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Sister Stupid

by EmilyCC

I’ve noticed that I often feel uncomfortable using the word, “sister,” both in Church and online because I feel like the term is often used to by women to put other women in their place.

Some examples I’ve heard:

Well, that’s your opinion, sister.
This isn’t the way God works, sisters.
Sister, can I give you some advice? (and then, not waiting to hear if the advice is wanted)
Come on, sisters, we need to…(begin some type of instruction)

In this context, “sister” feels like a passive-aggressive way to assert moral superiority over another woman. In fact, sometimes, I think that “stupid” or even “b—-” would work just as well because of the tone used in these statements.

It makes me sad because some of the most loving sentiments I have heard are also prefaced with “sister,” but the venom I have heard (or read) more often as of late makes me cringe.

I love my fellow LDS sisters; I feel a connection with them that differs from other women in my life. But, I just don’t use that title with them because I’ve heard it used negatively so often.

Perhaps my disconnect with the word represents a longing for a more cohesive sisterhood that makes all feel included, one that our leaders often talk about.

What do you think of the use of the title, “sister”? Do you use it much?

Do you feel like there is a true sisterhood in the Church? What do you think could happen on a local or church-wide level to make it better?


EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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  1. christih says:

    I also have heard many of these things inside of the statements with “sister” in them. I have often wondered why we talk about the “brethren” (it seems to me) with respect and honor, while the “sisters” are talked about in instances such as “aren’t those sisters wonderful?” (which is condescending to me), or “maybe we could call the sisters–they do that kind of stuff” (insert anything from baking to homemaking stuff here–but nothing having to do with leadership). I, however, only find this from men who often only use the term “sisters” in a strictly church sense. When women use it, I tend to feel more of a connection and less of a negative impression. Anyone else?

  2. Caroline says:

    Emily, I had never really thought of ‘sister’ as a pejorative word. But in those contexts, you’re right that it can connote a sense of superiority.

    I actually do use the term. Usually when I want to emphasize my connection with others who are considered outsiders. I’m sure I’ve talked before about my gay brothers and sisters who I want to feel welcomed in the church, or my brothers and sisters in other parts of the world who labor in sweatshops, etc.

    I think what you sense about the word ‘sister’ is similar to what I sense about the phrase “bless your heart.” Which I think often means “Go to hell”

    I can’t say I feel true sisterhood in general with RS women. But I do feel something like that with my blogging pals.

  3. madhousewife says:

    I only say “sister” if I mean it. If I want to be ironic, I say “friend.” If I’m looking to be truly nasty, I say “dear.”

    I do feel there is true sisterhood in the Church. Obviously, though, not every “sister” feels it. I think what is needed is more honesty, more openness about our lives–not in a TMI way, but about our experiences, opinions, struggles–especially our struggles. Church should be a safe place to struggle. Unfortunately, openly struggling makes some people uncomfortable, and many of us feel obligated to pretend that we’re fine, so we all put on our church faces and as a result we don’t know each other and a lot of us feel alone. On the other hand, I believe there is a lot of genuine love among women in the church, when there is opportunity to express it–when people are vulnerable enough to admit that they need it.

  4. vicki says:

    I have always felt uncomfortable using “sister” to address church members because I grew up going to Catholic school and those “sisters” were mean and would whack you on the hand with a ruler whenever they felt you had stepped lout of bounds. I just don’t use the term in my ward. I call women by their first names unless I don’t know them. Vicki

  5. cchrissyy says:

    LOVE the picture you found!

  6. I don’t use it. I think some people are offended by that, but it makes me want to use it even less because it’s not supposed to be a title. I call my biological sisters by their first name. I want my best friends to call me by my first name, not by some preset word.

    I do try to be respectful by calling those women Sister who prefer it, though.

  7. EmilyCC says:

    christih, great point about “brethern.” I wonder if this respect and honor is because “brethern” often refers to GA’s? I think I usually hear the men referred to as, well, “the men” or “the Priesthood.”

    Caroline, what a great way to use these words to remind us of our interconectedness!

    madhousewife, I wish more wards’ RS’s felt like safe places to struggle. I wonder how we get to that point. In the past, I’ve tried to share my struggles ( here’s one example), but I don’t feel like it does much to change the overall culture–just leaves me feeling vulnerable.

    Vicki, thanks for your Catholic school example; it’s an important reminder why some people might prefer first names and another problem with the word, “sister.”

    cchrissy, thanks! I found it off another blog and then, I’m afraid, promptly lost that link. Sigh…

    proudmamablogger, it is tricky! Up until last night, I assumed that most women who prefer to be called “sister” are older. At Enrichment, though, I met a woman around my age (late 20’s, early 30’s) who made it clear she wanted to be called, “Sister So-and-So.”

  8. Rachel says:

    i use the term “sistah” when i’m referring to my close girlfriends.

    the only time i had an issue w/ the word “sister” was when i was a new missionary. i felt like “sister —” was my mom and not me….it took a few months before i began to identify with that name. and since that time it reminds me of being a missionary and i like being reminded of that, so it’s all good now.

    i attend a small branch where everyone goes by their first name or “brother (insert first name instead of last)”…i like that better…more personal

  9. Jessawhy says:

    I think Sister is a good way out when you can’t remember the name of the parents of your kids in your primary class.
    So, I’ll use it sometimes. But not really anywhere else.
    (I also love the picture!)

  10. Maria says:

    When I email the Mothers’ Group I coordinate, I usually begin with “Hello ladies.” I don’t like using sisters for it. It isn’t a natural salutation for me. Plus, I have several friends who aren’t members of the church that I include in the activities. I would never want to alienate them with phrases we use at church. As for feeling an emotional connection at church with the word sister, though I usually sense the condescending tone in its use, I have on rare occasions felt the completeness of the word. The most recent experience came during a RS lesson in which I was asked to share a time when I was blessed by service. I shared an experience I had as a young bride in a new ward. I had been asked by the RS pres. to help a sister in the ward pack her house up so the EQ could help her move. When I arrived at the apartment, I was the only help. The house was beyond filthy and I was disgusted, revolted, angry, and alienated. But as I worled side by side with this sister, I came to see her, not her dirty house. I left covered in dirt many hours later, but I felt very clean internally. Obviously, there was more to the story, I am paraphrasing… but many sisters came to me in the following weeks and confessed similar experiences and emotional reactions. I had many tearful conversations with women I never would have otherwise. I agree completely that RS needs to be a place where open struggling is allowed, we grow together when we allow each other to take off the perfection facade and become human.

  11. CatherineWO says:

    When I read your examples, I could hear them all in my memory ears (mostly in male voices), and yes, in these contexts, “Sister” is definitely a negative address.
    I am much more comfortable using first names, and I am old enough that I can get away with it (even when talking with our bishop who is younger than my own son).
    I do use “sister” when referring to very close friends, not necessarily Church members, and when referring to my only sister sibling, who is a true “Sister” in every sense of the word.

  12. ZD Eve says:

    Great observations, EmilyCC. “Sister” can often be part of our passive-aggressive culture of cutting someone down under a veneer of niceness.

    I’ve often thought that the polite and sugar-coated “sisterhood” of church is a stark contrast to the real, blood-and-guts sisterhood I feel with my biological sisters, that’s based on years of childhood fighting, hysterical laughter, and gut-wrenching honesty. Without the honesty, and the trust necessary for such honesty, our sisterhood will remain at lip-service level.

  13. pcherieb says:

    There is always a sister-hood when focused on a common goal to eliminate suffering and bring about more world peace! I grew up saying sister so and so when I lived in California, however, Utahns rarely use it. Only sometimes do I choose to feel awkward and use the term.

  14. Kaimi says:

    Weirdly, by calling someone “sister” or “brother,” we’re treating them precisely the way we _don’t_ treat our actual sisters or brothers.

    Do any of you call your brothers, “Brother Danny”? I sure don’t. I _know_ he’s my brother, I call him by his name.

    It reminds me of something my judge said, years ago when I was a law clerk. They wanted to refer to him as “the Honorable Judge Weinstein” in an article, and he said, no, just call me Judge Weinstein. His comment was along the lines of, “if you have to put honorable in your title, it means you probably aren’t.” Better to _be_ honorable (and he was a very honorable person) than to be ostentatiously called honorable.

    And similarly, better to treat people as brothers and sisters.

    That said, I don’t always think about it very much in practice. Using the brother/sister title is very much a habit at this point.

  15. Ziff says:

    I remember once that a man giving a prayer to close a priesthood session of Conference asked God to “bless our sisters.” It struck me very personally because at the time I had been in the MTC for a short time, and I missed my sisters a lot. So I guess from that I kind of have positive associations with the word.

    But I can see what you’re saying, Emily, about “sister” being used by women to smack other women down. Kind of like, as madhousewife mentioned, the way “friend” sometimes gets used. You know Kiskilili, Emily–she’s very funny when she demonstrates how people use “friend” in a nasty way–her tones of voice and facial expressions are hilarious!

  16. Meg says:

    I have always felt a little uncomfortable with the use of “brother” and “sister” in the church for people near my same age or younger, but would consider it a respectful term for someone a generation or so older with whom I might feel uncomfortable using their first name.

    Part of my discomfort with the term comes from a comment that was once made during gospel doctrine, when a “brother” in my ward stated that we should always use brother/sister rather than first names, as that would breed too much familiarity and might cause temptation for adultery. I found this idea ludicrous, but it has since tainted my impression of the term, such that I now feel like the term is not intended to bring us together as one but rather to keep us at a distance, to make us view others as church members first and individuals/friends second. I find it similar to the title “elder” in that respect, to remind us of the position rather than the person.

    I would also agree that often when I hear the “brethren” using the term “sisters,” I feel like it is condescending. After a talk by the president of the relief society, the president of the elder’s quorum got up to reassure and affirm to the “sisters” that what the relief society president had said was true. That definitely rankled a bit, as clearly we were all able to discern that for ourselves and didn’t need the male stamp of approval. He was also using the General Authority Voice at the time, which made it even worse.

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