By M. David Huston
I am a 41-year-old Mormon male—a member of Generation X—who has slowly and painfully come to recognize the gender inequality that exists in my church.
Coming to Terms “In the World”
It wasn’t until I was married at 24 years old that I had my first real glimpse of what being female in our society can mean. I saw my wife being undervalued and underpaid. I began to recognize that sexually charged and idealized portrayals of girls and women create expectations that are simultaneously unattainably lofty and undeniably degrading. My wife helped me understand that almost all women carry a constant (and justified) fear of sexual assault. I became aware that the female counterpart to the word “master,” a word dripping power and prestige, is the word “mistress,” which carries sexual connotations and the implication of subservience. I realized that the green M&M, commonly associated with sexual promiscuity, was portrayed as female in TV commercials. I finally noticed that women high school and collegiate sports teams often carry “Lady” in front of the mascot (because all teams are male unless otherwise noted) and that attaching the diminutive to a noun makes it feminine (actress, hostess, waitress). In short, I began to see a thousand ways our society demeans, abuses, underappreciates, and exploits the Second Sex.
Even more troubling was the recognition of my personal culpability. I wish I could say I had not engaged in male micro-aggressions against women. But I had. As a teenager I had used the “male gaze” to reinforce and perpetuate male dominance, and talked about my female classmates using language of objectification. In high school, my friends and I had ranked girls’ looks on a scale of one to ten. I had used my maleness to get chummy with my male bosses (they were always male bosses) and thus further my professional aspirations at the expense of female employees. I am ashamed to admit all of this. But I did those things. I was part of the problem. My behaviors had harmed women individually and reinforced asymmetric, institutionalized privilege. I was, and still am, the beneficiary of systematic gender bias—and I finally realized it. This awakening did not entail discovering something that no one else had noticed, rather it was a personal journey of listening to my wife’s and other women’s “lived experience” narratives, more clearly seeing the world around me, and becoming acquainted with what scholars and social scientists (many of whom were women) had been saying for more than a century.
This transformation took longer than it should have. However, as a member of Generation X, I had been given a framework upon which to build a “secular doctrine” of female equality, albeit one filled with contradictions. For example, though girls were explicitly taught they could be anything they wanted, most entered “helping” professions like teaching and nursing. Though we saw the first American “woman astronaut”1 go to space in 1983, the media continued to portray females as filling fairly traditional roles.2 Ours were the first “career mothers” (as opposed to mothers who had side jobs or war jobs), yet those mothers often faced the double-duty of housework after a full day at the office and the social stigma of “loving their careers more than their children.” But, later in life, when I finally became aware of institutionalized sexism, I did have a pre-existing theoretical scaffold upon which to build an understanding of sexism, and the tools to start critiquing the systematic challenges women face.
Coming to Terms
“In the Body of Christ”
Only recently, however, have I recognized many of these same challenges in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Despite the Church’s theologically progressive ideas, women continue to face situations where their experience is framed within (and, in many cases, beneath) the male experience. For instance, I only recently recognized that most scriptural descriptions of “woman-ness” are attributed to men (most of whom have dubious qualifications to speak on the subject).3 I began noticing that the most commonly shared narratives of Mormon females focus on family responsibilities. The fact that early Mormon pioneer women were lawyers, shop owners, and farmers—not just mothers and (plural!) wives—rarely surfaces in church curriculum. I read recently that in the Book of Mormon there are only “two instances . . . that women are being specifically addressed along with men.”4 I was surprised to discover that when the Relief Society was “correlated,” it was also stripped of operational autonomy and budget control. I became more aware of the subtle but powerful implications that a woman can be a mother or an employee, but not both—even though working men in the Church consider themselves to be good fathers. (God is a good father, despite working).5 I finally realized—though I saw it every week—that only men sit in the power positions on the stand during Sunday meetings. I finally started to consider how lonely a woman might feel to have a Godhead comprised entirely of men.6
And as was the case with my previous awaking, I realized that I had been part of the problem. I had repeated the trite and not-so-subtly-oppressive slogan that women are just “so much better than men”—an axiom that I now see saddles women with a perfection-complex and justifies the “boys will be boys” mentality which excuses bad male behavior and is part-and-parcel of the “rape culture” that has permeated university and college campuses. I have repeated the inaccurate phrase, “Women have motherhood; men have the priesthood.”7 I now recognize that the male equivalent of motherhood is fatherhood and that even the most conservative examination of LDS scripture and temple practices indicates that women and men are equal partners in the priesthood. In short, rather than relying on doctrinally sound teachings, which support the full equality of women in the Church, I was puppeting cultural scripts which systematically reinforced gender biases.
Why did it take me so long to see sexism in the Church when I had started to recognize it in society nearly 20 years earlier? How is it that I could be socially progressive while I was “in the world” and yet advocate unrighteous patriarchal patterns “in the Body of Christ”? Upon study and reflection, I think at least part of the answer can be found in my being a Mormon member of Generation X.
Doctrine Sans Context
We Generation Xers were raised in a church that was actively staking out a position against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).8 Church leaders feared that the ERA would result in a dissolution of its idea of the traditional family (a provider-father and a childbearing/rearing-mother), undermining more than half a century of work enshrining a family-focused role for women. So the Church organized institutionally against the ERA. While pro-ERA groups might have had the upper hand in some “worldly” gatherings, Church leadership—from the general to the ward levels—had near-monopolistic control of the anti-ERA messages broadcast through chapels throughout America.
For the adults watching general conference or attending sacrament meetings at the time of the ERA debate, references to women’s responsibilities, the role of women in the home, and the “equality” of men and women in the Church system, were delivered (and thus received) in the context of the larger ERA conversation. Adults could situate the narratives they heard in church meetings against the backdrop of “worldly” counter-narratives. In other words, adults were aware of how the ERA discussion colored church rhetoric.
Children of the day, however, were largely unaware of this political context. We did not realize that we were living in the middle of an ideological war. A brief comparison of my personal timeline and the anti-ERA timeline is illustrative:9
• The year I was born, 1975, the Church News published an editorial opposing the Equal Rights Amendment.
• I was three years old when the Church published Why Mormon Women Oppose the ERA.
• I was five years old when the Church published “The Church and the Proposed Equal Rights Amendment: A Moral Issue” as an insert to the Ensign magazine.
• I was six years old when President Ezra Taft Benson delivered “The Honored Place of Women” at the 1981 General Conference, teaching that, “Since the beginning, a woman’s first and most important role has been ushering into mortality spirit sons and daughters of our Father in Heaven. . . . She is to provide for her children a haven of security and love—regardless of how modest her circumstances might be.”10
• I was 12 years old when Benson delivered his 1987 fireside address “To the Mothers in Zion” which couched woman-ness completely within the context of traditional motherhood, counseling “Mothers who enjoy good health, have your children and have them early . . . Do not curtail the number of children for personal or selfish reasons. Material possessions, social convenience, and so-called professional advantages are nothing compared to a righteous posterity”11
• I was 18 years old when Elder Boyd K. Packer told the All Church Coordinating Council that feminists, intellectuals, and gays and lesbians were a danger to the Church and when the “September Six” were excommunicated.12
• I was 20 years old when Janice Allred was excommunicated13 and the Church issued The Family: A Proclamation to the World.
The children of the anti-ERA era—the Mormon Generation Xers—were a generation whose experience was saturated with the Church’s perspective on gender roles—articulated in response to a cultural battle we did not know was happening. Being so young, we lacked the maturity and sophistication to understand the larger social, political, and religious context for the messages we heard in in Primary, Sunday school, sacrament meetings, and general conference. Except in those situations where parents made an active and consistent choice to inform their children of the larger gender debate, Mormon Generation Xers were inundated with rhetoric sans context. To an entire generation, it seemed that acting contrary to gender roles that had been articulated in response to the ERA debate was tantamount to apostasy. Though many of the pronouncements spawned during that time have since been partially walked back,14 the effects remain.
Implications for Generation X
As a 41-year-old Mormon male, I have been trying to figure out how to escape this deep conditioning. How to not only “wake up” but make actual changes in the way I behave. As one male author put it, “Flashing insight, I now know, does not lead automatically to behavioral changes. Patterns of a lifetime die hard.” Too often my actions do not match my intentions. I have had to learn to re-see the role of women in the church and in my family.
In that spirit, I want to explore a few of the avenues through which I, or my associates, have tried, as a white, male, heterosexual, married, middle-class, family-raising Generation Xer, to do my part to address gender inequality in my actions and within the Church. I’ll focus on four general spheres: Personal, Familial, Congregational, and Institutional.
While my wife was the Relief Society president of our ward, the Church released Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society.15 Believing that the men in the ward would benefit from learning about the Relief Society and, as a result, better support their wives’ participation, she challenged them to read it. The book was revelatory to me. Growing up in Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthood quorums, I knew almost nothing about how the Relief Society came into existence, its doctrinal foundations, or its institutional development. Although overtly apologetic in approach, Daughters in My Kingdom piqued my interest in women’s history, leading me to read books like Mormon Enigma,16 Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism,17 and Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings.18 I also explored the vast collection of essays and articles written by women in BYU Studies, Dialogue, and Sunstone, and followed discussions in “the Bloggernacle” through fora such as Exponent II, Feminist Mormon Housewives, By Common Consent, and Zelophehad’s Daughters.19 Though Mormon women had been speaking about these subjects for more than a century, I started to listen for the first time; these sources opened a world of perspectives that were completely new to me.
But perhaps more importantly, I began to have frank and open conversations with my wife . . . and I actually listened to what she had to say. After nearly 17 years of marriage (I am embarrassed it took that long), I finally asked my wife directly to tell me, in her own words, what it is like to be a woman in the Church and how this experience colored her weekly and daily worship. I was taken aback at her responses, having never realized how much I, as a man, took for granted. I was floored at the sense of vulnerability and voicelessness she felt when faced with cultural (and sometimes doctrinal) constraints; in how many different ways she felt both empowered and repressed. She has helped me better understand the compelling and complicated aspects of what it means to be a Mormon woman.
Perhaps the most impactful aspect of this process was that I encountered these stories and experiences on their own terms instead of hearing them filtered through official news feeds, Sunday school curriculum, or conversation with male friends. The effect of these direct, personal contacts reminded me of how Church leaders often tell us that we have to actually read the Book of Mormon to understand its power—there is no shortcut. I felt a similar impact as I immersed myself in these books and conversations. The lives, challenges, and triumphs of Mormon women came alive for me in a way they never had before.
Considering how much a lack of context affected my childhood understanding of the intersection between the political and ecclesiastical, my wife and I want to give our children more context with which to work. We have tried to ensure that they are exposed at home and in church (in whatever way seems most appropriate in a given situation) to the social trends that are driving “dog whistle” statements made over the pulpit and other formal church communications.
Consider, for instance, Dallin H. Oaks’ address “The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood” delivered at the priesthood session of the April 2014 General Conference. Although a large section of the talk addresses how the priesthood “appl[ies] to women” there is no mention at all of the very public discussion surrounding the ordination of women to the priesthood—which was the obvious target and contextual backdrop for this talk. We made sure our children understood why they were hearing these messages so that they could be more critical consumers of what they heard inside and outside of church on this topic. Also, as members of the Church we regularly encounter “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” in church lessons, talks, and Family Home Evening. In our family, we are intentional, careful, and thoughtful in how we use it. For example, we sometimes focus on the line stating “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose” (my emphasis) pointing out that it does not say gender is the essential characteristic. 20
Taking this approach has created much more room for discussion and has opened chances to engage on culturally taboo subjects. For example, recently, my then-16-year-old daughter was asked to give a talk in sacrament meeting about “why God created us.” As she prepared, we had a number of lively discussions about Mormonism’s approach to this issue (i.e. that God did not create us, we were co-existing intelligences), which led us into talking about Heavenly Mother. “Who is Heavenly Mother?” my daughter asked. “Where is she? What happens to women in the eternities?” We explained our understanding of what the LDS Church teaches. She read the Gospel Topics essay on the topic. She had more questions, so we explained some unofficial ideas offered by women who had thought deeply on the subject. Then we asked her to study, ponder, pray, and form her own opinion, and encouraged her to express it honestly in her talk. Here is a portion of what she delivered over the pulpit:
Exploring this topic really opened my eyes to things I had never considered before. I got answers to questions I had never thought of asking. But the more I learned, the more questions I had. For instance, we learn that we will one day be like our Heavenly Father . . . But I will never be a “Heavenly Father” because I’m a girl. And our Heavenly Mother is someone we rarely, if ever, mention. Why is that? And when I one day advance into a “godly” state and become a Heavenly Mother and Priestess what will my role be? Will I also be hidden? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I have learned a lot. I want to keep growing in light and truth and I am grateful that I have been given an opportunity to do just that.
My wife and I could not have been more proud.
Members of Generation X are now squarely in the prime of their “church service” years, with many climbing the ecclesiastical ladder. The ward council in my ward is at least 50% Generation X and is led by a Generation X bishop (our second in a row). Unless these up-and-coming leaders are more self-aware than I had been, they are likely to fall into patterns of behavior that reflect the anti-ERA-influenced teachings about gender and femininity they heard as children.
I have had the opportunity to attend ward council over the last few years, and try, when the opportunity presents itself, to introduce gender-equal approaches to discussions, initiatives, programs, and projects. But I must admit that doing so has required a lot of work. It is very easy to slip into the groove of leadership meetings with everyone falling into their anticipated role. It takes work to identify the gender inequity running beneath those procedures. It takes even more work to identify specific situations where a new approach could address those inequities, and even more work (and a little courage) to develop a constructive approach, raise my hand, and engage the group—knowing that the suggestion may slow things down and run against the grain of “traditional” approaches.
But this is the work Generation Xers must do if we are going to help shed unhelpful historical baggage and advance gender equity. For example, stake presidents (yes, there are Generation X stake presidents) and bishops will need to reconsider the activities and programs they oversee, looking specifically for instances of gender inequity and then finding ways of addressing them. Inevitably, making changes to programs or activities that already seem to work will produce backlash, and the leader will have to be ready to encounter these instances. Similarly, we need to actively look for and create opportunities to involve women in congregational councils. For example, the 2010 Handbook II notes that, “the bishop may invite the Relief Society president to attend some ward priesthood executive committee meetings.”21 My personal belief is that this principle should be expanded to every available church council situation. Inviting women into the conversation at the tail end to rubberstamp a plan shows a basic disregard for their personhood and leads to the implementation of less effective programs. In a related vein, stake presidents and bishops should recognize the value of, and encourage, Relief Society Presidencies’ ministering to women without “male supervision” and may consider encouraging more active participation in pastoral care, especially in situations where sexual abuse, chastity and/or reproductive issues are in play.22
Many members of Generation X are members of their local high priests group. This means that we are in close, consistent contact with members of older generations, some of whom may carry deeper cultural scripts that run against the idea—much less the implementation—of gender equity in the Church. But some may not. Thus, it is important to ensure that we are talking with the actual people in front of us instead of an imaginary version of them based on pre-conceived cultural caricatures. If we make room for a safe discussion to occur among older members of the Church, we may actually be surprised by progressive strains in their ideas, or at least a willingness to consider them.
Similarly, elder’s quorum presidents need to be constantly on the lookout for times to address instances of (or discussions assuming) gender inequity in quorum interactions. Perhaps a discussion about motherhood employs pedestal rhetoric, or disregard for a feminine perspective becomes apparent. Those are the moments Generation Xers should step out of our comfort zone, slow things down, and expand the conversation—not by critiquing or analyzing the statement to show its sexism, that often only turns people off, but perhaps by offering a contrasting story, example, or point of view. In other words, add more perspectives to the pool so that the quorum or class has a more diverse data set with which to work.
Sunday School presidents can be on the lookout for patriarchal conversations in class as well as make efforts to ensure that the Sunday school itself is reflective of the many gendered voices in the ward. For instance, an acquaintance who was called as the Sunday School president submitted the names of both men and women as potential councilors. He used the resulting discussion to point out how well each of the women could function in that role. The bishop did not approve any of women, but the conversation occurred, which is a step in the right direction. And then the new president made sure that a similar number of men and women occupied the teaching roles, frequently rejecting the mostly male candidates the bishopric gave him, and calling couples to teach classes as often as possible so that both a male and female perspective would be available to each class.
Those who lead Young Men’s quorums may have a slightly easier job since their charges have not been enculturated for quite as long—you may be able to set their course toward gender equity early. But teenagers are under tremendous pressure from their social circles, the media, and church culture, most of which will be promoting particular social roles. It is wonderful to live in a society where women are filling political and corporate leadership positions much more frequently than they did when I was young, but our media still treats women as eye candy. And Mormon women have not made much ecclesiastical progress since the ERA debates. In other words, we’re still working with a very mixed bag.
In short, Generation Xers in leadership positions need to slow down to avoid falling into patriarchal ruts. But instead of trying to tell others what they should believe about females, we should create opportunities for equitable engagement; instead of insisting upon a particular code of conduct, we might take time to examine traditional behaviors and approaches; instead of taking away programs or traditions, we could seek to incorporate more empathetic and gender-inclusive perspectives.
Of course, most of us Generation Xers are not in stake or ward leadership and so we will have to find other avenues to correct gender bias in our congregations. Let me share a few examples of creative approaches:
One Gospel Essentials teacher I observed regularly solicited the views of the females in class. While a small step, it did wonders to introduce women’s voices into a discussion that would have otherwise been dominated by the more vocal men in the room.
Another person asked the bishopric to stop thanking “the priesthood” for passing the sacrament—both over the pulpit and in the ward program. This conversation presented an opportunity to reinforce the teaching that “the Priesthood is an everlasting principle, and existed with God from eternity, and will to eternity, without beginning of days or end of years”23 and thus separate it from the individuals (males) who exercise it.
As planning began for a ward activity, an individual questioned why the young women were always handling decorating and food and the young men were always responsible for set up/take down. The ensuing discussion about the fact that females can set up and take down tables and chairs as well as males and that males can decorate tables and serve food as well as females, resulted in a division of labor that broke from traditional gender lines.
But perhaps the most powerful, and readily accessible, tool available to all Generation Xers in a congregational setting is gender-inclusive language. We must avoid the paternalistic, condescending, and damaging language so often present in meetings and church-house interactions (what Lavina Fielding Anderson calls “The Grammar of Inequity”24), much of which comes from the lexicon of the anti-ERA debates. Before we can do that, though, we men need to acknowledge that the very structure of church ecclesiastical organization makes it difficult for men to encounter women as equals. The fact remains, men not only have the final say, but also God’s stamp of approval—and male leaders do not have to get women’s permission to do anything. They may take women’s ideas into account, but they never have to actually negotiate with them. This basic power imbalance impacts us without our knowing it, affecting our social interaction and the language we use. Men know, even if they do not acknowledge it, that the woman with whom they chat in the hallway will never be in a position of power over them, while women know, even if they do not acknowledge it, that any given man could possibly be her future bishop or stake president. Generation Xers must perform numerous acts of social analysis, ego suppression, and intense listening to even begin to remove these structurally imposed blinders.
The invisibility of this power imbalance makes overcoming it challenging. For example, one acquaintance had a branch president who would address all the females in his branch as “dear.” He obviously felt that it was a gesture of benevolence, but many of the women felt that it also served to infantilize them. Similarly, this branch president would tell the little girls he greeted in the hallways that they were very pretty. Whenever the branch president would say so to this acquaintance’s daughter, he would reply, “She’s also strong and intelligent.” But the branch president never got the hint. The words we use matter and Generation Xers must make an especial effort to move away from the gender-exclusive language we heard as children. I worry at how often women think to themselves, “This brother lays roses at our feet but has no understanding of women.”25
The point here is, when given the opportunity, Generation Xers should model a gender-inclusive vision in our congregations. If it happens to go against a particular cultural norm, well, it is just a cultural norm. If it happens to go against something in the Handbook, well, the Handbook changes all the time. If it seems to go against a particular doctrine, well, a closer look will probably reveal that it actually does not.
As it rolled back 140 years of theologically justified racism in the form of the priesthood/temple ban, the Church noted, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was restored amidst a highly contentious racial culture in which whites were afforded great privilege . . .The justifications for this restriction echoed the widespread ideas about racial inferiority that had been used to argue for the legalization of black ‘servitude’ in the Territory of Utah.”26 Despite suspecting as early as 1954 that the Church’s teaching on race was not doctrinally grounded,27 and even with Lester Bush Jr.’s ground-breaking 1973 article, “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview,”28 it was not until 2013 that the Church finally affirmed that misguided and incorrect contemporaneous cultural biases had crept into “official” theological discourse29 that was subsequently—and improperly—presented as the mind and will of God.
It is my contention that similar, non-scriptural cultural biases and doctrinally unsound perspectives were adopted as “official” doctrine with regards to the role of women and their position in the Church. For instance, during sermons at the veil of the Nauvoo Temple, apostle George A. Smith taught, “The woman ought to be in subjection to the man.”30 Apostle Heber C. Kimball taught that “Men apostatized, being led by their wives” and that “[God] did not make the man for the woman; but the woman for the man, and it is just as unlawful for you [women] to rise up and rebel against your husbands, as it would be for man to rebel against God.”31 And Brigham Young, then an apostle and president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, taught that Adam was “permitted to receive the tokens of the priesthood” only after “[having learned] not to listen to the woman,” and that “Woman will never get back [to God], unless she follows the man back.”32 Given that these men—who were responsible for expounding authoritative interpretations of scripture, organizing and disseminating temple ordinances following the death of Joseph Smith, and otherwise representing the will of God to the people—held such views, and felt comfortable articulating them as part of the early temple process, it is not surprising that these same sexist positions became axiomatic Mormon dogma and a part of the institutional fabric of Mormon culture.
Although we should avoid anachronistic moralism—these sentiments were largely accepted contemporaneously and consistent with traditional thinking on women going back to early Christian thinkers33—we cannot ignore the impact and inaccuracy of such statements. And we can fully sustain and appreciate the contributions of these early church leaders while recognizing that these sentiments and the justifications upon which they were founded were driven more by culture than doctrine.
If gender inequality in the Church is cultural (i.e. God is not, after all, sexist), then we Generation Xers should make it as easy as possible for the Church to shed this cultural baggage. I am not advocating extreme opposition to Church authority—indeed current Church language and teaching about women are a far cry from the language cited above—but we must continue to advocate for our sisters “globally” and do what we can “locally.” I sincerely believe that we can sustain our local and general leadership and remain members in good standing while still acknowledging and working to change cultural biases that reinforce gender inequality. I would like to present three specific institutional changes that seem especially easy to implement.
1) Modify temple ordinances to make them gender equal. Elizabeth Hammond argues that “temple ceremonies reflect pioneer-era perspectives [about women] which mainstream Mormonism itself has rejected and outgrown.”34 A few very minor changes could excise some of these unhelpful, vestigial perceptions of woman-ness: (a) anointing women to become queens and priestesses to the Most High God (rather than to their husbands), (b) allowing “Eve” make her covenants directly with Elohim (rather than through “Adam”), and (c) removing the requirement for women to veil their faces (a practice for which I can find no historic, scriptural, or doctrinal support).35 These changes would help level the playing field. As has been established unequivocally by a variety of scholars,36 temple language, policies, procedures, and ordinances can and do change. These minor changes would do no violence to the temple message and would bring temple teachings in line with current Mormon discourse on women.37
2) Increase women’s voices in general conference.38 Women make up roughly 50 percent of the Church, therefore, they should have 50 percent of the speaking slots in general conference—including at the “priesthood session” (and, yes, also at the “women’s session”). Far from demonstrating that women have an equal voice in general conference, books like Women at the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women39 demonstrate conclusively that women are, in fact, underrepresented when it comes to addressing the body of saints. Women at the Pulpit examines 54 talks by LDS women over 185 years—but how many notable talks did men give over that same 185-year timeframe? Thousands? Increasing the number of female speakers would be a very easy way to show that we practice what we preach about the value of women’s voices.
3) Include women in the Church’s visual schema. Visibly representing women as authority figures in ward, stake, and general church meetings would take little work. For instance, the general Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary Presidencies sit on the stand during general conference, so why not have the ward or stake Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary presidencies sit on the stand at ward or stake meetings?40 And why not make the official pictures of our top leaders into couple pictures? Right now, Primary children look at the pictures of 15 men on the wall. Why not 15 couples? Let’s make it normal to see the faces of women in prominent church displays.
It is my opinion that promoting the integrity, individuality, and potential of our mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters—irrespective of their marital or motherhood status—should be the primary cause of priesthood holders. We Generation Xers are in a position to make significant progress on this front.
As noted in Daughters in My Kingdom:
“Throughout His mortal ministry, the Savior showed special love and concern for women. Elder James E. Talmage of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said, ‘The world’s greatest champion of woman and womanhood is Jesus the Christ . . . He showed loving-kindness toward them and healed them and their family members . . . He demonstrated deep familiarity with women’s lives and drew timeless gospel lessons from their everyday experiences. He forgave them. He wept with them. He had compassion on them in their specific circumstances as daughters, wives, homemakers, mothers, and widows. He appreciated them and ennobled them.”41
Jesus was never popular when he interacted this way with women (the woman at the well, the woman with an issue of blood, the woman caught in adultery, Mary Magdalene washing his feet). His actions challenged cultural views of women-ness and their place in society. Generation Xers need to be as brave as he was. But to be clear, “equality between men and women is never the end itself.”42 As Meredith Nelson argues, “Equality would be an arbitrary goal. Equality is a means toward many good temporal ends, but the ultimate goal—the end goal of our existence—is to become like God (like our Heavenly Parents).”43
I hope that I have realized my errors soon enough to make a difference—at least for my immediate family and maybe my ward family. I am committed to do whatever is in my power to help the women in my life “believe in and claim their spiritual privileges.”44 This is the best way for me to be a decent husband, father, brother, and son. And there is much to do.
1. Sally Ride served aboard the 1983 Challenger mission. However, even the language “woman astronaut” carries with it the latent sexism that permeated the 1980s.
2. Consider, for instance, the “brat pack” movies—Sweet Sixteen, Pretty in Pink—in which generally weak feminine figures are “rescued” by male protagonists.
3. For instance, Paul was self-admittedly celibate. And the “virtuous woman” proverb is attributed to Solomon, who—with an entire harem of women to appease his sexual appetite—seems ill-qualified to speak on the subject of virtue.
4. Carol Lynn Pearson, “Could Feminism Have Saved the Nephites?” Sunstone 19.1 (March 1996): 34. In this article, Pearson offers many other compelling insights into the portrayal of women in the Book of Mormon.
5. This obvious double standard is already collapsing under the weight of the economic realities of family life.
6. To be clear, “the maleness of God the Father and Christ the Son is part of their eternal identity, not the outgrowth of misogynist or any other imagery” (Camille S. Williams, “Response to Professor Reuther,” in Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies, David L. Paulsen and Donald W. Musser, eds [Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2007], 279); however, “the idea of a mother in heaven is shadowy and elusive . . . and little if any theology has been developed to elucidate her nature and characterize our relationship to her.” (Linda P. Wilcox Desimone, “The Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven,” in Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, and Hannah Wheelwright, eds. Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings [New York: Oxford University Press, 2016], 79).
7. See, for instance, Dallin H. Oaks’ address “The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood” delivered at the priesthood session of the April 2014 General Conference. While this essay will not take on the issue of whether equality can be achieved without female ordination to the priesthood, that issue has been addressed at length—on both sides—by Kate Kelly, Valerie Hudson Cassler, Neylam McBaine, Gina Colvin, Trine Thomas Nelson, and others.
8. See Joanna Brooks et al. (2016), who suggests that reaction to the ERA occurred within context of a church in the midst of “theological retrenchment, which brought renewed fundamentalism, literalism, conservatism, and, for women, a new emphasis in over-the-pulpit messages on their domestic role” (p. 11).
9. This comparison is based on the comprehensive “Key Events in Contemporary Mormon Feminism, 1940 to Present” timeline created by Joanna Brooks et al. (2016), 24–32. For the purpose of this illustration I selected only a few key events, but I commend the entire list to those with further interest.
10. Ezra T. Benson, “The Honored Place of Women,” April 1981 General Conference, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1981/10/the-honored-place-of-woman?lang=eng (accessed 17 October 2017).
11. Ezra T. Benson, “To the Mothers in Zion,” Parents’ Fireside, Salt Lake City, Utah, 22 February 1987.
12. D. Michael Quinn, Lavina Fielding Anderson, Maxine Hanks, Lynn Whitesides Kanavel, Paul Toscano, and Abraham Gileadi all spoke, in various ways, for increased gender equality in the Church.
13. Due, at least in part, to her writings on Heavenly Mother, according to Joanna Brooks et al.
14. For instance, in his October 1981 General Conference address, “The Honored Place of Women,” then-Elder Ezra Taft Benson stated, “The seeds of divorce are often sown and the problems of children begin when mother works outside the home.” But in his April 2011 conference address “LDS Women Are Incredible!” Elder Quinten L. Cook noted, “we should all be careful not to be judgmental or assume that sisters are less valiant if the decision is made to work outside the home.”
15. Daughters in My Kingdom. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: The History and Work of Relief Society (Salt Lake City, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2012).
16. Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, 2nd ed., (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
17. Maxine Hanks, Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992).
18. Joanna Brooks et al., Mormon Feminism.
19. If you are unfamiliar with these, I would recommend you start at the “Mormon Archipelago: Gateway to the Bloggernacle” available at: http://www.ldsblogs.org/. There you can finds links to all of these sites and many more.
20. “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” https://www.lds.org/topics/family-proclamation (accessed 16 October 2017).
21. Handbook II: Administering the Church (2010), section 9.3.1, https://www.lds.org/handbook/handbook-2-administering-the-church?lang=eng (accessed 16 October 2017).
22. For two specific discussions of this, see Lisa Butterworth’s 2010 “13 Articles of Healthy Chastity” and the “All Are Alike Unto God” declaration released by the What Women Know Collective in 2012—both in Joanna Brooks et al. on pages 245 and 264 respectively.
23. Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (2011), https://www.lds.org/manual/teachings-joseph-smith/chapter-8?lang=eng (accessed 16 October 2017).
24. “The Grammar of Inequity” in Women and Authority, ed. Maxine Hanks (Salt Lake City: Signature Books 1992), 215–230,
25. “Historic Discourses–Excerpts,” in Maxine Hanks, Women and Authority, 140.
26. See “Race and the Priesthood” https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng (accessed 20 October 2017).
27. Gregory A. Prince, Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2016), 309.
28. Lester E. Bush, “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 8 (Spring 1973): 11–68.
29. The specific language from the statement is, “Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.”
30. Devery S. Anderson and Gary James Bergera eds. The Nauvoo Endowment Companies, 1845–1846: A Documentary History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2005), 116.
31. Ibid, pg. 120.
32. Ibid, pg. 204, 208.
33. For example, Martin Luther (1483–1546 CE) said, “The rule remains with the husband, and the wife is compelled to obey him by God’s command,” in “Lectures on Genesis,” in Luther’s Works, I, Jaroslav Pelikan, ed., (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), 202–203; Augustine (354–430 CE) said, “the woman herself alone . . . she is not the image of God; but as regards the man alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined with him in one,” (in On the Trinity, Book XII, Chapter 7); and Tertullian (c.155–c. 240 CE) said “And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert— that is, death—even the Son of God had to die.” (in On the Apparel of Women, Book 1, Chapter 1).
34. Elizabeth Hammond, “The Mormon Priestess: A Theology of Womanhood in the LDS Temple,” in Joanna Brooks et al, pg. 281.
35. In his diary, Samuel W. Richards records, “President [Lorenzo] Snow informed me he had not been able to obtain information why women were required to vail [sic] their faces when at prayer in the temple,” in Devery S. Anderson ed. The Development of LDS Temple Worship, 1846–2000: A Documentary History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2011), 100. The only potential explanation could be 1 Corinthians 2:4–6 which says a woman “prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head.” However, this says nothing about veiling her face. Further, that same scripture says that a man’s head should be uncovered, which would be inconsistent with male temple clothing. Ignoring for the purposes of this essay what Paul actually meant by these verses—a topic on which there is robust scholarly debate—it is sufficiently clear that this scripture simply does not work to explain the temple’s female veiling practice.
36. See for instance David John Buerger’s The Mysteries of Godliness: A History of Mormon Temple Worship, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Smith Research Associates/Signature Books, 2016) as well as Anderson and Bergera The Development of LDS Temple Worship: 1846–2000.
37. I have not addressed the issue of Second Anointings here, but that would also need to be changed slightly to make the ordinance more gender equal. For instance, both spouses could wash the others’ feet.
38. Meredith Nelson’s blog post “Equality Is Not The End” makes a compelling the case for increasing the number of women who speak in general conference within the context of the April 2017 General Conference where there was only one female speaker. See https://www.mormonwomen.com/2017/04/equality-not-end/ (accessed 20 October 2017).
39. Kate Holbrook, Women at the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2017).
40. I have intentionally elided the discussion of whether or not women should be given (or already have) the priesthood. Certainly, this is an important issue, but, as noted earlier, many others have spoken on this topic in greater detail and with far more insight than I can in this essay.
41. Daughters in my Kingdom, 3.
42. Meredith Nelson, “Equality Is Not The End,” The Mormon Women Project, 2017, https://www.mormonwomen.com/2017/04/equality-not-end/ (accessed 23 October 2017).