By Steve P.
In speculating what Mitt Romney would do now that the election was over, a university professor commented to one of my Mormon friends that “Well, whatever Mitt and Ann decide to do, it will be up to Mitt, since Mormon men make the decisions.” Even before the election ended, The Washington Post suggested that Mormon women are leading “a dramatic social upheaval” within the Church against what it called “the confines of a strict patriarchal hierarchy.” Both of these viewpoints suggest that Mormon women are repressed and disenfranchised; I disagree. Mormonism empowers women.
The LDS Church celebrates and reveres women and motherhood more than any other organization I know. One of the largest women’s organizations in the world is part of the Mormon Church. Church leaders (male and female) speak frequently of women’s ability to better empathize with other people or to communicate with the Spirit, and they quote frequently from women-centered scriptural stories like Esther and Ruth and Deborah. Many doctrines unique to Mormonism elevate women. Mormons believe that in partaking of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, Eve actually was making a conscious, enlightened, and necessary decision. And we believe that exaltation (or complete salvation) can only be achieved in male/female pairs sealed together by a sacred marriage ordinance. While feminists try to prove that women can do everything alone, Mormons proclaim that womanhood is eternally essential since nobody can do it alone.
Some voices today advocate for a world that views the unique characteristics of womanhood as incidental to identity and unimportant to understanding. By fighting for “equality” on the terms dictated by traditionally male spheres, we can in fact do a disservice to women. The LDS Church is in actuality a great advocate for women precisely because it recognizes differences between men and women. Differences are sources of exceptionalism and sanctity.
We can see equal value in different contributions. When we accept the faulty premise that differences entail a superior/inferior relationship, we bring ourselves one step closer to the world of Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian short story, “Harrison Bergeron.” Society often talks about celebrating our differences, but then absurdly cries foul whenever those differences entail any sort of real world effects beyond an annual parade. LDS scholar Jack Welch writes, “We see issues of gender equality differently. The secular world would collapse equality into sameness. But equality does not mean identity. Four plus four and two plus six are different, but both are equal to eight.”
Of course, Mormon women face many of the same challenges women anywhere face. And, of course, occasionally an insensitive church member makes a foolish comment highlighting what is often an intergenerational shift in gender expectations. But none of this is “Mormon” in essence. Official Mormon doctrine does define different roles for fathers and mothers, but allows that “circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation.” Hardly the hallmark of institutionalized repression.
Whenever I hear statements (like the professor’s above) about how LDS women are ignored or forced into submission, I always want to just laugh and then introduce the speaker to my mother. She is a force. Tireless, energetic, and a natural leader, she has organized more events and chaired more committees than anyone else I know. My father (who has held many prominent leadership positions in the Church and elsewhere) asks for her advice and defers to her judgment on everything. She has always run the finances of the household. My mother is more of a leader than my father; sure, adults listen to my dad, but they sit on the edge of their seats when my mother speaks. She can bring a room full of screaming children or even surly teenagers to attention in no time flat, and commands obedience with a glance (I’ve felt that glance many times). She gladly serves in whatever positions are required, no matter how unglamorous or unnoticed it may be. That, to me, is characteristic of true leadership.
I have three sisters. All of them served full-time missions for the Church and were active leaders. One of them was even nicknamed “Hermana AP” in recognition of her tremendous leadership. All three sisters have graduate degrees (my mother is also a college graduate), and all three sisters and my mother spent a few years in the full-time professional work force (two as educators, one as an attorney, and another as a very successful marketing executive) before happily and voluntarily leaving full-time employment to raise their children. One sister continues working part time as an adjunct business school professor. Are these poor women that are clearly the products of a repressive culture? On the contrary, I think they are the product of a culture that, according to even the Huffington Post, encourages all its members, male and female, to “aggressively pursue the most advanced education possible, understand their lives in terms of overcoming obstacles, and eagerly serve the surrounding society.”
Looking at the Washington Post article cited above, one might think that Lisa is a radical Mormon feminist. The article even characterizes her opinions as “dissent” from the Church’s teachings. But if you read just what she actually said, her statements are in fact perfectly in line with church teachings. I personally know Lisa, and I don’t know anyone who is more committed to the Church and more accepting of official church doctrine on gender and gender roles than Lisa. What did she say about “Mormon repression of women” when I asked her? “I haven’t had to overcome being a Mormon woman; Mormonism has helped me succeed, and continues to help me on a daily basis.” My mother and sisters would say the same, and I am confident these women are not alone.
Could we all (Mormons included) treat our fellow man and woman better? Of course. Could individual Mormons try harder to move past any gender stereotypes or biases they may have? Of course. But Mormon doctrine in fact elevates women. Mormons understand and accept better than most that a genderless society might be more “equal,” but it would surely be a worse place. Yes, Mormons see differences between men and women. Lots of them. And we think it’s wonderful.
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