Why Words Matter

One of the things that we sometimes discuss in my Women’s Studies classes is the issue of language. Many feminists critique the use of “man” or “mankind” to refer to men and women, the use of “he” as a generic pronoun, etc. Feminists argue that inequality in language occurs on a spectrum of related discriminations, and you can’t eliminate all discrimination if you don’t address all the contributing practices (including things that may seem inconsequential, such as using the term “mankind”). I see a lot of resistance in my classes to this argument. The students recognize that there’s an inequality in language use, but they just don’t see why it matters. According to them, this language doesn’t hurt anyone. Many of the female students in my classes admit that it’s not something that offends them, and so they don’t see why we need to change our language use.

The first issue at stake when thinking about problematic gendered language is trying to determine the true power of words. Most of us are probably familiar with the childhood rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Though this rhyme points to the fact that words cannot do actual, physical damage to an individual, I would posit that power encompasses more than the ability to inflict physical damage.

Certainly there is the consideration that words can be used as a tool of emotional abuse, and while it is understandably much harder to determine and measure than its physical and sexual counterparts, it is a legitimate concern. If everyone tells a child her whole life that she is stupid and no good, it’s most likely going to cause some serious problems in her life. However, a lot of discriminatory language is not easily identifiable as emotional abuse (take, for example, “mankind”), so I would argue that we need to think about the power of words in ways that do more than measure “hurt.” To make this point, I will tell a story about my lovely fiance.

There is a on-line translation service called Regender. It is a site that will take any on-line webpage and switch all the words that reference a specific sex or gender to their opposite. For example, regender.com would “translate” the sentence “the woman went to the store with her two children” to “the man went to the store with his two children.” The other day, I decided to look up some conference talks using this site, and I ended up reading the following two paragraphs from James E. Faust’s Womanhood: The Highest Place of Honor, a talk given at the April 2000 General YW meeting, to my fiance (warning: these paragraphs have been “regendered”):

I wonder if you brothers fully understand the greatness of your gifts and talents and how all of you can achieve the “highest place of honor” in the Church and in the world. One of your unique, precious, and sublime gifts is your masculinity, with its natural grace, goodness, and divinity. Masculinity is not just lipstick, stylish hairdos, and trendy clothes. It is the divine adornment of humanity. It finds expression in your qualities of your capacity to love, your spirituality, delicacy, radiance, sensitivity, creativity, charm, graciousness, gentleness, dignity, and quiet strength. It is manifest differently in each boy or man, but each of you possesses it. Masculinity is part of your inner beauty.

One of your particular gifts is your masculine intuition. Do not limit yourselves. As you seek to know the will of our Heavenly Mother in your life and become more spiritual, you will be far more attractive, even irresistible. You can use your smiling loveliness to bless those you love and all you meet, and spread great joy. Masculinity is part of the Goddess-given divinity within each of you. It is your incomparable power and influence to do good. You can, through your supernal gifts, bless the lives of children, men, and women. Be proud of your manhood. Enhance it. Use it to serve others.

My finace’s response was noteworthy. Rather than laughing at the combination of “masculinity” and “smiling loveliness” (hey, it made me chuckle), he listened to the paragraphs as if someone had actually spoken them to him in a serious context (i.e. he was a young man at a General YM meeting, and he was hearing these words from an Apostle). His response was something along the lines of, “If I had been spoken to in this way for all of my life, I think I would be a very different person.”

While I am sure that most of us are aware of the limitations of words and language, they are, nonetheless, the way we make meaning of our daily existence. Words have particular linguistic and cultural meanings, and those meanings mediate how we understand the events in our lives; they have the power to shape how we interact with the world. While they are not the sum of our experience, they have the power to affect our reality. When certain words are used repeatedly to interpret our experience, and we are not given alternate choices, we generally accept the words we’ve been given. When we are talked to in certain ways (as my fiance observed), we may not embrace those words, but we will be affected by them.

The second issue at stake when thinking about problematic gendered language is whether or not we should have a hierarchy of concerns. In other words, aren’t there issues more important than fixing the way that everyone talks and writes? Shouldn’t we focus on sexual violence or poverty? Don’t these concerns have a higher priority?

The hierarchy of “cultural” (or “linguistic) and “material” (or “real”) concerns has been widely debated in leftist circles. In Merely Cultural, Judith Butler asks the question, “is it possible to distinguish, even analytically, between a lack of cultural recognition and a material oppression, when by the very definition of legal ‘personhood’ is rigorously circumscribed by cultural norms that are indissociable from their material effects?” (41). (The implicit answer to her question is “no.”) While Nancy Fraser, in Justice Interrupts: Critical Reflections on the “Postsocialist” Condition, argues that we should focus on the “cultural” battles (Fraser’s term: “politics of recognition”) that also affect “material” conditions (Fraser’s term: “politics of redistribution”), both Butler and Fraser make different but compelling arguments that in order to address material redistribution (or “real inequality”), one must address problems with language, culture, and representation.

To illustrate this with an example, when we think about the issues of rape and sexual violence, feminists are quick to make the point that when culture and the media and members of their society refer to women and their bodies as objects (just look at advertising to find an incredible number of examples), it helps create a mindset that women are objects and can be treated as such. While I’m not arguing that the media causes sexual violence, how we choose to represent the meaning of women’s bodies (especially in areas of culture that are as pervasive as advertising) is going to affect how we interact with these bodies on a daily basis. And this goes for both men and women.

So, here’s the part of the post when I consider what this all means for how we use language in the church, particularly when it comes to gender. On one hand, there’s the problem of ambiguity (as pointed out to me by Katya, one of the other ZD bloggers). She writes,

One [issue with gendered language in the church] is an overuse of masculine pronouns when the counsel/statement is actually meant to apply to both genders. In a church where gender roles are very strongly emphasized, you can’t fall back on the excuse that women are contextually going to understand when they’re included in a statement. (Or, even worse, it speaks to the idea that the men are the only ones worth talking to, and that women are either saved peripherally, or automatically, ’cause we’re just so darn spiritual, already.)

Another problem is the one that the regendered Faust talk makes apparent: the ways we do talk to men and women differently in the church can be either limiting or problematic. While I am not the be-all and end-all of women’s experiences in the church (they are so varied, which is wonderful), for a long time I thought there was something wrong with me for loving school as much as I did. When I heard talks like the one by Elder Faust, I figured it was “proper” for me to be gracious and to desire children, but I thought it was “improper” of me to be smart and academic. There were no priesthood leaders in my vicinity saying “girls get an education and be strong and smart because knowledge is important and God’s plan is one of eternal learning.” There was no official language in the church to describe who I was and what was most important to me. Additionally, I am a woman with a number of “masculine” virtues–intellectualism, rationality, and a strong drive to accomplish things in the world (outside of my family). I thought for the longest time I was a defective woman because these virtues don’t show up in models of virtuous womanhood.

The words we use, and the way we use these words matter. We do not have the discerning power of God, who knows the thoughts and intents of hearts. We must communicate our beliefs through words, and the words we choose to use have power. They shape our reality, experiences, and how we understand our divine roles as sons and daughters in the plan of our Heavenly Father.


  1. Good post, S. [By the way, you _really_ need a better handle. Surely the masterminds behind Elbereth/Kiskilili/Melyngoch etc can come up with a better nom de plum for you?]

    “If I had been spoken to in this way for all of my life, I think I would be a very different person.” Wow. Very good insight. Most people (particularly, perhaps, in the church) _do_ speak differently to women and girls, and that accrues over a lifetime, and it’s going to make a difference.

    Your point about priorities is also a good one. It’s easy to see words as a silly thing to focus on. But ultimately, as you note, words create the fabric of everyday experience — “They shape our reality, experiences, and how we understand our divine roles as sons and daughters in the plan of our Heavenly Father. ”

    As Mormons, we tend to believe that certain words can have strong eternal significance. Then why _not_ focus on what words we’re using, and how?

    And by the way, I’m still chuckling over “Masculinity is not just lipstick, stylish hairdos, and trendy clothes. . . .”

  2. This is an excellent post. I really like your husband’s insight and honesty with his remark that he would be a very different person if spoken to that way.
    Isn’t this sort of the same as Rosalynde’s quick test to see if what you’re saying is sexist or patronizing?

  3. Kaimi, a greater focus on the words we use as Mormons is not going to get any objection from me! And a quick note: I’ve currently got a list of handles (that are names) that I’m narrowing down to the one I want to use (and it was partly generated by my fellow ZD bloggers). It will be unveiled shortly. 🙂

    Starfoxy, I was quite impressed by my fiance’s response as well (he’s not really a feminist himself, but he doesn’t think I’m crazy for being one). And you’re right–the Regender machine works a lot like Rosalynde’s quick test, but I think it’s a good tool to help identify more wide-spread problems with gendered language (it allows you to evaluate entire websites, etc, rather than just a single statement).

  4. I don’t agree with this kind of reasoning. For starters, the reasoning strikes me as pretty week. The notion that using masculine pronouns somehow contributes to the creation of an environment that can promote an exclusionary approach? Far too subtle for my tastes. Could it be that when you tell people that masculine pronouns are exclusionary, you make a self-fulfilling prophecy? I.e., you teach them to find them exclusionary?

    It seems to me that most people are able to actually understand language in the way its intended, regardless of what actually comes out of our mouths–this is why malapropism don’t lead to misunderstanding. (Donald Davidson wrote an entire essay on this called “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs.” One of the funnier malapropisms that he identifies as being quite clear is Archie Bunkers statement, “All men are cremated equal.” )

    Also, There are too many simple counter-instances. I’ve always wondered whether people harbor secret feelings about how sexy the planet Venus is, or how hostile the planet Mars is, or whether we’re all close Ptolemaic astronomers because we say that the sun rises and sets, or if people think there’s something gay about being a homo sapien.

    BTW, Kaimi. It cuts both ways: It sounds silly to say, “Femininity is not just belching, watching football, and making crude jokes.” Rosalynde’s “quick test” is clever, but it’s far too hostile the give-and-take of real world conversation to be taken seriously.

  5. S, this has been on my mind lately. We construct our world through language. The stories we tell about ourselves and our world, the way we view things, think about things, all occur with language. The words we use contribute to how we make sense of the world. I’m always fascinated to learn about certain cultures that don’t have words for certain concepts, or how their language causes meanings to be constructed differently.

    I’m not sure we can ever know the extent of the impact the words and rhetoric used has on us. Unlike JKL, I think the impact is profound. It’s not just in using masculine pronouns, but in the way we are spoken to. I believe there was an article in Sunstone about the language used in YM and YW manuals. The YM manual had more proactive and action oriented language (i.e. taking a young woman to the temple) while the YW had more passive language (i.e being taken to the temple). A lifetime of being spoken to that way has to have some psychological impact, and we would do well to examine and be more conscious about the ways in which we use language.

  6. Sure, he would be a different person. I would be a different person. For the better.

  7. DKL, if the only problem with gendered language was confusion arising from inconsistent use of masculine pronouns, I would agree that the problem wouldn’t be a big deal. However, the issue is not just whether or not we understand others’ intent (though I would definitely dispute your claim that we generally understand what others mean–I’ve seen way too many communication problems stemming from differences in language use). It’s how language shapes our realities (as AmyB points out).

    Also, while I agree that “Femininity is not just belching, watching football, and making crude jokes” is slightly silly, I challenge you to find a place in a General Conference talk where the leaders say something along the lines of, “Masculinity is not just belching, watching football, and making crude jokes. Masculinity is the divine adornment of humanity” (this would be a gender-appropriate equivalent to what was said in the original talk). While the regendered version of this (what you wrote) may be silly, men are not being talked to in this way.

    AmyB, I don’t really have anything to add to what you’ve said–thanks for your comments.

  8. DKL, I forgot to respond to your counter-examples. I think I might be more sympathetic to them as actual counter-examples if the identity or experiences of “Venus” or “homo sapiens” were affected by the language used to address or discuss them.

    Mark, and what would “a little” entail? 🙂

  9. There are endless talks about the influence of media, culture, music and langauge upon our “youth.” The youth are constantly told to watch their langauge. None of this rhetoric would make sense without the assumption that cultural images and langauge have a profound psychological impact. Yet, as soon as someone brings up the role that langauge plays in sexism there is so much resistance. It cuts both ways. We can’t get so alarmed at the use of profanity and then roll our eyes when someone mentions gender inclusive langauge. Either words matter or they don’t.

  10. Little Johnny, I don’t really see the connection that you’re suggesting. It’s one thing to use images that feed appetites that are best constrained. It’s quite another to pick apart common usage and try to claim that it has a result quite tangential from any conceivable direct semantic interpretation.

  11. s, I will reflect my thick-headedness with this question, but was your fiance’s response positive or negative? That he would be a different person in a good way or a bad way?

    I think that if gender is eternal as we are taught, and men and women are different and that is divine as well, do we really want to remove all gender-specific language? I would think we wouldn’t or shouldn’t. Not that there are things that might need improving here and there, but I think some of those differences are good and maybe even deliberate. ???

  12. Eric (#12)

    The analogy to priesthood blessings and responsibilities does not hold. Take another look at the list of traits that Elder Faust tells young women they may count in their favor. How many of them are things that a young woman does or earns, rather than happens to have? Note especially that even those that are more “active” traits (grace, capacity to love, e.g.) are just “natural” to women, apparently. Of course there are no references to “delicacy” and “beauty” as the means by which young men may exercise their divine nature, because it would be absurd to talk of young men as though they were flowers, valuable only for external or externally-given traits for which they have no responsibility. How many of those characteristics of femininity have any practical purpose? Even stereotypical portrayals of masculinity–muscles, aggression, etc.–are symbols of a man’s active role as a laborer in the world. A woman’s “delicacy” and “grace” do what, exactly, make her nice to look at, brighten a room? It doesn’t make it any better, when we speak about young women as though they are decorations, to tell them they are extra specially wonderful decorations; the language still treats them as objects, not agents. That’s about a lot more than pronouns, though.

  13. “men are not being talked to in this way.”

    I’m not sure what specifically this is in reference to, but it seems to me that men are indeed talked to in such a way on a regular basis. The only difference is that instead of masculinity, which is rarely addressed, it is priesthood. You will find language quite parallel to Faust’s talk on womanhood in talks in every Priesthood GC session. There is constant talk of the blessings and obligations inherent in the Preisthood. They won’t use words such as “delicacy” and “beauty” but the same concepts are being passed on and often in very similar ways.

    More importantly, perhaps, is that I think the differences in the language being used are in accordance with what is going to resonate most with their given audiences.

  14. I don’t really see the connection that you’re suggesting.

    Sweet DKL, I was trying to show that both “conservatives” (I can’t think of better terms so please forgive if this is not accruate) and “feminists” share the assumption that language psychologically impacts us. When you add the premise and “x language is bad/hurtful etc.” then there is good reason to change it. Conservatives engage this type of reasoning all the time when it comes to potty mouth language. I was trying to show that both groups already assume that words matter without argument. What the feminist needs to show is that sexist language exists and is negative.

    You seem to concede all of that when you say there is a disanalogy between sex language and gender exclusive language. But I am not sure why you say that the language is tangential and without any conceiveable direct semantic interpretation. I thought S did a wonderful job providing examples that show a direct semantic connection to gender inequality in our religious language.

  15. “for which they have no responsibility.”

    I don’t get the impression that there is “no responsibility” involved in the traits that Faust mentions, indeed, I believe he is mentioning them in counsel because they are traits that, although “natural” to a degree, are things that need to be developed.

    Also, I think there are reasons (good reasons) for the differences in the language used towards boys and girls, but I fear to voice them here.

  16. Johnny, the point that both conservatives and feminists believe that words matter is largely beside the point. The question we’re trying to nail down here is which words matter for what purpose and why. S seems to believe that masculine pronouns matter, because (regardless of their express scope of reference) they tacitly promote the harboring of prejudices against women. You want to compare this to the intended impact of intentional meanings. But It really won’t do to put the intentional impact of a sentence on a same level as the more or less random fallout that occurs because of the use of basically conventional forms.

    This discussion brings to mind the various labels that blacks have tried to use over the years. They’ve moved from Negro to black to African-American to Afro-American, and now it’s OK to call them black again. None of this made a wit of difference in their civil rights progress, because (it seems) what was more important than the subtle different between all these labels is that none of them were forthrightly pejorative. (And if there were anything pejorative involved in using masculine pronouns, I’d drop them like a hot-potato…)

    In the case with blacks, we’re actually talking about a direct label. Something where you say, “So and so is an x” or even “You are an x.” If subtle changes to direct labels don’t seem to make a difference, then a fortiori they’re not going to have important the implications when we’re talking about the indirect impact of pronouns.

  17. DKL, I don’t think S, or anyone here so far, has said that masculine pronouns are pejorative. Using them in certain context to refer to all people is a different situation is another discussion.

    The language we use to speak to men and women in the church is vastly different.
    this essay by Carol Lynn Pearson illustrates the Mormon flavor of doing this.

    I don’t think anyone is arguing that we should make all language gender neutral, or try to pretend the gender does not exist. I personally want to be spoken to as an empowered, valuable person. Current parlance in the church, in my opinion, reveals harmful sexist attitudes and I think that could be changed without having to eradicate all gender constructs. (The merits of LDS gender constructs are another disucssion entirely . . .)

  18. Eric, I think that Erika is right to point to the problematic use of words such as “delicacy” and “beauty.” The church has been very critical of the media’s representations of young women (we had two conference talks about it at last fall’s General Conference). I applaud this sentiment, but part of the problem with the media is not just a representation of women in immodest clothing. It revolves around the media’s representation of women as needing to adhere to a certain standard of beauty. When the church then goes and uses language such as “delicacy” and “beauty” in its list of qualities a young woman should have, it inadvertently reminds young women of the messages they are bombarded with every day in the media. And as Erika pointed out, it reminds women of their consistently objectified status in our society.

    DKL, while masculine pronouns was one of the examples I used, AmyB is right to point out that masculine pronouns in and of themselves are not the problem. And language can be problematic even if it doesn’t necessarily have a purposefully harmful intent. Wide-scale pattern usages that reinforce inequalities and affect people psychologically in negative ways (whether harmful intent is there or no) are problems.

    m&m, I’m pretty sure my fiance meant it in a neutral way (though I can ask him). I can also understand your hesistation in wanting to not eliminate all gender-specific language. I was not proposing this at all–I just think we need to examine our current practices regarding gendered language and make some changes to what I see as the more problematic trends.

    Erika, thanks for making the point that church language (like the language in the media) often treats women more like objects than active, engaged participants.

    AmyB, I hadn’t ever seen that Pearson essay before. It acts a lot like the “regender” machine. 🙂 Thanks for linking to it.

    Johnny, thanks for your comments! I liked the parallel you drew with others who argue for the importance of language.

  19. It’s hard to contest the broad proposition that language matters somehow, S, but to give that proposition any real content you have to address the interesting part: how does gendered and ungendered language in Church matter? What effect, precisely, do you think, say, the universalized masculine pronoun from the pulpit has on women? Sometimes it’s argued in these discussions that words like “mankind” linguistically efface women, erasing traces of the female from official utterances and thus leaving flesh-and-blood women with an impoverished sense of self, an underdetermined subjectivity. Well, maybe. But in your critique of Elder Faust’s talk, you seem to object instead to an overdetermined female identity: “you can’t tell us who we are!” seems to be the objection. So which is it, do you think? Is language too specific about who women are, or not specific enough? (I personally think that femaleness is overdetermined in Church discourse these days.)

    Once we’ve formulated a narrower hypothesis, we’d have to test it to see if it holds up. To do this we’d need a control group, a group of women who haven’t been exposed to the kind of language we’re looking at, in order to see whether language does, indeed, have the effect we’ve postulated in Mormon women. Presumably a control group could be found, and a comparative study could be carried out. I’d sure be interested in the results of that study!

  20. I love the regendered paragraph! I laughed till I snorted!

    It’s true that words are subtle and seem like such a narrow focus, and I reject the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis (thought is absolutely constrained by language). At the same time, I do think words have an impact. (In contrast to DKL, I suspect people do associate hostility with Mars and amorous feeilngs with Venus. Connotations and associations influence how we perceive things. Do you want to talk to the boy scouts about the planet Uranus? ;))

    And since language is such a small focus, then it only requires minimal effort to change. How do we justify not expending that minimal effort?

    I’ve read about studies indicating that when “man” is used to refer to humankind, people actually quite literally visualize a man. For instance, when people read about Neanderthal man, they think about Neanderthal males, not all Neanderthals. Why wouldn’t they?

    The famous litmus-test statement, allegedly lifted from an actual anthropology textbook, is, “Man, being a mammal, breast-feeds his young.” Does anything about the statement strike anyone as odd? If so, why? It’s not as though the statement is ambiguous–it’s pretty clear what’s intended.

    And I do think there are cases where ambiguity results because we sometimes use “men” to mean everyone and sometimes to mean men exclusively. I’m honestly not sure in the D&C, for example, which scriptural passages apply to me and which apply only to those with Y-chromosomes.

    For me personally, statements like “femininity is an adornment to humanity” simply do not resonate. They make me want to belch. I’m curious how those who believe they would be better people if they’d been taught they were not a part of humanity but rather a decoration to it think they would be better for it.

    Finally, I consider religious language especially accountable because it provides us with the terms whereby we frame our experience with God. So often when women’s issues (or race issues, for that matter) are raised in the Church, those who object point out that gifts and callings and positions of authority are not in any way rights of individuals. I absolutely agree. But religion is about more than who has relative power in the religious community. It provides us with the doctrine that informs how we encounter God, and attempts to describe God’s attitude toward us as individuals. Even if our language can be shown ultimately to have no effect on policy or practice, it colors the experience between the individual and God, sometimes quite negatively.

  21. Maybe another way of phrasing that, Mark, is that as a Church we generally reject our culture’s construction of “manhood,” where we tend to embrace our culture’s construction of “womanhood.” Is that fair to say (speaking in broad terms)? Sorry to repeat myself, but I think at least part of the reason for this is that many of our core Christian virtues like compassion are coded by our culture as feminine, which creates a number of problems for us.

    For the record, I’m not in favor of using harsh language with men any more than I’m in favor of speaking condescendingly to women. One of the negative aspects of the way men are frequently addressed in the Church is that they are chastised for weaknesses. The corresponding negative aspect in the way women are frequently addressed is that they’re elevated in such a way that the ideal woman is conflated with the norm, and they’re given no breathing room for weaknesses. I wish we would correct both tendencies.

  22. I would simply say that our culture, in general, has done a better job of preserving the divine vision of femininity, than the divine version of masculinity. As such it is no accident that the outside world views the call to holiness for men, as a call to femininity. In fact manliness can only be preserved in religion through the priesthood or something like it – where a man humbles himself to channel all his energies for the benefit of others instead of dissapating them in various vices and quests for adventure. I don’t know why, but women seem to naturally feel the call to motherhood rather more intensely than men the call to fatherhood, i.e. the latter institution is much more fragile, and requires more social organization to maintain.

  23. The reality is that women are subject to peer pressure to drink, smoke, and use foul language (surely I’m not the only one here who attended a public junior high school!), so there’s no reason our leaders shouldn’t address it.

    How do we make sense of women whose “natural” traits correspond less closely to our feminine ideal, as S alluded to in the post–such as women who don’t feel a strong call to motherhood or show interest in young children, or who are blessed with a sense of adventure? Is ordaining such people to the priesthood (whether male or female) really the only way to positively channel their energy?

  24. Kiskilili, # 21,

    Do you want to talk to the boy scouts about the planet Uranus


    That is really funny! I spent three hours early Monday morning in my van with some rambunctious 12 and 13 y.o. boys on their way to scout camp. For three hours, they thought it was hilarious to continually repeat the name of the largest body of water in Bolivia. And in a perfect example of the Stockholm syndrome, after about two hours and forty five minutes, I started to think it was funny too. I don’t know what we will do for cheap laughs on Saturday when I go to pick them up, because that will be hard to top. Maybe they will be worn out and sleep all the way home.


    This is a thoughtful post, but I don’t know what to do with it. Maybe I can give a worthy response later. In the meantime, allow me to suggest an internet handle. If you start to call yourself the blogger formerly known as S, you will have achieved true rock star status in the bloggernacle. I’m sure your mother would be proud.

  25. From the first hit on a search on LDS.org for “manhood”, a talk by Richard C. Edgley, Ensign, November 1999:

    A few months ago I received a letter from a family friend whom we had not seen for many years. Her letter was an expression of hopelessness and a plea for help. After struggling to raise her children as a single mother, she was now remarried. Her nonmember husband was a rough outdoorsman who attempted to express his manhood through drinking, foul language, tough talk, and questionable behavior. Her great concern was that her husband’s example was teaching her son that these indeed were the traits of manhood. Her plea to me: Is there some way, even though separated by great distances, that I might speak to her son, whom we shall call Ben, about the characteristics of true manhood?

    I suppose it is natural for us to equate strength, machoism, and maybe even boisterous and aggressive behavior with manhood. However, the attributes of true manhood are not necessarily physical

    Ben, you can describe a man in inches, pounds, complexion, or physique. But you measure a man by character, compassion, integrity, tenderness, and principle. Simply stated, the measures of a man are embedded in his heart and soul, not in his physical attributes (see 1 Sam. 16:7). But they can be viewed in conduct and demeanor. The qualities of manhood are so often evident in this thing we call countenance. When Alma queried, “Have ye received his image [meaning the Savior–the true man] in your countenances?” (Alma 5:14), he, my friend, was talking about the attributes of true manhood.

  26. Mark IV, you’re a saint for interacting with the 12- and 13-year-olds! I remember, not so long ago, going on a drive with two of my sisters. Two of us thought it was hilarious to try to include the word “lobster” in every sentence; we drove the third batty. 🙂

  27. I’m not at all sure what we mean when we say “gender is eternal,” or refer to the divine feminine. Exactly how have we ascertained which traits our current culture cites as feminine are divine, specific to women, and eternally in force?

    For example, in another talk President Faust famously remarked that women, in becoming educated, should be careful not to lose their femininity. It’s not clear from such a statement what femininity is exactly, only that education potentially jeopardizes it. I’m not sure what to make of this. Is the feminine ideal which we’ll be forced to adhere to in the eternities set at odds to gaining knowledge? Why would that be the case?

  28. Here are some excerpts from a second example, a talk by Elder Carlos E. Asay, “Be Men!”, Ensign, May 1992 (It is no accident these are from Priesthood session):

    It seems that everyone at some time or another is invited by peers to smoke, drink, steal, or engage in other immoral acts, all under the pretense of manhood. And when someone refuses to participate, he is often ridiculed and called names like pansy, mamma’s boy, idiot, chicken, sissy, and religious fanatic. Such names are used by peers who equate manliness with the ability to drink liquor, blow tobacco smoke out of all the facial cavities, sow one’s wild oats like some animal on the street, and break moral laws without a twinge of conscience.

    We see colorful advertisements on billboards, in magazines, and on the television screen promoting cigarettes, beer, and other vices. Those who use cunning tactics to peddle their wares disregard the souls of young people and love only their money. They would have us believe that a person with a cigarette or alcoholic beverage in hand is a man, when in reality he is nothing more than a slave to a destructive substance. They would have us believe that a person who engages in illicit sex is a man, when in reality he is nothing more than an abuser of those who are “tender,” and “chaste,” and “delicate.” (Jacob 2:7.) They would have us believe that brute force, or crude behavior, uncontrolled temper, foul language, and dirty appearance make a man, when in reality these characteristics are animalistic at best and the opposite of manhood at worst.

    We who bear the priesthood, must be on guard; we must not be influenced by barbarian voices in our quest to become men. (See 1 Cor. 14:8-11.) We must remember that “God created man in his own image” and that man is expected to keep that image engraven upon his countenance. (Gen. 1:27; see also Alma 5:14, 19.)

    “How can a man have too much religion?” asked the first. “It is the one thing that availeth. A man is but a beast as he lives from day to day, eating and drinking, breathing and sleeping. It is only when he raises himself, and concerns himself with the immortal spirit within him, that he becomes in [very] truth a man. Bethink ye how sad a thing it would be that the blood of the Redeemer should be spilled to no purpose.” (A. Conan Doyle, “The White Company,” in Works of A. Conan Doyle, New York: Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, 1988, pp. 58-59; italics added.)

    Can a man be too righteous? Too Christlike? Impossible! Can the so-called “balanced man” walk successfully the beam between good and evil? No. Each step is shaky, and eventually he will teeter and fall and break himself against the commandments of God.

    Fleshliness never was manliness, and it never will be. A real man is one who yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit and seeks to acquire Christlike virtues. A real man is one who allows the Spirit to direct the course and to call the cadence in his life. “Remember, to be carnally-minded is death, and to be spiritually-minded is life eternal.” (2 Ne. 9:39.)

    Now, if there is any material difference between the treatment of men here and the treatment of women, it is that the authorities here were *much* harder on the commonplace weaknesses of men, than on the commonplace weaknesses of women. The scriptures are not so restrained.

  29. I think this is an extremely useful and important post.

    For people who claim that these language usages don’t matter, I propose an experiment: simply reverse the gender of your generic pronouns in conversation for a week or two. People do indeed react to these things. It isn’t merely a minor violation of linguistic expectations (although it admittedly is that); some people are positively shocked and alarmed.

    Rosalynde, I think your experiment, while interesting, is almost certainly unviable. The Mormon language usages mentioned here are merely exaggerations of long-standing discursive strategies toward women in the U.S. and other connected 0cultures. To find a group of women who really haven’t experienced these messages, we’d either be searching for extremely marginal cultural niches within our society–which wouldn’t really be comparable–or for radically different outside cultures, which also raise problems of comparability. In either case, problems of confounding would be so severe that the results would finally fail to convince anyone.

    But I think there is a viable alternative research design that might work well. If the church leadership stopped propagating dehumanizing messages about women for, say, ten years, a time-series comparison among Mormon women would address your concerns.

  30. Secular education is every bit as much a threat to the divine vision of masculinity as it is to the divine vision of femininity. The reason for this is secular education inevitably entails becoming indoctrinated, or at least deeply familiar with the philosophies of men, and every excuse imaginable for failing to comply or believe in the wisdom of God, all dressed up and made respectable.

    So no, I do not believe knowledge is incompatible with true femininity – Joseph Smith said that we cannot be saved any faster than we gain knowledge – however he was referring to the knowledge of the Lord that comes by scripture study and personal revelation (cf. D&C 76, 1 Cor 2) and not academic knowledge per se, particularly that sort of knowledge that comprises not truth, but rather the doctrine that there is no truth, or that truth is purely subjective, or that there is no divine standard of morality.

  31. Now, allow me to edit the talk slightly for women – all responsibility and blame for the changes is purely mine of course:

    It seems that everyone at some time or another is invited by peers to smoke, drink, steal, or engage in other immoral acts, all under the pretense of womanhood. And when someone refuses to participate, she is often ridiculed and called names like pansy, papa’s girl, idiot, chicken, sissy, and religious fanatic. Such names are used by peers who equate femininity with the ability to drink liquor, blow tobacco smoke out of all the facial cavities, sow one’s wild oats like some animal on the street, and break moral laws without a twinge of conscience.

    We see colorful advertisements on billboards, in magazines, and on the television screen promoting cigarettes, beer, and other vices. Those who use cunning tactics to peddle their wares disregard the souls of young people and love only their money. They would have us believe that a person with a cigarette or alcoholic beverage in hand is a true woman, when in reality she is nothing more than a slave to a destructive substance. They would have us believe that a person who engages in illicit sex is a true woman, when in reality she is nothing more than an abuser of those who are “tender,” and “chaste,” and “delicate.” (Jacob 2:7.) They would have us believe that brute force, or crude behavior, uncontrolled temper, foul language, and dirty appearance make a woman, when in reality these characteristics are animalistic at best and the opposite of womanhood at worst.

    As daughters of God, we must be on guard; we must not be influenced by barbarian voices in our quest to become women. (See 1 Cor. 14:8-11.) We must remember that “God created men and women in his own image” and that each women is expected to keep that image engraven upon her countenance. (Gen. 1:27; see also Alma 5:14, 19.)

    “How can a woman have too much religion?” asked the first. “It is the one thing that availeth. A woman is but a beast as she lives from day to day, eating and drinking, breathing and sleeping. It is only when she raises herself, and concerns herself with the immortal spirit within her, that she becomes in [very] truth a woman. Bethink ye how sad a thing it would be that the blood of the Redeemer should be spilled to no purpose.” (A. Conan Doyle, “The White Company,” in Works of A. Conan Doyle, New York: Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, 1988, pp. 58-59; italics added.)

    Can a woman be too righteous? Too Christlike? Impossible! Can the so-called “balanced woman” walk successfully the beam between good and evil? No. Each step is shaky, and eventually she will teeter and fall and break herself against the commandments of God.

    Fleshliness never was femininity, and it never will be. A real woman is one who yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit and seeks to acquire Christlike virtues. A real woman is one who allows the Spirit to direct the course and to call the cadence in her life. “Remember, to be carnally-minded is death, and to be spiritually-minded is life eternal.” (2 Ne. 9:39.)

  32. Roasted Tomatoes, I had a friend in college who always used the feminine pronouns this way in his paper, and I didn’t find it shocking in the least–a bit novel, but not shocking. I can imagine that there are those who would be surprised by the sound of irregular usages. I think it’s a mistake to deduce from that anything more than the mere fact that the usage sounds novel. As I pointed out in my original comment, “most people are able to actually understand language in the way its intended, regardless of what actually comes out of our mouths.”

    That said, now that my children are 4 daughters, it’s my habit to refer to a generic child as “she.” I don’t that that impacts the self image of the boys in my ward’s YM program. Nor have I ever had anyone take note of or express surprise over my usage.

  33. Okay, serious question here, for S (or anyone else, really) —

    So I’m a law prof, and I lecture. And I’ve been sufficiently converted to feminism that I tend to use a universal female pronoun. Not in cases where a universal is inappropriate because it conflicts with specific facts, obviously — “Mr. Jones went to the bank and she deposited her check.” But in cases where a universal would normally call for a “he” in traditional usage. “For a testator to execute a will, she needs to meet the following four requirements.”

    This is normally not much of a problem. Substituting she for he is not exactly rocket science.

    I’d say about 60 or 65% of my universal references are generally positive in nature. People selling securities or writing wills or forming trusts; there’s no reason not to use a feminine universal there.

    About 20% of the references are negative in nature, but not in a gender specific way. “If the devisee murders the testator, she can’t take under the will.” I’ve got no problem with that substitution, either. The universal brings both the good and the bad, in general. If women can be testators, they can be murderers too.

    But I’d say 10 or 15% of my universal references turn out to be references where, if I simply flip the gender, I run the risk of invoking negative gender stereotypes. There are a lot of underlying negative stereotypes about women. In the wills context, these include ideas that women are less able to manage their money than men; that women are prone to emotional rather than logical decisions; that women are more likely to be “gold diggers”; and so forth.

    So, say I’m talking about putting assets in trust because a beneficiary’s money management skills are suspect, and I’d normally say “If there are questions about whether a beneficiary can adequately manage his property, the testator may choose to put that property into trust.” If I flip the gender there, I’m suddenly bringing up sexist notions about women who are unable to manage their property.

    (And it’s not just a particular sentence-based problem that can be fixed with more innocuously structured sentences. We spend entire class periods talking about beneficiaries who can’t manage their money, and I’m going to use a universal at some point during the class, no matter how many semantic gymnastics I use.)

    In part, I think that this is because the universal feminine pronoun is processed differently. If it’s an innocuous case (“testator writes her will”) then it’s just treated as a universal. But if it’s a sentence that corresponds to an existing negative stereotype, then it may be processed as relating to that stereotype — and students may hear my statement as “people put assets into trust because some _women_ can’t manage their money well” rather than its intended “people put assets into trust because some beneficiaries can’t manage their money well.”

    And so, weirdly enough, I find myself consciously switching to a masculine universal in some of those cases. (I can’t recall any of the really problematic sentences off the top of my head, but some left me thinking “I really can’t structure this sentence as a she.”)

    I’m not entirely okay with that. This may have confused the students (assuming that they were listening). It creates a weird double standard, where positives and neutrals and gender-okay negatives get switched, but potentially-gender-problematic negatives don’t. And it sends a negative message of its own, that even self-identifying feminist professors use masculine universals sometimes.

    That said, I don’t know that there’s a better solution. I don’t want to invoke negative stereotypes; and given that these stereotypes exist, I don’t feel comfortable using a universal feminine pronoun in those kinds of situations.

    Is there an easy solution? (Doubtful, but possible I guess). How do others handle this problem?

  34. Mark, your comment #32 brings up a topic that would be fascinating to explore in itself, but to stick to the current one, I’m not convinced this is what President Faust had in mind. Otherwise why didn’t he warn everyone? Why did he cite education as a potential threat to femininity specifically, rather than discussing it as a general threat to individuals’ testimonies or commitments to the Church?

    I’m glad you don’t personally find femininity incompatible with knowledge, I really am! Cheers! The question I meant to raise, though, is how we tease divine femininity out of cultural femininity, and how statements the Church makes potentially giving us information about the former pose problems.

    P.S. Are you sure we’re only indoctrinated into the philosophies of “men” in academia, or does “men” here include women? 😉

  35. I love your question, Kaimi–I love that this kind of thing occurs to you! I personally favor “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. I realize it obscures singular/plural distinctions, which is sometimes a problem. Worse, there’s a whole movement of grammar Fascists who take exception to it (in spite of the fact that I understand this usage has a long and distinguished history, appearing, I believe, in Charles Dickens and in Shakespeare). I would love to just make up a new gender-neutral pronoun, but unfortunately it’s much easier to introduce lexical terms than grammatical ones into a language.

    I like your regendered paragraphs, Mark. I think you should use them in talks or lessons. I have to ask, though, what’s your motivation for eliminating reference to Heavenly Mother when regendering? My question is really, is it more a problem to claim Heavenly Mother bestows masculinity on men than that Heavenly Father bestows femininity on women, and why?

  36. Mark #23

    Now, if there is any material difference between the treatment of men here and the treatment of women, it is that the authorities here were *much* harder on the commonplace weaknesses of men, than on the commonplace weaknesses of women.I don’t think this is a good thing. As Rosalynde said in Kaimi’s thread women would benefit from stricter discourses aimed at socializing us away from our weaknesses. Our weaknesses are different than men’s weaknesses, but no less damaging to ourselves and neighbors.

    I think Sister Dew and Sister Okazaki (?) were so popular because they were so straightforward and unapologetic. They were not afraid of hurting our feelings. If we continue to coddle the sisters in our speech then women will never attain the emotional maturity needed to handle the stern and honest correction that is necessary to overcome our sins.

  37. Nice post. I like to substitute “one” for “man” when reading scriptures and singing hymns. Fits better than “they” and works in most cases. Also people for mankind, sibling(s) for brother(en) .

    My husband asked for help when he was assigned to teach the Elder’s Quorum Elder Holland’s talk which included the reference to the great and spacious make-up kit–not wanting to do so in a sexist way. Elder Holland even told the conference audience to liken what he said to them even though he was speaking to the young women. Rather than teaching the Elders to respect women for who they are inside/not focusing on women’s appearance (the approach he was considering), I suggested that likening it unto the Elders meant using the equivalent weaknesses of men–like ambition, competition, wealth, etc.–the great and spacious tool box. Doesn’t quite pack the same punch, does it. That’s because even men’s weaknesses are seen as strengths by the world.

    Mark Butler–I think it’s really dangerous to assume that the world gets it wrong about what is true manhood but right about true womanhood is all about. I’d guess the world gets both wrong. And scriptural portrayals of righteous strong, brave, assertive, prophetic, even politically rebellious women tends to reverse “worldly” images of how women “should” be, too.

  38. Kiskilili (#27), I was quite serious in the applicability of my slightly edited version to women. Here is a slightly edited version of the first excerpt in question here:

    I wonder if you brothers fully understand the greatness of your gifts and talents and how all of you can achieve the ‘highest place of honor’ in the Church and in the world. One of your unique, precious, and sublime gifts is your manhood, with its natural honor, goodness, and divinity. Manhood is not just tough talk, a brash attitude, and cool toys. It is a divine adornment of humanity. It finds expression in your qualities of your capacity to love, your spirituality, strength, honor, sensitivity, creativity, charm, graciousness, gentleness, courage, dignity, and quiet strength. It is manifest differently in each boy or man, but each of you possesses it. True masculinity is part of your inner virtue.

    One of your particular gifts is your manly intuition. Do not limit yourselves. As you seek to know the will of our Heavenly Father in your life and become more spiritual, you will be far more worthy of the honor and respect of your brothers and sisters. You can use your divine attributes to bless those you love and all you meet, and spread great joy. True manhood is part of the God-given divinity within each of you. It is your incomparable power and influence to do good. You can, through your supernal gifts, bless the lives of children, men, and women. Be proud of your divine inheritance as a man. Enhance it, discipline it. Use it to serve others.

  39. This is an excellent post, S! Thank you.

    To those who don’t think language matters that much, please refer to the fairly recent revision of “white and delightsome” to “pure and delightsome” in 2 Nephi.

    #37, I wish the usage of “one”, meaning “a person”, were in grammatical vogue (along the same lines as “man” in German, as in “Wie sagt man auf Deutsch?”).

  40. I ended up adapting my comment about universal feminine pronoun to a post over at my legal group blog.

    We’ll see if any of the commenters there come up with some of the ideas that have been floated here — use of “they” or “one,” for example.

    Perhaps I should just insert a nonsense word. Alert the class at the semester’s start. “My universal pronoun for this semester is PUMPKIN. Don’t forget it.”

    Then I’d have great sentences like “if the testator wishes to, pumpkin can include contingent beneficiaries in pumpkin’s will. . .”

  41. LisaB (#39), As a rule, I don’t assume anything. Not that I can help, at any rate. I agree that the world has in times past watered down femininity too much, almost making it into as bad a caricature as the worlds vision of masculinity, then or now.

    Kiskilili (#37), To answer that question, I think we would have to enter into an extended discussion of the doctrine of the divine concert. I also have a really strange idea about motherhood as we know it (viviparous birth) being a precedent of this existence, that will be fulfilled in the next, but was not fully operable at some time in the past, that is correlated with my idea of collective progression of all the heavenly hosts, and not an endless series where nothing much changes from eternity to eternity.

  42. Kaimi, I like your idea of picking a (more or less) arbitrary word as a gender-unspecific pronoun. But I think that “pumpkin” is too cumbersome to say.

    I think that any such term should be monosyllabic and easy to say. Thus, I propose that we use the term “god,” as in, “It’s important for a person to use pronouns that are not gender-specific, lest god tacitly contribute to the subjugation of women.” That has the added value of being polysemic in a different way.

    But the real problem isn’t that there are two sexes, or that one is treated worse than the other, it’s that there is a tireless army of would-be victims trying to concoct ways to define (more or less) normal things as somehow repressive. This is how intellectually lazy people convince themselves that they’re advanced thinkers. But if I had a dime for every feminist I met who was proud of seeing discrimination where others don’t, I’d could pay for a stake center just from tithing. (Well, not a stake center really, but you get the idea.)

  43. K, I’m absolutely positive that Elder Faust was not suggesting that women are inherently unsuited to higher learning. It should be abundantly clear that the 90s was the decade during which the glad tidings of critical gender studies made their way from the seminar room to 50 E West Temple—“For unto us is born this day a theory, that gender is an oppressive social construct”—and that it was against the implications of this development, specifically, that Elder Faust was warning.

    RT, I am not, alas, a social scientist, but I suspect you’re right that the study I described would be very difficult at best, and possibly unworkable altogether. But that’s sort of my point: as long as this kind of discussion remains a battle of the intuitions, I doubt we’ll be able to accomplish more than increasingly elaborate and sophisticated versions of S’s speculations.

  44. wow–lots of responses!

    Rosalynde, I don’t see why gender can’t be simultaneously overdetermined and underdetermined simultaneously.

    Kiskilili, I really like your point about the accountability of religion on this issue since it is religion that determines how we relate to God, understand our eternal nature, etc.

    Mark Butler, thanks for all your examples of talks on manhood! I agree with Kiskilili in that there is still a difference–men are chastised, and women’s femininity is affirmed. And I’m going to have to agree with LisaB–I have some major issues with the secular world’s concept of “femininity” (I’m not sure that they get it more right than their concept of “masculinity”). Also, I also think you should totally use the regendered version of Faust’s talk in priesthood and see what kind of responses you get!

    Mark IV, heh! thanks for the handle suggestion. I’m not sure that I want rock star status in the bloggernacle, though. 🙂

  45. RT, thanks, and I like your proposed research model. Maybe we could use this as a justification for eliminating patronizing, sexist language? 🙂

    Kaimi, I don’t have any clear solution to your problem. You could use “they” or “one,” as others have suggested. I’ve also known people who have switched back and forth between “he” and “she”–using both equally. I personally like your “pumpkin” solution. Or you could use “it”–it might be funny to see how your students would respond to that. 🙂

    DKL, why can’t “normal” things also be repressive?

    Starfoxy and ECS, I don’t have anything to add your thoughts–thanks for your comments!

    LisaB, I’m with you–I think there are some serious problems with various secular versions of “femininity.” And I think that when the church aligns itself with these versions of “feminity,” it’s problematic.

  46. Wow, that “regendered” thing is cool!!! Really makes you think.

    I just got done posting a question about gender issues parenting boys, and Regendered definitely casts it in a different light…

    Of course what Regendered did to that one is not nearly as hilarious or thought-provoking as regendered’s version of my earlier post about Jack Weyland

    p.s. I love the fact that it translated “France” as “Frank” — is this a chick country or what?

  47. DKL (#43), I think you neglect to mention how there is a critical sense in the scriptures of how captivity to the kingdom God is a good thing – perhaps an extreme word used to make a very important point.

    For example:

    Oh that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion! when the LORD bringeth back the captivity of his people, Jacob shall rejoice, and Israel shall be glad.
    (Psalm 14:7)

    Lord, thou hast been favourable unto thy land: thou hast brought back the captivity of Jacob.
    Thou hast forgiven the iniquity of thy people, thou hast covered all their sin. Selah.
    (Psalm 85:7)

    For, lo, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will bring again the captivity of my people Israel and Judah, saith the LORD: and I will cause them to return to the land that I gave to their fathers, and they shall possess it.
    (Jer 30:3)

    For I will restore health unto thee, and I will heal thee of thy wounds, saith the LORD; because they called thee an Outcast, saying, This is Zion, whom no man seeketh after.
    Thus saith the LORD; Behold, I will bring again the captivity of Jacob’s tents, and have mercy on his dwellingplaces; and the city shall be builded upon her own heap, and the palace shall remain after the manner thereof.
    (Jer 30:17-18)

    The voice of joy, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride, the voice of them that shall say, Praise the LORD of hosts: for the LORD is good; for his mercy endureth for ever: and of them that shall bring the sacrifice of praise into the house of the LORD. For I will cause to return the captivity of the land, as at the first, saith the LORD.
    (Jer 33:11)

    Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath made ruler over his household, to give them meat in due season?
    (Matt 24:45)

    And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.
    (Mark 10:44-45)

    And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!
    (Luke 15:17)

    The same followed Paul and us, and cried, saying, These men are the servants of the most high God, which shew unto us the way of salvation.
    (Acts 16:17)

    Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?

    But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.

    I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness.

    For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness. What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death.

    But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
    (Rom 6:16-23)

  48. All preaching to the unconverted tends to be patronizing as a matter of course. The preacher is speaking for God, the ultimate Patron, after all.

  49. Starfoxy (#38), Re: Differential severity. One of the reasons there is great need for strong female leaders in the Church, is that it is much easier for them to chastise women for their failings properly than it is for a man. The male leaders take too much flak for being “patronizing” already, though perhaps some have overcompensated. Do we really need the linguistic severity of Isaiah or Jeremiah to get the message across? Men often do – I don’t know about women. I suppose the day may come again, though.

  50. S,

    I agree that the way we use language can be confusing and problematic, but it isn’t at all clear to me that this is primarily a feminist issue. In your original post, you say:

    There was no official language in the church to describe who I was and what was most important to me.

    Do we have any reason to think this applies to females more than males? I’ve done some regendering of First Presidency statements from the last decade or so, and wonder what you might make of these:

    Altogether too many women, leaving their husbands … in the morning and going to work, where they find attractively dressed… young men, regard themselves as young and beautiful, and as an irresistible catch. They complain that their husbands do not look the same as they did twenty years ago when they married them. To which I say, Who would, after living with you for twenty years? GBH Oct ’91 General Conference

    No woman who so conducts herself is worthy of the privileges of the house of the Lord. I regret that there are some women undeserving of the love of their husbands and children. There are children who fear their mothers…. If there be any such women within the hearing of my voice, as a servant of the Lord I rebuke you and call you to repentance. Discipline yourselves. Master your temper. Most of the things that make you angry are of very small consequence. And what a terrible price you are paying for your anger. Ask the Lord to forgive you. Ask your husband to forgive you. Apologize to your children. GBH, GC Oct ’96

    When fretted by this single life, which seems to be my lot, I think of all the many women whose husband I’m glad I’m not!
    James E. Faust GC Oct ’99

    Pres. Hinckley once opened priesthood meeting by remarking “Well, brethren, you’re not much to look at, but you’re all the Lord has got, so I guess you’ll do.” If he did that at a women’s meeting, he would cause a greater uproar that ETB’s talk about working mothers.

    You probably have a good point that our use of language causes some of our women and girls distress as they feel limited and of lesser value. But how do we account for the majority of both women and men in the church, including many self-identified feminists, who feel that women are better than men?

  51. “Pres. Hinckley once opened priesthood meeting by remarking “Well, brethren, you’re not much to look at, but you’re all the Lord has got, so I guess you’ll do.” If he did that at a women’s meeting, he would cause a greater uproar that ETB’s talk about working mothers.

    I think such an opening statement, for one, should *not* cause an uproar (if it does it indicates an overdeveloped sensitivity), and two it would confirm to the sisters that thier physical appearance is trivial within a church setting because it can be joked about in that fashion.

    Walking on eggshells around us isn’t going to help, and only further confirms women’s beliefs that there really is something sort of wrong with us. (The lady doth protest too much!) I want to see our *male* leaders address us in this way because it would mean that they us as their intellectual and spiritual equals and are comfortable enough with us to engage us directly and joke with us about our own shortcomings.

  52. Walking on eggshells around us isn’t going to help, and only further confirms women’s beliefs that there really is something sort of wrong with us. (The lady doth protest too much!) I want to see our *male* leaders address us in this way because it would mean that they us as their intellectual and spiritual equals and are comfortable enough with us to engage us directly and joke with us about our own shortcomings.

    It seems to me that our leaders are between a rock and a hard place. Sometimes I feel that if they don’t walk on eggshells, then something they say (like “he” instead of “she” or “one” or whatever) will be misunderstood as sexist or insensitive to women or not valuing them equally with men. And if jokes were made, I’m not sure that would fly, either. I don’t envy their position. No matter what they say or how they say it, someone will think they mean or feel something that they don’t. I think DKL hit it on the head:

    But the real problem isn’t that there are two sexes, or that one is treated worse than the other, it’s that there is a tireless army of would-be victims trying to concoct ways to define (more or less) normal things as somehow repressive.

    I think “problems” with language can often be as much the responsibility of the receiver/listener as much if not more than the speaker. Not that sensitivity in our language shouldn’t be encouraged, but sometimes I think it’s taken to an extreme (rooted in an “overdeveloped sensitivity” as Starfoxy called it). Kaimi’s example of having to choose a “he” or a “she” depending on context, so as not to offend, seems to border on the ridiculous. Not because he desires to be sensitive, but that he would feel the need to be that concerned. It’s all a bit much, if you ask me. It makes me tired just thinking about it. 🙂

    In short, it isn’t just words and language that is the problem here. It’s perception, and frames of reference, and experience and experiences that can shape what words and language mean to individual people. In that sense, “normal” can be perceived as repressive, but that doesn’t always mean it is. At least it isn’t to everyone. I doubt there would be any rules of language and word use that wouldn’t have some sort of negative connotation to someone, somewhere. And, so, in the end, can’t we all just do our best and give others some room so as not to make them offenders for a word?

  53. Starfoxy,

    I absolutely agree. It *should* not cause any trouble, but that is wishful thinking, IMO. And that serves to underscore my point. There are women in the church for whom our language and practices are obstacles. I understand them, I think, and I empathize with them and wish things were different. But I do think they are in the minority. From my previous comment:

    …the majority of both women and men in the church, including many self-identified feminists, … feel that women are better than men…

    I respect your contention that the lauguage we use teaches women that there is something wrong with them, I really do. But I take issue with your statement because it manifestly does not include all women, or even a majority of them.

    I join you in wishing that the institutional church would address both men and women in a straightforward manner as followers of Christ, and leave aside the poorly defined references to femininity and masculinity. But the simple fact is, men and women struggle in different ways, so we probably need to be spoken to in different ways as well.

  54. I personally don’t worry so much about what language others are using, because I would get too worked up. However, I try to be very mindful of how I use language. I work with children with disabilities. I think people first language is important (vs. saying “disabled children). It is small, but through consciously trying to change it I also change my attitudes and behavior.

    I also have difficulty right now using the word “god.” I feel that whatever divinity/god is, there is a perfect union of masculine and feminine. When I say “god” I don’t mean a white guy in the sky, so I have to change my language to express concepts more in line with what I really mean.

    I think using words consciously can show sensitivity and awareness of others’ feelings and needs, which I don’t think is ever a bad thing. If church leaders were more conscious and careful about it, it would make me feel like they care more. I’m not saying they don’t care now, but it would be an additional level that would be meaningful to me.

  55. Mark IV, I think you are correct to point out that how we talk to men in the church has it’s own problems. For instance, because we’ve given women this idealized status (and talk to them in such terms), men are constantly being put down as less spiritual, etc. I think that patterns such as this need to be addressed as well.

    I also respect your point that women who are aware of language problems and sensitive to their implications are in the minority. However, just because it only bothers a minority (though I still think that minority consists of substantial numbers), doesn’t mean it’s something we shouldn’t examine. If changing our language practices were going to cause great harm to those not being offended, I may rethink my position. But the way I see it, no one gets hurt by doing this, and everyone gains. I think that our language use affects the identity-development of men and women in the church (completely separate from who is offended when), and I see this language creating problematic consequences. So, in my mind, even though a minority of people may be the ones critiquing these practices, *everyone* would benefit from changes to how we address both men and women.

    And I agree that there are going to have to be some differences when addressing men and women. As it stands, men and women have very different experiences (whether you want to argue that it’s due to biological differences or differing socialization patterns), and the way we address men and women is going to have to take that into account. There is no way to have completely gender-neutral language, and I certainly wouldn’t advocate this.

    m&m, I agree that being oversensitive (i.e. me deciding to get upset every time someone uses “he” as a generic pronoun) does no one any good. But, as I said in my comment to Mark IV, for me the issue entails a lot more than appeasing those who are sensitive. Language use has serious consequences beyond making certain people bothered or upset (as I mentioned in my post), and it is for these reasons that I want to see changes in our language use.

    AmyB, some good thoughts. Thanks.

    Starfoxy, I think before the sisters are ready to hear a joke like that, the church needs to do some serious discursive work separating their value in their church from their “beauty.” But I do agree with your overall sentiment of wanting to be joked with, talked to forthrightly, not treated like porcelain, etc!

  56. AmyB, It is pretty hard to avoid the term God. In all seriousness, I am sure your Heavenly Father would rather be thought of as a woman, than not be thought of at all.

  57. So, in my mind, even though a minority of people may be the ones critiquing these practices, *everyone* would benefit from changes to how we address both men and women.

    I’m still not convinced about this, but couldn’t really know unless I really had my brain around what kinds of changes you would desire. Care to help me out here? (If you dont, that’s fine, too…but frankly, there would be a point where I think it could have diminishing returns that could affect “the majority” so….)

    Also, how much of this is a reflection of dislike of gender roles in the Church in general? I can’t get my head around that either…is it really the language that is an issue or the underlying doctrines that are driving the frustration? (For example, “beauty” to me doesn’t mean clothes I wear and makeup I put on…I sense so much more than that in that word because of the doctrine of our divinity as women (whatever that means, I know)…but it just feels fine to me, even though for some it is laden with fluffy exterior stuff…again, though, I don’t know that any set of words could fix the problem of misunderstanding, because every word has its baggage, ya know?)

    Sorry if I’m just being dense….

  58. C.L. Hanson, I’m glad that you liked the “regender” machine (and thanks for the links to regendered material). I love it myself!

    m&m, in no way are you being dense. Different people in the church have very different experiences, and I just think ours differ to a a very large degree. 🙂

    A few examples of changes (these are general ideas rather than specific ones): talk to women in ways that discuss their strength and power (rather than just their feminity and beauty); don’t talk to men like they are less spiritual than women; be more open to using things like “one” or “she” as generic pronouns from time to time. As for changes, I think they are going to affect everyone (the majority and the minority), but in my mind, we could make a number of changes that would affect everyone positively.

    And you’re right to observe that a lot of my complaints have to do with my issues with gender roles in general. I personally thinks the church needs to be more flexible on this issue (and that our discourse should change to match). For example, I highly support getting rid of all words that in any way have the slightest connotation that women are subservient or secondary to men (this is where my complaint with the word “preside” comes in). I realize not everyone agrees with me on this, but I still think there are ways we could change the discourse that would uphold gender differences but solve some of the problems with patronizing and unbalanced language use that currently exists.

    You’re also right to point out that all words have their own sets of problems (i.e. there is no ideal solution that will solve all problems). But I do think there are choices that are better than others (i.e. words with fewer problematic consequences).

  59. Wow. I loved the essay by Carol Lynn Pearson. It has inspired me to create a scrapbook. So far it’s the only item for the scrapbook, but it makes me want to find more. It seems like a starting point for my journey to find the way to raise confident daughters in the gospel. Thank you!

    As for language, and the point of this post, I have really learned a lot. I’m realizing that gendered language actually does matter. Thanks for this insightful post!

  60. zud, thanks for your response. I haven’t yet had to figure out how to deal with my feminist issues with the church in the context of raising children, but I’ll be there some day. I wish you the best of luck!

  61. Several people have commented to the effect that if gendered language usage is problematic, there ought to be some evidence of the harm or confusion it is causing. While I agree that it would be difficult to quantify many of the negative effects proposed by S. and others, I am familiar with a study about the interpretation of male pronouns in theoretically gender-neutral contexts.

    Fatemeh Khosroshahi’s article Penguins Don’t Care, but Women Do: A Social Identity Analysis of a Whorfian Problem was originally published in Vol. 18 of the journal Language in Society. It was also reprinted in Linguistics at Work, a reader edited by Dallin D. Oaks.

    One of Ms. Khosroshahi’s findings was that male pronouns were interpreted as representing males over 80% of the time, and that even expressions such as “he or she” were interpreted to represent females only 34% of the time. I remember reading about this study in one of my undegraduate linguistics classes, and being struck by it at the time. I think it’s good evidence that, regardless of the intentions of the speaker, you simply can’t assume that male pronouns will be “properly” interpreted as also representing females.

    (Sorry about coming to this discussion so late. I had trouble tracking down a copy of the article I referenced.)

  62. Katya, it sounds like that article supports the claims you were making about ambiguity/confusion problems caused by use of male pronouns. And I think I will look up that article, so thanks for the citations.

  63. OK – here I am, another even later comer. I am not a blogger, but every once in awhile I come across something in my surfing that catches my eye and interest. I just sat and read this whole discussion, and feel a need to comment.

    I have come to realize more than ever how much words matter. I remember once years ago hearing that some group was to rewrite the bible with non gender specific terms and thinking how ludicrous that was. I still think that to a great degree, but now have more empathy for those who wished to tip the scales a bit.

    I think that we are affected by subliminal messages that we get through language over the years. We don’t usually consciously know we are even getting a message. I have had issues (referred to as ‘concerns’ in another post on this site) that have resurfaced through the years, but I have always managed to push them back into submission so that I can carry on and maintain “righeousness”.

    I read a couple of things in the scriptures recently, however, that I took note of and was disturbed by. After that ‘pricking up of my ears’, so to speak, more and more things started jumping off the page and wouldn’t let me be. The problem istn’t testimony, really – If I didn’t have one, none of this could possibly bother me. The subliminal messages I am talking about are the words we hear and read as women and men in the church. The men would only ever think twice about any of this if they were sensitive and wondered how one of God’s daughters could possibly feel about her (and all women’s) exclusions.

    I am very analytical and quite a reasoner (masculine traits?), which fuel my angst. I ache with sadness sometimes, and weep (the word “harrow” works nicely). Here are a few of the examples that triggered the latest bout.

    This one from the Lord Himself, quoted in the most correct of any book and written for us, and for our day: 3rd Nephi 9:17

    And as many as have received me, to them have I given to become the sons of God; and even so will I to as many as shall believe on my name,…

    As I read that and it really hit me what it was saying, I was thinking “only sons”? – trying to rationalize that it indeed must mean sons and daughters. Then why didn’t it say ‘sons and daughters’? I dare say that sons is quite specific and that I can never become one. So, have I not received Christ, or do I not believe on Him? Am I being too sensitive? Did the Lord make a mistake? Did His prophet make a mistake in quoting Him? Did it take up too much room to include it all? Wait – go back to the beginning of the chapter – verse two specifically includes both sons and daughters when it is speaking of the fallen.

    Hmm… My mind tucks that one away. Shortly thereafter I was reading in D&C 76. Modern Revelation – written as delivered, no translation. I have always taken the qualifications and blessings listed that designate inheritors of each of the kingdoms as a list. As I read “the testimony of the gospel of Christ concerning them who shall come forth in the resurrection of the just”, parts of it unsettled me, because they could not apply to me:

    They are they who are priests and kings… and are priests of the Most Hight, after the order of Melchizedek,… wherefore, as it is written, they are gods, even the sons of God…these are they whoso are just men made perfect…

    Then I was a bit upset and thought – ok, this means what? That no women are in the celestial kingdom, OR that we must turn into men to be in the celestial kingdom, OR that we as women only go to the celestial kingdom as the property of one of the kings referred to. Of course there is nothing on the list that applies to women only.

    It has been extremely hard for me to find comfort and solace in the places that I have gone in the past and am supposed to be able to go to find peace and the word of God. I still read scriptures, but the subliminal messages that I used to not even notice now jump up and grab me by the throat and make me take note. Pretty much all of the wonderful sermons, promises, inspirations, etc. are not only about men and given by men, but are addressed to men. In the D&C- to the Elders; the New Testament and Book of Mormon- to the Brethren. If you don’t believe me (for you men who are rolling your eyes) start taking note. One passage in the book of Mosiah (2:40) takes it to the extreme (and was quoted by Elder Eyring, whom I love, by the way, last general conference) when King Benjamin says “O, all ye old men, and also ye young men, and you little children who can understand my words,…” !! Even when King Benjamin starts out by saying he is speaking to his people, he addresses only the brethren. Also Read again Alma 5:14, previosly quoted in this discussion:

    And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experenced this mighty change in your hearts?

    I know, I know… I thought at first that I was just being overly sensitive, too nitpicky, etc. But just be aware, and notice it a bit yourself before you proclaim me as such. I haven’t even touched the tip of the ice berg here. Please notice that not only do the scriptures never mention our Mother in Heaven, but they seem to make it clear that fathers, not mothers, in every way are the going thing (think “turn the hearts of the children to the fathers”, “therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father”, “at the right hand of God in the kingdom of heaven, to sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and with Jacob, and with all our holy fathers, to go no more out.”) These father themes, including also geneology, patriarchal blessings (given only to sons as recorded in scripture), etc. are not isolated incidents, but recur throughout. Did you know that Nephi even had sisters? if so, it’s because they are barely referred to in one verse. Also -I know that we are taught that men and women only go to the celestial kingdom together, that neither can go alone. However – I can name several instances in the scriptures where a man is sealed up unto exaltation, but no mention of a woman going wit him is made. In fact, in the same section of scripture where Joseph Smith is promised his exaltation, Emma is threatened with destruction.

    Recently, out of curiousity because of my heightened awareness I checked something on LDS.org: -in all the standard works the word
    father(s) is used 2,707 times; mother(s) only 440
    son – 3,956 ; daughter – 688
    man – 6,005 ; woman – 430, lady -10
    brother -683, Elder – 404, Brethern – 1,153 ; sister -166


  64. Susan, I hear you. I also find it unsettling at best, and sometimes downright painful, to read such scriptures and not be entirely sure that they can be applied to me, too. I want to confidently say that of course “brothers” means “brothers and sisters.” But as you point out, the problem is that sometimes women are explicitly mentioned, which could lead you to deduce that if they aren’t, it’s because they’re not meant to be there. And then there are verses (like the oath and covenant of the priesthood) which we do read as applying to males exclusively. The upshot is that there’s a certain amount of ambiguity when it comes to terms like “sons” and “brethren.”

  65. Nice comments, Susan! You’ve articulated so well exactly the problem I alluded to earlier. When it says “priests and kings” in section 76, what does that mean? Can I become a priest or a king? If so, why not change other aspects of the Church to reflect that? If not, of what significance is it that women go unmentioned in this passage, and how should I, a woman, read it? We’re supposed to apply the scriptures to ourselves, but what does that mean in an instance like this?

    in the same section of scripture where Joseph Smith is promised his exaltation, Emma is threatened with destruction.

    This section smarts more than any other passage in scripture. I honestly don’t know what to think about it, except that God is going to have to do a LOT of explaining.

    As I said somewhere earlier, I think religious language is more accountable than language in other contexts. I can easily shrug off gender exclusive language in an outdated biology textbook, or in an elderly person’s speech. But religious language purports to give me information on how God views me, and for that reason it influences my relationship with God (or fuels my worries that God cannot view me as a full human being).

  66. “…God is going to have to do a LOT of explaining.”

    Why not ask for an explanation now rather than waiting for it sometime in the future?

  67. God just doesn’t usually give me intellectual information. On occasion he might comfort me or he might confirm to me that something that makes sense to me is true (or, more often, he might remain silent), but that tends to be the extent of our interaction. For whatever reason, God just doesn’t provide me with the sort of elaborate or unambiguous explanations to my questions that I would find intellectually satisfying.

  68. Line upon line, precept upon precept…(Saturday’s Warrior tune here)

    The problem is God cannot explain or give the answers to certain questions until we understand the prerequisite principles so that the answers make any sense. As far as I am concerned this neuter son/father/brother thing is mostly a convention of language.

    Now in regard to Emma, it is well worth noting that in multiple places Joseph Smith was threatened with dire consequences if he did not repent of his sins. No one needs their current wife or husband to be exalted, if they are so stubborn or incalcitrant as to reject the requirements thereof, the Lord will remove them from their place.

    That means a new husband for any righteous woman with a stubbornly disobedient husband, and a new wife for any righteous man with a stubbornly disobedient wife. D&C 132 is quite clear on the subject. All sealings are contingent upon faithfulness, at least until both parties calling and election has been made sure.

    Now we cannot say what spiritual state Emma Smith is now in, but her stubbornness in this life was legendary. We have thousands of people who sacrificed everything to cross the plains, and she was out of touch to the degree that she either could not recognize that the mantle of Joseph Smith had fallen on Brigham Young, or purposely rejected the leadership of the Lord’s anointed despite that witness.

    Also, intellectually and culturally, I can fully appreciate Emma’s objection to polygamy. The real question however, is did Emma approach the Lord and find out what his opinion was on the the subject. If the Lord was against it, Emma should have left Joseph Smith. If the Lord was for it, she should have humbled herself to accept it as a test of her faith.

    That is the only issue of importance. We either accept what lot the Lord is willing to give us, according to his wisdom, or we fall from the faith. In the long run, it is an either/or question, no inbetween. Salvation is a gift according to the grace of God, not some sort of birthright.

  69. Thank you for this discussion. I don’t have much more to add except for that I really appreciate it. It is difficult to make sense of the gender exclusive language in religion, especially when in other spheres of life I am treated and spoken to as an equal human being. The differences are becoming more glaring– I am not sure what to do with it all.

  70. Kiskilili — What struck me in your initial post (#67) was the comment “…it influences my relationship with God (or fuels my worries that God cannot view me as a full human being).” I think that is what is at the heart of this thread. Male-centered language is just one of the many societal/cultural stings women experience that leave many of us feeling as if we are worth less than men in the eyes of God. I don’t think you are alone in your experiences, both in questioning to what extent God values you and also in not getting immediate answers to your questions. It is my sincere hope that you will soon come to know, deeply and profoundly, that you are fully human and equally valued in God’s eyes. With such knowledge, the stings lose much of their power.

    In response to your comments in #69: Another sting women endure is the idea that emotions are weak. They aren’t. They are equally paired with and inextricably linked to intellect. Cutting oneself off from emotion in any manner also cuts one off from intellect. Please be open to the fact that God’s answers don’t always come intellectually, but come via the heart as pure emotion. Accompanying the emotion is usually an intellectual message, but we can miss it if we deny, avoid, or discount emotion (I realize I may have read something into your remark that you didn’t intend — please excuse me if I made a false assumption).

  71. Mark Butler, # 70,

    I find it interesting that you describe Emma Smith as stubborn and apparently see that as a negative. Was she any more stubborn that Brigham Young? We admire Spencer W. Kimball for his tenacity and toughness, but I think those words ought to be applied to Emma as well.

    Sure, she stayed behind in Nauvoo, and we don’t know all her reasons. But certainly one of the big reasons was to care for her husband’s aged mother. Lucy was in no condition to leave, and Emma cared for her when nobody else did. Let’s admire her for that.

  72. Mark IV,

    Stubbornness can be good or evil depending on what one is stubborn about. If stubborn means insisting on have one’s own way, being a law unto oneself, not being humble, and easy to be entreated, then it is a very bad, potentially fatal attribute. The term stubborn is always used in this negative sense in the scriptures. For example:

    That they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments:
    And might not be as their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation; a generation that set not their heart aright, and whose spirit was not stedfast with God.
    (Ps 78:7-8)

    For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.
    (1 Sam 15:23)

    That which breaketh a law, and abideth not by law, but seeketh to become a law unto itself, and willeth to abide in sin, and altogether abideth in sin, cannot be sanctified by law, neither by mercy, justice, nor judgment. Therefore, they must remain filthy still.
    (D&C 88:35)

    To the degree that Brigham Young sought to have his way, and not the the Lord’s way, it was certainly not to his credit. The same applies to us all.

  73. Mark Butler, I think the real issue in D&C 132 isn’t stubbornness or prayerfulness but the clear gender disparities in personhood and in eternal consequences. Adulterous men are deprived of their wives (as of possessions); adulterous women are damned. Throughout the section women are described, essentially, as property. Your egalitarian “That means a new husband for any righteous woman with a stubbornly disobedient husband, and a new wife for any righteous man with a stubbornly disobedient wife” is very resonant with our contemporary ideas about gender, but that’s simply not what D&C 132 says.

  74. Susan, thanks for pointing out some specific scriptures that point to things that many commenters (Katya, Kiskilili, etc) have been saying. For me the heart of the matter is not the confusion–it’s the worry (as expressed by Kiskilili) that somehow as a woman I’m not going to be treated in the same way by God that men are (and I think that Eve’s explanation of section 132 fits in with this)–that I am not as valued, or will be treated as a lesser person. Right now what keeps me sane are very real, direct experiences with God that affirm my worth to him and that bring peace to the places in my heart where I question and struggle.

    Tam, I like what you say about emotion being connected with intellect–a lot of my answers have come in the form of emotion (feelings of peace, warmth, etc.). I’d have to say, though, that my experience has been much along the lines of Kiskilili’s. God has given me a certain amount of peace and reassurance when it comes to some of my questions and struggles, but no intellectual understanding has accompanied those feelings. Maybe it’s because I’m not ready; maybe it’s because that’s not how God has chosen to communicate with me at this point in my life. Who knows. But I think it’s important to remember that many people don’t get the kinds of answers they seek.

    AmyB, the disconnect between my life at church and my life in the academic world is one of the things that gives me pause as well. I wish I knew what to say (aside from saying “I understand” or “I hear you”). 🙂

  75. Mark, if you’re casting your interpretive net to include both all the standard works and current Church practice, a complex and even contradictory picture of gender emerges. But in D&C 132 itself, the penalties for adultery–and the entire marriage relationship itself–are profoundly assymetrical. Verses 41and 63 condemn the adulterous woman to destruction; verse 64 condemns even the woman who simply refuses to give her husband other wives to destruction. Verses 43 and 44 simply condemn the adulterous man to the loss of his wife (or wives, in the case of David, verse 39). (The reference in verse 6 is not clearly to adultery, as the later references are, but to the law more generally, however we understand that.)

    The simple fact is that men and women are not addressed as equals in this passage and that the marriage relationship is understood in terms of hierarchy and of property (notice how injustices are remedied by the transfer of women).

    In our belated bid to embrace gender equality, we desperately want to read these types of texts as egalitarian, often by appealing to less assymetrical or egalitarian texts, as you’ve done here. I think it’s an understandable, even honorable impulse, but a fundamentally misguided one. Far better–for more conduceive to both interpretive clarity and to honesty–to examine the inequalites that are a part of our history and our current doctrine and go from there.

  76. I think the real issue in D&C 132 isn’t stubbornness or prayerfulness but the clear gender disparities in personhood and in eternal consequences. Adulterous men are deprived of their wives (as of possessions); adulterous women are damned.

    Where does it say in D&C 132 that adulterous men will not be damned? Where does it say that the consequences for adulterous men are not the same as for adulterous women?

    D&C 132:6 teaches exactly the opposite:

    “…he that receiveth a fulness thereof [of the new and everlasting covenant] must and shall abide the law, or he shall be damned.”.

    Note the following other scriptures:

    “And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. “
    (Lev 20:10)

    This does not sound like an asymmetric penalty to me. Or how about this one:

    “I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
    (Matt 5:28-29)

    Sounds like unrepentant adulterers of the heart, men in particular, are liable to be cast into hell if they do not repent.

    Or how about this one:

    “And he that looketh upon a woman to lust after her shall deny the faith, and shall not have the Spirit; and if he repents not he shall be cast out. Thou shalt not commit adultery; and he that committeth adultery, and repenteth not, shall be cast out.
    But he that has committed adultery and repents with all his heart, and forsaketh it, and doeth it no more, thou shalt forgive; But if he doeth it again, he shall not be forgiven, but shall be cast out. ” (D&C 42:23-25)

    “Cast out” sounds like excommunication / damnation to me. And again:

    “But if ye shall find that any persons have left their companions for the sake of adultery, and they themselves are the offenders, and their companions are living, they shall be cast out from among you. “
    (D&C 42:75)

    Same deal here.

    “And if any man or woman shall commit adultery, he or she shall be tried before two elders of the church, or more, and every word shall be established against him or her by two witnesses of the church, and not of the enemy; but if there are more than two witnesses it is better. ” (D&C 42:80)

    Sounds like the Lord is an equal opportunity prosecutor. So what is this ridiculous idea about the Lord punishing men for a violation of his law less severely than he punishes women? In actual practice in the Church, the reverse is the case. Melchizedek Priesthood holders are punished more severely for crimes of adultery, not less.

  77. Frankly, I think you are making Joseph Smith an offender for a word. He received nearly all those revelations that I quoted, many of which focused on the sins of men. Is one revelation that has an incidental focus on the sins of women so statistically out of line?

    And by the way, the law against adultery could hardly be a lesser component of the new and everlasting covenant.

  78. Is one revelation that has an incidental focus on the sins of women so statistically out of line?

    When that one revelation is *the* revelation on eternal marriage, and one of the very very few that mentions women at all, don’t be too suprised that we tend to give it a lot of weight and fret over what it says about us.

  79. Mark, I think we’re talking past each other. I think the point here is really quite basic, and needn’t entail any of these alarming consequences: I’m not attempting to make anyone an offender for any of their words, just trying to look at what those words actually are, which is where–I think you’d agree–we have to begin.

    In that section, as in certain sections of the OT, they’re not particularly pleasant, and so we tend to try to explain them away with interpretive gymnastics or by appealing to other texts. That’s just the irreducible reality. It doesn’t make Joseph Smith or J or P or Habakkuk or Paul or even God an offender. It just means they said some strange and at times disturbing things. Where do we go from there? Lots of options, and we can argue those, I suppose, but we’re not going to get anywhere until we look at what the text actually SAYS.

    No one said the law against adultery was not a component, or was a lesser compoenent, of the new and everlasting covenant. Again, it’s simply a matter of looking at what the text says. It damns women, specifically, for adultery and for refusing polygamy. It does not damn men specifically for these offenses. Verse 6 is not the parallel of the later verses damning women; it damns men (maybe women too–hard to say for the reasons S outlined at this thread’s incpetion) for breaking the law. That’s obviously related, but just as obviously a much, much more general statement.

    The point here really isn’t that complex or alarming. All it is is that the addresses to women and men in D&C 132 are (in my view, disturbingly) assymmetrical. You can argue that this assymmetry is significant, or that it’s not; that we should repudiate it, that we should revert to it, that we should re-interpret it, that it’s effectively repudiated by current practice–all possible directions to go, all undoubtedly with arguments in their favor.

    All I’m saying is that the assymmetry is there–and in many other scriptures as well.

  80. Mark, I don’t think the issue here is really which sins are being focused on. The problem with D&C 132 isn’t that it happens to focus on the sins of women. The problem, as Eve said above, is the way in which it describes marital relationships. I appreciate the fact that there are scriptures which sound more egalitarian, but that doesn’t make such passages trouble me any less. And I really don’t think any scriptures exist which speak of men in a parallel way to how women get talked about in D&C 132. (Though for an amusing view of what such a thing might look like, click here for a regendered version. ;))

  81. Huh. I frankly had never noticed the gendered differences in consequences for adultery in that section. To my knowledge, there was never—in Nauvoo, or in Deseret, or in any other period—a gender-based differential in practice, that is, contemporary audiences seem not to have made much of the difference, so I think it would be reasonable to chalk it up to a basically insignificant accident of composition. (And right, this definitely rules out the God-on-the-telephone model of revelation, but we need to abandon that posthaste anyway.)

    The women-as-property is knottier, and absolutely present in the section. Section 132 is long and tonally very complex, so I don’t think a single hermeneutic of oppression will be sufficiently sensitive to the text itself. The first part of the section is cast specifically as Joseph’s reconstruction of Old Testament patriarchal priesthood (indeed, much of polygamy as a restoration doctrine should be understood in that way), and much of the language and deep mythic structure is borrowed from the Old Testament; a significant part of the women-as-property leitmotif, then, can be reasonably understood as a secondary import. Furthermore, because men are the primary holders of the patriarchal priesthood, they are are the immediate audience for the revelation, further removing women as subjects from the surface of the language. Finally, marriage is being reworked as a priestly practice, and thus wives are “given” and “taken” in the same way that we talk about priesthood being “given” and “taken”—-not as property, specifically, but certainly as a possession of some kind.

    I think it’s reasonable, then, to conclude that the concept of women as fungible property of men is not a primary rhetorical objective of the section, but a secondary effect—-particularly since, again, there’s no evidence that Nauvoo or Deseret systematically exchanged women in the way that ancient Semitic societies did. Still problematic? Sure.

  82. 39 Deborah’s husbands and concubines were given unto her of me, by the hand of Hulda, my servant, and others of the prophetesses who had the keys of this power; and in none of these things did she sin against me save in the case of Jezebel and her husband; and, therefore she hath fallen from her exaltation, and received her portion; and she shall not inherit them out of the world, for I gave them unto another, saith the Lord.

    41 And as ye have asked concerning adultery, verily, verily, I say unto you, if a woman receiveth a husband in the new and everlasting covenant, and if he be with another woman, and I have not appointed unto him by the holy anointing, he hath committed adultery and shall be destroyed.

    43 And if his wife be with another man, and she was under a vow, she hath broken her vow and hath committed adultery.

    44 And if he hath not committed adultery, but is innocent and hath not broken his vow, and he knoweth it, and I reveal it unto you, my servant Emma, then shall you have power, by the power of my Holy Priestesshood, to take him and give him unto her that hath not committed adultery but hath been faithful; for she shall be made ruler over many.

    And let mine houseboy, Joseph Smith, receive all those that have been given unto my servant Emma, and who are virtuous and pure before me; and those who are not pure, and have said they were pure, shall be destroyed, saith the Lord God.

    53 For I am the Lord thy God, and ye shall obey my voice; and I give unto my servant Emma that she shall be made ruler over many things; for she hath been faithful over a few things, and from henceforth I will strengthen her.

    54 And I command mine houseboy, Joseph, to abide and cleave unto my servant Emma, and to none else. But if he will not abide this commandment he shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy him if he abide not in my law.

    62 And if she have ten virgin men given unto her by this law, she cannot commit adultery, for they belong to her, and they are given unto her; therefore is she justified.

    63 But if one or either of the ten virgin men, after he is espoused, shall be with another woman, he has committed adultery, and shall be destroyed; for they are given unto her to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment, and to fulfil the promise which was given by my Mother before the foundation of the world, and for their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may beget the souls of women; for herein is the work of my Mother continued, that she may be glorified.

    64 And again, verily, verily, I say unto you, if any woman have a husband, who holds the keys of this power, and she teaches unto him the law of my priestesshood, as pertaining to these things, then shall he believe and administer unto her, or he shall be destroyed, saith the Lord your God; for I will destroy him; for I will magnify my name upon all those who receive and abide in my law.

    (D&C 132 freely regendered–emphasis mine)

  83. Also, I wonder, is it fair to dismiss scriptural statements as textual “accidents” if they’ve never been put into practice? Can we use our own behavior as a metric for what the text must mean? D&C 107:76 claims that a literal descendant of Aaron has the right to serve independently as a bishop. Since this apparently never happens, is it fair to assume the text must mean something else entirely?

    Another strategy is to attempt to separate the primary rhetorical thrust from the white noise, and then dismiss the latter as insignificant. But how do we properly discern the primary textual statements from the secondary, and on what basis do we dismiss the secondary?

  84. I think it’s reasonable, then, to conclude that the concept of women as fungible property of men is not a primary rhetorical objective of the section, but a secondary effect.

    Oh, I wholeheartedly agree, but the very insidiousness of it still irks me. I recognize that in the OT it’s frequently taken for granted that women are the property of men; “lord/owner” also means “husband,” after all (speakers of modern Hebrew have developed a more PC expression).

    Even so, I would argue that D&C 132 goes a step further than any passage in the OT (except possibly Genesis 3:16) by taking what in the OT serve for the most part as bothersome patriarchal assumptions in the background and putting them directly and explicitly in God’s mouth. God doesn’t give Hagar to Abraham, after all–Sarah does that herself; and while this has troubling implications for Hagar, I think the OT’s nonchalant acceptance of slavery is as much or more to be implicated than patriarchy.
    There’s a gulf separating Sarah and Abraham from Emma and Joseph.

  85. I do not deny that there are significant asymmetries between men and women in terms of the types of marriages that God recognizes in D&C 132. Men, under certain rare conditions, can engage in more than one marriage *at the same time*, and women cannot. That is a big difference, the ultimate rationale for which I do not pretend to understand.

    I do deny that the D&C 132 provides any material basis for the belief that God treats male adulterers more leniently than female ones. That is an unwarranted implication based on an argument from silence. As I have demonstrated God has not been silent about that matter, and what he has said contradicts the presumption of differential severity in favor of men.

    If anything it is the reverse – If the Lord for whatever reason has placed a person in a position of greater responsibility (e.g. a man engaged in plural marriage), he will be judged with accordingly greater severity. The reason is that his or her actions have greater repercussions.

    The same reason requires an extreme amount of personal discipline in the exalted where character flaws could have immediate, wide scale repercussions. The same applies to both women and men in any position of responsibility, fatherhood, motherhood, non-family leadership, or otherwise. The scriptures are very clear on this point.

  86. K, in determining the original meaning of the text, current practice is obviously irrelevant. But reception studies can help us understand how audiences at the time understood the text, which is one tool for recovering original meaning—which (I thought) was the aim of this end of the conversation.

    As for your other questions, I tried to demonstrate the answers in my (short) reading of the section: thematic analysis, bibliographic research, intellectual (or, in this case, spiritual) history, and so on—the usual methods, that is, of textual analysis. Of course, if the aim is to determine what is of primary and secondary value to present day LDS practice, the obvious answer is the current emphasis of leaders; textual analysis has very little to do with it.

  87. Mark, I do happen to hope you’re right about God’s conformity to our contemporary notions of justice on this point. But I think you’re overstating what anyone here has claimed about how God will judge adulterers–which is, as far as I can tell from looking back over the comments, is absolutely nothing. I believe we were discussing what D&C 132 says about the matter, where the differential severity undoubtedly obtains–and obtains in part in the contrast between damnation of female adulterers and silence on the damnation of male adulterers. This is a semantic feature of the text; no one’s engaging in argumentum ad ignorantiam.

  88. No, it is not a semantic feature of the text. You are making an argument from silence. The fact that that a chosen passage does not explicitly specify some certain judicial consequence for male adulterers does not imply that that consequence do not exist.

    You are arguing that the silence of a passage with regard to those consequences implies just that. That is a logical fallacy. Silence implies nothing.

  89. Mark, it would be ad ignorantiam only if anyone were making the case that God treats male and female adulterers differently. As far as I can tell, no one has made that argument. Again, I think the claims here are really fairly modest: the text treats male and female adulterers differently. As to what this particular historically situated text says about God’s eternal judgments, well, that’s a much larger and more convoluted kettle of fish.

    An argument ad ignorantiam is, as you observe, a fallacy, but you’re clearly familiar enough with logic to recognize that it doesn’t follow from that fact that silence is semantically irrelevant. And in any case, silence isn’t precisely what’s at issue here (God isn’t silent on the penalty for male adulterers); what you call the (gendered) differential severity of penalties, as they are laid out in this particular passage, is.

    I suspect from much of what you say that our views on such matters as the seriousness of adultery aren’t actually that far apart, and I also suspect that argument here arises from a misunderstanding. We’re all lifelong LDS here; of course we don’t deny the existence of the other scriptures you mention, or of current practices you allude to, and at the risk of speaking for others on the thread, I don’t think anyone has made any claims about God. We’re just trying to examine certain gender discrepancies in this particular text. Clearly those have implications for God, but I don’t think anyone’s been so overreaching as to try to define what, precisely, those implications are.

    In any case, we are clearly disagreeing, and while I suspect it’s a disagreement born of misunderstanding, I also don’t think we’re advancing the discussion by belaboring the point, so I believe I’ll call it a night on this one, extending hearty farewell wishes to all.

  90. My position is the passage in question does not deal with the penalties for male adulterers at all, except incidentally. If the only issue at hand is that one text focuses the penalties for female adulterers while others focus on the penalties for male adulteries, I readily concede that is the case.

    I deny however, that is material evidence of judicial discrimination, or that differential choice of focus or topic selection in and of itself implies any animus of the author of the text, or any unwarranted conclusions to what the text actually *means*.

    The proposition that men are not severely penalized for adultery is logically consistent with that passage. So is the proposition that adulterous men are annihilated or are condemened to spend eternity doing underwater basket weaving. However, the passage itself does not give us sufficient reason to conclude either proposition, especially the noxious proposition that adulterous men are let off virtually scot free while their partners in crime are destroyed.

  91. I don’t think anyone’s making an argument about the eternal consequences of adultery in LDS teaching. Getting back to S’s original post, I think the point that’s being made is simply that the language of D&C 132– the ways in which women are described, the non-parallel treatment of husbands and wives– that language matters. It has real effects in shaping our understanding of gender. Sure, those effects might be somewhat mitigated by other scriptures which speak of women and men in less hierarchical terms, or threaten severe punishment for male adulterers, but this particular text nonetheless remains troubling. The thing is, you can read D&C 132 in light of more egalitarian scriptures and come up with a more palatable view of it– but you could conceivably also read such other scriptures in light of D&C 132.

  92. To me, the whole discussion of adultery in D&C 132 is colored by the fact that it also discusses polygamy. If a man can have more than one wife but a woman can’t have more than one husband, then adultery itself is defined asymmetrically. A woman is required to be faithful to her one husband, while a man is allowed to sleep with many women, as long as he’s married to them all.

  93. As Ziff says, adultery is discussed in this passage in the context of the introduction of polygyny (to which, let’s remember, the legendarily stubborn Emma had not been privy). The larger point of Susan’s comment that inspired this whole belabored discussion of D&C 132 is that the language of the scriptures can be painful, and that women are discussed throughout this section in a particularly dehumanizing way. What she mentioned specifically is that in the same breath that Joseph’s exaltation is sealed upon him and God promises to forgive all his sins (v. 49-50), Emma is commanded in pretty stern terms to receive Joseph’s other wives and cleave unto him or be destroyed. Am I stretching to suggest the section is less a treatise on the consequences of adultery in general than it is about Emma being compelled (dare I say manipulated) into choosing between accepting Joseph’s extra wives and eternal damnation?

  94. Silence implies nothing.

    Silence may not have a clear denotation, but it can certainly imply something.

    If I say “Hi, Eve, I appreciate your comments. Hi, Ziff, I love what you have to say here. Hi, Kiskilili, you’re a clear thinker, as always. Hi, Mark. [silence],” I have most certainly implied something.

    (“Marsha, you look lovely. Jan, doesn’t Marsha look lovely?”)

  95. Silence implies something, but something is not a thing. something, as such (de dicto) is no thing. Only with the additional information can some thing turn from a de dicto no thing to a de re thing. Trying to convert that which we know not what into that which we know, is at best circumstantial, and at worst completely illegitimate.


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