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.