Thursday, July 12, 2007

"Are Boys More Important Than Girls?"

I just finished reading this thought-provoking article by Margaret Toscano in the latest issue of Sunstone magazine. Toscano begins with the real-life story of an eight-year-old boy who, after watching his father and older brother go off to priesthood meeting together, asks his mother, "Are boys more important than girls?" Toscano first discusses scriptural texts that affirm the absolute equality of male and female, and recent pronouncements of LDS Church leaders such as President Gordon B. Hinckley to the effect that men and women are equal even if they play complimentary roles in the home and in society. She then contrasts these ideals with a church authority structure in which all the power is vested in men, a conception of family in which women are subservient, and a theology in which only male divinities are ever spoken of. This, she argues, can only have a destructive impact on the psyches of both men and women in the Church, and she ends with a plea to reconsider our ways, to think of the impact this has on our mothers, sisters, and daughters, and then to repent.

The most interesting segment of the article, to me, discusses the question of how we evaluate "equality," especially in situations, such as the situation of men and women (or, I might add, gay folks and heterosexuals), where biology makes us inherently different. Do we evaluate equality in terms of opportunity? Or do we evaluate it in terms of end results? If a person "feels" equal, does that make her equal? Toscano cited a recent survey of Mormon women in which 70% expressed contentment with their lot in life and stated that they did not feel unequal to men in the Church. She then admitted that it is quite possible that the survey, because of certain biases in terms of how it was conducted may actually have underestimated the level of general contentment and sense of equality among Mormon women. She then goes on to argue, however, that the fact that a majority of Mormon women are happy with their roles does not mitigate the destructive impact on their psyches of constantly being reminded that they are not worthy of leadership.

I could not help, in reading this article, but reflect on my own position and status vis-a-vis the Church. As an excommunicated, gay man in a relationship with another man, I am in terms of outward position, privilege, and status, in fact far inferior to women in the Church. Not only may I not hold the priesthood or any position of authority in the church, I may not hold any calling at all, I may not attend the temple or partake of the sacrament, I may not even speak in Sacrament Meeting or pray in meetings. And I am barred from all these privileges not because I hate the Church. I love it with my whole heart. Not because I don't have a testimony. I have a testimony that is so strong at times it hurts. I am barred from these privileges because of whom I love.

And yet, every Sunday, I go to Church and attend all the meetings. I do not miss it if I can at all help it. I actually feel deprived if some contingency prevents me! I gladly live as many of the commandments as I am able, given my circumstances. I cherish the scriptures and read them every day. I remember the day the new quadruple combination I ordered from Deseret Books arrived in the mail. I had not owned a complete set of LDS scriptures in almost twenty years. And I wept tears of joy when I opened the package and saw it. I love our prophets and leaders, and attend as much of General Conference as I am able. If I cannot bear testimony in Sacrament Meeting, I still share my testimony with others one-on-one, member and non-menber, both in word and deed. And I utterly cherish every connection and every friendship I have found among the Saints.

People frequently ask me, "Are you crazy?" OK, well, not exactly those words, but the sentiment is always there. You'd have to be crazy to want to have anything to do with a community that doesn't even regard you as a second class citizen. A disfranchised citizen. An ex-citizen. A sinner of the worst sort. Why do I do it?

And the reason is, because whenever I am in the Mormon Church, I feel the Spirit so powerfully. When I sit in Sacrament meeting, I never sit alone. The Spirit sits beside me. When I listen to the Sunday School or the Priesthood lessons -- doesn't matter what they are about! -- the Spirit whispers in my ear and teaches me astonishing things. And when I feel down and when I feel I must be less than equal, the Spirit reminds me that I am no one's inferior. So when I walk down the halls, when I shake hands with people, I hold my head up, and the Spirit reminds me this is where I belong. I am doing just what my Heavenly Parents want, and they are proud of me. And when someone says something stupid or homophobic, or suggests that I am doomed to some lesser realm of existence in the next life, the Spirit is there to affirm that they do not know my fate. Just trust, the Spirit promises, just love, just be honest and good and true, just be humble, just be patient, just wait and serve, and there will be no glory greater in the next life than the one reserved for you.

Toscano's article reminded me that visible and outward things are only half the picture, to those of us who have the companionship of the Spirit. I have always loved the women of the Church who surrounded me growing up, and I love the women I see there every Sunday in the Lake Nokomis Ward. They are strong and good hearted and compassionate. And when I see them get up in Sacrament meeting to pray or speak, or when I see them teaching the Gospel Essentials class I attend, I don't see the least hint of lack of confidence or inferiority. I hear women who get up every Sunday and talk about how their faith has made them strong, how it has made them the equal of every challenge and trial they must face in life. They know who they are and they have a right to be proud. And I know that if the Spirit speaks to my heart and tells me I am no one's inferior, surely the Spirit tells them the same thing in manifold ways. And so it does not surprise me in the least that the good women of the Church in large majorities, when asked if they are content with their role, if they feel unequal to men, respond confidently that they are content and they do feel equal. To me, this is a sign that the Spirit is alive and well and powerful among the Latter-day Saints.

I have been a Mormon feminist, well, since the time I was still a member of the LDS Church. At BYU I wrote a paper examining Mormon attitudes toward birth control. I did an oral history of my mother, because of my conviction that the lives and the stories of Mormon women should be recorded and preserved. I have always been fascinated by the women in my family, including the women ancestors who were second and third wives and who struggled and managed with varying degress of success during the time when "the Principle" was practiced. Women have been role-models to me, both in and out of the Church. And my response to Sister Toscano would be that, after reading all she has to say, I must conclude that the most compelling reason of all why any Mormon should be a feminist is because even if a minorty of women are harmed by sexist attitudes it is something none of us should tolerate. It breaks my heart to think that any Mormon boy -- or far worse, any Mormon girl -- might feel moved to ask the question, "Are boys more important than girls?"

I honestly and truly believe that whatever lip service we pay to equality and complimentarity in the Church here below, what we say and what we believe pales in comparison with the true equality, complimentarity and power of women and men in the invisible world, the real world beyond this bubble of time and space. And if we are true followers of Christ and children of God, we must not, we cannot be content to let equality wait until the next world. Like Christ, every day we should pray, "On earth as it is in Heaven."

And yet, whatever compels us to bear witness to this hope that God's love and justice will eventually bear rule down here on earth, I find it helpful to remember that when we are tempted to become discouraged or to feel inferior, as a person of faith, it is the invisible on which my mind and heart are fixed.


GeckoMan said...

As a father of three wonderful grown daughters, I am continually concerned about how they are treated by men, particularily in the church. My daughters love to tell stories about how they sometimes bump up against naive or arrogant LDS "priesthood holders" at BYU who project holier-than-thou patriarchal superiority. Fortunately, they relish the opportunity to set these poor young misguided brothers straight. But what about the other fair daughters of Zion, who may be less adept at deflecting bigotry or combatting discrimination?

I like your idea, John, that even if one woman bears the brunt of sexism, it is worth our continuing effort to help change provincial and judgemental attitudes unfortunately present from 19th century Mormonism. And this extends to not just sisters, but to even the 'least of saints,' as you are prone to define yourself.

I would like to expand on two points of remedy. First is with us boys, since much of the problem starts with us. We need to stand up and publicly endorse the increasing pronoucements from General Conference and other pulpits that strengthen and defend the rights of women. And we should encourage dialogue in our quorums and with our friends about the diverse roles of women and how we can better support our sisters in contemporary settings.

Secondly, I think we should encourage the training of girls and women to humbly challenge the status quo of cultural paradigms that result in subtle put downs of women's importance or ability to lead. Many such paradigms are ingrained and unconscious and we just don't think about implied messages and downstream effects. My oldest daughter is good at pointing these out, and I have to sometimes shake my head, surprised at my own cluelessness.

Abelard Enigma said...

We need to stand up and publicly endorse the increasing pronoucements from General Conference and other pulpits that strengthen and defend the rights of women.

I certainly agree that women are just as important in the eyes of God as men are. And, I agree that men and women are equal, but with different roles in life (and none of those roles are more important than the others, they are just different).

But I tire of the 'men bashing' that is becoming so prevalent from the pulpit. Surely we can come up with a better way to lift up women without tearing down men.

Yes, there are men in the church who are jerks, plain and simple. But, you know what? There are women jerks too. And, we shouldn't judge an entire gender based on the actions of a few.

I also don't agree that much of the problem lies with men. One of my responsibilities in the BIshopric is the YM/YW program. Many of our YW look at the types of activities the boys are engaged in and lament that they wish they could do those things too. I always tell them that there is no reason why they can't and that they should talk to their YW leaders. But, it seems like the YW leaders always seem to talk them out of it in the end. So, it's not just men pushing women down; but, it's also other women pulling them down - telling them what their place is as women in the church (women don't play football or go skeet shooting; they are supposed to sit around and make frilly things and talk about going to the Temple one day).

J G-W said...

It bears pointing out that Toscano was addressing much larger questions than whether we let young women play football or go skeet shooting. She believes that a much more fundamental psychic or spiritual harm is perpetrated when women see images of God that are exclusively male, and when they live in a church structure where only males hold positions of authority.

The orthodox position is, as you say, simply that "leadership" is not a role that is superior to "nurture," just a different role.

I believe two (possibly contradictory) things in this regard. First, I do believe that the order of the Heavens involves women as creators and wielders of priesthood as well as bearers and nurturers of (spirit) children, and that if the earthly order truly reflected the Heavens, then we would see a similar pattern in the Church here below.

Second, I also believe that a key to understanding the nature of priesthood is D&C 121, which builds on the various statements of Christ to the effect that he/she is a true leader who is least of all; not the one who commands but the one who serves. Is it possible that women in the Church, by giving unstinting service within an authority structure in which they are always by definition servants, not leaders, that women are tapping into the true sources of priesthood power more effectively than men?

Toscano is aware of this kind of theological argument, but she doesn't like it -- at least not as an argument for why women don't "need" to hold the priesthood in this life. I'm not sure what to think of it myself. After all, within any social structure, order and leadership is necessary, and women are just as capable of leading as they are of serving. Why shouldn't they do both, just as men do both (both lead and serve)?

At the same time, I believe -- and this was the point of my essay -- that whether we do or not hold positions of leadership, if we are able to have our eyes opened to larger, invisible realities, we may gradually learn that we don't need to, that the only real kind of authority is service anyway...

This feels contradictory in some ways, and maybe a cop out, but it feels so right to me.

Elbow said...

What a great post! That was really interesting. I have lot to think about now...

GeckoMan said...

Let us not forget or minimize the female leadership roles practiced by women in the home or in ward, stake or general callings. While this is not viewed as sufficient in scope by some, it does constitute a powerful grassroots influence upon the church and the rising generation.

I guess I am unaware of what Abe is describing as a rising prevalence of 'men-bashing' from the pulpit. I've not observed this. I think we have been appropriately chided at times in General Conference, because the attitudes and behaviors of some LDS men are worthy of criticism.

Perhaps we should discuss our cultural behaviors to women more at length, both the positive and the negative.

I agree with Abe about how some women are part of the cycle of limiting YW activities and opportunities to marriage, home and family. My girls hated this.

I think the key question to ponder and debate is how can we as men, husbands and fathers (ie, leaders!) help promote positve change and growth towards an ideal, whatever that is. A starting point would be listening.

J G-W said...

"A starting point would be listening."

In other words, a starting point would be to make ourselves passive, make ourselves servants who put others before ourselves. I couldn't agree more!

"some women are part of the cycle of limiting YW activities"

I suspect that one of the unfortunate consequences of severely limiting people's opportunities for leadership is that when they do finally get a little authority, they feel the only way they can exercise it is by limiting others' choices and opportunities.

Let us not forget or minimize the female leadership roles practiced by women in the home or in ward, stake or general callings.

No, we should not minimize this at all. I have seen this on both the Mormon and Protestant sides of the fence. Unlike in Protestant churches, Mormon women do stand in the pulpit as preachers and teachers, and generally because of the lay leadership structure of Mormon congregations tend to play a much more active role in the life of the church. I do believe that this contributes to a much more vibrant sense of faith among Mormon women, and I can even see how someone who converts to the Church might feel "liberated" in terms of their spiritual life. So I don't think the situation is as universally bad as Toscano paints it.

True, in most Protestant churches in America today, women can be ordained to the priesthood. But in the Protestant model, ordination is only for the few, and everybody except the ordained is banned from the pulpit. I managed to convince our liberal UCC congregation to adopt a "lay preaching" ministry, after a two-year-long battle. At first, most members thought it was some wild-eyed, revolutionary, insane concept. "You can't let ordinary people preach? What might they say???"

I argued that the traditional Protestant model encouraged the Protestant laity to view faith as a spectator sport, as something their pastors do for them. Once our congregation opened itself up to having ordinary people get up and preach sermons, they began to realize how right I had been. I'd like to take the credit for this "innovation," but of course, I stole it from the Mormon Church!

I also feel that we can't underestimate the impact of private spiritual devotions. There is a tremendous emphasis in the LDS Church on encouraging individual members, each and every one, male and female, to study the scriptures and pray every day, to establish a personal relationship with God, to listen to and cultivate the gift of the Holy Spirit. I see evidence that this too has an empowering and uplifting impact on Mormon women as well as Mormon men. Toscano acknowledges that the LDS Church has done a better job recently of placing before us images of women as scholars of the scriptures and of gospel doctrines.

This is all an excellent start, but I think, as I said, in an earthly Church which more truly reflects the order of the Heavens, we might go further than that... Perhaps we simply aren't ready yet for the next step.

Knight of Nothing said...

I have been following this thread with interest, though I have little to contribute, as I am not a Mormon and know little of women's experience in the LDS Church. But I agree with John and Geckoman: listening is a great place to start. That is what I am doing here, and I appreciate your willingness to share.