Separate but Equal
As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m currently involved in the Let Women Pray event. As I’ve watched the comments from the opposition, I’ve seen numerous people make the claim that there is no need to push for gender equality in the church, because men and women have separate roles, but are still equal because each role is important. After seeing this argument all over Mormon feminist pages, I looked it up on the gender equality section of mormon.org. Here are some of the statements I found.
“The LDS Church believes that women and men are equally important, but we have different roles to play in our lives. Women are more nurturing my nature, so it is our great privilege as women to be mothers and wives. That doesn’t mean that we lose ourselves in our kids or husband. They are an extension of us, as we are of them. Men and women are equal, but not the same. Just as men have their strength, so do women.”–April
“Mormons believe in the equality of men and women, but not in the sense that most people view equality as today. Both men and women are equally important to Heavenly Father’s plan, but the roles and responsibilities of men and women are distinctly separate. These roles cannot be used interchangeably because they are not unisex. Rather, each role is suited to each gender: men have the responsibility and power of the priesthood, while women have the responsibility and power of motherhood. The significance and weight of both of these roles are considered equal.”–Malori
“Though there are several people who believe Mormon women are oppressed, it is only because we believe that though men and women are equal, they are different. We acknowledge the fact that men and women have different qualities, strengths, and weaknesses; we do not impose this assumption on every man and every woman, but we understand that men and women are naturally inclined to various roles.”–Rachel
“We believe very strongly in the equality of men and women. Men and women have different roles in life, both with equal importance. Men support and protect their families, women nurture and care for their families. Husband and wife work as equal partners.”–Katie
“We teach that men and women are equal partners with different roles. Women are primarily responsible for raising their children. What a blessing! Men are to provide, preside and protect their families.”–Krista
It seems that this “separate but equal” mentality is taught and fairly widely believed among church members. The notion appears to be that men have certain roles (Priesthood, presiding, leadership) and women have different roles (motherhood, nurturing, support.) But because these roles are, in theory, complementary and important to the function of the church and family, most seem to believe that these differences in role and authority are not examples of inequality.
Now I have an issue with this argument on several levels. It assumes all men have and lack certain personality traits and all women have and lack certain personality traits. That does not stand up in my life or the lives of many people I know. It suggests that there are only certain roles that men and women should fill, which I think limits human potential to do good and improve themselves and their communities. These arguments also tend to focus on marriage and family, as though that is the only place women matter. But what I really want to discuss here is the notion of “separate but equal” or “different but equal” being equality.
Why does this argument fly when it has been determined (at least in the US: I’d love to hear international perspectives) that “separate but equal” is in fact not equal. During the civil rights movement, many claimed that providing separate facilities to black and white people was equality. They rallied behind “separate but equal” as a way to keep the races separate while claiming they were not being racist. But eventually it was determined by the courts that separate was not in fact equal. Currently, most US citizens accept that separate but equal is not a legitimate argument to prove two groups are equal. If I were to suggest to most people, even members of the church, that men and women should use separate drinking fountains, or should attend different church buildings based on gender, they would likely say that such a suggestion was wrong, that it was unequal. Yet then they turn around and say that men and women have separate roles, roles that deny both parties access to things and call it equality. Men are often told they are less spiritual, so they need the Priesthood to compensate. They are told they are less nurturing which can lead to weak father/child relationships and fewer callings to work with children. Women are told they are more nurturing and therefore they should stay in the home, even if they can’t or don’t want to. They are told they don’t need the priesthood and therefore can’t serve in most leadership positions. This situation is described as equality.
So why is it that an argument that would not be accepted in any other circumstance is used and accepted when describing the position of men and women in the church? I, clearly, don’t think it’s a legitimate way to say that men and women are equal in the church. Do you think it is legit? Why?