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Scholarly Strategies for Debunking Women's Subordination in Religion: Can We Apply Them to Mormonism?

by Caroline

For the past few decades, several feminist scholars of religion have worked hard to create space for female agency and empowerment within their respective traditions. These are women scholars who are dedicated to their religions and want to work within them to reject ideas about female subordination. In studying some of these scholars this last semester, I’ve seen some common strategies they’ve used to tackle problematic scriptures that have been used to subjugate women.

Common Strategies:

a) reject culturally biased misogynistic ideas that do not originate in sacred scripture (thus a Muslim feminist scholar would reject all stories about Eve’s secondary status which have crept into Islam from Christianity, since the Qur’an shows males and females created equally and simultaneously.) 

b) challenge readings of problematic scriptures by reinterpreting and redirecting focus onto the stated duty of men/husbands, rather than just focusing on the duty of women/wives (A Muslim scholar, Hassan*, in the Qur’anic verse that is traditionally translated, ““Men are the managers of the affairs of women … Virtuous women are, therefore, obedient.” goes back to the original language and reinterprets ‘managers’ as ‘breadwinners’ and ‘obedient’ as ‘capable of baring children’ – still stratified gender roles, but removes the hierarchy.)

c) Limit or expand these interpretations of separate gender roles in ways that give women as much agency and empowerment as possible. (In a Qur’anic verse that seems to give husbands the right to confine or beat disobedient wives, Hassan argues that the injunction is given to the community – only in a time of mass rebellion by women can community leaders come together to discipline women.)

d) Justify separate gender roles, not in moral differences between the sexes, but in pure biology.

Personally, I’m willing to reject as culture a lot of things considered ‘scriptural’, so I’m not so bound up in trying to defend passages in scriptures that I find misogynistic. I doubt I’m alone – I think a lot of Mormons are pretty comfortable writing off various scriptures for various reasons. But I think the practice of trying to work within our religious framework to create feminist space is a good one, so I was wondering if we could apply these feminist strategies to Mormonism. 

a) What are the cultural (non-scriptural, folk doctrine) ideas about women within Mormonism that are used to limit us? For me, the most bothersome ideas are justifications for women not having priesthood. I don’t recall anything scriptural that outright forbids women from being ordained. Along those same lines, ideas about women being better than men, and therefore not ‘needing’ the priesthood are problematic to me. Also, ideas about men being the final decision makers in the home annoy me.

b) Challenge the readings of problematic scriptures. What are our most problematic scriptures? For me, it’s easy to write Paul off as a man speaking within his cultural time when it comes to women, so I’m not particularly bothered by the ‘man is the head of the women’ stuff. He loses credibility in my eyes when it comes to gender issues when he talks about how women shouldn’t speak in church or wear gold. There is the Eve story which does seem to place women in a subjugated position, but that can be interpreted as a natural consequence of the fall, not as how God would want it to be. (Though the problematic temple covenant on obedience complicates that interpretation.)  And overall, Mormons are pretty kind in their estimation of Eve. So what’s left? For me it’s probably The Proclamation – which is recent and therefore, with the Mormon belief in continuing revelation, harder to write off – and its injunction for men to preside in the home. Is there a way to reinterpret that in a way that doesn’t limit my personhood and demean me as a woman? I haven’t figured that out, but I do think it is helpful to focus on the description of the duty of the husband, just as Hassan suggests. In Mormondom, the man may ‘preside’ but it’s pictured as being somewhat benign, (love, equal partnership, etc.).

c) Limit the interpretations of the gender roles: If we are going to take the ‘preside’ stuff seriously, I think it is fruitful to limit that to within the context of marriage, where two people can work out what that means as ‘equal partners.’ Don’t expand it to the community. Don’t think of it as if every man presides over every woman. (Which I don’t think we Mormons often do – though I do sense that some Mormon women think they should listen to/obey Mormon men in general as priesthood holders/leaders.)

d) Justify differentiation of gender roles in pure biology. I’m not sure where Mormons come down on that one. I think when it comes to the homemaker/breadwinner stratification, that is often argued in terms of biology, but it is also argued in terms of natural instincts and inherent talents. And as for the priesthood holder/non-priesthood holder stratification, I’ve never heard anyone base that in biology.  

What do you think are the most problematic Mormon ideas/scriptures about women? Do you see these strategies as being at all helpful? Or is it just too limiting to take seriously passages written about gender roles within a particular cultural context?

*Riffat Hassan. “Muslim Women and Post-Patriarchal Islam.”


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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21 Responses

  1. James says:

    I tried to make the final decision once early in our marriage. I haven’t tried since…

  2. cornnut32 says:

    the way priesthood leaders will listen to the man of the house but not the woman, because “he is the patriarch of the home” and the “priesthood leader” so everything must come from him. bull.

  3. Shelley says:

    “There is the Eve story which does seem to place women in a subjugated position, but that can be interpreted as a natural consequence of the fall, not as how God would want it to be.”

    I read a really, really interesting article in a women’s studies class a few semesters back about Eve. The author asserts that if we really scrutinize various parts of the story, we can see that she wasn’t put in a subordinate position at all. I definitely recommend it to anyone struggling with the idea of women = 2nd class because Eve = 2nd class.


  4. Caroline says:

    James, good for you. You learned quickly.

    cornnut, that is indeed an obnoxious thing. I imagine it varies from place to place, since I don’t think I’ve ever felt that exactly. But I’ve known other women who have.

    Shelly, thanks for the link. Beverly Campball does do a great job of articulating the positive Mormon viewpoint on Eve. Though I found her discussion of the very problematic “he shall rule over thee” inadequate. It doesn’t make me feel much better to have that softened to ‘preside.’ But that’s just me. Does that satisfy you?

  5. Just what is “pure” biology? Ideas about science (not necessarily science itself) has dominated discourse about gender and marriage roles within Mormondom for over 150 years. Think about 19th-century (and later; these ideas still have many adherents) justifications for polygamy: men are by nature polygamous, needing to sow their seed in as many places as possible, etc. A lot of evolutionary biology is little more than thinly-cloaked justification for sexism. I’ve really enjoyed Natalie Angier’s and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s treatment of the topic, in Woman: An Intimate Geography and Mother Nature: Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection, respectively.

  6. Caroline says:

    Good question. The way Hassan justifies stratified gender roles is biology, as opposed to moral difference. Since women might spend 20-25 years of their life pregnant and raising young children, she argues that it makes sense that women should not have to also be responsible for being breadwinners during those times of great physical stress. For Hassan, this (biology) is a more positive justification for gender roles than saying that men are smarter, more capable, morally superior, and therefore that’s why they should be out in society earning money.

    Good point, though, about how complicated that line of reasoning can get. Those biological justifications for polygamy are unpersuasive to me – though I suppose, if one had to believe in it, thinking that it was because of biology is better than thinking it’s because men are superior to women…?

  7. Shelley says:

    The best answer I’ve been able to understand about the idea of presiding is that EVERYTHING in God’s Church is organized, no matter what. Everything, from the Church as a whole down to a class of 4 beehives, has a president. It would make sense, then, that the family would need a president. While men hold the Priesthood, it seems to follow that they would be the ones to preside.

    Still, that idea does resonate a little sharp with me. I’m very interested and open to learning more about familial organization and the idea of patriarchal presiding, both from social and doctrinal viewpoints.

  8. TT says:

    I also find the Eve story problematic, particularly in the temple context.

    I Find the lack of scriptural role models in the BOM very problematic, it bothers me that there are few named women in the BOM and that their lives appear secondary to the main male characters, why could we not know the names of Nephi’s sisters or spouse?

    I am bugged that womens organizations are deemed auxillary, and at the easy association with dispensibility.

    It has always bothered me that when the prophet is sustained at GC the women and children are the last to stand up.

    I wish we could talk about the meaningful contributions mormon women have made to society and community outside of and in addition to a church setting.

    I wish we knew more about Heavenly Mother. The concept of a mother god is so empowering as an idea but without anything to back it up it seems more like something to placate women with

    I hate that the Relief Society Message is at the back of the Ensign and is relegated to a bunch of random quotes while the home teaching message is always a long article at the front of the magazine and is always written by a male apostle…

    I guess I could go on for a long time

    I do think the strategies you present are helpful, because I have faith that the majority of the gender issues within mormonism are cultural in origin. I can’t believe that a perfect loving god would perpetuate these things, I can only believe that they remain due to the small minds of people who are afraid of what they don’t understand. I think it would be awesome to have a brainstorming session of like minded mormon women using these techniques on our issues. Thanks, I enjoyed reading this!

  9. hawkgrrrl says:

    Like TT I believe most of this is cultural stuff (old geezers yearning for the past make this harder to let go of–and I mostly mean at the local level, BTW). It’s easy to confuse the “comfortable” and “familiar” with the “right.”

    The issue with a lack of female role models in the BOM is IMO a by product of General Mormon’s abridgment. It’s like looking for Gen. Schwarzkoff to write the Feminine Mystique. Not likely. Military men are notoriously tone deaf on women’s issues.

    I have a hard time with the “pure biology” arguments. I’m not sure we know what the biological significance is. My husband is a great nurturer for a man, but I’m a lousy one for a woman. Yet we’re probably not too far apart in terms of skill or inclinations. I would not want to marry a man who was totally inept in this respect. Would anyone? Wouldn’t they just die out over time due to being less desirable mates?

    • Caroline says:

      TT, everything you mention is a problem for me as well. The lack of female role models in BOM is a huge turnoff for me. Too bad, because I think there are some radical and liberating insights in the book, but when I feel so excluded as a woman because of the lack of women, it’s hard to appreciate those insights.

      For me, the problem goes beyond lack of women in sacred texts. I also cringe at the pervasively male language. ‘He’ ‘Man’ ‘Sons’ ‘Brothers’ – that kind of language makes me feel very alienated. I would love it if the Church would come out with a more inclusively translated Bible, and stick in some inclusive language in the BOM as well.

      Hawkgirl, I think that’s a good way to think about the BOM problem – Mormon just wasn’t interested in women. Such a shame, since so many biblical stories feature women, so it wasn’t unheard of to pass stories of women down in sacred writings.

      As for the biology stuff, I think Hassan isn’t necessarily making arguments about women or men’s inherent abilities to nurture. I think she’s talking about the fact that many women get pregnant, give birth, and often breastfeed – sometimes for 20 years or more. And therefore, it makes sense to have a man as breadwinner during those times of great physical stress on women. I don’t know if she really loves the idea of separate gender roles, but she’s working with what she has – the Qur’an – and trying to come up with the most empowering interpretation possible for the prescribed gender roles within it. But I agree that the biological significance of nurturing abilities is complicated. My husband is a better nurturer than I am.

  10. Kiri Close says:

    Gee–where do I begin?

    -Culturally/socially speaking, I’ve only been with very few LDS women who are okay about being thinkers (publicly or privately). Thank Goodness there’s EXPONENT! So, I’d like to see more of us mormon gals open & confident about being thinkers of every nook and cranny detail of whatever comes up in the scriptures, or in our outdated teaching manuals for Sun School, YW, & RS.

    Next: what is the validity of allowing only males to be BYU presidents? Have never found any supporting or reasonable doctrine for that. And if there is, then it’s obviously outdated & not ‘current’ revelation of any sort for our current day & age.

    Can we also get rid of the idea that the “errand of angels is given to women” only? This is a ridiculous, glamorous notion populary sung in an LDS hymn, which feeds into pseudo-submissive, icky, saccharin sweet, natures (albeit incomplete & without just freedoms) in LDS culture. As far as I feel it, all sexes have access to dispositions of winged beings (which aren’t always “gentle & human” with any scriptural “destroying angel”–ask Moses & he’ll tell ya).

    This list is too long to finish right now.

    btw, great classic topic!

  11. Kiri Close says:

    Oh, and 1 more thing!

    I wish we could talk more openly and honestly about sex in Relief Society (and perceive these kinds of lessons to be just as spiritual as talking about service, tithing, etc.). From where I’ve been sitting since I was a kid, it appears the Priesthood classes also need lessons like this, too.

  12. Laurie T. Jemison says:

    There is a book called excavating our Mormon past. There are also tons of other “new” Mormon history books that paint quite a different picture of early Mormon women. What the Church was excommunicating Mormon scholars and feminist in the 70’s and 80’s for…is now available even in the BYU library. I just finished a historiography about Early American Mormonism and the women who joined the Church. What I found was fascinating. Also, a sociologist named Lawrence Foster has written and studied communal societies including Mormonism and his work is highly objective.
    After I finished my paper I felt the presence of those early Mormon Women gathered around me. The bottom line is there were many communal societies springing up all over New York. Mormon’s were not persecuted because of polygamy, that was just a smoke screen. They were persecuted because they had the numbers to swing any vote. I have come to believe the reason Mormonism grew and the others did not was that Joseph Smith had a vision of total equality not only between the sexes, but races as well. Mormon women were ordained to the priesthood, they did perform priesthood ordinances. The relief society was not under the umbrella of the male priesthood but was under the direction of the female priestesshood. From the beginning women had an equal vote in the Church, owned their own land and even commerce. They were not only encouraged to engage in the first wave of feminism, they were sent by the Church to feminist rallies and conventions. Joseph Smith also baptized and ordained to the priesthood at least 1 black man that we know of. 13 of Joseph Smiths wives had and lived with other husbands and so clearly it was not one sided in the beginning. Plural Marriage would be much more fitting a term than polygamy.
    My next paper I will address the question, “What Happened.” As far as I can tell, their was a huge change when polygamy was banned by the Church. All of the early Church leaders had died, and slowly Church policy started to change. The church tried to keep it a secret for many years and pandora’s box was open when Leo Arrington–who was the first official church historian–began to notice the journals of early Mormon women. He then tutored several university students who all became renowned historians, on writing a New Moron History about the women. Not long afterward he was removed from his post and the Church Archives were closed off to the members of the Church. However, the history could not be stopped. It is fascinating to me. All of it. It has led me to many more questions all of which I look forward to researching. It has also helped me come to peace with many of the issues I have with the Church. What I know is, I am in love with a Church that no longer exists. I do not look upon it as a judgment because I realize that in order to be accepted and to grow and thrive, there are many sacrifices that need to be made. However, I still have a problem with them blaming their racism on God. I could write about this for hours.

  13. Natalie says:

    I wish we had a sacred text written by women. And I’m so glad to hear about other women that have these concerns. All my life, I’ve been dancing in circles in my head to explain why the lack of women on the stand, women in our history, women in the scriptures, doesn’t bother me. Now, I’ve fallen down with exhaustion. I’m tired of lying to myself about not being bothered by having a second-class status coated in rose petals and perfume. I want answers. And change. 🙁

  14. Natalie says:

    Oh, and I’m so bothered at the scarcity of female voices in General Conference, and that the women’s conference is held a week before and not considered one of the sessions, while men are important enough to get their own special session on Saturday night. I don’t think that one has been mentioned.

    And I hate that, when there are women’s voices, they’re too often like this: http://www.lds.org/conference/talk/display/0,5232,23-1-775-27,00.html

  15. Caroline says:

    Natalie, everything you said resonates with me. Lack of female leadership is a huge problem.

    Laurie, thanks for your perspective. Wish I could read your papers!

    Kiri, amen!

  16. poetam says:

    I don’t have a problem with it actually. I have never felt myself inferior, just different to the male.

    Cixous would agree with me that it was the goal of early French Feminism to recognize the differences as a form of equality. They have a penus, I have a vagina, the two go together with neither being the subordinate.

    I think women are prone to making themselves second class citizens by all the “customs” surrounding Relief Society, have the perfect centerpiece and always being cookie cutter cute. Its a left over identity from the 50’s that has seeped into culture, but if it was not for other women promoting this and existing in the culture I vouch that it would not exist.

    So accusing the Priesthood does not seem a valid argument. You have to blame the women for their own despondency, if they have any at all.

  17. amelia says:

    oh yes–let’s blame the women themselves.

    look i understand the point. women can, and often do, participate in their own subjection or degradation (men do, too; how often have we heard men proclaim that women are more spiritual?). but this is *hardly* a comprehensive explanation for the inequity between men and women in the church.

    i also find the men-and-women-are-different explanation inadequate. true, men have penises and women have vaginas. they’re different. but cixous didn’t stop there. she also said something along the lines of refusing to be a hole (vagina) trembling with desire to be filled (with a penis). in other words, it’s not enough to simply assert difference between men and women. that difference must allow for autonomous existence in which women’s (and men’s) difference allows a space where they are not subjected to the other’s will. and if i’ve ever encountered a culture in which women are too frequently reduced to a hole quivering with desire to be filled in order to fulfill their potential, it’s mormon culture.

    when mormon rhetoric–that gender is eternal and therefore men and women’s differences are inherent–actually means something, then maybe i can accept your argument as meaningful. but that will only happen when we stop *prescribing* how a woman should be a woman and instead simply allow the inherent difference to manifest itself.

  18. Matthew A. (SLC) says:

    Not to be judgmental, but I personally do not understand how a person can claim to have a testimony and yet disagree so passionately with those whom we sustain as prophets. While I agree with the idea of equality among men and women and that God views us as equally important, I do not believe that we have a right to tell God how to run His church, which is in essence what position is being presented here.

    There are many things in the church that we cannot understand, there is no promise that we will understand everything in this life. The question is not, “Is The Church sexist.” The question is, “Did Joseph Smith see God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, and is The Church today led by Them?”

  19. amelia says:

    that may be the first question, matthew–about whether joseph smith saw god. but that question is by no means the final question. nor do i think is the question of whether god/jesus christ lead the church. it’s entirely possible for human beings to take divinely inspired teachings and warp them. the endowment ceremony makes it clear that things that originate with god can be used for evil ends. so to my mind answering yes to your question is grossly insufficient reason to simply accept the church as it is. i must also be able to answer yes to the question of whether the church embodies the principles of christ as i understand them through the spirit. if the answer is no, then the next question is what can be done to change the church so it more fully embodies christ’s teachings.

  20. Douglas Hunter says:

    Matthew A. writes:

    “I do not believe that we have a right to tell God how to run His church,”

    No we don’t have that right. But we do have the very important responsibility of closely listening to, praying about, and studying what our leaders ask of us, and teach about the church, the nature of humanity, scripture, etc. When we do this and observe the ways in which church teaching mirror or reproduce very human ideological structures it is our responsibility to not conflate that with God running his church, because that is how bad things happen in god’s name.

    “There are many things in the church that we cannot understand, there is no promise that we will understand everything in this life.”

    But without question it lack spiritual and intellectual integrity to work with a formulation that says “if it looks like bias, if it smells like bias, if it tastes like bias, its not bias, I just don’t understand. The thing is that someone like Caroline DOES understand and is trying to work through some challenging issues.

    “The question is not, “Is The Church sexist.” ”
    True, this is not a very good question. But examining how gender bias shapes our theology, the power structure of the church, and the expectations / possibilities for men and women in the church are completely valid things to do.

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