Benevolent Patriarchy: A Photo Essay Featuring My Pets
Benevolent sexism takes many forms within our church, and is one of the most annoying and yet difficult phenomena to explain to the men in my life. It’s basically a lighter, friendlier version of overt sexism (which says, “Women are dumb and too emotional. Men are much smarter, so they should be in charge of everything!”), which you very rarely hear in our wards and branches on Sunday. Benevolent sexism sounds much nicer (it says, “Women are so special, so spiritual, and so pure – they should be protected and presided over in love,”) and puts women up on a pedestal. The men are SAYING we are way better at everything than they are, so it honestly does sound kind of cool at first. Unfortunately though, it limits us in ways that makes many of us feel more like little children than equal partners.
My photo essay will focus on one aspect of benevolent sexism – the kind, but terribly overbearing, priesthood leader who can’t understand why we aren’t thrilled to have them helping us at every turn.
But briefly back to my pets! I adopted a kitten and puppy the same week last August, and they have grown up together since then. They were both about 7 months old when this was written, and while Macho (the puppy) had been going freely between our backyard and the house for months, Penny (the kitty) had just began her indoor/outdoor life. I waited until she was old enough to be spayed before letting her roam, and one day I took her into my backyard to play on her own for the first time. Macho, who was so excited that his friend was finally in the yard with him, followed her everywhere. His face was never more than a few inches from hers. He wanted to show her everything! Her annoyance with his constant interference grew and grew until she finally jumped onto a piece of furniture, turned around, and slapped him across the face. He looked very confused and hurt as to why she did that to him, but hey, I understood. She was sick of his benevolent patri-barky.
Photo #1. First, Penny wanted to go outside by herself. She’s a very capable kitty. In fact, her first couple months of life was as an actual outdoor cat before she was adopted by me. She has claws and a good sense of smell and can climb trees and catch mice for dinner. But Macho couldn’t handle her going outside alone, even though we were telling him to leave her alone for a minute.
Similarly, I have gone to Girl’s Camp as both a leader and a girl. Every time, there were experienced outdoorsy women who led the group, but also every time, the men required that a priesthood holder attend with us. It’s as if they believed we might not survive a couple nights at a campground without a man there to protect us – even if he knows nothing about camping and the female leaders have backpacked to the top of Mt. Everest.
This excessive protection also shows up when a priesthood leader is required to be in the building for activities that don’t involve him. Many female eyes have rolled at the 85 year old man sent to sit in the lobby and “protect” them while Relief Society activities filled with large groups of able bodied women holding cell phones were just down the hall.
Photo #2. Here Penny is trying to explore, but Macho can’t just let her do it on her own. When you’re trying to get work done, but a priesthood leader is hovering over your shoulder making suggestions, it’s super annoying.
My friend was the Relief Society president in her ward, and she used to sit down with her counselors and set up visiting teaching companionships. Unfortunately, the bishop would soon undo all of their work by reassigning a few select partnerships in a way that he thought made more sense, which sent them all back to the drawing board to reconfigure the puzzle again, differently. Finally my friend learned and just invited the bishop to just come to the meeting where they created the visiting teaching routes, because it was almost pointless to do it without him because he was just going to change it anyway. For her, this was the most frustrating thing in her calling but she was too timid to speak up to his authority, and the bishop was oblivious to how unwanted and unneeded his direction on the visiting teaching program was.
Photo #3. Years ago, when Facebook groups were a brand new thing, my ward Relief Society Presidency created one for us. For awhile (until a neighborhood group including all genders and religions was formed), it was the place for neighborhood women to chat, ask for plumber recommendations, share morning sickness tips, and even the occasional joke about boobs. It was a female-centric group of female friends, connected by all belonging to the same ward Relief Society group. It was never a church sponsored group.
Years passed, and activity in that group slowed down to mostly just announcements about Women’s Conference and what lesson we were covering on Sunday. But one day, a newly reactivated sister in the ward asked a question about the Word of Wisdom, and a conversation ensued. I wrote a lengthy response with some lesser known aspects of Word of Wisdom history and my own opinion on the topic. That night at 10 pm, I got a text from my bishop. He said, “Hey, I really liked your comment on Suzy’s (not her real name) Facebook post tonight. Thanks for sharing that!” My initial reaction was, “Cool, the bishop liked my comment.” But immediately after I thought, “Wait – what is he doing in that group?! That’s the Relief Society group!!” I went to the Facebook group and searched the membership list. Sure enough, it was all women, except three men – the bishopric had been added at some point, too. And not only were they there, they were the admins of the group! Someone put THEM in charge of OUR female group? Does the Elder’s Quorum have a group that the Relief Society president babysits silently and texts the men private congratulations on how well they are doing in it? I don’t think so. This spooky Big Brother vibe you get at Relief Society events is weird and annoying, no matter how nice the bishop that is silently spying on you might be. Knock it off, dudes. (Also Macho, stop silently stalking Penny because she does know you’re there – even if I didn’t realize my bishop was watching me.)
Photo #4. As a newlywed at BYU I heard this teaching in a Relief Society lesson: “Let your husband be the leader in your family, and he’ll do everything he can to make you happy. In fact, in a so-called “equal relationship”, women get their way exactly half of the time. In a Latter-day Saint (except we said “Mormon” back then) marriage, a wife will get what she wants much, much more often, because he’s trying so hard to please you.”
Honestly, the idea that my husband (played by Macho the contorted dog in this photo) will be bending over backwards trying to figure out what I want and make me happy rather than just, I don’t know, talking to me like his equal and making a co-decision with me, is dumb. Let’s just be adult partners. I want to get my way through logical discussion of ideas, not master manipulation of my partner.
Photo #5. Penny is trying to climb a tree for fun here, but Macho won’t get out of her way. He’s licking her foot, I assume in what is supposed to be an act of friendship. But actually, Macho – it’s annoying getting licked, especially when you’re in the middle of something. You are just in the way, dude. When she turned to jump down, she had nowhere to jump either, because he was blocking her landing zone, and she had to splat right onto his back and tumble to the ground.
Related, I recently read the experience of a frustrated counselor in her ward Relief Society presidency. They were planning an evening presentation with female guest speaker (presumably not LDS) who did advocacy work for domestic violence survivors and education on different types of abuse. They were hashing out the details when the president said, “…of course, only after we get the bishop’s approval.”
It’s odd because the woman presenting to them would probably have been more than a little concerned that these grown women would have to ask a man for his approval before making a move in their own organization FOR women, but no one other than her could see the irony in what they were saying. It’s really hard to run a women’s organization well when smack in the middle of your landing space is the need to run everything past a man WHO DOES NOT EVEN BELONG TO YOUR ORGANIZATION for his permission.
Photo #6. I have overheard, many, many times: “Women don’t need the Priesthood. Can you imagine calling a young mom with babies to handle the entire ward? They have enough on their plate as it is. Thanks heavens only men can be called to a bishopric, right?!” (This is just plain dumb when it’s said to a wise, thoughtful, and experienced empty nester who doesn’t have a job to go to because she spent her life as a stay at home mom…while a young man running his own business with 5 kids and infant twins is called as the bishop instead.)
This picture is where Penny just punched Macho in the face, because the idea that any woman is always busier than any man, no matter what phase of life they are in, is a dumb reason for only letting men be bishops and she wants to slap some sense into him.
Photo #7. In even the most simple of tasks, priesthood leaders can interfere and take over tasks that women could easily do on their own. For example, when a new teacher is called in Relief Society, the bishop will usually step into the women’s meeting on Sunday to announce the calling and then exit again. Is it too much to ask that the Relief Society president herself, the one who is LITERALLY THE PRESIDENT OF THIS ROOM OF LADIES, announce to them who has been called as their new teacher?
Similarly in these photos, Macho is following Penny around and checking on her every move. She can walk on her own, thank you very much. Please leave her alone to do this most simple and basic of tasks. Your meddling is tripping her and making things harder.
Photo #8. You can actually see my cat saying swear words in her head as Macho bumps his big wet nose into her again yet again, because he’s hovering so close.
Likewise, my friend was called as the music leader in her ward, and part of her job was to pick the hymns for church on Sunday. At first she put a lot of thought and effort into her calling, researching what the talks were going to be about, and choosing hymns that fit with the theme. Problematically, about a quarter of the time her bishop would swap out the hymns she had picked for one of his own choosing instead. Sometimes it was because he didn’t know the hymn and didn’t think the congregation would either (which is funny, because as a music lover she was specifically TRYING to introduce the ward to beautiful new hymns they might not have heard yet), and other times he gave no reason at all. He just said he felt prompted to change it. She stopped trying to care. He was hovering so closely over every aspect of her calling that there was no point in trying to do it her own way, because anytime there was a difference of opinion on what to do it was automatically going to go the way he picked anyway. And all she could do was stand there and swear in her head as he hovered incessantly over her calling.
Photo #9. See how Macho sticks his nose EVERYWHERE, whether it’s invited (it’s never invited) or not? My friend was called as a counselor in the Relief Society presidency. She was shocked, because in the past she and the newly called president had not gotten along very well. She hoped things would change since she had picked her as her counselor, but no, it was the same as ever. Their personalities still clashed, and they had a hard time getting anything done together. Finally in exasperation she asked, “Why did you even ask me to be your counselor?” The president said, “I didn’t. I actually submitted two other names before you, but the bishop kept telling me to go back and pray more. Finally he told me to call you, so I did.”
My friend was terribly frustrated to hear this. She had accepted the calling because she thought the other woman was making a peace offering and actually wanted her input and contrary viewpoint. No, not at all! Neither of them got along, and they both knew it, but that bishop put his nose into their business and tried to make them friends. He figured he knew better than the woman he was calling whom SHE would want to work with for three years in HER organization that SHE was supposed to be in charge of. My friend resigned from the presidency not long after that.
Photo #10. This is my final photo (although we could go on all day). There is some scent on the air. I don’t know what it was, because I didn’t smell anything, but both of them perked up and sniffed the air with great interest at the exact same time. Macho’s next move might be to turn around and tell Penny all about it (if they spoke English), but it’s important to remember that she also has a nose and a brain, and she doesn’t necessarily need his interpretation of what is happening.
Despite this, time after time after time after time, I have attended a meeting (a training meeting, a conference, a sacrament meeting talk) where a woman shares something profound and beautiful. But instead of just closing the meeting and ending on her words, the presiding priesthood holder stands up and explains again, in his words, what she already told us. We know stuff! We don’t need to be told again in a man’s voice. Our own personal sense of smell is just fine.
These don’t even begin to cover the limitless aspects of benevolent patriarchy, but to the men in my life – can you see how your supposed protection and care for us can be stifling? For example, have you ever stepped out of the shower and had a dog (who loves you very much) poke his cold wet nose between your bum cheeks to say good morning? Sure, his intentions are noble. Smelling bums is how he makes friends and says hello, but it is nonetheless very uncomfortable for you.
The next time you are tempted to help one of the women you preside over at church, think hard – was your presence actually requested, or are you just a wet dog nose in her bum crack? Don’t be a wet nose. Go back inside and mind your own business while she lives her own life, free and happy, in the great outdoors. When she wants to cuddle with you, she’ll come back inside and you guys can do this (because honestly men, we do love YOU – we just can’t handle your benevolent patriarchy):