I sometimes wonder about the “natual woman.” Is she, like the “natural man,” carnal, sensual, and devilish; proud and rebellious; in need of the Spirit to transform her heart? Or is she rather loving, gentle, nurturing, and spiritual?
“It is the natural instinct of women to reach out in love to those in distress and need.” (Gordon B. Hinckley, Oct 2006)
“You sisters have divine attributes of sensitivity and love for things beautiful and inspiring. These are gifts you use to make our lives more pleasant. Often when you sisters prepare and give a lesson you put an attractive cloth and flowers on the table, which is a wonderful expression of your caring and conscientious nature.” (James E. Faust, Oct 2005)
“Virtues and attributes upon which perfection and exaltation depend come naturally to a woman and are refined through marriage and motherhood.” (Boyd K. Packer, Oct 1993)
“In the home and in the Church sisters should be esteemed for their very nature.” (Boyd K. Packer, Apr 1998)
“Daughters of God know that it is the nurturing nature of women that can bring everlasting blessings, and they live to cultivate this divine attribute . . . May mothers and fathers understand the great potential for good their daughters inherited from their heavenly home. We must nourish their gentleness, their nurturing nature, their innate spirituality and sensitivity, and their bright minds.” (Margaret D. Nadauld, Oct 2000)
“President Ezra Taft Benson has stated, “Man is at his best when complemented by a good woman’s natural influence.’” (quoted by James E. Faust, Apr 1988)
“I urge you to enhance the natural, God-given, feminine gifts with which you have been so richly blessed.” (James E. Faust, Oct 1999)
It’s true, of course, that we use the terms “nature” and “natural” in at least two different senses in the Church–we talk, on the one hand, about our “divine nature” as children of God, and on the other about the “natural” man or woman who is an enemy to God, whom we have to strive to overcome. I’m assuming that the use of “natural” in comments like these falls into the first category; I don’t really think anyone is suggesting that women because of their natural qualities are not in need of the atonement. However, while I believe they’re well-meant, I still find myself uneasy with these kinds of sentiments.
For one thing, I notice that it’s difficult to find statements comparable to the ones I’ve quoted above about men’s natural gifts or abilities, potentially leaving the impression that women are naturally good in a way that men are not. The fact that men routinely get chastised in the priesthood session of Conference, whereas women are routinely told how wonderful they are in the general RS meeting, also contributes to this. The notion that men are the spiritually inferior sex is one I find to be disturbingly common in Mormon culture. I have no doubt that there are feminists out there who think that women are better than men, but I can’t say I’ve ever had a face-to-face conversation with one. On the other hand, I can’t count the number of Church members I’ve met in my life who have sometimes subtly and sometimes quite blatantly expressed such a belief. (See Eve’s post on male-bashing a while back.) Surely the “all are alike unto God” clause goes both ways.
I find this kind of rhetoric troubling for a number of other reasons as well. An emphasis on the natural goodness of women makes it easy to see female righteousness as being not quite as valiant as male righteousness, as it apparently comes naturally to woman whereas men have to work for it. Such claims (e.g., that women are inherently nurturing and/or good at domestic tasks) can be a way of downplaying the real sacrifices many women make who don’t feel all that naturally good at their role. Women who don’t remotely recognize themselves in the picture portrayed above can be left feeling like the Church is only for women who are loving and sensitive and gentle and a good influence, that there isn’t room for those who don’t fit that description. Somewhat ironically, assertions about the inherent goodness of women are frequently cited as justification for male privilege (the classic “men have the priesthood because they’re the ones who need it” argument). And a serious drawback to coding desirable virtues like “caring for others” as feminine is that it can discourage men from seeking after or exhibiting such traits.
I’m also simply wary of broad statements about naturally feminine characteristics. I think the problem becomes clearer if you take such statements and apply them to humans in general. It sounds odd to say, “humans are naturally caring”–because obviously humans are a wildly diverse group, some of them more caring and some of them less. And I find it equally odd to make such a claim about women in the aggregate. (Note that I’m talking about character traits here, and not sex-linked biological abilities.) I’m quite open to the possibility that there are general differences between the sexes–men might well be statistically more likely to exhibit trait y, and women to exhibit trait x–but I think it’s all too easy to overstate such differences and thereby obscure the vast individual variation within each sex.
In the end, are we not all natural women and natural men, fallen and alienated from God–and yet with infinite potential? And are not all of us, women and men alike, called to come and be born again, to allow grace to transform our nature? To put it bluntly, I don’t need to hear that I’m naturally gentle or sweet or sensitive because I’m female. Rather, I need to hear that despite the fact that I’m frequently proud, cranky, stubborn, unforgiving, etc., there’s nonetheless hope for me.
Note: I included specific GA quotes because I knew that if I didn’t, someone would say, “I’ve never heard anything like this; what are you talking about?” However, while this particular message is (obviously) one I believe to be worth questioning, my intent is not to engage in general GA-bashing, and I’d request that comments keep things respectful.
- 7 February 2007