Why the LDS Church Needs Feminists

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.

 

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14 thoughts on “Why the LDS Church Needs Feminists”

  1. “…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.”

    THIS.

    Women’s ROLE singular is a big problem in the church. The church has created such a narrow standard for what it means to be a good woman and harps on it obsessively. There are a hundred different ways to be a good man. He can be a lawyer or a janitor and he’s still a good father. But there is only one way to truly meet the standard for a good woman in the church. She should marry fairly young, she should have lots of babies, and she should want to stay home with them. They mention exceptions with a frown and a sigh. We know SOME women must work (poor things) but it’s certainly not the ideal. Not by a long shot.

    Even if I take it as doctrine that I am to be the nurturer (which I don’t), why is it that someone who doesn’t know me, my child, or my family situation deciding the best way to nurture? Men are free to decide the best way to provide for their families. And apparently they get to decide the best way to nurture too! Stay at home mom! My kid just happens to LOVE playing at day care. A day alone with me in the house is drudgery. Even if I wanted to be a stay at home mom, he has NO interest in being a stay at home kid. I nurture him by ensuring he has kids his age to play with and other trusted adults to interact with.

    And don’t even get me started about the dearth of leadership or participatory roles for women in the church. No woman will be able to read the church auditing report or be general legal counsel. Even if we take it as fact that women should be stay at home moms (which I don’t) the period of active mothering is such a short, short period of a woman’s life. What then? She’s relegated to the handful of female-ok callings and church positions that exist. Oh goody.

    Now let’s think about eternity. After we’ve spent our lives nurturing the way a man thought best and retiring to a life of quiet church service, we can look forward to be invisible in the eternities as well. Probably because we’re way to sacred to talk about.

    1. Maret, I never before thought about your first point. You’re so right! We’re primarily defined by one role, that of mother. And while it is THE most important role to me, it shouldn’t be the only way I’m defined as a woman or a Church member. Wow. Way to bring more insight to the discussion. P.S. Kisan loves daycare too- he tells me to leave when I try and pick him up after work. Since he’s a future man, I have to trust that he knows what’s best for himself, right? 😉

  2. I love that we can all have different opinions, and I respect yours. However, where did you grow up? My YW experience was completely different. I was taught the what ifs, I was taught to have a plan, and to get educated. My YW activities included white water rafting, and canoeing, kayaking, etc. to me it sounds like an individual experience. I was the president over my beehive class, and I helped plan the activities. We didn’t cook and do crafts. You also state that “every significant role” is carried out by men. I disagree. One of the most significant role is the primary president. She helps mold our children. I have only ever seen this significant role filled by a woman. I trust our prophet, and I am sure that if women are meant to have higher callings, that when God is good and ready, it will happen. And if it doesn’t happen, there is reason behind it that we will not know until we meet our maker.

    1. Nice to hear from you! I grew up in Tennessee, and many of our leaders were older southern gentlemen who may have had set ideas about “proper” gender roles. I particularly remember having to go before the stake president to get approval for a girls’ high adventure, only to have him effectively steamroll the idea. I support our prophet, but I see a lot of these gender issues being culturally-based, and not doctrinally-based. Why can’t men be Primary Presidents? They can bring as much to the table as a woman, in that role. In truth, I wonder if the current First Presidency has even thought to ask God about expanding women’s leadership roles in the Church. It may be difficult for them to imagine a Church where women fill these roles. And while these issues individually don’t preoccupy me, taken as a whole they form a cultural trend that is very detrimental for some women. Myself included. All in all, I love our Church, warts and all, and look forward to feeling more comfortable in it as it, and I, progress.

    2. You’re all delusional idiots. Wake up! The whole thing is a fraud, made up by controlling men and keeps women ‘in their place’. Open your minds to reality

  3. It really bothers me when feminist write down feelings and thoughts as fact. Just because you had a bad experience in the church, doesn’t mean the rest of us did. I remember having very loving Young Women leaders who cared about me, encouraged me to be my best, and taught me the Gospel. They(women) chose what to teach me every Sunday after thoughtful study and prayer. They(women) choose, along with us YW what activities we were going to have on Wednesday night. Some of these included cooking and homemaker stuff. Other activities included how to change a flat tire, Horseback riding, softball, basketball, volleyball, CPR training, massage therapy, aerobics class, boating, swimming, we visited many local places of business one being a funeral home, were we learned about the whole funeral process, many many many service projects, and of course most were gospel related.
    What is funny is that my sister who had the same leaders and did a lot of the same things, remembers the same things you do. She also claims all of the lessons were on motherhood and getting married young and having kids right away. Perspective. It’s all a matter of perspective. I should tell you my sister has removed her name from the records of the church and wants nothing to do with it.
    Posts like yours and the leader of OW read more like anti-Mormon then something positive for women. You are in fact leading people astray, and my sister is just one example. I ask that you be careful what you say. Just one example of this, and this is mind-boggling to me, when feminist, such as yourself, can make the statement that you sustain and support the first presidency and then in the next sentence utter that we are being controlled by men. (And if you hold a temple recommend, that also means that you said you sustain your local leaders as well). Contradictory, uh yes.
    If you are going to question why women don’t hold the Priesthood, then you also have to question God and Jesus Christ as well. Are They sexist? Why didn’t Jesus call a female apostle? Weren’t women important back then? Why don’t we know more about our Heavenly Mother? She must not be important right?
    It really does come down to roles and responsibilities, and in my experience, when a woman says she wants the Priesthood it comes down to two things: Either they had a bad experience with male authority or they feel unsatisfied/inadequate in their role as a mother. Priesthood is Service bottom line. It is not about control or power over women.

    1. I’m sorry you’ve made such harsh judgments about me and your sister. I think the membership of the Church improves by having these discussions. If we can’t talk about and express our life experiences/doubts, what kind of a culture do we have? How does my experience threaten your views? Each person is entitled to perceive the world in his or her own way; and the myriad of supportive comments I have received show that many women, unfortunately, feel similarly about their LDS upbringing. There is positive and negative in every experience I’ve had with the Church. I can support wholeheartedly the First Presidency but disagree with parts of Church culture that I find to be harmful. To answer your questions, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene (while not accepted as LDS doctrine) supports the idea that a female apostle existed. And I believe learning more about our Heavenly Mother would greatly enrich the Church; but we members often fail to ask God for more revelation on this subject.

      To finish, I’ve never said I want the priesthood. I haven’t had overwhelmingly bad experiences with male authority (my dad was my bishop during my entire youth), and I don’t feel inadequate or unsatisfied in my role as a mother. I’m glad you feel supported as a woman in the Church; but try and understand, not judge, the women who do not feel the same.

    2. In your post I find another problem with the church: a cultural acceptance of questioning other people’s testimonies and essentially taking it upon themselves to deem them UN-temple worthy.

  4. I grew up in Southern Californis and in the young women’s program in the late 70s and early 80s. Generally a more progressive area than the south, but I had the same instruction and opportunities as described by the author. My daughter also experienced the same two decades later. I’m glad not everyone has experienced this form if “education” but it did cause harm to me and my daughter. I was able to help offset some of the damage to my daughter, but my mother was unable to do so for me.
    I can sustain my leaders while also acknowledging that they are in charge if everything, including decisions made about Primary. That leadership, read “priesthood”, is absolutely about power and control.
    One issue I have is the comparison of priesthood to motherhood. The comparator of motherhood is actually fatherhood. It should not take priesthood to allow women to make decisions for and lead those children or other ward members in their care.
    I think there is much room for women to take a more autonomous role at church without requiring that the priesthood be given to us. That would be a true measure of respect to those women that are supposed to be so important and adored inthe church.

  5. My daughter-in-law posted a comment on this blog post which led me to read it and the comments and to try to remember what it was like for me growing up in the church all those years ago. As a child in our middle class California neighborhood, most women were homemakers, and divorces were rare. “Leave it to Beaver” seemed normal, not quaint. The waitress served us at the diner, and a stewardess on a plane. We had mailmen and policemen and meter maids. Doctors were men and nurses were women. In Junior High girls had to take Home Ec, and when my friend and I also signed up for wood shop we were the oddity. My public high school required girls to wear skirts or dresses down to our knees (and NO pants!). I’m not sure I knew what the word “feminist” meant. That was our contemporary world; gender roles were not different in or out of the church. So my church experience was where I learned about God and that I was a special daughter of a God who loved all his children, with a plan of salvation that included non-Christians. My sisters and I (no brothers) were expected to go to college and prepare for careers. I worked and lived on my own until my rather late marriage at almost 27 (an old maid in those days). As a married adult in the church I served in lots of callings, and sat on ward council for years as a president of Primary, Young Women, and Relief Society, and I didn’t sit there quietly, I can assure you. I wasn’t called because I was a “yes-man/woman” but probably because I am a competent leader and not easily offended, willing to speak my mind and advocate for those I served. Each bishop I served with had his own attitudes, strengths, and leadership styles, but each cared deeply about the people in the ward. We tried to meet everyone’s needs, especially those who weren’t in a stereotypical family or who needed more help. We worked together, and my ideas and input were valued. So from my perspective, it’s hard to see the church as particularly oppressive towards women. And if it’s hard for me, consider the slightly older men who sit at the top of the church hierarchy. I believe they are sincere and want to do what is right. Historically women in the church have been valued, and not just on a pedestal. Utah was one of the first states to grant the vote to women. [We should agree to ignore plural marriage here – that’s a totally different discussion.] As society at large has changed, the church culture (not speaking of doctrine) has also evolved, though somewhat more slowly. If it is going to continue in a positive path, it needs strong women of faith to guide that and help set the direction and tone. I hope some of your young passion stays strong in the church to be examples and make those changes happen out here in the trenches. This is our culture, in and out of the church, and we have to shape it. We shouldn’t expect leaders of a world church to fret about oppression in Utah or California, when there are saints in Africa and Eastern Europe and all over the 3rd world struggling with much more basic needs than whether our young women are doing crafts or white water rafting. Don’t wait for top-down direction and get out and do your part to make ours a better environment; do it for our children. Raise strong, confident young women and young men who will appreciate them.

    1. I loved the insights your comment contains; how you paint such a clear picture of the world you grew up in, and the reasons why the older General Authorities may not understand women who want to break out of traditional roles (inside or outside of the Church). You raise a good point missing from the discussion thus far: LDS leaders need to focus on Church members’ needs of the Church members worldwide. If my experience as a missionary in Peru is any indication of how things might stand, I imagine many female members outside of the United States don’t the have the luxury of being stay at home mothers, and so might not even understand why we are disputing the “should” and “should not”s of women’s roles. Instead of spending time in debates, they must struggle daily to carry their families and the Church forward, sometimes in partnership with the men. Thank you for posting!

    2. Carla with respect, it is a pet peeve of mine that any time a woman raises a legitimate concern of sexism here in the US inevitably someone counters with starving babies in Africa. While starving babies in Africa are a legitimate concern, and I’m not about to start a contest of “who has it worse?” it tends to shut down what are otherwise productive conversations that are also important.

      1. I absolutely agree that it is not an excuse, and I didn’t mean to imply that other concerns (or their own historically sexist backgrounds) gets anyone off the hook for responsibility. What I was trying to say was that we shouldn’t wait for top down improvements, but work where we are to create a better culture and atmosphere, and try to help spread it. While there will always be some local leaders who will be afraid of doing anything unsanctioned from above, I have found most to be rather open minded when offered positive programs and activities.

        My original comment originated from me wondering why we have such a divide today, so I went back in time to analyze the situation when I was younger. But remember I was raised in a liberal household, part of the time with a grandmother who today can only be considered a real feminist (1878-1969). So while I may have worn hippie dresses, I wasn’t out there burning bras. It seemed just natural to have strong capable women doing what they felt was right, not confrontational, just to “get it done”.

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