Does Our Patriarchal LDS Church Make Men the Absolute Best, or the Absolute Worst? (Or Some of Each?)
Years ago, I read a book about two American women who were kidnapped in Afghanistan. Despite struggling to escape, passerby just turned their heads and looked the other way. Nobody wanted to get involved because it wasn’t their problem.
I went out running the next morning and started thinking about how different my life was in America, and specifically, in LDS central Utah Country. I was wearing a tank top and yoga pants, my most comfortable running outfit, and I knew that it was highly unlikely for anyone to grab me and rape me because they thought I was wearing something too form fitting. And above that, I knew that even if I did ever choose to run in just a sports bra and short shorts, still no one was likely to harass me or say anything. And if someone did attack me, I believed completely that anyone driving by me on the road would stop and help me. The local men that I knew would fight to the death to stop a rapist or killer from hurting a woman that they didn’t know, even if she was dressed “immodestly”. That’s just the type of men I felt surrounded by in my town.
But within a few days of that book and that reflective run, I heard another story from a woman in a nearby stake. At their annual conference, the stake president had given a talk about modesty requirements for the women in their stake. He told everyone about driving home from work in the evenings and seeing women that he knew outside running for exercise on the sidewalks and roads, and that to his disappointment, they were often wearing clothing that was too tight, too short, or impossible to wear their sacred temple garments with. He said he loved and cared about these women and their safety, and he hated that he had to avert his eyes to avoid looking at them in their immodest attire. From that day forward, he offered a challenge to the women in his stake to never exercise in clothing that they couldn’t wear their garments with.
The woman who told me this story was angry with his talk. She thought he was placing the blame for his own perverted thoughts on the women he passed who were just out for an evening run in perfectly appropriate exercise clothing. I was also irritated by his decree, because I worked out and went running regularly enough to know how impractical his suggestion was. In a long race (like a marathon) skin chafing is a big concern and an extra layer of garments and loose material to cover them would make it so much worse. And while some people in some climates could comfortably do what he asked, I imagined I would personally pass out from heat stroke with the extra layers before stripping them off or giving up on exercise completely. His admonishment to wear only garment friendly running clothes seemed as silly and uninformed to me as asking competitive swimmers to wear them under their speedos. It wasn’t my stake, and I was glad.
A couple years later, I heard the story of his talk again, this time from two other women in his stake. At that point I was able to hear the aftermath of what it had caused in their ward. There had been a fairly successful running/walking group in their ward up until his talk (this was in the heyday of those smaller enrichment weekly activity groups). It included women who were active, inactive, and even non-members. They’d meet up for walks, pushing strollers and socializing, and those who were more ambitious would go running together and train for some local races.
After the stake president’s talk about wearing only garment friendly clothing to exercise in, the Relief Society president and bishop decided to make that a rule of this walking club. Because it was church sponsored, the women coming had to now wear sleeves and shorts that went to the knee, whether or not garments were underneath them. This felt silly and downright hostile to some of the women in the group (especially to those who hadn’t even gone through the temple or weren’t church members), while others felt that it was an important and necessary rule to follow. To them it was a test of their faithfulness to God, and anyone who chose to disregard the rule was judged harshly.
With no surprise, the group fell apart shortly after, with bad feelings all around. Some women felt like they were being treated as sex objects by the priesthood leadership – even on a walk around the park with other moms and babies on a weekday morning. Some women felt hurt and judged when they didn’t get the memo fast enough that sleeves were required when running 5ks now. Other women were annoyed or felt self-righteous when other members of their exercise group ignored the counsel they’d received from their leaders. Everyone felt a loss of their fun social group when it inevitably shut down amidst hurt feelings and broken friendships.
Just days after thinking about how incredible LDS men are, I was quickly brought back to the reality that actually, sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes their culture, positions of power, and perceived superior connection to God can make them the absolute worst. They sometimes treat Latter-day Saint women like children, and it’s simply infuriating because they are the ones in ultimate authority over everything. No woman could make an arbitrary rule that subsequently breaks up the Elder’s Quorum basketball night because half of them follow it and half of them don’t, because a woman is never in a position of authority over men to do something like that. Even if a woman thinks she knows better than her male peers about how they should dress themselves, she will never have an opportunity to declare her own opinion as the will of the Lord for them over a pulpit.
I’ve been told often (generally by faithful men in my life) about all the times in Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthood lessons they were taught to respect women. I believe that’s true, in that they were told to treat us well by their actions and thoughts, and many times I have felt that from them. However, as long as we are all chained to a system that places men perpetually in positions of authority over women, and as long as men write the doctrine, receive the revelation, interpret the scripture, take up the vast majority of general conference talks, preside and speak prominently at our women’s meetings, and are taught leadership skills as youth that girls never get – it doesn’t matter how many times boys are told to respect women. We are bound to a system that inherently disrespects our intellect and ability to lead ourselves and others.
When the stake president saw women in his stake exercising, rather than just looking away at something that made him feel uncomfortable, he interpreted those feelings as God prompting him to give instruction to all of the women in his stake that would make his discomfort go away. That’s not because he wasn’t told repeatedly throughout his life to respect us, it’s because the system he was completely enmeshed in from childhood led him to believe that his thoughts as a high-ranking priesthood leader were God’s commandments to these women.
I don’t want that kind of relationship with men, where they’ll respect me by not telling off color jokes in my presence, but simultaneously believe God has called them to direct my life and guide decisions for me through the words they choose to say to me in a priesthood blessing. I want to be met as a true equal, where I could place my hands on their heads and counsel them right back. The older I get, the more anything less than a true respect created from equality in authority and decision-making feels patronizing and condescending. We treat little children well by sheltering them from crude or scary circumstances and making decisions for them about their lives. That should not be the same way we treat adult women. Sisters in the church deserve personal authority, leadership opportunities over all members of the church (male and female), equal time at the pulpit in every meeting of conference, and a direct relationship with God (which includes Heavenly Mother as an equally visible partner to Heavenly Father), free of any middleman they covenant through.
In short, they should be treated like the men. Then it’ll feel like respect.