A couple weeks ago, there was a thread on the Exponent II Facebook group asking women to share instances when they felt silenced, inferior or invisible at church because of their gender. Within two hours, there were over 200 comments. Within 24 hours, there were over 900.
Nearly every Latter-day Saint woman, regardless of where she falls on the spectrum of orthodoxy, has had times when she felt voiceless, overruled, or underutilized at church. It’s true that every person feels this way in various settings at various times in their lives, but this is a systemic problem for women in the Church of Jesus Christ. Such experiences are often disregarded or categorized as random one-off events because it’s easy to blame one rogue bishop or to say that the gospel is perfect but the people aren’t. The fact is, the deck is stacked against women in the Church, and even with above and beyond herculean efforts by the most egalitarian of bishops, women are still marginalized by the way the Church itself is structured.
Women are uniquely susceptible to the phenomenon of leadership roulette. Men often have close connections or friendships with other men in leadership positions (or were once such leaders themselves) and thus generally have more recourse than women when they feel slighted at church. Men in leadership positions tend to back up other men in leadership positions, so the men in the limited chain of command a woman may access (bishop, stake president, and sometimes area seventy) are unlikely to intervene on her behalf.
Women don’t have any institutional power or authority in the Church except that which is given to them by men, and this power can also be stripped away by male leaders at any time and for any reason. Priesthood leaders in the church can completely dictate what a woman is or is not allowed to do in her calling, they can release her regardless of her preferences, they can withhold callings and opportunities even when her name is submitted by auxiliaries that want her, they can deny or revoke temple recommends for arbitrary reasons, they can unilaterally overrule decisions she makes in her calling according to her inspiration and stewardship, and they can choose whether or not to seek or implement women’s input for any issue. The Church’s Handbooks don’t condone all of this behavior, but many women have found that, even when the Church’s policies are flexible or on their side, bishops still refuse to budge. When push comes to shove, bishops and priesthood leaders are the final authority, regardless of whether they are in line with what general authorities or church policies say.
Many sins against women are of omission, not commission. Men in the Church don’t receive training that women’s voices and insight are essential (not just a nice bonus) in every aspect of church decision making, from who the next stake president (and bishop, and apostle) should be to the logistics of church meetings and events to the policies found in the Handbook they’re not allowed to read. Priesthood leaders, from the highest echelons in Salt Lake down to lay local leaders across the world, make decisions and policy with the intention of helping or honoring women without actually consulting women to see how they would like to be helped or honored. Often, policy and decisions are made by priesthood leaders without even considering how women will be affected because the lived experience of women is not represented in far too many councils and meetings. This system of benevolent patriarchy is patronizing at best and devastating at worst.
The Exponent is launching a series to document the small and large ways women in the Church are dismissed and unheard due to patriarchy. The series will show by sheer volume that the silencing, underutilizing and discrediting of women is a systemic problem in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. By giving space to these stories on this platform, we are adding to the comprehensive record of the hurts endured by women in the Church so that these testimonies will stand as a witness before God and man that these occurrences are not a blip here or there; they are the all too common result of a deeply-rooted and endemic flaw in the structure of our church.
These experiences span decades with most of them having occurred in the past few years. This is not a problem that is getting better. This is not a problem that is going to fix itself. Women’s experiences need to be heard before they can be believed, and they need to be believed before there can be meaningful change. The first step toward this goal is recording and sharing these stories. Only then can we achieve change going forward in policy and in practice.
In the words of Jesus Christ, whose name our church bears, “if any man have ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:23).
Call for submissions
We are now accepting submissions for the #hearLDSwomen series. Please submit your experience(s) here of a time you as a woman felt silenced, inferior or invisible at church. Submissions may be anywhere from a couple of sentences to several paragraphs in length.