The Impossible Position of LDS Women: Unsolicited Assertiveness

Photo by Easton Oliver on Unsplash

Several years ago, my bishop mailed a letter about tithing to all the members of our ward. It was wordy and mostly benign, but it contained some statements and advice that I knew weren’t doctrinal (specifically, telling members to pay tithing on their gross (not net) income and sharing a “faith-promoting” anecdote about how his mentor got rich because he paid a very generous fast offering, so my bishop followed his example and became financially successful himself). “Prosperity gospel” views are pretty widely-held in Mormonism, and I normally just roll my eyes or laugh off such statements, but I became increasingly irritated this time. I couldn’t stop thinking about that stupid letter. My husband agreed with me that the bishop had overstepped in a couple of his comments, but he didn’t get why it was such a big deal to me. Honestly, I wasn’t sure, either.

After mulling it over for a few days, I realized my feelings of anger and frustration came not because it was inappropriate for me to go to my bishop and tell him he’d messed up and needed to offer a clarification and apology to our ward, but because it would never be appropriate for me to approach a priesthood leader in such a way. I explained to my husband that, someday, there is a possibility he will have a calling where it would be his responsibility to correct a priesthood leader. He could be a bishop, or a stake president, or a general authority, or the prophet. But in my case, the “highest” church calling I could receive is General Relief Society President, and even in that highest of female leadership capacities, it would still be outside my scope of authority to approach my bishop and tell him he was wrong.

Of course, I realized there were other options available to me. My choice wasn’t a binary between keeping silent and raking my bishop across the coals. I could have made an appointment and gone in to discuss my concerns. I could have sent him an email asking for his source material. But when approaching priesthood leadership, I am always in the position of supplicant, and I feel somewhat as Esther must have felt when appearing unsolicited before her husband-king. Will my requests and concerns be greeted with the golden scepter of compassion or a weapon of ostracization?

As with nearly every other suggestion or criticism that’s ripened in my head for the leadership of my ward/stake, I’ve chosen to keep silent. The benefits just aren’t worth the risks.

I’m a fairly straightforward communicator–far from a shrinking violet. So if I feel this way, how many other women feel the same? We’ve been told to “speak up and speak out,” that our voices are needed. But when church leaders at the highest levels talk about how they face the people with words of the prophets, not face the prophets with words of the people, it’s clear that direction and information-passing in the church is a one-way street: it’s always from the top down, never the bottom up. This culture affects us even on the ward and stake level, and since women are [almost] never in a substantive position of authority over men, input and insight that is uniquely female too often remains at the bottom of the hierarchical ladder, unspoken. I see the patriarchal hierarchy as a waterfall, starting at the highest levels and thundering down to a pool below. Perhaps those of us in the predominantly female pool are speaking, but it’s difficult to hear us over the crashing sheets of water, and climbing up a waterfall is a dangerous proposition.

Our leaders say: sustain and obey your priesthood leaders.
Our leaders say: don’t steady the ark.
Our leaders say: don’t criticize the brethren, even if they’re wrong.
Our leaders say: sisters, step forward, speak up, we need your inspiration.

Obeying that last directive requires going against a lot of cultural conditioning.

As long as our model is patriarchal, partnership is impossible, and women will continue to choose silence over unsolicited assertiveness.


ElleK is a foodie, gardener, and writer. Women’s issues in the church are not a pebble in her shoe; they are a boulder on her chest.

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56 Responses

  1. Andrew says:

    I don’t believe that, in your example, any member (male of female) would be in a different position to you.

    However, I do believe that you were correct, and that you should have expressed your concern to the Bishop. We are told in Matt 5:24 to be “reconciled to thy brother”, is not your Bishop your “Brother” also. Is the tithing you pay not your “gift” that you offer?

    FYI – Handbook 1 Section 14.4.1

    Definition of Tithing
    The First Presidency has written: “The simplest statement we know of is the statement of the Lord himself, namely, that the members of the Church should pay ‘one-tenth of all their interest annually,’ which is understood to mean income. No one is justified in making any other statement than this” (First Presidency letter, Mar. 19, 1970; see also D&C 119:4).

    He did overstep his mark in saying you should pay on gross – it is a personal matter what one considers to be income.

    Using a “get rich quick” idea as a way to increase Fast Offering payment is simply wrong. Not all blessings that come from paying a generous Fast Offering are financial. In fact you would be hard pushed to make the case for financial gain from paying a generous Fast Offering from Isaiah 58.

    So, in short, go to him and express your concerns. You are not saying you will not pay tithing or Fast Offering. You are saying that he may have overstepped what you believe to be current Church policy with regard to offerings. And asking if there is new information you are unaware of?

  2. Amelia Christensen says:

    The waterfall analogy is so on point. Thank you.

  3. Linda Gifford says:

    This is a wonderful and very women are just not equals in church even though the brethren claim they are.

    • ElleK says:

      Definitely not equals in power or authority. I think there are a lot of dynamics at play that the brethren are completely ignorant of, which, I suppose, is the definition of privilege.

  4. Lorraine Jeffery says:

    Well said. You expressed my feelings as an older, active LDS woman perfectly. It is an impossible position.

    Lorraine Jeffery

  5. W says:

    Mark me as another fan of the phrase “climbing a waterfall” — it’s a tight analogy and powerful imagery, and captures the inherent contradiction between the request for advice and the fact that men have places hierarchy of ecclesiastical authority and administration whose importance we emphasize to the near-exclusion of almost everything else, and women don’t. It’s powerful enough, in fact, that were it to become common, I might even expect no small numbers of leaders in the church to use it themselves, though as normative statement rather than a descriptive/critical one.

    The most charitable reading I might make of the inherent contradiction is that some of church leadership recognizes at some level that an always-subordinate state of women presents a problem, so they seek to establish a place for women outside the patriarchy as a kind of oracle to be consulted. Few women are surprised that this is limited at best and doesn’t result in a system where any but a few women’s voices have influence (and few men should be surprised). We do so much to reinforce the value and importance of the hierarchy that even oracle we build up most — the holy ghost — doesn’t give one standing to climb the waterfall, as it’s generally assumed that if it really was important, the HG would start speaking upstream.

    So there’s a knot I want to worry at with the statement “someday, there is a possibility he will have a calling where it would be his responsibility to correct a priesthood leader.” Brother Ellek might receive a stake calling where he’d be granted authority to correct the Bishop of his ward (perhaps this is even likely, assuming that he’s active, recommend-holding, married, and otherwise bearing the normative markers of an integrated place in the patriarchy). But I suspect that didn’t present him with confidence that he has a voice to contend with his current prosperity-preaching priesthood authority; under the same cultural philosophy that means women are never officially granted an authoritative voice, “a priesthood leader” can’t ever mean “*his* priesthood leader.” Husbands may be hoisted a level or two up the cascade, but it remains dangerous to attempt to climb (perhaps more, to the extent that the patriarchy may genuinely regard women as simply outside of it but men to be definitively ordered within).

    This is not an argument that women’s and men’s positions are somehow equal when they’re clearly not. Everyone recognizes that being able to plausibly match your identity with a more widely cascading voice is different from being unable to do so. There would be benefits for the church at large and the lives of women within it if there were more women’s voices regarded with the authority we often grant to our priesthood leaders.

    But I suspect the trouble in the experience that begins this essay — the trouble with how we engage with authority, particularly when it begins to teach or act awry — would remain. If my experience is any guide, women are not above preaching the prosperity gospel or even evaluating people by its standards. If I imagine an LDS church where the patriarchy transforms into a gender-equitable hierarchy, where it’s perhaps even common for a woman to preside over a ward or stake, it is not incredible to imagine some of them preaching that gospel. And with it, to imagine those of us frustrated by that experience regarding our options: being a supplicant to the leader preaching what we disagree with, being a supplicant to a leader up a level in the cascade who might (or might not) correct them on behalf, finding a diplomatic way of offering another perspective from a position of lower authority, or biting our tongues entirely.

    • ElleK says:

      Great insights! There’s a lot in there to chew on. Here are a few of my thoughts:

      – I like the description of women being the oracle outside of the patriarchal structure. I think it’s also important to note that women who have authority in the church are selected and vetted exclusively by men’s final say, so that also plays into the dynamic of what kind of women are consulted.

      – It’s true that no matter how “high” up the hierarchy a man moves (with one exception), he will still have a “superior” priesthood leader, but men have so many more leadership positions and opportunities available to them (less now that they’ve dissolved HPG–huzzah!) that there’s a fair chance they’ll be in a position in the hierarchy someday where they are the “priesthood leader” over someone else.

      – There is a lot to unpack when it comes to Mormons and our sometimes problematic deference to authority, and of course there are women who would preach inaccuracies just as much as any man were they given equal authority. My point was not “give women authority so the doctrine stays pure” but “in our current structure, there is not a practical or systemic way women feel safe or motivated to take on the power structure.” If women were an equal part of the power structure, my guess is that women would feel more like peers and less like supplicants and thus be more likely to give unsolicited feedback.

  6. tomwheeler says:

    I’m currently serving as a counselor in a bishopric. As a counselor I feel like I could say to the Bishop, “hey – I think you went a little far here in your letter..” and have that conversation. And maybe this is male privilege.. but I’m not sure why any member of the ward couldn’t also say the same thing?

    Just last night we were corrected by our primary president, and honestly she was right – we screwed up in some procedures.

    Asking for an apology might be going a bit far (even for the counselor to say). But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking for sources, speaking up.. what’s the worst that would happen? I think it’s all in how you approach it, if I were to come at my bishop with a confrontative attitude it’s not going to go well either, regardless of my position.

    I also think if the general RS president were to come to our ward and offer some corrections to the bishopric, you better believe we would be listening to whatever she suggests! And as a GA she would be completely within her rights to do so.

    I know it doesn’t always happen – but if a priesthood leader is really trying to live by the qualities spelled out in D&C121.. I think the women would feel much better about things.

    • Katie says:

      As a note—the general primary president filled in for an (ailing) apostle in our Stake Conference a few years ago: she was called “Sister” so and so and spoke before the stake president, and therefore, not as an authority.

    • Lynne says:

      Because I once tried to politely point something out to a member of our branch presidency when I was Relief Society president, and I was sharply rebuked: “Never counsel your priesthood head!”

  7. Danna says:

    I’m conflicted on this one. The letter was most definitely well intended but inappropriate. Telling the truth is a divine responsibility and telling the truth in the face of potential disastrous outcomes is necessary. I think HOW the issue is addressed is what matters. To me, constructive feedback equal s sustaining the leadership. So tackling the “how” it’s the trick. You can give feedback without being invalidating and express concern without attacking. Sustaining is a two way street and you might be surprised by the collaboration when you talk it out.

  8. Jared Frank says:

    tomwheeler, my sentiments, exactly! Women in the church (and anyone in the church for that matter) shouldn’t ever feel it ISN’T their place to question their leaders. Question all you want because we’re all in this together. If you’re talking about “raking someone over the coals”… that’s no one’s job – priesthood notwithstanding. Counsel together. Lift each other up. Offer correction where necessary, but always with an increase in love. Danna, you, too, are correct. We all should do better at sustaining. Sustaining doesn’t mean accepting what leadership says without question; rather, it means accepting their guidance BUT also helping them lead correctly.

  9. Marilyn Hawes says:

    I so agree. Mabey not being raised in the church I can never get it that straight that as a woman I should not speak. To me that is a lie unspoken if I agree with whatever is put out. It has been my experience that out leaders here in southern Illinois truly want the best for us . They are human still. . Pray and the Spirit will tell you what is right.

  10. Emily U says:

    The term gaslighting may be overused, but I think the “speak up and speak” out injunction is a form of it. Unintended, of course. As long as it’s out there, if women have something to complain about they can always be blamed for not speaking out about it. Or not speaking about it in the right way.

    This is a complicated problem, because of course how we say things matters, maybe as much as the content of what is said. Kindness and giving the benefit of the doubt are always called for. But the problem is still real – women have to balance lost personal capital for the gain of potential change when talking to a priesthood leader – they are always in the position of hoping to be heard. Men are often in this position of relative weakness, too. The difference is that women in the Church are structurally in that position. That’s male privilege. It’s not going to go away until we have structural change in which a) women are ordained and/or b) leadership positions are no longer contingent on priesthood.

    • ElleK says:

      This is beautifully said, Emily U. I often feel it’s a lose-lose situation for me when it comes to “speaking up” in church: it takes a ridiculous amount of mental and emotional labor to prepare to confront a priesthood leader in a “diplomatic” or “non-threatening” way, and there’s still a big risk you won’t be heard.

      • Katie says:

        I completely agree Emily and Ellek. It’s almost impossible to speak up about something, either after the fact (like the letter) or in progress and achieve the desired result: which is to be heard, acknowledged, and seen in a positive light. Unless you are married to, related to, or have a great report with said leader.

      • Ziff says:

        I agree. Spot on, Emily U and ElleK. It’s really a catch-22 for women.

  11. Autumn Meadow says:

    Wonderful post. I have very strong feeling about many things that are said or done in my ward, but I am usually silent. However, one time several years ago, a high councilor (who happened to be a seminary teacher by profession) gave a talk in my ward in which he said some very old-fashioned, very derogatory things about the role of women, and I could not be silent. I wrote and mailed him an anonymous letter in which I told him all the ways that his talk was undoctrinal, sexist, and wrong. I hated that I felt like I had to do things that way, but I felt much better knowing that I spoke up.

  12. ElleK says:

    I want to clarify that this post is less about the specific example at the beginning (whether my bishop was wrong; whether/how I should/could have spoken to him) and more about the current church structure that generally precludes women from expressing their concerns. Of course any woman (including myself in the tithing letter story) is free to approach her bishop and speak her mind, but there’s a huge power differential at play, and it’s a power differential that will never, ever be reversed (i.e. the woman will always be in the supplicant role).

    tomwheeler and Jared Frank, you seem like good guys who hopefully do what you can in your sphere to listen to and magnify the voices of women, but there are a lot of hidden dynamics at play here that make your suggestions more difficult in practice than may appear from your vantage point.

    Try to look at it this way: you are part of a hierarchical organization where there is a large, coed pool at the bottom, but every leadership position in the hierarchy is (and has been and will always be) occupied by a man. The men in the bottom pool may have previously occupied a position in the hierarchy, or they may in the future be called to lead. They also have opportunities to serve/socialize with current/past/future leaders in their male-only quorums, callings and classes. The women, on the other hand, have never/will never serve in the leadership hierarchy: they will always be in the bottom pool. They’ve been taught their entire lives they are to be presided over by, hearken to, and sustain their leaders/husbands, all of whom are men. They don’t generally have the opportunity to get to know their leaders well or become close friends with them, partly due to lack of opportunity because of gender requirements for callings/classes, and partly due to the cultural taboos that exist in the church around women and men being friends/socializing with each other. Taking all this into account, it should be easy to see that men are often in a position where they can approach their priesthood leadership as peers whereas women are subordinates.

    There are many more layers to this, but that’s a start.

  13. tomwheeler says:

    ElleK – I don’t disagree that there are deep cultural issues at play, but I just wonder if we tend to think about this from the world’s perspective of leadership rather than the Lord’s. Do you think the Savior would use the term “heirarchy”? I do not think he would describe the priesthood structure in that way. He that is greatest is to be the servant. Rather than leading from a top-down position dictating how things should run, the bishop should be the most giving/serving person in the ward.

    Also, “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by…” — I take that to mean that any time I am operating through pride, or self-serving motives in any way, I am not using priesthood authority or power. The priesthood cannot operate that way. Its not that it should not, it cannot. Pride kills priesthood authority. I think the problem you describe, which is real, is cultural not doctrinal.

    Certainly leaders use unrighteous dominion all the time — that’s when the natural man comes out, and we all struggle with that. Its the most natural thing in the world to want to exercise power over others. But in doing so we lose all heavenly power and influence. I don’t think ordaining women is going to solve that problem. Striving to become truly Christlike will get us there.

    This is the structure for the moment that we have. I would speculate that it’s temporary, based on the terms used in the temple of “priests and priestesses” that things may be a little different in heaven.

    • ElleK says:

      The church’s leadership structure is hierarchical by definition. What I think Jesus would say about the present hierarchy is beyond the scope of this post.

      Since you brought it up, I think ordaining women would help in the sense that men and women would see each other more as peers instead of a presider/presidee or leader/subordinate relationship, but I never suggested we ordain women. I just identified a problem with the system.

      I feel like you keep bringing this back around to the male leaders, and I’m trying to focus on the women. How priesthood leaders respond to a woman’s requests/criticisms (either with compassion and change or with unrighteous dominion) isn’t relevant here: what is relevant is that most of us never get to that point. Most of us don’t ever approach our bishops with unsolicited assertiveness because we feel it isn’t our place because of the flaws in the system I outlined above. Most leaders don’t have nearly the input from women they should because there isn’t a system in place where women feel comfortable coming forward. It’s an uneven relationship, an imbalance of power, and all of us are the poorer for it.

      • tomwheeler says:

        I’m focusing on the men because I assume they are the primary cause of this reticence of women to speak up. How do we get women to become more comfortable & confident in speaking up, short of a structural change (ie. ordination)? Is there some other structural change you would like to see? If men were more supportive / understanding / willing to listen.. are these sufficient? If not, then it seems to me we are talking about ordaining women as the solution.

        The balance of power.. hmm.

        I just think if men & women were striving to become more Christlike, we wouldn’t be worried about an equal power structure.

    • Miranda Stone says:

      I hope it’s okay if I interject briefly here. A common idea I see floating around in this thread, is that power and hierarchy just shouldn’t matter because we’re all trying to be Christlike, right? That if men are doing what they’re supposed to, it shouldn’t matter? The problem is…they are just men. Sometimes they don’t do what they are supposed to. Sure they can be inspired, but they are capable of just as much bad as they are good.

      D & C 121 : 39 We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.

      If almost all men then, have this disposition discussed in the above scripture, and all men in the LDS church naturally have more authority and power due to the way it’s set up, naturally we conclude that unrighteous dominion is the fruit of our unequal power structure in LDS church. The very structure and hierarchy we have, with men having the positions of most authority and power over women, create an imbalance. That imbalance is a breeding ground for abuse.

      That is why I have a problem with unequal power structure, Tom. I’m trying very hard to be Christlike, and I know many sisters and many men (in positions over me) are trying to be Christlike too. And most men I know do very wonderfully in their positions over me. But I also know men don’t have an accompanying super power that makes them somehow better decision makers or leaders above women, yet they get the lion’s share of decision making for the rest of us.

      Let me be clear, I don’t want more power so I can rule over men, I’d just like to have an equal voice. Because until women have the same authority and presiding power as men, they are at the total mercy of whichever man is above them. We *hope* that the men in power will listen to us, but we have zero power to make them listen.

      For example, as a child, when my family was making an important decision, mom and dad would ask our opinions, but told us it was ultimately their decision no matter what we voted. I often laughed and told them, “Then what’s the point in voting then?”

      The way the church is set up now, I, and nearly every other women in the church, is the child in that example. My opinion is supposedly valued, but I really have no power there.

      Do you see what I’m getting at?

    • meggle says:

      I’m a few days late jumping into the conversation, so maybe no one will see this, but I’d like to respond to the argument that once they are exercising unrighteous dominion their priesthood is gone. I absolutely believe this is true. Once a priesthood leader exercises his power in an unrighteous manner, God withdraws his authority. The problem is, while the power from God may be gone, the PERCEIVED power is not. God does not cause men to be magically released from their callings just because he withdraws his power- so while they may not have God’s power behind them, they still have organizational power- which in our church is often conflated with God’s power. Do you see the problem here?
      I do not mean to be dismissive of you men who have commented here, and again, while what you are saying is accurate in a doctrinal sense, it is not in a practical sense- and therein lies the problem.

  14. spunky says:

    Brilliant post, ElleK. I’ve had similar experiences and spoke up– but now I feel like I am in hiding. The bishop didn’t like being “challenged” and — because I am a woman, he can excommunicate me. I can’t excommunicate him for teaching things are are not true, but he can excommunicate me for contradicting him, even when he is in the wrong. It’s just not worth it. Hiding is all we can do.

  15. Angela C says:

    There are several ways in which one sex being ordained and the other not will always create an imbalance in how women are understood and heard.
    1) no men ever report to women in our structure. No women ever “out-rank” men, but the reverse is certainly true. Therefore, men don’t “have to” listen to women. They will do it if they are wise and good, but if women don’t know whether they will be heard or understood (and there’s no guarantee) why risk it? Why bother?
    2) Because only men are selected for leadership, because we overlook the majority of adult members (the women), we have to dig pretty deep into the ranks of the men to fill all the leadership roles. We get worse, more human, less spiritually-receptive leaders than we would if all were considered. Ergo, odds of getting a lemon are increased substantially. Simple math.

    The church has made a few recent efforts to improve the opportunity for women to be taken seriously and to provide input:
    1) lowering the age for women to serve missions should result in more women serving alongside men. That could create better partnership and listening skills. Maybe. Fingers crossed. That’s certainly a long game strategy, though.
    2) Scrapping the PEC for the Ward Council is a boost as men & women are roughly equally represented in there, in numbers if not in rank. From what I see, the women in the WC participate fully and aren’t afraid to give feedback.

    It’s easy for men to opine about how they can make it easier for women to speak up, but it’s not nearly as easy for women to see why we should continue to invest in one-sided relationships with these men. Why should we cast our pearls before figurative swine who may trample them, then turn and rend us?

    • ElleK says:

      Perfect, Angela C. Thank you. Also contributing to the women speaking up problem is the cultural dynamic that leaders are called by God to their positions, so who are we to correct them?

  16. aconcernedmale says:

    tomwheeler, I believe this video of a press conference given by our new first presidency is very telling of what is currently expected of women in the church. . First of all, the all male upper echelon (since you don’t like hierarchy) of our religion forget about the women part of the question until reminded about 4 minutes into the video. Then when reminded they emphasize that women have their roles – to raise their young men to be missionaries and bishops and to raise their girls to become mothers and grandmothers.

    While they do say they need the input of women, ElleK’s point rings true in that because only men are in leadership positions, the men’s reaction to the women’s input could range anywhere from excommunication to acceptance of the ideas, while a woman will never have the same opportunity.

    • tomwheeler says:

      Yes I’m familiar with the interview — and had the same thoughts as you about that whole portion. While I don’t want to be critical of our new prophet, I had a hard time with that answer myself. I felt that could have been handled much better. It was awkard and embarrasing. It almost seemed to me as if they weren’t prepared for the question, which I don’t understand given that I’m sure they knew Peggy would be there to ask it.

      Regarding the excommunication threat.. (and that’s come up in a couple other stories I’ve been perusing around here), it’s true that a bishopric has authority to hold a court for a woman or man, but if it seems likely that a MP brother would be excommunicated – then the matter is moved to the SP. This is due to the fact that the SP is the president over the M Priesthood. But a bishop must still get SP approval to hold any court and cannot do so on his own.

      And I think any Bishop threatening church discipline as a way of enforcing their power is clearly abusing it. But still, there is an appeals process. In the event that a leader is off-course on his use of power, there is a mechanism to handle that, and you can appeal the decision and move the case directly to the SP or higher. I know that’s a pain, but that option exists for this very reason.

      • aconcernedmale says:

        Are you referring to the appeals process that is only available in handbook 1 that no woman in the church has access to? You’re right though, most bishops are good men who would not take such an extreme measure for a disagreement. The point is there’s a power dynamic that makes women less likely to speak up or voice opinion.

  17. Sally says:

    I hear you and I validate you. May I share an experience? There was an incident regarding a family member that really caused me grief. There were a series of well-intended events that contributed to this family member spiraling into addictive behavior, and then being virtually ignored. For a while, I was content with giving the priesthood leaders involved benefit of the doubt, and sustaining them while not grumbling about what happened. That has served me well enough in the past. But then other things (I’m being intentionally vague) happened that caused me to desire to know more about the events that transpired, and to seek closure. I spoke to my current bishop, who had no advice, and the next bishop (a new one had just been put in), the I tracked down the original bishop involved and asked his perspective. He didn’t even recall it happening, which was a blow. I then took it to the stake president – all of these conversations were in an attitude of “will you help me find perspective that affords me peace?” I wasn’t asking for retribution or any kind of action, just peace, just validation. An apology would have been nice, but optional. All of them fell back on the “have you prayed about it and do you read your scriptures?” which felt so incredibly insulting. of COURSE I have. In the end, I got a little tidbit of information that helped, but on balance what I got mostly was a bitter taste in my mouth from the flawed implementation of top-down patriarchy with under-trained men put in positions of authority.

    I’ve been unwilling to talk to a man in a suit, alone, since. I’m not sure that men can understand what that feels like, unless a man has experienced abuse and/or traumatizing injustice, become self-aware through processing and recovery work, and STILL had to submit to an archetype of the abuser in a position of authority over him. I’m sure that happens, but suspect it happens for women a lot more than it happens for men.

    It’s an inherent problem, and I’m sorry for your pain.

    • ElleK says:

      I’m so sorry that was your experience, Sally. I understand the devastation that “under-trained” leaders can wreak. Because of an experience I had with a bishop, I now have extreme anxiety about going into an “interview” with a priesthood leader. The power differential is so problematic. Your description “archetype of the abuser” is apt.

  18. Dot says:

    “…we cannot meet our destiny…without the support and the faith and the strength of the women of this church. We need you. We need your voices. They need to be heard. They need to be heard in your community, in your neighborhoods, they need to be heard within the ward council or the branch council. Now don’t talk too much in those council meetings, just straighten the brethren out quickly and move the work on.” This remark from M. Russell Ballard is very telling, along with this confusing nugget: “Now, sisters, in speaking this frankly with men, may I also exercise a moment of candor with you. While your input is significant and welcomed in effective councils, you need to be careful not to assume a role that is not yours.” That is, input from women is very important, just not too much of it and only after careful consideration of its appropriateness. Of course, women’s time and talents are always welcomed when the women are agreeable and do as they’re told.

    • tomwheeler says:

      yeah I have no defense on that.. I also thought it was a strange thing for him to say. Everyone on the ward council is on the same level, as members of the council. Of course the members who aren’t the bishop all need to give deference to him, but that goes for everyone, not just the sisters. The only explanation I could offer is that his attitudes displayed here seem like they come straight out of the 50s-60s… I take it as personal bias, not doctrine.

      • Jess R says:

        Does it matter whether it’s personal opinion or doctrine when it will be perceived as doctrine by the majority of church member? When it will have (and has had) a real impact on church members’ lives?

    • ElleK says:

      Thanks for that example, Dot. It shows perfectly the rock and the hard place LDS women are stuck between: “be pretty but not flashy, speak up but not too loudly, be assertive but not presumptuous, be modest but not frumpy, we need your voices but don’t take up too much of our time.” It’s exhausting. I’m so tired of men telling me how to be/act as a woman instead of treating me like a fellow human.

      • Douglas Branson says:

        ElleK, love the dialogue you have going. Great things for men and women alike to think deeply about. Thanks for sharing this.

  19. Carrie Lundell says:

    As a member of a LDS activity days facebook group, I see these dynamics played out over and over again. About once a month, a new leader posts about the concerns she has with the budget she has been given to run her program. Many women share the same concern and how they have gone about handling it from procuring donations from the ward, to spending their own money without reimbursement, to sharing all the ideas for free activities they have done. A couple other women (including me) encourage AD leaders to meet with the bishop, counselor over primary and primary president to express their concerns and ask for a larger budget so they can provide a strong program for the girls they have been called to lead (a program that should be given just as many resources and just as much attention as the comparable cub scout program). Given the patriarchal, hierarchical structure of the church and the culture it’s created, it’s not hard to believe how many women just can’t imagine having this kind of conversation with the bishop. It’s not hard to believe that other women push back on this suggestion with a response of “You should never question the budget the bishop has given. Those who do are questioning God’s will. You might want to reexamine your testimony”. This is not a paraphrase. These are actual conversations women are having with other women as they try to faithfully fulfill their callings. Women’s belief that they do not have a voice is by no fault of their own. It’s perpetuated by a system that is broken because it has always been built on an imbalance of power and authority.

    And to TomWheeler’s comment: It’s easy to tell people how they can “live a more Christlike life” like you and not have to “worry about an equal power structure” when YOU ARE PART OF THE GROUP THAT ENJOYS ALL THE BENEFITS OF AN UNEQUAL POWER STRUCTURE. And the honest truth is that the more I try to live a Christlike life, working to balance unequal power structures becomes more of a priority in my life, both inside and outside the church. I think it’s what Jesus would do.

    • tomwheeler says:

      I’m not telling the women to live more Christlike.. I’m talking about the men. If the leaders were more Christlike, I don’t think this would be an issue. That’s my point.

      I realize I’m part of the group with the power. That’s the main reason I’m poking around in here, because I want to become a little more sensitive to these concerns. If I’ve offended anyone I’m truly sorry – not my intention. These conversations are a mine-field for me as a man — it’s probably best for me to just read and keep my comments to myself.

      • ElleK says:

        tomwheeler, I’m honestly glad you’re here. I hope you stick around and keep reading.

        My take on your solution: maybe while we wait for the men to become more Christlike, we can put some systems in place to prevent women from being abused. But even more than that, I’d love to see systemic changes that make women’s voices and decision making powers on par with men’s. The church is tragically underutilizing over half of its membership, and it’s a devastating loss for all of us.

      • Douglas Branson says:

        I think it’s less about men just reading and keeping comments to ourselves and more about listening. Those probably sound like the same thing but one can do the former and not the latter at the same.
        Saying that, I have thought many of the things you have written and also have the benefit of reading all of this in context after the fact.
        I love to see other men reading the Exponent. We may need to listen more here and then talk more to our fellow men in the church.

      • Carrie Lundell says:

        Thank you for trying to clarify your comment, but you weren’t just addressing men. you said, “if MEN AND WOMEN (emphasis added) were striving to become more Christlike, we wouldn’t be worried about an equal power structure.” Even so, the problem is the structure. More christlike leadership is great, but this would be a “workaround” to the actual problem. Women are great at workarounds. We’ve been having to work around the barriers of priesthood authority to fulfill our callings and rise to our full potential for ages (see my first comment about all the ways women deal with unequal budgets rather than asking for what they need). But honestly, I’m tired of the workarounds. I just want people to recognize the real problem and not try to convince me that the problem is un-christlike leadership and not the inherent problems of a patriarchal church leadership.

        And yes, this is a mine-field for a man. It helps to sit back and listen more, let the comments unfold, listen even more, comment if you like but be prepared for pushback.

      • meggle says:

        Do NOT keep your comments to yourself- it’s great that you’re willing to engage in this conversation. Your comments DO reflect your privilege somewhat- but I also hear you trying. The fact is, you’ll never be a woman (or at least not one who hasn’t experienced life as a man first), and so your best chance to understand is to continue to thoughtfully engage in these conversations. Carry on!

    • ElleK says:

      Thank you for sharing, Carrie. You perfectly illustrate the point I was trying to make: women feel like they can’t/shouldn’t approach their priesthood leaders with unsolicited criticisms or insight because the structure is set up in a way that makes it difficult for them to do so AND they’re told their leaders are called by revelation and are inspired and have stewardship, so any critical thought could be considered (by the leader or by the woman herself) to be lack of faith/not sustaining her leaders.

  20. Dot says:

    Douglas Branson, I love your comment: “I think it’s less about men just reading and keeping comments to ourselves and more about listening.” Listening is absorbing information rather than trying (consciously or not) to develop a counter argument (and then having to decide whether or not to state it). A good response is, “Tell me more,” rather than, “”Well, you just don’t get it. But here, let me explain!”

  21. Chairoscuro says:

    i agree with your evaluation. there is also a social cost to speaking up in a situation like this. what that cost is can not be known beforehand and depends on myriad factors. some bishops may be grateful and welcome your feedback; while others will be put on alert and brand you an apostate. your church life can change completely because he has all the power and you as a woman have none, and likely
    never will

    • meggle says:

      Yep- I’ve considered myself an equal in ward council and offered my opinions as such (kindly, of course)- and was consequently released from my position as YW pres after only a year.

  22. JNB says:

    Fantastic post. So necessary. Thank you.
    I’m taking heart at the announcement that our prophet’s wife is speaking with him at the upcoming worldwide youth address. This is unprecedented in my lifetime (anybody else remember a prophet’s wife speaking on a national stage in recent memory?), so I’m hoping it is a harbinger of better days ahead for the women of the church . . .

  1. March 19, 2019

    […] [1] I wrote more about this dynamic here. […]

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