In the fall of 1995 I enrolled in a critical theories seminar; first out of the block was feminism. One afternoon in September, I sat at a carrel in the old reading room on the south side of the HBLL and wrote on the inside cover of my reader a personal manifesto of sorts: â€œWhy I donâ€™t believe in gender essentialism.â€? Less than a week later, I sat in the Marriott Center watching the Womenâ€™s Broadcast on the big screen, and heard President Hinckley say, â€œGender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal and eternal identity and purpose.â€?
In the years since that afternoon when my personal view came head-to-head with prophetic utterance, Iâ€™ve spent a lot of time thinking about the Proclamation on the Family. I take prophetic counsel seriously, and I never considered rejecting the Proclamationâ€™s pronouncements about gender out of hand. But neither was I able to relinquish my deeply-felt conviction immediately and simply. Equal parts of soul-searching and close reading have brought me to a blessed (though dynamic) peace with the Proclamation. While I donâ€™t intend to produce here a feminist-vetted reading of the Proclamation, I will set out a few notes and ask for your response.
â€œGender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.â€? Gender essentialism, any theory that ascribes a certain fixed set of sex-coordinated characteristics inherent from birth to each individual, finds here its LDS expression. Most arguments about gender essentialism turn on the creaky nature v. nurture debate, essentialists positing a biological endowment from birth and constructionists an ideological system as the architect of sex difference. The Proclamation, though, suggests an entirely different kind of essentialism that begins neither at biological birth nor at early socialization, but at a pre-mortal stage of existence. Because gender, in current usage, implies the social expression of sex differences, this formulation would be absurd under any other theological system, precisely because the idea of a pre-mortal social system would be absurd. But because Mormonism posits a pre-mortal sociality, a pre-mortal form of gender is also conceivable. But letâ€™s get to the interesting stuff: in what characteristics, precisely, does essential gender inhere? I suggest, anticlimactically, that we have no way of knowing. One might speculate that because essential gender precedes the physical body, it necessarily excludes those characteristics that stem directly from biology: the nurture-response triggered by the release of oxytocin at breastfeeding, for example, would not be a part of a pre-mortal essential femaleness, nor would the aggression triggered by testosterone levels be a part of essential maleness. Alternatively, one might (and most LDS do) conflate the Proclamationâ€™s assertion of essential gender with its later prescription of gender-segregated family roles, concluding that essential gender must mean that women are nurturers, since theyâ€™re responsible for the nurture of children, and men are providers, since theyâ€™re responsible for providing. But the Proclamation provides no basis for this conflation; indeed, the passage on essential gender is separated by some six paragraphs from the passage on gender roles. If we stick to the Proclamation, we have to conclude that gender is somehow essential, but that we do not know precisely what that means.
â€œBy divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.â€? These are probably the most politically controversial and oft-contested sentences in the Proclamation (with the exception of the man-woman marriage pronouncement). Part of the difficulty with these sentences, I suggest, stems from a crucial ambiguity in syntax. â€œMothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their childrenâ€? could mean one of two things: either, â€œmothersâ€™ chief responsibility, over and above any other endeavor or pursuit, should be the nurture of their childrenâ€?; or, alternatively, â€œmothers, rather than fathers, should be primarily responsible for the nurture of the children.â€? I prefer the second reading, which construes gender roles as a convenient organizational principle for the division of family labor, rather than as a limiting description of a womanâ€™s life. As vice-president in charge of nurture, I know that I must take ultimate responsibility for, say, safeguarding the childrenâ€™s health (even if itâ€™s John who takes them to the doctor), or determining the best educational options (even if itâ€™s John who drops them off); conversely, John, as vice-president in charge of provisioning, knows that he has ultimate responsibility for getting college funds going (even if I transfer the money), or planning long-term financial stability (even if I contribute some of the money)â€”although in every case, of course, the decisions would be reached by mutual consent. This way, ideally, the crucial matters of family business donâ€™t get left unattended because neither parent feels the responsibility to make sure it happens; simultaneously, though, it allows for flexibility in performing that work, according to situation.
â€œWe call upon responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society.â€? Finally, a quibble. Is the family actually the fundamental unit of society? Wouldnâ€™t the family more properly be described as the fundamental organization of society? Surely, beginning at least with Enlightenment, the individual has been the fundamental unit of society: the voting franchise, the census, the social security system, and most other societal systems take the individual as the basic unit. Whatâ€™s at stake in calling the family the â€œfundamental unitâ€??