In addition to talking past each other (or worse, not really trying to talk to each other at all), a lot of those passionately engaged in talking about women in the church fail to grasp and hence fail to engage the actual arguments. In this post I’m going to describe the dialectical geography as I see it, in order to try and help readers at T&S do better at constructively engaging the arguments (and crowd source the problem a bit in order to help both myself and my readers with their relevant blind spots) in what I consider to be an issue of absolutely fundamental importance.
Important Disclaimer: this is a dialectical and not a historical sketch. That is, I have no intention of depicting the chronology or historical development. Rather, I’m doing my best to lay out in a clear manner the back and forth of rational moves and the argumentative dialogue that one can—from our current vantage point—piece together.
I hope that the dialectical mapping will be useful in helping all of us to reflect on whether we’re constructively engaging in dialogue on these issues. If you take up the most current strands of the argument, or rework a strand from earlier rounds in a way that makes it relevant to the most current arguments, then you’re helping to move the dialogue forward. If you’re merely taking ignorant (or malicious) pot shots at the other side by repeating the stuff that’s long since been answered, then you’re not.
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Feminist Franc(ine) (FF): I don’t feel like women are being treated fairly at Church
Anti-feminist Alex(andra) (AA): I’m just so thankful that we’re in a church where we know that we’re all equally sons and daughters of a Heavenly Father and that all of us can return to live with Him someday.
Structural Inequalities (not just feelings)
FF: Women don’t have the priesthood, which means, empirically, they don’t have equal enfranchisement in the governance of the church. This creates many inequalities. Specifically, it limits women in these ways:
- women’s historical role (substantive changes to women’s role and participation has been entirely subordinate to men and many of these roles have been eliminated)
- specific practices (women are excluded from certain practices, and just which practices they are excluded from changes according to the decisions of a council of men)
- doctrines concerning the feminine (women are not allowed to receive revelation for the church concerning women’s pre-mortal, mortal, or post-mortal roles and goods; and to date, our prophets have not produced any revelations or development of these issues)
AA: women have separate but equal roles in the church.
- We have very strong historical leaders like Eliza R. Snow and modern leaders like Julie Beck
- Practically speaking, we have the oldest and largest women’s organization in the world, and women oversee specific areas of church function
- We have doctrines on a Heavenly Mother and equal temple blessings
Change in the Church:
FF: We’re a church set up for change—it’s built into our structure and theology. Let’s recognize this and bend our collective and ecclesiastical efforts toward women’s renewal and enfranchisement!
AA: The very claim that we need and ought to change manifests a lack of faith. Jesus Christ is the one who set up this church and who has issued the revelations concerning priesthood hierarchy and the differing institutional roles of men and women. Zealous pronouncements on the need to change are dangerously dismissive of this fact.
Analogy to Blacks in the Priesthood
FF: Lots of faithful members and even leaders thought it theologically impossible for black members to receive the priesthood, but it happened. It can also happen for women.
AA: There’s a gigantic dis-analogy: it was black men who were ordained. Historically God’s never ordained women, although we have numerous examples of God shifting which group of men can receive the priesthood.
Structural Inequalities (separate but equal)
AA: Developing separate but equal:
- Women get motherhood (no man can have this!), so it’s different but equal for men to have the priesthood (with no women getting this!); complementarity of this type is a beautiful and meaningful way of tying men and women together.
- There are strong gendered differences between men and women; men having priesthood and fulfilling priesthood functions fits naturally into these gendered differences
- Besides, men are spiritually inferior to women and would probably be less active if they didn’t have the priesthood to train them up (and maybe less likely to reach the Celestial Kingdom)
FF: We don’t have separate but equal!
- Fatherhood is the complement of Motherhood, not priesthood. Why is it the case that men get both fatherhood and priesthood, but women (er, some of them) get only motherhood? Note that active motherhood is a temporary activity in one’s life, one that doesn’t fully come to all women, while active priesthood service spans from 12-to-death for all men (and “indirect” or “inactive” parenthood is equally available to men and women)
- Gendered traits don’t work: they’re not true for everyone, and they vary drastically from place to place and time to time; even broadly generalizing these differences appears merely cultural, not biological/metaphysical
- The claim that men=inferior is just as ridiculous and offensive as the claim that women=inferior. But notice that you’re using the men=inferior as an argument to keep women in subjection to men. This is perverse
Change in the Church:
FF: We ought to see Abraham as the metaphor. He was not originally given the priesthood or its covenants, and it was accounted as righteousness that he sought after it!
AA: Uzzah was trying to do good, saw a genuine need, but failed to respect the sacred (and perhaps practically expedient) divisions God had set. Uzzah is the more appropriate metaphor here.
Analogy to Blacks in the Priesthood
FF: The relevant analogy concerns that which appears to one group to be impossible, but in reality is God’s will. Besides, it’s hard to imagine what there could possibly be about gender that makes one unable to not only act by God’s authority (which women already do), but also be granted the keys, rights, and privileges of acting autonomously within a certain priesthood sphere (i.e., be ordained). As to history, we don’t know that God hasn’t ever ordained women; and prophetesses in the OT and prominent disciples in the NT make it appear that they might well have been ordained historically.
AA: There’s a whole lot we don’t understand about gender and how it relates to our functions. What we know is what we can see from where we are (and it appears that women and men are different with different needs), and what the prophets have revealed (that gender is eternal). These facts make priesthood accruing to gender appear very likely—regardless of whether that makes sense to us. And note that folks like Deborah, Mary, and Lydia didn’t do anything that we today understand as belonging to the purview of the priesthood (e.g., perform saving ordinances). And concerning other women who did (e.g., Zipporah), we’ve no reason to suspect that they were doing anything beyond what women do in the temple today.
Structural Inequalities: consistent inequality
FF: Actually, even a superficial reading of our history shows
- a consistent and increasing displacement of women over time (which is what sociologists since Weber say is the common trend in new religious movements)
- and an almost total absence of women from our official materials – women like Eliza are few and far between and no one has ever accused Sister Beck of being a prophetess (more’s the pity)
- the RS has no autonomy – at every level from local to general it is presided over by men
- the history of the Relief Society is a prime example of marginalization and increased control over time
- this is complemented by “priesthood creep”: the trend of making “men only” not only those callings specified in the D&C as belonging to men (e.g., Bishop), but lots of other callings as well (e.g., SS presidencies, executive secretaries and clerks, Bishop’s counselors, ward mission leader, etc., etc., etc.)
Heavenly Mother and temple ritual are both ambiguous.
Heavenly Mother is:
- Cherished and consistently present throughout our history
- But popularly has for decades been a massive taboo, one we’re willing to excommunicate women over
- And there’s a giant disconnect between the role we teach women (primarily nurturing) and the role of our Heavenly Mother (unknown/absentee mother)
The temple is
- Very hopeful with great potential
- But at every single stage shows a consistent logic of female submission to male authority
In general, separate but equal is no more likely to be equal in the Church than it was for civil rights – it’s a very suspicious nail to try and hang your equality hat on. Historically, “complementary” systems are set up and enforced in order to justify and secure power and privileges for one demographic while denying the same to another. (Note, even when this wasn’t the original purpose, it’s empirically how complementarily has played out in every single historical example.) Besides, what in the world’s wrong with normal old equality? It’s working great in lots of the other institutions we all take part in or observe in the world today (and where it’s absent in other institutions we can all see the big problems!). In order to justify a distinction, you need a reason for the distinction, and no one’s ever been able to articulate a satisfactory justification (e.g., see the abysmal failure of gendered traits in Round 2).
AA: Yes, there are issues with our history and how things have been practiced. But merely offering a litany of problems ignores the genuinely empowering nature of our theology and practice. Perhaps more importantly for us now, it ignores the incredibly rich room for creative expansion that the Restoration imparts to women. Tunnel vision on past problems is itself a problem. It distracts us from such things as:
- The ways in which we can emphasize and build upon our strong female leadership of the past
- The current decentralization and decoupling of authority from men at the ward level (e.g., the shift to an emphasis on ward councils which consist of women and men), as well as similar—if slower—movement at the top
- Numerous opportunities for either reinterpretation, re-emphasis, and even new recognition of empowering themes for women in our doctrine generally and the temple in particular
- Harsh criticism is unfair in part because it denies a plain truth of revelation: not only do we not get everything at once, but likewise, it sometimes takes us time to work out what’s originally revealed.
As to complementarity, just because complementary systems have often been oppressive among the gentiles, this doesn’t mean that it’s got to be that way in Zion. There’s still a beautiful sense in which priesthood and motherhood tie men and women together in ways that bring us closer to God. Even if this isn’t an eternal reality, it’s a practical one here on earth, and the practical success (and potential for continued success) is itself a reason to justify the distinction. Likewise, just because equality works among the gentiles, doesn’t mean that it will work for the Church better than a complementary system will.
Change in the Church
FF: Unique in the Judeo-Christian tradition is our lauding of Eve. As our scripture, temple, and prophetic revelations make clear, Eve acted in righteousness in taking a thoughtful, faithful action in the absence of further light and knowledge. As has been admitted, we lack further light and knowledge; there is no scripture or revelation that bans women from the priesthood. We ought to follow Mother Eve’s righteous example and act.
AA: After being driven from Eden, Adam built an altar and offered sacrifice on that altar because that was the pattern of action that had previously been revealed to him. He didn’t know why. He lacked further light and knowledge. But he held fast to what he <i>did</i> have, and after many days an angel appeared and gave him further light, knowledge, ordinances, and blessings because he had held faithful to the pattern given to him previously. Like Adam, we need to hold faithfully to what we’ve been given until more comes.
Analogy to Blacks in the Priesthood
FF: The only reason that pairing gender with priesthood appears likely from where you stand is the cultural biases you inhabit. As you yourself admit, we don’t know of any particular reason or revelation that either links the two or gives reasons why the two might be linked. In the absence of such revelation, and given the pervasive role that prejudice has played in the past, the safer assumption is that culture and not metaphysics is at work. Besides, we do lots of stuff related to the priesthood and ordinances that Jesus never did. One of the key things that distinguishes us from Protestantism is that we limit ourselves to doing what God approves of, and not merely what God has done in the past.
AA: I may be in danger of assuming that my cultural prejudices come from God. But it’s at least as likely that you’re reifying your own cultural assumptions that men and women are interchangeable, as well as assuming that the human mistakes that play large in earthly societies are also at play in the Kingdom of God on the earth (i.e., the Church). There’s a real danger with taking your assumption as the default every time your own opinion conflicts with Church practice (beyond the fact that it’s disenchanting and keeps one from seeing the hand of God in operation in the Church); namely, this assumption leads to (if it’s not already an example of) seeking to counsel God rather than take counsel from God’s hand.
FF: I agree with what you say about the need to be careful to receive rather than give counsel. But of course, the scriptures also make clear that faithful saints are anxiously engaged, righteously petition their leaders concerning their needs, and in general lend their efforts—including their intellects—to the building up of the kingdom. Whether we want it or not, given the greater context in which the Church resides, the education of the saints, and the egregious nature of the sexism conspicuously on display in the history of this dispensation, we’re facing a crisis. Really, there seem to be only two options:
- Ordain women
- Fully enfranchise women
Culturally speaking, we’re too eccentric now; we must either figure out someway of more fully incorporating women and their talents or else we risk relegating the Restoration to insignificance. More positively, enfranchising women is clearly righteous; we ought to be fully invested in seeking God’s will on how best to do so.
AA: Maybe. But the first option will take a 1978-style revelation, and demanding or trying to get the press to lobby with you won’t bring such a revelation. On the other hand, to anyone paying attention, the second option is already happening – gradually. But gradualism is a far more steady ship for an institution to sail for at least two reasons. First, gradualism is perhaps a logistical necessity for this large of an institution. But second, in addition to being concerned for those who leave our ranks, we must also be conscious of retaining those who are currently faithful. As you note, there’s a balance between adjusting in order to make things culturally easier in an effort to retain folks, and needing to be true to who we are. Our current gradualism gives us good reason to be cheerful and optimistic about how things are going.
Change in the Church & Blacks and the Priesthood:
FF: Yes, it’s always important to ensure that one is not inappropriately trying to “counsel” our authorities. But righteous change and improvement in the Church is not simply a matter of prophets initiating change anymore than apostasy is simply a matter of prophets turning away from the Lord. The poignancy of the current situation, and the fact that it impacts every member of the church, is again analogous to pre-1978. Consequently, it calls for members faithfully preparing for change and petitioning the Lord, and perhaps also the bulldog style leadership of a President Kimball who is willing to weary the Lord (and his fellow authorities) concerning the need for change.
AA: Maybe so. Let’s note, however, that it was President Kimball and his loving interactions with faithful saints that brought this change about over the course of several years, and not political-style activism. There existed a clear pre-1978 line with regard to public lobbying, and that line appears to be consistently maintained today. Consequently, as you note, perhaps the best thing we can do is to pray for and be open to the revelations that will come, whatever those are.
(Note: this isn’t really a round, and it’s certainly not the latest round. Rather, it’s a line of loosely related criticisms that have been around since the beginning and are commonly raised, but don’t get a lot of attention. It strikes as important for two reasons: one, because the criticisms being lodged here are powerful; and two, because argumentative allies of AA need to be aware that they’ve got a lot of work to do in this round.)
Structural Inequality: a more esoteric approach
FF: The criticism of how women are positioned in the church is not merely about the ethics of subordination. The whole body of social psychology and related research highlights the empirical problems associated with social divisions that systematically exclude a given demographic from authority, decision making, and visual prominence in leadership. For example:
- Our perspectives (literal and cultural) are irreducibly finite and filled with blind spots. There is broad consensus everywhere from business to psychology to theology that one of the chief means to overcome our perspectival finitude is through structurally incorporated diversity. As far as leadership in the church is concerned, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by maintaining a primarily old, white, and male hierarchy.
- Similarly, Mormonism has historically taken the distinction between male & female really seriously—even on a theological level. If we’re serious, than why would it be ok to leave the female perspective/voice completely out of our governance? It seems that once again we’re failing practically to meet the standard we set forth doctrinally.
- There is a massive literature on the real psychological harm done to women (and men) collectively in sexist institutions. This research relates to the significant permeability between individual and collective values, and the way that values implicit in a given structure become absorbed and then expressed (both implicitly and explicitly) by the individuals committed to these institutions. In Mormonism this shows up not only in the young girls who are everywhere asking their parents, “So girls aren’t as important as boys, are they?” but also in the attitudes of boys who unreflectively assume that their own insights and needs are more important than those of their female peers (or parents or leaders).
- Additionally, there is a massive literature on the nature of power structures and how they operate to blind those in power to their own privilege, even when others point it out to them. There are also corresponding burdens placed by these structures on those denied the same privileges.
As best I can tell, Anti-feminist Al(ison) does not have a direct argumentative response to these criticisms. There are, however, a few rhetorical strategies that get employed, including:
- Mere denial (i.e., denial without a supporting argument), sometimes accompanied by alternative visions of how things could be (e.g., “This sounds like a clever and convoluted means of sowing dissatisfaction amongst women when there need not be any. Women in general are happier when structurally subordinate to men—unless people like FF come along and convince them to be unhappy;” or alternatively, simply linking to General Conference talks about how wonderful and happy women in the church are).
- Grudging acceptance, followed by various forms of dismissal (e.g., “Yeah, some of this is true…but…It’s still the Lord’s church;” or “Even so, I don’t think this justifies the virulent criticism being lodged against the church;” or “Here’s where we have to have faith in revelation and that God—as opposed to structural diversity—will help our leaders with these ‘natural man’ obstacles,” etc.).
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One of the more irritating aspects of anti-Mormonism is its bull-dogged persistence in repeating unfair criticisms that have been utterly debunked for more than a century (e.g., ‘Alma’ is a girl’s name, not a semitic one!). On the other hand, it’s just as irritating when faithful Mormons try to enter into apologetics by sneering at long-since debunked theories as though these were still relevant. It’s not that there aren’t still folks trotting out the long dead horses, and I’ll admit that sometimes it’s simply fun to kick them. But we must recognize that having anything to do with these dead horses is a genuine failure to engage the real issue; at best we’ll be left with a foul stench.
This, of course, is common to all debates, especially those we’re passionate about (i.e., those that are worthwhile). With a lot riding on the outcome of our passionate debates, we’re far more comfortable lobbing check-mate style attacks against straw men, even if there’s really no merit. Additionally, long-standing, high-stakes debates are in the continual process of adding new acolytes—and it’s simply a logistical fact that it takes these acolytes time (and lots of bad arguments) to get up to speed.
But none of us want to be mere sycophants incapable of anything other than kicking dead horses. And even if we’re acolytes, we can be aware of the dialogic lay of the land. As far as I can tell, what I’ve presented above is where we’re at. And the question we each need to ask ourselves is, “Am I really engaging the issue as it stands now, or merely kicking dead horses from the earlier rounds?”
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 I also have weak hopes that some of the folks who aren’t anywhere near the real issues will read this and realize, “Wow, I do a lot of jumping up and down about women in the church, but my goodness, I’m not even in the ballpark.” The sensible side of me, however, realizes that there’s nothing a blog post is going to do to help those who feel a massive need to pontificate but absolutely no need to actually be educated on the topic. To everyone else’s dismay such individuals are doomed to continue their public therapy.
 Other necessary disclaimers: First, this is a blog post and nothing more. This means my portrayal is necessarily a mere sketch—perhaps even a caricature in places. Likewise, there are other moves, other lines of reasoning and argument that are not depicted—logistically, depicting everything would be impossible. I’ve already waxed far longer than savvy blogging allows. But I think I’ve captured most of the main lines of reasoning, and done my best to outline those particular ideas that get repeated ad nauseam. Second, I’m ignoring the broad spectrum of positions involved and merely lumping everything together into the general categories of “feminist” and “anti-feminist.” My apologies, but once again, I couldn’t figure out how to do better in a post meant to articulate, quick and dirty, the basic ins and outs. Maybe this medium is doomed to failure. But since so much time and effort is squandered in this medium, I thought I’d at least try.
 Here’s where I acknowledge my own finitude. Perhaps there are solid responses to what I’m calling the “esoteric” front—perhaps some of you readers can point me to them. Nevertheless, I’m an active observer and participant in these debates, and given the poignancy of these issues in my own life, I’ve not been remiss in trying to find responses. The fact that I can’t come up with any is surely due in part to my own position in the debate. But if there are answers, the proponents are doing a lousy job advertising them.