Relief Society: Fight or Flight
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