This guest post comes to us from Beatrice.
In our society, we like to talk about the differences between men and women. It is the stuff upon which great novels and films are built. It can be used as a source of bonding with our same-sex peers “Oh, my husband does that too,” or it can be used to explain our relationship struggles “I just don’t understand why women do that.” Talking about the differences between men and women adds a certain richness to our lives and resonates with the way that we think about the world. There is something so appealing about the idea that “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus.” In church settings, there is an added layer to all of this. We like to talk about gender differences because it is an essential part of our doctrine. Women always were women and will always be women. Men always were men and will always be men. These inherent, divinely organized differences are the reason why men and women should play different roles in the church organization and in society.
It is interesting to compare how we talk about these differences in church settings and how we talk about them in our general society. In many cases, general perceptions about these differences (based on pop psychology, the mass media etc.) often play prominent roles in our gospel discussions about eternal differences. However, we forget that many of these perceptions have no doctrinal basis. In some cases church members will go so far as to use any study that finds differences between men and women as support for the doctrine that gender is eternal. However, this is faulty logic. First of all, any single research study doesn’t give strong enough evidence that a specific difference exists on a universal scale or even that it exists at all. And secondly, evidence for a gender difference that we exhibit in our current society doesn’t tell us anything about whether that gender difference is part of our eternal natures.
It is interesting to note that while we talk a lot about the importance of gender differences at church, official church doctrine actually has little to say about how men and women differ from each other. Most of this discussion centers on a single doctrine; women are naturally more nurturing than men. Often when this comes up in gospel settings I want to raise my hand and ask, “Yes, but what are men naturally better at?” We probably never discuss men’s natural strengths because it is not politically correct to suggest that men are better than women at anything. However, if gender is eternal there must be many inherent strengths and weakness of each gender, not just this one. Sure, there are a few other differences that are discussed regularly in gospel settings. For example, men are constantly warned about the evils of pornography. However, I don’t know that I would classify “Men are more likely to look at pornography” as part of our official doctrine as it describes a behavior rather than an eternal trait. Overall, the doctrine that women are more nurturing than men stands at the proud center of any discussion about the differences between men and women. For example, the justification for the Proclamation on the Family roles seems to hang primarily on the doctrine that women are better nurturers than men. You would literally see draws drop if you ever suggested in church that men were better at providing or presiding than women.
In addition to how men and women are different it is also interesting to ask why men and women are different from a doctrinal standpoint. At first glance this seems like a question with an obvious answer. In the great nature vs. nurture debate, the LDS church stands firmly on the side of nature. Men and women are different because that is how God made us. However, on second glance I would say that the LDS church also puts quite a bit of weight on nurture as well. If men and women were different only by nature then no amount of environmental experiences could change the way that they are. However, there is a lot of emphasis in the LDS church on the importance of teaching individuals about gender roles and fostering gender specific traits. Boys and girls are separated into YM and YW classes in which they are taught about their gender roles. It is important that children have a mother and a father in their home because they need to learn appropriate gender roles. Thus, differences between men and women won’t always be there. They must be fostered and maintained in order for us to reach our divine potential.
While it is fascinating to talk about the differences between men and women, I think we need to be careful about a couple of pitfalls to focusing on these differences too much. First of all, an overemphasis on gender differences can lead us to ignore differences within gender. Obviously, not all women are equal nurturers and we don’t believe that all men are carbon copies of one another either. Sometimes we can’t see the trees for the forest. We focus so much on group differences we ignore individual differences. Thus, when we look at an individual we should try to observe and appreciate their natural talents and abilities instead of assuming that we already know what they are.
A second pitfall is to ignore other factors (besides gender) that make us the people that we are. Imagine that you are a 30-something-year-old woman at church somewhere in the U.S. and you introduce yourself to a visitor that you noticed in the RS room. You find out that this visitor is a 70-year-old woman from Uganda. Now, here is a thought question for you. Who are you more similar to: this woman or your own brother? Obviously, there are a lot of factors that make you who you are: your cultural background, your past experiences, the way you where brought up, your social class, your educational experiences, etc, etc. Even though our doctrine suggests that in some ways you are more similar to this woman than you are to your own brother, you shouldn’t discredit all the differences between you and her. These differences make you a unique individual in the church and in society. Yes, we like to talk about gender differences, but ultimately we are all individuals with a unique contribution to make.