A pedestal is a small stand to mount something on. It is a base for something decorative such as a statue, vase, or column. Figuratively, it is a place for some respected or highly regarded person. I continue to hear some women, and many men, say that they are honoring women by ‘putting them on a pedestal’. I find it harmful and dehumanizing. For this blog, I am going to simplify and use the same man-woman, male-female dichotomy that church leaders use. I want to acknowledge that this language is imperfect and doesn’t describe the lived experience of all people.
A few years ago I watched an animated movie with my kids called “Gnomeo and Juliet”, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet with red and blue garden gnomes as the main characters. Juliet gets down from her pedestal and tries a lot of things that her father doesn’t approve of (i.e. leaving the yard, and riding a lawn mower with a gnome of the wrong color). Her father says something like “Get back up on your pedestal where you belong!” and glues her in place. This part of the film struck me hard. When someone else tells you where you need to stand, and how, and decides whether you can move or not, you lose your freedom and individuality. It does not bring you true honor and admiration, because you aren’t your acting your true self.
Some of the ways women are pedestalized in church:
“Women are more spiritual than men.” Why would anyone be against such a position of admiration? When women are set up on display for their righteousness, it takes away their humanness and falliability. Women are not actually more spiritual than men. They are living beings with great capacity for good as well as evil: creative ability, wisdom, leadership, and other talents and on the other end of the spectrum: selfishness, thoughtlessness, pride, and other follies – just like men. Although some people say that women are more spiritual, I am not convinced they actually BELIEVE it; because these are the same people that will give great detailed instructions to women about how to be women and they don’t seem to trust women’s spiritual intuition whatsoever.
“Women are so special, they don’t need the priesthood.” Priesthood, the power of God on earth and the authority of administering the ordinances that are to bring one to God. Women are so good they don’t need that? And men do? To me, that argument makes no sense at all, it is a platitude for dismissing blatantly sexist policy. Women have no power or voice in the kingdom of God because they are so darn special? Putting the entire burden of the kingdom on the men’s shoulders deprives them of the insights of half the church body. Women’s voices should be heard and they should fully participate at all levels to best represent the membership of the church.
“Women are so wonderful and self-sacrificing”, this makes women feel like they have to conform to this impossible ideal. They have to always put others first: their spouse, their children, and anyone they serve. They feel like it is selfish to care for themselves and put their needs first. This harms the whole family, because when the woman’s needs go unmet she will become exhausted and less able to love and serve in the way she would like.
“Good women are great supporters, they never complain about the time their husband spends on his callings.” This makes women feel like they can’t voice their concerns or complaints when their husband neglects the family for his church calling and she is left to try to cope on her own. She might carry resentment that will poison her relationship. This also keeps men from actually hearing feedback from their wives about how to better balance their home and outside responsibilities and having a fully contributing partner.
“Women are all mothers with a natural mothering ability.” This puts huge pressure on women who don’t feel like they fit the mold. It makes women feel like they are a failure if they can’t find a spouse and/or reproduce. Some women don’t want children. Some can’t have them, This makes women feel terrible if they don’t experience a natural nurturing inclination, or if in any way their mothering skills don’t seem to meet the high standard they have built for themselves over the years. Many women carry great resentment about the pedestalizing of motherhood, and the painful tradition of the Mothers’ Day Rameumptum. This way of thinking also keeps men from fully embracing their own nurturing nature. What about “Men are natural nurturers, all men are fathers.” How often do we hear that from the pulpit? Yet, it is about the only message directed at women. They are supposedly eternal beings that have been around forever as female and will continue forever as female; yet they are entirely defined by this one role that they may or may be actively practicing for a limited number of years in their mortal life. Women are full people with abundant life and fill a number of roles, just as men do.
“Women are the gatekeepers of sexual purity.” This puts the onus of sexual sin on the female, though often she will have been coerced. Even in cases of rape, many women have been falsely called to repentance and even disciplined by their priesthood leaders because leaders believed women were responsible for what happened to them sexually. Many women have been disciplined more severely than their co-sinners for sexual indiscretion. Men should be just as accountable. A rapist should be fully accountable before god and the laws of the land, as a victim is innocent of wrongdoing.
“Women should wear modest clothing to keep men from sinful thoughts.” This makes women responsible for the sexual thoughts of others; ignoring that women are also sexual beings and that each human being is supposedly responsible for their own thoughts and behaviors. Women’s clothing choices are not responsible for how men experience the world. Additionally, sexual response is a part of being human and not something to constantly be shaming people over. It is impossible for sexual beings to never experience arousal, women and men both.
“We don’t talk about Heavenly Mother because she is too sacred.” This leaves women frustrated that we are told our gender is important and eternal, yet there is no direct information about the feminine role model. We can only speculate. And if we do, we will likely offend some people who have bought into this trope. Women are supposed to patiently wait until the next life to have all of our questions answered. And meanwhile we are supposed to be obedient to the men in power.
Think what it means for a woman to stand higher than others on a small platform, isolated and alone. What a limited scope that has for her sphere of influence. She remains precariously balanced, respected only so far as she stays put and doesn’t step outside the expectations that placed her there. If she is knocked off, falls off, or steps down from the pedestal she is no longer admired, but scorned, having lost her position of supposed eminence. A pedestal is far better suited for displaying a decorative sculpture than housing women’s bodies, reputations, or spirits. A living being must have space to roam, to go out and learn and grow and interact and experience. An autonomous being can not be circumscribed like a statue or ornament without constricting and suffocating her spirit.
And what of equality? Does the pedestal lift women up to a position of equality of men? If so, then it is only in that small space where she is equal. If a woman is equal without the boost of the pedestal, then putting her up there upsets the balance. Are women equal or aren’t they? If a woman is described as ‘better than a man’ they are not equal. If a man is ‘better than a woman’ they are not equal. We’ve got a lot of confusing and contradictory information coming from the church about the supposed ‘equality’ of men and women. For example, in the proclamation we read that husband and wife are ‘equal partners’ yet, it also states that the husband ‘presides’. Preside means he is in the position of authority above others and equal means a person or thing considered to be the same as another in status or quality. If men and women are coequal in their marriage, why doesn’t the proclamation say that? Why insist on stating that the husband presides? What possible good can come from pedestalizing one partner, while the other ‘presides’?
I feel like the church would say it decries unrighteous dominion, yet ‘righteous dominion’ of the male over the female is applauded and even recommended as God’s pattern for family life. I learn from the church that men are entitled to a birthright of governing and controlling in all aspects of life, and women are there to be paradoxically ornamental on a pedestal, yet in reality subservient under the headship of the male.
I would love to see the church become a place where men and women are equal in importance, in opportunities, in position, and in ability to represent God on earth. And where when we think of an equal marriage, we are thinking of a wife and husband of equal status – who are also ‘equal to the task’- having the resources and ability between them to meet the challenges of life together in the best way they see fit.