Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts: Culture or Policy?

Five years ago, during my first year as an Exponent blogger, I wrote a post titled Insignificant Events That Make a Mormon Feminist. Readers who talk to me about it tend to call it the “death by a thousand paper cuts” post.  I didn’t use that phrase in the post, but fellow blogger Mraynes did in a comment and apparently her phrasing was much more memorable than mine. I even had readers complain that they had searched for my post titled “Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts” in the archives and couldn’t find it!

A common critique I hear of that post goes something like this, “Most of these things happened because of culture, not policy.” Was culture to blame for these experiences? Did policy have no effect? Is it even possible to tease out culture from policy?  After all, policies are written in the context of culture. Often, policies reflect cultural values already in place. Sometimes, policies steer culture in new directions.

During my five years as an Exponent blogger, I have found a niche addressing gender inequity with a policy lens. I was one of the first people to post an Ordain Women profile and served in Ordain Women leadership in an attempt to raise awareness of what I see as the most important inequitable policy in the church. Last year, I wrote a detailed policy analysis of the Church Handbooks of Instructions and arranged for General Authorities to read it.

When I have reached out to other Mormon feminists for support in policy projects, some have refused, explaining that policy just isn’t their thing. They are more interested in addressing Mormon culture. Both culture and policy need to change before women will be fully and equitably included in our church. All of our approaches and voices are needed.

I am encouraged to notice that in the five years since I wrote about the negative experiences that brought about my feminist awakening, steps have been taken to change several policies related to these experiences. In most cases, the steps taken have been much too small to fully resolve the problems but they demonstrate that progress is being made and that hope is possible.

Here is the list of experiences I wrote about five years ago, with the addition of discussion about how culture and policy interacted to create these experiences, updates about progress made and links to other articles I have written about these policies over the years.

April Young Bennett childAge 7: A recently returned missionary spoke to my Primary, wearing a beautiful dress in the style of the country where she had served. It was a revelation for me.  Girls can go on missions?  Why hadn’t anyone told me this before?  I decided I would serve a mission, too.

Failure to encourage girls to embark on such a spectrum of experiences as are offered to boys is certainly rooted in a sexist culture that predates the LDS Church, but there is also a great deal of gendered policy around Mormon missionary work. At one point, Church President Gordon B. Hinckley bluntly explained that at least one of these gendered policies, requiring women to be at least 21 before they could go on missions while men could go at age 19, was intended to keep the number of female missionaries “relatively small.”

Why would church leaders want to limit the number of female missionaries, especially considering that a smaller missionary force reduces the Church’s capacity to meet the goals of the mission program? Some of the reasons are probably rooted in cultural beliefs that women are too dainty to withstand the rigors of missionary work or that women are most useful when they marry young and have lots of babies.  However, another reason was rooted in policy. Female missionaries were banned from leadership positions such as district leaders, zone leaders, assistants to the president and many office callings, plus special priesthood assignments such as branch presidents in areas without any available local leaders.  If there were an equal number of male and female missionaries, half of the missionaries would be disqualified from leadership because of their sex and nearly every male senior companion would need to hold a leadership position, including many young men who would be woefully incompetent to supervise other people.

Since the time I first wrote about these experiences five years ago, there have been some changes to these policies. The minimum age requirement for female missionaries is now lower than it used to be but still higher than it is for men. Lowering the missionary age did indeed result in a higher ratio of female missionaries. However, the church did not address the leadership problem by admitting women to missionary leadership roles such as district leader or zone leader. Instead, they created a new mid-level management position for women called Sister Training Leaders.  The women called to this new position have no authority over male missionaries and are supervised by male missionaries. This creative solution addresses the logistic problems caused by the previous all-male leadership system by allowing some women to help supervise the additional female missionaries, but also maintains the lower status of female missionaries by continuing to exclude women from supervising men while men are ranked above them, supervising mixed gender groups.

April Young Bennett age 12 with glassesAge 12: About half of my Sunday School class members (all of the boys) spent each Sunday School hour shooting spit wads, knocking over chairs, tormenting the teacher and making fun of the better behaved class members (all of the girls). Strangely, God had recently selected these bullies to hold His priesthood and administer His sacrament, passing over all of the class members who seemed capable of reverence. As I ducked from the spit wads, I frequently wondered why God would make such an irrational selection.

A cultural attitude that “boys will be boys” was most likely a contributing factor in this classroom of young, male, spit wad shooters.  The female priesthood ban, on the other hand, is a firmly enforced policy.  It is also policy to ban girls from passing the sacrament, although passing the sacrament is not described as a priesthood duty in scripture.

Since the time I first wrote about these experiences five years ago, church leaders have begun discussing priesthood differently, better including women in the doctrinal definition of priesthood. However, even as church leaders use more inclusive language to describe women as participants in priesthood power and authority, for the most part, they continue to exclude women and girls from duties limited to priesthood holders such as passing the sacrament. One important improvement is that women have been added to some high-ranking priesthood councils that were previously male-only. These women are outnumbered by men on these councils by ratios of four or five to one, limiting female perspectives and voice on these councils.  Improving ratios of female representation will not be feasible until church policy stops limiting female participation in high level councils and General Conference to only nine women, outnumbered by hundreds of eligible men.

teen sisters DisneylandAge 16:  I vented about the church youth calendar to my family as we ate Sunday dinner.  “This week, the Young Men are going boating and next week they will go camping.  Again.  The Young Women will be cleaning an old lady’s house.” My sister chimed in:  “And she has six cats.”

Local youth leaders have some discretion over youth activities, under the supervision of male bishops.  However, a big part of the reason North American Mormon boys have greater resources devoted to their activities than do girls is because of Church policy to sponsor Boy Scouts troops but not to sponsor scouting for girls. This policy has not changed since the time I wrote the original post, but there was a statement acknowledging concern among church leaders about the inequity of North American Boy Scout sponsorship to boys in other countries.  Unfortunately, this statement also made it clear that church leaders weren’t even thinking about girls.

High-level financial decisions about sponsorship most likely exclude women or limit their participation to feedback on decisions made by men because women continue to be excluded from most positions of financial authority in the LDS Church.

Age 20: My date nonchalantly explained that he hoped to find a wife who wasn’t as smart or spiritual as he was because that would make it easier for him to fulfill his priesthood duty to be leader in the home.  Hmm.  Did that mean that he considered me intellectually and spiritually weak enough to be worthy of going out with him?

Many other Mormon men do not behave this way, so the Church could not have been the only factor that made this particular date the male chauvinist he was. However, Church culture and policy certainly did their part to help this guy’s male chauvinist attitudes to thrive.  While LDS rhetoric about men presiding at home has softened over the years, LDS authorities continue to teach that men preside in the home.  The inclusion of this rhetoric in the Proclamation on the Family makes it more official. LDS policies requiring men to preside over women are easily traced to the secular culture of the time and place where the church began.

April Young Bennett leaving for missionAge 21: The Elders in my mission district returned from Priesthood Meeting and told us sister missionaries (accurately, I later verified) that President Hinckley, the very person who had signed my mission call and sent me to this part of the world, had been gossiping about sister missionaries behind their backs at the only meeting of General Conference that sisters were not invited to.

Sure, the Elders could have delivered the news more tactfully, but more offensive than their delivery was the fact that the President of the Church had chosen a male-only venue to deliver this message about women, and of course, the content of the original message itself.

The Priesthood Session is still restricted to men and official messages about women are still delivered there, although in recent years, policy has changed to allow women to listen to the session over the Internet, giving women in locations with Internet access the opportunity  to hear the news directly but also maintaining a symbolic statement about the lower status of women by banning them from the room.  There are no LDS meetings for women with similar restrictions against men; General Women’s Session is presided over by men and the concluding speaker is always male. While the concession to allow women to listen over the Internet is small, it does have one important effect: female news reporters may now report on the Priesthood Session instead of being barred by the Church’s discriminatory policy.

Instructions by the president of the church delivered at the Priesthood Session are policy. The protocols that Hinckley listed in his talk deny female autonomy, clarifying that the preferences of local, male priesthood leaders about whether a woman should serve are more important than the woman’s preferences about her own life path and instructing priesthood leaders to only allow a woman to serve if  “the idea persists” after three people have had the opportunity to attempt to talk her out of it. Men who want to serve missions are not treated this way. To my knowledge, the protocols given by Hinckley have not been rescinded, but President Monson’s more recent decision to lower the missionary age appears to be leading to a more friendly culture toward female missionaries.

April Young Bennett engagementAge 26: My newlywed bliss was interrupted by a series of disturbing dreams that I was forced to share my new husband with some other woman in a polygamist marriage.

When I wrote the original post, a particularly rude, male commenter made fun of me for even mentioning nightmares.  My nightmares may be a personal problem, but since writing the post, I have found that polygamy nightmares are quite common among Mormon women and not at all unique to me. Policy certainly plays a role here; differential temple sealing policies for men and women continue to terrorize Mormon women with the threat of eternal polygamy.

Age 30: My sister was removed from her position as seminary teacher for the offense of becoming pregnant within wedlock. When I expressed my shock that the Church Education System actively discriminates against mothers, another woman defended the policy, pointing out that we wouldn’t want youth exposed to working mothers.

In the online conversation surrounding the original post, I noticed that people who defended the church’s seminary program did not argue that firing women for having children was okay; they said that the Church has no such policy. I searched the Internet and could find no written evidence of the Seminary and Institute program policy. Eventually, I got confirmation by telephone and wrote a blog post about the conversation. For awhile, this was the only publicly accessible documentation of the policy and my post was referenced in national news articles about LDS Seminary and Institute hiring practices. Finally, decades after the policy was first implemented but less than three years after documenting the policy at the Exponent, the Church announced an end to this discriminatory policy.

Negative cultural attitudes about working mothers among Mormons were probably influenced by policies like this one, as well as decades of anti-working mother rhetoric by church leaders.  The rhetoric against working mothers is softening, but has been replaced mostly by silence about working mothers, not praise.

Age 32: The day before the annual ward primary program, the bishop decided to exercise his right to make final decisions and cut several children out of the program.  They had been rehearsing their parts for three weeks, ever since the bishop approved the original script.

Nothing in church policy required the bishop to behave this way, but, as he adamantly and correctly pointed out to me at the time, church policy did give him the right to make this choice.  Local and stake auxiliary leaders have no authority to override a bishop’s decision under present policy.

April Young Bennett familyAge 35: I lobbied my bishopric and stake presidency to move the church Mother’s Lounge from a tiny, stinky closet to a more reasonable location where more than one woman could feed her baby at a time.  After two years, I prevailed.  I wondered if it would take two years to accomplish such a small feat if any of my leaders had ever lactated.

There is no policy requiring mothers to nurse in tiny closets, and after two years of battle, the mother’s  lounge in my local building was moved. Likewise, there is no policy protecting lactating women from discrimination at LDS churches, as is the case in many private and nonprofit organizations.  The lack of such a policy puts women at risk, since negative cultural attitudes about lactation are certainly present in the broader culture that surrounds the Church and male priesthood leaders who adopt these attitudes and choose to discriminate against lactating mothers are authorized to do so.

The fact that only men had authority to change the location of the Mother’s Lounge is policy. Even as women gain more access to councils where they may provide feedback, women continue to be excluded from all but the lowest rung of the supervisory chain of command in the church.

This post is part of the Exponent Blog’s Tenth Anniversary Retrospective series.

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at

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9 Responses

  1. Jessawhy says:

    Amazing as always, April. I wish this was front page of Deseret News.

  2. Chino_Blanco says:

    Thing is, the point of inflicting a thousand paper cuts is not to kill the victims, but rather leave them in a permanent state of learned helplessness.

  3. Libby says:

    April, thank you for posting this. It’s very important for us to keep track of when speaking out has made a difference–and when it hasn’t.

  4. el oso says:

    My wife has frequently complained about the heavy-handed decision making of the bishopric in changing assignments in primary without consulting the presidency first. In my understanding of the situations that I know about, it seems that the motivating factor is getting a calling for the person assigned. I have also observed this in SS, RS and EQ assignments, even though the EQ president is the one who would issue some of the calls to the elders.
    There is a perception that the bishopric just does not listen to the (generally younger) women in charge of primary. This may be due to general inattention or could be gender discrimination in their minds. It is my experience that there is mostly a different motivation.

    I can only comment on my local areas, but there is very little difference in overall funding for young men vs. young women. Most of the differences in the programs that I have seen is the preference of the individual youth or leaders of the youth. If the young women are doing boring activities, look to the young women leaders. I know that adult April would not hesitate to do this now, but the organizational leaders make these decisions.
    One of the big issues that April highlights is that there is limited to no recourse when a Bishop or Stake President is making decisions that may be hurtful. Direct communication is best. On the mother’s lounge, our 20 year old building has a nice one that can be shared and has comfortable furniture. Getting physical facilities involved could be a huge delay?
    On any priesthood callings, there is very little chance of major change.

  5. spunky says:

    Brilliant, April. I agree with Jessawhy– this needs to be the front page of the Deseret News.

  6. Helen E says:

    I am not mormon, but found this very interesting to read. I live in Scandinavia where woman are viewed very differently from most of the rest of the world. Here it’s unthinkable that woman can’t hold any leader position. (Although some (non-mormon) churches do now allow women to hold the top-possision as pastor). So for us up here, not being able to take part in decision-making is almost non-existent. (And if it does happen, it will quickly be taken to the newspapers..) But I believe this is because ever since the Viking times women have had stronger rights than most part of the world. (Even around year 1000 women could own land, get a divorce and still keep the youngest children, and so on..). I wish you good luck! Greetings from a fellow woman (and follower of Christ) on the other side of the world. 🙂

  7. Jenny says:

    April, this is a great update to your original post. It’s nice to see the progress that has been made in five years, and yet I feel crushed thinking that it’s taken five years to make such tiny baby steps. I love the work you do in discussing church policies! And yes, polygamy nightmares are definitely a thing. I will add my own experience with them to those of many other women.

  8. Chris says:

    Excellent post. I have experienced similar challenges and frustrations that have—over the years–destroyed my ability to feel a respected, valued member. Women are told to defer to male authority in the temple and in General Conference sermons, and men often abuse their power, which is a tendency for anyone who has absolute power. The Church has many issues and serious flaws that must be addressed if all members are to feel included and loved. Surely, our Father must weep to see his daughters suffering.

  9. Ziff says:

    I love your retrospective, April. It’s great that some discriminatory policies have changed, but as you noted, depressing that the changes have generally been small. I also especially like your point that people blaming “culture” for bad stuff in the Church is a cop out, since culture, policy, doctrine, and whatever other labels we might come up with for aspects of it, are really never separated by bright lines.

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