Sisters Speak: Preside Vs. Equal Partnership

Father Sun & Mother Earth by Constantin Popescu

The Proclamation on the Family asserts that fathers should “preside over their families,” but two sentences later, it asserts that fathers and mothers are to act as “equal partners.” According to Webster’s Dictionary, the term ‘preside’ means to exercise direction, guidance or control and to occupy a place of authority. So how can Mormon couples be equal partners while the man presides? Are the two ideas mutually exclusive, or is there a way to interpret the terms so that they are compatible? How does presiding and equal partnership play out in your marriage or the marriages of those around you?

On a personal note, I was interested to learn in my feminist theology classes that the preside vs. equal partnership debate is alive and well in other Christian Protestant churches. They use different language, however. For them it’s “male headship” vs. “equal regard.” The scriptural texts they particularly cite for male headship are the ones by Paul in which he claims that man is the head of woman.

Mormon origins for presiding seem to not be so clearly linked to Paul. Given our endowment ceremony, it seems to me that Mormons take the presiding idea back to the post-fall model described by God to Adam and Eve. This has never made much sense to me, however, since it’s clear to me that God is talking about natural consequences of the fall now that Adam and Eve will be navigating a fallen, sinful world, not God’s ideal model of relationality between men and women. Man’s dominance over woman is, in my mind, a powerful symbol of that fallen sinful state, one that we should be working to overcome. So why Mormon rhetoric holds up hierarchy between husbands and wives as ideal (albeit paradoxically coupled with injunctions about equal partnership) is puzzling to me.

Please share your thoughts on the above question. I may email some of you to ask for permission to quote you in the Exponent II Sisters Speak article on this topic. Thank you!

Caroline

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

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34 Responses

  1. Keri Brooks says:

    I think the preside/equal partners thing is mutually exclusive. Either one person can preside or both people can be equal. But, I think that navigating contradictions is an essential part of our growth. Just like in the garden, Adam and Eve were given two mutually exclusive injunctions (reproduce, don’t eat the fruit), and they had to decide which one was more important to obey, we’re given two mutually exclusive worldviews (husband presides, equal partners) and we need to choose which one is more important.

    And I totally agree with you that pinning the presiding on the Adam and Eve story shows that presiding isn’t the way to go. The account in Genesis shows God giving a descriptive view of the world, not a prescriptive one. Telling Eve that Adam would rule over her was sort of a warning label on life, not license for Adam to actually rule.

    • A real problem that occurs within the LDS Church is that things that make a lot of sense to speakers, don’t share enough common cultural background with the listeners.

      Much of the equal partnership language makes sense if you’ve been a part of a small law partnership with 7-8 partners or so.

      Otherwise, I’ve written a number of times how the fact that men preside is a result of the fall, a condition not an ideal or a goal.

  2. I love your starting this piece with Websters’ definition of preside. Too bad the First Presidency didn’t check with Websters before authoring the Proclamation.

  3. Emily U says:

    I’m pressed for time, so this won’t be quotable, but preside and equal partnership ARE MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE. PERIOD!

    And “male headship?” Seriously? I’m sorry, but that is just gross.

  4. Sally says:

    I would love to agree with the idea that men presiding is the result of a fallen world, but before the fall, Adam was specifically given authority not given to Eve to be lord over the garden. Don’t know how to square that up.

  5. Lady Pope says:

    I’ve always had a problem between the church saying that men are to preside over the home, and also that husbands and wives are equal partners who help each other with their responsibilities. But can I share in this responsibility of presiding, even in my own home? No? And that’s supposed to make me equal? Not sold on that one. For me, they are mutually exclusive as well. And I like the comparison of the contradictory commandments to Adam and Eve to reproduce AND not to eat the fruit. I do think that equality is more important than the presiding authority of one partner in the home, and that is what we should be striving for.

    In fact, regarding this issue and a couple others, I asked my husband if we could make our own family proclamation the other day, and yes, hang IT on our wall. Seems a little silly, but, I think it will make me feel better. And it will be an interesting conversation piece in our living room 🙂

    • I LOVE the idea to make my own family proclamation. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE it. I will absolutely do it.

      I think I’m going to make mine to the world as well. Dear world, this is my family, this is how we do things.

  6. Mike says:

    Well, the proclamation specifically talks about “fathers” and “mothers” presiding over their families as equal partners. Of course, if partners are equal, neither can “preside over” the other, but fathers and mothers can preside over their families by exercising “direction, guidance, or control” in raising their children.

  7. Emily U says:

    OK, I have a little more time to type now.

    I’ve tried to come up with a way to interpret the terms preside and equal partnership in a way that makes them compatible, but I can’t do it. Valerie Hudson’s writings come as close to a reconciliation as anything I’ve read, but in the end, I don’t think she can do it either. The words simply mean what they mean.

    Church authorities seem to always be saying something like: “Well, “preside” might SOUND like men are placed in a position of authority over women but it really MEANS they are equal partners.” If that’s what the Proc really means, then why isn’t that what it really says? It’s linguistic nonsense. It makes me want to scream.

  8. Cynthia Van Dam says:

    Maybe this is too obvious, but organizations aren’t run by equals. Someone is the leader. Families do need a leader. Now before anyone starts hyperventilating, read to the end. I have a different perspective on the word preside. In our meetings the person who presides at a meeting isn’t necessarily the one who planned or organized it. For instance, Stake leaders preside at a sacrament meeting even though they are just visiting not the leaders of the ward. Now obviously if some crazy thing were to happen in such a meeting the stake leader would “take charge.” This kind of preside isn’t the same authoritarian one that I think Webster is using.

    When I was first married I worried a great deal about what it meant for my husband to preside over me. I took that covenant very seriously. We have made some mistakes in that vein and sometimes my husband has asked me to follow him in ways that he shouldn’t have. We once decided to vote for the same candidate because that was his choice. He has realized the error of his ways. In fact, these days, I yell at the candidates of my choice (telling them what his party says) and he yells at the candidates of his party telling them what my party says. Then we laugh at each other. I think the kind of process we have gone through is what we should be looking for. Yes my husband should preside. That may mean for some cases that really I make all the decisions and he just “shows up.” At other times, he makes those decisions and I follow. Those words sound like I am somehow less than. But over the years we have learned to respect each others strengths, weaknesses and wisdom. We listen to each other. For us, he does preside, but I think we have found something pretty close to equality.

    Maybe that is also similar to what happens in the councils of the church. We are told that the first presidency and Quorum of the Twelve make unanimous decisions after much discussion and everyone has come to an agreement.

    I like what Kerri Brooks said about navigating contradictions, but I have a different solution. Our husbands need to learn how to preside without making us unequal. We need to learn to be equal while allowing them to preside.

    • It is interesting to look at a member of the stake presidency “presiding” in sacrament meeting in their home ward (where they have not organized, conducted or controlled the meeting) and think of that in terms of Alma 6:1 and the way it operationally defines the word “preside” in terms of duty to watch over the Church rather than to control it.

    • Miri says:

      I really don’t mean to offend here, but… that solution makes no sense.

      “Yes my husband should preside. That may mean for some cases that really I make all the decisions and he just “shows up.” ”

      I don’t understand how that is an example of presiding. It sounds like an example of him specifically not presiding.

      Preside means “to occupy the place of authority;” equal means “the same.” In definition and in practice, they’re mutually exclusive. Unless we’re proposing to change the definition of those words, it is just not possible to have both–if you are subject to someone’s authority, then you are not equal to that person.

      Families need leadership, not a leader. There is no reason why two adults can choose to spend their lives together, but can’t make decisions together. If it’s ever necessary for one person to be the final word, it should be the one whose experience or needs are most particular to the situation. Gender doesn’t need to be the decider. If someone gets the final word because of their gender, that implies pretty strongly that that gender is better. And that’s not what the church teaches… right?

      • John says:

        Miri, you said “Preside means “to occupy the place of authority;” equal means “the same.” ”

        I think you’d agree that men and women are clearly not “the same.” So the logical conclusion is that men and women can never be “equal” as you’ve defined it. Since they’re not equal, and therefore cannot both preside, why do you think the man should not preside?

      • Starfoxy says:

        John, Unless you have a very convincing explanation as to why you, Ryan, and Mike all have the same IP address, please select one name and stick with it. Further name swapping will land you in moderation.

      • Miri says:

        “The same” refers to position in the relationship, not physical nature. Are you really pretending you didn’t understand that?

    • Hopeful says:

      Elder Packer has this to say about treating your marriage like a Stake Leadership calling:
      I don’t want you treating your wife like you do the stake… In the stake when a decision is to be made, you will seek the opinion of your counselors and other concerned individuals. Then you will prayerfully reach a decision on the matter, and they will all rally around and support you because you are the president and you have the mantle of authority. In your family when there is a decision to be made that affects everyone, you and your wife together will seek whatever counsel you might need, and together you will prayerfully come to a unified decision. If you ever pull priesthood rank on her, you will have failed in your leadership.
      –Elder Packer (when calling a new Stake President)

      I’ve always loved this Perry quote as well:
      “There is not a president and vice president in a family. We have co-presidents working together eternally for the good of their family . . . They are on equal footing. They plan and organize the affairs of the family jointly and unanimously as they move forward.”

    • Emily U says:

      I just want to comment on the idea that all organizations, families included, need a leader. I hear this argument a lot. Actually, it’s not an argument at all – just an analogy. (See this thread on fMh for a good discussion of this: http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/?p=5947).

      An analogy is not an argument – it’s an illustration. If your argument is founded on nothing but an analogy, you have no argument at all.

      It’s true that most organizations need leaders (corporations need CEOs, ships need captains, and orchestras need conductors), but when it comes to an organization the size of a human family, there is no reason why there can’t be co-leadership between wife and husband. So if your family is the size of a corporation, a ship, or an orchestra, sure, have a presider. If not, they are totally unnecessary!

      Furthermore, why would we aspire to model our families on worldly organizations? Shouldn’t we be trying to for something more transcendent? Why would anyone cite something as temporal and terrestrial as an earthly organization as something after which to model families working toward eternal life together?

  9. Kara Cottle says:

    The only lens that we can examine this issue through is a worldview in which it is always, always more valuable to preside than to serve, and the presider is always, always superior. We have been taught repeatedly that the opposite is actually true, and perhaps the chance to overcome that degrading bias is a big part of the test for us all. Obviously, the Lord lets us do our pitiful best to run part of the show down here, which explains a lot of the institutional sexism and other flaws in the LDS church.
    I really appreciated Keri’s observations – clearly, a large portion of the blood and sins of humankind revolves around the raw (um, horrifically raw) deal women everywhere have gotten since the creation. The biological natural woman is not as thorough an enemy to God as the natural man is, period, and it is impossible that that doesn’t mean something significant.

  10. Mike H. says:

    I’m also waiting for a better explanation of how the 2 ideas don’t contradict.

    Last weekend, I was speaking to LRC of FMH, & Georgia Platts. One of them mention knowing of one family, where there was a grandmother, a mother, and a boy & girl to the mother. The boy turns 12, becomes a Deacon, and many in the Church would consider that makes him “Head of the Household” just by having the Aaronic Priesthood?

  11. SilverRain says:

    I think the two ideas ARE mutually exclusive when they are viewed in a temporal, fallen light. As some have already mentioned, our society views leadership as always better and stronger than following.

    I believe that the Proclamation and other discourses are specifically worded the way they are to cause us to examine them more closely and push ourselves to discover in what context they could NOT be mutually exclusive. The preside/equal seeming dichotomy challenges us to examine our notions of leadership and hierarchy.

    Because I take Christ’s words literally when He says we are heirs to all that He has, equal to Him. Yes, He will always be my Savior, but He lifts me up to be equal to Him. And that is the kind of leadership, the way to president, that we must learn in our small, mortal minds. We must learn to be the kinds of beings for.whom power flows to us “without compulsion” and for whom hierarchy has no value judgment.

  12. SilverRain says:

    President should be preside. 🙂

  13. SilverRain says:

    Also, Mike H, that is an incorrect assumption that many people make. Wives preside over their home in the Priesthood hierarchy when their husbands are not present. When a bishop enters a home, the father and/or mother preside, even if the father does not hold the priesthood.

  14. Ray says:

    Personally, I still haven’t been able to reconcile the preside/equal dichotomy. To me, preside still suggests that one much be over the other and I just can’t believe that the Lord would resign me to a place of secondary status within my home (which is exactly what that wording says to me).

    Unfortunately, at this point, although I would consider myself an active and (mostly) faithful member, I don’t think I want the proclamation hanging in my home. Everytime I see it, I get frustrated; it’s a document that doesn’t bring me any peace.

    I am grateful for the discussion here though, it’s always great to hear about how other women have come to understand the proclamation.

  15. Chris says:

    The Lord’s teaching about priesthood leadership in D&C 121 describes a servant leader who serves with “persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge.”

    My husband has that kind of a heart and has served as a bishop and partner with humility and gentleness. However, I have observed many active LDS men who are brutal, harsh, cruel, and unkind. They treat their wives as servants and are emotionally and sometimes physically abusive. I am concerned that the statement in the proclamation about the husband’s role as presiding in the home is misinterpretted by many men in the Church as a reason to demean their spouses.

  16. Naismith says:

    “According to Webster’s Dictionary, the term ‘preside’ means…”

    We know that presiding goes back to Adam, so why insist that the Webster’s definition is the correct one and thus the church must be wrong if they don’t use it that way?

    At my employment, I use terms like “robust” and “mean,” that aren’t used in the same way I would use them around the house, the definition that is found in Websters. I am sure that folks in other fields could provide even more examples. Yet it’s not confusing that it means one thing in one context and another in the other context. The definition is clear and consistent within that context.

    “So why Mormon rhetoric holds up hierarchy between husbands and wives as ideal…”

    Except that the church DOESN’T hold up hierarchy between husbands and wives as ideal. In many conference talks they are clear that the family organization is patriarchal, not a heirarchy. Yes, men preside and are leaders. That doesn’t automatically mean they are authoritarian. There are many kinds of leadership. See for example

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Servant_leadership

    for an overview of servant leadership, which is very close to what our priesthood are encouraged to practice.

    I love the PotF, because of how it empowers women. It flat out says: “Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.” This is so exciting. And for all the control-freak sexist guys who thought that they got the “final say” because of their priesthood, well, get out of the way brother, because your wife (not you) has the primary responsibility for nurturing the children. And considering how many decisions are about child raising during those years (or decades), it definitely gives her a strong voice, helping ensure that she is an equal partner.

    • LovelyLauren says:

      Naismith, how can “patriarchal” in any way not be hierarchal?

      • SilverRain says:

        Lauren, in the context in which they are used they aren’t. Period. So the next step is for each of us to figure out how that is possible. When we do, we are much closer to understanding eternity and divine power.

      • Naismith says:

        While I agree with SilverRain that the process of figuring it out for ourselves is invaluable, I don’t mind sharing a bit of my thought process. Not to convince but to explain.

        I got married in 1978 and we had children sooner than would have been optimal, so I did most of my thinking on this in the late 70s/80s. I am sure that seems like ancient history to some, and one might assume that the church taught subservience of women back then. Well, no.

        In an Ensign article in Sep 1982, Elder Dean Larsen wrote an oft-quotes essay on the patriarchal order, which he claimed to be his personal opinion. He observed:

        “We often associate the patriarchal order with the times of Abraham and the Old Testament patriarchs. Perhaps it is inevitable, therefore, that we think of some of the conditions of the patriarchal order as being similar to those that are described in the Old Testament record, particularly as these things relate to relationships between men and women—husbands and wives. One cannot read this record without receiving the impression that women of that time generally played a very submissive and secondary role. They are infrequently mentioned as individuals and personalities and are often not even included in the census of the people. A superficial reading of the Old Testament account can easily leave one with the feeling that women were the property of men, consigned simply to do the bidding of their husbands and masters. There was much about the culture and the customs of ancient Israel that contributed to this general impression, and occasionally we encounter men of our own time who have allowed their knowledge of those ancient customs to influence their view of the patriarchal order.”

        He went on to talk about an engaged woman who was horrified at the change in her fiance as the wedding date neared, and was in tears over what was being expected:
        “In a fashion uncharacteristic of their relationship, he had, at the insistence of his father, he said, laid down the law and the conditions that would have to prevail in their marriage. He was to be the unquestioned authority. His word would be law. She was to be willing to submit to his rule. It was important, he said, that she understand these conditions which would now be imposed on her by covenant in the temple ceremony.”

        Elder Larsen denied that what the sexist jerk said was what was expected by the temple covenant or patriarchal order. He observed,
        “In so doing he was appealing to his misunderstanding of the patriarchal order, for there could hardly have been a greater distortion or misrepresentation of the actual conditions that must prevail within that order. One whose view of the husband-wife relationship is based upon prevailing customs and culture of the Old Testament people is capable of creating much unhappiness for himself, his wife, and his family.”

        So that reinforced my thinking that the dictionary definition of “patriarchy” or “preside” is NOT what the church expects or counsels.

        There was another article a few years later–and I’m sorry to be citing the Ensign but please understand that was what we had for the churchwide stuff. We didn’t have the satellites until later. For general conference, we went to church and listened through a scratchy phone line that often went out.

        So anyway, in 1988 there was an “I Have a Question” that seems to echo the OP: “I’m confused about the principle of priesthood leadership in the home. Could you explain how priesthood leadership should operate in the family?” It was answered by Dennis L. Lythgoe, who has written some books on marriage.

        He wrote, “Having one person designated as the presiding officer suggests order—not superiority. All important deliberations and decisions within the family should involve the husband and the wife equally, both interacting with gentleness and love unfeigned. In cases of disagreement, a couple is wise to wait until they can agree, rather than one pushing ahead with his or her own decision. Even the most pressing problems should be treated carefully, allowing enough time for tempers to cool and prayers to be offered.”

        That idea of order made a lot of sense to me, because I had recently certified CPR, and the first step is always to point to someone and tell them to call 911. And then I started learning about leadership in grad school, and the notion of servant leadership.

        He also wrote, “As the head of the Church, Jesus was the humble servant of all. He served others constantly, loving them and sacrificing for them. In fact, he suffered all things and gave his life for them.”

        This is something that we have been stressing in Primary all year, that Jesus never used his power to save himself or meet his own needs. It is all about service to others.

        Lythgoe then attacked Paul’s notions of submission, noting, “If a husband is a loving servant to his wife, then her “submission” to him is very different from what we imagine in a situation of authoritarian control. A wife would only submit to the kind of righteous leadership exemplified through complete service and sacrifice. In fact, this is not submission at all, as we understand the term today, but instead an intimate, trusting relationship that has as its base love, reason, discussion, and respect. Such, I believe, is the relationship the Lord has in mind for all husbands and wives.”

        So that is what I think the church means. It makes sense to me, is consistent in that context, and thus it doesn’t bother me that it doesn’t fit a dictionary definition.

    • Erin says:

      Naismith,

      I was thinking much along the same lines as you. Thanks for your thoughtful insight!

    • Some business organizations have a leader. A corporation will have a president, a LLC will have a managing member. A partnership of equals however jointly manages, jointly shares profits and losses and are jointly liable for everything that happens.

      But we’re not talking about a money making venture, we’re talking about a relationship of love, respect and cherish. Surely people who love respect and cherish one another do not need to have a default presider who is in charge based solely on that person’s genitalia.

      I like to think of my relationships as two halves of one brain. It’s a beautiful analogy, actually. The brain halves are capable of functioning separately but are better together. The halves are somewhat biologically different, but mostly they’re the same. Brains have what psychologists call “plasticity.” Meaning a brain part intended for vision can learn to become auditory. When put to use, brains form more neural pathways, getting stronger over time. When left to rot, the brain also deteriorates. Neither half is more in charge than the other half. While one half might be better than the other at a certain task, on the whole, the brain is a balanced organ.

      Whenever I hear someone say that you can’t have two heads–I think of whats in the head. The brain. My relationship model analogy.

  17. Caroline says:

    Thank you for all your comments, everyone! I will be emailing some of you soon. 🙂

    Please do continue to share your thoughts.

  18. Ray says:

    Naismith, you use this quote, “Having one person designated as the presiding officer suggests order—not superiority. All important deliberations and decisions within the family should involve the husband and the wife equally, both interacting with gentleness and love unfeigned. In cases of disagreement, a couple is wise to wait until they can agree, rather than one pushing ahead with his or her own decision. Even the most pressing problems should be treated carefully, allowing enough time for tempers to cool and prayers to be offered.”

    As a way to show that preside doesn’t necessarily mean to “rule over” rather it is merely a way of instilling order in the home. However, his example of that principle seems to be one in which there is NO order. He instead suggests that men and women should both make decisions together, so again, there is no order. If there is therefore, no order in the practical application of the term “preside” then why continue to use it?

    Besides that, I still find the idea of “order” problematic. It still suggests that one or the other spouse must be at the top, though it’s just for order’s sake. But again, if that order isn’t actually going to be used, then why have it?

    Sorry to be nitpicking, but the issue still seems problematic to me, and unfortunately, this quote does little to help me feel better about the word “preside” in the Proclamation.

    • Naismith says:

      “As a way to show that preside doesn’t necessarily mean to “rule over” rather it is merely a way of instilling order in the home. However, his example of that principle seems to be one in which there is NO order. He instead suggests that men and women should both make decisions together, so again, there is no order.”

      Hmmn, I guess it comes back to definitions. I assumed that he was using “order” to indicate organization, or as one dictionary describes it, “a condition in which each thing is properly disposed with reference to other things and its purpose; methodical or harmonious arrangement.”

      I don’t think one person has to be “in charge” for there to be that kind of organization. It is clear that the patriarchal order facilitates the flow of priesthood power into the home through the male, and that dad is at some point responsible to account for how the family is provided for and protected. That is the organization/order. It doesn’t require that the wife be subservient in any way or that one be on top. It does require people accounting for their responsibilities.

      In the case of CPR, who is “on top,” the person who performs the compressions or the person who calls 911? I would say neither of them; each fulfills a vitally important role. Patients used to die because everyone was so busy worrying about compressions and breathing that nobody called 911 to get medical help! Thus the value of assigning a particular task to a designated person.

      “If there is therefore, no order in the practical application of the term “preside” then why continue to use it?”

      Because there is a lot that priesthood holders do to preside in many ways, other than boss people around. They use their priesthood to bless the lives of their families, by performing ordinances, offering blessings of healing and comfort, and being the conduit through which priesthood power blesses the lives of their family.

      “Besides that, I still find the idea of “order” problematic. It still suggests that one or the other spouse must be at the top, though it’s just for order’s sake.”

      I don’t understand the need to have one person on top in order to have organization. A while back, a state agency brought me in to help with their public comment process. I was assigned to one of several groups of stakeholders brought in from all over the state to spend a full day reviewing their 10-year plan. I was the moderator for our group, charged with moving through the entire plan (which necessitated cutting off comments at times), reining in people with strong opinions, soliciting input from those who were quieter, and keeping things civil.

      But there was also a scribe, who took notes on what was being said. That person had the ability to shape the official record. And there was a spokesman for the group, who presented the group’s views at the public meeting at the end of the day and could spin things by his tone or gestures.

      So who was “on top” of that process? I think that each of us played a valuable role. Each of us had influence. None of us was worried about who was “on top.”

      Christ was never “on top.” He was a humble servant, willing to do anything for his people.

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