do so. Still it is probably not a good idea. To some extent the same applies to exposing a lot of flesh.

    It does seem that every time the good old boys in SLC try to engage women, they do it ham-handedly and probably make things worse. I am not sure it will change until the church leadership includes women and much younger men.

  31. I’m so tired of the man in the suit telling me what it means to be and act like a woman. And equally tired of women buying the idea and re-selling it in RS. I’m so tired, in fact, that I always comment and then ALWAYS back it up with “Jesus said…” Keep it up girls! What are they going to do, fire us?

  32. This is still such a frought issue for me! I’m still so raw from my own faith crisis that every opportunity to speak up becomes an epic internal struggle that turns into some form of inappropriate outburst. Should I stay or should I go? Should I speak up or should I just sit and stew until I’m emotionally prepared to engage the tricky topics? Should I rattle the peaceful equilibrium of the blissfully ignorant or should I rock the boat? And of course, I remember exactly what it was like the be that blissfully ignorant, and nothing anyone said in RS could have changed my mind, so why bother?

    In my ward we (yes, we. I used to do it too.) have a sickening tendency to settle into self-congratulatory non-bashing comments that usually sounds like “I’m so grateful that the Lord gave me a testimony strong enough to resist feminist tendencies” or “I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I had followed in the footsteps of Those Women who just don’t understand” things like that. For me to say anything against those kinds of things would mean instant crying jag for me, and instant contention for them.

    Someone please tell me it won’t be like this forever? That one day I’ll wake up cool-headed and eloquent enough to actually enjoy RS?

  33. I always enjoy your blogs Heather and found most of the comments here insightful. I typically am a B though will be a C if it is important enough to to me. As some touched upon it’s important for us all to understand that there may be others in the room that are also afraid of speaking up and need some validation of their own thoughts and questions.

  34. I remember running into you at the grocery store after that talk and you were indeed quite unhappy as you pulled out your receipt with your three bullet points on it. I’m so glad to hear the lesson and conversation went well; lessons on motherhood (what I call “glorified uterus” talks) are such a landline to navigate.

  35. I older than 50. I stay and speak up. It gets easier with each passing year. Confidence waxes strong when you’ve had half a century to learn how to thoroughly love and get a kick out of people in RS no matter what screwy things they say. It also helps when half of them are younger than you are.

    I’m much, much better at staying and speaking than I was in my 20s. Back then I would often get frustrated and annoyed. And speaking up sometimes tied my stomach in knots. But I’ve learned to not let what people say get to me and speaking up is downright enjoyable now. I thoroughly enjoy a good discussion started by a well phrased question.

    Too bad that in another decade or two my feminist questions and comments will be listened to less. Many people never take the grey-haired ones very seriously.

    So I guess I’ll learn humility. Maybe. And by then some of my tied-in-knots younger sisters will be nearing the half century mark and will happily keep things going without me.

  36. Wonderful post! And great questions. I tend to stay or leave RS based on who is teaching the lesson. It’s a bad habit that I’m determined to change.

    When I am there, I speak out. I’m getting better at doing it in a way that doesn’t marginalize me or anyone else. Practice makes perfect, right? Thanks for sharing your experience. This reminds me why it is important to stay present, to attend RS, and to contribute my own insights and points of view to the conversation. None of us is entirely alone in our ideas and it’s always nice to find those sisters within our community with whom we connect most deeply. Thanks again.

  37. By the way, I was also shopping – getting gas and parking at Costco – when this talk came on the radio. My 32-year-old, mother of two, SAHM daughter was in the car with me and we both looked at each other in horror as we listened. It’s amazing how vividly we remember certain traumatic events, isn’t it? (Right down to details like which parking stall I had parked in at that moment.)

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