I’m equal. I believe that. I’m just not sure what I’m equal to. (Quite likely not to the task of composing this post.)
When issues of gender in the Church come up, the term equality is sure to be bandied about, sometimes with little clear reference to anything in particular. Phrases such as husbands and wives are equal partners are repeated like a mantra. It’s a beautiful statement. I’m just not sure what it means, exactly. Equal partners with respect to what?
Obviously no two people are granted equal opportunities or abilities in this life. In addition to some apparent general trends in differences between the sexes, individual variation presents a kaleidoscopic array of relative strengths, interests, and proclivities. Simple empirical observation leads us immediately to rule out any interpretation based on personal traits or circumstances, such as husband and wife are equally resilient or husband and wife are equally friendly. Individual cases differ drastically.
The point, you reply, is that husband and wife have equal value. Regardless of how anyone is treated in this life, in some unfathomable way, in God’s eyes, all of us have the same worth.
I like this idea. But if we accept it, does it then cease to matter how people are treated in this life, since God loves them regardless?
Men and women are equal, we’re told. This is a fact whose validity no external circumstances can threaten. Women’s equal value cannot be diminished, and if they simply believed it, they would have no reason to question the institution’s apparently lopsided distribution of power.
A parallel argument might serve to illustrate the ridiculousness of this stance. One could suggest that since God loves all his children equally, according everyone a supreme value which nothing can diminish, slavery is therefore acceptable. If the enslaved can just recognize their eternal value they will have no motivation to question the system. Those who do question it, one might suppose, suffer from personal insecurity. They mistakenly place their trust in the world to give them value, rather than in God, who loves them whether they are “bond [or] free” (2 Nephi 26:33).
(Please note: I am NOT saying that Mormon women are effectively slaves. I’m choosing an extreme example to highlight why this line of reasoning does not hold water.)
Of course, I’d like to believe God loves slaves, and that no amount of idignity in this life can deprive them of God’s valuation in the eternities. But this does not present a valid argument against critiquing slavery as an institution.
Feminists like to point to the apparent contradiction between claiming that one spouse presides and the other hearkens, and yet that at the same time husband and wife are equal partners. Not such a contradiction, others counter–husband and wife have equal value even though they are called to perform different functions.
In this way, by advancing assertions about equality of value in the rhetorical context appropriate to discussing power, the issue is effectively skirted and the Gordian knot, if not untied, is slashed loose with a sword. But such statements do nothing to adress directly a fundamental question: whether husband and wife can, do, or should wield equal power in decision-making for the family and in their personal lives.
Or, when power is examined, another oft employed strategy is to tally points in an effort to demonstrate equivalence in the sheer amount of raw power each spouse wields, without addressing who has power over whom and why. Women have a natural fund of power over children that men lack, some assert, so men are compensated with more official power over everyone else in the family. It all adds up to a balanced equation.
Whether such stunts make sense or not, the question at the heart of the matter remains unaddressed: are men granted power of a sort over women, is this appropriate, and why?
I’m still not entirely sure what equality means (and the very problematics of the term itself seem to have created space to advance certain claims verging dangerously close to outright duplicity in statements along the lines of “men and women have equal opportunity to make covenants,” for example), but I would be interested in a discussion of power and subordination, in marriage and in the Church institution, without any reference to equality or attempts to keep score between the sexes.
Discussions about equality in value, as important as they can be, are often used to create a diversion from other issues. The implication of insisting that men preside over women is that, whether or not women are equally valued in some eternal scheme, they are not sufficiently capable or competent or trustworthy. Or perhaps that the only way to achieve unity between two individuals is to subordinate one of them.
- 18 September 2006