Real Change

My thoughts on the new LDS feminist club left me with the same frustration I generally feel with feminist Mormon groups. It’s nice to see at places like The Exponent or Feminist Mormon Housewives that there are many, many people with the same gut feeling that I have that Something is Rotten in Mormondom. Mormon feminists are usually in agreement that their lot in life sucks, but very few think to do anything about it. Those that do realise they have options usually chuck their flowered dresses in the bin and quit going to church. Those that stay rarely attempt any practical changes. After reading the promising but vague rollout of a more coordinated push for gender equality at WAVE’s site, I started thinking of small changes that could easily be the pebbles that preceded an avalanche of LDS feminist thought:

  1. Female missionaries serve at the same age and for the same duration as male missionaries.
  2. Men serve in Primary presidencies and women in Sunday School presidencies, as presidents and counsellors in positions above and below women leaders.
  3. Girls pass (though do not bless) the Sacrament
  4. Women stand in circles when babies are blessed
  5. Elimination of mandatory gender-based dress codes in the chapel
  6. Home Teachers are male and female
  7. Visiting Teaching is phased out, as it’s an unnecessary duplication of Home Teaching
  8. Single men may be called as bishops
  9. Women periodically guest-teach in Priesthood, similar to occasional lessons taught by Bishops and other men in Relief Society
  10. The women’s meeting typically held weeks in advance of General Conference is integrated into the main sessions with the same fanfare as Priesthood Session
  11. Women speak at the Priesthood session of General Conference, as men speak at the Relief Society session
  12. Unendowed immediate family are permitted to attend LDS temple weddings
  13. Women act as LDS temple officiants during the main ceremony
  14. Private prayer to Heavenly Mother(s), or Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother(s) jointly, is permitted

These mundane issues underscore how totally unequal women currently are in Mormonism, now that I look at a list of the most basic things Mormon women can’t do. They are telling indicators of the level of participation and authority available to Mormon women, and changing them would precipitate much more important changes, like changing the temple ceremony so that women swear their loyalty directly to God and not to their husband, who becomes custodian of their obedience. Couples will be equal when they pledge themselves to one another and then jointly or separately promise to obey their Deity. But big changes won’t happen until the little changes erode the foundations of inequality.

Please add any other small changed that you think might begin the erosion of Mormonism’s gender constraints.

22 thoughts on “Real Change

  1. I’ve never commented before but I had to because I love this post. I support all of those changes, particularly #’s 1, 2, 7, 10, & most especially, 12. (i’d hope that even former & non-member immediate family members would be able to witness marriage sealings). My own additions would be to add father’s lounges to the ward buildings (can’t men change diapers and soothe crying babies?), and, in addition to phasing out visiting teaching, morph home teaching into “family teaching”, where families are assigned to visit other families. What a great way to make friends, if both husband & wife were meeting other couples at the same time.
    Will any of those changes happen in my lifetime? Maybe…i’d be surprised but thrilled.

    • I think the real point of the mothers’ lounge is the rocking chairs for nursing moms. Men absolutely do change diapers, which is why my wife and myself protested frequently and loudly that there were no changing stations in men’s rooms in our buildings.

      Facilities does listen sometimes. I’ve noticed that changing stations have been included in all men’s rooms for every building built or remodeled in my neck of the woods over the last ten or fifteen years. But it does take an attitude change. When we first started complaining they thought as if a man changing a diaper was exotic and unheard of and couldn’t imagine why a changing station was necessary.

  2. An interesting list. A few comments.

    I very much like #1. As for #2, women serving in Sunday School presidencies is rare but not unprecedented. I would like to see more of it.

    I’m not sure what you mean with #5. Gender based dress and definitions of “Sunday Best” are societal not Mormon. If you mean women shouldn’t get crap for wearing slacks, I agree.

    Re #6-7, Visiting teaching isn’t that much of a duplication because it’s much more likely to actually occur. I do think there is much to recommend in the idea of removing home and visiting teaching as priesthood and relief society responsibilities and consolidate as ward teaching under jurisdiction of the ward mission.

    #8, even previously divorced men are called only seldom. The problem you have with single bishops is the New Testament, which defines a bishop as married. Naturally they will define things operationally as the occasion suits them, but that’s not something they just made up to be discriminatory.

    WRT #9, women DO guest teach in priesthood in my ward and stake. I’m unaware of any policy or doctrinal reason why it can’t happen anywhere other than it doesn’t occur to the people locally.

    #10 and 11, general conference is fanfare? Ick. I’d do it differently. Instead of an annual women’s and annual YW meeting, have a general women’s meeting every six months for age 12 and up. And there’s no reason why for some of those meetings any male leadership needs speak or even be on the program or stand. I don’t object to women speaking at the priesthood session, but I also don’t see why there always has to be a man as the concluding speaker at the women’s session.

    I would also move the general priesthood session out a couple weeks so it too precedes the general sessions of conference. Three sessions on the Saturday are too many.

    WRT #12, that’s only one aspect of the way the Church handles temple weddings and frankly I think there are bigger fish to fry. Unendowed members know the drill, the larger issue both emotionally and from a PR perspective is when you have nonmember parents and such who are barred from seeing their own kids’ wedding.

    I would remove the silly 1 year waiting period – that applies only to North America anyway – between a civil wedding and sealing. In most places you are married civilly then you go the temple to be sealed. There’s no defensible reason why people in the US as well shouldn’t be able to be sealed soon after a civil wedding attended by all, if that is what works best for them and their families. Also, out of the temple ring ceremonies offer a compromise that works very well for some, but they aren’t emphasized enough. The Church has tried very hard to blur the lines between the civil marriage and the religious ordinance and it’s done so for political reasons and it has unfortunate repercussions.

    #14 makes me laugh. Surely you don’t think they have ability to “permit” what people do private worship? 🙂 I’m not impressed by geriatric temper tantrums.

    There are a few thoughts that occur to me that aren’t directly included by your list.

    1) More autonomy for auxiliary organizations. Once upon a time organizations like the Relief Society had more control over their own budgets, agendas, priorities and policies, etc. It’s hard to be empowered when you don’t actually have control over your own destiny.

    2) More exposure of women as leaders. Depending on which week of the month and how your ward is run it’s very possible to sit in leadership meetings all day and not hear a single female voice. Even where women’s voices are heard, how often are women seen as actively leading within the ward a whole?

    Several months ago we had a stake priesthood meeting where sisters were among the speakers. One segment was active training that was team taught by a stake presidency member and the stake RS president, actively working as peers, instructing the assembled brethren. The RS president was seated on the stand, and on the “leadership” side of the stand with the stake presidency. Based on the reactions I’ve gotten from some people I get the impression that it’s unusual for the women and men to be approaching a presentation as equal peers, and that many people have never really seen women sitting on the “leadership” side of the divide. That’s sad because it makes it a gender divide, and there’s no reason it has to be that way IF people take a moment to think about how they do their assignments.

    That’s a long way of saying more needs to be done to get women’s voices into leadership councils, and women serving need more visibility as leaders within the congregation, not just within defined niches.

    3) Equity among the youth programs. It’s ironic, in many ways there’s more substance in the YW than YM programs, but in too many wards the young men (Scouts) get much more attention and more funding than the young women’s programs. And the girls notice this. And it doesn’t surprise me that so few young women transition into adulthood as active members.

    4) Hm….I had something else and I assure you it was very good but it slips my mind at the moment. I’ll add it later on if it returns. My brain has shut down early this Friday.

  3. A ha, a conversation elsewhere bright it back to mind.

    #4) Better teaching and more emphasis on the difference between priesthood authority and spiritual gifts — and active focus and encouragement to develop gifts.

    Once upon a time women were much more involved in the day to day ministering including things like healing by laying on of hands. A woman preparing for childbirth, for example, would never be administered to by the Elders, but rather by the Relief Society. The powers that were viewed this as “confusing” and considered it not wrong, yet infringing upon priesthood (male) prerogative. By the mid 1940s, the practices had been all but abandoned. Given the shortage of active brethren in many areas, this is very sad indeed.

  4. I don’t think father’s lounges are necessary. Just parent lounges. There’s no reason why they need to be segregated by gender. A man can bottle-feed a baby just as well as a woman can breast feed, and indeed in the same room!

    • Craig, the point of the mother’s lounge is to shelter women who are uncomfortable nursing in public, and doubly so, to shelter men who are uncomfortable with women nursing in public. I don’t know how much actual use they get on average, here ours is used mostly for adult naps, nursing isn’t seen as a big deal.

      • Exactly my point. Mormonism “shelters” women far, far too much alread, and any man who is uncomfortable with a woman nursing in public, covered or uncovered, needs to bloody well get over himself. This idea that women and men need to be kept separated is not only absurd prudery, but it reinforces false dualistic gender norms and the idea that women should be ashamed of their bodies.

        At the very least, they could make private, non-gendered rooms for parents to care for children.

        • Perhaps a better change would be to refer to these rooms as “quiet rooms” or “infants’ rooms.” Having a separate space to take a nursing or colicky baby can be incredibly useful to parents, people trying to get through meetings, and babies who may be disturbed by crowded, noisy environments. Sometimes a baby needs a dark, quiet room to calm down, and I’m all for giving new parents a nice comfortable armchair to sleep in while their baby rests.

  5. @ Craig, for once, I agree 100%! There’s more to say, but it involves all kinds of personal drama nobody wants to hear about. Lately, in my own life, seeing how some men are using church teachings to justify terrible things is really sickening me. It all starts with seemingly “innocent” stuff like “sheltering” the poor little women.

  6. It’s blatantly self-aggrandizing to assume that anybody cares, but I feel the need to make an announcement that I can’t on my own blog: I’ve left the church. My better half and I have decided to attend an Anglican church instead. It’s actually something we’ve been contemplating for awhile, but…

    Why? I’ve spent years of my life defending this organization. Well, not literally years “of” it, but, rather, years have been tainted by what I ultimately realized was a foolish quest to reconcile faith and common sense. Plus, I believe in God and that hasn’t changed. It’s just that, well, I’ve actually read the Bible–good parts and bad–and there is that bit about false prophets, and metaphorical “fruits”.

    My brother in law beats the tar out of my sister, and the other day, when I was alone in the house, he tried to beat the tar out of me. He says my husband is possessed by Satan, because he (wrongly and evilly, apparently) thinks that men and women are equal. My sister blames herself, because she isn’t “submitting” to him enough.

    …And THE CHURCH AGREES!!! She’s been going to the Temple, to get “answers” to her problems, and the “answers” she’s been getting have been to acquiesce to his demands that she cut us out of her life entirely, because we make her “uppity”.

    Previously, it made me furiously angry when people blamed religion for things like spousal abuse. It’s not the religion doing the abusing, it’s the person. And yet I’ve seen with my own eyes, now, that the church created an environment where this situation was not only possible, but encouraged. It’s flourished.

    At one point, early in their marriage, she actually thought about leaving him–and, trust me, he’s no prize. But the “Christlike” counsel she received was to honor him as a Priesthood holder and stay. Clearly he wouldn’t have to beat the tar out of her if she were a better wife.

    Ultimately, to “preserve” their marriage–he told her that unless she cut off contact with her family, he’d divorce her–she told me she agreed with him, that I was possessed by the devil. Maybe, just maybe, they’d agree to see us again if my husband (an atheist) met them at the Temple and repented of his “evil” ways, and I agreed that my brother in law was right to try to beat the tar out of me. I pointed out that this was coercive, unfair, and unreasonable.

    Their response? Clearly, we weren’t “in the Gospel” enough to be part of their lives. If that’s the Gospel, I don’t want it. And, more to the point, I don’t want to be part of a church that condones this type of behavior.

    Oh, I’ve had my issues in the past, and I’ve never been blind to the church’s faults as an institution. I don’t know what it was about this–and I’d like to think I’m not so petty as to make life-altering judgments at the snap of a finger, or because I’m ticked off–but something snapped. Something snapped, the scales fell from my eyes, as it were, and I saw this loathsome beast for what it really is.

    I don’t really know how this discovery will affect my blog. As nobody reads it, I don’t actually anticipate a huge problem. I hope nobody reads this comment! If I had the courage to post all of this in a more accessible place, I would.

    • I’m sorry you had to find out how abusive the church can be, and how it enables others to abuse, the hard way. That’s horrible. I’m so sorry your sister is in that situation. Were I in that situation, I’d seriously consider reporting him to the police, especially if they have children. Whatever church leader(s) told her to stay with him is also at fault, possibly criminally.

    • I care, and I am deeply sorry for your losses. I escaped a marriage that was slowly destroying me, so reading your view of your sister’s account makes it very hard for me to articulate anything other than outrage and sympathy. Reading her story made me feel a lot of things I haven’t felt in a long time.

      You should report your brother in law to the police for what he did to you and report what he does to your sister, especially if there are children in that home. No loyalties, not family or church, excuse abuse. If the LDS authorities won’t do anything about it, the civil authorities should.

  7. I know, and I agree. Making things even better, my husband is in law enforcement–which has actually been part of the problem, from their perspective. He keeps peskily pointing out that what’s happening is wrong. He’s a domestic violence prosecutor; he knows. Unfortunately, since she thinks her husband is just awesome, there’s nothing anybody can do, until one of two things happens: 1) she’s willing to go forward and testify against him, 2) there’s enough independent evidence for the state to proceed over her objections. But, really, is there anyone here–of whatever level of belief–who has any allusions about the church’s ability to close ranks and protect its own?

    • That’s one shitty situation. I feel terrible.

      There’s a lot more abuse and covering up of that abuse in the church than most anyone thinks. Like in the Catholic church, because of the doctrine of confession/repentance, the need to protect the name of the church, church officials cover up all sorts of nasty things. In some ways, it’s worse in the LDS church because nearly none of the hierarchy, from the local level on up are trained in psychology, or counselling. The only real qualifications to be a bishop or stake president are loyalty to the hierarchy. That coupled with the mentality Mormons have as separate from the world, all contributes to the covering up and perpetuation of abuse. It makes me sick.

  8. One of the reasons I’ve felt obligated to remain a member of the church for so long has been a desire to remain relevant to (certain members of) my family. I wanted to help them–especially my sister–and knew that if I left, it would completely discredit me in her eyes. So, instead, I convinced myself that the right thing to do was effect change from within. I’d like to believe that’s still possible, but I know it’s not possible for me.

    The whole “we’re better than everyone else” mentality creates the perfect conditions for abuse–people who, say, know better and are willing to say so are very easily discredited. That’s essentially what happened with us. BIL “has the Gospel”, so clearly it’s his word over mine–because, despite my having the Gospel also, or at least until very recently, I’m a mere woman and thus my voice counts for nothing. See, it’s all my fault for staying with someone who, despite being a wonderful human being and a person of integrity, is somehow lacking because he refuses to put on a funny outfit and watch a badly produced film.

    • Very sorry to hear about your sister CJ, she’s gotten some very bad, and very improper counsel. I’ve been directly involved in a few cases of helping women get out of abusive situations, and her leadership was and is profoundly wrong both in terms of counsel and process. I do hope she has other resources – that she will confidently listen to – to help her. Hang in there the best you can with her…

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  10. I have to disagree with the premise that small changes need to precede big ones. The history of change in the LDS church shows that changes tend to be large, infrequent, and usually initiated by pressure from outside the church. On that theory, the point of WAVE should be to try and get enough outside pressure to force the whole enchilada of female priesthood ordination in one fell swoop.

    I think this is also more palatable to GAs because they can bill it as a revelation from God. Frequent small changes pushed by the members would be perceived as dissipating GA power and influence, plus they church would no longer appear to be governed by revelation.

    The other problem with lots of small incremental changes is that inside conservative organizations they tend to break down about half way through, maybe sooner. The more conservative elements decide that “things have gone far enough” and “it’s time to retrench and get back to the way things were.” My guess is that you wouldn’t get through 1/3 of your list before leadership decided that they had already gone too far.

    Big changes like the polygamy manifestos, the 1978 polygamy revelation, or Vatican II (to take an example from another church) make it impossible to turn back the clock and since it’s only one action, conservative elements can’t wear down the reformers with calls to retrenchment.

  11. I don’t really have anything to add…other than I don’t think anything like this can happen until an atmosphere of open discussion can happen within the church. When people are fearful to even mention doubt, I don’t see a lot happening within regards to gender change. Sad, but true.

    But these are great smaller ideas to start with to work up to bigger changes.

    • Part of the problem is, once you even admit you have doubt, you’re instantly discredited–at least in some circles. Your questions, comments and concerns, even if in no way related to doubt about the veracity of the church’s claims, are relegated to “doubter’s concerns”. You become irrelevant to some people; instead of their emotional and intellectual equal, you’re a “project”. I hadn’t said anything to anyone, for the obvious reasons, but I was already on my way out due to anger over my husband being treated like a second class citizen. After all, my chronically unemployed, wife-beating BIL is “superior”, because he has the priesthood! So I suppose I am just another angry, bitter, “offended” person.

  12. CJ, I hope that your journey out of the church is able to lift some of this weight. Just don’t ever forget that if you are angry, bitter and offended by abuse, YOU ARE RIGHT. If psychological and physical violence did not offend you, you would not be a decent human being.

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