The Impossible Position of LDS Women: Unsolicited Assertiveness
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.