Zelophehad’s Daughters

Christianity and Women’s Rights

Posted by Kiskilili

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Ann Braude, a scholar of the religious history of American women, on the topic of the role Christianity played in the fight for women’s rights in the United States. I’ve heard Professor Braude speak in the past (once to Mormon women at an Exponent II series in my area) and have very much enjoyed listening to her ideas. Caveat: I’m relying here on hastily scribbled notes and can’t vouch that they accurately encapsulate Braude’s views. 

Gender, argued Braude, continues to present Christianity with an unresolved theological crisis; although Christians consistently assert that men and women are spiritual equals, it’s less clear how such convictions should be translated into either the ecclesiastical or the political spheres. As an example of the complicated and sometimes surprising relationships between women’s religiously prescribed roles in churches and in public, Braude pointed to the conclusion reached by some conservative denominations that while it would be unacceptable for Sarah Palin as a female to teach a mixed Sunday School class, it would be perfectly acceptable for her to be president of a (mixed) country.  

The traditional model for understanding the struggle for women’s rights in this country pits secular feminists against pious Christians, a construction of history that reinforces the notion that feminism and religion are fundamentally incompatible. Not so, cautioned Braude; in fact, important battles over women’s rights have always taken place within the context of religion itself, with proponents and opponents each citing scripture and faith claims to buttress their positions. (On the other hand, the narrative that Christianity has consistently elevated and celebrated women’s status over against the corrupt practices of the secular world is likewise overly simplistic.)  

Braude examined the intersection between the fight for women’s rights (looking specifically at suffrage and the ERA as significant flashpoints in that story) and Christianity in the context of three denominations–Methodism, Catholicism, and Mormonism. Of the three, Mormons were the most adamant in support of suffrage and yet the most vehement in their opposition to the ERA.


Frances Willard, a committed Methodist and president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, may have been the most powerful woman in 19th century America. While on her knees in prayer one day she experienced a manifestation of the divine that left her convinced that God had called her to fight for women’s suffrage and expanded political opportunities and that she should leverage her position presiding over an organization of conservative Christians to that end, grounding the case for suffrage specifically in Christian values. (The very possibility that God might inspire someone to fight for women’s rights almost makes me tear up.) Willard of course did not live to see the fruits of her (and others’) labors: the granting of voting rights to women in Methodism in 1900, the passing of the 19th amendment in 1919, or the ordination of Methodist women in 1956.

In spite of some fiery souls like Willard, constant jostling, mergers, and rearrangements within Methodism tended to have a deleterious effect on women’s advancement in the denomination. Ecumenicism, argued Braude, has typically been bad for women since women’s issues have largely been sacrificed in the interest of unity and compromise. (When two churches combine the lowest common denominator for women’s participation between them is usually made the new norm.) 

During the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment, however, Methodists went on record as officially in support of it. One vocal Methodist, Theressa Hoover, an ardent advocate of the ERA, nevertheless argued that in order to maintain full ecclesiastical equality women needed their own separate organization within the institution. She asserted that much church discourse was predicated on the false assumption that a group of men constituted the church–false since women outnumber men in nearly every Christian denomination.  


Officially neutral on both issues, Catholicism generally discouraged both suffrage and the ERA. From quite early in American history, Catholic nuns labored intensively to increase opportunities for women’s education and to improve the conditions of the working poor, but the anti-Catholic message in Protestant suffrage discourse contributed to turning them off the suffrage movement. Too, nuns’ vows of poverty and obedience pulled in a different direction from the celebration of the individual and private property that became cornerstones of our country’s political rhetoric. For Protestants marriage and the home constituted the locus of salvation; religious communities of nuns were barely comprehensible in this framework. In addition to certain xenophobic tendencies in the suffrage movement, another factor in Catholicism’s lack of concern over suffrage may have been the fact that Catholic women in the 19th century enjoyed greater opportunities within the church than without, perhaps rendering the issue of suffrage less pressing for Catholic women.  

Developments during Vatican II left many Catholics hopeful that women’s ordination was on the horizon (a hope that obviously has still not been consummated). A number of nuns played a prominent role in fighting for the ERA and women’s advancement generally, but opposition to abortion and women’s ordination (neither of which the ERA actually addresses) kept bishops from lending their support to the amendment.


Utah was the first significant locus of women exercising voting rights in this nation, and the church itself paid for Emmeline B. Wells, active in the General Relief Society Presidency for decades, to attend national conventions lobbying for suffrage nationwide (although of course she was required to get her husband’s permission first). Mormonism, argued Braude, is an intensely activist faith in which individuals live out their religion in part through community involvement which often extends into the political sphere. In the 19th century this public manifestation of faith entailed not only polygamy, but also women’s participation in professions. From the dominant Protestant perspective of the time, in which women were expected to be the keepers of the hearth in the nuclear family, polygamy, suffrage, and women’s professional opportunites–all three on ample display in the Mormon community–were deeply threatening to the fabric of society.

When Utah attained statehood in 1896 an equal rights amendment was explicitly written into the state constitution. When the national Equal Rights Amendment first appeared on the scene it was entirely uncontroversial and almost universally supported. Then in 1973 the Supreme Court dropped an unexpected bombshell on the nation in the form of Roe vs. Wade. Although the ERA said nothing about abortion, newly ignited fears on the issue quickly coalesced around an anti-ERA faction, with which the Mormon church rapidly aligned itself. In this very activist faith, political opposition to the ERA became a token of one’s commitment to the tradition. Ironically, argued Braude, just at a time when Correlation was disenfranchising  women within the church community itself, actively fighting the ERA and promoting the church’s political agenda became one avenue for women to regain some of their slipping power in the church.

Finally, Braude showed slides from Feminist Mormon Housewives to assert that the story of the Mormon church’s relationship to women’s rights is still far from over.


Some questions I’m left with:

a) What happened in Mormonism between the push for suffrage and the resistance to the ERA?

b) How are we to understand the relationship between the patriarchal order in the home and women’s prescribed roles in society? Specifically, was it inconsistent to fight for women’s political rights (such as voting) while continuing to insist that women obey their husbands?

c) Similarly, what is the relationship between women’s ecclesiastical opportunities and political opportunities? Would it be inconsistent, for example, to suggest that a female vice president is acceptable but a female Sunday School vice president is not?

d) Is Mormonism an activist faith, in your view?

e) Does it make sense to teach that a group of men can constitute or represent the church? (In addition to the fact that all General Authorities are male, recall that a ward can theoretically consist entirely of men. It cannot consist entirely of women.)

34 Responses to “Christianity and Women’s Rights”

  1. 1.

    I don’t begin to have answers to your questions, Kiskilili, but thanks so much for posting this write-up. It’s fascinating; it’s giving me much to think about.

  2. 2.

    What great stuff, Kiskilili! Thanks for sharing this. I like your questions. The answer to a) is polygamy ceased. Mormonism transformed from a religion that was antithetical to the traditional Victorian family to a religion that espouses that model as doctrine.

  3. 3.

    I once read that the Church’s stance on the ERA, in conjunction with abortion, was based on the fear that should it pass, they might be consitutionally/legally obligated to ordain women to the priesthood. Which, whatever one’s personal take on that issue, remains against Church canon.

    This point of view might also make sense in the light of the Church’s position on gay marriage (anti-discrimination due to lifestyle, but sticking to their guns on current doctrine as regards heterosexual marriage). My family and I were talking about it and my father said that (in his opinion) he thought that the Church was worried that if gay marriage were made a constitutional right, the Church’s doctrine would be seen as or potentially ruled illegal (as opposed to simply not in mainstream opinion). He then related the topic back to the contraversy surrounding the ERA.

    To boil it down, he said that the Church’s position on both issues might come down to the Church’s fear that the protection that is supposed to come from the seperation of church and state might not always cut both ways or equally. I’m not not sure if his opinion is correct, but it certainly gave me a great deal of food for thought.

  4. 4.

    To echo smalldog, the Church’s stance hasn’t changed very much (women should be educated, thoughtful citizens, and have a voice in their government) but the world changed a LOT around that stance. A few years ago I did some research into the life & politics of Belle Spafford, writing a chapter for the Joseph F. Smith Institute’s volume on 20th century Mormon women’s history. She was in the unenviable position of being the General RSP and, simultaneously, the president of the National Council of Women… in the late 1960s… when the National Council had been on record for generations, actually, trying to get an equality amendment into the Constitution. At that time, still, it was within the realm of possibility that the Church would endorse such a proposition, or at least that its leading female leader could add her name to the organizations’ endorsement, but things were completely different by 1974/1975 (Spafford was out, Smith was in). That’s when it really changed, I think, and it had a lot to do with Roe v. Wade and the climate of second-wave feminism. The old-guard organizations like NCW were eclipsed and the very positions which seemed so radical in 1900 and so common-sense in 1960 now seemed positively regressive to groups like NOW, who pushed for more change, which pushed the Church (and many other socially conservative organization) farther in retreat against “women’s rights.” As that umbrella term came to mean more in the 1970s, the mainstream Church’s commitment to it dissolved. From their POV, the important stuff had been accomplished.

  5. 5.

    Very interesting post!

    e) yes, it makes sense…based on our focus on priesthood.

  6. 6.

    Fascinating post, Kiskilili.

    a) Have you ever read Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy by Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis & Gordon D. Fee (eds.)? It’s pretty much the Bible of egalitarian evangelical arguments. The first three essays in the volume are historical overviews of the role of women in Christian history, and the second of these essays deals with women in the 19th and 20th centuries. This essay is particularly interesting because it points out that several fundamentalist & evangelical denominations and institutions which are currently against the ordination of women, including Moody Bible Institute, had no problem with women as preachers and pastors in the late 19th / early 20th centuries. What happened? Well, as feminism advanced, these groups reacted against its excesses by actually tightening up their control on women. These groups currently like to claim that they’ve refused to bow to the influence of feminism, but that’s not really true. They bowed to it all right; they turned around and bowed in the other direction (mooned feminism?!).

    Perhaps something similar happened with Mormonism.

    b) I think it’s inconsistent. I mean, sure, someone can take a libertarian position and say, “I want women outside my religion to have all options open to them even if I want women inside my religion to make a certain choice.” But when women have greater freedom outside the church, it inevitably, eventually will impact the church and trickle in. Expect the patriarchy to get softer and softer.

    However, soft patriarchy / soft complementarianism does such a good job masquerading as functional egalitarianism, it can survive for a long time.

    c) See my answer to b).

    d) Yes, always has been.

    e) Of course it does. And it will until women can either share in the men’s roles or have roles to play in the religion that are uniquely theirs. (Just a reminder: giving birth is not an LDS ordinance; female roles in temple ordinances are largely just equivalents and opposites of the roles that men play.)

  7. 7.

    ERA text says “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex”

    1. Perhaps if it had said gender? Sex is a little more broad. (This comes from what my educated-politically-interested mother told me growing up).
    2. Perhaps if “separate but equal” hadn’t been knocked down for race, then no one would have worried about the possibility of unisex everything from changing rooms to dorm rooms to women’s colleges, etc. It was pretty radical back then to imagine the possibility of never have same gender anything.
    3. What exactly would it mean and how would it be enforced?

    The church was active in fighting for specific rights for women. The church believes in suffrage and education and fair professional opportunities and is against mistreatment of women. But I think that the ERA was too broad and had enough radical activity attached to feminism at that point it that there was some question as to the long term ramifications of it.
    Thanks for the post and the comments. Interesting history lesson for me.

  8. 8.

    I think it is easy to miss the impact that the Boy Scout experience with the various legal doctrines has had on the LDS Church, which has had many in policy making positions with strong roots in the Boy Scout programs. That overlaps on both the feminist issues and the homosexual ones.

    And it will until women can either share in the men’s roles or have roles to play in the religion that are uniquely theirs. (Just a reminder: giving birth is not an LDS ordinance

    Though it is often perceived as one. It is interesting to think of giving birth as not a role within the religion and one not unique to women. I will have to think on that.

    I do know that a stake president I knew who thought he could treat a female general board member as not having the same gravitas as a general authority got his head handed to him publicly in a regional training meeting by an apostle who was present.

    The status of women in those positions could use more demarcation. Some consider them general authorities, others attempt to pigeonhole them as a good deal less than area authorities or stake priesthood leaders.

    Some things to think about.

  9. 9.

    b. Insisting that we obey our husbands? Whoa. Not likely. I am convinced that you are misreading the phrase.

    Pay attention to them as long as they are saying the same thing that you hear the Lord saying, but if they are saying something different than what you hear from Him, you are under no obligation to pay attention at all except for the general instruction to everyone to be charitable and patient with each other.

    It is a practical, conditional commitment, not an obligatory or mirroring one. And it’s not about obeying.

    Prepositional phrases can be easily misunderstood.

  10. 10.

    A. The temple subordinates women. Regardless of how we read the word “as,” women do not stand qualitatively in the relationship to God that men do. The newly popularized revisionist reading of the covenant lacks coherency while still failing to resolve basic feminist concerns.

    B. My question in this particular post centers on the potential tension in 19th century Mormonism between the fight for women’s political rights and the patriarchal order. (See the note above that Emmeline B. Wells had to get her husband’s permission to attend national conventions lobbying for suffrage.) I think it’s fairly uncontroversial to point out that Mormon women in the 19th century were asked to obey their husbands; one site at which this doctrine was reinforced was in the temple, which included the word “obey” as recently as 1990.

  11. 11.

    It is a practical, conditional commitment, not an obligatory or mirroring one. And it’s not about obeying.

    Just keep telling yourself that, love.

  12. 12.

    b) How are we to understand the relationship between the patriarchal order in the home and women’s prescribed roles in society? Specifically, was it inconsistent to fight for women’s political rights (such as voting) while continuing to insist that women obey their husbands?

    This is an issue that has long perplexed me. By the time I was in junior high I was very aware that women are granted a personhood and an equality in the secular world we are far from enjoying within the church. And so even as I reveled in my devilish enjoyment of secular learning, for example, I always nervously wondered when the second coming would occur, eradicating the secular world and my liberty and personhood with it.

    What happens to those of us–blacks, at one time, now women and gays–who enjoy greater liberties in the fallen realm than we will be permitted on high when the patriarchal order subsumes the world? Where will we find our refuge?

    If it is God’s will that we be eternally subordinate, do our very liberties and equalities constitute some aspect of the fall?

    Is the personhood of women a telestial concept?

  13. 13.

    Is the personhood of women a telestial concept?

    If so, then I guess I’ll be partying with the devil in hades. Not sure I’d want a Heaven where women are inherently less than.

    In addition to the fact that all General Authorities are male, recall that a ward can theoretically consist entirely of men. It cannot consist entirely of women.

    Holy cow, I can’t believe I never thought about this one before.

    Thanks for the great post! Gives me more to muse over.

  14. 14.

    That was a snide comment. Uncalled for.

    Eve, I respect your opinion but wonder at the culture you were surrounded with that would cause you to think that your delight in secular education was devilish and that it would be eradicated in the second coming. I grew up in a fully LDS family that fully embraced my secular education and believes it is essential to my personhood forever. The thought that the personhood of women is a telestial comment is anaethema to my understanding of the gospel.

    It is essential that thinking, educated women be able to discern the difference between the culture they live in and the gospel at its heart. Way to many times we women simply look at the temporary, earthly, social manifestations of LDS lifestyles and various annoying “through a glass darkly” statements by people with name recognition who don’t see the whole picture clearly and fail to study, embrace, trust and follow what is really true.

    Anger at straw men (or real people) is energizing, even addicting. It makes you feel more alive and purposeful. Been there, done that.

    But there is more power in simply finding and living what you feel and know is right, speaking the truth with love, and loving on, in spite of the misguided follies of people around you who have woven their cultural errors into the fabric of their gospel understanding.

    I agree that the ceremonies are imperfect. I agree that the people are. I agree that the church is.

    So am I. I think that we all know that each of us are too.

    The question is, how do we respond to that imperfection? I fully believe that as a disciple of Jesus, each of us, male and female, the answer is to speak the truth with love.

  15. 15.

    However, as Kiskilli points out, my comments have derailed this thread from the good questions she poses. I’d be interested in getting it back on track.

  16. 16.

    Is the personhood of women a telestial concept?

    I think quite the inverse, that the lack of equality is a result of a fallen world.

  17. 17.

    mb, in the interest of avoiding further permutations of the patriarchy wars (see the archives–if you must!), I don’t think I want to get bogged down another discussion of the doctrine-culture distinction, which I think derails the far more interesting and potentially more fruitful questions Kiskilili poses. Let me see if I can approach the issues that interest me here from an angle that you might find less, well, provocative than you clearly find the angle I’ve taken above.

    Underlying the issue of religious agitation for women’s civil rights in the secular, public, or political sphere are are much more general questions about the religious view of the secular. Of course we wouldn’t even exist without the secular realm, but we often denigrate the secular realm which makes our very existence as an extraordinarily minority religion possible.

    What do we think is the ultimate fate of the secular? Do we see it as a necessary and temporary evil, necessary only because it permits us (again, a very minority religion) to exist? Will it be utterly eradicated? Will our peculiar religious culture utterly prevail in the celestial realm? Or will we, as Stephen’s perspective above suggests, take something from the secular realm–concepts like women’s personhood and agency, for example–and incorporate them into our heaven?

    Does the secular world have something to teach a religion committed to the principles of ongoing revelation and a unique divine investiture of authority?

    Is it possible that secular concepts can make us more true to ourselves as a faith? What are the risks we run in incorporating such concepts? How do we decide what to take, what to reject?

    To get closer to the issues Kiskilili’s considering: what are the theological and doctrinal implications when the LDS Church agitates for disenfranchised groups (women, gays) to enjoy rights in the secular realm which we simultaneously deny those groups in the religious realm? What does it mean that the church was involved in women’s suffrage and women were running for and holding political office in the nineteenth century at the same time that women were ritually subordinated in their own homes and marriages, and that they had no voice in the governing councils of their church? (Similarly–and I bring this up with considerable trepidation, but it’s too perfect a parallel not to mention in this context–what does it mean that the church has recently endorsed an ordinance mandating equal rights for gays which includes an exception for religion?)

    On the most basic level, why do we as a church want women or gays to enjoy an equality in the secular world, in educational and career and political opportunities, that we simultaneously deny women or gays in the most intimate spaces of our lives–and in our communal religious existence?

    How are we to make doctrinal sense of this contradiction?

    I can see a number of approaches, off the top of my head, but I’m really curious to hear what others think about this cluster of issues.

  18. 18.

    Thank you for this discussion. I have a lot of thoughts, but not a lot of time to compose them efficiently. I just wanted to thank you for sharing this K!! I always learn so much from you.

  19. 19.

    Nicely articulated.
    Oh, and apologies all around for my previous threadjack.

  20. 20.

    Oh, don’t even worry about it mb! It’s not like there are so many comments on our blog that we can’t entertain a threadjack. :)

    And Jack Sparrow (i.e. me) owes you an apology; thanks for your graciousness in response to his snark.

    Thanks to everyone for the comments to my post; there are some other ideas I’d like to respond to when I find the time for it, but in the meantime, enjoy the holiday!

  21. 21.

    The LDS woman remembers President Benson’s words Keep Your Eye On The Prize. Exaltation. We are divided up into family units. The LDS woman knows that her main focus is, together with her husband, to get herself and their family exalted. Praise from the world is not necessary. She remembers Mother Theresa’s admonition to women. Be a handmaiden to the Lord. Serve the Lord and your families. Once on FMH someone once said that women have to be eternal vice presidents implying of course that the husband is president. The LDS woman would rather be vice president for eternity upon eternity as an exalted woman and be with her family rather than spend eternity separately and singly forever and ever.

  22. 22.

    Eternal vice presidents?
    Presidents with vice presidents is a telestial form of government.
    It sometimes works here in a fallen world. It would be seriously out of place in a celestial realm.

  23. 23.

    Eve wrote:
    Does the secular world have something to teach a religion committed to the principles of ongoing revelation and a unique divine investiture of authority?

    Brigham Young said:
    “[The gospel] embraces all morality, all virtue, all light, all intelligence, all greatness, and all goodness. It introduces a system of laws and ordinances …
    Such a plan incorporates every system of true doctrine on the earth, whether it be ecclesiastical, moral, philosophical, or civil; it incorporates all good laws that have been made from the days of Adam until now; it swallows up the laws of nations, for it exceeds them all in knowledge and purity, it circumscribes the doctrines of the day, and takes from the right and the left, and brings all truth together in one system, and leaves the chaff to be scattered hither and thither.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, compiled by John Widstoe, p. 3-4)

    So, the basic answer is yes. Watching it over the last 150+ years I think we can also say that that teaching and learning is a long, ongoing process that is not particularly smooth, often fraught with nuanced differences that seem contradictory, and requires much thought and prayer and a humility to accept the premise that one might be wrong (and open to correction through personal revelation) as much as one might be right at any particular time in that process.

    That’s a tall order. But I think we’re up to it.

  24. 24.

    In the temple ceremony the husband answers to God and the wife answers to the husband. You can see that when God pulls the husband through the veil and he husband pulls his wife through the veil. Am I wrong?

  25. 25.

    Temple ceremonies, which I prefer not to discuss here, are symbolic. Symbols are used by God to teach principles by the Holy Spirit. There is not a one-to-one correspondence between each symbol and one particular meaning. Any certain symbol can be used multiple ways by the Holy Spirit to bring various different things to your remembrance and teach you and other beloved children of God different things at various times throughout your lives. God has used symbols this way throughout the ages. You can find examples of this use and understanding of symbols in all the standard works of the church. You can find a good discussion of this topic as it relates to the temple in Elder James Talmage’s book “The House of the Lord: A Study of Temples Ancient and Modern.” I highly recommend it to you.

    So, if what you have written is what you feel you have learned by the Holy Spirit, I will not say that you have not. I cannot and should not declare what you feel spiritually as valid or invalid any more than you should say that what I have learned by the Holy Spirit is or is not of God either.

    Therefore, though I fully support you (and anyone else’s) right to worship and understand God as you feel dictated by your spiritual experiences, I must just simply and honestly say that what you have learned and extrapolated from that particular symbol is quite different from what the Holy Spirit has taught me.

    I am glad that you attend the temple. It is a good place for learning. All the best to you.

    Now, back to the topic at hand….

  26. 26.

    I have to agree with WInifred that women are secondary and subordinate in the temple ceremony, and it’s not clear to me that mb would disagree on this point, except that for her/him this reading is let’s say “proximate” rather than “ultimate.”

    It might be useful here to distinguish between symbols and ciphers. In interpreting symbols the “signifier” continues to have resonance in its interpreted, elaborated context, where ciphers are simple codes in which one term/object is arbitrarily substituted for an unrelated one. In effect, a cipher cancels out the literal meaning where a symbol does not. I think much of our “reading” of symbols in the church actually posits the existence of ciphers.

    In either case, I see a cluster of related problems in advancing such an interpretation: (a) How do we recognize symbols/ciphers? Are there are actual rhetorical clues in the text itself? Too often we recognize “symbols” because they make us uncomfortable–i.e., anything with which we disagree in our sacred texts is said to be symbolic of something with which we agree. This is a suspect hermeneutic for fairly obvious reasons. (b) How do we reconcile the tension between asserting the temple is symbolic and the temple is essential for our salvation? The more effort we expend in evacuating the literal meaning of the text, the odder becomes the claim that this text in all its particularities has salvific power. The former stresses generalities through the alleged elasticity of meaning, where the latter stresses rigid particularities. (c) How do we maintain limits on the interpretation such that the text does not devolve in our system into meaninglessness? If the text is simply an empty vessel which the Holy Ghost can fill according to whim with any interpretation du jour, have we not effectively asserted that the text in itself is meaningless? And if so, why this particular text portraying women’s secondary status? Would any text do equally well in this system? Why not use a text about Heavenly Mother, or for that matter, Shakespeare’s King Lear? Why keep a text without meaning secret or sacred? (d) If we read it as a symbol we’re stuck with a God who’s comfortable demanding women’s subordination as part of his broader aims–the symbolic reading doesn’t erase this portrayal but simply builds on it; if we read the text as a cipher we can get around women’s secondary status but only by positing a God who deliberately makes statements he does not mean (in the apparent hope that people will uncover an unrelated “true” meaning through the spirit). That sounds dangerously close to lying. If people stick to the straightforward meaning of the text (subordinating women to their husbands), how can God object? That’s what he asked them to do, and not everyone received the Holy Ghost’s magic decoder ring arbitrarily rendering this reading null and void.

  27. 27.

    Is women’s subordination part and parcel of the fallen world? Some read Genesis 3:16 as descriptive rather than prescriptive–this is going to happen, but that doesn’t mean God approves of it. It’s the unfortunate nature of mortality.

    But that reading is seriously difficult to maintain in light of the fact that God enjoins women to covenant to be subordinate to their husbands. Do we need to promise to accept any other conditions of mortality–like maybe promise God we’ll age, suffer sickness, and die? The temple supposedly lays out the heavenly pattern for living. It hardly makes sense to assert that those who have never been are allowed to have celestial, equal marriages where those who were married in its hallowed halls are obligated to live the telestial model.

  28. 28.

    It is essential that thinking, educated women be able to discern the difference between the culture they live in and the gospel at its heart. Way to many times we women simply look at the temporary, earthly, social manifestations of LDS lifestyles and various annoying “through a glass darkly” statements by people with name recognition who don’t see the whole picture clearly and fail to study, embrace, trust and follow what is really true.

    As I read your comment, you’re proposing two different approaches to difficult issues in church teaching: (a) aspects of Church teaching we find uncomfortable belong to the “culture,” not “doctrine,” and (b) people who disagree with us see “through a glass darkly.”

    I’m extremely suspicious of the doctrine-culture dichotomy, maybe because I’ve never seen it applied with anything approaching rigor. Culture refers to human behavior, so doctrine is simply a subset of it. If the methodology underlying this distinction is that we reject anything for which we can find parallels in the surrounding culture, we’re going to have to be willing to eliminate very central claims. The First Vision? Other people Joseph’s age in his area had very similar visions. Word of Wisdom? Clear parallels from the time. Are American Indians descended from ancient Israelites? That was a popular notion in JS’s time. Is Jesus the Messiah? Just seepage from creedal Christianity, misreading the Hebrew Bible. Closer to home, from the perspective of feminism, while it’s true women’s subordination was a part of 19th century American culture, it’s also true gender egalitarianism is a widely trumpeted value in our own time. What’s our basis for suggesting it’s doctrinal? (On the other hand, polygamy was pretty shocking in Joseph’s culture, so playing by these rules that might qualify as a “doctrinal” element of the culture. But then even that grew out of OT practices.)

    It’s true we all see “through a glass darkly.” But, from my perspective, many of the “annoying” statements are coming out of the mouths of prophets or are put directly in the mouth of God. Maybe those people are misinformed, but why should I suppose I see so much more clearly through that glass than Joseph Smith or Thomas S. Monson? It’s not very Mormon to reject all religious authorities. On the other hand, maybe God is just one of those “people with name recognition [check!] who [doesn't] see the whole picture clearly and fail[s] to study, embrace, and follow what is really true.”

  29. 29.

    I have very little familiarity with this material, but based on this lecture I see two possible significant factors in the Church’s different approaches to suffrage and to the ERA (and I do think the Church changed, given facts such as that Utah had its own equal rights clause in 1896 but this idea had apparently become threatening by 1972):

    (a) It seems that the larger cultural climate may have been more receptive to the wedding of Christian and feminist values in the 19th century, where in the 20th century these ideologies began to be constructed as in opposition to each other, and in both instances the Church was likely influenced by these broader attitudes.

    (b) For the most part, it’s going to be women who agitate for women’s rights and opportunities. There’s a correlation between the existence of an autonomous women’s organization in a denomination, for example, and the likelihood that women will be ordained. While there may have been other factors at work (convincing the larger culture that Mormon polygamous women were not a suppressed voice?), it’s also the case that it was women who were attending national conferences on suffrage. Emmeline B. Wells could hold a public debate with then-Apostle B. H. Roberts on the suffrage question. The space in which such open disagreement in the church thrived is barely comprehensible post-Correlation, and (obviously) men lead the Church.

  30. 30.

    I’m still confused about what it means for a church to support women’s political rights in secular space but restrict them domestically and ecclesiastically–i.e. support suffrage and patriarchy simultaneously. Perhaps there are better sociological explanations than theological for deeming women citizens on earth but not in heaven, as it were.

  31. 31.

    K, love your analysis here. Hope you had a good Thanksgiving :)

  32. 32.

    Wow. A lot to respond to.

    Just a couple of things. Doctrine is not a subset of culture nor is culture a subset of doctrine. Nor are they separate entities. They are two different sets with an overlapping subset. Think of Venn diagrams from your early math days. The process is not so much of one influencing the other (though that does happen) but rather of people receiving continuing insight as to which elements of each should belong in the shared subset.

    Secondly, when I claim that others “see through a glass darkly” I also must claim that I do as well. That is a given that I probably didn’t articulate well. My job in this life is not to clear the glass, but rather to see as well as I can with the glass that exists for me and then live as true to what I understand as I can. That means I will not only feel free to reject other church members’ perceptions that seem wrong to me but that I must also be fully aware that my best understandings may well be fraught with errors too. And I therefore must be completely fine and not feel threatened by others of my faith who reject my ideas of truth. For some people this is unsettling, but I have no problem living with ambiguity as I believe that God (who does see the whole picture, though his children, including his prophets, fail to see and relay it absolutely perfectly) simply expects me to live as true to the truth that I do I find as I am able to. And one of those truths for me is that many of his imperfect children are doing the best they can and I need to be kind and loving towards their imperfect efforts. Hopefully they will be so towards me, and many of them are.

    Finally, as a Christian, I take as my basic foundation the statement that “God is love”. Therefore, when I encounter an idea (mine or anyone else’s) about God that attributes to him actions or doctrines that are unloving or arbitrary or capricious or insensitive or segregationist or irrational or whatever, I feel free to reject that idea as a “through a glass darkly error” BUT, though I find that erroneous thinking annoying, it doesn’t rock my boat, make me feel like the whole church is off base or that I need to worry about whether or not other members see what I see. You see, I know that I’ve most likely got erroneous thinking going in my head too on one doctrinal subject or other, and, just as I expect God to overlook my “glass darkly” errors, I feel responsible to be patient with those of others even as I regard them as false.

    Certainly, when I see unkindness being done in the name of God, or God being misperceived as unkind and rigid (as in some of the ideas we have all encountered either in our own heads or in what we think we hear others say), I try to move in to repair the damage that does. And because I believe that Jesus can heal all wounds, when, to my sorrow, even my best efforts fall short of that healing while I am there, I fully trust that he will ultimately undo the damage, carefully straighten out the errant truth-seekers (one of whom might well be me at one point or another :-) ), and fully comfort and restore.

  33. 33.

    Brigham Young said:
    “[The gospel] embraces all morality, all virtue, all light, all intelligence, all greatness, and all goodness. It introduces a system of laws and ordinances …
    Such a plan incorporates every system of true doctrine on the earth, whether it be ecclesiastical, moral, philosophical, or civil; it incorporates all good laws that have been made from the days of Adam until now; it swallows up the laws of nations, for it exceeds them all in knowledge and purity, it circumscribes the doctrines of the day, and takes from the right and the left, and brings all truth together in one system, and leaves the chaff to be scattered hither and thither.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, compiled by John Widstoe, p. 3-4)

    Thanks, mb, for that quote! That’s exactly what I believe. So far, as regards women’s equality, the swallowing is yet incomplete, but this inalienable truth will come eventually to be incorporated fully within the system. In other words, women’s equality is a fundamental truth of the gospel that simply has yet to be fully swallowed into our system of church government including the temple ceremony.

    The salvific power of the ceremony, then, can’t be tied to any one particular wording. It seems clear to me that there must be something else about the ceremony that imbues it with salvific power, perhaps our willingness to make strong promises. We do our best, then God makes up for our lacks. My feeling is that the current specific wording of the temple ceremony could be one area in which Heavenly Father is making up for the imperfections of our current system.

  34. 34.

    Or perhaps another quote is pertinent:
    “The final wisdom of life requires, not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it.” – Reinhold Niebuhr

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