I’d like to reflect on my upbringing in the Church. To me, the Church’s relationship towards women alternates between benign patriarchy and austere rigidity. This was demonstrated to me from a young age, as I heard from my leaders about the woman I was supposed to be.
This lesson came from the top-down, most notably during General Conference. In the dearth of female speakers, we listened to the aged men before us tell us about their saintly mothers, persevering wives, and angelic daughters. They taught us to be ministering angels, selfless spouses, and gentle advocates for Christ. We were their better halves, with a divine nature that was to be both celebrated and protected, at all costs.
These spiritual giants told us that we were the true examples of Christ like behavior to the men and children under our care, but in the same breath upheld the divine mandate that men were to preside over us in family and Church life. If a woman should ever wish to leave her divinely appointed role as a stay at home mother, she was in some way going against the mandate of God. The ideal woman supported and upheld the men in her life, from infancy to adulthood, never asking for a thank you or recognition in return. For her entire life, she would be a silent witness as her man achieved prestige and recognition, both professionally and in the Church.
The majority of lessons and activities for LDS girls seemed focused on molding each of us into this “ideal” woman. Our virtue was one of our most important assets, and so in conduct, thought, and language, we had to be pure. Upholding this rigid standard was even more imperative because, owing to our more spiritual natures, we had to protect the men in our lives from transgressing the law of chastity, either in thought or in deed. Cultivating the Spirit was essential to this end; and so we had to regulate our music, television, movies, conversation, and, most importantly, our dress. We were repeatedly counseled that Christ had said if a man looked on a woman to lust after her, he was committing adultery already in his heart. We would literally be leading the young men down the path to hellfire if we did not scrupulously moderate our dress, the most easily identifiable way of controlling the men’s nearly uncontrollable sexual libido. For the modest young woman, wearing sleeveless dresses or short skirts was anathema. A glimpse of shoulder or thigh could easily cause a young man to have sinful thoughts. In that case, the sin was equally ours.
If, Heaven forbid, we were to transgress sexually, we would be forever tainted by that act. In pointed analogies, we were told we would be broken vessels, or chewed up gum, should we commit this sin. Losing our virginity before marriage would be a scar that would mar our souls, and we would forever know that we hadn’t remained true and faithful to our commitments.
Every Wednesday, we would hold activities (often involving crafting or cooking) and socialize with the young men, who we knew were being molded to become strong, confident providers for us. In Sunday lessons, when we were divided into our all-girls meeting, we would hear stories about the spiritual promptings that shaped our leaders’ lives: when they knew their husband was “the one”; the many times they’d had to rely on the sensitive whisperings of the Spirit to perform their roles as housewives and mothers. Never were we encouraged to work outside the home; this was only a last resort, if our husbands turned out to be unable to provide. I remember feeling a secret shame for that archetypal, incapable husband. Correspondingly, we were encouraged to pursue higher education, but it was only to complement our future roles as spouses and mothers. Education was, at its heart, a contingency plan. I can only remember a single lesson, in the five years that I was in this youth program, when the girls had a career night—one of the highlighted careers being a stay at home mom.
During the summers, while the young men went on grueling 3-day bike rides, white water rafting trips, and camped out in primitive conditions (all to bond them to one another and to develop the inner strength needed to confront the hard world) we had “Girls Camp”. Our Camp emphasized spiritual, as opposed to physical, development, and so for five days we would recline in comfortable cabins, eat prepared meals and have activities designed for our enjoyment. We would do crafts, cook foil-wrapped dinners, play volleyball, and have testimony meetings on the well-manicured grass at nights. At all times, women and priesthood leaders supervised us; and at night, the men would take shifts to patrol the camp, scaring girls who ventured out after bedtime by rustling the bushes, making us shriek with fear and run back to the safety of our locked cabins.
Every significant role in Church was, and still is, held by men. The Bishop served as a spiritual guide to the ward. He and his male counselors always sat at the front pulpit on Sundays, directing the meetings, calling upon speakers, and supervising the administration of the sacrament. He collected our tithing, gave regular addresses to the congregation, and we confessed our sins (even those of a sensitive nature) to him. His counselors supervised the running of the ward as well—overseeing activities, conducting interviews, and handling all monetary transactions in the ward. Ultimately, all planned activities, all callings, and all Church meetings needed the approval of this man, the Bishop, before they could proceed.
Our male counterparts, the young men, carried out the sacrament. For a few moments every Sunday, these goofy boys would transform into solemn priesthood holders as they meticulously repeated the words of the sacrament prayers and blessed the bread and water. Then, in a uniform, white-shirted column, they passed the sacrament to the congregation. In this way, the entire sacrament became, not only a moment to remember Christ, but an opportunity to see the overriding patriarchy of God’s Church in action.
As a youth, I struggled against this institutional inequality; from my insistence on wearing pants (so I could somehow feel equal to the men) to my failed attempts to organize the first-ever white water rafting trip for young women. When I went to college at BYU, there was less of a division between men and women in our youth wards—we were similar ages and had shared activities—but the structure of the Church was the same. In addition, I was also surrounded with adult byproducts of this youth training program. The consequences for not conforming to Church norms would be social rejection.
As I finished my undergraduate studies, then an LDS mission, I found myself an unmarried and working adult. The only option for me then was graduate school—this would serve the dual purpose of buying me more time to get married, and better equipping me for a rewarding job if I could not find a spouse.
In the rigorous intellectual environment of BYU Law School, I began to consciously address the pain from my LDS upbringing for the first time. I realized my childhood in the Church had some positive, as well as negative, results. My upbringing had cultivated in me a feeling of worth as a child of God, a strong sense of right and wrong, and an enquiring mind. However, one of the reasons I even attended law school was because I had graduated college with no career plans. No one in my Church experience had prepared me for the “what ifs” of life as a single adult. I was terrified of being a working adult with only an undergraduate education, because my degree did not guarantee me a rewarding and satisfying job. Only through the gentle prodding of my parents did I begin to study law.
Then, as a lawyer, I found myself confronting this same anxiety. Why, I wondered, as a well-educated adult, would I still feel ill equipped and frightened of going out into the work force? Goodness knows my parents had always encouraged me to have a prestigious career. I can only point to the messages I received from the Church, both stated and un-stated, as the root of this anxiety. By differentiating us at a young age, often with separate activities and separate doctrinal lessons, I was taught that I was different from the young men. The General Authorities and local leaders then answered the question of how I was different. At heart, I was a foil to them—more sensitive, tenderer, more spiritually inclined. I was not to compete with the men in my life—I was to complement them. My highest calling in life would be to raise and nurture children, and so any vocational aspirations would take away from fulfilling this goal. Ultimately, I was at no loss to explain my inadequate and fearful feelings of being a career woman—it’s a wonder I contemplated pursuing a legal career at all!
I support the doctrine of the family and the priesthood; but I am troubled by the control that men have in nearly all aspects of Church administration, both temporal and spiritual. Does it take having the priesthood to manage the finances of a ward; to conduct a sacrament meeting; to organize ourselves as women and young women; even to pass the sacrament? Why is there this overriding need of the men in the Church to elevate women on a pedestal while denying them full expression as human beings? I am not a foil to you men. I am not a complement to you, your other half, or your ideal spiritual being. I am a child of God, and the standard I should be held to is how my character emulates Christ’s—not your sainted mother, your silent wife, or your revered pioneer ancestress.
I hope, as men and women of my generation assume leadership roles in their wards, stakes and areas of the Church, this cultural inflexibility towards women’s roles will change. The young women of today need us to be their examples, need so-called “feminist” women to speak up, assume more leadership roles, and prepare for futures outside of the roles of mother and homemaker. Let us grow and develop as individuals, not to be viewed as lesser or greater than you men. In the end, we are all equal before God.