In describing the honored place of women in the plan of salvation, LDS leaders commonly cite the narrative found in Genesis 2, in which Eve is created as a helpmeet to Adam. They often emphasize that in order to be a true helpmeet she would have to be the equal of Adam, and reference the symbolism of Eve being created from Adam’s rib as pointing to her role as a full, contributing partner, one neither superior nor inferior. And not infrequently, the fact that Eve is created at the very end of the story is cited as evidence of her elevated status.
Though I have appreciated these sincere efforts to assure women of their significant role, I have always had a somewhat negative reaction to these kinds of assertions. For years they left me feeling uneasy, but uncertain about the cause of that unease. My own reaction puzzled me–why would statements which emphasized the infinite worth of women, and explicitly used language of equality, leave me feeling in fact more secondary, more unsure about my place? And this reaction of genuine bewilderment is one I often encounter now when attempting to articulate my concerns about gender—how could an LDS woman have worries about second-class status, when these kinds of statements, these reassurances, are so common?
But I see a fundamental problem with these reassurances. While this description of Eve’s role does indeed give her equal standing with Adam in some sense, an exclusive focus on this aspect of the story overlooks a more basic issue: the very structure of the narrative already places women in a secondary role, one which no subsequent assertions of equality can undo. Adam is not created for Eve; Eve is created for Adam. Adam, who has already named all the living creatures, designates this new being “woman” (and later in the account, names this woman “Eve.”) He is the actor, the one who names; she is one of the things to be named. The very existence of Eve is explained with reference to Adam; she is not an independent subject with needs of her own, but rather something given to Adam in response to his needs. Even if they are endowed with equal capacities in order to work as partners, they are clearly not on equal footing.
And the value of women more generally sometimes gets described in similar terms. How can anyone question the importance of women in LDS teachings, I often hear, when men cannot achieve exaltation without them? But in such a way of framing it, men are the subjects, while women are the partners who accompany them and enable them to get where they want to go. Put another way, men exists as persons, while women exist as roles. It becomes necessary to reassure women of their equal status precisely because the structure already calls it so deeply into question.
To put this in somewhat flippant terms: I cannot finish my dissertation without the help of my computer. It is therefore extremely valuable to me. Is it my equal? Is it an adequate helpmeet? There are certainly a number of things I do better, it is true. But in some areas it is actually my superior. I can think creatively, for example, but it can quickly perform tasks that would take me hours and hours. Because of our different strengths, we have different responsibilities–and it is in fact these differences that allow us to achieve more together than we could ever achieve separately. One might fairly say that we are so fundamentally different that it is nonsensical to compare us–apples to oranges, and all of that. In the end, however, a crucial distinction is that I am the agent, the actor, the one with a goal—and it is the partner, the support that helps me get there. It exists because I need it, and not vice versa. I realize there are problems with taking this parallel too far. But the point I am trying to get at is that this is not an issue of equality in any particular ability; it has to do with the underlying structure of the relationship.
This is why I find reassurances about the valued place of women not only unhelpful, but sometimes deeply disturbing in the way they are framed. Eve may be the crowning jewel of creation, one of infinite worth, and she may hold an honored place in the plan of salvation. But it is one thing to be a crowning jewel, and it is quite another to be the person for whom such a jewel is created.