A True Story

photo (18)

It was early in the morning on a Saturday.

I sat in the baptistry of the Los Angeles Temple, waiting for sisters from my ward to finish. Four young single adults walked in and sat together in a nearby row: boy, girl, boy, girl. They were also waiting for my group, not to end their time at the temple as was my case, but to begin.

An older gentleman, dressed in white, slowly walked over until he stood in front of them, and asked in a voice loud enough for me to hear, “Which one of you wants to baptize, and which one of you wants to serve as witness?” The young woman furthest away from me was the first to answer. Clearly and confidently, she said, “I want to baptize.” The previously calm temple worker threw up his hands and shook his head emphatically as he cried, “No! No! No! I wasn’t talking to you!”

Maybe I wondered if he saw her sitting there, before she spoke, or only her male companions. Maybe I wanted to hug her, or at least give her a high five.

Maybe I had woken up before the sun’s rays, specifically to do baptisms with my ward sisters (rather than the initatories and endowments I had been doing for eight years), simply because I longed to be in the House of God and hear words of an ordinance that were the same for all persons–male and female.

Maybe the girl’s reply to a question she had not been asked broke my heart a little bit, because it reminded me that even then, even there, all were not yet alike unto God.


Rachel is a PhD student in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University. She co-edited _Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings_ with Joanna Brooks and Hannah Wheelwright. She is also a lover of all things books and bikes.

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36 Responses

  1. April says:

    I want to baptize, too.

  2. Alisa says:

    What stood out to me is this illustration that women are spoken at, but not really spoken to. The temple worker didn’t pull the men aside, nor address the men specifically. He addressed the group, and figured that it would come across he was only speaking to the men for obvious reasons.

    I think of how many times as a woman I’ve sat in a congregation or group being addressed, and had to filter myself in and out of the conversation because it was addressed to males by default, with no regard for the presence of me or any other females.

    • HokieKate says:

      Excellent point, Alisa.

    • Rachel says:

      That was the first thing that stood out to me too. It would have been so easy for the temple worker to start, “Brethren…” or “Young men…” or anything designating his interlocutors. But he didn’t. He said it as a blanket statement to four individuals, with the expectation that only two would know that they were the ones he was truly speaking to.

      My guess is that it was not done out of unkindness, but out of a lack of awareness or attention. It makes me wish that there was a good way, where we could say to everyone in the Church (but particularly male leaders), “Look, when you ignore me and I am sitting right there, it hurts. Or, at the least it makes me tired. Please see me. Please speak to me and with me.”

    • Emily U says:

      Right. This is why inclusive language is so important. Whether they’re really thinking about it or not in any given moment, women need to constantly employ a filter when the language they’re hearing is so androcentric (i.e. this masculine noun means everyone, but this masculine noun means men, etc.). We get very used to it, and we’re very good at it, but that kind of language still puts women at a step removed.

      Last Christmas I was at a caroling party where I suggested we replace the word “men” with “friends” in the carol “Good Christian Men Rejoice.” (This is commonly done in mainline Protestant hymnals). The man sitting beside my husband turned to him and made a snide remark about my suggestion. Clearly he’d never had to consider what it’s like to constantly remind oneself that exclusionary language isn’t meant to exclude him.

      • April says:

        But you notice in this case, the proper way to acknowledge the existence of the women in the room is to verbally tell them you will exclude them, “which of you brothers wants to baptize?” Now, the temple worker sounds sexist, because s/he is going out of his/her way to say that only the men are invited to participate.

        Of course, the temple worker probably isn’t sexist, s/he is just implementing a sexist policy. Part of the reason sexism works so well in our church is because we ladies cooperate so well with it. Temple workers don’t have to sound rude by openly saying that they will only invite men to baptize, because we women know we’re not invited and cooperate by not volunteering ourselves.

        I am not advocating open rebellion ( in this instance) but i just wanted to acknowledge that wording changes don’t necessarily make sexism better. My point is that there aren’t really great, tactful ways to administer sexist policies.

    • Ziff says:

      I agree with the above! Great point, Alisa. Along similar lines, I wrote a post once about how this problem is pervasive in our scriptures. Are women being addressed along with men, or not? The fact that men are usually addressed directly probably makes them more difficult for women to read and identify with.

      • Nancy Ross says:

        I also wrote about this problem of language in the scriptures http://nickelonthenacle.blogspot.com/2013/03/2-nephi-9-arguing-sewomantics.html

        I feel like a close reading of the scriptures generally shows that the male authors are writing and speaking to male audiences. I know that we’ve been counselled to interpret the word “men” in the scriptures to mean “all of humanity”, which doesn’t feel true to the author’s intentions. And then there are the multitude of examples when we still interpret “men” to mean “men” because we hold so tightly to gender roles. Grrrr.

    • EmilyCC says:

      This reminds me of the D&C lesson on Emma Smith in Gospel Doctrine this year (the ONLY lesson that focuses on a woman) and how a significant component of the lesson was also on how we can liken the scriptures unto ourselves. It felt like the authors of the lesson were saying, “Men, even though this section is about Emma, you too can find value.”

      Don’t tell me gender-exclusive language isn’t a problem.

  3. liz johnson says:

    This story just hurts. It hurts to be invisible.

  4. Big L says:

    Ouch. Also, good for her for speaking up, but still ouch.

  5. spunky says:

    This is powerful, Rachel. I reminds me of the time, when I was new in a student ward. The introduce-yourself/inforation sheet had a blank space for “preferred calling.” I wrote in “Bishop.” I wasn’t called to anything, and the ward -whatever they were- (males)- just looked at me with disdain.

    Don’t ask the question if you don’t want the answer.

    • Ziff says:

      Nice! Go, Spunky!

      I was in a ward council meeting once where someone was reading out of the Handbook about the high council. The references were to “high councilors” rather than “high councilmen,” which they pointed out left the door open (in theory) for women to fill the positions. “Why not?” I said. I think everyone thought I was joking, but I was half serious. I let it drop, though, rather than start an argument.

    • EmilyCC says:

      This is why I love you, Spunky!

  6. Aly S says:

    On my wedding day, as we were waiting to enter the sealing room, one of the temple workers asked us who our witnesses were going to be. My immediate response was that my best friend would be one of them. It was a little awkward when he pointed out that she wasn’t eligible, not being a priesthood holder.

    • Rachel says:

      My younger brother and his wife were married in an LDS chapel, rather than an LDS temple, which permitted them to choose their mothers to be their witnesses. And so they did. 🙂

      I wanted my mom to be a witness at my own wedding/sealing, so understand somewhat they frustration/ disappointment you must have felt.

      • Michelle M says:

        Every time I see my wedding license, my heart breaks a bit more. Both the witnesses are male, I had no choice in selection. No one in my family was able to attend. I wish I knew how it would make me feel. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t so selfish… or braver. Making up for it now, though.

  7. Ziff says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Rachel. As others have already pointed out, I think this exposes so well the unthinking sexism of our rules and of the people who enforce them. The temple worker very likely wasn’t trying to be hurtful. But of course he wasn’t going to think the women would think he was addressing them. Of course they’re not allowed to baptize or witness. I wonder if the unthinkingness makes it harder to cut through and to change.

    • Rachel says:

      You are welcome, Ziff.

      That unthinkingness can be so pervasive, which made me extremely grateful to witness an example of a young woman at least Trying to cut through. Pointing things out is the start of making a difference and bringing change.

      It also reminds me of a saying I have heard once, about three types of people: the first can see, the second can see when they are shown, and the third cannot see even when they are shown. There are members in that last category, but I have faith that there are also many who are in the first two. That is my great hope.

  8. CatherineWO says:

    This story makes my heart hurt. It reminds me of why I no longer participate in LDS services of any kind. Yet, I still hurt for those who do.

  9. What struck me (aside from knowing how that young woman feels, having been in a similar situation), was the implicit assumption that both the men there were able to be either baptize or witness. Both require Priest or higher, while being a participant (for males) is Deacon or higher.

    Course, the response would have been different, as the worker wouldn’t have had exasperation at someone answering who “obviously” wasn’t included, but embarrasment at an adult male not yet having the Priesthood Office required.

    I think the best question would have been, “Which of you is able and willing to serve as the person baptizing or witnessing?”

    • S says:

      Small correction: In order to officiate or perform temple work for the dead, one has to be endowed. Therefore, all those who do the confirming, witnessing, baptizing and recording are male, MP holders, and are endowed. Had this been a baptism of a living person, then yes, a Priest in the AP could have baptized and/or served as witness.

  10. nat kelly says:

    Wow, this cuts so deep. I’m reminded of a time when a new young woman convert asked me while I was teaching seminary, “Who gets to have the priesthood?”

    I sorta flat-lined and just responded, “Men.”

    The thing that killed me most is she just said, “Okay.” Here she was, from a totally non-Mormon context, a very strong-willed, independent girl, and when she found out she was excluded from something so important and sacred just because of her gender, it didn’t even make her pause for a moment. (At least not in front of me. And I really wish I had had the gumption then to talk to her about it afterwards.)

    It’s stuff like this that just makes me feel like the world is so broken. Women and girls are so often excluded and other-ed and put down that we don’t even question it when it happens. It’s not even shocking or outrageous.

    When I think of that girl’s response, I really just feel despair for the whole world.

  11. Kate Kelly says:

    I love this little anecdote of rebellion. Instead of just sitting there & assuming she wasn’t included, she piped up. Me! Me! Me! We should all be saying!

    • Rachel says:

      I noted that the experience broke my heart a little bit, but I should have added that it was also quite remarkable to witness the girl’s integrity and courage, as she stood up for herself and her desire. I have thought a lot about “piping up,” and think it is nearly always the best way to go. While it was likely lost on this particular temple-worker, I don’t think that it will be lost on everyone. So much of the time it just takes pointing things out.

      I think of the time when I sat beside my husband in our last ward, and whispered to him that it was the first time in six months of attendance that a woman gave the closing prayer in Sacrament. His response was, “I never noticed,” to which I said, “I notice every time,” because I do. Now he brings it up to me, and we discuss how many women are sitting on the stand, how many are speaking, how many are praying, etc. A small step, but an important one to me.

      • This reminds me of the time I was able to have a friend sing while I accompanied her in my ward, and during the service, she said, “Women aren’t allowed on the stand?” I looked up and saw that there wasn’t a single woman on the stand, though there were several people besides the bishopric. What do you even say to that?

        I stumbled across the words, “No, that’s just a weird coincidence today . . . I don’t know why. They can be on the stand.”

    • lee says:

      I think this comment says it all.

  12. Allison Jensen says:

    This reminds me of the interview in which President Hinckley responded to the question of whether women will ever be allowed to hold the priesthood with “Yes, but there’s no agitation for it.” Perhaps one of the reasons women do not hold the priesthood is because we haven’t asked. “Ask and ye shall receive”, is it not? Good for her.

  13. Em says:

    This also makes me think of the first time my now husband and I went to the temple together. At the time we weren’t even dating, just friends who were both somewhat interested. We sat by each other in the chapel and the officiator asked if we’d like to be the witness couple. We said yes, but then he asked if we were a couple. I said no, we’re just friends. So then he said he’d go get someone else. It struck me how excluded single people must feel if this is a common practice. My now husband wasn’t a stranger to me, it would not have made me uncomfortable in any way. But because we weren’t romantically linked we couldn’t do this? I’m sure it isn’t an official policy, probably just a common practice.

    • Rachel says:

      That same attitude always makes me feel glad inside when a single woman or man walks to the front for the prayer.

    • I can easily imagine an unmarried couple being asked to be the witness couple, then the young man decided this must be a sign that they should get married. If we couldn’t think of a worse way to use “the spirit” to pressure someone into getting married before, this certainly is it.

      “What do you mean you won’t marry me? We were a couple in the Temple, so God ordained it to be!”

      Course, the part of the woman placing herself below her husband can’t help – “But you swore to obey me in the temple!”

      I understand it wouldn’t bother some people, but this could be -way- too easily misconstrued.

      • Michelle M says:

        It was an official policy that a witness couple must be married when I served as an ordinance worker. It had been recently put in place so there was some confusion amongst everyone, which is why I remember. That, and for half the time I served as an ordinance worker I was unmarried and trying to figure out where I fit it in the grand scheme of things. Now I’m happily married, but childless, and wondering the same thing every time someone gives me the good ole motherhood=priesthood analogy.

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