From a feminist perspective, Genesis 3:16 is one of the more difficult passages in scripture. The last phrase, “thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee,” sets up a hierarchical model of marriage in which men lead and women follow. Though the terms have shifted (rule/preside for the men; obey/hearken for the women) over the years, the general model remains in LDS teachings and liturgy–providing a topic of endless discussion for Bloggernacle feminists. In grappling with the contemporary arrangement, in which women covenant to hearken to their husbands, I have encountered a number of arguments which attempt to deal with the apparent sexism. The most commonly cited, at least in my experience, are:
1) The woman only has to follow her husband insofar as he follows God. This means that a) she has nothing to worry about, because she’s not required to follow unrighteous counsel, and b) she implicitly has access to revelation too, because how else could she judge whether her husband was in fact following God? (This is the case famously made by Hugh Nibley, among others.)
2) This model is the result of the Fall; gender hierarchy is a characteristic of the fallen world which will be overcome in the celestial sphere. Many who make this case argue that Gen 3:16 should be read not prescriptively (this is God’s command for how things should be), but rather descriptively (this is a comment about what will happen, but does not imply divine endorsement).
I have some serious reservations about argument (1). Even if this interpretation is correct, and this is in fact the model being set forth (a debated question in and of itself), I would argue that it still places men in a privileged position. This is for several reasons.
First, this model doesn’t actually give men and women equivalent access to God. It might be useful here to distinguish between what I would call primary and secondary revelation. The former is revelation in and of itself. The latter is revelation about the validity of such revelation. In the Church, it is generally accepted that the prophet can get primary revelation for the Church. Members, on the other hand, are expected to get secondary revelation–confirmation that this revelation is correct–but not their own primary revelation for the Church. In a model in which men follow God directly, while women follow their husbands–but can independently check with God to find out about the validity of their husband’s instructions–men have access to primary revelation, whereas women only have access to secondary revelation.
Second, the relationship is non-reciprocal. Men do not have the same obligation to obey/follow/hearken to their wives that is laid on women with respect to their husbands. This is the case regardless of whether the men are leading in righteousness or not. Women are reassured that they are not required to submit to unrighteous dominion, it is true–but even in such cases, the structure of the relationship remains hierarchical. Women may have the right to opt out of following their husbands if they have determined that their husbands are going the wrong direction, but this is a far cry from being in an egalitarian relationship characterized by reciprocal obligations.
Third–and possibly the element of this that I find most troubling–is that even if the ideal happens and men lead in perfect righteousness, women remain one step removed from God. In fact, in this model God’s interaction with women only seems to be a concession to the realities of a fallen world in which men don’t always lead in righteousness, and women therefore require the ability to consult with God about the appropriateness of their husband’s behavior. If men always followed God perfectly, there would be no need for women to communicate with God independently, because they could simply follow the direction of their husbands. This is why I find it cold comfort to be reassured that women are only required to follow men if the men are leading righteously–it still points to an ideal in which God’s communication to women is mediated by men.
It is sometimes argued that this submission requirement should not be seen as demeaning or sexist, because men too are required to submit. However, I see a qualitative difference between the demand made of all human beings to submit to God, and that made of women to submit to their husbands. In LDS theology, human submission to God is not some kind of arbitrary demand made by a tyrant who wants humans to grovel before him–rather, it is understood as a necessary part of the process of learning to become more godlike. But what is the theological purpose of female submission to males? It is telling that the justifications offered for it tend to be practical rather than theological (e.g., the notion that one person has to have the final say). Surely women do not submit to men in hopes of eventually becoming more like them (how would that be for gender confusion?). In contrast to submission to God, which is described in the scriptures and in LDS teachings as a necessary part of a dynamic process of growth and development, female submission to males seems to take the form of an eternal role. This is why I have a hard time seeing the two as comparable.
It might be argued, of course, that submission to one’s husband is simply part of the process for women of becoming like God. But given that a parallel requirement is not placed upon men, this raises troubling questions about why this would be crucial for women’s progression, but not men’s–and what this might indicate about the eternal status of women and men.
I am not, then, persuaded by (1). This leaves me with possibility (2): patriarchy is a product of the Fall, and will be eschatologically overcome. I cannot deny that I find this model appealing. But I see some difficulties. First is the problem that it conflicts with another notion commonly taught by LDS leaders, that patriarchy is God’s system, and is eternal. And even if one finds a way to deal with that, I think an even bigger problem is the question of why people would be asked to make covenants to uphold a fallen system. Other covenants call us to something better than a telestial model. One possible reason for this could be that this particular requirement is in fact a punishment meted out to all women based on Eve’s transgression, rather than a celestial ideal–but as LisaJ recently noted at fMh, this doesn’t mesh well with the Second Article of Faith.
For my own peace of mind, I have tended to simply reject the notion that hierarchical marriage is part of the divine plan. I would like to believe that language suggesting otherwise can be interpreted as nothing more than the reflection of particular cultural biases. But I am all too aware that I am every much a product of my culture as those 19th century LDS leaders who preached female inferiority, and every bit as prone to project my own values (which happen to be those of egalitarianism) onto God. I hope, profoundly, that female subordination is not the eternal scheme of things, that God values women as agents in their own right. But Eve’s submission continues to trouble me.