Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Feminism and the Church

I think I look at the facts unflinchingly and say what they mean or suggest. I do not think we do ourselves or anyone else a favor when we try to make the church look any better than it is.

We come off best when we present ourselves as simple Christians who try to live good lives and keep trying even when we don't succeed. We have wonderful things to share, our community of loving friends, our excellent programs, our access to personal revelation, our belief that our prayers are answered, our moderate way of life, our teachings that promise future improvement and eternal life and those are the things that we should emphasize.

Yet, I can't help looking at the facts and reality of my religion and trying to find my niche in it.

In this day, it is notable that the Church's leadership at every level is male. Meetings are run by men in dark suits. As men are recruited, encouraged, refined, groomed, tested, they become strong leaders. And so, it goes without saying that women, without autonomy, would seem to have little power in this religion.

Then the question comes: But what is power in religion? Leadership seems important, but many religions, certainly ours, have stressed the humble vineyard worker as the powerful position. The greatest of all is the servant of all. A New York Times Magazine illustrated this apparent paradox in an issue highlighting Doba Levin, the wife of a Lubavitcher rabbi and the mother of fourteen children. A reader objected to featuring her as a religious exemplar because she was subordinate to her husband, had no independent status, and lived a premodern life. Her activities, the writer said, were clearly circumscribed. Another correspondent concluded the opposite, noting that as the mother and guide of many, Levin was, in terms of moral independence, powerful indeed. This question of where power lies is significant for Mormon women who wield uncelebrated influence. Is it therefore insignificant or diminished? Should women, apparently not important in modern terms, sue for influence? Should they deny their ambitions? Can women deal with this puzzle?

There have been some accommodations to the changed role of LDS women in recent years. These include an annual women's meeting and some female speakers at General Conference. And those talks are always good. The official stance is that gender roles are separate but equal, and that woman's place is in the home. Many women are content in the home, but others have felt patronized by this rhetoric, pointing out that the equation of priesthood with motherhood is asymmetrical, leaving out fatherhood, and is, furthermore, not scriptural. This gender relationship means that male leaders direct women in their lives, assuming they know how women feel, think, and should behave.

I also feel that there hasn't been enough talk addressing the rise of the single LDS woman.

In congregations throughout the world, there are many beautiful, charming, intelligent, amazingly talented single women doing good things, taking their lives seriously. But at church every Sunday they hear lessons that talk of the glories of marriage. We have to recognize that these exceptions are becoming the mainstream. The world is changing and so is the Church.

So how should it change? What can the church do to find a place for the single, intelligent, independent woman who doesn't really want to hear about marriage every Sunday (and is not even sure she wants to get married!)....

and even more so doesn't want to be continuously judged on her marital status?


solidcommagirl said...

Wow, its like you are in my head. I'm taking a gender and development class as part of my course and its forced me to address a lot of these same questions, but I still haven't come up with good answers ;). Which is why I am so glad you brought it up. Its nice to know that other women in the church have the same feelings.

fromthestecherbush said...

I really enjoy having your points of view. You help me see so many things that I wouldn't have ever thought about. I just have two things to think about(I'm trying to be short and still contribute).
1.I think the church in many things has changed a lot over the years. I am sure there's more to come.
2. When I was in New Orleans(keep in mind I've been in primary for an eternity!so RS is a bit foriegn to me and I might not be sensitive to how "bad" things are). People always tried to skip out on Father's Day. There were so few (like 5) decent dad's in the ward and they wanted to be sensitive to the fatherless(or those who would be better off fatherless). I read a talk the I agreed w/ whole-heartedly about teaching the ideal b/c those boys can aspire to it. We honored Father's Day so they would know that they could be good dads.
Sometimes I'm so envious of your single life-I wonder how our views would change if we stopped preaching the ideal.
I've seen people fall away from the church on this very issue so I know it's extremely sensitive and important. I wonder where the right balance is?

D'Arcy said...

So true Amber, I agree with teaching the ideal. That's why I am still in the church and why I don't get offended by people who say stupid things (because their will be people like that in every religion and cracks me up when people who get offended think it is only their religion that has offending people in it!)

So, I do believe teaching the ideal is important. I also believe that understanding that not everyone will reach that ideal is just as important, if not more so.

Furthermore, I think we, as church members, could get better at teaching the ideal, and let it be known that it is just that, the ideal. Too many times I think we teach it as reality and then people go home from church feeling down, low, and not good enough in whatever place in life they are at. We should be striving to be better, but not so much that we are trying to run so fast that we feel like just giving up the race. I also think it serves no one to just pretend that these problems and issues don't exist...which a lot of sweet old women do!

I also think that the problems addressing the single are often simplified by saying "Your rewards are coming in heaven, so just don't have sex, or those feelings that go with it, don't marry someone not worthy of you and you'll be blessed!" and then leaving it at that. No matter if that is true or not, that doesn't really help satisfy or cope with the daily act of living as a single LDS person in this world. We need to talk about the struggles more and not sugar coat the marriage issue.

But I think it is changing, and that makes me excited and hopeful!! When I was in Young Women no one would have ever told me that I might not get married to a sweet return missionary when I was 22. So when that didn't happen for me I felt like I was not worthy enough, or didn't deserve it, or was being punished, or something was wrong with me. And other people who judged me by my marital status just reaffirmed those thoughts, so, yes. Hopefully that sweet and syrupy way of life is not being preached so full-force in Young Women today.

Thanks M and A for your comments. I really love getting a conversation about this going!

Chelle said...

Very thought-provoking post. These questions have been with me for a long time.

I agree that teaching that there are many options for having a happy life is an important one on keeping young (who will someday be old) women in the church, when statistics are such that all women will not be able to marry in the church (even if they want to, not that they do).

In regards to living the sexual purity standards, it is much easier as a 19 year old, but to ask this of 30 years olds, without acknowledging that they are basically practicing what could turn out to be a life of celibacy seems insensitive sometimes. I am not advocating throwing away all sexual morality, just saying it wouldn't hurt to admit that it is a human desire/need/whatever, and that treating never-married 30 year olds like college freshmen isn't exactly helpful.

fromthestecherbush said...

I have a thing about just talking about things w/o actually making progress toward or at leasat intending to act on the ideas is a waste of time so my question to you is this: What exactly would you change and impliment?
What types of lessons in particular do you think need to be taught to Young Women? What would you have the Relief Society address to the group that would help include the singles? and more and more.
I have heard a few of these points brought up but since I'm a married with kids/stay at home mormon molly girl, I'm not as good at being able to find a solution.
I would really love more specific information.

Jessica said...

Great post. This conversation is a lot like ones I see at Feminist Mormon housewives (don't let the title fool you) and Zelophehad's Daughters. There are quite a few Mormon blogs who discuss these issues. In fact, there are a series of podcast at Mormon Stories on feminism in the church, and Claudia Bushman does a very interesting piece about what specific changes she thinks would help women in the church.
Thanks for bringing these issues to the forefront. Even though I am a married SAHM, I still think it is important to help all women in the church feel welcome and have the same incentives to stay active and be accepted in a faithful community of Christians.

Marie said...

I love this posting, and it's something I think about a lot. I don't have time to read all the other readers' comments, but I'll say this: in my study of Church history, what I've come away with is that a lot of the changes that happen in the Church do bubble up from the bottom. We think of it as a very top-down church, and in many ways it is, but the needs and changing consciousness of the members plays a huge part in how the Church turns. I refuse to believe that that's because the Church is just another manmade institution -- I believe it's because the whole point of continuing revelation is not just to adapt truth to the needs of the moment, but to allow a conversation between God and his people as to how they should move their joint project forward. Ultimately God has the last word, but we are not without influence.

Also, making these changes is often messy and requires the persuading of our fellow members, even those in leadership positions. They must be gently shown that while we single women in the Church wholeheartedly believe that wifehood and motherhood are grand and worthy roles, that reality dictates that a new model be forged for those of us who do not marry or have children but still want to be fully utilized and appreciated in the Church. It's only a few steps away from what Emmeline Wells and her associates were doing a hundred years ago -- we just have to get the tone right and be persistent. I think the mistake is thinking of the church as strictly top-down. Our welfare program, our Relief Society, and many other aspects of our church began as private initiatives and were then ratified as church programs. If we truly feel that a change needs to be made, we need to prayerfully go forward in our own sphere, doing what we can to change the hearts and minds of those around us. And I see it beginning to happen -- two single women in recent memory serving in the RS board.

Oh, and your equation of motherhood and the priesthood -- that's one of my top pet peeves, too. It withstands zero doctrinal or logical scrutiny. Women do hold the priesthood, but currently they are only authorized to use it as ordinance workers in the tmeple. For decades of early church history, endowed women gave priesthood blessings all the time, with the approval of Joseph Smith and his successors. That authority was withdrawn by Lorenzo Snow. He had the right to withdraw it, but it could always return. It's just a matter of authority -- not power. And as you say, the model of authority laid out by Christ is one I can easily live with. The trick is for those in authority to learn to wield it as Christ did. And for those of us under authority to learn how best to respond when it is not exercised well...

Okay, I"ve got a killer head cold and my brain just shut off, so I'm just gonna drop it there, half-baked.

Beth said...

Ok, so I feel sort of funny adding a comment in here, because I don't really know any of you except D'Arcy... however, as an 18 year old still IN Young Womens, I thought I might have something to add.

The questions D'Arcy brought up in her post have troubled me a lot, not only for my own personal opinions, but because of questions my friends have asked me about the church, such as "Why do girls have to wait until they are 21 to go on missions?" or "Why do Mormons have so many kids?" or "Why would you want to stay home with your kids! Isn't a career more important to society?"

Difficult questions all. I've had not a little trouble answering them. Not only for my friends, but for myself.

While I don't have any definite answers, I always like to keep things as simple as possible. The point is, the church is true, whether or not I personally agree with every single point of doctrine.

As for how the lessons could change... I can't tell you how sick I am of every single lesson in Young Women's being about temple marriage. Ok, we get it already! I would love to have more lessons about getting to know ourselves, being the best person we can be, and most importantly, having our own personal foundation in Christ. Because that's what this life is all about, right? Whether we get married in this life or not.

Too often it is taught that once you get married in the temple, everything is ok. That's a lie! Marriage, (or so I've heard,) takes work! My older sister got married in the temple at 19, and her husband turned out to be a real jerk. She has different difficulties now as a single, divorced member with a 6 year old. If girls don't have their own strong testimony, and a strong belief in themselves, what will it matter if they marry in the temple?

I guess the main thing I'm trying to say is that as women in the church, we have to be strong, have a testimony, and be willing to do what the Lord wants us to do with our lives, whether that's getting married or not.

Moonbird said...

I scanned through everyone's comments and loved what I read. Thank you all for who you are!

A few years ago Heavenly Mother made herself known to me in a very sacred way that I won't share here. But basically I have been commanded to pray and ask for guidance from both my Heavenly Parents. I recently heard this same experience from my other friend who said that Heavenly Mother has made herself known to her as well. When I ask Mother, "Why can I not spread this news about you in the church? Why can't I pray to both at the pulpit?" The answer is, "Not all people aren't ready yet." I get that. I have peace with that. And more than ever, many people are getting to know their Mother one at a time... and we're telling each other about our experiences and growing in numbers.

I am actively part of several spiritual groups from Buddhists to Mormons to Pagans to Witches. For the past several years, everyone has commented on the rise of the feminine spirit coming from the earth. The Aztec calendar prophesied about this rise centuries ago, and here it is. Even men are feeling the rise of the feminine in them, as they are now more allowed to cry and be stay-at-home dads, and talk about their feelings. There are men groups everywhere where they support each other in their feelings amidst tissue boxes.

These are exactly the questions we need to be asking...exactly what D'Arcy has presented here. It's just becoming time.

Changes are coming. And they're happening right now. It's a good idea to see where we stand and make peace with the arduous journey in getting where we want to go.

sarahels said...

I really enjoy reading your blog! You don't know me, I'm Joanne and Jeanene's niece and I started reading your blog because Joanne speaks so highly of you. She's told me about all of the fabulous things you've done, all of the places you have been and I admire you. I hope to one day accomplish all that you have accomplished. I agree with how you feel about being preached to about marriage all of the time at church. I am 20 years old and I attend BYU-Idaho. I feel like marriage will come in time for me but until then I don't want to hear about it all of the time. I have seen countless girls go into marriage without a clue of how things are going to be. I've had a friend who has been married and divorced by the time she was 20. I don't want to rush into something that shouldn't be taken lightly. It's nice to know there's someone out there who feels the same as me.