The Mormon Handshake
I grew up in the church, so was well indoctrinated in Mormon hand-shake culture. I knew that as I entered the chapel, a man—whether I knew him or not—would put his hand out for me to shake. I was supposed to shake it in return, and perhaps even have some brief small talk. I liked it as a child—I felt “big” by engaging in something that otherwise I had only seen adults do.
As I have become older, I have become less and less comfortable with this Mormon handshake culture, so I tried to think of why it doesn’t feel right. I’m not alone in my discomfort. In feminist Mormon facebook groups, handshake discomfort discussions happen on occasion, usually filled with comments reflecting every aspect of hand shaking in modern, international, and church cultures. I am not the only one who finds it uncomfortable, and like me, women describe embracing or dodging the the Sunday-chapel hand initiation using a variety of techniques.
I clearly recall the first time I “pushed back” against the handshake. It wasn’t even the handshake itself. The bishopric member of the singles ward I attended at that time had just shaken several female congregant’s hands as we entered into the chapel. He was old enough to be my father, or maybe even older, and he happily greeted us with, “How are you girls today?” Besides the fact that I was new to the ward and knew none of the other females who had just entered, the comment was lobbed at us as a whole.
Importantly, we were all at least in our twenties, we were all girls to him. A female business professor of mine used to agitate for college-age women to call ourselves women. She repeated noted that student males spoke of each other as men, but student females often spoke of each other as “girls.” “You are not girls,” she admonished. “Girls are children. You are over the age of 18. You are adult women. Don’t let anyone take that from you.”
My response on that Sunday was a reflex, “We’re great. How are you BOYS today?” Immediately, I felt an adrenaline rush, and I wondered if I should or would regret my words. My annunciation of “boys” startled him, and he opened his eyes wide. He paused. I was scared. He said, “Great lesson. Lesson learned! Thank you!” He pumped my hand in gratitude, and I felt safe.
And yet….. the Mormon handshake still felt ….Not optional. Okay at best, uncomfortable at worst. But why? I shook hands without hesitation at work and school– what was my issue with church handshake culture?
Hand-shaking in Anglo cultures has a long history—most often in years past, it was used to seal a financial or political agreement. There is a historical argument that a woman should never accept a man’s hand when extended to her, lest she be considered “loose.” (I could not find a reference for this, but I have had it referenced often when people discuss discomfort in handshaking at church.) In modern times, we see handshaking as greetings, introductions, and in business mergers. We see it in episodes of American Pickers (a show where the leads travel around the US finding private storage sheds filled with collectibles that they hope to purchase and then re-sell at their antique store), and we experience sometimes as means of securing the purchase of a car.
Outside of church, I happily shake hands when meeting people via places of employment for myself and my husband, and even at my children’s school, when I meet with teachers, principals, school board members and parents. There are hundreds of professional blogs dedicated to sharing American business culture handshaking, even those that address the awkwardness of the male- to-female handshake, and the question of the female to female handshake (should we do it? YES!)
So why am I still uncomfortable with the Mormon handshake? Is it a simple as the fact that Mormon women do not serve as door greeters at church for handshaking? Or it is something else? Even something sinister?
As I thought about this, I could not shake the memory of the 2007 PBS Mormons interview of Margaret Toscano where she discussed her excommunication. The men in her high council pronounced her as an apostate. Then, each wanted to shake her hand. It sounded almost laughable to me at the time– as if they were making a used-car sales deal with her. It seemed as if those handshakes were symbolic of a business deal, rather than an excommunication. It was as though the handshake solidified that she agreed with her excommunicated, even though she didn’t.
In her words:
I afterwards talked about sort of the horror of niceness — that on the one hand they’re cutting me off from eternal salvation and telling me that I’m this apostate, which really is considered very bad in Mormon culture, and then I’m this nice woman that they’re going to shake my hand. There’s something vicious about niceness that struck me in this — that the niceness covered over the violence of what was being done, because, in fact, excommunication is a violent action.
In this, the handshake represented power. Perhaps the men had fooled themselves into thinking that they were somehow being polite, or even consoling. But to even presume that they could offer consolation means that they perceived that they had the power to offer sympathy and compassion either as an ecclesiastical leader, or social officer. No matter the reason, it was continued, symbolic recognition of the power that they have over the women they command as unworthy to remain within the structure of the church. It is, and was, about power.
Men, as always in the LDS church, have all of the power. Lack of priesthood keys ultimately means that women are utterly powerless. Thus, in Mormondom, we would be mistaken to presume that the handshake is a greeting. It is not. It is symbolic of the surrender of autonomy of women to men. Even men who enter and are not in “leadership” position yet secure their place with a handshake. However for men, there is a construct which allows them the opportunity and position of power equals as they are all united in the “marvelous brotherhood of the holy priesthood of God.” This is not the case with women. Women are being hand-shaken into a chapel run by men. Women read, share and discuss lessons approved by men, and we answer to men in our branches, wards and stakes regarding our most private things—of sexual conduct, of sins, of hopes and dreams– all in the name of priesthood power. We don’t have say; we are not in the “marvelous brotherhood.”
Thus, for women, the Mormon handshake is the symbol of surrender—not a surrender to God, but a surrender of Mormon women to Mormon men. Mormon men who control all we do within the church.
I recently read about an Algerian woman who was in the process of becoming a naturalized French citizen. Her husband is French and they live in France, so citizenship for her seems natural. However, in respect of Islamic culture, she refused to shake the hand of the municipal officiator at the citizenship ceremony, because he was male (similar Jewish culture as per the Old Testament). Her citizenship was denied. She filed a lawsuit to challenge this, but again, she was rejected on grounds that she was not welcoming enough of French culture to be granted citizenship, as was symbolized in her refusal to shake the male officiator’s hand.
This happened in April 2018. Could something like this happen in Mormondom as well?
Most recently, the new Elder’s Quorum president who was called to replace the previous High Priest and Elders Quorums presidencies, thrust his hand at me, as we threaded in opposite directions between the pews at church. Prior to this, I slid in sacrament meeting behind my husband, usually purposefully carrying so many things that I did not have a hand to spare for the obligatory shake offered by the door crew. Even when the bishop came into Relief Society in order to shake the hand of every women in the room, I had enough time to drop out of sight, or gather handbooks, or help a young mother juggling her children, so I could avoid being forced to share a part of my body with a man I did not want to touch. The bishop still noticed.
Yet at that moment, passing between the pews following sacrament meeting, I was in a position of giving up my body via my hand to the new Elder’s Quorum president– a man who I wasn’t even sure knew my name. I hesitated. I could be over in 2 to 3 seconds. Instead, I said, “I don’t like shaking hands,” smiling as kindly as I could. “It’s just not my thing.”
“Oh! Okay,” he said, chuckling and smiling back, continuing on his way.
Phew! Was it that easy? Did I only have to say that it wasn’t “my thing”?
Two weeks after this, I was told in an email from the bishop that there was spiritual hesitation on his part in regard to my attending the temple. He didn’t say that he was taking the recommend away, but he did say that he didn’t feel good about me holding a calling. I can assure you that I am temple-worthy, and nothing in my behaviour would warrant this censure.
Well, nothing but for the fact that I avoid shaking his cold, clammy, empowered hand.