We prioritize the feelings of men over the actual lived experience of women
This is a problem throughout society but since this is a Mormon feminist blog I want to discuss how this problem exhibits in the Mormon church and its culture. I will provide two examples that illustrate the problem and then show how we may, consciously or not, perpetuate the problem:
On a warm day in October 2005 I found myself under a desk picking up garbage in a building on the campus of Brigham Young University. This wouldn’t necessarily be a memorable moment except that it wasn’t my desk, it wasn’t my garbage and I wasn’t alone. While I was performing this mundane task I felt a set of eyes firmly planted on my behind watching me with inappropriate intent. That set of eyes belonged to my boss, a well-respected professor and chair of a large department. Except the larger BYU community didn’t know that he was also a raging misogynist, that he had been bullying me from the moment I had accepted the job and that he often made me do tasks that were demeaning and humiliating. I had put up with the verbal abuse and sexual harassment for three months because I needed the job but this was my final straw. On my lunch break I marched myself over to human resources to report my experience. My boss’ supervisor was immediately called and upon hearing my story acknowledged that he knew this man was problematic. Over the past year six young women had been hired as this man’s secretary and had all quit in a short period of time, all making similar complaints of bullying and sexual harassment. The supervisor I spoke with was kind and understanding but since I had no proof of what had occurred he would not take action. This was especially frustrating because my boss was at the end of his term as chair, it would have been fairly easy to get rid of him, but past precedent had always been that each chair serve two terms. Not wanting to humiliate my boss, the decision was made to renew his contract and quietly deal with the collateral damage. The female secretaries and their dignity were expendable, my boss’ feelings were not. I quit on the spot.
It is confusing and traumatic to be in a ward with a spiritually abusive bishop. We believe that each leader is called by inspiration from on high but how do we rectify this when that leader turns out to be destructive? My first experience with an abusive bishop came shortly after moving into a ward and being asked to give a talk on what it meant to be a Mormon wife and mother. I gave a fairly measured but honest description of my experience. After I was done the bishop got up and corrected my experience, saying if I was truly following the spirit I would never find mothering difficult. It was shocking and embarrassing, I realized that if I was going to survive I would have to keep my head down. There were other women in the ward who were not so lucky. He would publicly humiliate them over the pulpit or in Relief Society, tell men not to let their wives associate with them, verbally assault these sisters in private meetings. Then there were the reports of inappropriate and voyeuristic questioning of young girls during worthiness interviews. Every possible way this man could wield unrighteous dominion, he did. Over this bishop’s tenure many people went to the stake president and reported their experience but nothing was ever done. Because it would have been too humiliating for this man to be released early from the calling. Meanwhile, woman after woman left the ward and sometimes the church. When this man was finally released the ward was broken but at least the bishop got to go out in a blaze of honor and glory.
These are obviously examples from my own life but I have heard countless stories from women that have also experienced this pattern. They range from small stories about a stake president not wanting to train his high councilors to stop addressing only men in their talks to women who are threatened with church discipline if they expose the bad behavior of a man in their life. The common theme is always fear of embarrassing or hurting the feelings of the men involved. It is a pernicious pattern and contributes to a culture where women are silenced, undervalued and sometimes unsafe.
It is easy to dismiss these as a few cases by a couple of bad actors. And while it’s probably true that the more extreme stories are rare, they also don’t happen in a vacuum. We are living in a time when women are told in general conference, CES firesides and devotionals, Young Women’s lessons, church magazines that they are the guardian of men’s virtue. That if they let their shoulders feel the warm air they are in danger of becoming walking pornography. When you break this rhetoric down, the basis of it is we don’t want men to feel uncomfortable so we will insist that women inconvenience themselves and take the blame for the sins of men.
I was struck by many aspects of Michael Otterson’s open letter that was published on the blogs last week. But one part in particular provides a striking example of exactly the problem I am referring to:
We might wonder what the Savior’s reaction would have been had the many prominent women in his life taken such a course. If Mary Magdalene, or Mary, his mother, or Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, had demanded ordination to the Twelve, had spoken publicly about their insistence and made demands such as we hear today, how would Jesus have felt… (emphasis mine)
Otterson is drawing a direct comparison here between Jesus Christ and our general authorities today. The unasked question he wants us to consider is “how are the prophet and the apostles feeling now that these ‘strident’ women are asking uncomfortable questions and demanding action?” We are not supposed to be concerned about the pain that many of our sisters are feeling, this line is supposed to make us feel guilty that we might have offended the powerful men in charge of our church.
We prioritize the feelings of men over the actual lived experience of women.
The ironic thing is, we know how Jesus would have felt had the women in his life asked him questions or exposed him to their pain. This is the man who proclaimed his mission and divinity to the Samaritan woman at the well, who answered her questions and conversed with her despite her marginalized status and his disciples’ disapproval (John 4:30). This is the man who changed his mind and healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter, even after his disciples told her to go away, because she asked repeatedly and with great faith (Matthew 15:22-28). This is the man who praised Mary for ignoring the gender expectations of her day to converse with him instead (Luke 10: 38-42). This is the man who was met with anger but instead of rebuking them, wept with and for the pain of Mary and Martha at the loss of their brother Lazarus (John 11:20-35). This is the man who, while enduring the agony of the cross, saw his mother weeping and made sure to provide for her needs in the future (John 19: 25-27). This is the resurrected Christ who appeared first to a woman and asked why she was weeping (John 20:14-18).
We may not know why Jesus did not ordain women but we do know how he treated them and how he felt about them. If we are supposed to be like Christ, and Jesus himself cared about the feelings, questions and experiences of women, why don’t we? We are perpetuating a pattern of the fallen world that is not of God, that is not of our Savior. We must do better.