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