in the last couple of months, the laurels in our ward have been coming into relief society for “opening exercises” on the first sunday of the month (part of a church-wide effort to help smooth the transition from young women’s into relief society). this translates to not only sharing announcements and introductions, but also the women of the relief society joining the young women in reciting the young women’s theme. which i find rather uncomfortable.
let me explain.
i understand the idea of a theme for young people. it’s an articulation of ideals. something meant to reinforce to the young women very important principles and values. i don’t really object to the idea of girls (or boys) who are in an important formative period of their lives memorizing and reciting a statement that encourages them to understand the importance of such things as their divine nature, their personal relationship with god, the value of education and service, etc. while i don’t really think the best approach to teaching is to give a young person a canned identity to shape themselves to, i think the young women’s theme is generally principle-based as opposed to role-based, which allows them to take those principles and use them to guide their own individual lives.
what bothers me is grown women reciting some kind of statement of identity. i realize that the women reciting the young women’s theme is mostly just a way of making the girls feel welcome (i think it’s a misguided way; the girls would be better served to simply not recite the theme on the one sunday each month they’re in RS and instead get a feel for how RS actually functions). but reciting the young women’s theme reminds me of the handful of times i’ve been in a RS meeting (always in a ward i’m visiting and not my own, thankfully) where the women have stood and recited the relief society declaration (which was introduced in the october 1999 general relief society meeting by mary ellen smoot, then relief society general president).
the opening line of that declaration perfectly captures my problem with adult women reciting a rote statement of identity. why on earth do we need to assert that “our lives have meaning, purpose, and direction”? shouldn’t that go without saying? are these the “grand blessings of womanhood” to which smoot refers? are mormon women really so pitiful in the eyes of the world that we must assert not only what we believe and value, but that we are ourselves valuable?
i don’t really disagree with most of the declaration’s content, but i do take issue with it as a statement of identity. the existence of such a document implies that women’s identity and role must be prescribed in a way that men’s identity and role is not. sure, both women and men are given counsel about how they should live righteously. yes, there are statements of women’s responsibilities and men’s. but there is simply no male equivalent of the relief society declaration. (can you even imagine a group of adult men in the church standing and, in unison, reciting some list of characteristics they allegedly embody? laughable, isn’t it?) i suppose this is not surprising. after all, the western world is only recently recovering from the perception that woman is an incomplete or lesser form of man. it shouldn’t be surprising that women still must justify their existence in ways men do not, especially in a subculture that continues to insist on gender essentialism in defining gender roles.
and that really is the crux of my problem with such a statement—the notion that gender essentialism can and should shape individual identity. i don’t think the idea of this life is to be a “good woman” (or a “good man”) but rather to be a good person—to seek after all the best gifts and to make of ourselves, with all of our unique abilities, the best person we can be. the very idea of grown women reciting some theme or declaration suggests that women should fit themselves to some external standard. and that, in my opinion, is a recipe for the kind of spiritual and psychological disaster i have unfortunately seen in the lives of some of my dearest friends who think of themselves as failures not because they have accomplished nothing but because they don’t fit an external standard of “womanhood.”
and then there’s the inherent contradiction between asserting gender essentialism (gender as an eternal characteristic) and prescribing how to be a woman or a man. if gender is actually eternal and essential, why must we so vociferously prescribe how to be a woman or a man? wouldn’t it make more sense to simply allow that essential, eternal characteristic to shape our lives rather than trying to force ourselves into a narrow (and most likely flawed) understanding of what it means to be a man or woman?