It Is Women Who Uphold Patriarchy

I recently read an article about the levels of sexist attitudes of different religious groups. The participants were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with six statements that are “measures of modern sexism,” and their answers were given a value of “1” for the more sexist response and “0” for the less sexist response and then averaged together. [1] While none of the results were particularly shocking, one result regarding Mormon attitudes stood out to me. When responses were sorted by gender in every other group surveyed, there was a spread, typically a wide one, between men’s answers and women’s answers where the women held significantly less sexist views than the men. In the Mormon group, however, men and women showed the same level of sexism. Mormon women, in fact, have higher sexist attitudes than any other group of women polled.

Source: https://religioninpublic.blog/2019/06/17/support-for-womens-equality-across-religious-groups-varies-considerably/

This is not to say that Mormons (or Mormon women) are all horribly sexist. In fact, the article asserts that none of the groups are “wholly sexist,” and, with the exception of white evangelical men who land right in the middle of the sexist spectrum (sextrum?), all of the groups (and gendered subgroups) fall closer to the “not sexist” side of the scale, meaning that they answered less than half of the six questions sexistly, on average.

The graph, titled “Almost Every Religious Group Features a Gender Gap in Sexism,” made me reflect on my experiences with patriarchy and sexism in my church. There have been plenty of times I’ve seen male sexist attitudes on display. Examples include the time my seminary teacher (all my seminary teachers were men) read us a quote about rape from prophet Spencer Kimball that said “It is better to die in defending one’s virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle,” or when apostles have said things like women should speak in meetings, “but don’t talk too much.” There’s all the times I was never given any real authority in my callings and was constantly ignored or overruled by the men over me. And in every place I’ve lived, men in authority have implemented policies that disproportionately inconvenienced or disenfranchised women (sacrament not allowed to be passed in the foyers, women not allowed to use church buildings or hold RS or YW activities without a man present, women not allowed to hold their babies during baby blessings, etc. etc.). All this notwithstanding, I have mostly observed that it is women who uphold the patriarchy.

It is women who modesty-police each other: women who write the packing lists for Girls’ Camp that ban shorts or capris or yoga pants of any kind, women who tell Young Women they must wear t-shirts over their bathing suits for swimming activities, women who segment girls’ bodies into inches of flesh when giving detailed instructions on exactly how long shorts and sleeves and shirt hems must be when playing church volleyball. It is women who enforce these arbitrary dress codes: women who turn girls away from activities and women who body shame girls and make them change or cover up. It is women who garment-check each other, women who say “did you see what she was wearing in that Facebook photo?”, women who shame each other into observing the rule to not alter their underwear even when it is ill-fitting and impractical, women who hold up their personal modesty standards as a universal imperative (“You should always wear hose to the temple!”).

It is women who are first to bristle when inequities between males and females in the church are brought up: it is women who smugly say “I already have enough responsibilities; I don’t want the priesthood” and thus imply that any woman who feels differently is somehow lesser in her understanding of what God wants women to be and do. It is women who scoff and roll their eyes when someone brings up the complete lack of female representation in our lesson manuals or temples or scriptures or speakers, women who teach Primary songs and stories that laud various men and rarely, if ever, mention a woman.

It is women who mock the voices and intonation of the precious few female speakers in General Conference, women who passive aggressively suggest to other women that it is “selfish” to postpone children or limit family size, women who are so disconnected from their own autonomy that they defer to bishops even on personal matters like sexual pleasure and preferences (“Is it okay if I touch myself while my husband and I are having sex?”), women who subvert their own authority by deferring to whatever priesthood holder is in their home to call on someone to say the prayer. It was women 100 years ago who persisted in asking male church leaders if they were sure that it was okay that women give blessings and anoint with oil, and it is women who accepted the eventual arbitrary verdict that women could no longer perform these rituals. It is women who teach their daughters both explicitly and implicitly that it is unacceptable to question women’s place or role, nor is it acceptable to express desire, even internally, for what women are not allowed to have. Women are among those who side with abusers and victim blame other women. It is women who rationalize the poor behavior of men, women who offer excuses on behalf of various male leaders if another woman dares to confide an indignity or offense perpetuated by a bishop or stake president or general authority, women who insist that they do not want or need representation or recognition, happy to take assurances that they are respected without ever actually being so.

It is easy for me to see why women cling so tightly to their prescribed gender roles that they effectively patrol their own borders: to question the more or less mandate of stay at home motherhood requires facing head-on the sacrifices they’ve made in the name of pursuing that purportedly divine directive. For a woman to admit to herself that she is not well-suited for homemaking means that she must grapple with the fact that she does not possess what she has been taught all women have innately been given by God and that the assumptions she has based all her most important decisions on are faulty and problematic. When a woman who has bought into Family Proclamation gender roles does not possess a natural inclination toward nurturing or the domestic sphere, she feels she must be fundamentally flawed for resenting her role. And when a woman who does naturally thrive in a domestic and caregiving environment is confronted by the lived experience of a fellow woman who does not, it is easy for her to discount the validity of that woman’s perspective because, after all, gender roles are a good fit for her, and gender roles are from God, so it’s clearly the other woman, and not the gendered expectations, that are the problem.

I’m not giving Mormon men a pass here: there continues to be great need for men everywhere to stand up and actively promote equality and opportunity for women. But before great strides can be taken, women in the church must stop acting like crabs in a bucket and be willing to envision the benefits that greater equality can bring. In short, women must allow themselves to want more for themselves and their daughters, and then they must speak those desires aloud. But as a first step, when forward-thinking church leaders offer women increased opportunities or the chance to subvert a cultural norm that traditionally marginalizes women, women need to be willing to say yes.

 


 

[1] So an average of 0.5 means that half of the group chose the less sexist response and half chose the more sexist response, a higher average means more than half of the group chose the sexist response, and a lower average means more than half chose the less sexist response. Here are the statements the participants in the study were given:

Women should return to their traditional roles in society.
When women demand equality these days, they are actually seeking special favors.
Women often miss out on good jobs because of discrimination.
Women who complain about harassment often cause more problems than they solve.
Sexual harassment against women is no longer a problem in the US.
Increased opportunities for women have significantly improved the quality of life in the US.

ElleK

ElleK is a foodie, gardener, and writer. Women’s issues in the church are not a pebble in her shoe; they are a boulder on her chest.

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21 Responses

  1. Mormonish says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful analysis here. Here’s hoping your message finds its way to those who are unwittingly complicit in their own oppression.

  2. Maria says:

    Thanks for putting into words what many women in church are feeling!

  3. Chiaroscuro says:

    I’ve noticed this too. I would love to see Mormonism be more self-reflective about why it produces women with such a high rate of internalized misogyny. and why we perpetuate it on our daughters. I hit faith crisis mode when my oldest daughter was turning 11 and about to go into the young womens program. I started to have panic attacks on sundays. it took a lot of introspection before I realized how scared I was of her growing up in the same system I had grown up in. I had to step away from the lds church to give her (and my other children) a safer, less toxic, environment to come of age in

    • ElleK says:

      “I would love to see Mormonism be more self-reflective about why it produces women with such a high rate of internalized misogyny.”

      Me, too.

    • Kjerstina says:

      Chiaroscuro, I feel strongly that our polygamous history and its accompanying intergenerational trauma has a huge role to play in why our women continue to fight for their own oppression and refuse to take a stand for themselves. It was literally a matter of survival for our ancestors. The necessity of submitting all of self to men, particularly religious leaders, to survive, has been epigenetically passed down generations. That many of us are seeing this now and unraveling the bonds of patriarchy from our own lives and families is very encouraging. We are ready to heal and arise. It’s just a matter of time before we reach critical mass…

  4. Anna says:

    I know that I internalized the misogyny because I was taught that it was God who instituted all the ways women were treated as second class. So, if God saw me as second class, I must really be second class. The trouble was that it started to make me hate God. Then I realized that a church that makes anyone hate God is for sure not the church of Jesus Christ. Hmmmmmm.

    I think other churches allow women to see that misogyny is of men, because they don’t claim to have leaders with daily inspiration straight from God. This allows them to resent the men leading their church, rather than internalizing the second class status as how God actually sees women. Sure, the New Testament has some really misogynist stuff, but look at the times it was written. So, they have a bit of distance between the misogyny and God, which Mormons don’t have.

  5. Annon says:

    It took me too long to see my own internalized sexism. I have said some of the things you quoted. I am sorry for that and I wish I could take it back.
    Thank you for this essay. You nailed it.

  6. violadiva says:

    Love this analysis, ElleK. Spot on. Makes me think about that quote I’ve come to love, “Deep, robust multiracial women coalitions would be an unstoppable force.”
    We have to stop stepping on each other’s necks and actually start helping each other, or we’ll never get out of this patriarchal mud hole.

  7. EmilyB says:

    I nipped it all in the bud and showed my daughters what empowerment looked like by tossing the oppressive garments, removing my name from the records of the Mormon church, and showing my daughters that I can have a relationship with the divine on my own without first paying ten percent of my income to a man and pledging fealty to a human male representative. I hope that more Mormon mothers will empower their daughters to stop supporting patriarchal organizations with such a long history of oppressing women, blacks, and LGBTQs.

  8. Elizabeth says:

    A lot of this is very true. Women are, in many ways, more or less responsible for their own oppression. 100%. And it’s infuriating. It’s this way in and outside of the Church. I’m so glad you took the time to write about this.

    I have a lot of things on my mind in relation to this subject, but one I’d like to say now in response to the clause you included about how women like to “mock the voices and intonation” of the few females who speak in General Conference, etc. This struck me, because I am, admittedly enough, easily annoyed/frustrated listening to these women, just as I am often easily annoyed/frustrated listening to male general authorities. But my thought is… Much of the reason I am annoyed with the intonation, the voices… the topics chosen… the things said… by these women, is because they reinforce female stereotypes promoted by the Church. Many of these women are, just as your article says, complicit in the oppression. The quote highlighting Jean Bingham’s sexism in this post is an example of that, no? So yes, I am a woman frustrated by and critical of these women, just as you, a woman, wrote this post about women in the Church who are complicit in the oppression. I’m glad they have a voice though! Of course. But I wanted to make that point. Sometimes, women do need to talk about what other women are perhaps doing poorly. That doesn’t mean we’re hurting the cause.

    • ElleK says:

      Great thoughts, Elizabeth. I’ve been noticing lately how female politicians with polarizing views are subject to so much more vitriol and hostility than male politicians with similar views, and I think we see that phenomenon play out on a smaller scale in the church. As a culture, were are harder on women, and it’s an ugly double standard. Being aware of our propensity toward that bias is really important and can help us notice when we’re being critical of a woman for her femaleness and not her message or actions.

  9. Great post. I think part of the reason women of our faith are more sexist than other women is because we have so little institutional power that policing each other is all we’ve got, and also since our religion is so patriarchal, we are rewarded for complicity with patriarchy. This post is a great reminder that patriarchy isn’t men: is a system men and women participate in.

  10. Miriam says:

    Thank you for your perspective. I have realized just how much I have put myself in my own box. It’s amazing to emerge out of the cocoon and soar to new heights. It is hard for all people (men and women) to see it when they are blinded. In fact, I didn’t see it at all, but everyone awakens in their own way and time. May we all be guided in our journeys to see, to find a relationship with God, and to know what and when to point it out to others who are still blinded. Compassion and understanding on all ends is so timely.

  11. Anonymous says:

    So women are the only ones with that grating lilt? NOPE. Heard it from plenty of men too, and it’s irritating when anyone speaks that way. I think it’s for the purpose virtue signaling.

    • ElleK says:

      I agree with you–personally, Pres Nelson’s accent and delivery have always made me cringe. But 9 times out of 10, if someone complains about a GC speaker’s voice or tone or mouth smacking, they’re talking about a woman. And in my experience, the critique usually comes from a woman. So while male speakers may have similar speaking styles that could be considered “grating,” we are almost always harder on the women.

  12. It’s called Internalized Oppression. You will find this in all oppressed groups to one degree or another.

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