“I can’t be a feminist. I’m raising boys.”
I’ve heard it many times. A woman explains that she can’t support feminism because she is a mother of sons. If my feminist goals for equity within our faith community were realized, opportunities that would have been automatically awarded to her sons could go to women. Without the unique role of serving in a male-only priesthood, what would give her sons purpose and spiritual direction? What would make men special? Would her sons advance within the church hierarchy? Or would their ambitions be thwarted by a new demographic of competition? Would the church even need men anymore?
These arguments give me pause because I have three sons. As I support feminism, am I working against my own male children?
I remind myself that feminism benefits everyone, including men. Diverse leadership is better leadership. Egalitarian marriages are stronger marriages. Serving in the church will be a better experience for my sons if they have the opportunity to serve under the people best prepared to lead them, regardless of sex. Expanding the leadership pool to include qualified women could save my sons from being trapped in callings that do not suit them, simply because the male talent pool is sparse.
But this kind of logic does not address the underlying feelings that lead mothers to bristle at the concept of a more egalitarian future for the boys they are raising. Both men and the women who raise them are coping with a collective insecurity crisis. Lacking confidence that males are inherently worthy and valuable as human beings, both men and the women who love them seek external validation by comparing men to other people. Men are important because they can do things women can’t; men are important because they outrank other, less important people.
The lay clergy structure of my church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS)) creates a mechanism for many men (but not women) to rotate through leadership callings such as bishop and stake president, offering several of them, in turn, the external validation of outranking other people. *
But even with these rotations, some men will never hold these prominent callings. Universally ordaining every male member to a male-only priesthood validates men by ensuring that every single one of them, even if they never serve in a leadership calling, outranks every woman they worship with. We can point to clear examples of things all LDS men can do that women can’t, not because women are incapable, but because, as non-priesthood holders, women aren’t allowed.
Even male-only priesthood isn’t enough to satiate male insecurity, so we encounter the phenomenon of priesthood creep, in which women are barred from activities that do not even require priesthood, such as passing the sacrament, counting tithing and serving on Sunday School presidencies. One blatant example of priesthood creep, barring anyone but men from serving as official witnesses at weddings and baptisms, was only recently rectified.
Like women, men have intrinsic value as human beings. It shouldn’t be necessary to artificially elevate men above women to make them feel important. They simply are important, like we all are.
As women within a patriarchal church and society, we are uniquely qualified to understand how to cultivate self-worth without the reassurance of outranking others in a hierarchy. Collectively placed at the bottom of the hierarchy, we have been forced to forge our identities without external validation. Can we instill the same resilience in our sons? Let’s raise them to understand that they are strong and good and powerful, even if they never become bishops or stake presidents. Let’s assure them that their contributions are valid and appreciated, even if no one else is barred from performing the same functions. Let’s teach them that their unique personhood make them special, even if they do not outrank anyone else.
- Note: Callings such as bishop and stake president are time-intensive and unpaid. Men do pay a heavy price for this kind of external validation.