The Business of the Church

  Last night I read a FAIR article analyzing gender roles and governance in the LDS church. I was transfixed from the very beginning, because it is rare for a believing Mormon and a pro-church advocate to talk openly about some of the problems caused by rigid gender roles within the church. I think author Neylan McBaine does a very good job identifying "The Crisis" with women in the church, and offering some viable solutions that can happen right now, without any new proclamations or changes in doctrine.

But there are also some deliberate negative spaces left in her article, things specifically not addressed that I think are important factors when talking about women and their potential role in church governance. She also presents an interesting, but somewhat flawed (in my opinion,) theory on whether the church is in fact hierarchical, or rather cooperative in nature.

            First, I think that it is really significant that she legitimizes the pain many women feel under the current system. After lots of research, she comes to the conclusion that "There is a tremendous amount of pain among our women regarding how they can or cannot contribute to the governance of our ecclesiastical organization and we need to pay attention to that pain."

 Secondly, McBaine’s solutions to the pain women feel in the church are interesting because she bases them on the idea that the church ought to operate under a “Cooperative Paradigm.” She quotes recently- rebaptized feminist Maxine Hanks in stating that “Equality is embedded, inherent in Mormon theology, history, texts, structures. Gender equality is built into the blueprints of Mormonism, but obscured in the elaborations…. The inherent gender equality in Mormonism just needs to be seen by extracting it from other distracting elements and contexts.”

Essentially, she says that women have the potential to be equal to men in the church. We just need to “extract” equality from the original “blueprints” of the church. (For those unfamiliar with Church history, the Relief Society President, and the society itself, used to be much more influential in church leadership. Former Relief Society President Eliza R. Snow was even referred to as a “Prophetess.” Under Brigham Young, the Relief Society lost much of its independence and power.) Thus, Church leadership and women need to work harder to re-develop the existing female leadership roles, especially those involving the Relief Society, so that men and women can “cooperate” better in leading the church. According to McBaine, when we focus on the church as a hierarchy, in which the Priesthood leads and men are the priesthood, it is hard to incorporate women as “cooperative” co-leaders. If we instead view men and women as both equal servants to the Priesthood (God, and his power on earth,) we won’t exclude women from leadership opportunities.

An interesting excerpt is when she explains the common misunderstanding that men and the Priesthood are the same: She argues that “Equating the priesthood with a gendered privilege, like passing the sacrament, reinforces over and over again the understanding that men “get” something the women don’t and the women are therefore lacking and lesser.”

Thus, McBaine argues that Men don’t get the Priesthood just because they are men, and women have equally important roles. This is where things get a little bit problematic for me, and the part of the article with the most negative space. So if men don’t get the Priesthood just because they are men, why can’t women hold the Priesthood in the same capacity? McBaine would suggest that this is part of a “divine division of labor,” but if gender equality really exists in the blue-prints of the church, wouldn’t the Priesthood be offered to any worthy member, regardless of gender? While well intentioned, the “men and women should have equal opportunities to serve,” but “men and women have divinely appointed gender roles, so women will never obtain certain opportunities” idea seems to contradict itself.

Furthermore, her suggestions for “extracting” female equality from the church blue- prints are good, but likewise seem to fall short. Some suggestions, which, for the record, I agree with: Calling females with leadership positions “President” instead of “Sister.” Making sure female leaders on the Stake level are as well-known as male Stake leaders, and having them sit on the stand during Stake functions. Having female leaders speak in church, similar to High Priest leaders. Allowing women to instruct men, just as men frequently instruct women.

All of these are fantastic suggestions, but McBaine almost deliberately ignores the mote in the eye of her “Cooperative Paradigm.” As long we maintain the language that men “preside” and “hold authority over” women, women’s leadership roles will never be fully realized. If we truly want to “extract” female equality from our church history, the Relief Society President ought to be a “Prophetess” again, and women ought to be able to fulfill their leadership responsibilities independent of a male authority and his approval. (As occurred in the past.)

Additionally, McBaine does not follow the “Cooperative Paradigm” theory to its logical conclusion. If we need to further develop female leadership roles in order to combat the idea that women are lesser in the church because they do not hold the Priesthood, should we not re-visit the idea discussed by early church leaders of granting women a form of “Priestesshood?”  If we are to develop the role of women in the church, what of the role of women in Heaven, specifically the idea of a female God? If equality exists in church doctrine, and we just need to “excavate” or “find” it, I think it is strange that McBaine’s article does not even touch on the idea of developing the Heavenly Mother doctrine that already exists, albeit in an undeveloped way, in the church.

I appreciate McBaine’s article for the things it does well, it legitimizes pain, it offers concrete and immediately appropriate solutions. McBaine also caters well to her audience: faithful Mormons who want to see positive change in the church. But I do believe her solutions could have gone farther, while still adhering to church doctrine. Perhaps it is true, that female equality in an LDS context has been hidden by other “distractions” (perhaps the language of males presiding over female,) but if we are in the business of excavating equality, to use a colloquial phrase: go big or go home. Give me back the concept of a Prophetess with Priestesshood power and Heavenly Mother. Inequality is bad, but partial equality is not much better.




Sandy said...

Excellent. Just excellent.

mere said...

fantastic analysis Stephanie.

Andrew and Becca said...

You're definitely right, she could have gone farther with her argument without butting up against church doctrine. But if she follows her logic all the way to the bitter end, she would certainly have to cross that line, because you are right. You can't have one gender presiding and have both genders be equal. It's not possible, so until "presiding" is eradicated, priesthood applies to both genders, and God's order is no longer a "patriarchal order," the equality thread can only be followed halfway, and to do that, she would have to cross a whole boatload of doctrinal boundaries, which isn't going to happen in a FAIR article.

Stephanie said...

@Andrew and Becca (whichever one you are....:)

Totally valid point. Since the Patriarchial order is big in the temple, that is unlikely to happen.

I do wonder if the patriarichial stuff is what Maxine Hanks views as a "distraction" to the original "blue-print" of the church.

Liz Johnson said...

Indeed and amen. The patriarchal order would have to be completely done away with, but I don't think that's necessarily impossible - I think that's an earthly construct anyways.

BeccaVT said...

Sorry for the confusion, I've been meaning to drop the "Andrew" off for three years, since that's about how long it's been since we abandoned our "newlywed" blog because our life is so boring.

Plus, I'm a feminist, and I'd hate for my identity to be subsumed into that of my husband :)

Tristin said...

The more I consider this issue, the stronger my belief that the patriarchical priesthood is the only thing keeping men in the church. As soon as us men lose our sense of purpose in the organization (i.e. as soon as we realize women are better at it than us), we are going to drop like flies. We're fragile like that, and I think the curch knows it. How do we bring about equality in the church without crushing male participation? Maybe I'm not giving my gender enough credit, but I am seriously concerned about how we will do in the transition.

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Tristin said...
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Mrs. Clark said...

I agree with Tristin. This has happened in other churches. They have a hard time keeping men involved for many reasons; women running things is just one of them.

I believe in priesthood authority and yet I do not feel subjugated or unequal in any way. And our bishops have (here in the East) always referred to the RS, Primary, and Young Women's presidents as "President" rather than simply "sister."

I have not read the article yet. Thanks for calling attention to it!

Mrs. Clark said...

Ok. Read the article. Again, thanks.

I appreciate the insight and point of view you bring to this issue. While my experience has been different, I think it is very important to get other viewpoints and seek to understand them.

My daughters never asked the question why they didn't get the Priesthood--I had never even thought about it. Thanks for giving me some needed insight. Keep up the good work!

Michael Johnson said...

Thanks Stephanie, your response was perfect. Another thing that bothered me in the article was the idea that equality is a standard set up by "the world". I'm not a fan of the Church/Fallen World dichotomy because it adds to the elitism in the Church and slows down progress in some very important areas by preventing us from learning from people outside (i.e. the priesthood ban). However, for all of its imperfections, I think this approach is a great starting point to engage faithful members in a productive conversation. While I wish she had gone further, I also think if she had, it may have caused some people to put up walls. If someone like her can open some people's eyes to the inequities, I'll take it.

Neylan McBaine said...

Hi, just wanted to say thank you to Stephanie for posting about my talk and also to all of you for the additional thoughtful commentary. Tone was extremely important to me in presenting these ideas to this particular audience. My goal was to plant the seed for a consideration of these issues in the hopes that a broadbased, grassroots effort to change behavior and language might at least make the church experience happier for some, even if it doesn't solve the doctrinal conundrums. Thanks again.

Stephanie said...

Neylan McBaine

I feel so excited that you would take time to comment on my blog. Thank you. I think your tone was great, and I think this talk will do a lot of good.

Thank you again for commenting!

Ashley said...

Yes Tristin, give your gender some more credit! You say,

"...the patriarchical priesthood is the only thing keeping men in the church. As soon as us men lose our sense of purpose in the organization (i.e. as soon as we realize women are better at it than us), we are going to drop like flies. We're fragile like that..."

Then what is keeping women in the church? Are we therefore fragile? We do not hold the patriarchal priesthood, and yet in the FAIR article, it mentions that many wards have more active women than men.

There are other reasons besides holding leadership positions and having responsibilities for why women stay (I should hope so!), and I would also hope that men would see these reasons too.

Yours is an argument I've heard before: men hold the priesthood because they need it, but women are fine without it. On behalf of both genders, I hate that argument.

Lisa said...

I really appreciate you posting links and commentary to articles/discussions that are happening right now. I don't know how you know where to find these things, but at least now I know I can come here for references.

Rachel said...

Nice. Thanks for the article, I always enjoy reading your posts.

Two articles I recently read on feminism

Thought you might like.

One thing I find interesting about Mormonism IS the role of women in endowments and the power they have. It really makes me wonder why that power isn't more extended or recognized.

Tristin said...

Ashley, don't get me wrong. I fully agree that there are reasons outside of power and authority to stay in the church. I am in no way arguing against creating equality in the church or giving women the priesthood. My concern is that so many men, finding themselves devoid of the "special" status they have aways enjoyed, will flounder in the process of discovering other reasons for staying. Dialogue will need to take place that creates a narrative of inclusion and participation. I don't doubt for a second that it will work, but I worry for many men in the church when it happens.

LC said...

You and I respect each other's differences, so can I just say it? Women don't have the Priesthood because God hasn't given it to us. Not because of wrinkly old men. Not because of notions of superiority. He just didn't give it to us. I'd be curious to know whether the article included any discussion of the fact that many of us have a testimony that this church is run by Heavenly Father, not by men, and that doctrines aren't implemented simply because we want them to be.

Sometimes I wonder whether more discussions of individual worth are in order. Maybe then, we'd stop trying to convince one another why we're better than someone else, or as I have also seen a multitude of times, why women need to realize that they are absolutely as important as men in the church (whether or not all members of both parties realize it).

Your post makes me feel fortunate that I have never felt demeaned in the church. Thanks for making me aware of that.

Stephanie said...


I just have a hard time reconciling my testimony of God's love for me as a person with the way the church views me as a person.

I think God wants world peace, no more hungry children, and an end to all pain and suffering. Just because it hasn't happened doesn't mean God doesn't want it.

I am glad you have never felt demeaned in the church. What a great experience! But I really love that McBaine's article points out that there are many, wonderful, faithful sisters who do not feel the same way. Their experiences are just a valid, and it probably isn't because of low self-worth. It's probably because like me, their relationship with God is different than their relationship with what they believe is God's church.

Ashley said...

Re: LC's comment: I think that sometimes revelation and inspired change does not always come until it's asked for.

Katie said...

I read this article too, and I appreciated her suggestions and the thought and research she put into this. Her suggestions were spot-on.

But while reading this article I burst into tears. I loved it, and yet it hurt more deeply than perhaps anything else I've read. Simply because all of these wonderful suggestions are just band-aids for a very deep wound that a lot of women feel.

I'm hoping I can find a way to heal, but I need time. And perhaps some more sisterly balm.

Gretta Whalen said...

I had a similar reaction to the article. But I appreciated it as a step in the right direction.

MrsAshley said...

That's quite interesting. I've only studied Mormonism from afar but I thought the same thing when studying it.

Temple Worthy said...

I know that Jesus is my Savior, your Savior, and that he loves us all. As far as gender roles go, like Nephi I exclaim "I do not know the meaning of all things, but I know that the Lord loves his children." Once I am the prophet or wake up one day wiser than the prophet, then I will set God's true church in the way that I see fit.

Michelle Glauser said...

Temple Worthy-I think it's funny that you're implying that Stephanie thinks she's better than the prophet when you named yourself Temple Worthy in order to look more righteous.

Anyway, I don't know the meaning of all things either, but I do know that no one, the prophet included, is going to set the Church the way it should be if women don't say something.

Matt said...

You know, I think we cast too broad of a net when we use the word "doctrine." All sorts of things are excused on the basis of "doctrine."

What, really, is the eternal doctrine?

God exists, and godhood is based on companionship.

We can always progress (from bottom to top) through eternity.

Everyone gets a fair chance.

We get to decide for ourselves.

Seriously I think that's all there is at the eternal core. Yet we use the doctrinal scapegoat for all our biased policies.

Kim said...

Is Priesthood Envy the new Penis Envy in the church? Sorry I just had to ask that.

Cali Sanclemente said...
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Cali Sanclemente said...

I'm priviledged to have grown up with seven brothers and not one sister. Gender roles were pushed on me at an early age. I can appreciate the questions and comments you've posed. One thing I can attest to is that adversity builds character and character if properly governed, can cultivate strong, incredible women. Because I was told "no, you're a girl"' I started a campaign to achieve and diversify in many ways. I raced motorcycles, succeeded in every sport I set my heart on, I learned Chopin and played my own compositions on the piano and earned a degree in microbiology. My list could go on and on. All this, because I was told "you can't do it". While many accomplishments had flourished, my identity as a woman had suffered. I worked so hard competing with the boys, I left little room to work on my own divine nature. I struggled with my duties as a mother and wife picturing them as remedial and underneath my dignity. While the world valued me I did not value myself. Through a lot of years, prayers, reading scritpure after scripture, I found my self esteem should be based on my relationship with God, not on what others believe or think to be true about me. the adversity of equality had made me appreciate and value without price, the limitless capacity and opportunity I have as a daughter of God.
There're many examples of women in the scriptures who wore the title of "prophetess". Please correct me if wrong, but this honor was never given to them by a man, but was a gift from God because of their rightousness. We hold this same opportunity. We shouldn't need society or man's approval to validate who we are as daughters of God.
We are all subject to others' interpretation of how the priesthood should govern. I believe this is a two-way effort using respect as the mortar between genders.
We are only limited by the boundaries and confines we hold ourselves accountable to.
I love your questions and they really made me think. Thank you! We should keep asking and searching until we find ultimately what brings peace to our souls.
By the way, spot on about what husbands deserve, loved it!