Thursday, March 20, 2014

OW and Gender, Part 4: Cultural Gender Identity

I've been thinking a lot lately about why people are SO deeply offended by Ordain Women.  I mean, there are some crazy things that some Mormons believe and we still welcome those members into orthodoxy.  For example, some people believe that polygamy is the status quo for eternity, and that as one young newlywed put it, "I can't wait til I have more wives so that when one is mad at me I can just go find comfort in another one." ugh, yuck.  I get that OW is vocal and you wish they would just shut up and go away, but even if they are less vocal and just blended in, they would still get this reaction from many members of the church:
Even though the definition of priesthood is keys, authority, and power from God (has nothing to do with gender) and even though throughout history the pattern of the priesthood eligibility has been one of steady expansion (I don't believe in a Church based on modern revelation that we have to assume all expansion is finished); this is what it comes down to:  in the modern Church culture, the identity of manhood is inextricably tied to the Priesthood.  The way a boy becomes a man is through priesthood patterns in our culture:   YM offices/quorums, stacking chairs, home teaching, phood session with other men and ice cream afterwards, missions, having others weep with emotion and gratitude for your faithfulness, etc.  Boys become men in our culture because of the priesthood -- they don't have the priesthood because they are men.  A male identity in our culture is inextricably tied in unnecessary ways to the priesthood, it has comixed in with the definition of mormon masculinity (cue Tim the Toolman Taylor grunts).  Whether right or wrong this is what Ordain Women is asking to change, these cultural traditions of gender identity, and we should acknowledge it as part of the conversation.   

It is not easy to be a man in this Church it's a lot of responsibility, and their path for life and most of their choices are already made for them: to be a good mormon man you do this, then this, then this, then mission, then marriage, then career, then provide, then father, etc.  They know exactly how they should  live to follow their plan on earth: the check boxes have been laid out before them.  Men are judged very harshly for varying from their check boxes.  I have heard family members express frustration at such harsh cultural consequences - even if they feel they have followed the Spirit in not walking the line.

A Christian man’s highest calling is not priesthood; a Christian man’s highest calling is to follow Christ.

It isn't easy to be a woman in this Church, it's a lot of responsibility, and women have a much more ambiguous path.  We only have two check boxes: marriage and children.  The focus of which has good and bad consequences.  As in my case, the over-emphasis in my life lead me to ignore God's will in my life in how I was to build His kingdom with all the talents and unique gifts He has given me.  There was only one way to be a good Mormon woman and all else was choosing the wrong!!   Those poor souls who are single or infertile - they just have to suffer through this life until they get their check boxes!  Those check boxes are the only thing that matters!!  And yet in my life, the atonement healed the hurt and pain of infertility when I was prompted to celebrate and embrace it -- to love that I get to follow God's plan for me a different way, and to reject the message that my Womanhood is found in wifehood and motherhood.  Those are very important ways to be a Woman of God, but is not how to define being a woman of God. 

In our modern Church we embrace religious complementarianism: which ties a female's identity and value only to that of a wife, mother, and homemaker (the 1950s June Cleaver).  The gender roles we currently have are not a result of ancient history of how the bible treated women (thank goodness):  Most do not want to return to a time when fathers owned their daughters and sold them to the highest bidder (Exodus 21:7; Nehemiah 5:5; Genesis 29:1–10),  when multiple wives and concubines were a part of everyday life (even for men of God like Abraham, Jacob, and David), when women were forbidden from owning property, when foreign virgins could be captured as spoils of war (Judges 21), when a woman’s lack of virginity could get her executed (Deuteronomy 22:11, Leviticus ).  We know we don't want to return to Biblical Womanhood, but even then If you follow the history of the Church, the scope of women has not always been so limited as it is now. And the timing of the rise of the complementarianism is exactly the same timing of the movement of Second Wave Feminism.

Here is where so many women get SO ANGRY.  Complementarianism is wonderful because it celebrates that a woman honors God in the home -- this is such a wonderful, beautiful, needed message.  Where the confusion comes in . . . is when it says that is the only acceptable way for a woman to honor God.  This is where I find Elder Christofferson's talk to be beautiful: because it doesn't say, women you have to only do one thing . . . it says, "women exercise moral authority in homes, classrooms, boardrooms, etc."
"A common refrain among Christians is that “motherhood is a woman’s highest calling.” I must have heard this 1,000 times growing up. While men can honor God in varying capacities through work, family, and ministry, a woman’s spiritual aptitude is measured primarily by her ability to procreate.  I understand that many pastors elevate motherhood in order to counter the ways contemporary culture often dismisses the value of moms. This is a noble goal indeed, and the Church should be a place where moms are affirmed, celebrated, honored, and revered....[yet]

A Christian woman’s highest calling is not motherhood; a Christian woman’s highest calling is to follow Christ. And following Christ is something a woman can do whether she is married or single, rich or poor, sick or healthy, childless or Michelle Dugger.  (Rachel Held Evans, Women of Valor)
Ruth is a beautiful example, because she was a foreign, dirt poor, single, childless, field gleaner who is praised for being a woman of valor before she ever married - eshet cheyil - just as our Proverbs 31 homemaker is.  Being a woman of valor is not what you do or what your role is -- it is who you are.  It is our character and virtues that define us and make us Women of God: honesty, chastity, faith, divine nature, knowledge, integrity, accountability, good works, humility, kindness, patience, diligence, charity, temperence, purity, modesty, meekness, discernment, cheerfulness, mercy, courage, brave, protective, compassion, understanding, forgiveness, love, etc.  These are all virtues that define our character.  {Tangent: quit using the word virtue as a euphemism for sexual purity.  It is a misuse of the word.}

You can be a woman of God as a homemaker or as a congresswoman.  As a former working mother myself -- working in no way lessened by focus, love, or dedication to my motherhood, it did broaden the definition of my womanhood.   Increased responsibility in my life did not lessen my motherhood -- it required that my husband and I, due to our circumstances (in following the family proclamation) adapt and find a way to continue to raise a family with a Christ-centered home that honored our fatherhood and motherhood.  This can be done in many ways, and it is important for us to consciously choose the way that works best for our family and own the consequences of this decision and honor and support others in their decisions. 

I do not mean to imply that men and women are exactly the same, but could we challenge ourselves to enlarge our vision?  That there can be more than one way to be a Good Mormon Man or Woman?  To realize that being a Mormon Male is more than Priesthood Holder; that Mormon Woman is more than Mother?  That if this idea is threatened it doesn't mean we value the priesthood or motherhood less?  Can we unlink our gender identities from a role we perform and link our value instead to being like Christ?  Who exhibited what we consider both masculine and feminine virtues (leadership and nurturing, strength and meekness, courage and submission) that both men and women should develop? 


  1. So many thoughts I had while reading this - first, ew to the newlywed! I hope he was joking because that is an awful thing to say. I remember as a youth learning about polygamy in the celestial kingdom and thinking that I didn't want to make it to the celestial kingdom if I had to share my husband. Then one day I just stopped wondering and thinking about it and put my faith in the Lord that He has a plan for us and I don't know what it will be like but I know I will be happy however it is. It is a tough teaching that is hard to know how it will be . . .

    Second, I never really thought about how a man's life is mapped out for him through the gospel and is a series of check boxes. I know my husband is a check box kind of person by nature so those boxes gave him focus, but I can imagine the struggle of a more "free spirit" who resists conforming by nature and wants to follow their own unbeaten path. Studies do show men do better and live longer while being married but that shouldn't be our soul focus in life - to be married. But I fully agree our highest calling is to not only follow Christ but be perfected in Him.

    Third, I love that you can now celebrate and embrace your unique path and talents and break free of the mold of conforming to the rigid lines you were taught. I do not ever remember learning that our highest calling is to be mothers and wives but my young women's president was a 45 yr old single woman who was amazing and was like a second mom to me so she brought a different way of teaching and an example to me. It is not doctrine and as far as I've seen is not a teaching that is in the church manuals that our highest calling is to marry and have babies and I am sad that women are taught that message because that is a personal interpretation.

    Fourth and final thought is I do wonder about how much the church can really change what is being taught by ordinary people. They give us manuals and tell us not to use outside church resources (i.e. sugardoodle) but as Joseph Smith said, “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.” I don't know that these false interpretations of the role of men and women will ever end because the leaders say follow the manuals and find supplemental quotes on but the teachers have their agency and inspiration for their calling so they are going to teach how they feel inspired to teach - and they can't teach what they don't know. This is why I like your blog because yes we have our agency and the church allows us to govern ourselves and you are bringing a perspective to the members to show another way of understanding the gospel.

    I enjoyed reading this post, thanks for writing it.

  2. 2 Nephi 1:21-29 has a great list of what it means to be a "man" and not once does he mention being a husband or father . . . it's not doctrine people.

  3. I've really enjoyed reading your posts. The great thing is that we don't have to agree with everyone's point of view, but we should let them have a chance to voice it. Some things that matter a great deal to one woman may not matter as much to me. We should be able to have an open and honest discussion with one another while being able to avoid contention, which doesn't help anyone. Thanks for being willing to share things that are very personal to you. The more conversations we have, the more we will be able to understand where each other is coming from and hopefully find common ground we can all stand on together to build up His Kingdom.