Relief Society: My Top 10


Relief Society is always in the back – or front – of my mind. Probably because I so strongly self-identify as a Mormon woman, and I am proud of its rich heritage. Despite this strong self-identification, however, I often struggle with it. I recently took a brief sabbatical from it for a 2 or 3 months, but am now back pretty regularly since I feel a responsibility to support it with my presense now that I have a Relief Society calling that I am particularly drawn to.

My recent journeyings have caused me to reflect on the best – and worst – of Relief Society (in my opinion.) Some of my comments refer to my personal experience, others deal with my thoughts on RS in general.

After you read the following, please let me know some of your bests and worsts of RS. I would love to discover how my perceptions and experiences compare with yours.

Best of Relief Society
* The aforementioned rich heritage. I love Emma Smith and her vision of a charitable organization ready to leap in and help wherever and whenever needed within the community.
* On the same note, I love its empowered past. Relief Society presidents who hobnobbed with Susan B. Anthony and other suffragists. Outspoken editorials in the Women’s Exponent. Visible and respected leaders who had the ear of Mormon women (and men). Financial and curricular independence from “the priesthood.” (Ahhh, the good ol’ days 🙂 )
* The cute old ladies who smilingly attend every week.
* The way so many RS women are ready to jump in and help out when there is someone in need.
* Visiting teaching. I actually think it’s a great idea (though I haven’t done mine in 5 months) to help people form connections and bonds. Whenever I go VT, I really only focus on that aspect, as I find it too uncomfortable to jump from social chitchat to a spiritual lesson.

Worst of Relief Society
*The weak lessons. Most teachers I see really struggle with the current manuals, and many lessons I have seen have devolved into half hour lectures with basically no discussion. Other lessons I have attended do have a discussion component – generally personal – but are weak in regards to delving into the scriptures and discussing doctrine.
*(Related to the above) The lack of humor. Sometimes I go and stand outside Elders Quorum. I’m always struck by how good a time all the guys are having. Shouting out quips, joking with one another, laughing a lot. This doesn’t really happen in RS in my experience.
* The cliques (am I spelling that right?). But perhaps little social groups such as these are unavoidable in any organization that involves people of different ages, backgrounds, etc.
* The visual aids, ubiquitous decorating choices, and food bribery. Maybe I’m missing something, but a tablecloth and vase of fake flowers just isn’t all that important to me. On the same note, I’d far rather have people spend time coming up with some good questions than spend time making posters or buying candy or chocolate. (Though I must admit, at the time I’m always glad to grab that candy. Anything to get some stimulation after 3 hours at church.)
* The lack of visibility of the General Relief Society Presidency. Most have heard me sing this song before, but I so, so, so want to have some strong female leaders in this Church. It’s really difficult for me to belong to an organization that doesn’t feature women’s voices more prominently.

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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  1. Amanda says:

    I like the really good, thought-provoking discussions that we can sometimes have.

    I dislike the simplistic, pat answer, knee-jerk response discussions that we usually have.

    As for the weak lessons, we have those too, but I find that I’m less bothered by inexperienced teachers than by the teachers who just don’t try. I find I can put up with a lot if I get the feeling the teacher is making an honest effort. (And I know, I know, I can’t really tell how much work someone puts into a class, but I do think you can tell if the first time they cracked the manual was fifteen minutes before class.)

  2. AmyB says:

    I think having a place where women can support each other and bond together is good, and relief society provides that.

    About a year and a half ago I attended a stake training meeting (I was primary pres at the time). We were shown a video clip from the general relief society on how to run presidency meetings. As I sat watching, I was absolutely horrified, HORRIFIED, by the manner in which these women conducted themselves. The president in the meeting responded to suggestions by saying she would check with priesthood leadership to get approval- for every single little thing. Their whole manner was completely disempowered and flat. It was as if the church had sucked all personality and ability to think for themselves right out of them. This type of behavior is what is reinforced by the church and it makes me feel sick.

    I looked around the room during the video clip fully expecting to see looks of horror on other women’s faces, but all I saw was smiles. So maybe I’m off my rocker. Did anyone else see the video? Is it just me? We need more women who are intelligent, witty, interesting, and powerful in our leadership. Sadly, these are not the kind of women who rise the ranks.

    I’m in upstate NY right now and plan tomorrow to visit some women’s suffrage historical sites in Seneca Falls. The thought occurred to me that women got the vote in our country, and the LDS church was even at the leading edge of that, but now women do not have a vote in our church. I realize the church is not a democracy, but that does not mean our voices should be silenced the way they are.

    Sorry for the rant. Relief Society would be a much more vibrant organization if it had it’s autonomy back, I think.

  3. MelissaD says:

    I love the sisterhood of Relief Society. By that I don’t mean women telling each other they have sweet spirits, but more the automatic willingness to help a sister who is struggling, or the closeness you feel when you run into one of your RS sisters at a store and feel like you’re running into an old friend, even if you don’t really know her well.

    While I am bothered by Relief Society’s subordinance to the priesthood, I still feel it’s empowering to us as women and individuals. We choose what we take away from it, we have the opportunity to study the lessons for ourselves, and we grow stronger and more confident when we serve others.

    My main gripe: Too often we only skim the surface of the lessons so that they can be accessible to visitors or investigators. While I understand and appreciate this, (when I was an investigator, I panicked and had a ‘what am I doing here?’ moment when an older woman started talking about how her “Mormon underwear” protected her), I wish there was a forum available to really get deeper into discussion than time and situation allow.

    And I also dislike visual aides for the sake of visual aides.

  4. jana says:

    I like:
    –the wide ranges of ages, colors, body shapes, experiences in the women sitting in RS
    –people sharing heart-felt experiences
    –an enthusiastic song-leader
    –sitting by friends
    –playing with the little babies who wander the back of the room
    –lessons where the teacher asks various sisters to speak instead of talking the whole time herself
    –well-done musical numbers
    –honesty

    I dislike:
    –lessons wholly without substance. Tell as story, cry, point to a pretty picture on the table surrounded by store-bought flowers and pass the chocolate. ugh.
    –the same ppl bearing testimony every month. saying the same platitudes
    –reading quotes from little slips of paper
    –all the announcements
    –fake flowers and things made with glueguns
    –teachers who spend more time on handouts than on preparing the lesson
    –word-for-word recital of a lesson from the latest Sheri Dew book
    –being asked if I’m new in the ward when I’ve been attending for years

  5. Eve says:

    I think at its best, Relief Society provides a place for honest, heartfelt discussion of the gospel and of its meaning for our lives. I love it when teachers aren’t afraid to ask good questions and let the discussion unfold. As others have said, I don’t have much use for elaborate sticky visuals, handouts, and treats.

    I often hear women complain that Relief Society isn’t doctrinal enough. I agree. But I think Relief Society pablum is part of a larger problem. We tend to divide the abstract doctrinal realm of meaty gospel knowledge (Hebrew words included! all bow before the ancient, mysterious letters) from the practical realm of lived experience (lots of personal stories and sometimes too many tears), to the detriment of both. And we make this division along gender lines: deep doctrine for men, fluffy bunnies for women.

    Insubstantial RS lessons are the flip side of the generally masculine tendency to play metaphysical chess with the gospel, treating it as a disembodied system of claims to be reconciled through debate. I’m thinking here of talks and comments that consist of strings of scriptures and quotations delivered in the detached tone appropriate to explicating a mathematical proof. A few years ago I filled in as an Institute teacher for a class that, on that day, consisted of all young men, probably in their late teens and early twenties. I asked them what faith meant to them personally. They stared at me. They could quote what other people said about faith, but they seemed incapable of speaking to the subject from their own lives (and two of them were full-time missionaries who were presumably sharing their testimonies every day). Forging connections between the canonical and the personal and of considering the implications of those connections is, for me, is where the gospel comes alive–not in the purely doctrinal nor in the purely personal, but in the mutually implicating relationship between the two. That’s why our gendered segregation of realms is such a loss, for both men and women. We’re left with impersonal doctrine on the one hand and decontextualized personal stories on the other.

    I don’t care for excessive emotion or pop psychology presented as gospel. But I don’t care for excessively abstract discussions of doctrine, either. There’s no question which of these two alternatives has more weight in our cultural hierarchies, and sometimes I wonder if we disparage Relief Society and the personal because we buy into those hierarchies and aspire to talk like, well, like men.

  6. Rebecca says:

    Well, my Relief Society has a lot of fun, actually. A lot of the ladies in there have no problem saying exactly what’s on their minds, and we have plenty of light-hearted moments. We also have some very good lessons, even with these new manuals. It really depends on who is teaching, and who participates. I have certainly been in my share of boring Relief Society classes in the past.

    I also wish the Relief Society had its autonomy back, but that is unlikely ever to happen. What I really wish is that we sisters could feel comfortable sharing our struggles as well as our testimonies with each other. I wish people felt more comfortable in general at church admitting that we DON’T have a testimony of everything and we need help understanding or dealing with a particular doctrine or whatever. But it seems like this is much more likely to happen in RS.

    My biggest pet peeve is wards that stick everyone younger than 50 in Primary or YW and RS is seen as a ghetto for “old ladies.” We can learn so much from each other, regardless of our ages–and I have benefited so much from my association with older sisters.

    I also hate the handouts. I thought it was just me.

  7. Kristen J says:

    Honestly you could have been channeling me when you wrote this post.

    My rs has a great compassionate service program which I love. I’ve helped and been helped many times by this.

    Sometimes the handouts and chocolate seem a little condescending to me (but I always partake).

    I do get tired of the lessons that always seem the same year after year.

  8. Rosetta S. says:

    I quit attending R.S. because it was the same-old, same-old, year
    after year, especially after the “prophet”-quotes lesson books
    came into being.

    In my ward, the brethren don’t have it any better (except for the
    constant salving of their ego with the pd-makes-them-superior
    indoctrination).

    Amy B. said she was “absolutely horrified, HORRIFIED, by the
    manner in which LDS women conducted themselves” in a training
    video she saw. “The president in the meeting responded to
    suggestions by saying she would check with priesthood leadership
    to get approval- for every single little thing.”

    Her observations are absolutely on target! Notice that every
    time the church lets a women speak (in church magazines or at
    conferences), it is only those they can trust to praise “the pd”
    for everything.

    I thought all blessings come from God. Furthermore, scriptures
    warn us are only to praise God. The church has changed this
    command to worshiping “the pd” (in other words, be obedient and
    subservient to men).

    Few seem to know that the pd title was distinct from elder,
    deacons, etc., until B. Young consolidated all these positions
    under the blanket title “the pd”. Since then, members have been
    (in effect) taught to worship “the pd” as much as (or more) than
    God. Tain’t the way it should be.

    What scriptures do you know that say we should worship the pd?
    (and please don’t fall back on that old, discredited, “what the
    authorities speak is scripture” routine.

    Man is fallible man, and God is infallible God, and the two shall
    not–necessarily–meet (until we are all perfected in the
    heavenly kingdom of God, where debate as to the true word of God
    is not needed).

    Rosetta S.

  9. Caroline says:

    Amanda, good one. I also hate the trite, simplistic answers. I get really excited when someone says something thoughtful and outside the box.

    Amyb,
    I am appallled. Disgusted. Shocked. What’s the point of having leadership in primary, young women’s and RS, if they have to check with “The Priesthood” for every little thing? It’s a good thing I’ll probably never see that video – I don’t know what I would do, but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t endure a video like that with equanimity.

    I’m jealous of you visiting Seneca Falls. What a whatershed moment in time for women’s rights.

    Melissad, I also like the sisterhood that can develop in RS. And I’m with you on lessons that skim the surface. One thing you might consider is to start a book group with some thoughtful LDS women in RS. Then you can read things and discuss ideas, issues (gospel related or not) in a more intimate and in depth way.

  10. meems says:

    You guys get chocolates and treats in RS?

    I’ve been in the wrong wards.

    I’ve also made the decision to pass on all handouts unless I find them particularly interesting to me. I just say no thanks and pass them along to the next person. People probably think I’m weird, but you know it’s just going to go home to the recylce bin anyway.

    What I love about RS? I really love getting glimpses into the personal lives and opinions of the sisters. It makes me feel more connected to them and in turn, more of a unified body in Christ.

  11. Caroline says:

    Jana, I also like siting by friends, but I’m less crazy about the babies that wander and make noise 🙂 I also, theoretically, like the diversity potential in RS when it comes to age, but I can’t help but wonder if things would be more lively if we split up like the men do. As for your dislikes, I’m with you on most of them. One exception: I would be thrilled if there were more lessons based on sherri dew chapters. At least, if nothing else, we’d get a female voice into the lesson and affirm women’s right and ability to be quoted as an authority.

    Eve, I really agree about the need to find a good balance between the personal and the doctrinal. From my own experience, I think you are right that women tend to focus on the personal to the detriment of the doctrinal. I get the sense, though, that the men have a better balance. At least according to my husband, his EQ lessons often center around more personal experiences. He says this is becasue many teachers don’t want to take a lot of time prepping. And of course, we have our GA Monson who revels in personal stories and rarely gets into anything remotely doctrinal.

    I think you, Rebecca, hit on what Jana was getting at when she said she likes honesty in RS lessons. I also wish more people were willing to admit their struggles and their questions, rather than just have a love fest about how wonderful the church is.

  12. Deborah says:

    For the most part, I loved loved loved being a member of the Relief Society organization during my eight years or so in the Cambridge singles wards.

    1) In the absence of primary/young women, the Relief Society class gathered of _all_ the women in the ward who chose to attend church — and where we did not have age diversity, we certainly had quite a bit of political and vocational diversity. At it’s best, there was a tremendous sense of belonging and acceptance.

    2) Three of the four bishops we worked with had a tremendous regard for the council of the Relief Society President and, to a greater extent than I would have predicted, the “autonomy” of the Relief Society. Ah, hope.

    When I entered family wards a few years back, I was first in the primary and the in the young women, so it’s only been in the last year that I’ve attended Relief Society “like my mother knew it.” It’s been an adjustment. Most of the women in my general age range (e.g. 25 – 45) are in the other auxilaries, and the lessons play it safe — theologically and even personally (in terms of sharing experiences). However, I love that the meal-sign ups fill up before they make it around the room. I love that the Relief Society president _presides_ — with humor, grace, and tremendous effort.

    I don’t feel much allegiance to Sunday School because it is a _class_ — but I feel enormous allegience to RS because it is a *membership* that is connected but not identical to my church membership; and I like the potential of that . . .

  13. Caroline says:

    Hi Rosetta,
    Yes, those manuals are a huge problem, IMO. And I also shudder when I think of how the term “priesthood” has been conflated with men. Priesthood is the power of Gd. Men are men. Both women and men have access to this power of god, though men, for some reason, are the ones that tend to officiate in ordinances.

    I also have major worries about how pummelled we are with injunctions to “sustain the priesthood.” I’m not sure what that means, but I fear that many people take it to mean obey without question when a man-leader speaks.

    Deborah,
    I’m jealous of your Cambridge experience. It sounds wonderful and vibrant.

  14. jana says:

    Deborah:
    I actually much prefer Sunday School to RS. In our ward all of the interesting lessons and discussions are in SS. We have fun and grapple with interesting questions. In RS there is little to no discussion.

  15. Caroline says:

    I also prefer SS to RS right now. (I’m in Jana’s ward.) We definitely get better discussions there since, as Jana noted, we don’t generally get discussions of any type in RS.

    But I see huge potential in RS. I love all-women environments. I went to a women’s college and loved every minute. Maybe someday things will improve…

  16. Deborah says:

    Sunday school may, depending on the cycle of teachers, be more stimulating — but I’ll never write an impassioned post about “Sunday School” because I don’t care about it enough *as an institution* to be voluble one way or the other.

    I think one of the reasons we are commenting on a thread like this is because RS is more than just a class — or should be. Truthfully, I have yet to sit through a profound lesson in a family ward RS, but I _care_ about Relief Society (conceptually, theologically, practically). (And that “care” has the side effect of getting me worked up about manuals and training meetings).

    Being a Member Of Relief Society — classes be damned — is at the very core of my Mormon Identity. Really. Hence my wordiness 🙂

  17. EmilyCC says:

    Ok, call me crazy, but I *like* handouts. If the lesson is well done, I find it very helpful when someone uses quotes, scriptures, or ideas not in the manual and types them up, especially now that I have an active toddler who doesn’t like to stay in one place for more than two seconds. Are we talking about handouts that just restate the lesson? Those, I agree, are a waste. But, I’ve had a couple of teachers who were spiritual giants to me; I was grateful when they put their ideas down on paper so I could think about those ideas more.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the idea of having honesty in Relief Society. I think my last ward achieved that beautifully. People weren’t afraid to talk about their struggles. Some wards have everyone putting on a show at church, like they’re scared for people to see them as less than perfect.

  18. Heather O. says:

    All of my adult church service, with few exceptions, have been in the RS. I love the organization. Here is my list.

    I love:
    *Sitting is RS and having somebody say, “Hey, how are you doing?” who actually wants a real answer.

    *That the times in my life when I have struggled with trials I felt were beyond me, the RS president has known about the trials (not sure how) and has personally saved me at a time when I was near exhaustion and despair.

    *Gathering with sisters to hear what they have to say about the gospel. A good teacher can draw out the best in sisters.

    *Eating chocolate when a sister brings it in (which almost never happens in our ward.) Who doesn’t need a sugar rush at the last meeting?

    I HATE:
    Teachers who photocopy the manual and hand out cut up bits to be read in class instead of coming up with an original way to approach the topic.

    Teachers who only ask questions that are listed at the end of the lessons

    Teachers who think that you are evil if you come up with your own questions because you are then “deviating” from the manual, which has been written by the APOSTLES THEMSELVES!!(um, or not), and far be it from HER to presume she knows more than the Lord’s anointed. Get out of my face, right now lady. (Yes, I actually had a conversation like this.)

    Teachers who quote Thoreau, school psychologists and Shakespeare instead of the prophets. I don’t come to church to have a literature lesson, thanks. Let’s talk about God, please.

    Situations where women feel they can’t voice their doubts or their views for fear of being considered “controversial”. If you think or worry about something, we should all share and help you through it.

    Singing the closing hymn at the speed of the average funeral dirge. (sigh)

    Our Relief Society today hardley resembles that which Emma and her counselors put together in the early church, but I still think that RS can be a tremendous force for good. And no RS presidency I’ve ever been in has ever checked with a priesthood leader before implementing ideas. That is like the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard, and I’ve never seen it done. Often, it seemed like it went the other way around!

  19. Heather O. says:

    Oh, and Deborah, the interesting stories in RS didn’t stop with the Cambridge single’s wards. When I was Enrichment counselor in the 2nd ward, we had to deal with all kinds of stuff. It was not uncommon for somebody to walk out in tears or fury during the lessons, and we even had a teacher say that she didn’t think Joseph Smith was a good man. One time, we had one sister actually discussing orgasm during a lesson. Seriously. I am not making that up.

    Yeah, the Stake RS president showed up the next week after that one, and we had one humdinger of a meeting! Don’t suppose that happens in many Utah wards, do you?

    Makes a GREAT story, though!

  20. Eve says:

    Caroline, I’m impressed that you feel such a connection to Relief Society as such. For the most part, I confess that I’m pretty indifferent to it. (And I’ve been in Primary or YW for most of the last ten years.) My attachment is to the gospel and then to the Church in general. Relief Society is in the category of my brain with socialism and spreading democracy by invading other countries: good idea in theory, but….

  21. Eve says:

    Oh, and EmilyCC, thanks for saying that you like handouts. It’s helpful for me to remember when I do teach at church (I haven’t in a couple of years) to try a range of approaches to reach more people.

    I’m an extremely non-visual person (to the point of being visually dyslexic) and it would probably barely register with me if the teacher wore jeans and a T-shirt or a burka. I tend to see visual aids of all kinds as clutter. But it’s important to stop and remember that they can be meaningful to others.

  22. Caroline says:

    deborah, I understand where you’re coming from when it comes to caring about RS as an institution. I feel the same in a lot of ways – which is why i get so frustrated and upset at times when it isn’t as good as I think it should be. I don’t care nearly as much when SS doesn’t live up to my expectations.

    Emily, if handouts are good, interesting, and helpful to discussion, then I have no problem with them. I have, however, had the unfortunate experience in RS of VERY BAD handouts. A 5 page (no joke) outline of the lesson in the manual, that the teacher proceeded to take us through step by step with nary a question.

    Heather, I’m horrified by your story of someone chastising you for coming up with questions not in the manual. A good teacher is one that connects to her audience by leading up to and asking questions appropriate to her audience. A couple of the canned questions in the back are fine once in a while, but how awful if someone felt they had to use all of them all the time.

    I have to say, though, that I would love it if teachers quoted Shakespeare and Thoreau – particularly if they used them to introduce a good question that addresses the lesson’s topic. I get SO BORED with only hearing from GA’s. I’m more than happy to widen the net a bit and receive wisdom from others outside our culture and faith.

    Eve, I suppose my loyalty to RS really springs from my conception of its rich past. I felt really connected to leaders like Emmeline Wells when I read her fiery feministy editorials in the Women’s Exponent. If I hadn’t read those – and felt so struck by these great, powerful RS leaders – I probably wouldn’t care too much about the current organization.

  23. Caroline says:

    By the way, Eve, would you like to do a guest post sometime? 🙂

  24. Eve says:

    Caroline, I’m flattered. I’ve got two more weeks of school, then a week of relatives visiting, but after that, I should be pretty free (that is, free enough not to feel guilty blogging, as I do now…should be studying! ack). So if mid-May–or anytime thereafter–works for you, I’d love to.

    And while I’m at it, I’d like to nominate annegb as Relief Society president of the bloggernacle :>

  25. Deborah says:

    Eve:

    Yeah!! Just drop us an e-mail 🙂

  26. AmyB says:

    I have to admit I haven’t attended RS much lately, and was serving in primary and young womens for quite a while. Last time I attended they seemed to be saying something about a restructuring of enrichment activities. They were encouraging smaller groups of women with similar interests to meet. I had the impression this was churchwide. Has anyone else come accross this? It seems like it might be an improvement.

  27. Heather O. says:

    Amy-

    Enrichment has been totally overhauled. Thank goodness. Now we only have a big to-do quarterly, with monthly events that are smaller and are usually held at somebody’s house. Our ward has done such things as a book group, a knitting group, and a hair braiding group (sounds weird, I know, but apparantly it was a success!) We then had a big dinner for the RS birthday. The upshot is that now that big events are only quarterly, it makes attending Enrichment a little bit easier. Our big dinner had a huge turn out, which was good. It also means that the Enrichment leader and counselor aren’t killing themselves coming up with a huge event every month. Speaking as a former Enrichment counselor (seriously an inspiried calling. God must have thought of me, because nobody else would have!), I imagine it takes a huge burden off of the sisters in charge. I also think it is less overwhelming for the sisters to attend.

  28. Heather O. says:

    I second the nomination for annegb as president.

  29. Juliann says:

    You guys get chocolates and treats in RS?
    —————–

    Anyone here who remembers the Cultural Refinement lessons..the calling that made women cry? Once a month there would be samplings of the culture of the month..sometimes blow out productions. My favorite cultural experience was with England. Someone brought in a trifle they had bought at a restaurant. I took one taste and the liquor fumes shot up to my nasal cavities. (I really dislike the taste of any liquor unless it is well hidden in chocolate) I looked around…everyone was spooning it into their mouths. Two sweet ladies with blue hair were sitting behind me. One of them mentioned a funny taste and then it was back to the scraping of spoons on plates. Shortly, the lady behind me said “may we have seconds?”

    My problem with RS is that I can’t sit and listen for 3 hrs anymore. I wish they would put it before GD. The manuals are goofy but…what can you expect when you have to plan for a few million people?
    Juliann

  30. Juliann says:

    Eve: I don’t care for excessive emotion or pop psychology presented as gospel. But I don’t care for excessively abstract discussions of doctrine, either. There’s no question which of these two alternatives has more weight in our cultural hierarchies, and sometimes I wonder if we disparage Relief Society and the personal because we buy into those hierarchies and aspire to talk like, well, like men.
    ————

    And I would prefer just the opposite. This is the problem anyone who was trying to come up with a curriculum have to face..who will they please?

    Nothing turns me off faster than listening to most women conference speakers…why? Because they talk like Primary teachers and I’m not a kid anymore. I’ll take talking like a man any day. Armand Mauss wrote an insightful essay about kleenex boxes replacing scriptures at the pulpit. We have replaced talks based on scripture with teary stories. I think it is a loss. I wish RS could give the women confidence to “preach” like any man.

  31. Eve says:

    Juliann, I completely agree with you about women conference speakers. I think that’s why Sheri Dew created such a splash. She never simpered. She stood up and said something with complete conviction, like an adult! What a novel sensation.

    It looks like I didn’t explain myself very well. I don’t want a Kleenex box. But I don’t want the disembodied abstract doctrine and arcane theological arguments that some men seem to adore (you know the type that just can’t resist derailing the entire Sunday school lesson to count how many angels can dance on Kolob? That kind of thing.) One week a couple of years ago RS got out early and I sat in the back of the chapeol listening to the high priests’ lesson. It was utterly bizarre. They were tinkering around with various scriptural and prophetic statements, trying to arrange them into a vast system (a hopeless endeavor, in my view, not to mention a boring one). Or I think of a talk given by a man about the difference between the light of Christ and the Holy Ghost that was entirely technical–without a single mention of him or anyone else ever having experienced either one! It was like hearing a manual of gospel mechanics.

    I definitely think we should be grounded in the scriptures and doctrine, and we should speak with conviction. But I think we should go only halfway in imitating men. Religion is fundamentally different from every other field of study. It embraces our whole lives. Too many men talk as if its embrace doesn’t extend past their necks. That’s where I think men have something to learn from the Kleenex box, just as women have something to learn from the scriptures. I want to hear the doctrine, but also want to hear how it affects people’s actual lives. The meaning is in the connection between the universal and the particular. Doctrine without experience is pie in the sky. Experience without doctrine is meaningless.

    In short, I’m a gender moderate. I think we should talk not like men, but like hermaphrodites. As it were.

  32. AmyB says:

    “Because they talk like Primary teachers and I’m not a kid anymore. I’ll take talking like a man any day.”

    The way women speak in the church, I think, is culturally reinforced. I don’t think we need to talk “like men.” We do need to talk like empowered women. The problem is that we have given our power away to the men and it is reflected everywhere, including the tone of voice and choice of words women use.

    Something rubs me the wrong way when you say we should talk like a man, though. That implies man = good and women = bad. I think women can be powerful, witty, intelligent, engaging and still be feminine. We just need to be more like a lioness than a tamed house cat.

  33. a spectator says:

    This is an interesting discussion. I am currently in a RS presidency, and we have been talking about improvement, but a few things seem to keep tripping us up:
    1–we don’t agree. Practices I find sleep-inducing is someone elses’ favorite
    2–our teachers. Many are newish and they are doing the best they can, but seriously, they don’t have the best role models
    3–our comfort with the known. I think that many people in the Church confuse common church practices with actual gospel. We don’t question much of what we are used to.

    As an enrichment counsellor, I don’t find the new program much less work. Enrichment groups can meet as often as they like and my RS president seems to think I should be at all of them. It has been trying. Aside from my RS president’s idea, though, I think it is a good change.

  34. Juliann says:

    Amy, I think talking “LIKE a man” is not being any less a woman. It is a figure of speech that is more universally understood than talking like “an empowered woman”. What exactly does that mean? There is a style of preaching that only men do right now. Preaching is not male..I’m after the preaching not the maleness. I go for practical when I have to type out each word. 😉 I was always under the impression that the men were in those secret priesthood things sacrificing small animals or something. Who knows. From what I hear they certainly aren’t preparing lessons. It is rather time consuming but the only way to beat the game is to know more than they do. Before they get over that longing hope you will apostasize *before* you finish that education they are pretty helpless. To me, an empowered woman is someone that can verbally arm wrestle the resident ward know it all under the GD table with her mastery of scripture and scholarship. Until you can do that you are bluffing at best and that never works on *those* men. And it only takes a couple of those men to shut down an entire ward when our culture demands no contention.

  35. Juliann says:

    Eve: Religion is fundamentally different from every other field of study. It embraces our whole lives. Too many men talk as if its embrace doesn’t extend past their necks. That’s where I think men have something to learn from the Kleenex box, just as women have something to learn from the scriptures.
    —————-
    I did a little gig on the Sunstone West panel about Mormon Studies where I tried to explain why I like the academic approach and want to separate the public discussion of religion from my own spirituality. I think the only successful way to approach religion in today’s world is in two realms. We have to talk to two audiences if Mormonism is going to make any headway in an increasinging postmodernized nation…and if we are going to scare the men. When “public sphere” knowledge has morphed into a priesthood function in Mormonism the most efficient way to start putting priesthood back where it belongs is move in on the public sphere of knowledge. RS is functionally the “private sphere”. If we use it correctly separating women out can result in more autonomy because everytime we are with men we shut down. I’ve had a few women’s studies courses at Claremont Graduate University. I can talk the talk but I don’t stand on vocabulary. I’ll do what works. In the LDS culture (and most of American culture) feminist verbiage is a turn off. That is just the way it is. At that point I have to make a decision..am I going to use up my resources defending my vocabulary or use my capital to carve out a place for myself and others in a system that could use a few tweaks?

  36. Caroline says:

    Juliann,
    you were at Sunstone West? So was I. Too bad I didn’t come to the session in which you spoke! It would have been fun to meet you.

    Did you by chance catch our panel on females and the bloggernacle?

  37. Eve says:

    The discussion of male and female discourse reminds me of Ursula LeGuin’s fantastic 1986 Bryn Mawr commencement address (it’s part of her collected essays in _Dancing on the Edge of the World_), and online here:

    http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/sci_cult/leguin/

    LeGuin has an inimitable, very funny style and a lot of outstanding insights, so it’s hard to paraphrase her, but I’ll try to, briefly. She distinguishes between the father tongue, the objective scientific public discourse that lectures, not expecting an answer, dichotomizing and splitting, “the language of social power” that many believe is “the highest form of language, the true language, of which all other uses of words are primitive vestiges” and the mother tongue, the ordinary, common, vulgar, repetitive speech of conversation that “connects…goes two ways, many ways, an exchange, a network [whose] power is not in dividing but in binding, not in distancing but in uniting.” She wants to revalue the mother tongue, “the language spoken by all children and most women…we learn it from our mothers and speak it to our kids.” She also wants to push beyond the split between father and mother tongues to a deeper, truer language that speaks from experience as truth.

    A few other choice snippets:

    “Now indeed there are women who want to be female men; their role model is Margaret Thatcher, and they’re ready to dress for success, carry designer briefcases, kill for promotion, and drink the Right Scotch. They want to buy into the man’s world, whatever the cost…My problem with that is that I can’t see it as a good life even for men, who invented it and make all the rules. There’s power in it, but not the kind of power I respect, not the kind of power that sets anybody free. I hate to see an intelligent woman volunarily double herself up to get under the bottom line. Talk about crawling! And when she talks, what can she talk but father tongue? If she’s the mouthpiece for the man’s world, what has she got to say for herself?”

    “We can all talk mother tongue, we can all talk father tongue, and together we can try to hear and speak that language which may be our truest way of being in the world…”

    “whether you’re writing an article or a poem or a letter or teaching a class or talking with friends or reading a novel or making a speech or proposing a law or giving a judgment or singing the baby to sleep or discussing the fate of nations, I want to hear you. Speak with a woman’s tongue.”

    I think her father tongue/mother tongue dichotomy maps very well onto the split between men’s and women’s discursive style that we’ve been discussing.

    Personally, I think it’s good to know some father tongue. That’s what we go to school for, as LeGuin says, to learn to speak the distancing, analyzing, objective language of cultural power. (And it’s a useful language for other and better purposes than the pursuit of social clout–Starfoxy’s astrophysics and Miss Sarah’s neuroscience, for example.) But I’m suspicious of anyone, male or female, who’s so thoroughly indoctrinated in father tongue that he or she can speak only in vast abstractions, even when it comes to something as profoundly intimate and experiential as religion. Men who talk like metaphysicians at church, who make the common mistake of thinking religion is just a matter of stuffing arcane facts in our brains till we’re exalted by our bloated intellects, come off as pompous and silly. I’m all for plowing into the public, masculine sphere and carving out a place for ourselves. But if we do it at the expense of the personal where spirituality actually happens, what have we become but female men? (And not even real, embodied men, but women imitating men enacting Descartes’ mind-body problem?)

  38. Eve says:

    Juliann, you said some very interesting things in your last comment, and I’d like to hear more. What two realms or audiences do you see Mormon discourse needing to address? (Are you thinking of the public and the private realms, the Mormon world and the broader culture, or something else entirely?)

    I’m also intrigued by your point about feminist vocabulary. No doubt it can become a obstacle. A lot of people will just tune out anything labeled “feminist.” (Is that what you’re referring to, or am I missing it?)

  39. AmyB says:

    Juliann,

    When you say “There is a style of preaching that only men do right now,” are you referring specifically to within the LDS church? Outside the church there are plenty of women preachers, and I imagine they don’t have to be more like men to be effective. However, within the church women in leadership seldom speak with much ethos. Men have all the power and authority in the church, so I think women have difficulty tapping into that when they speak. I would feel more comfortable saying I wished that women would preach with ethos rather than wishing they would preach more “like a man”. But then, I am sensitive to how we use language. I think language shapes the way we think and interact, and I place a lot of importance on it.

    “When “public sphere” knowledge has morphed into a priesthood function in Mormonism the most efficient way to start putting priesthood back where it belongs is move in on the public sphere of knowledge.” This is a compelling thought to me. The idea that men belong in the public sphere and women in the private has long been used as a tool of oppression. e.g. “Why should women vote? They just need to worry about what’s going on in their homes!” This thinking was absolutely wrong and oppressive when the state egnaged in it, and I think it is equally oppressive from the church.

  40. Juliann says:

    Caroline, I was at your Miller-Eccles presentation. That is how I know about this blog.

    ————
    Eve: They want to buy into the man’s world, whatever the cost…My problem with that is that I can’t see it as a good life even for men, who invented it and make all the rules.
    ——————–

    The women’s movement hit when I was in college. Looking back at what life was like for girls then seems like talking about another universe. I was told in high school that I would never get a job unless I knew shorthand. My first Utah interview in a school district as a newly credentialed speech therapist started with the question “why didn’t you major in home ec?” I read all the books, subscribed to NOW Magazine and followed the lives of the leaders. This went on for many years until I noticed that something was wrong. They were becoming hateful about men. Men bad. Women good. Jobs good. Mommies bad. The push to be like those bad men was incredible…it hit home to me one day after the latest lecture about being “assertive” that assertive was just a different name for exactly what they were supposed to be hating. I stopped pushing for the ERA after I set aside the rhetoric and analyzed what it could do to us instead of for us. (Our student ward leadership was so patient with us..we would get up and give these fiery RS lectures and defy them. I think it was the Henry of the Eyrings who was our bishop.) I eventually lost almost all respect for the movement as it devolved into a cult of personality and yammering that reinforced every stereotype of a nagging wife. My generation will probably have to die off before we get over the “bra burning” stunts..and that is such an apt metaphor of how they threw out what protected us with false rhetoric about liberation. Bras are liberating not oppressive..I can’t run without one. It turned into just another political movement. I am disgusted as I watch the NOW leaders ignore women’s plight if they aren’t on the right side of politics.

    At any rate, I never say do anything “like a man” unless it is a joke (because that is a joke phrase now). I was responding to the previous comment of talking like a man. However, there are things that men do that are admirable. Preaching is one of them (yes..in our church). I would hope that men could become comfortable saying that they want to do something “like a woman” without using it as an insult. I don’t want to *talk* like the men do because General Conference could use a little livening up. In my experience (which is always going to be localized) we just don’t have men who go off into arcane speeches..that would more likely be me.
    ——-
    Amy: The idea that men belong in the public sphere and women in the private has long been used as a tool of oppression. e.g. “Why should women vote? They just need to worry about what’s going on in their homes!” This thinking was absolutely wrong and oppressive when the state egnaged in it, and I think it is equally oppressive from the church.
    ————
    That was my way of describing the world not the churches. And I think we need to be careful with how we view women’s space or we get into the same situation as the early movement which elevated whatever men had as being desirable and denigrated whatever women had as a way of being equal. The space/sphere talk is early Christianity talk from feminist scholars and is now used by everyone. Women managed the home and men did the public space stuff. Not fair, of course…but managing the business (literally) of homes which were equivalent to small factories is not a small thing. There is much power in the private sphere and to get something else often becomes a trade-off. Is it worth it? The women’s movement was so necessary…but women are just as trapped and oppressed in the workforce they have to be in than they were at home. We are bigger sex objects than we ever were. You can thank a self-indulgent movement for that. We gave up too much for what we got. Ironically, the power I have now is *because* of the occupation I was pushed into. In our brains it was teacher or nurse. I chose speech therapist because it gave me more autonomy in the schools. I couldn’t have picked a better profession..we are so much in demand now that I tell them what I will do and they have to say thank you. I work part-time and was able to be with my daughter at every function (something very critical as a widow when you are mom and dad). I rarely see situations like mine…I see women out there having to give up too much to get what they should have had all along. They have to pay to have that private space (home) now and get the worst of both worlds in many ways. I think we could should and could have had the best of both and I feel like we were sold out.

  41. Deborah says:

    Nothing to add at the moment, but I am oh-so-enjoying this conversation. Thanks!

  42. pjj says:

    I dont’ attend RS much lately, because the bad just outweighs the good so often. The more recent manuals, from BY, on forward, are dreadful.

    Someone listed this as a hate–“Teachers who quote Thoreau, school psychologists and Shakespeare instead of the prophets.

    I’d list that as a love. I don’t think that truth can only be found in the official words of the prophets, and in the past, we Mormons used to have the idea that we should seek out the good everywhere that we can find out. But now, it seems to me that we demonize outside voices, and become more and more insular in protecting our own little world. That’s one of the reasons I can’t stand to sit through the classes anymore.

  43. Eve says:

    Juliann, Thanks for the further explanation of what you mean by preaching “like a man.” I think I understand what you mean a little better now. You’ve got lots of interesting experience and great things to say. (Would you like to visit my ward sometime?). I’m sympathetic to your expressions of skepticism about certain aspects of American feminism.

    Your observations about men and women and abstract discourse have, I admit, made me wonder if my earlier claims were a bit overgeneralized and rash. The last time I was in Sunday school and Relief Society, that kind of talk was very much the provence of men. (Now I’ve been in the nursery for eight months, so I have no idea what’s going on in the adult world of my ward.) But my sample size was pretty small, so I may have been generalizing hastily.

  44. AmyB says:

    Juliannn,

    You and I are from different generations, and it is interesting to get your viewpoint. I do see a real paradox in relation to women’s rights. Women now want to have it all- a great career and a satisfying home life. It seems like you have to give up one to have the other. I feel sad that being a stay at home mom is often not given the dignity it deserves. At the same time, I am profoundly grateful for the women who fought before me, so that now I have choices. I’d rather have to make those difficult decisions about the home/family balance than have them made for me.

    On the intended topic of this thread, it seems clear that what is best to one can be worst to another. So the lesson to me is that I could be more forgiving and understanding of the teachers and RS presidency- they will never please everyone.

  45. Mike says:

    Hopefully a man’s intrusion into this post will be welcomed. I started thinking about some things I (as a man) like and dislike about RS. Here’s a partial list:

    Like:
    1. Women have a world more their own than other worlds at Church. Not completely, of course, but their own to a degree. I’m glad my wife has a Church experience separate from me.
    2. The RS president is treated with a lot of institutional charisma. Though inappropriate, I know some people call her as the mother of the ward.
    3. Visiting teaching is awesome if done well.
    4. I think the RS has taken on the role of a pseudo-Priesthood organization, which gives it institutional legitimacy within the Church.
    5. Those enrichment break-off groups. An awesome idea.

    Dislike:
    1. I’m a bit jealous that women get many more treats at Church than men. Petty, I know.
    2. RS has lost some of its original charitable focus. This is the negative side effect of Like #4.
    3. RS meetings seem to always go over their allotted time.
    4. Visiting teachers should have to visit instead of getting away with a phone call or postcard.

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  47. Sally says:

    I don’t know where to begin. Maybe it’s just me but to pick apart the very organization of RS is really quite sad in my book. I am a young mom married to a college student & I happen to love RS.

    I love the handouts, the candy, the sisters, the sisterhood, & the fact that because of Relief Socity I do have a voice.

    Maybe we could be more honest as a whole if people weren’t so judgemental. It’s people like ya’ll that make people like me ashamed to say I am struggling. If you’d just get off you’re high horse & see I am human & quit judging me for not being honest – so you say – then I might have a chance.

    I am sorry if this offends anyoneone – wait – I’m not – I am being honest.