Alison has a talent for writing trenchant posts in general – posts that point to the heart of an issue – particularly as concerns women’s issues. This post is a response to her latest (please read first).
Let me start with a recent anecdote. My family and I underwent a multi-continental move over the course of the summer, and as part of this, we spent a month in the great Great Falls, VA ward. Wonderful place. The Bishopric was kind and shook my hand the first day, being sure to welcome me in the various meetings. But the person who really made our experience a welcome one was, as one might guess, Sister Richards – the bishop’s wife. She was incredibly kind and warm and interested in us, going out of her way to talk to us and connect us with various persons in the ward. The summer in Great Falls, like many areas, was a time of move-ins for the ward, and my wife and I watched her natural, welcoming talent with half a dozen other families, not to mention the myriad of other activities she publicly engaged in (and we all know that there were myriads more going on behind the scenes). She was in every sense the Matriarch of the ward. Except . . . well, she’s not, right?
This is very common. In fact, the same thing just happened again as we completed our move and are now living in a different ward. Not only the bishop’s, but also the stake president’s wife (who lives in our ward) were immediately on hand with a graceful, substantive and much needed welcome. This was the 17th move in 10 years, so we’ve been able to witness this a lot. Bishopric’s are great and can make a huge difference in one’s transition into and out of a ward. But there’s no question that the wives of bishops and stake presidents that we’ve known have taken upon themselves the unofficial calling of ward/stake Matriarch – or position of incredibly-useful-serving-as-much-as-their-husband-hugely-enriching-the-ward specialist, or whatever one wants to call it. My point is that it’s real. And hugely efficacious.
There’s a sense in which this fact is feather in the cap of the women of Mormonism – that they do now and I think always have stepped up in the absence of official direction or sustaining and fulfilled this and other much needed callings (like the weekly, spontaneous primary teacher fill-ins – or, more controversially, laying on of hands to heal sick oxen while crossing the plains!). This fact is very conspicuous, and leads to, among other things, the sorts of issues that Alison’s post addresses. But it’s very conspicuous nature serves to highlight a real problem. Not only are we grateful for this type of service, the flourishing of the church depends upon it. Yet there is no real recognition or prestige or official normative status that accrues to it. This is part of what makes it such remarkable service. But shouldn’t these women at least have the blessing of being set apart? Officially recognized, not through a patronizing comment, but an inspired, specific declaration and blessing? What’s problematic is not necessarily the lack of calling, title, and sustaining, but the fact that men do get these things. Can you imagine spontaneous EQ counselors being the norm?
I don’t have a simple answer here. In a busting-at-the-seems BYU ward my wife was given the calling of songbook-passer-outer and greeter: activities that need to be done (or at least, that make everything nicer); and something that’s usually just silently handled by various saints. Making it an official calling was . . . well, silly. And it turned the service from an opportunity to anonymously serve into a sort of trivial, communist-style everyone-works-even-if-your-job-is-utterly-superfluous thing. An official calling of Ward Matriarch might do something similar – changing it from the beautiful service that it is into an awkward, vague and variably effective calling. This would be especially true if the official calling didn’t also include a voice and participation in ward leadership councils.
Lacking an answer, I want to ask: how can we do more to meaningfully recognize what is already a reality – that women are a foundational and not a decorational part of the Kingdom? How can we do more to substantively (as opposed to patronizingly) recognize what women do and have been doing? How can we make their service something to which an appropriate recognition accrues without fundamentally altering or trivializing that service? Of course, this is all a subspecies of the bigger question: how can we as men and women better partner together in our service – in a way that blesses both men and women?
Again, I don’t have a list of ready-made answers for how (logistically) we ought to make a better partnership come into fruition – just the obvious suggestion that we need to. Taking my marriage as a template – which I think I ought to do, particularly in this church – I am diminished and my family collectively suffers when my wife is not a full and equal partner. I’ve no desire to be married to a lesser sort of human, no desire for a servant. I want instead to be celestially comingled with a woman whom I infinitely trust, with whom I’m equally yoked, and whose capabilities are just as immersed in the project of working for, leading, and raising an eternal family as are my own. And I’ve no desire to curtail or limit or restrict her in this project. That doesn’t mean that we have to be equally involved in working on every project in the family. But I think it does mean we both have the right to a potential full participation in anything we do.
The new local shift toward ward councils is a great start. The guiding principle is that we need much more of this sort of thing – however we logistically bring it about. Thus, in closing, I want to agree with Alison by disagreeing with her. She says:
TELL us what to do, TELL us what to work on (even collectively), TELL us how to better prepare for whatever it is our role will be.
I’m pretty sure what we as a church need is exactly not to have our current priesthood leadership TELL-ing women what to do/work on. Rather, however it gets brought about, what we need is women everywhere as part of the highest and lowest and mid-grade councils working out just what women – and men – will do.
Some of the structural change I’m hinting at probably needs to come from on high – it’s not sort of thing a bloggernacle post can touch. But there’s lots we can do that already has the full blessing of those on high. Beyond this, we all know that it is our covenant responsibility to act, to build Zion, to improve our lot and work out our collective as well as individual salvation. So, what are your thoughts on how we might better recognize women and all of us partner together?
 Alison kept my wife and I up half the night talking about her Do Titles Matter? post. Unbelievably difficult to try and come up with appropriate, matching titles for women.
 In fact, this post and the one to follow is really just a long-winded comment that could’ve been stuck in the comment thread beneath her post. But I think generating even more discussion on the matter is a good thing, and I wanted to ask a few different questions. And I don’t want to distract from the point and discussion of her OP.