Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Feminist Intent (and Failure)

I'm not the first Mormon (or Christian) to arrive at a crisis of faith via feminism, and there's a reason for that.

Feminism is simply the belief that women are equally as important as men and should not be told they must or cannot do something based on the fact that they are women. It's a pretty basic concept--and it takes about a two-second examination of most Christian churches to see that it is not part of the program. Once you realize that, you kind of have to question what kind of God really wants women to be forever ruled over by men.
"Dr. Schussler Fiorenza at Harvard says the intention of Jesus was feminist," I said to Sandy one evening.

"Mine, too," he said. He's a smart man, my husband.

I believe Sandy's intention was that, derived from a concept he held in his mind of equality and justice. But like me, like so many of us, he lived with an unconscious gap between concept and practice. Most "feminism" doesn't filter down into ways of relating, the way faith is practiced or votes are cast. I've seen churches give honest lip service to women's equality as a concept, while life and worship there go on in the same old patriarchal ways.

--Sue Monk Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, p. 68
I've seen churches do this, too... Every Sunday of my life growing up. And a lot of times since then, like in this delightful gem from the LDS church's PR guy. If you want to read something that doesn't actually make logic cry out from its grave, try these responses to that article. I haven't listened to the Daughters of Mormonism podcast, but I love all three of the written responses. I think Kristine's--the last link, over the word "article"--might be the most poignant, though Amelia (at the Exponent) and Lynette (at Zelophehad's Daughters) do a fantastic job of showing, point by point, why Michael Otterson sounds like an idiot in that article.

Ways "the equality of women" does not filter down in Mormon life:

  • Obviously, the priesthood. We are told arbitrarily that men get the priesthood and women do not, despite plenty of scriptural evidence that women had that kind of responsibility in both the Old Testament and New Testament, as well as Joseph Smith's time.
  • "Quaint" traditions of sacrament meeting speaking order--youth speakers (often female, then male, although not strictly because who really cares about the youth speakers) followed by adult speakers (female, then male)... and prayer order--woman opening, man closing. Note also that women do not pray in General Conference.
  • Similarly "quaint" practices of asking a husband's permission before extending a calling to his wife. (This is not the same as when they ask the wife if she will sustain her husband in his calling, which he has already been offered; this is actually asking permission, and it is done before the woman is even asked if she will accept the calling.)
  • Archaic gender roles that are still taught as doctrine, including: 
  1. The constant discouragement of women to work outside the home. I cannot think of one legitimate reason why it matters which parent stays home with the children, and yet Mormons still insist that it must be the mother. If men and women were truly equal, both parents would share equal responsibility for raising the children and providing for the family, and how those duties were split would be up to each individual couple--end of story.
  2. That in every sphere, women are responsible for home and family while men are responsible for the outside world. Men work, women stay home; women visit other women and give them a spiritual message, while men visit whole families to do the same thing; in General Conference, the female speakers almost exclusively address women and children while the men address everyone. 
  3. That Mormon girls are taught practically from infancy that they are responsible for making sure men are not tempted by them--and, consequently, that Mormon women believe their four-year-olds would be "immodest" in sleeveless dresses. It's fascinating how we manage it, but women are sexualized just as much in LDS culture as they are elsewhere (just from the opposite angle).
  4. The wonders of chicken patriarchy, which I will discuss further at a later date because it's a topic so ridiculous as to deserve its own post. 
  5. That Mormon girls aren't encouraged to go on missions because the church prefers that they be married before they're 21; that church leaders can't seem to stress enough how much they don't want a lot of sister missionaries; that, when girls do go (two years later than their male peers), their missions are six months shorter, as though to continue emphasizing that they're not the real missionaries; that there is no female leadership on a mission, and all sister missionaries must report every last detail to teenagers who are younger than they are; that male missionaries routinely dismiss female missionaries as "distractions" and wonder what attractive ones are doing there (because obviously it's only the ones who couldn't get married who go).

That last bit is actually cultural, not something taught from the pulpit. But don't worry, we have plenty to go on in that department, too:

  • Like the crap about going to BYU for an "MRS" degree, or 
  • Men taking a stretch break during the talks of the female speakers in General Conference and thinking it's totally justified by the fact that "they just hate the way they talk," as though we listen to the men because we super love the way they sound... 
  • Or the fact that just about every talk ever in the entire history of the world geared toward women talks constantly about being mothers and daughters (see that blasted Daughters in My Kingdom again), when (1) not all women are mothers, and (2) the men certainly do not refer to themselves as fathers and sons a comparable amount of the time...
  • Also in this vein, the fact that out of the 53 talks given to date by the nine current members of the Relief Society, Primary, and Young Women general presidencies, there were only 9 that were given in the main sessions AND were not about women or family (at least three or four of those talks were about virtue, but I decided not to count those since the men speak on virtue quite a bit too) 
  • The fact that girls have been "discouraged" from joining Girl Scouts, for which I have not been able to find out the justification
  • The fact that the Scouting program usually gets exponentially more money than the Young Women program
  • And the fact that Young Women activities are geared toward crafts and "homemaking skills," as though making a sugar scrub and getting countless makeovers and listening to guest speakers talk about how to dress for your body type and having "modest" fashion shows and drying flowers are all really essential skills for life (how about fixing a leaky faucet? changing the oil in your car?)

Blech. I could go on. And probably will at some point. But I think this will suffice for now. 


  1. Ok, I do have some comments, let me take these in order:
    1- Discouraging women from working outside the home--You are right, there is no logic in this. In fact, recent research concludes that working mothers actually saw more well adjusted kids than non-working mothers (researchers site quality of time vs. quantity, i.e. being with your kids all the time makes you sick of them and easily annoyed by them; researchers also credited increased resources). I agree with you though, if one parent is to stay home, who says it must be the woman?

    3- I have done a fair amount of research into the "rape myth." Your comments here play into that largely. If you want to know more about it most of the research is headed up by a professor I worked with, Niwako Yamawaki. Essentially she discusses and researches how society blames a woman for being raped (she shoudn't have dressed like than, been in that area, etc.)

    Girl Scouts - Good point. Why is it that the mormon church encourages boy scouts so much but discourages girl scouts? Afraid of tomboys?

    Aside from your complaints (valid) about the sexist view of mormonism, I have an interest here of my own. I am not a woman. I do not think I was meant to be a woman. I do not secretly with I was a woman. I do not claim to know a ton about women either, so don't confuse my interest in women's rights with such statements. I am however, a gay man. Often looked down on because I do or enjoy or am interested in things that are "for women" (shopping, shoes, I like wearing pink sometimes). And cannot help but to see the gay rights movement as tied to the women's rights movement. It is more socially acceptable for a woman to be gay than a man for one simple reason (my personal conjecture): a gay woman is acting like a man by dating women, which elevates her. A gay man acts like a woman by liking men, which is degrading. I do not expect to be able to resolve gay rights with any group of people who does not fully embrace women's rights. I have always found the two together.

  2. That's a really good point, and there are countless other examples of it, too. It's fine (even great) for women to watch "man" movies, but embarrassing for men to watch "chick flicks". Women can dress like men, but men like women? Nope. Women can hold "men's jobs," but it's weird for a man to work with children or flowers (or whatever). Our culture essentially says--and not subtly--that the man's world is better than the woman's world; it's fine for women to come up to share masculine things, but not for men to go slumming in feminine things. And I think you're right that we'll never resolve gay rights without having resolved women's rights too. (One of the primary obstacles there is that people somehow seem to think women's rights have been resolved, just because we can vote and are no longer considered property. Yeah, big progress.)

    About what you said, about it being more acceptable for women to be gay than men: I also think it has something to do with the fact that Christian society basically doesn't recognize female sexuality. I think a lot of people have the impression that women just become lesbian when they've had too many bad experiences with men, because they need someone who'll be emotionally nurturing to them--not necessarily because they're sexually attracted to women. It's like lesbian women sort of get a free pass with Christians because they think it's not about sex for them (whereas gay men are portrayed as being ALL about sex). Does that make sense?

    That professor's work sounds really interesting, I'll definitely check it out. I've been reading some similar things lately.

  3. LovelyLauren Dec 12, 2011 10:02 AM

    I hope this doesn't come off as defensive, because I totally empathize with your hurt and frustration, but many of these are completely exclusive to individual wards. For example, my old ward always used the youth, female, male speaking order and always "asked permission" for callings and neither of those happen in the ward I'm in now. (Which is one of the reasons I switch.)

    Similarly, I was a girl scout and loved it and many of my single friends (at least 3) are going on missions or graduating from college.

    I guess I feel like this is worth pointing out because I already blame the church for enough stuff that I needed to figure out that the blame is often better assigned to individual wards with a more "traditional" culture than the church as a whole. It made me feel better to recognize that my poor experiences weren't always universal and that I can and should expect better from my church experience.

    When lessons start taking a path I'm not comfortable with (gay-bashing, women needing to stay home, etc.) I always try to comment about individual circumstances or the need to be forgiving because I want to change those things. In my single's ward, I would always leave a note on the potluck sheet that men weren't exempt from bringing food just because they were men. I try to change those things one person at a time because I think a lot of other women who won't speak up aren't comfortable with them either.

  4. Valentine Dec 12, 2011 11:59 AM

    Oh, I know, Lauren. Actually I thought I included that point when I talked about those two things, but I see that I didn't (must have gotten lost in the rewrites). My wards in Texas have always followed the speaking order, but I've never been an active married person here, so I don't know about asking permission for a calling. I do know, however, that this is something that varies from one ward/stake to another, and is not a church doctrine.

    My sisters were Girl Scouts, too (and I assume I was offered the option but didn't want to? I really don't remember). And I think your philosophy about speaking up for the women who aren't comfortable doing it is great. Honestly, I think this is half the reason I find myself wanting to go back to church--because I want to be part of helping it change. (I don't know if my motivations are totally honorable here... it might be more about my own personal desire to correct people when they're wrong than it is about loving the church so much that I want to see it grow, or whatever. I don't really know.)

    I think, however, that the fact that not all wards continue those practices doesn't necessarily mean it's not a church-wide problem, or something to blame the church for. (I'm not saying you should blame the church for it, because I'd hate to hinder your healing process.) But these practices come from a very obvious church culture. No, they're not uniform, but they are widespread enough that they're clearly not just the result of specific sexist and old-fashioned individuals. Essentially I look at it this way: there's a Mormon status quo, and it's not that those wards are worse than the status quo; I think it's the wards that don't do it that are above the status quo. Does that make sense? Some wards are ahead of the general church atmosphere, and that's great. But the general church atmosphere still sucks, and a lot of change will have to happen for it to become better.