The extended discussion on Seraphine’s thread about modesty, and in particular the issue raised there about seeing women as objects, has gotten me thinking about another, somewhat related question. To put it bluntly, I’m wondering: do Latter-day Saints believe that in some sense women are the possessions of men?
Scriptural support for such a viewpoint isn’t difficult to find. Consider, for example, Mosiah 13:24:
Thou shalt not covert thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s. (emphasis added)
Here wives are matter-of-factly listed among other things that one’s neighbor owns. This kind of thing doesn’t actually raise my hackles much, though; it’s one of those things I can relatively easily chalk up to a different cultural milieu.
Far more troubling to me is D&C 132, which contains gems like:
And if she hath not committed adultery, but is innocent and hath not broken her vow, and she knoweth it, and I reveal it unto you, my servant Joseph, then shall you have power, by the power of my Holy Priesthood, to take her and give her unto him that hath not committed adultery but hath been faithful; for he shall be made ruler over many. (v. 44; emphasis added)
And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood–if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else. (v. 61; emphasis added)
Verses like these have deeply disturbed me since I was a teenager. In fact, I find the language used here to describe women in some ways more troubling than the actual practice of polygamy (though I certainly have questions about the latter). And these passages purport to be the direct words of God, which puts them a somewhat different category than comments made by various Book of Mormon prophets, or Paul’s thoughts about gender. So what do I do with the fact that women are here fairly straightforwardly portrayed as male possessions, that they’re given to righteous men and taken away from unworthy ones? As much as I’d like to believe in some kind of reciprocity in these relationships (i.e., husbands similarly belonging to their wives), there’s really no support for that here.
And such language is still alive and well, as demonstrated by the most recent conference in which President Hinckley commented, “Husbands, love and treasure your wives. They are your most precious possessions.” Elder Holland similarly observed, “Husbands, you have been entrusted with the most sacred gift God can give you, a wife, a daughter of God, the mother of your children who has voluntarily given herself to you for love and joyful companionship.”
Don’t get me wrong, I do realize that both of the above statements were made in the context of encouraging husbands to treat their wives well, and I honestly appreciate that. I’m not citing these comments in an attempt to question their motives. I’m well aware that Church leaders have said all kinds of things about pursuing egalitarian marital relationships in which husband and wife support one another, and that men who abuse or attempt to dominate their wives are regularly denounced.
And yet . . . I cannot hear statements like that without cringing. They remind me that a plausible case can be made that in the context of LDS thought and teaching, women belong to men in a way that men do not belong to women; that although women might be cherished and treasured and valued, they are nonetheless ultimately male possessions. Women give themselves to men (or are given to them)–not the other way around.
But am I wrong? Are phrases like this merely echoes of an archaic way of talking about marriage, and not to be taken all that literally, in which case, can I hope that they will eventually fade? Or do they in fact reflect our current theology and understanding of gender relations?