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What right does a gay, divorced  ex-Mormon have to pontificate on the role of women in the Mormon church?

I had a mother and also a wife who both served extensively in the local leadership callings available to women. Still, it didn’t really bother me back in 1993 when Boyd K Packer listed feminists as one of the 3 dangers to the Mormon Church (along with homosexuals and intellectuals). But I later came to have 3 daughters and now it matters more to me how they are being encouraged, limited and indoctrinated.

Joanna Brooks, author of The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith

I’ve seen a pattern develop in my girls that I find disturbing. Up until about the age of 10 or 11 they are pretty free-wheeling and excited about life’s possibilities. At that stage each one of my daughters have talked freely about career goals such as becoming a teacher or a coach or an actor just like my oldest boy did.

Then, something happens around the pre-adolescent years that doesn’t seem to happen with the boys. Their interest in these worldly dreams diminish and they start talking about motherhood (not boys, like other pre-teens – motherhood). Discussions of other interests diminish dramatically as they seem to be unable to reconcile eventual motherhood with their previous dreams. I’ve found it a bit odd too because I had thought that that sort of thing would click in around 12 or 13 when they graduated from Primary and entered the Young Women’s program. But it seems to happen earlier with the girls as they participate in Senior Primary where they have gender exclusive “Activity Days.”

On one occasion, my then 9 year old daughter invited me to take her to a “Daddy-Daughter” activity in her ward. I drove 4 hours each way to be there for her thinking we’d play games, maybe dance or do a craft together. There were indeed activities and refreshments, but at one point in the evening they separated the girls from the fathers. The group of fathers got a lecture on how to be better fathers (Note the important contrast, by the way. If it had been mothers, the lecture would have leaned more towards, “You are all righteous mothers and this is the best!”).

When fathers and daughters were reunited, I asked her what she had been taught she said, “Dress modestly and temple marriage.”

REALLY!

Meanwhile, girls are taught to make sure that their shirts have sleeves, that their shorts reach their knees and to start selecting baby names.

We’re talking 8, 9 and 10 year old girls here!

All I know is that I never got a lesson on fatherhood or chastity at that age.

Boys are taught the Scout Law. Girls are taught something that is already instinctual and that most of them will want to do anyway due to innate biology. But it is beat into them early and often to do that and only THAT.

It seems soul crushing. Then, they grow up and learn to be happy with the one option provided them. You hear most Mormon women claim that they’re content with their role in the church and that they are “equal” to the men. They proudly list their own leadership accomplishments and the various administrative positions that are available to women.

I beg to disagree.

Let me provide you some specifics examples that I witnessed as my mother and wife fulfilled their callings of responsibility in the church.

Limited Scope

First, let’s be clear about what leadership positions are truly open to women. Mormon women can function in auxiliary organizations as both operatives and leaders. These include:

  • Relief Society (Adult Women)
  • Primary (The children’s organization – up to age 11)
  • Young Women (teenage youth organization).

Only in Primary do their responsibilities include stewardship over males and those are age 11 or younger, and they occasionally oversee adult males as teachers. Women can function in these three organizations at the ward, stake or general (in Salt Lake City) level. My mother held the president position in all of these organizations at the ward level and some at the stake level.  My wife had been Relief Society President and a counselor or operative in the other 2 organizations.

Show Me the Money

Second, if you want to know the truth of all things, follow the money. Money is the perfect looking glass into relationship dynamics. People with real power and real responsibility control money. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that not one woman in a Mormon leadership or administrative position controls the finances of that organization.

None of them write checks.

Show me one check signed by a female Mormon leader.

Access to Information

Third, access to information is limited. I know of no conditions where a woman is given or is even permitted to read the special Handbook 1 of the Handbook of Instructions. This is a special binder that stays in the bishop’s office and only higher level priesthood males get to read it. If they can’t even read it, what are the chances that women contributed to it? Such lack of access is specifically intended to keep followers dependent upon the leaders who do have privileged access and who are exclusively men. According to Wikipedia quoting Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune,

The church has stated that it did not place Handbook 1 online with Handbook 2 because church authorities were concerned that if it were widely read by the church membership, members “might decide they don’t need to go see their bishop … It made much more sense to reserve that volume for leaders.”

I’ve had several conversations with faithful LDS women in leadership positions who have been completely wrong by saying things such as,

“The church doesn’t have a policy on vasectomies”

or

“The church doesn’t say anything about artificial insemination.”

And they are completely mistaken, but only because they are uninformed. The approved policy remains behind closed doors in Handbook 1 for only the male priesthood to read.

Even in day-to-day operations, a woman’s leadership power is really just nominal. The final decision and approval for selecting counselors, assistants, teachers, activities and other callings within their organizations remains with a male priesthood leader. At one time I was  ward executive secretary while my wife had been newly called as the Relief Society President. Eager to receive inspiration she dutifully prayed and fasted to select her counselors. After doing so she met with the bishop and each selection was rejected for one reason or another. So, she returned home and prayed some more. Again, the names she had been inspired to select were a no-go. Finally on the third go around she just exclaimed, “Just tell me who you’d approve and let’s call them. I’m tired of this cat and mouse game.”

As executive secretary to several bishops I saw this same run-around repeated over and over with women. The male leadership wants to give the impression that the women have choices and are making decisions but it’s controlled with a heavy male hand.

Questioning authority

To be fair, followers rarely question authority in the LDS faith, not even men. Local leaders are given a wide berth of control as they are assumed to be “inspired” and their voice is the voice of God. But a woman questioning anything is worse. It was my experience in bishopric and ward council meetings that outside those three auxiliary organizations, if a woman had something to contribute she had to do it clandestinely through her husband. A woman who suggested almost anything was scoffed at and  ridiculed behind her back.

I saw women who had openly suggested Sacrament meeting topics, changes to ward activities, meetinghouse maintenance policies, etc. politely shut down and later vilified. But of course these women had no idea that this had gone on. They just believed that the priesthood leader had been inspired to go in another direction and he must have had a good reason for doing so. From what I could tell it was actually just because the suggestion had come from a haughty woman.

Traditional Roles

Even within the leadership positions a woman can obtain, her duties are often expected to follow the same gender patterns that Mormons believe should take place in the home. Women are called upon to cook and nurture. As a stake Relief Society President my Mom once refused one such assignment from the stake presidency. They were having a regional priesthood leadership meeting in the stake building and they asked my Mom to provide food for the luncheon…and she refused saying that the scope of her calling did not include being stake caterer. I was proud of her for that, but I bet a majority of the LDS women would have complied.

Change

Most of what I’ve listed above are merely symptoms of the unbalanced hierarchical structure of men and women in the church. Real change would need to go deep and then many of these symptoms would dissapate on their own.

The most obvious and sweeping change would be for women to be given the full priesthood. The irony is that it would take the powerful men to make that change. Nope, probably not going to happen even though I know of no scriptural or doctrinal reasons why they couldn’t.

Most suggestions for change from women therefore tend to  come as timid wish lists.

I recently read about Neylan McBaine giving a presentation at a recent Sunstone conference where she provided  suggestions for improving the status of LDS women. She listed:

    • consistently using the title “president” when referring to women leaders;
    • having local women leaders routinely sit on the stand so congruents know them;
    • more female participation in leadership meetings;
    • inviting female leaders to speak monthly, as men on the stake high councils do;
    • quoting women’s speeches as often as men’s;
    • allowing women to be the last speaker in Mormon services;
    • recognizing the mother after baby blessings: and
    • inviting girls to participate in the Pinewood Derby.

I agree with one blogger who wrote, “these suggestions seem more like tokenism than real change.”

Short of ordaining women, though, any suggestion seems like tokenism to me.

Mormon Sister Missionaries whose main job is to teach and convert, but none of them will be able to officiate in the ceremony, baptism. They’ll have to get a younger male to do the job. He has more authority from God than they do.

I’d love for my daughters to see a woman bishop sitting on the stand, giving counsel  to everyone including men. I can imagine her holding a future baby in her arms as she shares the ordinance of blessing the baby with the baby’s father. There’s no reason my 13 year old daughter shouldn’t be able to pass the sacrament next Sunday, the same sacrament that her brother prepared.

There’s lots of lip service given to women and their roles in the LDS church, even declarations of contentment from the women themselves. But the evidence clearly shows otherwise. I’ve also  sat across from Muslim women telling me how their head coverings make them feel respected and elevated.

I don’t believe it. I know what I see.

See Also:

Feminist Mormon Housewives

Joanna Brooks

Mormon women seeking middle ground to greater equality

1990s Mormon Feminism Ignites Church Backlash

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