Mar 8, 2009

International Women's Day: Are LDS Women Femiphobic?

Today is International Women's Day. Since it fell on a Sunday, I was at church today and it was the subject of a talk in sacrament meeting coinciding with the upcoming Relief Society Anniversary that will be celebrated in my branch later this month.

The RS president in my branch gave a nice talk about all the usual RS values: sisterhood, charity, service, motherhood, etc. But there one part in her talk that bothered me.

She started off by mentioning how she remembered an International Women's Day years back where Norwegian women protested with a slogan that I can translate as "Don't give up on your demands!" Upon hearing this, a sister in the congregation let out a laugh that sounded just a tad like mocking to me. The RS president went on to say, very proudly indeed, that never in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have the sisters "demanded" anything of the like.

Let me start off by saying that I'm not implying here that LDS women should start "demanding" things from the Church. When it comes to things like the priesthood, most Mormon women I know (myself included) have no real interest in obtaining it. Most of us probably don't even feel unequal, unless you count things like polygamous temple sealings -- which most probably don't give much thought to until they find themselves involved in one.

But are LDS women marginalizing the efforts and accomplishments of feminists -- the things that we are supposed to be celebrating and giving thought to this day? The reason why I say yes is because I used to do it myself. Just a few years ago, I could have been that sister laughing at feminists in sacrament meeting.

I'd be lying if I said that I was a good feminist. And to be perfectly honest, I have to say that more often than not, I have viewed the feminist movement as something negative: women telling me to burn my bra, wear pantsuits, or make sure that every kid in the country grows up in daycare while mom climbs to the top of the corporate ladder. But the older I get and the more I learn about history and the world around me, the more thankful I am for the women who went before me and paved the road so that I have as much access to the highway of life as my husband. Yes, I'm even thankful for those terribly "demanding" feminists who never "gave up."

I think that most LDS women have a cynical view of feminism (as I did) because they believe that the only aim of feminists is to pull them out of their homes and force them to work while their kids get shipped off to daycare, even though they have chosen of their own free will to be a stay-at-home mom and love it. They feel that their choice of lifetyle is being mocked, devalued, and discouraged. And I certainly think that sometimes this is the case.

But let's look at the other side of the coin. Is there not a Mormon equivalent of the die-hard, anti-traditional, bra-burning feminist? Aren't liberal, career-oriented, childless women generally looked upon by most Mormons as being selfish -- or perhaps even having an active hand in the breakdown of the family? We often hear how the traditional family is "under attack," which was reiterated in church today. And who is "attacking" it? I think that many LDS women think that feminists are. Perhaps that's why the word "feminist" still instinctively conjures up a negative feeling in me until I actually consciously think about it. And the more conscious thought I give it, the less threatened I feel by feminists.

But just as troublesome to me as die-hard feminists telling me that my place is in an office and not at home, is Mormons telling me that my place is not in an office but at home. Mormons can sprinkle as much sugar as they like on it, but the message is always the same: a woman's place is in the home raising children and it's not just where she should be, but where she should want to be. And a woman who doesn't want to be, or chooses to be childless, can perhaps barely be called a woman at all.

In her talk, the RS president addressed the concern that some have about a church that excludes women from the priesthood. Her explanation was that women make up for it in terms of equality by being "partners" with the Lord and giving birth to children -- something that men can't do. I sat there wondering where that leaves me. And I sometimes wonder whether I'm the only woman in the Church who is wondering. At times it feels like finding my place in this world is a lot easier than finding my place in the Church. Personally, I'd like to have some say in what my role in this life is.

So what do you think? Are LDS women a bunch of femiphobics? Can they really appreciate what the feminist movement has given them without mocking it?


Grégoire said...

Sorry, but I have to respond to this. I just came from a little Women's Day gathering myself.

When it comes to things like the priesthood, most Mormon women I know (myself included) have no real interest in obtaining it. Most of us probably don't even feel unequal, unless you count things like polygamous temple sealings -- which most probably don't give much thought to until they find themselves involved in one.

I've heard this so often for so many years, and it never ceases to amaze me.

I'm not criticizing you personally. Of course most Mormon women don't feel unequal. They view the structure of the organization through the lens of oppression and superstitious worship of authority.

Much of the doctrine of the LDS church can't be appreciated for how counterproductive and downright ridiculous it is until you spend some time away from it. I'm not talking about Mormonism, just the narrow interpretation of Mormonism promoted by the LDS hierarchy as the 'one-true' flavor. The RLDS/CoC moved beyond this many years ago, to their credit.

The fact is that many(including many Mormons, like me) see the LDS interpretation as it crushes both men and women alike under the heel of a patriarchal false-consciousness.

Doesn't matter too much if you (or anyone) don't want the priesthood. Individuals ought to be free to refuse the priesthood for personal reasons. The inequities which are inherent in the structure itself make the entire structure a target for legitimate criticism.

Allie said...

On the way home from church today my 7-year-old son asked me, "mom, if boys get the priesthood, what do girls get?"

I told him that the priesthood isn't like a present, but a responsibility, and the girls have other responsibilities.

I'm going to have to think some more about it and have a more indepth talk with him. I want him to respect the priesthood, but also acknowledge that there is much we don't know.

I don't know why women don't have it. I don't feel like I need it (and I also don't feel oppressed), but I do find it troublesome. I figure it's one of those things that we'll all understand at *some point*, and until then, I just keep doing the best I can with the knowledge that I have.

The Faithful Dissident said...

Grégoire, I get what you're saying. Perhaps I should clarify what I mean when when I say that I have no real interest in having the priesthood. Personally, I don't really have any interest in having any position in the Church right now. I hold one small calling, but generally at this point in my life I'm satisfied with being a "spectator" or "student" at church. So from the sidelines, I guess I don't really feel "unequal." But the more involved one gets in the Church, the greater potential there is to be/feel unequal in terms of gender. We all know how it works, how it's the priesthood brethren who have the final say in everything in the Church. I've known some bishops and leaders who basically let the sisters run the show (at least where RS and primary is concerned), while others perhaps exercise their "authority" over the women in a more noticeable degree. But whether one has a "good" bishop or not is not really relevant. The priesthood holder has the final say no matter what and yes, I'm troubled by that. So although I personally don't currently feel compelled to take up the "feminist cross" in the LDS Church, I understand why some do. Some have been personally affected by the LDS system of hierarchy more than I have.

I guess, like Allie, I don't really feel "oppressed," but I do find it "troublesome." And ever since I can remember from as early as my childhood, I have balked at the role that I've been told over and over again is mine simply because I'm a female Mormon. So that's my personal beef with the Church, more than the priesthood issue in itself.

This post is over at FMH as well, and I liked what one commenter had to say:

"As an LDS feminist I use an interpretative framework and presuppositions that are feminist. In this framework it is possible to place women as agents at the center of historiography, at the center of spirituality, and to understand women as makers as well as bearers of meaning. Assumption of the agency and intelligence of wo/men, and of the force and strategies of oppression is given methodological priority; probabilities and reconstructions are accepted that allow for these. This framework determines to a certain extent what is deemed logical, reasonable, possible. Feminist scholarship is work done to empower social change and wo/men’s liberation.

For instance, an LDS woman who is a feminist might take it for granted that thinking about women and their role, their impact, and their growth is natural. LDS feminists take it for granted that women are prominent, central, and necessary to the church. However, feminists cannot help but see that women’s agency is obscured and blurred in the church, due to the prominence of men’s ruling structure, and the absence of women’s voices in places of power. This obscuration and blurring sometimes leads to bizarre behaviors and conclusions.

For instance, in our church, there are multiple strategies that suppress women’s leadership roles. Some of these are overt: the damning of even the word feminism as a useful word in the church, the taking away of power (an independent Relief Society, the giving of blessings by women), and the constant emphasis that the brethren (not women and men) are all-knowing. If the brethren want something taught, we teach it. If they don’t want something taught, well, that’s that. Other things are more subtle: the emphasis on being a “sweet” woman is but one example. To be forceful, assertive, thinking, thoughtful, decisive, etc., are not attributes nearly as emphasized to the LDS woman as being “sweet.”

I affirm that to define oneself as LDS and feminist is to very deliberately put on a badge of honor and courage. This is not male-hating in any way, but rather a desire for a more egalitarian way, defining egalitarianism as a “social reality characterized by the attempts of men and women to live and work together for a common goal or goals as equals, in a variety of changing circumstances, and with a range of understandings, and a range of success and lack of success. In a religious sense, what characterizes egalitarianism is the attempt actually and fully to “incarnate” or embody certain beliefs - to take them seriously enough to act on them - such as the beliefs that all have equal access to salvation, that all are created in the image of God (Jane Schaberg)

In some ways you may say the Church is doing this already; in other ways - again proposing that we teach that women are assertive, thinking, thoughtful, decisive, etc. - we are not there yet.

That last part is what speaks to me the most. Yes, there is often an emphasis in talks and manuals about what a true LDS woman should be like: sweet, a good mother, supportive wife, spiritual, capable homemaker. None of these things are bad, in fact we should aspire to be all these things. But some are much better at being those things than others. Some are natural-born mothers and caretakers, while others are not. And those who are not are often made to feel that they're not being righteous or godly if they're not that kind of woman. I say that the world needs the kind of women that the Church focuses on, but it also needs women whose strengths lie in other areas. Unfortunately, though, we often are left with the impression that there is only one type of woman that God wants to see. And I have to admit that I still sometimes look down on "assertive, forceful" women -- more so than with men -- and I know that those prejudices probably stem from my life in Mormon culture.

The Faithful Dissident said...

I guess I just wish that there was more balance in the Church regarding women's roles. One thing that I do love about the Church's teachings about women is that I always felt that I was worth something, that I didn't need to cheapen or prostitute my image as a woman, like we see so much of in the world today. Sure, we can learn self-worth outside of the Church, but I think it has more of an impact when it becomes divine. The problem is that the Church's view of women is so heavily swayed in one direction.

Anonymous said...

Well said! As a SAHM and feminist of the 60s era I think mistakes have been made on both sides. There were and are feminists that don't adequately respect the role of women who choose a team or division of labor that has something appearing to be a support position. In my case, my husband is able to make multiples of what I could and it would be silliness not to enable that allocation of joint resources.

On the other end of the spectrum there are anti-feminists who distrust and discount the role of women who choose careers rather than families or in addition to careers. That's nothing more than ignorance exposing it's insecurity and protecting the vulnerability of it's power and control.

The truth that was valuable in the 60s and 70s that remains valuable today is that we each have talents, interests, contributions to make and legitimate choices. That remains true whoever does and does not recognize it and whoever may discount it. The important thing is that the individual recognizes it, exercises their options fully and refuses to apologize for their legitimate personal choice.

That said, I am old enough to remember when it wasn't a choice and to have seen who used every means at it's disposal to prevent it from becoming a woman's choice (SLC, is that you I see looking down at your toes?).

I don't want a priesthood either. But I don't recognize the right or truth of any human from denying it to me. And I think their wish to is deplorable. Nevertheless no one can prevent me from excercising my right and duty to have a complete spiritual life as something that exists directly between HF and myself. As a result, I save my discrete derision for the deluded who just don't get it. They make themselves more and more marginal every day that I can be an empowered individual of my own definition.

Anonymous said...

Grégoire- I agree completely! I just don't care anymore as I am less and less impressed with the patriarchy as years go by. Maybe it's getting wiser or more fearless as I age. Maybe it's simply getting older myself and seeing that one is only as wise as one allows oneself to be brave and honest while locking into the inflexible demonstrates more followership than leadership.

I don't know. I just know I don't need things to be conferred on me. I just open myself to HF and HM accept what They share.

Mormon Heretic said...

Call me liberal on this issue, but I think a female apostle would be a wonderful thing.

While we view apostles and "special witnesses of Christ", it was in reality Mary Magdalene who first saw the resurrected Lord. I think that is pretty significant.

Andee said...

I am one of those fairly outspoken feminists at church: I speak my mind, even to men, I wear dress pants because I want to, and I won't pretend to agree with my bishop about something I don't believe just because he's my bishop. Of course, I've gotten myself into some trouble, but that's the way I've chosen to live my life.

One one side, I am active in the church and my calling and I attend the temple regularly. I love the scriptures and the gospel. On the other hand, I hate church. Every time I go, someone says something narrow-minded or ignorant and I get irritated at the false doctrine which regularly passes over my pulpit. Rumors abound that I am a lesbian because I wear pants and speak my mind (and also am unmarried, not dating, and with no plans for either of those things).

Because I am highly educated, career-oriented, and am happy with my life, the other sisters at church believe that there must be some reason. You said it correctly when you stated that within the church, women are expected to aspire to marriage and children. Since I don't have those things, and am not bending over backwards in order to acquire them, I am treated with disdain and suspicion by many members of my ward.

Compared to many feminists, I'm not one, but compared to other women in the faith, I'm a full-blown feminazi. I don't necessarily want the priesthood, but as has been stated before, I don't want to be barred from it because of my god-given plumbing. God had legitimate priestesses before the reorganization of the church, and I think it's shameful that the most women today are allowed to do in serving the Lord and His gospel is raising children and having callings related to raising children. What happened to those amazing female seers and priestesses? I believe that God knows that women are powerful and truly amazing. I know that He knows what I'm capable of. My bishop may not, but it's the Lord I answer to.

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Grégoire said...

I just know I don't need things to be conferred on me. I just open myself to HF and HM accept what They share.

This is the most subversive thing a Mormon could write. That's what's so wonderful about the younger generations. I just turned 39 so I guess I can speak that way now.

Younger Mormons are much less apt, I've noticed, to take the orders issued from above as the ultimate truth. Use your own free agency and discern things for yourself. In doing so you're following our original tradition. We're the people of handcarts and questioning authority, after all.

The Faithful Dissident said...

Andee, thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

I appreciate sisters like you. I wish I knew some, actually.

"On one side, I am active in the church and my calling and I attend the temple regularly. I love the scriptures and the gospel. On the other hand, I hate church. Every time I go, someone says something narrow-minded or ignorant and I get irritated at the false doctrine which regularly passes over my pulpit."

I can identify. There are things I love about the Church and things that I hate. I usually feel somewhat uplifted after a typical Sunday (sometimes very uplifted -- it varies), but I'm also usually irritated by something, whether it be false doctrine, something in a manual, or just narrow-mindedness in general. Unfortunately, though, I'm way more "outspoken" when I write than in person. I rarely contribute anything to the discussion, keeping my thoughts to myself.

"You said it correctly when you stated that within the church, women are expected to aspire to marriage and children. Since I don't have those things, and am not bending over backwards in order to acquire them, I am treated with disdain and suspicion by many members of my ward."

I always knew that I wanted to get married, although I thought for many years that I would never find the right man. (I did, even though he's not a member.) But I always knew I wasn't going to be a Molly Mormon and I never wanted kids, but assumed that I eventually would like everyone else. Well, I'm in my 30's now and the desire to have kids hasn't kicked in yet and I tend to think it never will. I haven't closed the door on it completely, but there are other factors that would make it difficult for me to have children whether I wanted to or not. The problem, as you said, is being treated with disdain for not desiring these things. I have to admit that no one individual has treated me with disdain for who I am, but it's just the sentiment I feel from the Church as an organization in general. It's like we're always doing something wrong or not being righteous enough simply because we're not "bending over backwards," as you said, to want "the Mormon package." Sometimes I think I have an idea of how gay people in the Church feel. How can they aspire to temple marriage with someone of the opposite sex if it's not what they want? How can they look forward to eternity with someone of the opposite sex if it's not what they want? How do you make yourself want something?

I remember that talk a while back by Julie Beck where she said something like "Women who know WANT to be married in the temple, they WANT to bear children, etc." Well, not everyone does, so does that mean the rest of us don't know anything? I never hear things like "Find what makes you happy and live a righteous, honourable life as a productive member of society and the Church in whatever you do." It's more like we're always being told that you have to want to be a wife and mother otherwise there's something wrong with you.

The Faithful Dissident said...

By the way, regarding the prophetesses, I did a post about that a while back that you may find interesting.

Anonymous said...

Grégoire- You can't even imagine what a laugh I'm having! I'm past 60.

I was a compliant little wife and sister for a great many years thinking being older made you wiser.

Now I know I always was. I just didn't trust it enough.

pb said...

I've been reading a great deal of 19th century literature lately, which helps frame the feminist question for me. Women had so few options 200 years ago. There was no debate about whether to be a SAHM or a career woman. It was not a choice that women had. To me, to be a "feminist" does not equate with pursuing a career to the detriment of the family. It simply means supporting a social structure that does not bar women -- or any group of people -- from realizing their full potential, whatever that may be. Any voice, including the mormon church's, that attempts to pre-define the role of a distinct group of people is definitionally oppressive. There is an ulterior motive and vested interest in disallowing the advancement of the oppressed group. Women who have options in society, who can support themselves financially if need be, who expect to be treated as partners rather than subordinates in marriage, pose a threat to male entitlement. Such a woman is less likely to accept pat answers to very real questions, like: if the priesthood is a church-conferred benefit of great value, why would it be denied to me, systematically? The brethren who currently hold the cards have a vested interest in maintaining the current status quo. I find it truly sad and even tragic that women, such as Andee, are subjected to social derision within the confines of the mormon church because they are actualized enough to make choices in their lives and not simply follow a path pre-paved by someone else. I also find it sad that countless women within the mormon church are not like Andee and the other posters here, but are instead content to have imposed upon them a structure that confines and limits them to one very narrow role, and even tells them that they must go through their husband, bishop or some other priesthood holder to access God.

Maynard W. Bitumbuntz said...

Boyd K. Packer said a number of years ago, to paraphrase, the three greatest threats to the church are "Feminists, Historians and Homosexuals." I think that sums up the answer to your question, FD, of, "is the church Femiphobic".....

You know me, though - I'd love to see us feminise - not just in responsibility, or in the home, but also doctrinally. Its interesting, because when you study the History of christianity, there was a huge "feminist" group of Gnostics there at the beginning, but as Christianity grew, the patriarchy erradicated the divine feminine element. So it is with the LDS Church - there was a fairly large mystical/feminine element in the Days of JS and the early Apostles, but that has been subjegated and swept under the rug so to speak. Now, we aren't allowed to mention the Goddess in Church, prayer, or the like. I'd love a re-feminization of the doctrine as well. But that won't come from these soft voiced submissive women authorities whom we all love to hear in confrence.

chris said...

I am in a business trip in Las Vegas and visited a ward on Sunday. A member of the stake presidency visited their Relief Society meeting and began his talk about the founding of the Relief Society, where Joseph Smith told the sisters, "If you live up to your privileges, the angels cannot be restrained from being your associates.” (HC, 4:605.)

He then said that in the Doctrine and Covenants we learn that the Aaronic Priesthood holds the keys to the ministering of angels. We read, “Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels …” (D&C 13:1)

He emphasized that woman are just as entitled to the gift of the ministering of angels as men are. He promised women who may have no immediate access to a priesthood holder, ie. widow, woman married to a non-member, divorced or single sister, or a sister whose home teachers may be unavailable, that they can call down the blessings of heaven as forcefully as if they held the priesthood.

I have experienced this personally after the death of my father. A single student away at the university, I had no extended family or home teacher to turn to, but I discovered my Heavenly Father knew me well and knew how to bless me as I turned to him in fervent prayer.

President Monson said, "Women of Relief Society, you truly are angels of mercy. This is demonstrated on a grand scale through the humanitarian outreach to the cold, the hungry, and to suffering wherever it is found. Your labors are also very much in evidence in our wards and in our stakes and missions. Every bishop in the Church could testify of this truth."

I believe the Relief Society organization is one of the greatest feminist organizations in the world. It is powerful. Women's lives are blessed. Miracles occur because women chose to serve and lead with love and compassion.

I doubt that this leader realized it was International Women's Day, but he reminded us that as we remain close to the Spirit, we have the right to receive the ministering of angels. I have been a visiting teacher now for 43 years and could write volumes about the blessings I have received because of my experiences in visiting and serving woman.

I wish every woman had the opportunity to serve as a visiting teacher and experience the joy of ministering to another woman personally and individually. It can be a taste of heaven.

The Faithful Dissident said...

I seem to recall hearing stories of Mormon pioneer women administering the equivalent of a priesthood blessing to those in need in times of emergency when there was no priesthood holder around. Also, I think I remember a story of some sisters laying their hands on sick cattle to give them a blessing, something that warms my heart as an animal lover. :)

Mormon Heretic said...


I think John Dehlin did a podcast on that subject. I'll have to look it up, but I'm pretty sure you're right about that.

The Faithful Dissident said...

MH, I did some searching and found this, which is the story that I remember about the sick ox. However, it was priesthood brethren who annointed the oxen and not sisters.

However, I did find this interesting post at FMH about "women's blessings" which were apparently discontinued in the Church in 1936.

I'm just thinking about what it would mean if I had the authority to bless someone in an emergency when there is no priesthood holder around, which is not an unlikely scenario where I am since there are few priesthood holders and we are all so spread out. In some areas of the world this would be more practical than in Salt Lake, for example.

I'm also very intrigued by the idea of blessing animals.

Mormon Heretic said...

I am just finishing up the Sidney Rigdon book. After he left (or rather was run out of) the church, he ordained several women to the priesthood, claiming the Joseph Smith conferred the priesthood first to Emma. Sidney referred to his wife, Phebe as "the prophetess."

Mormon Heretic said...

That FMH site is a great resource! I think I have an old Sunstone article about women giving blessings. I should get it out and post on it!

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I knew that there was such a thing as Mormon feminism, but I hadn't read something this clear prior to this. It is very good to know that there are people out there thinking (not just feeling) through these issues.

Kaylanamars said...

Wow, just an amazing post, FD. Tears came to my eyes as I read about that there are women out there who are like me! I mean I knew it, but to actually read it! So great.

I never wanted to have kids either. But I've felt all the pressure from the Mormon culture to do so and if I don't want it there's something wrong with me. My neighbor has four kids and one stepson and when we first moved in she kept asking when we were going to have kids! I'm like lay off, maybe never! And then my DH's Father (who's in prison right now) kept writing us about how evil we were since we didn't have kids yet and kept sending us articles on how evil BC is and how we should have immediately started our family and "happy is the man who has his quiver full of kids" quotes, yada yada. I finally wrote him back and told him to stick it, but he still can't resist little remarks here and there in his letters.

I finished school and worked for a year and I still didn't feel like I wanted kids, but felt that if we didn't do it now it was probably never. So went off BC and six weeks later...preggo.

Anyway, I don't feel like I'm a natural at motherhood/parenthood. Nor do I want anymore kids. One's good for me.

But when I read A proclamation on the family and it tells me what my role is and that I should want and that it's the ideal...i just shudder. I just feel it's important that all are allowed to do what they feel is best for them whether that is SAHM, Part-time work, fulltime work, no kids, lots of kids, not a lot of kids, etc! I just think of how lost society would be if we didn't have women working outside the home being doctors, midwives, scientists, etc. It would be great to be able to feel like we have a choice on what we want to do based on who we are not an ideal that is told us that God wants us to do.

So thank you again for directing me to your post and all your encouragement! GO Mormon feminists!