Men Crossing into Women’s Realms: Where’s the Reciprocity?

In my ward over the last few months, there’s been a noticeable push from the bishop and stake president to encourage the fathers in our ward to step up and take a more proactive role with their kids. Apparently there’s been a sense that too often the mothers bear the burden during Sacrament meeting of quieting small kids, taking them out to the foyer,  etc.

I personally haven’t noticed any particular decline in men’s involvement with their children in my ward. In fact, I often see a good number of dads, as wells as moms, entertaining their babies in the hallways and foyers. Nevertheless, I think it’s a good and healthy thing for men to be encouraged to take highly active roles with their kids. As a feminist, I’m uncomfortable with the way the Proclamation assigns women the primary task of nurturing kids, so I love it when these gendered realms are blurred. I open my arms to men who are proactive caretakers of kids despite the fact that people often associate this behavior with the women’s realm (according to the Proclamation) of nurturing. And the Proclamation, of course, affirms the rightness of this crossing over, when it states, “In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.”

Now, I’m not a fan of splitting tasks up according to gender. It seems to me that individual couples can and should decide the distribution of family responsibilities based on personal proclivity and individual talents. But if this gendered system is the one within which Mormons are to work, I am pleased to say that by and large, I see the younger husbands in my ward helping their wives our in their “sacred responsibility” of nurturing kids. However, what bothers me is the fact that I don’t see a reciprocal opening of men’s realms to women.

If mothers and fathers are obligated to help one another in their sacred responsibilities as equal partners, why are Church leaders not encouraging women to help their husbands preside, provide, and protect, as the Proclamation outlines? Can you think of specific talks which encourage women to do these things in the family, as equal partners with their husbands? Certainly, there’s always been a strain in Mormon rhetoric about women being prepared to provide if their husbands die, or of women leading their families in the absence of a husband. But what about women actually working with men to do these three tasks? It seems to me like there has been a much greater push in encouraging men to enter the “women’s realm” of nurturing than there has been in encouraging women to enter the “men’s realm” of presiding, providing and protecting.

This trend of expanding individual men’s family obligations and duties into realms which have traditionally been gendered female, while at the same time not expanding individual women’s family obligations into men’s realms, seems to me to mirror what has been happening with Relief Society and Priesthood on a larger scale over the last several decades. Once upon a time, Relief Society was its own entity, with its own budget, meeting houses, manuals, magazines, etc. It had visible and powerful female leaders. However, as correlation hit and Relief Society was enveloped under the Priesthood umbrella, men started to enter the Relief Society realm. On both a ward level and a general level, men hold final decision making power in determining how Relief Society is run. Men’s voices in our manuals dominate Relief Society lessons. And handful of times a year, the bishop or stake president come into Relief Society to deliver talks to the women. They physically cross into the women’s realm. But I have yet to see a woman give talks or lessons in Elders Quorum or High Priests. I have yet to see women’s voices from manuals making their way into Priesthood lessons. I have yet to see a woman speak in the Priesthood session of General Conference.

As I mentioned before, I’m all for the blurring of these boundaries/realms/roles based on gender. I like to see men and women working together as they both nurture their  kids, and I’m pleased when I hear those messages at church. However, it seems to me that families and church communities could only benefit by a reciprocal encouragement of women to enter into realms gendered male, to participate in the presiding, providing, and protecting of families, and to cross both symbolically and physically into men’s spaces in our religious lives.




Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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25 Responses

  1. Liz says:

    I agree so much.

  2. Wonderful post. Recently I heard a bishop give funeral remarks in which he lauded the deceased woman for taking a job and helping support the family. I hope this is an example of a change of thinking within the Church.

  3. swissmunicipal says:

    Thank you for your post. It was spot on (at least in my opinion).

    Living in a Singles Branch, I’ll admit to having somewhat coveted the calling of Executive Assistant (or whatever the exact name of that calling is) to the Branch President. It’s somewhat frustrating to me that there are so many callings which exist that I would rock at, and yet, because I’m female, I’m not an option for the post.

  4. Ryan says:

    >>why are Church leaders not encouraging women to help their husbands preside, provide, and protect, as the Proclamation outlines?<<

    I think they do encourage women to help their husbands provide and protect. "Providing" can include more than just working outside the home, in my opinion. And "protecting" would include protecting children not just physically, but also from negative influences as well. The Proclamation says that both parents "have a sacred duty … to provide for their [children's] physical and spiritual needs…"

    As far as presiding, I would guess that's a touchier issue. If you're intent is to question why men preside, hold the priesthood, etc., I think the answer's the same it's always been – we don't know. However, I would consider bishopric counselors to have the job of "helping" the bishop preside by offering counsel, input, etc. Probably not an answer you'd be satisfied with, but when we don't know why things are the way they are it's difficult to explain why they're not some other way.

  5. Nate Curtis says:

    This is a really good point. Here I always try to help out more with my own kids because I realize there is an unfair burden of child-rearing placed on Mormon women. But I would LOVE it if Emily decided to do my home teaching for me in any given month.

    (Actually, she does do my HT on occasion).

    What are some of the more effective things us guys can do to share the load in our families and callings (assuming that we are not all bishops)?

  6. April says:

    This question you raised in the post: Can you think of specific talks which encourage women to do these things in the family, as equal partners with their husbands? reminded me of a talk by Pres. Gordon B. Hinkley in 2001 which greatly influenced me. Of course, 2001 is not very recent, and unfortunately, this talk is kind of unique in its message. Maybe that is why it is so memorable to me, even a decade later:

    The whole gamut of human endeavor is now open to women. There is not anything that you cannot do if you will set your mind to it. You can include in the dream of the woman you would like to be a picture of one qualified to serve society and make a significant contribution to the world of which she will be a part.

    I was in the hospital the other day for a few hours. I became acquainted with my very cheerful and expert nurse. She is the kind of woman of whom you girls could dream. When she was young she decided she wished to be a nurse. She received the necessary education to qualify for the highest rank in the field. She worked at her vocation and became expert at it. She decided she wanted to serve a mission and did so. She married. She has three children. She works now as little or as much as she wishes. There is such a demand for people with her skills that she can do almost anything she pleases. She serves in the Church. She has a good marriage. She has a good life. She is the kind of woman of whom you might dream as you look to the future.

    For you, my dear friends, the sky is the limit. You can be excellent in every way. You can be first class.

  7. Ziff says:

    Great point, Caroline. It appears that Church leaders have bought into the often-used argument for a male-only priesthood that if men didn’t get to do something that women can’t do, they would reduce their participation. Or at least that’s a guess that I think is consistent with this difference. If this is what they were worried about, it might explain why they’re intent on holding the line against women slipping into presiding roles, while they encourage men to slip into nurturing roles.

  8. Guest Post says:

    Course Correction,
    It is encouraging to hear a woman being praised by a bishop for providing.

    It is baffling to think of all the callings that don’t really require priesthood that women are not allowed to do. Clerks, sunday school presidents, executive secretaries, etc. It makes me sad to think of all these wasted opportunities to incorporate women into leadership positions.

    You may very well be right about there being some encouragement of women by GA’s to provide and protect, but no talks come to mind offhand. Do any pop into your mind? As for women presiding in the home alongside men, (as the Proc seems to suggest women should do, if we go along with my reading of that line about helping each other with these responsibilities) I’m interested in what that would look like in practice.

    “What are some of the more effective things us guys can do to share the load in our families and callings (assuming that we are not all bishops)?”
    Great question, particularly since I’ve never had a clear idea of what it means for men to preside in the home. Off hand, I’d say that being open to the woman blessing children alongside the man would be one thing to consider. That would be a great way to promote both the mom and dad as spiritual authorities in the home. Along those lines, sharing the responsibility of calling on people to say prayers could do the same. I’d love to hear more people’s ideas on this.

  9. Caroline says:

    oops, that above comment was from me, Caroline. I have no idea why I was logged in as Guest Post.

    I love that talk you quote — one of Hinckley’s finest moments, i think. That might be the single best example of a GA opening up space for women to provide alongside their husbands.

    Great point. I hadn’t really articulated to myself the connection between that argument about retaining all male priesthood and the lack of encouragement of women to slip into presiding roles. That makes sense to me.

  10. Jessica F says:

    Sometimes I think that child care has been views so negatively in our society, that men may need to be reminded that they do need to participate. I often think that women and men cannot be “equal” until men are willing to be part of the child rearing process. When there is no longer a culture that allows women to work alone side men but women who still do the vast majority of home work. There should not be a culture of second shifts only for women. I feel lucky that my husband is willing to be an equal partner at home and at work. And that it is not about winning, but about becoming better together forever. And I think that maybe without knowing it the church is opening up the possibility for women to enter a more vast sphere of influences but that it is just painfully slow.

    • Caroline says:

      “There should not be a culture of second shifts only for women.” Amen. I remember reading about that in a feminist class I was taking, where in many places around the world, women who work full time come home and spend tons of time taking care of the home and kids, and the men don’t so much. So it is great that Mormon men are encouraged to be more active in that regard.

  11. MD says:

    I am all for dads taking their children out to the foyer but could someone tell the father who decided to change his daughter’s crappy diaper on the floor in the foyer right in front of the doors so everyone could see as they were coming into church to celebrate the resurrection of our lord and savior on Easter Sunday that there are changing tables in the men’s bathroom? I think I threw up in my mouth a little.

  12. DefyGravity says:

    This is slightly off topic, but I heard once that when a mother is taking care of kids in public, it’s about the kids, but when a father is taking care of kids in public, it’s about him. We often hear comments praising men for taking care of their kids, changing diapers, attending recitals, being involved. But mothers are rarely singled out for the same thing. I’m all for dads being involved, but isn’t that their job as a parent? Why do they get special recognition for it?

    • Caroline says:

      I had not heard of that before, though I imagine that dynamic exists. I think you’re right that men who are super involved and active with kids in public might stand out a bit more and earn more positive feedback than women who are.

    • Peter says:

      Isn’t that the same when a woman learns bricklaying skills and builds a garden wall? It’s all about her not the wall. When a man builds it, its about the wall. Works both ways I think. Its just tradition and preconceived ideas. Its how people think. On the one hand they praise someone for achieving opposite roles and on the other they place obstacles to those doing it! We are human. Where does logic come into this? LOL

  13. Sara says:

    Whilst finding the encouragement being given to men to nurture and take on more traditionally female tasks worthwhile I can’t help but see it as another way in the church where, structurally, men are essential and women interchangeable and often unneeded.

    If I were to die tomorrow my husband could nurture and look after our children. If he were to die tomorrow I would be able to provide for them, but I couldn’t give them priesthood blessings, baptize or confirm them. Female roles are often opened to men, male roles are never opened to females.

    Sorry of that comes across as slightly cynical.

    • Jessica F says:

      good point, and I think it is a good point for me to to actually think about. I do feel like women are more interchangeable in church culture and that is really damaging and adds to the invisibility issue.

    • I think the encouragement for men to have more of a role at home was a good thing, as having men spend more time doing the work of housekeeping and child rearing allows for women to have time to do things other than the traditional housekeeping and child rearing work. If we want women to be more than home bound child care models of domesticity, while still stressing that family is the most important thing, the men need to do more than bringing home money and making sure everyone is properly presided over (neither of which is necessary to growing a family).

      Slightly cynical is certainly understandable.

    • Peter says:

      I had passed over this a few times in the scriptures before I opened my eyes to see it. Healing is a gift of the Spirit and open to men and women equally. I consequently wondered about this and looked into history a bit. I discovered in the early restoration women gave blessings to women and men to men. Vestiges of this can be seen in the temple for those who have experienced that. It was later under BY that gradually this changed to what we accept today. Now we think the priesthood is needed to give these blessings but I think its just protocol! Really it is time it changed back again! Personally the only thing I would care about is whether I felt the person giving the blessing had the Spirit and Faith! Gender pales into insignificance!

  14. Agreed. Last time I was in town while my dad was giving a lesson, I said, “I’d love to come hear you teach like you used to come listen to Mom in Relief Society, but for some reason that’s taboo.”

    His reaction? “Let’s mix it up a little. Come to Priesthood with me.”

    So I did. And the men welcomed me during announcements.

    One step in the right direction, I believe.

  15. Caroline says:

    Michelle, I love that story.

    And because this post has attracted a new commenter (whose comment has been removed) who hasn’t read our comment policy, let me send out a general reminder that personal attacks and name calling are not welcome here. We do, however, welcome diverse experiences and opinions, particularly when shared in a spirit of generosity.

  16. Peter says:

    Great perspective Caroline. I hadn’t really thought about it before but I can see where you are coming from and its a very good point that you make. I am a single Dad. Six children aged 14 months up to 10. They are all in their teens and twenties now. I remember the first thing I noticed was how I felt so many of the things women had so often said they felt. So I would like to add a perspective from a male in a female role.
    Men didn’t know what to do so avoided me, (I resent being called priesthood as it feels less than human to me) and women I presume felt rather aukward too! For me it was the most rewarding time of my life and the children seem to remember ( perhaps selectively) a very happy and contented family life. I had two businesses at the time, could not afford child care and have no idea how I managed! I remember most the lovely feeling we had at home though. Such inner peace! Sacrament was something I rarely listened to. Not the best environment for young children to behave perfectly in but in two years I don’t think I missed more than once.
    In society during that time I encountered quite a bit of disadvantage for being a single Dad. The very least of it was the exclusion. I remember a party once where every child in nursery (kindergarten?) was invited except mine! As a parent I really felt for my two year old daughter when she asked where they were all going together.
    Later I remarried in true Mormon style so we really didn’t know how family life would work in practise. Male Church leaders thought this would be great for me and females breathed a sigh of relief! However for me it was very difficult. I was now attached so much to them it was painfull to relinquish the primary carer job! I did so because I thought it was what I was supposed to do but the children were not co operating either. So after a couple of years I changed my work to something which would allow me to be the primary care giver again. This did work better, however I wish to point out
    two main things. Firstly, my wife relinquished the cooking and cleaning, homework duty, washing, ironing etc etc but would not take up any of the male jobs such as maintenance, lawn cutting and the extremely dirty jobs I had always done! So I seemed to get everything to do! The other is that although I still worked and paid out of my wages all household bills, car and food so most of her wage was for luxuries, she still felt resentful contributing to what she thought should be my responsibility. We were eventually divorced and we have rebuilt our lives. I am not attributing blame as there are two sides to every story and I believe she for the most part did her best. The point I wish to make is that women are also guilty of having preconceptions about gender roles too which they carry with them and impose on their husbands. It seems these days we value power and influence in terms of prestige such as presiding priesthood positions which to me mean very little. I value caring and nurturing far more highly. As a consequence I find the patriachal order frustrating as it doesn’t really allow for men like me!

  17. CZ says:

    I have been so amazed by how encouraging all the men in my ward have been about me going to school. I get congratulated all the time. The women? Not so nice about it.

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