Methinks the Non-Women Protest Too Much: On Non-Equality in the Mormon Church
This week The Washington Post’s “On Faith” ran a series about women’s role in religion as it pertains to sex discrimination. They asked a wide variety of religious figures to respond to this conversation starter:
“The discrimination against women on a global basis is very often attributable to the declaration by religious leaders in Christianity, Islam and other religions that women are inferior in the eyes of God,” former President Jimmy Carter said last week. Many traditions teach that while both men and women are equal in value, God has ordained specific roles for men and women. Those distinct duties often keep women out of leadership positions in their religious communities. What is religion’s role in gender discrimination?”
In a post titled “What Mormon equality looks like,” managing director of church Public Relations Michael Otterson responded to the question by completely ignoring it. His piece fails to even consider the basic question of how the church’s emphasis on prescribing gender roles may, or may not, result in gender discrimination. If Otterson were a student in one of the many freshman writing classes I have taught, this piece would get a big fat “F”–not because his arguments are subpar (they are and I’ll address that momentarily), but because it doesn’t address the prompt.
Otterson opens his post by asserting that members of the church would be appalled by the statement that “women are ‘inferior in the eyes of God,'” implying that if the membership is appalled by that statement it must therefore be untrue. This bad logic is just the beginning of a very weak effort to demonstrate that men and women in the LDS church actually are equal. While Lynette has already done point-by-point look at his arguments at Zelophehad’s Daughters, I’m going to add my two-bits here:
Claim 1: Women are equal to men in the church because Mormon women anonymously say they are.
Otterson starts by saying that, rather than “give a male perspective”, he’d like to refer to the answers provided by three prominent LDS women. He then cites them anonymously. How could this apparently well-educated man not understand the irony of anonymously citing Mormon women in order to illustrate their equality? One of the strongest reasons Mormon women are not equal to Mormon men is that women too often do not have a voice in our church. Yes, they can and do teach and speak publicly in Sunday meetings, but they do so at the request of men. And they do not have a voice to represent their own concerns and interests in many, many all-male leadership councils. And then there’s that whole mute Goddess problem. And that doesn’t even address the fallacious logic of arguing that because women say they are equal, they must be equal. A hundred years ago many women argued against universal suffrage, but I think most of us would agree that the existence of female opponents of universal suffrage does not mean that denying women the vote was not indicative of inequality between men and women.
Claim 2A and 2B: A. Because Mormon women are given the opportunity to speak and lead in church, they “tend to be well educated and confident.” B. Women are therefore equal to men in the church.
Need I really point out that the simple fact that Mormon women are able to speak, teach, and “lead” in the church does not mean there is a causal relationship between that fact and the fact that Mormon women tend to be well educated and confident? I would also be a little surprised if Mormon women were any more well educated than a similar swathe of the non-Mormon populace. And that doesn’t address the fact that Otterson is again advancing a fallacious argument. The simple fact that women are well-educated and confident does not in fact mean that they are equal. Having access to education may be a hallmark of more social equality for women, but it does not equate to equality.
Claim 3: Men and women are equal because they are equally necessary partners in the family
This argument is so rife with problems I sort of don’t know where to begin.
First: Making equality contingent upon being equal partners within marriage ignores and reinforces the second-class status of singles in the church.
Second: While the Proclamation on the Family does say men and women are obligated to help each other within the family, it also says that men “preside” over women and relegates women to the private sphere and men to the public sphere. There is nothing wrong with choosing to work primarily within the private sphere as a stay-home parent, but prescribing that choice is deeply problematic and does lead to inequality.
Third: Women possess the “ultimate divine gift: the potential to create and nurture new life.” Now, I don’t want to downplay the higher physical cost women pay to create new life (nine months of pregnancy; birth; a year of breast-feeding) That said, men do, in fact, also have the potential to create and nurture new life, even if they do it differently. It’s both ignorant and destructive to ignore the fact that men and women are co-creators and co-nurturers of new life and doing so underscores inequality.
Claim 4: both males and females have equal access to God
This is a mixed-truth at best. Does the LDS church teach that every individual has direct access to God? Yes. It does. It also teaches that one can only repent of and be forgiven for the most serious sins by confiding in and working with an appropriate church leader, which leader is always male. And the first covenant women make in the temple establishes men as mediators between women and God. While I can make interesting intellectual arguments about how my own personal relationship with God mitigates these other mediated relationships, that doesn’t change the fact that these other mediated relationships exist. And so long as they do, without similar mediation by women of men’s relationships with God, there is a basic inequity between men and women. And then there’s that whole fact that women can’t participate in the temple, the highest sphere of Mormon worship, without getting a stamp of approval on their spiritual lives from their male leaders.
Claim 5: “[Mormon] women are incredible.”
Really. We’re going with the “they’re incredible” argument here? One of the biggest indicators that women are not equal in the church is the frequency with which our leadership (mostly male) feels compelled to reassure women (and everyone else) that women really are important. If women actually are important, that would just be a fact–it wouldn’t have to be reasserted ad nauseum, ad infinitum at every General Conference and every Sunday in between. And Otterson made this argument be referencing the recent conference talk in which the positively **terrible** story of the lost purse was recounted? Could any recent general conference story better illustrate the narrowness of the role prescribed for women in the church? There is nothing inherently wrong with the prescribed role; the problem is that the prescription restricts women’s options, especially given the degree of social enforcement attached to that prescription. How would those “incredible” Young Women’s leaders have reacted had their search of the anonymous young women’s purse turned up a well-read and marked paperback copy of The Feminine Mystique, a list of quotes from women (Mormon and non-) extolling the virtues of education, no make-up/personal hygiene stuff but a snapshot showing this teenage girl with a buzz cut, a Swiss Army knife, and a note reminding herself to tutor a friend for next week’s physics exam? I’m not so sure this kind of unconventional teenage girl would have elicited such raptures as to demand ALL CAPS because of how she embodies True Womanhood ™.
Claim 6: Because women have contributed to the good things the church is, they are therefore equal.
It’s nice that Otterson rounds out his post with more fallacious reasoning akin to his opening salvo. The simple fact that women make important contributions does not mean they are equal. The great pyramids of ancient Egypt would not exist without the efforts of slaves, but that does not mean that slaves were equal to free people in ancient Egypt. I’m not comparing Mormon women to slaves here–I’m simply pointing out the fact that “making an important, recognized contribution” is not the same thing as “equal.” And that is the crux of Otterson’s problem in this piece–he seems to think that “good” or “smart” or “confident” or “needed” or “important” means equal when that is not at all the case. And by doing so, he dances around the basic question of whether prescribing gender roles leads to sex discrimination within the church. The answer to that question is an unequivocal “yes.” It would have been refreshing had Otterson simply acknowledged that fact.