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.