Guest Post: The Recovering Accidental Misogynist
I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry for being male. This was an actual thought from my actual brain that occurred as I sat in Psychology 380: The Psychology of Women. I was one of three scared males in a class with twenty-seven fairly angry undergraduate females and one fired-up female Psychology Professor. It was my first (and only) Psychology class at the university. As a man in the Psychology of Women, I thought I was entering an exclusive island paradise with Wonder Woman and the Amazons—instead I entered a raging war. I was put in the awkward position of trying to defend the global, historical, and current oppression of females in our male-dominated societies. I didn’t know Jack about gender roles, stereotypes, sexist language, social learning, the word misogyny, and a bunch of other Feminist stuff. I tried to apologetically explain that most men didn’t hate women. . . I didn’t hate women, some of my favorite people were women, especially hot college women—sure for thousands of years women had been socially excluded, discriminated against, belittled, exploited, objectified, pornogrified, and had violence inflicted upon them—but not by me. If misogyny meant hatred of women, and I didn’t hate them, then I couldn’t be a misogynist. Right? I quickly learned there was much more to it. I didn’t see how I used sexist language and that I was a privileged white guy. I didn’t see that my worldview was biased and male-dominated. I had a misogynistic blind spot, a space in my visual field occupied by the optic nerve that I couldn’t see because my brain painted over the dark reality. I didn’t appreciate what I was seeing. I was an accidental misogynist.
I must say, having my eyes opened to my (and the world’s) misogyny wasn’t easy to take and I found myself becoming angry with males in general. Men have been jerks for a really long time and once my blind spot was recognized, I began to see the sexism in my own life and inequality of the world around me. For example, here are attributes society associates with women: attractive, feminine, smart, sensitive, emotional, nurturing. Attributes associated with men? Strong, hides feelings, acts tough, sexy, muscular. As my vision was expanded, I became more curious about the factors and influences that created these gender stereotypes, how these ideas played out in mass and social media, how the stereotypes were woven into the fabric of our reality, and what impact it had on men and women today.
So, fast-forward about twenty years and as fate would have it, I became a psychiatrist. In my practice, I treat more women than men. Research data show it’s not because women are more depressed or anxious than men, but my guess is that women are more willing to accept they have an issue and are more willing to seek professional help (at least where I live.) Since I live in Utah, I have a high population of Mormon women and many of them tell me they feel the roles that are prescribed for them by the Church are fixed, immovable, and reductive. Many of them are frustrated by the way these roles and expectations are taught and how the ideal image is promoted and perpetuated. The purpose of this article is my attempt as a recovering-accidental-misogynist-turned-Psychiatrist to “mansplain” what may be driving this discontent among my female Mormon clients. (I do acknowledge my limitations due to my biological maleness make my commentary problematic. Again I’m sorry.)
While these gender roles have unofficially existed for generations and are part of the fabric of being a female Mormon, these roles were formally outlined in a proclamation read by President Gordon B. Hinckley (then leader of the Mormon Church) as part of his message to the General Relief Society (the philanthropic and educational women’s organization of the Mormon Church) held in September of 1995 entitled, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.”
It began by solemnly proclaiming that marriage between man and woman was ordained of God and the family was central to God’s plan for His children. The command to multiply and replenish the earth was still in force, and parents were accountable if they didn’t teach their children to keep the commandments, love one another, and obey the law. So the expectation was set right off the bat. Women, who shoulder the majority of the burden of producing human children, were expected to make, have, and raise children. It’s in the plan. These are the rules.
This next part is the part that may be causing much of the discontent, “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.” Preside means to be in position of authority or act as president. Go to any dictionary you want, definition one, two, and three—preside equals “be in charge.” “Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.” So helping one another as an equal partnership is good, but it’s somewhat of a confusing idea to have a presider and a nurturer that are equal. In the context of a recovering misogynist there is a distinction and a difference in this language which is perceived by many as a mixed message. There is a caveat that disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate “individual adaptation” to the guidelines, but individual adaptation is obviously meant to be the exception, not the rule. “Equal in importance but different roles” is a common refrain.
In October 2017, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, an eye-witness to the revelatory process, gave a talk describing how the proclamation came to be:
Subjects were identified and discussed by members of the Quorum of the Twelve for nearly a year. Language proposed, reviewed, and revised. Prayerfully we continually pleaded with the Lord for His inspiration on what we should say and how we should say it . . . During this revelatory process, a proposed text was presented to the First Presidency, who oversee and promulgate Church teaching and doctrine. After the Presidency made further changes, the proclamation was announced.
It is important to understand the carefulness and level of thought that went into the proposed words of this document. It was discussed, reviewed, and revised by fifteen men for nearly a year. During this same time Chieko N. Okazaki was the first counselor to Elaine L. Jack in the Relief Society General Presidency. In 2005, ten years after the introduction of the proclamation, Okazaki gave an interview with Gregory Prince in Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought in which she reported that the women leaders of the Church were not informed of the proclamation before it was presented, didn’t know it was being drafted, were not consulted about any specific concerns for women, and basically were not involved in this document in any way. The inception, construction, introduction, and perpetuation of “The Family Proclamation” highlight the problematic mixed message of an equal partnership within a patriarchal leadership system. The minority female leadership did not appear to be equal in importance enough to even weigh in on the formal description of their role in the family. Okazaki lamented, “ . . . as I read it [Proclamation] I thought that we could have made a few changes in it.”
The Paradox of the Pedestal
Over the years, I’ve been interested in the changing language and manner in which Mormon leaders speak about and treat women. It seems as if the leaders are trying hard to show how important and “influential” the women are. My recovering-accidental-misogynist brain is uncomfortable with the language used to make the women feel awesome. Herein lies the paradox. It’s somewhat condescending. I’ll show you. In October 2015, President Russell M. Nelson (recently announced leader of the Mormon Church), then Elder Nelson, gave a talk entitled “A Plea to My Sisters.” He begins praising Sister Donna Smith Packer and Sister Barbara Dayton Perry, wives of then recently departed apostles, for their “influence” and stalwartness. To the women of the church he says:
We, your brethren, need your strength, your conversion, your conviction, your ability to lead, your wisdom, and your voices. The kingdom of God is not and cannot be complete without women who make sacred covenants and then keep them, women who can speak with the power and authority of God . . . We need women who know how to make things happen by their faith. . . who are devoted to sheparding. . . who know how to receive personal revelation, who know how to call upon powers of heaven.
Later he says, “Sisters, do you realize the breadth and scope of your influence. . .?” Then he gave an example of a woman in a meeting with mostly men and when it was realized she hadn’t spoken, she was asked her impression, and it changed the “entire direction of the meeting.” He then pleads with the women to take their “rightful and needful place.” “My dear sisters, . . . we need your impressions, your insights, and your inspiration. . . you sisters possess distinctive capabilities and special intuition. We brethren cannot duplicate your influence.”
To help you uncover your own potential blind spots I’d like you to imagine the majority leadership of a religion being mostly female–Female First Presidency, Female Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, etc. Now basically change all of the above statements to masculine. “Brethren, do you realize the breadth and scope of your influence? My dear brethren. . . we need your impressions, your insights, your inspiration, you brethren possess distinctive capabilities and special intuition, we sisters cannot duplicate your influence.” Would it seem funny to hear a story about women in a meeting who had realized one of the minority male leaders had been quiet, and he was asked his impressions and it changed the entire direction of the meeting? Part of the female Mormon angst is the paradox of the pedestal. In the attempt to build women up and have them feel like they are “influencers” and so needed, it re-enforces the gender role that their place and station is one of influencer, one who needs to be reminded how needed she is. Doesn’t it feel a little pandering for the imaginary female First Presidency to plead with the men, “We need you?” The fact they have to say this, that this message is even a thing, speaks to the potential blind spot of misogyny embedded in the culture.
Recently, the newly formed First Presidency of the Church, under the direction of President Russell M. Nelson, held a press conference to introduce themselves and answer questions from the media. Peggy Fletcher Stack from the Salt Lake Tribune asked a question in part: “What will you do in your presidency to bring women, people of color, and international members into decision making for the church?” After acknowledging their position and station as white American males and how quotas aren’t in the rules, Stack again queried, “What about the women?”
I love ‘em. I’m the father of nine beautiful daughters, how am I so lucky to get girls?. . . They had a superb mother. . . We have women on our councils, we have women administering ordinances in the temple, we have women presidents of auxiliaries and their counselors. We depend on their voices. I think I said something about that in a conference talk a little while ago: “A Plea to My Sisters” to take their place. We need their voices, we need their input and we love their participation with us.
President Henry B. Eyring, Second Counselor added, “We need their influence.” He praised his wife for her role as mother in raising “four bishops” (sons who became local congregation leaders) and says:
Women are the source of most of the strength we see . . . I think the idea of position or the idea of recognition, I can see how that would be a concern to people, but they don’t see the women getting that recognition. But in terms of influence, the Lord has already given them, I think no greater influence exists in the kingdom than in the women of the church.
To clarify the answer to the question about what they will do to bring women (among others) into decision making for the church, President Nelson provides this puzzling answer, “In the Doctrine and Covenants [Canonized Mormon Scripture] there’s a verse that says before the foundation of the world, women were created to bear and care for the sons and daughters of God and in doing so they glorify God, next question.” Again, changing all the above statements to masculine, from our fictional Female First Presidency: What about the men?
I love ‘em. I’m the mother of nine handsome sons, how am I so lucky to get boys? They had a superb father. We have men on our councils, we have men administering ordinances in the temple, we have men presidents of auxiliaries and their counselors, we depend on their voices. I think I said something about that in a conference talk a little while ago, “A Plea to My Brothers” to take their place, we need their voices, we need their input and we love their participation with us.
Again, if it seems weird to hear it presented like this it may be a function of your accidental misogynistic blind spot. To reiterate the role of women, President Nelson reminds us of the scripture to reinforce the most important aspect of women in the church and their way to truly “glorify God.” The reason for their existence, even before the world was created, is to bear and care for the sons and daughters of God. This, apparently, answers the question of how woman will be brought in to decision making for the Church. Again, the paradox is that by trying to put women on a pedestal of awesomeness and emphasizing the importance of being “influencers” it inherently shows they are not primary, but secondary role players. Exclaiming they really are awesome and primary influencers and no greater influence exists in the “kingdom” is not helping.
Here’s another concern. If (and when) women feel like they fail in their role as a mother or cannot fulfill that role, there are few other options. If they don’t marry, are not mothers, dislike mothering, or their children don’t turn out, they feel like complete failures because this is their main role and function. It is experienced as an all-or-nothing prospect. The pursuit of perfection in mothering and “woman-ing” can take an immense toll. When, as girls and women, they are given divine marching orders of “bearing and caring,” this becomes the framework of their identity. All other pursuits, dreams, expectations are tempered with, “of course being a wife and mother is my first priority.” Tens of thousands of Mormon girls in their late teens get personalized blessings from male “Patriarchs” that describe potential blessings that can be theirs if they live faithfully.
Here’s an example from an actual patriarchal blessing. “Never forget that a woman’s most noble and divine career is motherhood. Of all the things that you will desire to do in life, nothing will be more important for you than the desire to become a successful, righteous wife and mother.” For some, this creates an invisible ceiling on what would be practical to pursue academically and professionally. This role and expectation is baked into everything a little girl thinks, learns, sings about, and prepares for. For some, it’s basically a setup for discontent. Have you noticed how many women really hate Mother’s Day? Why? Either it brings up difficult issues with their own mother, reminds them they aren’t a mother, reminds them they are a “terrible mother,” or guilts them because perhaps they don’t even want to be a mother or hate being a mother—but that is definitely a “no-no” thought in Mormonism. This Mother’s Day aversion and avoidance is perhaps an unfortunate side effect of the all-or-nothing proposition that the pursuit of perfectionism in Mormon female role fulfillment can be.
So to sum up my recovering-accidental-misogynist-turned-psychiatrist view of the Mormon institutional blind spot contributing to the discontent of some Mormon women—it is simply this: tributes to the awesomeness of girls, women, wives, and mothers, while reportedly not soliciting female input in the creation of a seminal “Family Proclamation” which took almost a year to create, seem hollow at best. Such tributes highlight the paradox of the pedestal and a mixed message which promulgates the ideal of equal partnership and “need for their influence” while reducing women to stereotypical gender roles, sexist attributes (i.e. nurturers), and the reality that the primary way for women to glorify God is to make and take care of His children. This fairly narrow view of a woman’s utility is woven into the identity of developing Mormon girls which creates a self-imposed expectation of perfection in mothering, and the only response from the mostly male leadership is a “those are the rules, don’t blame us, we only work here . . . but we love ‘em” attitude. I am confident that we can do better. The first step is to have an awareness that our worldview may indeed have a (hopefully accidental) misogynistic blind spot. Such awareness will help us have empathy for those who feel disturbed by a kindly smile and plea to sisters to be “influencers” and “take their place.” Perhaps the second step would be to say, “I’m sorry.”
LDS Women’s Meeting, October 1995, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1995/10/the-family-a-proclamation-to-the-world?lang=eng
“The Plan and the Proclamation,” LDS General Conference, October 2017, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2017/10/the-plan-and-the-proclamation?lang=eng
“There Is Always a Struggle”: An Interview with Chieko N. Okazaki. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 45, no.1 (Spring 2012) P. 136.
“A Plea To My Sisters,” LDS General Conference, October 2015, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2015/10/a-plea-to-my-sisters?lang=eng