Why do we ask?

Sisters, new and old, at the Exponent II Retreat

“Sisters, why do we ask? Why do we ask if we are worthy? Why do we ask if we are expendable? Why do we seek approval? Why do we ask for protection? It has not come. It may never come. I wish it were otherwise. I believe we deserve better. I believe God wants better for us. But the asking orients our movement in particular ways that our own history shows to be of dubious benefit to women’s leadership and autonomy. Let us remember the profound lesson of Linda King Newell’s essay “A Gift Given, A Gift Taken Away”: it was when Mormon women started asking, seeking approval from Church hierarchy to give blessings of healing and before childbirth, that’s when the power was lost. We will not find equality by waiting for approval from headquarters. We must find our leadership within ourselves, in our relationship to God, and in taking responsibility for meeting the needs of our people.

I think of Lowell Bennion’s favorite saying, from the Bhagavad Gita, “To action alone thou has a right, not to its fruits.” The fruits of our feminist labors must not be measured in terms of our ability to move a few powerful men in the Church Office Building, or gather information about them, or work our privileged connections to them, or make them in anyway the object of our focus. They have their work to do; let us do ours. Let us turn instead to our sisters, our mothers, our daughters—worldwide, of every color. What are the issues that connect Mormon women across class and continent? Where are we vulnerable? Where are lives precarious? What are our needs? There is leadership to be claimed in naming and organizing around those needs and identifying and criticizing the exclusionary power structures that have created them. That independence of vision, that resilience in the face of what will surely be continuing cycles of retrenchment, that must be our charge for the next forty years. That is prophetic leadership. With or without approval. With or without ordination.”

Joanna Brooks, Exponent II Retreat, 2014

Why do we ask?  We do it all the time. We ask to hold our babies during their blessings.  We ask to teach a lesson about Christ (instead of the Book of Mormon witnesses) on Easter Sunday. We ask to meet with the Bishop, and then we ask again to implement changes on the ward level to make women more visible.  We ask for food orders.  We ask for funds.  We ask for power, and we ask for authority.

There have been times when we haven’t asked – we’ve just doneWomen have made changes in this church simply by their actions.  In 1894, George Q. Cannon (then 1st counselor in the First Presidency) warned that women who practice “the devilish arts” of birth control “will be cursed in their bodies, cursed in their minds, cursed in their property, cursed in their offspring.  God will wipe them out from the midst of this people and this nation.”[1]  The prophet Joseph F. Smith reaffirmed this in 1908, saying birth control “destroys the morals of the community and the nation”[2], and apostle John A. Widtsoe cautioned that using birth control “roots in a species of selfishness,” even arguing that women who use it would become more masculine in thought and action.[3]  In a response to the release of the birth control pill, the First Presidency issued a statement to Bishops and Stake Presidents in April 1969 which contained phrases such as “it is contrary to the teachings of the Church artificially to curtail the birth of children” and “those who practice birth control will reap disappointment by and by.”  Ezra Taft Benson, then an apostle, warned that same month in General Conference that “The world teaches birth control. Tragically, many of our sisters subscribe to its pills and practices when they could easily provide earthly tabernacles for more of Father’s children. There are couples who think they are getting along just fine with their limited families but who will someday suffer the pains of remorse when they meet the spirits that might have been part of their posterity.”[4]  Even as recently as 1993, Elder Dallin H. Oaks quoted President Spencer W. Kimball in General Conference, saying, “It is an act of extreme selfishness for a married couple to refuse to have children when they are able to do so.  How many children should a couple have?  All they can care for!  Exercising faith in God’s promises to bless them when they are keeping his commandments, many LDS parents have large families.”[5]  It wasn’t until the church handbook of instructions was revised in 1998 that “the decision as to how many children to have and when to have them is extremely intimate and private and should be left between the couple and the Lord” and that “church members should not judge one another in this matter.”

And yet, in a study conducted in Fall 1976, 83% of LDS households surveyed reported using birth control, despite the heavy pronouncements against it from church authorities.  And interestingly enough, this appears to be virtually unchanged in 2004, when the BYU Health Center reported that at least 80% of the women who come in for pre-marital exams request some form of contraception.

To me, this is a powerful example of women simply claiming their rights and doing.  Church leaders weren’t given influence over the very personal decisions of family planning and bodily autonomy – we simply refused to cede power over what was rightfully ours, and acted accordingly.  Over time, church leaders either recognized the error of previous pronouncements or recognized their inability to control these decisions on a church-wide basis, and put the responsibility squarely back on the shoulders of individuals.  I sometimes worry that, like the views on birth control, it will take many decades for the church to make substantive changes when it comes to women’s roles in the institutional church.  Many women are already voting with their feet.  How can we vote with our hands?

Why do we ask?  How can we heed Joanna Brooks’ words and “turn instead to our sisters, our mothers, our daughters” going forward?  What things can we claim (and reclaim) as being rightfully ours?  How do we look to each other, identify our needs and our vulnerabilities, and do our work?   How can we heed the words in D&C 58:27-28, that “[wo]men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves”?

And what things must we continue to ask?  If we believe in priesthood authority coming from God, how do we claim it, both formally and informally?  If we want to equalize the current binary of men being the “listeners” and women being “listened to,” then how do we do that?

***

[1] George Q. Cannon, Deseret Weekly, 1 Oct. 1894, 49: 739; reprinted in Gospel Truth, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1987), 379.

[2] Joseph F. Smith, Improvement Era 11 (October 1908): 959-61.

[3] John A. Widstoe, “Should Birth Control be Practiced?” Improvement Era (December 1942).

[4] Ezra Taft Benson, Conference Report (April 1969).

[5] Dallin H. Oaks, “The Great Plan of Happiness,” Ensign (November 1993): 75.

Liz

Liz is a reader, writer, wife, mother, gardener, social worker, story collector, cookie-maker, and hug-giver.

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42 Responses

  1. Amanda in France says:

    Can I get all of Joanna’s remarks somewhere? What she said is so beautiful.

    Thank you for this. I teach the Teachings for our Times lesson in Relief Society and wanted to change one of the lesson subjects, since we had covered it well already, and wanted to teach another one that would have been great for our sisters. The RS presidency was on board, but wanted to ask the Bishop. You can probably guess what he said.

    We shouldn’t have to ask how best to meet the needs of our own sisters!

  2. Alisa says:

    There is so much we can do that doesn’t require asking. For example, moving ahead and blessing our children, husbands, friends as the spirit moves us. If we can bless the food publicly and without shame, surely we can bless each other. There is so much of our own power to claim. In this I agree with you Rachel, and Joanna. We must just go out and do without waiting for permission.

    Not absolutely everything can be done under our own power. For ordinances that are authorized by the church, for official witnesses for baptisms and marriages, and for the authority to perform these and have them recognized, there must be organizational changes, and that means working within the hierarchy. I cannot just show up at the clerk’s office and begin counting tithing funds. So we must ask.

    We have to both seize all the power given to us and work within the structures to gain access for those institutional things that are denied us. There is so much we could be doing that do not require ordination. But there is also things we cannot do without ordination. There is both priesthood power to which we have greater access and priesthood authority in church capacities, to which our authority as women is much more limited.

    So we should move forward on the right hand and on the left–utilizing fully the power that is already ours, waking ourselves up to what we can do, blessing the lives of those around us and not waiting to be asked or granted permission. But we also need to keep asking for institutional recognition and authority if we are to be not only equal in power, but equal in official church capacities too.

    • Ziff says:

      I really like your take, Alisa. I love the birth control example, but it seems like it doesn’t generalize to all the Church practices we would like to see changed. But I really like your idea of moving forward where we can and continuing to ask where we can’t move forward on our own.

      Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Liz!

      • Liz says:

        I agree that the birth control example isn’t a perfect analogy, because taking birth control is a pretty private thing that’s hard to police (“rebellion” at a low social cost). But I agree with both you and Alisa – there are other things we can do to claim power and serve each other, both privately and publicly, that do not (or should not) require us asking permission. I kind of think we’ve become such a highly correlated, authority-driven people that we’re pretty hesitant to act without permission. I wish that could change, which is why I loved Joanna’s call to action so much.

        I love the example of blessing our families – what other things can we do?? What other needs do we have as women that we can address??

        Another thing I thought of (that didn’t fit well into the post) was organizing food drives, social activities, and other service work without asking permission from the church structure. A friend of mine organized a ward Meals on Wheels route – she signed the group up for a certain route and then passed around a sign-up sheet for women to go together for the weekly deliveries (and a lot of women ended up using that time to visit teach each other, so it filled a few different needs). I’ve heard of women organizing Christmas live nativities (Claudia Bushman did this in her ward in NYC without asking – just setting it all up), and of women getting groups together to work with Habitat for Humanity. What other ways can we organize and meet each other’s needs (and the needs of women in our community) outside the power/authority of church leadership?

      • Alisa says:

        Hi Liz! Sorry I thought this post was by Rachel. It was very early in the morning. 🙂 Great post btw!

    • hkobeal says:

      Everything Alisa said.

      I love the idea of just DOING, without asking. I also hate the idea of asking. It feels like grovelling to me. And reinforcing the notion that our male church do indeed have all the power.

      However, I also acknowledge that we do not live in the land of unicorns and rainbows. It is fact that men in the Mormon church currently hold all the institutional power. They hold all the literal and metaphorical keys.

      So if I were to, say, baptize my own kid in the lake out back (doing, without asking!), that will not get me more power within the institution; that will get me thrown out on my ass. If that’s what we’re doing, then let’s do it. THAT’S radical. I’m ready.

      But many Mormon women aren’t ready to get thrown out onto their/our asses, so telling them to stop asking and just start doing feels a bit victim-blame-y to me, like: Hey,what’s your problem? Just jump in the font and start baptizing. What’s stopping you??

      . . .

  3. tm says:

    I also see an example in women working outside the home. We are still told not to do it but I’d venture most of us do. I hope they eventually catch on that we don’t want their advice on this.

    • Liz says:

      YES. That’s another one I’d love to see die – a working dad and stay-at-home mom simply doesn’t work for 90% (or more) of families in our church, so why do we keep holding it up as the ideal? Thanks for your comment, TM!

    • Ziff says:

      That’s a great one! It seems like our rhetoric has moved more in the direction of the reality of what people are doing on birth control than it has on women working for pay, though. Although I haven’t studied it systematically. 🙂

  4. I love Baby Cora’s act of defiance (note her little hand).

  5. Emily U says:

    ” What things can we claim (and reclaim) as being rightfully ours?”

    It’s important to grapple with this question. Hearing Joanna’s talk made me recognize I’ve been so focused on the things we have to ask for, that I’m forgetting about the things that we don’t have to ask for. These things are mostly in the private sphere (family blessings, personal and family prayer, practices around work and shared leadership in the home). But some are public (though local).

  6. Twila Warner says:

    I stopped asking right around the time I turned 37. I’m now 42. At home it’s no problem. I feel God’s approval when I am actively seeking Christ’s spirit in my own particular way. However, in the context of institutional service it gets trickier. In my last ward all my contributions, public comments, etc. were limited and/or corrected by the then bishop and his policing wife, which was really exhausting. In our new ward I was careful to serve first and talk less. I do feel valued and serve in my callings each week, but at the price of extensive self-editing and carefulness with my communication. I choose to approach things this way not because I desire to feel approved of, but because my ideas, beliefs, etc. often make people in my congregations feel very unsafe and when I express them honestly and create defensiveness. Church, in my experience, is a place where most come only to reinforce the rightness of institutional rules rather than seek for greater spirit or connection. So, while I agree that we have to stop asking permission and trust in our personal relationship with God, sometimes that means a person feels compelled to leave an institution that is so inwardly focused to seek a less constricted version of connection and truth.

  7. EFH says:

    Great Call to Action from J. Brooks and great post. These have been my thoughts for a while, especially since the OW movement started. I think it is crucial to live our lives as equal to our brothers at home and in the church, to take ownership of our choices and to follow the Spirit in how we choose to bless our sisters. Once we have owned that part of our power, we can grow further.

  8. neva trejo says:

    reading the blog & ensuing comments, i cant help but think about an event not usually given much attention in lds circles, namely the beginnings of the lutheran reformation. stripped of denominational rhetoric, it is the story of someone on the inside of a tradition bound institutional authority finally losing hope of change from the inside, starts effecting change by living his convictions,all the while not intending to found a competing schism. intent aside, change indeed came by a movement of similarly convicted people living out their beliefs; in this case,they were kicked out by the aurhorities,which was never their motive,they never wanted to throw the baby out with the bathwater. just made me think…

    • Em says:

      It’s interesting that you would bring up the Reformation. Whenever I do hear it brought up in church, it is usually as part of the argument that God orchestrated the Reformation in order to pave the way for the Restoration of the Gospel. This may be perfectly true, but since we can’t really consult God authoritatively on this, I find it a bit problematic as a historical explanation. Nonetheless, if it is the church’s position that the Reformation was God’s work to prepare the world to accept greater light and truth, then the parallel you’re drawing is quite powerful.

    • Jenny says:

      I like the composition because Luther was in a sense trying to do what Joanna Brooks is saying here. He wanted to bring the religion to a level where the people had the power. From what I understand, be didn’t ask if he could translate the bible to German, he just did it, therefore giving power to the average person.

    • Liz says:

      Agreed – this is a powerful parallel. Thank you for bringing it up, Neva Trejo!

  9. Andrea says:

    Major paradigm shift. Refreshing and empowering.

  10. Carolyn Nielsen says:

    Why should we ask when we know we are being guided by the sprit? Why do we think we must ask after we have been counseled to study things out in our minds? Why should we ask when we are the ones best able to know what is right for our specific circumstances? Do we trust the answers that come?

    We need to trust ourselves and trust the inspiration we receive. When it is Easter Sunday and the scheduled lesson is on witnesses to the Book of Mormon, do we trust ourselves enough to teach of Jesus Christ when directed by the spirit? When the scheduled lesson is on showing love to all of our Heavenly Parent’s children do we pat ourselves on the back for being kind to those who appear every Sunday or consider why many feel excluded or unwanted?

    Experience shows me that I can proceed without fear when I am guided by the spirit. I taught of the love of Jesus Christ on Easter and this week dressed like a punk to illustrate my lesson that all are welcomed by Christ. I did not ask. After all, are we not the Church of Jesus Christ where all may seek refuge and find welcome? I heard no complaints, only gratitude.

    Have the daring to find what is right when the proscribed path seems dubious. Have courage to do what you know is right and the perseverance to carry on.

  11. The example you provided, birth control, is a very good one in which many women of the church simply ignored the counsel of the brethren until the brethren finally gave up. I can think of some other similar examples, such as women choosing not to heed counsel about paid work, or choosing to hold baby blessings at home, where the mother can participate (and foregoing the certificate, knowing that if you accept the certificate, bishop gets to supervise and tell you to get out of the circle, even at home).

    Unfortunately, I think claiming your own power/not asking is only feasible in a minority of church-related situations. Without asking, can I claim my power to bless the sacrament? To baptize? To distribute tithing funds as I see fit, or for that matter, even count it? To have my temple recommend signed by a woman instead of a man? To listen to more than two female speakers at a two-day General Conference?

    When it comes to issues like these, the only options are to accept the status quo, leave the LDS Church, or ask for change. So I ask.

    Even within the most private of decisions–say, what underwear I wear hidden under my nightgown while I am asleep in my own bed alone at night–the church has a system requiring me to report my compliance every other year or suffer severe sanctions such as exclusion from family weddings. I could claim my power and choose my own underwear–but then I would also have to suffer the consequence.

    To me, the option of breaking rules made by men and accepting consequences imposed by men is not enough power to make it worth claiming. I want women to have the power to make the rules and decide the consequences. I cannot get that by “not asking.” My options are asking for change in the church or leaving.

    • EFH says:

      There are social consequences to every action whether on the state level, religion level or family level. You name it. I personally think that if enough women choose to wear their underwear for example, then the church might start thinking why so many members are particularly disobeying this principle…That can bring change in the long run.

      Yes, the people disobeying would suffer some consequences but that is the price for fighting for a cause. If you want a fight, you will get a fight.

  12. Em says:

    I see April’s point on this. The first example that sprang to my mind has been my hope to get our mother’s lounge refurbished. As with many church projects, the problems are both in permission and funding. I simply do not have enough money to just pay for new chairs or art. If I did, I think I could make the changes by stealth and no man would ever know or care. Option 2 would be to have a fundraiser or ask for donations — we do have many wealthy people in our ward. But doing so would require obtaining permission to make the changes, stealth would be impossible. The third option is the goodwill of the Bishop. I am grateful to live in a ward where he was happy to undertake the project, but the fact is when a project gets bigger than an individual choice the option you’re suggesting breaks down, unless you have sufficient numbers.

    I think the real issue is the number of women involved. If virtually all women just started giving their kids back to school blessings, that would probably suddenly become church policy and hailed as a great grassroots idea, like Family Home Evening or other similar programs. If only a handful do, they run the risk of facing unacceptable penalties that make it not worth the risk for many. The examples of work and birth control are actually somewhat exceptional in my opinion — the benefits are huge, the costs of doing what the brethren want often completely unacceptable. It wasn’t an organized movement, it was millions of individual women weighing costs and benefits and making the only practical and right choice for themselves and their families.

    I just want to add that as someone who is currently pregnant, I was pretty miffed at reading about how women “could easily provide tabernacles for God’s children.” EASILY?! Even if you are fortunate enough to get pregnant without much difficulty, there is nothing easy about bringing a child to this earth, nor of course does the journey stop there. Barring health issues in some cases, if we want to talk about the easy role in childbearing, it is definitely providing the sperm. It is not at all easy to use your body to create another body, and it isn’t easy for either parent to raise that child. I could easily make treats for the fireside. I could not easily make a large number of well-adjusted, healthy, educated, productive, kind (etc. etc.) humans.

    • Liz says:

      I think both you and April make excellent points – I keep trying to brainstorm ways to make reclaim power and make the changes I would want to see, and really, I can’t claim the power in an institution that systemically doesn’t allow for me to have any. So while there are ample opportunities to seize/reclaim power outside of the church, I think that our options within the church are pretty limited.

      I would love to see women starting to bless their babies, or each other (like they did prior to childbirth) in large numbers, and have it come back as a ritualized, acceptable practice. But really, giving blessings is the only thing I can think of where this works. Part of my motivation in writing the post was to get people thinking and brainstorming of other things we can do and/or claim, because frankly, I’m mostly stumped.

      • hkobeal says:

        Yeah–for me, reclaiming our power is the short path to excommunication or getting disfellowshipped.

        And some people just aren’t okay with that.

  13. Jenzi says:

    Don’t ask for permission for activity day girls or YW to participate in scout like activities. Just take your own daughters and their friends on weekend canoe trips, afternoon rock climbing etc. As long as it is not an official church activity you don’t need the bishop’s blessing to have fun. I think it is empowering once the girls realize that if they want to do an activity all they need to do is plan it.

    • Liz says:

      YES. I have made it a personal goal that, if I ever get to work with the Activity Days girls, we’re going to meet weekly instead of bi-weekly (as the handbook states), even if I have to do it unofficially every other week, and there will be all sorts of awesome activities that the girls would probably enjoy.

      • Julia says:

        There was a comment on a Facebook group of a woman who did just that and got called into the Bishop’s office and corrected, because one of the parents had complained.

        I think that evidences the tension of just acting instead of asking. We are such a rule following and “reporting” people that any actions done without official approval is often then brought in for sanctioning.

  14. Melody says:

    This is the question of our day, isn’t it? Thank you for articulating this so well, Liz. And, as for Joanna’s quote, I tend to think in terms of the next hundred years. 40 years is a short time. Many of the changes we seek will come long after we are gone, which might seem depressing for some. But, for me, I feel happy to lay a Mormon Feminist foundation upon which my grandchildren (daughters and sons) can build.

    I’m thinking now about our individual ministries. Many women feel a call to do more. Many women answer. Some answer publicly, some privately, but the source of the call is from heaven, from God, not from man. We acknowledge and honor our inherent power any time we take action, either within and without the Church, to improve the lives of women. I’m here for the duration, in the Church. But the good I do and power I have to exercise in the world isn’t limited to my service within the the Church. For instance, I’ve started a semi-annual local women’s writing retreat. The results have been remarkable.

    Interestingly, I feel that following these inner callings, where ever they take us, will ultimately benefit the Church as well, because we bring our experience and the insights and confidence we’ve gained from our successful “outer ministries” to our personal ministries within Mormondom. Does that make sense? I hope so.

    This is a very thought provoking post. I’m going to spend a little more time thinking about it. I LOVE every one of the comments too. Thanks again!

    • Melody says:

      I know this doesn’t fully answer the question about what we can do within the church, but I feel that if we start where ever we feel empowered, it will eventually spill over to activities, protocols and policies within the church. And I am deeply grateful for people like April, above, who are asking right now for what they want within the church.

      • Liz says:

        I love the idea of finding our ministry, both within and without the bounds of the church. I also am deeply grateful for April and others who are standing up and asking.

  15. Jenny says:

    Great post Liz! I will be contemplating this for a long time too. One thing I have been thinking about lately is that I spend too much time fighting other women. That’s what patriarchy does, it divides us. That came to the forefront of my mind when Joanna said to forget about trying to move a few men and turn instead to our sisters. That is a power we can claim, the power to unite as sisters. We can find common ground, even with those who don’t agree with us, and build on that. This is something that can easily be done outside of the institutional church. I am finding opportunities to do this in a couple book groups I’m in in which I can choose feminist books to read and discuss with women in a loving, bonding atmosphere. I liked what Melody said above, that she organizes writers retreats. What a great way to bond with other women who won’t all have the same views! love the idea of creating bonds between women because I think it will be the bonds that eventually break through some of these institutional barriers we face. If more women are bonded to us, we will be stronger. Loving and bonding with other women is definitely something we can do without asking permission.

    • Liz says:

      YES. I also love the idea of turning to our sisters. Sometimes I feel like the conversation is like crabs in a bucket – tearing each other down instead of working together. Building those bonds wherever we can is so huge.

  16. Anarene Holt Yim says:

    Thanks so much for this post, Liz, and for sharing Joanna’s thoughts. This is something I’ve been trying to figure out for a while also. I think it’s super important for us to claim the power we already have in addition to asking for institutional authority. I completely agree that asking for permission is usually not helpful and just makes us feel weaker than we need to be.

    One thing I think we can all do–the kerfuffle over the newest Mormon channel video reminded me of this–is to set our own boundaries. The church will not set them for us. The church continually asks us to do more–attend more meetings, go to the temple more, do more missionary work, accept more callings, and make more casseroles. But we can ask ourselves, “Does this activity or meeting really add to my life or my family’s life? Is it more important than what I would do instead?” At times it really is important, but a lot of stuff related to church feels like busy work. If we all would just refuse to do the busy work like we refused the counsel on birth control, that would be a small step forward. We take back some power if we say, “I can pray and think on my own, and I will be the one to decide what is best for myself and my family.”

    As one example, my life improved when I let my sons quit working on Boy Scout stuff. I had been making them miserable by nagging and pushing, not because I liked the Scouting program, but because I was trying to do what the church told me to do. My husband (who didn’t grow up in the church and has no problem setting boundaries) told me, “No one told YOU to earn an Eagle Scout for your sons.” He was right. I hated Scouts, my boys hated it, so we quit, and were happier for it. Just because the church told us to do it didn’t make it right for us.

  1. September 22, 2014

    […] I think of Lowell Bennion’s favorite saying, from the Bhagavad Gita, “To action alone thou has a right, not to its fruits.” The fruits of our feminist labors must not be measured in …read more […]

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