Among the many incorrect stereotypes about the LDS Church (ranking up there with polygamy, homophobia, and thinking Jesus was a used car salesman) is the notion that Mormons are institutionally misogynistic (I don’t know a lot of big words, but that’s one of them). The knock on the Church is that we relegate women to a second-class status, making sure that they remain barefoot, pregnant, and baking casseroles. In other words, we think that the world should look like a 1950’s sitcom.
Aside from the fact that I happen to really like Mrs. Cleaver, this characterization is far from accurate. That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t understand where it comes from, or that I haven’t seen men in the Church behave towards their wives in a way that makes me want to roll my eyes–or their heads. I think that in order to get an accurate or complete sense of the role of Mormon women, there are a lot of pieces that you have to put together: The doctrine of the Church, the organization of the Church, the culture of the Church, and the diversity of families within the Church.
Church doctrine and women.
I’ve spent four decades being exposed to and studying the doctrines of the Church, and I can tell you unequivocally that there is nothing in those doctrines that so much as suggests that women are any less important in the kingdom of God than men. It just isn’t there. Certainly there is nothing in the Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants that remotely approaches some of chauvinistic statements of, say, Paul in the New Testament. There is no separate set of commandments for men, no different expectation of conduct, no promised blessing that is applicable only to men.
That isn’t to say that LDS doctrine doesn’t recognize a difference between women and men. We do. Our emphasis on the family includes teaching that women and men have certain primary (but not exclusive or independent) responsibilities in the home, and I suppose that particularly critical feminists would find some issues there to complain of. But the core of our doctrine is that salvation is a family affair, and that husbands and wives need each other in order to receive all of the blessings that have been promised to us.
I think that the worst you can say of Mormon doctrine in this respect is that we revere women and consider motherhood a great and noble thing. If someone insists on believing that such respect is disparagement in disguise, that’s their call. But as a dad with five daughters, let me assure you that I would have no part in a Church that told my daughters that their gender renders them inferior.
Church Organization and Women
This one I have written about elsewhere in this blog. No, Mormon women do not hold the priesthood, although they do play an important role in Church leadership in other organizations. I suppose that many people would look at that as demeaning or discriminatory, and indeed social pressure has led many other Christian churches to accept the ordination of women. Without going into this much more than I already have, I do believe that there is a distinction between two things being equal and two things being the same. I consider my wife and myself to be equal partners in our marriage; however, our roles aren’t the same. I hate mowing lawns, so she does that. She hates the laundry, so I take care of the dirty clothes. Once our girls were old enough to recognize plumbing differences, I left the task of taking them to the bathroom in public to my wife. Of course I am simplifying the issue, but my point is that if your standard of equality is that men and women do and say the exact same thing, then it may be impossible for us to have a meaningful discussion on this point, because our definitions are too divergent.
Church Culture and Women
Let’s start with this premise, which I don’t believe should be controversial: The doctrines of a church and the behavior of its members are not always consistent. For example, the LDS Church frowns on swearing, and I cuss like a sailor. I’m working on living completely consistently with my beliefs, but I’m not there yet. None of us are. But my behavior doesn’t change what the Church teaches.
The second premise is closely related to the first: The culture that develops around a church may be the result of influences entirely independent of its doctrines. There is no doctrine of the LDS Church, for example, that requires men to be clean shaven and wear ties to services. But the general culture of the Church is that the majority of the men, especially in North America, follow this standard because it is consistent with general perceptions of “respectful” dress and grooming.
Saying all of that, is there a cultural aspect of the Church that idealizes “Molly Mormon,” (aka “Fertile Myrtle”) with her homespun dress, 87 children, and Betty Crocker sensibilities? Sure. And that culture frequently has made its way onto the pulpit, into Sunday School lessons, and onto the pages of Church publications. But it is not doctrinal, and, more importantly, it is on the decline. The importance of women finishing their degrees, being economically self sufficient, and participating in the Church and in society in meaningful and important ways is stressed ever more frequently in the Church. Some of the most assertive, confident, and best-educated women I know are LDS. Even though there are still plenty of girls going to BYU to major in marriage, my perception is that their numbers are dwindling, and they increasingly are viewed with disdain by other women in the Church. I suspect that trend will continue.
The Diversity of Families in the Church
Putting aside the general cultural trends of the Church, it is important to recognize that there are millions of families in the Church, and each has its own unique dynamics. We have our metrosexuals and our male chauvinist pigs. We have good dads and tyrants. We have asserted wives and Stepford wives. And everything in between. We are a melange of imperfect people each struggling to sort our way through in life. Some of our female members would rival Gloria Steinem for their feminist views. Others are far more traditional. While we hope that the Mormon next door exemplifies our faith, doctrines and values, there really is no “typical” Latter-day Saint or model Mormon. There is plenty of room in the Church for soccer moms to sit alongside career women without reason for rancor.
Perhaps letting women be what they want to be, and not demeaning them either for a career or for staying at home, is the most progressive attitude of all.