Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Part 2 of 3: Imaginary conversations with a conservative Mormon woman about feminism and the Church.

Francis Coates Jones, Women in a Rowboat
In light of recent controversies surrounding women and the priesthood, I have thought about how I might have a conversation with a conservative Mormon woman about issues facing women in the Church. 

This is the second of three parts. In Part 1, I focus on my desire for unity with my conservative friends in the Church despite our disagreements, my belief that the Church is a work in progress, and the possibility that current policy may not fully reflect the will of God. In Part 2 below, I will talk more specifically about issues affecting women in the Church. Of course, my thoughts are my own, and they do not represent official positions of my church or of any other organization.

When I attended church yesterday, I was particularly aware of the important ways that women contributed to my Sunday worship. The congregational hymns and choir number were chosen and directed by women. There were two assigned sacrament meeting speakers: a man, followed by a woman. The Gospel Doctrine Sunday School teacher was a woman, and the majority of the comments in the class were made by women. The Young Women's meeting that I attended in my role as adviser was briefly interrupted by the sustaining vote of a new presidency in the Beehives, the class for girls aged 12 and 13. Following the sustaining, the doctrinal lesson was taught by a 17-year-old young woman.

Those of us who seek changes in policy must acknowledge the many opportunities that women of the Church already have to teach, lead, and influence. If there is to be any meaningful conversation, I believe that we must better understand and respect women like you, women who feel empowered in their roles, women who know that they are heard, counted, and valued.

Recently, several changes have brought greater visibility and more opportunities for women: the lower age requirements for missionary service, the new sister training leader missionaries, the women praying in General Conference, the inclusion of a female speaker in the Christmas devotional broadcast, the portraits of women leaders hanging in the Conference Center. In a recent New York Times article, Relief Society General President Sister Linda K. Burton was quoted as saying that the church will benefit as “men’s vision of the capacity of women becomes more complete.” This is an exciting time of progress for women in the Church.

Several times, I have heard you ask, "Why is it important that women pray in General Conference? Does it really matter who says the prayer?" You rightly point out that the efficacy of the prayer is not affected by the gender of the one praying.

Habits of Exclusion and Damaging Messages

But I feel certain that these small things do matter. It matters who says the prayer, it matters whose portraits hang in the Conference Center, it matters who speaks at worldwide broadcasts. It matters because seeing women in positions of worldwide leadership and hearing their inspired words strengthen the Church. It matters because habits of excluding women send unintended messages that have no place in our doctrine or in our community of saints.

Leaders have repeatedly stressed that women are vital in building the Kingdom, that our voices are important, that we are equal in the Church and in the sight of God. Though certain responsibilities in the Church may be differentiated according to gender, praying is not one of them. Prayer is not a function of the priesthood; women and men are equally capable of calling upon God in prayer. Barring women from praying in meetings undermines our efforts to internalize these doctrines and detracts from the main message of our faith.

I am grateful that, as of April 2013, women can pray in General Conference. With this change of policy, the wonderful doctrine of equality is more fully realized. It feels right; it feels comfortable. Of course women should pray in General Conference. What took us so long?

I believe that there are other habits of exclusion that should be carefully examined. Here are three to consider: Church policy does not permit women to be financial clerks or Sunday School presidents. And outside of official Church policy, there is an unwritten rule in some wards that women are rarely, if ever, the concluding speakers in sacrament meeting. It is not obvious to me how holding the priesthood is requisite for fulfilling any of these responsibilities.

Each of these practices has the potential to send subtle, unintended, and damaging messages. Why can't women handle the money? Perhaps women aren't as reliable with records and finances or as sound in their judgment as men are. Why don't women speak last in our worship services? Perhaps a woman's words do not carry the same weight of authority as a man's. Why can't women head the Sunday School? Perhaps women can only lead organizations that administer to women and children. Perhaps the oversight of adult scripture scholarship is outside our domain. These messages are not in harmony with my understanding of women's abilities to organize and responsibilities to testify, teach, and expound the scriptures.

I see no doctrinal reason, no practical reason, and no spiritual benefit to excluding women in these ways. Indeed, some wards have more faithful, capable women than active men. Allowing women to hold more positions of leadership that do not directly relate to functions of the priesthood would allow greater flexibility for wards and branches. Perhaps someday we will say in regards to these, "Of course. What took us so long?"

You and I have often commiserated together about how difficult it is to balance the demands of family, community, and church callings, especially with young children at home. So it is important  to make a distinction between these two sentiments:

    "I personally would like to hold [a particular position in the Church]."
    "I don't want to be disqualified from that position because of my gender."

These statements are different. I have no particular desire to be a ward financial clerk (and I dare say I have that in common with most men), or the Sunday School president, and I don't feel personally slighted if I am not the concluding speaker in a meeting. But I would rejoice if women were not barred from these roles, when their circumstances permit them to take on the responsibilities. Similarly, I would be very surprised if the majority of members of Ordain Women actually wanted to hold the demanding calling of bishop or stake president. But I am certain that they would welcome the chance to sustain a female bishop, and they would appreciate knowing that such a thing is a real possibility for the future.

Men Defining Manhood, Men Defining Womanhood

As women in the Church, we are accustomed to men presiding over our meetings, occasionally sitting in on lessons, chaperoning at Young Women's camp, and speaking at the General Women's Meeting. Men regularly instruct groups of women on many topics, including our roles as women in the Church, even though women do not instruct gatherings of men. Women's meetings and events often have one or two men present, even though the reverse is not true. We're used to this, and we don't find it remarkable. Perhaps we need to stop and think about it a bit more carefully.

I treasure my association with so many extraordinary men in the Church. I appreciate their inspired words, their sincere praise, and their perspectives on womanhood. Men and women learning from each other, each mutually seeking to please the other in healthy ways, is natural and positive. What concerns me is the abundance of counsel from men directed toward women on what it means to be a woman, with very little reciprocity. Too much emphasis on men teaching women how to be women may foster unhealthy attitudes and subtly encourage women and girls to look to men for approval, guidance, and authority as they form self-conceptions and life goals. We must wholly understand that we are important, not because of how much men value us or what men think of us, but because of who we are as humans on planet earth and daughters of God. I worry about the effect on dating and marriage as two young people enter a relationship, the man having learned from male ecclesiastical leaders how to be a man, and the woman having learned from both women and men. This concern could be addressed with a change in practice, not doctrine1.

I would like to see something more balanced. Imagine the power that could be unleashed if women, drawing on inspiration from heaven and a wealth of experience, occasionally instructed men on how best to fulfill their roles as husband, fathers, and priesthood holders. I am accustomed to congregations of women learning from words of wisdom and encouragement spoken by a man of God. But I have this other vision in my mind — a vision of a group of men sitting and listening to a woman whom they love and respect, a woman of God, in full acknowledgement of her divine calling and gifts of the Spirit. Maybe she would be teaching them about her experiences in drawing on priesthood power, or how as men, they can better assist the women of the Church, or how better to honor their roles as fathers and husbands2. I believe that a woman addressing a priesthood meeting would bring great blessings and a needed balance as men and women strive to work together and understand one another.

In Part 3, I will share my thoughts on presiding in the home and priesthood ordination.

I welcome you to turn this imaginary conversation into a real one by sharing your thoughts in the comments section.

1Of course, one can make the valid point that the men who speak to women have priesthood stewardships over their congregations; they communicate messages from God. But is there any doubt that they are speaking as part-prophet, part-man? Else why all the anecdotes about baking pies and so forth?
2When Elaine S. Dalton, General Young Women's President spoke at the October 2011 General Conference, she spent much of her talk specifically addressing fathers of daughters. I had never before heard a woman address the male membership of the Church in that way, and I was deeply moved by the experience. This should not be such a rare occurence.


  1. Thank you for this thoughtful discourse. I am looking forward to reading the two others. It is important to question the way we do things. Not seeking to change doctrine, but to dispel culturally instituted practices that have become the norm and whose changes could bring about greater blessings.