As I indicated in my last post, I am very, very happy with this response from Brother Otterson, for two reasons:
- By sending it to the major Mormon blogs, he signaled that readers of those blogs are a target audience for the church to communicate with and not part of the “extreme” and “suggestive of apostasy” with which the church will not converse. (Ideally, the church would not be describing Ordain Women that way either, but if they are going to, at least they are indicating that the inhabitants of the BCC, T & S, and FMH ecosystems are not on that side of the line.)
- By responding to the criticisms that have been made, Brother Otterson suggests that the criticisms and the responses are part of the dialogue that the church is willing to have. He points out that “feminists” have been invited to converse with the PA department and church leaders. This redemption of the term “feminist” in LDS discourse is significant.
My previous post pointed out one doctrinal issue I had with his post; this post addresses the larger issue of framing. That is: Brother Otterson’s post conveys the idea that the problem today is poorly-trained local leaders and the solution is for women to be listened to with more care at all levels of the church. Certainly this is a real issue and a good solution, and LDS feminists with any historical memory should be gushing out prayers of gratitude that this is the officially-conveyed position of the church. (Seriously: picture yourself in 1973 or even 1993 and think about hearing that the church was meeting with feminists to listen to their ideas. Now pull your jaw back into position.)
But I want to suggest that even for the most moderate of LDS feminists, this framing of the problem is painfully incomplete. And therefore frustrating, because it suggests that the church is not really listening to what many women are saying, despite the fact that a large portion of Brother Otterson’s post is focused on making the argument that they are listening. I obviously can’t speak for all moderate LDS feminists, but I think we might convey our/their main concern under the umbrella of “priesthood creep.” What do I mean by that term? Stipulate for the purposes of this post that extending the priesthood to women is not God’s plan for the church, but then look at ways that women are limited in the church that have nothing to do with any revealed doctrine regarding the priesthood:
- Mothers of minor children cannot serve as temple workers.
- Women can be on the General Sunday School Board, but cannot serve in the Sunday School Presidency in their own wards.
- Women cannot serve as clerks or executive secretaries.
- Sister Okazaki reported that when the General Relief Society Presidency asked the First Presidency if women might serve on the Temple Cmte and Building Cmte, that request was turned down.
- She also reported that she, as education counselor, was working on a new manual for the Relief Society and only found out somewhat accidentally that the church had ended the Relief Society’s production of their own manual and taken over that role—not only without discussion but without informing them.
- The auxiliaries—locally and church-wide—no longer control their own callings, budgets, curriculum, etc.
- The Primary and YM/YW program devote a higher level of resources (time, attention, staffing, money, recognition, etc.) to the boys.
- As is now well-known, women used to perform healing blessings but now are not allowed to.
Other items could certainly be mentioned, but I think this list is enough to convey the main idea: there are many restrictions on women’s activities that cannot be explained by the restriction of priesthood ordination to men. Instead, these policies lead many women to the conclusion that their value is less in the eyes of God and that their contributions to building the kingdom are simply not wanted by the church. These policies cause pain not because women are power hungry or want to control things, but because the ugly underbelly of these policies is the implication that women are not worth as much as men (especially #7) and that their contributions are not welcome (especially #4 and #5). I don’t think that our church leaders actually believe these things, but I think a few of our policies do (unintentionally) reflect this belief. There may also be room for men to think about women in different terms; as General Relief Society President Burton recently said, the church will benefit as men’s vision of women’s capacity becomes more complete.
Not fitting neatly into this list (because they do involve actual priesthood duties), but nonetheless being serious cause for concern for many moderate feminists, are these two items:
- The practice of having teen girls discuss their sex lives with middle-aged men alone behind closed doors. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see the potential for various problems here. (And my concern is not only for the girls, but for the bishops: imagine that a girl accused a bishop of impropriety and the case ended up in court in front of a jury: once the bishop has admitted that he was alone with the girl and asking her how often she masturbated—a setting and discussion that is clearly beyond appropriate bounds in modern culture—do you think that jury will believe the bishop’s next statement when he claims that he did nothing inappropriate?)
- The practice of disciplinary councils having no women present except the accused. Given that, I assume, a large number of these councils involve law of chastity violations, it is easy to imagine numerous scenarios where problems can arise. (I’m tempted to link to a few very troubling personal reports, but I am aware that they might not represent a fair/complete account, so I won’t. I’ll just ask the men reading to imagine that you are alone in a room with a group of women—women who will decide your church membership, social standing, and possibly future employment opportunities—and who ask you to discuss in detail your sexual history. What you may not be able to imagine is how power/abuse/trauma dynamics come in to play in women’s sexual histories and their willingness/ability to talk about them.)
With minor exceptions, these items cannot be addressed on the local level. So to suggest, as Brother Otterson does, that the problem is poorly-trained local leaders and that women should talk to them about their concerns ignores the reality of these concerns. (And, again, creates frustration in the face of his numerous statements that the church is listening to women.) These issues can only be addressed on a church-wide level. Some great progress has been made recently: had I been writing this post a decade ago, the top items on my list would have been that women are not permitted to pray in General Conference, that sister missionaries have no formal leadership opportunities, and that women are rarely quoted in church materials. I recognize and am immensely grateful for progress in these areas. As President Uchtdorf taught, the Restoration is, truly, ongoing.
Not only does pushing the issue to the local level not address the problem, but it may exacerbate it. I can’t imagine that the church will be a better place if every woman with issues spends a few hours talking to her bishop about it. Given that the bishop is powerless to implement change, it is only natural that he would perceive the woman’s concerns as a worthiness/testimony issue or a pointless complaint. But even if he is completely sympathetic, what succor does that give the woman when it can’t change the policy? I suppose one might argue that the goal here is that women will open their bishops’ eyes to these concerns and that the bishops will pass these concerns along and then change will happen. Could this be the unstated hope? I’ll take progress any way I can get it.