Women and the Church

I finished Neylan McBaine’s Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact a couple days ago, along with The Handmaid’s Tale (which isn’t Mormon, but deals with gender issues and some non-descript religious society and is PHENOMENAL and you should read it right now) and posted a review of McBaine’s book on facebook, where I got many repetitions of the same sort of comment (essentially that for the target audience, it is great, which I absolutely agree with and thought I’d made clear in my review, but apparently did not—I do have some issues with the tone of the book, but those aren’t a big deal and felt like it was occasionally dismissive of more progressive critiques of efforts to address gender issues in the Church. All that said, active, moderate-conservative women and Church leaders will find loads of practical, grounded, implementable ideas for increasing the role and visibility of women in the Church, which is very praiseworthy and absolutely needed—essentially if you are invested in pragmatic suggestions for changes that can be implemented at the local level, read and do as found in this book).

All of that in combination with recent conversations on feminist theory and how to possibly even pretend to reconcile it with Church teachings and practices in my graduate level, literary theory course at BYU and some conversations I saw on Facebook recently, has led to a stew of thoughts and questions. If you’ve been reading my blog for a long time then you know that I am totally on board with women’s ordination and think that eventually that will be a reality (though how exactly that will look and be in practice I don’t know—I’m open to their being some alternative priestesshood that exists independent of and in tandem with the priesthood, since there’s some problematic pieces of co-opting women into a patriarchal, priesthood power structure that giving them access to some larger portion of priesthood authority may not fully resolve).

Yet, I know people (men and women) that value gender equality and don’t think this is necessary. There’s a contingent that are on board with Valerie Hudson’s “Two Trees” or at least some of the ideas behind it. (I haven’t closely read this in a couple years and just skimmed briefly through it now, so I may mischaracterize some aspect of it and if that’s the case, please let me know how you read it.) My memory and sense of this is that men are given the priesthood to participate in priesthood ordinances because women in giving birth have an innate, biological access to what is effectively an ordinance. It’s a sophisticated version of the motherhood and priesthood equivalency that offers some compelling reasons for that understanding. This reading/interpretation/understanding is attractive because of how it places emphasis on women’s bodies in a way that links them directly to actualizing God’s work. Given the centuries (millennia?) of thought/practice that demean and objectify and strive to own women’s bodies, there’s something powerful and redemptive about this idea. Yet, I think it by itself is a potentially alienating view. These aren’t new thoughts, but bear repeating—what about women that can’t have children? Or are single? Or are long past their child-bearing years? The negatives of tying something so directly to the physical/biological body are that there seems to be a short window of time that women can be participants in this process.

Is there a way to take the good of this approach and overcome these negatives? What other problems are at stake? What challenges are there for integrating women more fully into our wards?

I think we need a more comprehensive theology of women and their divine destiny. Perhaps efforts to create that will result in discoveries and revelations that alter how we operate in practice. (I proposed something similar for single people in the Church generally a bit ago at The Chosen Generation, where I blog with four intelligent, wonderful, hilarious women.)

If we want to buy into this Motherhood-Priesthood corollary then I think we need to create ways for all worthy women to participate in ‘motherhood’ regardless of marital status and physical characteristics. This seems to run the risk of diluting what ‘motherhood’ is in a way that wouldn’t be productive, so it may be better to just ditch this entirely and talk about Priestesshood or something else. But perhaps precisely what we need to do is expand ideas of motherhood. I don’t know. I do know that not bestowing the priesthood on women (even though everything they do in the Church is exercising priesthood authority) excludes them from being fully integrated (particularly with gendered callings that can only be men, especially when this seems to be largely tradition based and not doctrinal—McBaine’s book highlights some moving examples of exceptions that I would love to see become more the rule).

There’s a lot we can do. Being informed is a good start (in addition to McBaine’s book, Mormon Feminism is a fantastic collection of pieces that are worth reading, Young Mormon Feminists and Feminist Mormon Housewives are great places to read women talking about their experiences in the Church and have pretty active Facebook communities, and probably talking to women in your ward/branch/family).

Yeah. This has been a bit meandering. I wonder what the future holds and think we need a better understanding of what the eternities are like to help make our home here a heaven on earth. Is God a plural entity—Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother? Do they act in tandem? What do they do? Does Heavenly Mother have special assignments? Like all the prayers about misplaced objects, family conflicts, relationships, comfort, etc.? Does She do whatever she wants? Does she nurture the spirit babies? What is Her role? It strikes me that we need to better understand that to know how to shape the role of women here—or perhaps we can change what God the Mother will be doing, by giving women more to do here, preparing them for a grander eternity?

Per usual, I don’t have solid answers. And this is not a focused meditation on these issues, but a scattering of thoughts—I should do more to consider implications and possibilities and work on reasoning through what I started to play with here. Until then, let’s make what change we can and not cow before patriarchal traditions.

 

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5 thoughts on “Women and the Church

  1. “Perhaps we can change what God the Mother will be doing, by giving women more to do here, preparing them for a grander eternity?”

    Possibly. Or perhaps we will never really understand what God the Mother is doing *now* until we open all doors for women as fully as we open them for men. I know that’s subjective, but there has been a movement within corporate America recently where women — despite the increasingly equal opportunities available to them — are opting for more time with children (part time, flexible work arrangements, etc.). Is this because they naturally desire those arrangements? Or is it because men are subconsciously/unwittingly limiting opportunities at work for them?

    It’s the same at church, I believe. I really believe we will understand strengths of men and women that we don’t understand now when we have more women in leadership, more men taking care of the home, etc. And through that movement, we may learn more about our Heavenly Mother than we ever could have otherwise.

    A lovely article. Thank you, Conor, for making me think. As always.

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    1. Thanks, Abe. Yeah, I think it is worth pursuing all the options: expanding theological understanding to improve women’s role in mortality, expanding roles here to better understand what is happening theologically, and perhaps expanding things here for more expansive futures.

      The possibilities of mimicking some of the efforts of corporate America are fascinating and definitely worth following.

      Thanks and you’re welcome. As always.

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  2. I hesitate to say this, because I believe that feminism has been so successful that men are now under-appreciated and generally looked down upon, but I honestly believe that men are given the priesthood and more official responsibilities in the Church because men—not all, but most—are more likely to drift away if they are not given purpose and responsibility. I can try to find a study on it if you want, but I’m sure you’ve heard that men need to feel needed. I fully believe that without being given priesthood responsibilities, male activity and worthiness in the church would be drastically lower, whereas I don’t believe that we would see a great increase in worthiness or activity if we gave women the priesthood.

    An old bishop of mine, in a candid conversation, told me that at his most recent trip to the temple he had received the revelation that men must go through the offices of the priesthood in order to enter the temple, but women are born with the right to enter. Just something to think about.

    So, in exact opposition to what many of the feminists think, I have come to the conclusion that God in fact sees women as greater than men.

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    1. Thanks for the thoughtful response Greg. I think these are important questions to engage with and definitely have seen that men have lower activity rates (generally) than women, particularly among single members. I’m less certain that restricting priesthood to men is a way of solving that concern. I think there are probably ways of giving men responsibility and feeling valued without this gendering taking place. At least partially because I was just looking at some data that suggests that LDS women have higher rates of depression than typical American women (and definitely higher than men in and out of the church). There’s a number of complicating factors in the gathering of that data, but there seems to be something there that we need to think about in combination with this apparent need for men to feel valued and needed through clear, visible responsibilities. I’m not sure what the answers are or if I’m even on the right track, but I think these are questions on both sides that need to be asked.

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