Two years after I submitted an Ordain Women profile, this is what I’m thinking
My babies were delivered in hospitals, safely and pleasantly enough. But delivering in a hospital was not always so safe. Many women died in European and American lying-in hospitals in the 17th to 19th centuries from childbed fever – an infection of streptococcal bacteria in the uterus that spread to the bloodstream causing sepsis and, usually, death. Childbed fever can occur in women who deliver at home, but it was so prevalent in lying-in hospitals because doctors unwittingly spread the bacteria from one woman to another through bad hygiene. Mortality rates averaged around 1 in 5 to 1 in 4, with some epidemics being close to 100% mortality.
Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor, began looking at mortality in the maternity ward at the General Hospital in Vienna in 1846. He noted that doctors patients died at a rate 5 times higher than the midwives patients and set out to find out why. Ahead of his time, and without knowledge of microbiology, he came up with a procedure that dropped maternal mortality by 90%. It was washing hands in a chlorine solution.
What happened next is summed up nicely in a piece by NPR from last January:
You’d think everyone would be thrilled. Semmelweis had solved the problem! But they weren’t thrilled. For one thing, doctors were upset because Semmelweis’ hypothesis made it look like they were the ones giving childbed fever to the women. And Semmelweis was not very tactful. He publicly berated people who disagreed with him and made some influential enemies. Eventually the doctors gave up the chlorine hand-washing, and Semmelweis — he lost his job.
He not only lost his job, he lost all credibility. He got angrier as time went by and, possibly suffering the effects of syphilis, was committed to an asylum at age 47, never to practice medicine again. By the beginning of the 20th century it was clear that bacteria caused disease, and doctors took precautions to avoid spreading infections. By the 1930s the first antibiotics became commercially available and streptococcal and other bacterial infections could then actually be cured. But it was the spread of infection in hospitals was the biggest problem for new mothers in Semmelweis’ time, and that was totally preventable.
This is a story of the failure not of lack of knowledge, but of the way it was shared. As someone who believes that Mormon feminism has truth to tell about gender inequality in Church, the story of Semmelweis gives me pause. What would have happened if Semmelweis had been better at diplomacy? What if he’d found a way to tell his colleagues that yes, in fact, they were the ones giving childbed fever to their patients, but they weren’t bad doctors and there was a simple way to be better? Stroking egos seems like a small price to pay for saved lives. If Semmelweis had been better at maintaining relationships could a half-century of death by childbed fever been largely avoided? Or was it the fault of his proud and deaf colleagues?
Clearly, how we say things matters in addition to what we say. In everything from talking to my boss to talking to my kids, my tone communicates as much as my words. And maintaining good relationships goes a long way toward effective communication, for instance think of how much easier it is for the US Secretary of State to have a meeting in Great Britain than in Iran. I notice in modern American culture (especially pop culture?) there is a lot of talk about bravely telling your truth, consequences be damned. Sometimes speaking truth to power is exactly what’s needed, but humans also function through social connections. Saving relationships is not weakness.
“I would say Kate Kelly and Ordain Women, the questions they have asked, the courage they have exhibited, the discomfort they have created, have all contributed to greater discussion,” Brigham Young University religion professor Camille Fronk Olson said at a Provo book launch, according to representatives of Greg Kofford Books, on hand to celebrate the release of “Women at Church” by Neylan McBaine. “People now realize there are some women who are hurting — and men who are hurting,” Olson said “I would say that it has contributed tremendously.”
OW started a conversation that hadn’t happened on a large scale before. It moved the far boundaries of what’s considered radical, and raised awareness. Second, the way the Church responded (and chose not to respond) to OW has made it clear that women will not be ordained in the foreseeable future. From a post by RJH at BCC a few months after Kelly’s excommunication:
“There is no possibility of female ordination on even the far horizon. The vehemence with which it is being rejected will not be able to be undone for a long time.”
Sadly, I think he’s absolutely right. I remember the day Kelly was excommunicated; I’d hoped until the last that she wouldn’t be, and when I drove home from work that afternoon “Brave” by Sara Bareilles came on the radio and tears streamed down my cheeks because I’d seen so many of us be brave, and the rejection of her felt like a rejection of us all.
Did those of us who submitted OW profiles and tried to attend the Priesthood Session make a Semmelweisian mistake? I don’t know, and I don’t think we’ll ever know because the Church is so sphinx-like when it comes to dealing with questions from it’s flock. To be clear, I think OW uncovered the Church’s unwillingness to ordain women, I don’t think it caused it. I recall when OW was new some critics said their actions were mistakes, that it was too much too soon. I disagreed with them, and I’m not sorry I had a profile when the site was launched. But what’s interesting to me now is not whether women will be ordained in the next couple decades, it’s how the Church will deal with other questions about gender.
Mormon feminism is about more than ordination. I see no reason why women shouldn’t hold the priesthood, but I also want to see sexist content purged from the temple and the stuff about gender roles struck from the Proclamation. I want inclusive language in our hymnal and open worship of Mother in Heaven. I want the Church to officially repudiate polygamy in the afterlife. It’s hard to know if our leaders have retrenched against these kinds of changes or if such changes now seem milder than before OW pressed the issue of ordination. I think the jury is out on that, but I have reason to hope it’s the latter.
I don’t think a lot of Mormon feminists will rally around any single issue again for a quite while, and I think that’s OK. My list above isn’t everyone’s list; Mormon feminism is too small to be anything but a big tent. I don’t know how best to make a difference, and I struggle with summoning the energy to even try. But what I do know is that my sisters and brothers in the gospel who believe motherhood is the answer to priesthood, that traditional gender roles are God’s will, who don’t see the temple as sexist, who think it’s irreverent to talk about Mother in Heaven, and who believe polygamy is an eternal principle, well, I can’t torch my relationships with those people like Semmelweis did with his colleagues. That wouldn’t be right, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t make change, it would only isolate me. If I want change I have to do the hard work of telling my truth without damaging relationships. Darn it that feels exhausting, and I don’t know if I have the stamina to keep it up forever. But this is what I’m thinking right now.