The Making Of A Mormon Feminist

There is a lot of talk in and around the LDS church these days about whether women and men are equal. If I were speaking to a less general audience, if I were speaking frankly, I would say there is a lot of talk in and around the LDS church about how women and men are not equal. But I know some people, some of them personally, who come out the other way on the question, and still others who think there still very much is a question, and I don’t want to end the inquiry by answering it straight up. The debate often boils down to semantics. In Mormon language, men “preside” over a household. They “lead” in love and righteousness. Women “hearken” to their husbands, who in turn hearken to God. [Yes, it strikes me as problematic that LDS doctrine speaks to families, rather than individuals, because how does that help the vast numbers of uncoupled in our midst, but that’s a whole other post.] It is semantically impossible to “preside” over someone with whom you are “equal.” And yet, LDS men and women everywhere will tell you that’s exactly how it works.

I can’t say that it worked any differently in my childhood home, where my parents wore the gendered roles of provider and nurturer with relative ease, but everybody knew Mom was really in charge. And not just when it came to practical matters. Where my dad yoked his cart to the Mormon people at 17, after a living a life entirely unlike the blessedly wholesome childhood he would later impart to his own kids, my mom was a Christian women, born into the covenant, and lived every inch of her faith. As an adults, my dad was employed by the LDS church, he taught high school and college students from the Book of Mormon and the Bible for a living, he wore a suit six days a week, and he held relatively prominent ecclesiastical positions, at least in our local congregations. But my mom was the spiritual center of our home. If I had to choose one person who consistently led the family in love and faith, it was her, the one who encouraged us to pray, who couldn’t abide rule-breaking, who knew how to be a Mormon from a lifetime of practice.

With this background, which I understood to be the epitome of a normal Mormon upbringing (if not normal in a more general sense), my world tilted just a little when, at 24, a religious instructor made an offhand comment about the rule, or generally accepted custom (I’m still not sure which it is), that women are not supposed to ask people to pray. That is, if the occasion for prayer arose, a woman should not ask somebody to say it. Not even in her own home. She shouldn’t even offer to say it without being asked. Not if a man who can do the job (the asking, not the praying) is present.

Now, Mormons pray quite a lot: in the morning, before every meal, before bed, at the open and close of every hour during our three-hour block of worship services, at the open and close of Monday night family nights, before beginning any activity involving a group of Mormons of any size, even if that activity is something ridiculous, like playing human Foosball or sledding down a grassy hill on a block of ice, during sacred ordinances, like weddings, or the Sunday sacrament, when you or someone you love is sick, when you or someone you love is scared, when you or someone you love is sad, when your car breaks down, when you lose your keys, when you are taking a big test, before an important meeting at work, at the beginning of a new school year, and so on.

With all this praying, public and private, Mormon parents enlist the help of their (usually many) children early on. I’ve been praying over meals and before bed since I could talk. All those prayers, hundreds of them, that I uttered over the years, that my four siblings and my parents said, had my father really directed all of them? In a house where my mother got us all to church on time and instigated family scripture study, had she really deferred to my dad five, six, a dozen times a day as to who offered up a particular prayer? It didn’t seem possible. It also didn’t seem just, what my instructor was telling me, that a woman couldn’t ask her kids to bless the food, or her guest to offer a word of prayer, if a man was present. I’d been reassured my whole life that while woman might not be equal in the hierarchy of the church, under the right circumstances (with the right partner), they could be equal in the home. At the very least, I’d be on equal footing with my own someday spouse.

If I’d done what I was supposed to and married a good Mormon boy, this might be a non-issue. I might have married one of those rare (I’ve heard) egalitarian LDS guys who agreed with me that a gendered approach to prayer is total nonsense and said forget about it. I might not have married anyone at all and said all the prayers by myself. In the real world, though, where I married Robert, and not someone who doesn’t exist, this issue comes up at least once a month. Whenever we have somebody especially church-y in our home, like, say, the missionaries (who we try to invite over for dinner, poor nineteen-year-olds in need of a home-cooked meal that they are) or the bishop (who stops by periodically to make an assignment or check in), it almost always happens that they ask, usually just before they leave, “Can we leave you with a word of prayer?” and I say, “Of course,” because, really, why not, and then they look at Robert, who looks back at them with a confused expression, and then they look back me, realizing I’m the de facto spiritual leader in this home, and then I ask one of them to say the prayer, or offer to say it myself, annoyed that their assumptions are so automatic, but also a little delighted that my family forces them to see things differently, if only for a moment.

LDS folk that call on me these days might think marrying Robert made me this way, that I’m a reluctant Mormon feminist who takes on the role of spiritual head of household because I have to. Mormon feminists are made much younger, though. They are made by resolute mothers, and fathers who don’t lord their authority over their wives and children, and by the church itself that tells women and girls over and over again, “You are equal.” If you tell a girl enough that she is, in fact, as good as any boy, she will eventually believe you. And when she runs into practices that contradict this basic truth, she’s not going to like it. By which I mean, the benevolent patriarchy will sow the seeds of its own undoing.

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9 Responses to The Making Of A Mormon Feminist

  1. Di says:

    I love this so much.

    “If you tell a girl enough that she is, in fact, as good as any boy, she will eventually believe you. And when she runs into practices that contradict this basic truth, she’s not going to like it. By which I mean, the benevolent patriarchy will sow the seeds of its own undoing.”

  2. Ru says:

    I’d certainly like to think so. I don’t think you’re going to see people our age perpetuating this “but the man always has to ask!” sort of cultural nonsense 20 years from now.

    At the same time, though, I think there are enough women who hear “you are equal” and believe it (good) and think it’s enough (potentially bad). A girl in my ward gave basically that testimony on Sunday — that she’s sick of hearing about how the church isn’t feminist, she’s a feminist and she feels perfectly equal, people like Joanna Brooks are spreading “misinformation,” and that’s the end of it.

    And I was so surprised, because (a) I think she’s a very intelligent person, and I couldn’t believe she would dismiss the concerns of others just because she personally felt equal, and (b) that obviously overlooks the fact that church-wide there are still institutional inequalities between men and women that could be easily fixed if people were more willing to acknowledge them. But when you combine men, who don’t notice a problem, and women, who refuse to acknowledge a problem (because that would mean they aren’t being treated quite as “equally” as they’d like), you have missionaries still asking a man if it’s ok to pray in the year 2012.

  3. Ruth says:

    I know both my and drews parents are traditional like this, but I’ve definitely taken the reign on the prayer thing more often than he has. I have been thinking about the equality issue a lot lately but for whatever reason I feel okay with the fact that only men hold the priesthood since only women can have kids, which is just about the most godlike thing someone can possibly do…. Creating life. Maybe I’m just naive but that’s how I think. I do love reading your pov since it makes me really think about my own pov 🙂 sounds like you’re a great wife and good to know you’re feeding those poor teenage boys 😉

  4. Nate says:

    So – is it true that your mom has never asked anyone to pray? That seems really strange. The center of this post (the event that creates the tension) is the following: “a religious instructor made an offhand comment about the rule, or generally accepted custom (I’m still not sure which it is), that women are not supposed to ask people to pray. That is, if the occasion for prayer arose, a woman should not ask somebody to say it. Not even in her own home. She shouldn’t even offer to say it without being asked. Not if a man who can do the job (the asking, not the praying) is present.”

    I don’t think this is either a rule or a custom. My mom asks people to pray all the time. Dozens (hundreds?) of teachers, who also happen to be women, have asked me to pray from the time I was a primary kid, throughout seminary, and now in sunday school (even when men are present!). It seems like you’re stating a hypothetical. As in, “what if it were actually true that Mormon women are somehow forbidden from asking people to pray if a man with a voice is anywhere near?” But then you go on with the post as if the hypothetical were actually true. I don’t think it is. It’s just a random comment by some instructor somewhere several years ago.

    It’s true that in LDS families it is often the father, if he’s participating in the prayer, who asks people to pray. But that’s just a custom – I don’t see what it has to do with equality. Was your dad oppressed because your mom made sure you got to church on time and instigated family scripture study? Does the fact that your mom was the spiritual leader of your home belittle your dad and his contributions to the household? It sounds like they shared responsibilities really well – like equal partners acting with a single purpose.

    • Sandy says:

      I doubt that my mom never asked me to pray. Like I said, when I heard this bit of doctrine or culture or whatever it is, I was shocked. I called my mom and expected her to be shocked, too, and to laugh it off as misguided. She wasn’t shocked, though, and told me that she always worked to let my dad take the lead when it came to prayer and other gospel matters, even if it came more easily to her. It doesn’t matter what my mom did, though. What matters is that every month, men come into my home and look to my husband first to ask somebody to pray, even though he is very clearly not a priesthood holder. They assume. I think this practice is changing, but I can assure you it’s not rare. Plenty of people, like my institute teacher, hearken to prophetic counsel on this one. Here is what Joseph F. Smith said about it:

      “In the home the presiding authority is always vested in the father, and in all home affairs and family matters there is no other authority paramount. To illustrate this principle, a single incident will perhaps suffice. It sometimes happens that the elders are called in to administer to the members of a family. Among these elders there may be presidents of stakes, apostles, or even members of the first presidency of the Church. It is not proper under these circumstances for the father to stand back and expect the elders to direct the administration of this important ordinance. The father is there. It is his right and it is his duty to preside. He should select the one who is to administer the oil, and the one who is to be mouth in prayer, and he should not feel that because there are present presiding authorities in the Church that he is therefore divested of his rights to direct the administration of that blessing of the gospel in his home. (If the father be absent, the mother should request the presiding authority present to take charge.) The father presides at the table, at prayer, and gives general directions relating to his family life whoever may be present.”

      Boyd K. Packer incorporated the entire quote into a talk at General Conference in April 2010. The portion of the quote dealing with the father’s right is repeated in the priesthood manual.

      Trust me, I don’t assume everything I hear from a teacher’s mouth is gospel and I don’t complain about ineqaulity until it has a real impact on my life.

      • Nate says:

        It seems like we agree that whatever that random institute teacher probably is not accurate. The quote from Pres. Smith is talking mainly about presiding over the administration of a Priesthood ordinance, which is something different from directing prayers at mealtime. Though the quote mentions prayer – it says fathers preside at prayer. That’s doesn’t mean they direct it. People preside at meetings that they didn’t plan and don’t direct, all the time.

        Do you agree with what is taught in the quote? I would be more interested to know your thoughts on that quote than I would on the offhand comment of an institute teacher (if you care to share, of course).

        When I think of inequality, I think of “belittling” or “demeaning.” In that sense, I don’t agree that someone can’t preside over another person and be equal with them at the same time. My bishop presides over me, and I don’t feel belittled or demeaned by that fact. But you might mean inequality to mean something different. I guess the word “inequality” has to be put in context – like the word “relevance.” How do you want LDS women and men to be equal in a way that they currently are not? If you want the custom of fathers asking people to pray to change so that it becomes mothers who traditionally ask people to pray, won’t that just flip the coin, and we’d be stuck with the same problem of inequality?

      • Sandy says:

        Thanks for responding, Nate. Before I get onto the rest of your questions, I do want to elaborate that although I characterized what the institute teacher said about prayer as an “offhand comment,” the conversation that ensued was actually rather lengthy. I asked the teacher what he meant, and he went into some detail about it being his responsibility to ask his children to pray, that he felt his priesthood authority was undermined when his wife asked, and that he had to ask her to stop doing so. Since then, I’ve had this conversation with numerous men and women, and nobody has ever been surprised or disagreed that they understood this to be LDS doctrine (or at least custom) and that it was consistent with their experience. For a long time I tried to brush aside what seemed to me to be silly or wrong traditions in the LDS church, but when it impacts my life, it’s hard to do.

        Second, I disagree with you that the JFS quote is restricted to priesthood ordinances. It says, “In the home the presiding authority is always vested in the father, and in all home affairs and family matters there is no other authority paramount.” I think that home affairs and family matters encompass a large number of things, including prayers. I don’t care to weigh on any further on this quote except to say that I disagree with it insofar as implies that dad is in charge at home and that his voice carries more weight and authority than mom’s.

        Third, for me inequality does not require belittling or demeaning. I cry gender inequality when I’m denied opportunities that men have on the basis of my gender. With this definition, I object to the idea that any man can preside over me on the basis of gender alone. Sure, my bishop can preside over me. He presides over the whole ward and he was called to that position for reasons other than the fact that he’s a man. There is no reason for a husband to preside over his wife in the home, though.

        Fourth, I will probably write an entire post in the future on how I’d like to see the LDS church progress on gender equality, but here’s a short list off the top of my head. Short of ordaining women to the priesthood, I would like to see more women saying opening and closing prayers in sacrament meeting, more women giving the concluding talk in sacrament meeting, when couples speak on the same Sunday, the woman doesn’t *always* need to go first, more women holding callings that they allow them to teach adults of both sexes (like teaching Sunday School), the Relief Society President could be addressed as “President ___” instead of “Sister ___,” the RS/YW being able to organize and hold events without a “Priesthood presence,” a more robust YW program (equal funding, girls being recognized for advancing through the program to the same degree that men are with scouts), women being included in all meetings where decisions are made about women, updated manuals that contain quotes from women in the church (and let’s remove all the really offensive things from the YW, Gospel Principles, and Marriage and Family manuals), more women sitting on the stand during sacrament, women praying at General Conference, more women speaking at General Conference, and women holding callings that don’t seem to require the priesthood, but that are always held my men anyway (ward clerk, Sunday School President, etc.).

  5. Agreed. I read from the instruction booklet on the “Family” in Marshallese more times than I can remember as a missionary. I always felt uncomfortable explaining the presiding authority of the father. I think it’s customary for women and men to ask people to pray in their homes. However, the stuff that’s been printed in church manuals etc. does not reflect this. Mostly I don’t understand why missionaries and bishops (who I assume know that your husband isn’t Mormon and/or possibly not religious) would still look at him first as the spiritual head of your home.

    • Sandy says:

      They almost certainly do it out of habit. The fact that they do it at all reflects that people do still behave in accordance with what’s in the lesson manuals, regardless of whether it’s doctrinal.

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