I have been reading and thinking a lot about the subject of feminism and the church lately- it seems to be popping up in the news and in social media more often lately, probably because of upcoming general conference. I have read a ton of posts from both sides of views, and I thought I would throw my own thoughts in.
Let me start off by saying that I consider myself a feminist. And before you back away slowly and cautiously, let me explain. By feminism, I don’t mean the ‘women are better than men, don’t hold the door for me I can do it myself, bra-burning’ type of feminist. Honestly, I wouldn’t consider those people true feminists. All I want is equal treatment and respect for both genders. By that definition, everyone should be a feminist.
(And on a separate note, I really don’t like the negative stigma that feminists get because of those people! I shouldn’t be ashamed and afraid of people judging me when I say I’m a feminist! For example- someone asked me if I was a feminist a couple weeks ago and I kind of hemmed and hawed and said sort of I guess but I’m not crazy or anything. And, thinking about that later, I realized that I kind of sold out. Why should I be afraid to tell people that I’m for the equal treatment of women? That’s ridiculous. Anyway.)
I am also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I grew up in the church, I was raised by wonderful, faithful parents who taught me to love my Father in Heaven. I still hold to that faith and I believe in the gospel with all my heart.
That being said, there has been sooooo much controversy about women in the church over the past couple months. I don’t believe that this is just a recent issue- it has been a point of interest for decades, but because of some prominent feminist groups publicly advocating for women to hold the priesthood, it has recently come into the spotlight. There have been so many different reactions to this movement, some positive, some negative. However, I think it is important to realize that the majority of LDS women don’t take an extreme stance on either side.
Here’s the issue as the feminist activists see it: there is blatant gender discrimination in the church. The group’s main objective is to secure approval from the presidency of the church for the ordaining of women to the priesthood. Men are allowed to hold the priesthood, which gives the holder the power to act righteously, for others, in God’s name. Women are not allowed to hold the priesthood. The Ordain Women movement sees this as sexist and unfair, and is speaking out for equal opportunity for men and women to hold the priesthood.
This is how I see it. Because I feel like this might turn into a ten-billion-page essay, I’m going to divide it into sections.
The church’s stance on this issue is that there are distinct and foreordained roles for each gender, that come as direct revelation from God. The church teaches that men are to provide for and preside over families, and thus they get the priesthood to help them in that endeavor. The church’s stance is that women’s role is to bear children, to nurture them, and to devote herself to her family.
I will admit that this, set gender roles, is the first thing that I am hesitant to accept. Don’t get me wrong, I think that raising, teaching, and nurturing children is one of the most important things a person can do. I think that a lot of society’s problems would be solved if every parent was devoted to giving their children the best upbringing possible, doing their best as parents, and loving their children. The rates of child abuse, abandonment, and just general bad parenting in our society today are absolutely abhorrent. It makes me sincerely worried for future generations. However, notice I apply this to all parents, not just mothers. I honestly don’t think that it is a woman’s only role to rear children. Yes, we are blessed with the ability to bring children into this world, and once we do we have a responsibility to them. But this applies to both parents, not just the mother. There are plenty of successful families where the father stays at home and raises the children, while the mother works. There are also plenty of successful relationships where single mothers work to support the family and raises children at the same time. Women are capable of doing both. We are constantly bombarded with talks and lessons about our role as mothers. I would really like to know how often men get those same talks and lessons about their divine roles. I think that too often the church’s stance comes across as ‘women, get married as early as possible, stay at home and start having babies! That’s what you’re supposed to do and that’s all you’re good for!’ Of course, this is not how Heavenly Father wants women to feel. Unfortunately, the emphasis that the church puts on women having families sometimes leads us to believe that our only worth comes from our womb. This is absolutely not true! We are divine daughters of God and we are of infinite worth, not just because we can have kids. Besides, there are a significant number of faithful couples in the church who are unable to have children. Because of the stress put on families in the church, these couples can go through extreme stress, depression, and doubt, even though they are still of equal worth to anyone else. Because of these gender roles, there are definitely targeted messages being sent to women in the church from a very early age. Young women are taught homemaking skills in weekly activities, while the young men go on camping trips with their boy scout troops. I have distinct memories of sewing pillowcases and pajama pants, making cute crafts (that I would never use again), scrapbooking, and learning how to properly set a table during mutual on Wednesday nights, while the guys got to learn how to set up tents and build fires. Even when we wanted to go on a young women’s camping trip, we had to get approval from our bishop, have at least one priesthood holder (male) there, and often we were denied approval.
Another issue I have is with the absence of women in church leadership roles. As a younger teenager, I remember watching general conference and being profoundly bothered that basically our entire leadership- the presidency of the church, the apostles- were all white men. White men who I love very very much, and support, but let’s face it, they don’t represent the population of the church! The majority of our members worldwide are not American caucasian males. Why is our leadership only representing one small demographic? This is something that I don’t have an answer for right now, because I know and believe that our leaders are called of God. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are completely perfect and infallible. Too many comments on blog posts I’ve read are criticizing the author, saying that they are a bad mormon for not having blind faith in our leaders. There is the idea that if you personally do not agree with everything that a church leader says/does, you are sinning. I absolutely detest this thinking! When did it become a bad thing to have healthy criticism, to think critically about issues, and to find out the truth for themselves? This is a dangerous way of thinking. We are supposed to find out for ourselves whether something is true or not. We can’t just blindly follow, never questioning and never finding our own testimonies. This is what separates a church from a cult. Brigham Young illustrated this point nicely:
“I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self security. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widstoe , 135.)
Besides the really negative attitude towards people who are just trying to gain personal testimonies, there is the fact that women make up a disproportional amount of church leadership. We are always told that as women, we are smart, good leaders, good at working with people. So why aren’t more women in positions of leadership? I do realize that there are some very important women in leadership roles in the church. I myself am chair of a committee of six people; I sit in ward council every other Sunday and discuss ward matters with other leaders and with the bishopric. I even helped choose callings for the new people in the ward at the start of the semester. On the ward level of the church, there are plenty of women leaders. However, the higher up in the church you go, the less women you encounter. The church teaches that women and men each have distinct and inherent gifts and talents, and that these gifts and talents compliment each other. Following that logic, shouldn’t there be women and men complimenting each other’s talents in church leadership? Women in the church often feel underrepresented or misrepresented, because sometimes their voices just don’t get heard or even acknowledged. I find it hard to reconcile these concerns with my belief that the church leadership is called by God. It’s another one of those things that I just don’t have the answers to.
Women and the Priesthood:
And here we get to the main issue that everyone has been talking about. Why don’t women get the priesthood, when it is readily available to all worthy men? (And I would like to say that I am not passing judgment on anyone involved in the Ordain Women movement- I think that they have the right idea, and I admire their willingness to speak out, I just don’t quite agree with all of their ideas). Honestly, I think a lot of these bitter feelings and confusion come from not understanding the gospel completely. I’m not saying that I do- I definitely don’t understand the gospel completely. My knowledge is very limited. However, it makes me kind of sad when I hear women in the church saying things like “My 12-year-old son gets the priesthood and all of a sudden he’s got more power and authority than me!” (1) What I think these women don’t understand is that just because a man has the priesthood doesn’t mean that he has more authority than you, especially in a family setting. Women and men have equal authority in a family- husband does not have authority over wife, and neither does wife have authority over husband. They work together as a team, as equal partners. Have you ever learned about the patriarchal order of the priesthood? I hadn’t, up until a very insightful Pearl of Great Price class at BYU a couple months ago. Basically, in a celestial marriage, the patriarchal order of the priesthood is “the organizing power and principle of celestial family life. It is the ultimate and ideal form of government”. (2) In celestial marriage, which is the highest covenant we can make with our Heavenly Father, husband AND wife are given this priesthood power. It was first conferred upon the first presidency, the apostles, and their wives in Nauvoo, IL, 1843. This is the highest priesthood order, and it is the key to eternal exaltation. Husbands and wives are absolutely equal in it- if they are not one, they are not one, they are not of the Lord. This priesthood is held jointly by husbands and wives.
I was absolutely blown away when I learned this. It answered so many questions and concerns I had about women and the priesthood. My question is, why isn’t this taught more in churches? Why did I have to wait until I was 20 years old, almost done with a degree, and engaged before I found this out? How many women go years and years without ever knowing this? This is groundbreaking, guys! Women actually DO get the priesthood! This whole fuss is over basically nothing! See, the other orders of the priesthood are hierarchical, meaning that they apply to the structure and organization of the church. And while that is important, the patriarchal order is more important.
Women have just as much authority and power as men, but the way that mormon culture is and the way the gospel gets taught, we just don’t realize it. I think it’s really sad that such a beautiful gospel truth gets overlooked when it could give so much comfort to women who are feeling so much pain and worry about issues like this. Another cool thing I’ve learned recently is that there are early church accounts of women giving blessings of healing! D&C 84:64-68 says:
“Therefore, as I said unto my apostles I say unto you again, that every soul who believeth on your words, and is baptized by water for the remission of sins, shall receive the Holy Ghost. And these signs shall follow them that believe. In my name they shall do many wonderful works; In my name they shall cast out devils; In my name they shall heal the sick…”
See that? Every soul. Not just men. Women are given the gift of healing just as much as men. The practice of women giving other women (especially those who had just been through childbirth), or members of their family, blessings, was actually pretty common up until the 20’s. It is recorded that Joseph Smith said that there could be no evil in females administering for the healing of the sick (3). Women have the gift to heal because of their faith. Joseph Fielding Smith later circulated a letter to the Relief Societies asking that they utilize the men’s priesthood authority to administer blessings, although it was all right under some circumstances for females to administer blessings. While the practice has all but died out since then, we as women still hold the authority to heal others in God’s name because of our faith. I think that this is inspiring and also empowering to the women of the church, and again, I am surprised that it is not a more widely known fact.
To wrap up this subject, I don’t generally agree with the main objective of Ordain Women. I think that most of the people who do don’t quite understand the deeper doctrine that is in place. I blame this mostly on mormon culture, and the way that the gospel is taught. Women have just as much authority as men, and we have unrestricted access to all the blessings that come with the lower orders of the priesthood, besides. I personally do not feel the need to be ordained with the aaronic or melchezidek priesthood.
Modesty in Mormon Culture:
Last section, I promise! I just wanted to talk a bit about this because it is something that I really feel passionately about, and that I think is a glaring problem with mormon culture. I read an article (4) recently that pretty much summed up my feelings on the subject, which I recommend to anyone who is interested. The problem is this:
As mormon girls, we are taught to dress modestly. This includes covering our shoulders and midriffs, not wearing anything too low-cut, wearing shorts that come to our knees. The gospel doctrines behind doing such are to show respect to God and to our bodies, which are divine gifts and are sacred. However, much too often in the church, girls get told to dress modestly for boys’ sakes. Almost every young woman has heard that they must dress modestly, or else they will cause boys to have impure thoughts. I know we talked about this in my young women’s class- we were taught that boys can’t really help themselves, their minds wander when they are visually stimulated, and that as women it was our job to prevent that from happening by covering ourselves up.
AAAUUGGHH this makes me so upset! For real?! There are so many things wrong with this thought process. First of all, the real reason that we are counseled to dress modestly, as I said before, is to show respect to God and to ourselves. We do not do it for other people. Teaching that we dress modestly for guys undermines the true principles. Secondly, teaching that men don’t have control over their thoughts goes directly against the principle of agency! It perpetuates the myth that men are impulsive animals who always give in to their instincts, to the ‘natural man’. Men DO have control over their thoughts, same as women. It might be harder for them, but ultimately it is their responsibility to keep their thoughts and heart clean and pure. Teaching otherwise is basically telling boys that they have no control. We need to teach our young men and women that they absolutely have agency and in the end, no one else but themselves is responsible for their thoughts and actions. Teaching that it’s the girls’ fault also leads to extreme problems like victim-blaming in rape cases, which is way more prevalent than you might think.
Teaching girls that they are responsible for the sexual thoughts of men through how they dress themselves also subtlety teaches girls to think of themselves as objects. Self-objectification is a huge issue for many women in today’s culture (side-note: everyone should go watch the documentary Miss Representation, it deal a lot with this issue). Women in this society are unconsciously told that they are objects, things to be acted upon. We are constantly bombarded with the message that men hold the positions of power, and that women are supposed to be submissive. This is simply not true. The bottom line is, all women deserve respect, no matter how they’re dressed. We are all children of God, we are all divine. We are all of infinite worth, and we are all loved by Heavenly Father. It doesn’t matter how a person is dressed, they deserve respect and love no matter what. By teaching that girl’s modesty is for the benefit of men, we are teaching that it’s all right for men to objectify women, because it’s their nature. NOT OKAY.
All right… I think I’ve covered everything. Man, it was good to get all that down. I don’t think I’ve written this much (voluntarily) since I started a novel in 7th grade. Anyway, DISCLAIMER: this is all just my opinion. If you comment, please be nice. Constructive criticism is always welcome, I love hearing different people’s points of view.