The title of today’s post (“A woman is a woman no matter what, but manhood can be lost,”) is a quote comes from a long and interesting article from the Pacific Standard: Why Men Kill Themselves. There’s a lot that is interesting in the article, especially about some of the gender differences that lead to a much higher suicide rate for men as compared to women. Although there are certainly wide variations between cultures in the overall rate of suicide, it turns out that “In every country in the world, male suicides outnumber female.”
The article reminded me of Valerie Hudson Cassler’s article for Square Two: Plato’s Son, Augustine’s Heir: “A Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology.” The article, a response to Taylor Petrey’s attempt to show how Mormon theology could be retrofitted to be compatible with eternal homosexual relationships, had a tremendous impact on how I view gender and religion. In the article, Cassler allows that “No doubt Petrey would argue that what he is advocating is the construction of or, alternatively, the realization of, a plethora of genders, not one gender,” but she points out that:
When I read Petrey’s essay, I see a different bottom line: Women are no longer necessary for the Plan of Happiness to obtain. Women are no longer necessary for temple sealings to take place. Women are no longer necessary for the work of the gods in the eternities, or for there to be brought forth spirit children: indeed, there need not be a Heavenly Mother, or, for that matter, earthly mothers. Women are dispensable in Petrey’s rethinking of LDS doctrine.
From there, Cassler embarks on a stirring defense of the absolute indispensability of women as women to Mormon theology and to the human experience. For example, in order to render homosexual and heterosexual relationships equivalent, Petrey understands that he must do away with the centrality of biological reproduction and blood relationship. So he writes: “kinship is a way of making the biological results of sexual reproduction meaningful.” Cassler replies:
Only a man—a being that reproduces outside of his own body–could have written that statement. From this female’s perspective, kinship is men’s way of “making the biological results of sexual reproduction meaningful.” We women call those “biological results” our children. We women carry within us for the rest of our lives the cells of each human being we have borne in our wombs. We do not need men’s ordinances to be kin to our children: such ordinances are for the sake of men, whose blood is not mingled with that of their children, whose heart did not beat with their child’s within the same body, whose cries did not join with their child’s at birth. We have our own women’s ordinances, or pregnancy, birth, and lactation, which establish our kinship with our children. Mothers who must adopt out their children know they will always be kin to them, no matter where their children are. Their bodies carry those children within them forever. The mother cannot be erased, despite all efforts to do so. The navel mark is etched into the very flesh of each human being as a symbol that kinship to one’s mother is real and permanent and un-erasable and holy.
This is the single most influential paragraph on my understanding of gender that I have ever read, and in particular the central passages, which I will restate for emphasis:
We do not need men’s ordinances to be kin to our children: such ordinances are for the sake of men, whose blood is not mingled with that of their children, whose heart did not beat with their child’s within the same body, whose cries did not join with their child’s at birth. We have our own women’s ordinances, or pregnancy, birth, and lactation, which establish our kinship with our children.
One of the troubling aspects of Mormon theology–and for many Mormons today it is quite troubling–is the exclusively male nature of formal priesthood hierarchies. That’s a big topic, more than I can address in this post and certainly more than can be explained completely with these two sentences from Cassler, but for me the kernel of a possible explanation is present. I’d like–by way of speculation–to see where it leads.
Any attempt to draw an equivalence between motherhood and priesthood is considered suspect, and with good reason: they are not equivalent. But it is possible that some degree of the antipathy with which this parallel is viewed may stem from a fundamental misapprehension of the relationship between Church or the family. As far as I’m concerned, the Church as a formal institution exists solely as a means to an end. It is, to pare things down to their absolute minimum, an organization to ensure that temples have custodians. And these temples, of course, exist for the purpose of sealing families together. The Church, in other words, is an auxiliary to the family.
This is much more a statement of how things should be as opposed to how they actually are. The twentieth century saw the apogee of formal institutions within society, and we are still living in a world that is culturally conditioned to view formal institutions–corporations, governments, universities—as the source of prestige, power and authority. We are therefore culturally conditioned to view the formal institution of the Church as the most important part, but in doing this we are blinded by cultural prejudice. We have a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother. That is eternal. The current institutional layout of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not. It is conditional and uncertain, in the sense that if we played back the history again from the Restoration with Joseph Smith, it’s easy to imagine any number of factors turning out differently, just as it’s easy to imagine the institution will continue to change and evolve in years to come.
In that case, we have a common theme developing. Men’s access to the priesthood is conditional and uncertain. You have to be lucky enough to be born in a time and at a place where the restored Gospel is available to you, and then you have to live your life in accordance with rules in order to be able to be worthy–spiritually and bureaucratically–to exercise the priesthood. Even those priesthood holders who are worthy to exercise the priesthood can do so only, in the case of most ordinances, within a hierarchy of top-down control. Meanwhile, the existence of the formal Church institution itself is also conditional and uncertain. It has not always been on the Earth and in fact in most times and at most places it has not been present. It is an anomaly and–like men’s access to the priesthood–it is purely instrumental. It serves as a means to an end. This idea of maleness and instrumentality is reflected in society’s view that manhood itself can be lost.
None of this is true for women, or at least it is not true to an equal degree. Their access to, as Cassler puts it, “women’s ordinances” is totally independent of male authority or of any formal institution whatsoever. Obviously not all women are able to bear children–for a variety of reasons–but the contrast with a man’s ability to hold the priesthood is stark. For women, not being able to be a mother is the exception to the rule. For men, being able to exercise the priesthood is the exception to the rule.
This is a dangerous line of reasoning because it can easily veer towards pedestal-building. Pedestals are not useful things between partners. Luckily, that’s not where I’m heading, I am not arguing for the superiority of women. I am not saying that they are so special and spiritual that they don’t need the priesthood while us men–slow, dimwitted, spiritually backwards creatures that we are–need some kind of compensation.
No, I just believe that men and women are different. It is my experience that men don’t do very well unless they are given a standard, a goal, or a duty and told that they must live up to it. Not because we are weaker or more venal, but purely because that’s how we work. That’s what we need, not as a matter of better than or worse than, but simply as a matter of different natures. We react, and in reaction we find ourselves. Women, according to this view, are not superior angels, but simply the yin to our yang.
Of course I may seem to be turning into a virtue what the article I cite–“Why Men Kill Themselves”–clearly views as a tragedy. If men did not view their worth as conditional, then perhaps their suicide rate would not be so high. There’s validity to that. That is why it is important to remember that we are all human beings first, before we are male or female, and that as children of God we have infinite worth in His sight. This is the bedrock truth which shows where I part way with the idea of entirely instrumental maleness. But it is my view that men as men do experience a need to be tasked with a quest, a restlessness that says what they are is not enough, and that this inclination has a light side as well as a dark one, and that it may be an aspect of our eternal natures.
This is not a final analysis by any means, just some thoughts to ponder on. After all, if gender essentialism is true on an eternal scale–as the teachings of the Church hold–then it must have significance that is deep, profound, and universal. Significance that is evident not at the surface and not sporadically, but down deep and everywhere and all the time. That is why it makes sense to try and tease it out from those aspects of gender which are universal. I don’t think I’m anywhere near the bottom of the riddle yet, but I do think we have to be willing to ignore the political orthodoxy of the day in this investigation.
I will leave here the caveats which, in happier times, would be taken for granted but in the interests of clarity must be stated plainly. The concept of gender is not invariant across time and space. Much that constitutes gender roles is socially constructed. But there are, beneath the layers of cultural variation and innovation, constants. As a consequence, not everything that every culture (including our own) holds to be true about gender will turn out to be true. Or moral. Or healthy. Additionally, individual variation always outstrips population variation. Women are shorter in general than men, but the difference in heights between the tallest and shortest woman is far greater than the difference in heights between the average man and the average woman. As a result, tall women can be taller than short men. Finally: observations of what is cannot be taken to obviously lead to what ought to be. It is also very different to talk about moral or healthy attitudes to gender, versus entertaining notions of informal or formal constrain to try and force people–men or women–to conform to those standards. It should not be assumed at all that someone who thinks, “This is what a man or a woman should strive for,” is in danger of adding the unrelated statement: “And people ought to be punished if they deviate from this standard.”
My friend G. (who blogs at Junior Ganymede) once mentioned an interesting read of 2 Nephi 2:14:
14 And now, my sons, I speak unto you these things for your profit and learning; for there is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon.
The conventional reading, I think, holds that human beings as free agents are “things to act” wherease the world around us–energy and inanimate matter–are “thing to be acted upon.” But perhaps there is a different dichotomy instead of or in addition to that one. One in which women are things to act, and men are things to be acted upon. Maybe, maybe not. But if complementarity is true–if men and women are essentially and eternally different and each necessary–then in principle we ought to be able to find out how the two puzzle pieces fit together to make a complete whole, an equality where neither can exist without the other, and where neither can replace the other. Where men and women are beyond equal because they are indispensable.