Exploring a Misconception about Feminism: Difference and Equality

In the bloggernacle, one of the statements that I hear over and over again from non-feminists is: “I don’t support feminism because I don’t think that women should be the exact same as men” (or as a recent blogger put it at the Blogger of Jared [it’s in the comments], we shouldn’t be “trying to make women ‘man-like'”). Now, while I admit that feminists are much more likely than the average person to be skeptical that various gender differences are inherent or natural, throughout feminist history there has been a large amount of tension around “equality” and “difference” and what those ideas mean for the feminist movement.

My junior year of college, I took a postmodernism class with Michael Berube, and partway through the semester, we read the article “A Gender Diary” by Ann Snitow (follow the link to read a handful of quotes from the article). Snitow writes about her experiences with the growing feminist movement around the 1970s, and she describes the movement through the lens of divisions within feminism, primarily the division between 1) women who want access to the same rights and privileges that were available to men and 2) women who want to use feminism to celebrate the unique nature of women. Snitow classifies this divide as the “difference” (women are unique and special) vs. “equality” (women should be equal to men) divide.

When it comes to this divide, the church tends to come down on the side of “difference” and the feminists on the side of “equality,” though there are certainly many exceptions and complications. Perhaps the most well-known strand of feminism–and one that motivated a lot of second wave feminists–is liberal feminism. Liberal feminism argues that women should have legal and institutional equality to men. In Womens Lives: Multicultural Perspectives, Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey give the following definition for liberal feminism: “Liberal feminists explain the oppression of women in terms of unequal access to existing political, economic, and social institutions. They are concerned with womens rights being equal to those of men and that women have equal access to opportunities within existing economic and social structures.”

Now some of the liberal feminists in the 70’s did take take things to an extreme, which is where you get a lot of the circulating ideas that feminists hate motherhood and babies. But, as Snitow observes, there were also “difference” feminists, who wanted to celebrate the uniqueness of womanhood. And don’t forget about the separatists, who decided to give up on the male sex altogether. Additionally, since the early years of second-wave feminism, the extremity of the liberal feminists has been mitigated, and most women who currently identify as liberal feminists celebrate motherhood (and babies). Rather than denigrate the choices of women who choose to have children and stay at home and raise them, these feminists are still fighting for equal pay in the workforce, and they are trying to eliminate things like the “second shift” and the societal pressure on women that says their only choice in life is to be a mother and raise children.

On one hand, I can understand suspicion of liberal feminism within the church. Liberal feminists argue for institutional equality, and directly translating that onto our church means that women should have the priesthood, be able to serve as bishops (or even the prophet), etc. On the other hand, I don’t understand the link that is often made between societal/institutional equality and an erosion of the natural (i.e. divine) divide between the sexes. In the eyes of many church members, if men and women have equal access to institutions, what will result is that women will become exactly like men; in effect, there will be no difference between men and women. In church discourse, the language of “equality” from liberal feminism, has been translated into the language of “sameness.”

But, as I observed earlier, if you look at history of feminism, the majority of feminists, even liberal feminists, aren’t pushing for “sameness.” For example, feminists argue that women needed to be treated differently in doctor’s offices and studied differently in the medical world because their bodies are biologically different. Feminists also don’t want to make women man-like. We acknowledge that because it’s a male-dominated world, women often have to acquire masculine traits to succeed in the workforce (see the recent discussions on Hilary Clinton over at FMH). But most feminists don’t necessarily see this as a good thing. Feminists argue that undervalued feminine traits, such as nurturing and emotional empathy, need to be more highly valued in society (and need to be traits that we develop and accept in both boys and girls).

So, to summarize: the idea that “feminists want women to be the exact same as men,” is a misunderstanding of liberal feminism, which isn’t even the only strand of feminism. Coming up: a follow-up post on what it means to have a “separate but equal” gender policy within the church.


  1. acknowledge that because it’s a male-dominated world, women often have to acquire masculine traits to succeed in the workforce

    Just as an interesting aside, modern studies show women make better managers and leaders than men. So, in actuality Men need to acquire feminine traits to suceed in the management force.

  2. Seraphine, thanks for bringing your knowledge of recent feminist history to bear on this issue.

    I often hear that Mormon feminists’ demand for equality is a demand for sameness that would eradicate the distinctions between men and women. But I don’t think that’s necessarily so. The civil rights movement, for example, was not a campaign African-Americans waged to become more like whites. On the contrary, it was a campaign against the insidious notion that access to the vote, education, and employment were somehow constituitive of whiteness. It wasn’t all that long ago that higher education, science, government, business, and athletics were seen as masculine and masculinizing to women who participated in them. (This view no doubt continues to prevail in some quarters.) When a privileged group defines itself by its exclusive access, it then accuses excluded groups that demand access of launching an assault on its identity, of seeking to eradicate vital differences constuitive of identity. In a sense, they are. But identities based on exclusion aren’t worth maintaining.

    I think the real–and very vexing–question is whether, and under what circumstances, difference (of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, toenail configuration) constitutes grounds for differential treatment. There are cases where it clearly doesn’t. For example, a crime should have the same penalty whether committed by a man or a woman, a rich person or a poor person. And there are cases where it clearly does. For example, doctors consider race and sexual orientation in evaluating risk for various diseases, and different medications may even be indicated (some research suggests).

    The tough cases are the infinite number in the muddy middle.

  3. On the other hand, I don’t understand the link that is often made between societal/institutional equality and an erosion of the natural (i.e. divine) divide between the sexes.

    I think this has to do with the essentializing of gender roles within the Church. Priesthood offices are presented as inherently male (esp. when the priesthood is placed in a binary relationship with the uterus). Perhaps this is reinforced by the divine origins ascribed to gender roles within the institution?

    Or maybe I’m just repeating back what you said.

    One little riff off of “separate but equal” and what it meant in the past: It’s interesting to think that well before correlation (and the influence of Heber J. Grant, J. Reuben Clark and Harold B. Lee), there was more of a “sameness” between male and female roles in parts of the Church institution than there is today. Relief Society had it’s own relatively autonomous leadership, instruction manuals, magazines, sources of funding. The RS President was in certain ways the female counterpart to the Prophet. Is it coincidence that the autonomy of the RS overlapped the heyday of difference feminists like Jane Addams?

  4. Great comments, Seraphine! I think one idea that’s important to keep in mind when studying Mormon ideas about gender and feminism is this: faithful Mormons are under the obligation to construct for themselves a justification for the sex-based priesthood exclusion policy of the church. This obligation becomes a motive for belief, and so we shouldn’t be surprised to see beliefs in the domain connected with it that are ill-considered.

    The decision to link equal access to institutions and, perhaps, power with the obliteration of (generally unspecified) inherent, eternal differences should, I think, be seen in this light. If the differences in question are basic, sex-linked traits such as patterns of facial hair, reproductive capacities, and perhaps subtle differences on the average in cognition, then it is obvious that no human action short of genetic engineering could actually erase such differences. On the other hand, if the differences in question are social and cultural — as is implied by the idea that institutional change could destroy them — then they cannot be inherent or eternal. The vast array of divergent human institutions would guarantee that such differences have already been eliminated in countless societies over time; indeed, they probably didn’t even exist in the way we’re familiar with in our own society if we go 100 or 200 years into the past.

    So the argument that institutional change would undermine inherent, eternal difference is best regarded as incoherent on its face. But people cling to it because they are motivated thinkers — they need to find some reason that God’s church would maintain differential institutional access. A useful analogy here is to the folklore that developed to justify the race-based priesthood exclusion policy of earlier generations: people need a belief system that rationalizes the exclusionary behavior of a church they regard as divine.

  5. Enlightening as always, Seraphine.

    For example, feminists argue that women needed to be treated differently in doctor’s offices and studied differently in the medical world because their bodies are biologically different.

    I have often heard feminists say that “biology is sexist”. I don’t quite know how to understand or respond to that. Is it your position that the “biology is sexist” view is not in the mainstream?

  6. Mark IV, I’m going to jump in and say that it’s unlikely that such a view is mainstream. Among other feminists I’ve known, I’d say there’s probably a consensus that the way we often interpret or think about biology is sexist. However, the existence of biological difference is widely accepted as fact, and generally speaking, the idea that biological difference is a contributing factor in behavioral or psychological differences is also accepted.

    Seraphine, would you consider that a fair summary?

  7. Matt W., interesting. I wasn’t aware of those studies (studies of managerial styles in the business world is not at the top of my reading list). I will say, though, that I generally tend to think that there are certain characteristics that are “masculine” and others that are “feminine” that it would behoove everyone (male and female) to learn.

    Eve, that’s a really great comment about the role identity plays in this. I remember reading an article 3-4 years ago in a class (I don’t remember the title, but I could probably look it up) about how many legal rights were (and sometimes still are) based on a “white” identity–that assumptions of “whiteness” are written into legal codes. I found it immensely interesting, and I think that the same kind of thing happens with gender too (though I think it’s changing).

  8. John and Roasted Tomatoes,

    I think you both hit on an important point when thinking about this issue: the significance of the church’s discourse on gender roles. As you both point out, we’ve linked our discourse on gender roles to institutional practices, so those two things are going to bleed into one another.

    I think things are probably a little more complicated than RT’s model (which I’m guessing you might agree with). I guess I don’t see how an explanation of gender differences that emerges from institutional divisions *necessarily* leads to a belief that erasing some instiutional divisions will result in undermining gender differences (for example, if they really are “divine” and “natural,” aren’t they going to remain the same whatever institutional structure we have?). Honestly, now that I think about it, an assumption that institutional change would change our gendered behavior seems to indicate a belief that gender is impacted by social structures, which is a position that is supported by feminists and not your average church member. Heh.

    And John, thanks for the interesting historical note. I will confess my knowledge of church history (and what men and women did at various points in church history) is pretty lacking, so thanks for the observations.

  9. Eric, thanks!

    And Mark IV, I think Serenity Valley has given a good summary of a mainstream feminist position on sexism and biology. (Thanks, Serenity Valley!)

  10. Whenever I’ve heard the phrase “biology is sexist” it was simply to express the widely agreed-on concept that men’s biological role in reproduction is brief and pleasurable, whereas women’s biological role in reproduction is lengthy, painful, burdensome, and potentially dangerous without good medical care.

  11. Seraphine, that’s an interesting post, though reading the comnments isn’t as engaging hen everyone just nods and agrees with Seraphine.
    Where are the dissenters?
    I felt like this once when I visited another site on the bloggernacle (one that quotes apostles, prophets, and scriptures). At that site, they pat each other on the back and smile, “I really enjoyed your post.” 🙂
    Where’s the animated disagreement? Where’s the turning each idea inside out and on its head?
    That’s what I love about this blog!
    (perhaps we can go to that other site and recruit some of their bloggers to come comment over here, hee hee)
    I guess if there aren’t any anti-feminists out there to protest Seraphine’s assessment, I’ll just request someone turn her post into talking points for me to take to church (or use on my home teachers). I certainly can’t convey that message as well as she does. But, it certainly rings true.

  12. I’m sure many of you saw this, but I just had to copy it to this post. (this was in the Blogger of Jared post that Seraphine mentioned,)

    Take Zelophehad’s Daughters for example. Great blog, phenomenal authors. Unfortunately many of the posts I read there have some kind of feminism spin to it. I just want to see them put their wordsmithing skills to more uplifting uses.

    It made me smile.
    I hope all the authors here appreciate your ability to wordsmith: apparently you are more than equals in this profession. 😉
    And, for what it’s worth, I find your posts very uplifting.

  13. Hi, ZD’s..

    I just wanted to stop by and mention that I did not intend my compliment to be as backhanded as it came across. I really am a fan of your site. It is one of only about 4 blogs that I visit with any regularity. Either way, I am only an infrequent contributor to BoJ. So, por favor, don’t let my opinions damage any relationship between the two blogs.

  14. Jessawhy asked,

    Where’s the animated disagreement? Where’s the turning each idea inside out and on its head?

    Not to worry. I’m sure it won’t be gone for long!

    You’re right, though, that blogging and conversation are dull if everyone simply agrees. Perhaps That Author or others could be persuaded to offer a different perspective on this issue, or on others?

    That Author, thanks for taking the time to clarify, and no hard feelings at all. It’s nice to hear we have some appeal even to non-feminists.

  15. As a young single adult I was actively involved in feminism, and I was frustrated by people’s misperceptions of it–so I understand the diversity of feminist thought. However, I don’t think most self-identified feminists appreciate all the concerns of non-feminists–or should I say “self-identified non-feminists”? In American society, the overwhelming majority of people think women should have equal property rights, voting rights, equal pay for equal work, etc.–the percentage of Americans who don’t favor those reforms is negligible. What isn’t negligible is the percentage of people who mistrust the movement toward complete gender integration. That is, they believe it’s still appropriate to maintain gender segregation in some areas, even at the expense of equality (in those specific circumstances).

    The most obvious example is military service. Women don’t have to register with Selective Service, and no one is seriously talking about changing that. Yet that is certainly an instance of gender discrimination, based on nothing but our cultural (and, many would say, reasonable) preference for male soldiers. You could argue that neither men nor women should be compelled to register with Selective Service, or that this is all a moot point anyway because there is no draft–but the philosophical issue remains.

    Another example is single-sex education, which has distinct advantages for both girls and boys (though that does not mean it is best for all girls and boys). Urban public schools have experimented with single-sex programs but have been criticized by (some) feminists because gender-segregated programs are by definition discriminatory.

    But the elephant in the room is the unspoken order of things vis a vis male-female interaction in the personal realm. I’ve never met a feminist, liberal or otherwise, who felt strongly about gender-integrated bathrooms, but I have observed many a feminist bristle at the suggestion that men are honor-bound to protect women, that it is, in fact, a defining aspect of masculinity. Many (I have no idea of the percentage) feminists find the “women and children first” philosophy condescending and offensive. They’re also extremely quick to object when someone suggests that male sexuality is by nature profoundly different from female sexuality. In my observation feminists are wary of admitting any inherent, neurological differences between men and women (other than the obvious physical ones) because they don’t trust society to accommodate individual differences in the face of generalized gender differences.

    Eve said that “identities based on exclusion aren’t worth maintaining.” But I think that’s where feminists and non-feminists are at an impasse. Non-feminists don’t view every exclusion as a form of privilege.

  16. Seraphine, excellent post. I too often hear that chorus about how feminists want women to be men. Very frustrating. I, as a committed liberal feminist, simply want women and men to reach their potential (whatever that individual potential may be) without being circumscribed by societal gender roles. And even more than that, I want women and men to have equal access to institutional power. I’ve never understood why people think that ordaining women would make females less female and males less male.

  17. madhousewife, good observations. I think you’re right to say that for non-feminists, many forms of “segregation” are not necessarily “inequality.” I think at least some feminists would agree with this, though in general I think that feminists think more forms of segregation are problematic than non-feminists. Still, I wonder where we’ve gotten the notion that when feminists call for “equality,” they’re calling for complete gender integration.

    Caroline, thanks! I totally agree with you, though I appreciated John and RT’s comments about how when we tie masculinity and femininity up in institutional structures, it can become difficult to untangle it all.

  18. I just really don’t want the priesthood.
    I think that it is anti-feminist to want women to have the priesthood. I think it is anti-feminist to think that wives need to work in order to balance the power in a marriage.
    To me, the feminists who want “equality” are asking for “sameness” and are telling me that I am not equal.
    I hate having to tell them I already am equal. I already am not less.
    I am a woman. I am important. How dare they tell me that I am not.
    Perhaps they think I am blind to my own prison, but sometimes I think they are too busy putting walls around themselves to see that perhaps the prison isn’t actually there.
    I am not naive. I know that there are sexist people in the world. Many church members have a long way to go.
    Despite this, I think it is a privelege to be a woman. I am happy about my gender. While I don’t match all gender stereotypes (no one does) there is plenty about being a woman that I am happy about and think is great. I fully expect my husband and men around me to treat me with respect.
    I am a feminist because I think being feminine is not less than being masculine. I am a feminist because I think men and women should treat each other with respect. I am a feminist because I think it is wrong to use terms that mean “woman” in order to insult a man.

  19. JKS, I really like what you said, but it left me with a big question mark in my mind. I’ve heard your position before, nicely stated by Ainsley on the West Wing (she was the cute blonde Republican laywer in the 2nd season). I understand it on a visceral level, but not an intellectual one. How do you counter arguments about power, etc. How do you react to the list
    of women’s concerns.
    I’m not trying to push your buttons. I promise. I am honestly trying to figure out where I stand on this issue. What you say feels right to me, but my brain just keeps wondering . . .

  20. madhousewife,

    I understood some of you comments, but the last couple of paragraphs left me feeling a little confused. Could you clarify your point(s)? Perhaps by giving specific examples of things feminists and non-feminists disagree about (in the realm of things that should or should not be equal/the same)? I’d like to understand what you’re saying, but I’m afraid my brain is more than a little fried currently.


    I agree with some of your statements, but find others a little strange.

    I agree that it is anti-feminist to suggest that wives need to work outside the home. But I also think it’s anti-feminist to insist that wives can’t work outside the home.

    I also expect my husband and the men around me to treat me with respect. On the other hand I also expect the women around me to treat me with respect. I expect the men and women around me to treat men with respect, as well. Being treated with respect shouldn’t be related to gender in any way.

    I am also already a woman, important and equal. I don’t like having to explain that just because you and I might be equal doesn’t mean every woman is. Just because I am not oppressed doesn’t mean I can’t defend the rights of those who are (this applies to race, religion, etc, as well).

    I dislike having to explain to people that fighting for equal opportunities doesn’t mean advocating all people should make the same decisions.

    And last but certainly not least, I respect that you don’t want the priesthood. That’s fine with me. But how is it “anti-feminist to want women to have the priesthood”? Especially since our own doctrine teaches that women will be priestesses in the celestial kingdom? This statement makes absolutely no sense to me.

    Though the fact that you don’t want the priesthood does bring up an interesting way in that the priesthood is discriminatory to men as well. I’ll have to write up a post on that (so don’t hijack Seraphine’s thread).

  21. jessawhy,
    Ack, I never watched the West Wing so I don’t know the character. Dang it.
    I read the list of concerns. I didn’t take the pole because I don’t have any real concerns over these issues. It did make me wonder what are my concerns. Sure I have concerns….It bothers me if the YM have the gym every Wednesday and the YW don’t ever get to play basketball if they want to. But that shouldn’t happen. It bothers me if men are never called to primary…but in my ward they are. It bothers me when Mormon men say that their daughters don’t need to go to college, but I have always felt like the church supported education for women (BY’s statement about a mother’s education being more important than a man’s because she is raising the children comes to mind). It bothers me if Thanksgiving dinner involves the women in the kitchen for hours and the men never helping.
    I don’t think the “church” is doing anything wrong.
    Now, that said, I have a friend who is a RS President in a ward full of people from a different culture. This culture is less “feminist” than ours. You can imagine how things run differently in her ward than in mine even though they have the exact same handbook. So there is every reason for me to feel that I am a “feminist” even though I don’t think the handbook needs to change. Individuals need to understand the gospel better.

    I don’t have a lot of time but since the First Presidency currently says that my role does not include priesthood duties, I have quite content with that. I am fully comfortable with God’s plan and will not covet the priesthood (why on earth would I???) and won’t accept it until God tells me I am supposed to have it….on this earth in this time and not in the temple.
    I honestly don’t feel like I am losing out. When women do want the priesthood it does seem like they think that what I have isn’t “enough.”

    To continue my line of thought, God does not treat us all completely the same. There are people in this world with amazing musical talent. Why would I go around wishing for their talents if I have talents of my own to use? If God has given something to someone else and not to me, who am I to demand God redistribute things equally.
    Once you do that, then its time to give up our homes, our children, our spouses, our sanitation systems, our upbringing. It simply doesn’t cause me angst to see the world with people who are given different roles and different circumstances. I happen to like my circumstance and wouldn’t trade with anyone. Would you?
    I believe in equal opportunities for many things. But God’s church isn’t a democracy. And we don’t need affirmative action in our leadership. To wish for more female leadership for me is in the same category as wishing for equal representation of people who were born in the same place as me, or are the same height as me, or have the same career as me, or scored the same on the SAT as me, or shop at the same stores as me, etc.

  22. JKS, your last argument doesn’t make sense in the light of the rest of your beliefs. If you really believe that men and women are inherently different with different gifts and perspectives, you wouldn’t compare gender to people who have the same SAT scores or were born in the same place.

    But anyway, I think you are misunderstanding the main point of the post. My argument is that many feminists *don’t* argue for “sameness” when they argue for “equality.” I am planning on doing a post in the near future on the “separate but equal” policy the church holds when it comes to gender and what that means for various groups of people–I would appreciate your thoughts as someone who does not currently have problems with how we currently do things in the church.

  23. To continue my line of thought, God does not treat us all completely the same. There are people in this world with amazing musical talent. Why would I go around wishing for their talents if I have talents of my own to use?


    I agree with Seraphine; this argument doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t think the concern here is that people have different abilities. The issue isn’t abilities; it’s whether people are allowed to use their abilities. There are both men and women who have the ability to lead, to preach, and to counsel, say in the way that bishops do. But only men are allowed to. It’s not that women aren’t able to. It’s that, even though they’re able to, women aren’t allowed to. So your example seems kind of backward: feminists don’t want women to have talents they don’t have; feminists want women to be allowed to use the talents they do have.


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