Zelophehad’s Daughters

What’s the Feminist Linchpin?

Posted by Kiskilili

It’s pretty clear there are interrelationships among identified feminist concerns in Mormonism.  But do you feel that your feminist issues can be reduced to a common source?  Is there one issue that encompasses all the others, or from which all the others flow?  And if so, what is it? 

Does everything come back to women and priesthood?  Is Heavenly Mother‘s status the heart of the issue?  Maybe Eve’s punishment–marital subordination–is the central problem.  Maybe the constrictive model of femininity the Church endorses.  Or perhaps the very insistence that gender is eternal.

Maybe you’ll tell me I’m cheating through imprecision.  I don’t think I am.  My central concern is what I’m going to call the religious invalidation of women.  To me, it’s more fundamental even than women’s subordination, and it’s what makes that subordination so problematic.  Validation is more important to me than equality, and it’s more important than power. 

It’s not exactly an issue of cherishing women or valuing them, which the Church continually trumpets defensively it’s doing in spades.  You can cherish a dog.  Validation is something qualitatively different–it’s valuing not just women, but women’s experience. It’s treating women as the subjects of their own lives rather than objects in men’s lives.  It’s regarding women as full human agents worthy of making their own decisions and being held accountable for them.  If women are validated and not just valued, they are worthy of God’s direct attention, trust, and opportunities for spiritual growth in this life and the next. They’re worthy of being listened to and respected.

When it comes down to it, what matters to me, personally, is: me, personally.  I expect to be accorded the dignity that comes with being an adult and a full human agent.  Subordination is demeaning; it makes my relationship to the divine oblique and implies I’m unworthy of making decisions for myself.  It denies me integrity.  It’s a profound, systematic form of invalidation.

Some of you will say if we’re religiously and spiritually healthy, we shouldn’t need any validation.  I think just the opposite is true: if we’re healthy we should expect and even demand validation.

So what do you see as the central feminist issue, and why?

(Hint: if you have no feminist concerns, you’re probably not the intended audience for this post. Please be patient and perhaps the next post on our blog will catch your fancy.)

29 Responses to “What’s the Feminist Linchpin?”

  1. 1.

    I will continue thinking about this, Kiskilili, but the basic issues you bring up in this post have long troubled me. What is it, precisely, that bothers me about gender teachings and practices in the Church? Are there solutions or changes (or expansions/clarifications) to any one belief or teaching or practice that would substantially change my feelings?

    I recall about five years ago getting two blessings from my brother-in-law in which he said, clearly meaning to convey comfort, “Remember you are a daughter of God.” I left feeling deeply unsettled and wondering in my mind – should I be comforted by this when I’m not entirely sure what “daughter of God” really means in terms of my value? Typing it sounds glib, somehow, but it was truly disconcerting, because my feelings were so conflicted by that simple phrase that I was forced to realize for the first time that something in what I had been taught had led me to believe that I am somehow inferior because of the body I inhabit.

  2. 2.

    I think it boils down to treatment for me. How am I treated as a woman in the church? How are my daughters treated next to someone’s sons? How is Heavenly Mother treated (at least as a discussion topic since we have no way of knowing how she’s treated in heaven)? How is the RS treated? – now versus the autonomy it enjoyed early on.
    They’re all too related for me to separate them, but what motivates me to action is when I see something actually occurring based on any one of these concerns.

    I don’t think it matters if we have one unifying issue as Feminists, just as long as there is something that resonates with each individual and emotionally invests them in the cause, or at the very least helps them to see the cause in a different light.

    “Validation is something qualitatively different–it’s valuing not just women, but women’s experience” I like this, and I think this is what the leadership doesn’t quite get. Treating us as subjects rather than objects and as capable is not as much a concern to me, because I think the general enlightened membership has become adept at doing this. Sometimes sincerely, sometimes just as lip service, but if we stopped at these accomplishments, we’d be short changing ourselves. It’s the recognition of why these things are important – not just that they seem to make women feel better about their place – that needs to be focused on.

  3. 3.


  4. 4.

    Great post. I’m not prepared to identify what my linchpin is, but I love the way you articulated your need/demand for validation.

    What disturbs me the most about my membership in the church is thatchurch is the ONLY place in my life where I feel I am treated unequally. It’s the ONLY place in my life where I feel I am diminished because of my gender. It’s the ONLY place in my life where the words “patriarchy” and “patriarchal” are spoken in a positive light. In other parts of my life–in particular, in my professional life–”patriarchy” is considered a thing of the past. It’s considered to be something damaging to both women and men. It’s something unfortunate. A problem that needs to be remedied.

    So the disconnect between my church membership and all the other interactions in my life is pretty big.

    And then there are those three kids that I have . . . but wait, this is your blog–not mine!

    Great post.

  5. 5.

    Thanks, this is interesting to read.

  6. 6.

    First off–loved the post. The Dog comment was brilliant.

    I have spent hundreds of hours in the past four months delving into the mysteries of Godliness and I keep running up against the wall of polygamy and the idea that it is necessary in the celestial kingdom for a man to have countless wives. I find it interesting that to become exhaulted women must sacrifice more (polygamy) and at the same time receive less (power, authority, etc. shared between countless other women) than the opposite sex. On the other hand, my experiences with the spiritual realm never leave me feeling “less than”. It is quite the opposite. I vacillate between “wearying the Lord” with inquires about it, and recognizing that some things I have to take on faith.

    I have no problem with the priesthood authority being with the men at this time (most of us know that what authority we did have was taken from us in 1948). The funny thing about it is that women today don’t realize they actually DO have “power in the priesthood”. The REAL POWER is in the ORDINANCES, NOT the AUTHORITY (see D&C 84,88,93). As I have studied this and asked patriarchs and temple presidents, the consensus is not that we “share” the man’s priesthood power, but that through our individual ORDINANCES given in the temple we, as an eternal unit “SHARE” our priesthood with EACHOTHER. I have some–my husband has some. Do you consciously consecrate your power when your husband ministers to others? Does he do likewise? It’s all about ONENESS. Feminist issues are important, but can DISTRACT us from the REAL, OVERARCHING OBJECTIVE of ELECT WOMEN OF GOD—-TO BECOME EXHAULTED. We as women have priesthood power through the endowment RIGHT NOW–we just have to individually pray to understand how we use it in our daily lives. I know this from deep, personal, sacred experience that I can’t deny and that has changed my life on a fundamental level. If women (and men!) in the church understood this truth, it would change us all.

    “Come unto Christ” is not just a slogan. It’s real and it’s a personal journey made in this life. The pattern to get there is staring endowed members right in the face–literally. What’s more is it’s as available to women as well as men. Who cares what the church does? The church was never meant to be a perfect institution or a permanent one. Christ sees the hypocrisy in our church. He sees men wanting to make themselves into a “priestly class”. It’s exactly what the Jews and Early Christians did and we’re not far from it. Read 3 Ne. 16–it’s all prophesied. Although it can be constructive to look at these issues and do what we can to effect change, it is ultimately the LORD’s JOB. We as women need to make sure our families are individually moving towards becoming members of the Church of the Firstborn because our church will not exist in heaven. Feminist issues fall by the wayside in the light of the unbelievable opportunity that we have in our lives RIGHT NOW to entertain angels, exercise keys, and ultimately pierce the veil.

  7. 7.

    Heather, I would love to hear more about your experiences in other aspects of your life as compared to your experiences at church. I had one friend who didn’t attend any religious organization and who didn’t see the need of feminism in today’s society because she never felt discriminated against. I was surprised by this. Never? Certainly there is plenty of sexism outside of religious settings, but it seems to be more prevalent in religious organizations. Why is that?

    Anyway, I would love to hear a lot more about your experiences in comments or potentially a guest post.

  8. 8.

    Great post, Kiskili – I love how you’ve boiled it down. I was just blogging about this topic myself at W&T today.

    For me, I’m not sure there’s a single linchpin, but there are things that are more impactful than others. I dislike the prescriptive roles of women that encourage certain choices (usually bearing children and staying at home, but also speaking in a baby voice at Gen Conf) but quietly don’t laud others (having a career, delaying marriage to serve a mission, being intelligent and assertive).

    When men set the standards, the standards serve male interests. And no female prophet would have been asking for a revelation on polygamy since it’s not a female perk. It seems somewhat intolerable for men to reward women for what benefits men, as if we are pets, not equals.

    But on some level, I think this “disenfranchizing” of women is positive. Men can get very caught up in the hierarchical rewards of the system. Most women can receive the benefits of the church (through ordinances) without the temptations that come with hierarchy.

  9. 9.

    You guys are on a roll over here. I’ve been thinking of this question of a linchpin ever since Lynette’s last post (in between pining away to sit in on some of those conversations between you sisters and brother) and I couldn’t quite put my finger on mine.

    I think if I was going to claim just one, it would probably be just as you describe. I sometimes have trouble articulating my position on gender as I flounder away in the murky middle ground between essentialism and non-essentialism, but I do know I want the freedom to be both an assertive loud mouth and a lady who loves high heeled shoes. I think framing it in terms of validation is a nice way to express appreciating womanhood without wandering off into a worship of the feminine that doesn’t do much for me.

    I also especially love the dog point.

  10. 10.

    Subordination is demeaning; it makes my relationship to the divine oblique and implies I’m unworthy of making decisions for myself.

    I agree that this is the problem within the institution of the church. It may also be why some women who are able to work out a relationship to the divine do so outside of, or in spite of, the church.

    You’ve also hit on why I cringe every time I hear over the pulpit how important mothers are, even though I am currently a stay at home mom and should feel a boost from such remarks. I think every mother is an object in her children’s lives. (Moms don’t become people to their children until well after the children are grown.) But you spend every day as the object filling a role that ignores your personhood, to be praised for that role is not going to make you feel better as a person.

  11. 11.

    Wow. Excellent post. Just found this blog–making my way to the Mormon internet belatedly.

    “You can cherish a dog.”

    That sums it up for me. I’ve grown tired of the constant outward sanctification of women with the simultaneous structural degradation of our true value.

    I think what has become my central issue is one you mentioned–restrictive ideals of femininity. I’m currently a PhD candidate and feel confident and as you say validated in my professional endeavors; however, I become a submissive, meek woman when I’m in my church network. Partly my fault admittedly, but partly the overwhelming expectation to be sweet. I’m a living dichotomy, and my breathing is noticeably easier when I’m not feeling restricted by gendered expectations inside the metaphoric stake center.

  12. 12.

    I’ve always considered the central feminist issue to be a combination of the following:

    But that doesn’t really differ from the central human issues of:

    (order of appearance not important)
    If you’re offended by this statement you’re either a human and/or feminist.

  13. 13.

    I can absolutely relate to your feminist concerns, Chris! It’s probably my central issue with your comment.

  14. 14.

    My linchpin: when decisions about church policy and doctrine are being made, I want there to be women in the room. And I want them to have speaking parts.

  15. 15.

    For me, a key issue is the difference I see between my own potential and interests and the ones I feel placed in by the gender norms articulated in church settings. Like Heather, church is the only place I feel unequal.

    I also feel that church ought to be a participatory space–one in which we develop our relationship with God through active involvement. Yet, women are left out of the loop and not given opportunities to meaningfully participate.

  16. 16.

    I’ve been thinking about this for days! (I hate when post does this to me)

    I think my linchpin is Eve.

    I can’t think of the Garden of Eden story in any way that makes sense for me as a feminist. I know that many feminists (and TBMs) agree that Eve was noble and brave for her choice, but if the result of her choice is the subjugation of women then I don’t know how it was a good choice.

    Because the story of Adam and Eve is so central in Mormonism and we are told that they represent us in a metaphorical way, I can’t get past the way Eve is portrayed in the Garden.

  17. 17.

    I appreciate how you summed this up; this is an issue I’ve been wrestling with for several years, especially since receiving my endowment and getting married. The covenants I made upset me, because basically I feel like I’ve admitted to being inferior to my husband and promised to put him above me for eternity. That is not something I believe or plan on doing. I’m frustrated by having no women with any kind of power, and angry and the words used to describe women and our purpose in life. i”m angry that the choices I feel are right for my life are looked down on, and that my talents are ignored because they aren’t the talents women are supposed to have. But all of that comes down to wanted to be validated, accepted and admired as a human being and as the women I’ve chosen to be, and not be judged by standards set up by men for what all women should be. IF women were validated for who they were individually, that might solve many of the other problems we have with the structure of the church. If women with leadership skills were validated and those skill put to use, there might be women in leadership positions outside of RS and Primary. If women were validated for the choices they made outside of family, maybe there wouldn’t be this instance that women stay in the home or that husbands functions as “head of the house.” (whatever that means).

    Good summary of the problem!

  18. 18.

    Thanks for the constructive comments; I’m reading with interest. For me, the nonnegotiable aspect in my Church participation was the belief that God was willing to have an I-Thou relationship with me directly. When, in the temple, I lost that belief, I also stopped being willing to compromise on issues that hadn’t bothered me earlier, like Heavenly Mother’s absence and exclusively male ordination.

  19. 19.

    Like some of you noted, this post required some thought! I’ve been thinking for days about this. SInce I’m also reading “Half the Sky” right now, my thoughts about treatment of women (and, yes, I mean mistreatment) are particularly tender.

    My linchpin is the respect. I feel as if I live two lives. One life during the week in which I’m respected for my ideas, my education, my actions and my widsom. Then, when I go to church on Sunday, though I sit in on many meetings due to my calling, my ideas do not carry the weight of men who are half my age. As long as women are viewed as “help meets” only, their will be no respect beyond keeping us there and active so we can keep doing that FOR their benefit.

    If I could pick two, I’d also pick the patriarchy. While many men are great, living in a patriarchal society is still damaging in my opinion. Women are conditioned from a very young age to believe what men say and to act on their words alone. I believe that many girls are taught that they don’t need to think for themselves; a man will do that for them. Because of this, violence against women (at the hand of a trusted man in their lives) is one of the leading causes of death for us.

    A recent news story in Utah which brought home this point is a story of a teenaged girl, seeking counseling because of sexual abuse at home, was further abused by her counselor at LDS social services who “prayed” about their relationship and told the girl that it was God’s will that they have sex. It went on for years.

  20. 20.

    Jessaway, if you don’t mind, I’d like to comment about EVE too. She is my favorite woman from the scriptures. I may just be a creative thinker, but EVE is the first feminist.

    (Let me clarify that I DON’T believe the story as it is typically interpreted. There was no serpent, no fruit, etc.)

    I believe that Adam and Eve were told not to do something and Eve directly disobeyed –AFTER thinking it out for herself and seeking personal revelation, she acted otherwise. This story reinforces to me that we must think everything out for ourselves and do what we think is right for us and our families EVEN if we have to directly disobey a commandment (or a talk at conference, or a proclamation or whatever). It also points out that there are probably more than one right thing to do in life. Eve could have selected NOT to to partake, and things would have been fine. She chose to partake and that’s great too.

    The rest of that story–we now give birth with pain, why women must obey man’s every command, the earth must be tamed, etc. is all just a mythological explanation of why the world is the way it is. I believe all societies created stories to explain things not understood.

  21. 21.

    I feel as if I live two lives. One life during the week in which I’m respected for my ideas, my education, my actions and my widsom. Then, when I go to church on Sunday, though I sit in on many meetings due to my calling, my ideas do not carry the weight of men who are half my age.

    I can totally relate to this! I’m in a pretty good singles’ branch right now, with a lot of unmarried women in their late twenties who are pursuing their educational and professional interests, such that some of the more insidious assumptions about women’s lives and value just don’t hold water empirically when you look around the branch. This doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t hear things in church pretty much every week that make me feel like some kind of imposter — like, if this is what I’m supposed to believe about myself to be a woman in the church, maybe I should stop coming and pretending I’m okay with this.

    Conversely, I remember once, right after I got off my mission and had started up grad school again, hearing someone say in passing, “Yeah, we’d all like to imagine that our scholarship will be instrumental in dismantling the house of patriarchy . . . ” and thinking, Wow — if only you people knew where I spend my Sundays.

  22. 22.

    I like that idea. I’ll have to think about it more.

    I’ve had several people refer me to Two Trees by Valerie Hudson. I haven’t been able to make it through the first two pages, but I’ll keep trying.

  23. 23.

    I can relate to Bones’ request for respect. I think if women were validated there would be no patriarchy, since I’m conceiving of validation effectively as the opposite of infantilization.

    But I wonder about this:

    I believe that Adam and Eve were told not to do something and Eve directly disobeyed –AFTER thinking it out for herself and seeking personal revelation, she acted otherwise. This story reinforces to me that we must think everything out for ourselves and do what we think is right for us and our families EVEN if we have to directly disobey a commandment (or a talk at conference, or a proclamation or whatever).

    It’s too bad Eve didn’t think out the consequences and disobey the command that she hearken to her husband. If she had a bit of the free spirit in her, that would have been a good time for conscientious objection.

  24. 24.

    I love this post, Kiskilili. I really like how you’ve articulated your view of the feminist linchpin. Particularly,

    You can cherish a dog.


    I’m sure I haven’t given this issue the thought that you have, but when I thought of the feminist linchpin, I guess I’ve thought of what specific sexist Church practice might be changed that would be most likely to shake all the other sexist practices or knock them down like dominoes. So I guess I’m thinking of a somewhat different question than you were. But since I’m days late getting to this thread anyway, I’ll just go ahead and answer it.

    I think maybe the only change that would actually fundamentally change all the sexist practices of the Church is to have women called into the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. I think there are obviously tons of other changes that might (or even likely will) reduce sexism in the Church in general. But until and unless women are called into the highest councils in the Church, I don’t think that the religious invalidation of women is likely to change. I think there’s probably just too much inertia, too much ability for any small changes like calling women as clerks or allowing them to hold their babies while they’re blessed (wonderful as those changes might be) to be simply absorbed into the dominant way of thinking in the Church where men are the subjects and women are the objects.

  25. 25.

    You rock my world!

    Until I read your comment it never would have occurred to me that women could be called into the First Pres or Q12 without having the priesthood. But they could! It would be a policy change, but potentially not a doctrinal one. (Not that it wouldn’t be a huge change.)

    I’ll have to think more about this, perhaps it’s not what you meant, but it’s an option I’ve never considered before.

  26. 26.

    Interesting point, Ziff!

    I think originally I conceived of the linchpin much as you are. (Back then it was a lynchpin, but I altered my spelling to match Lynnette’s.) Then I started changing the rules, because–hey! It’s my post!

    I would have to choose changes to the temple ceremony as my linchpin, but not because I think it would maximize opportunities for women or would put into effect a cascade of other changes.

    Although the marginilization of women is so pervasive in the Church as to present an obvious pattern, I’m doubtful our doctrine is so philosophically coherent that there’s a thread somewhere you could pull and women’s secondary status would unravel everywhere in the tapestry as a result. It seems like we’re very, very adept at rationalizing positions that are often ludicrously incoherent (chicken patriarchy being exhibit A). We could worship Heavenly Mother and still accord her less-than-godly status. We could even worship her as Heavenly Father’s equal but insist that earthly women should submit to their husband’s authority. We could ordain women without giving them any more opportunities than they have now. We could even have a female GA but insist she submit to her husband in her personal life. Maybe we could even have a female prophet and president of the Church without altering the temple ceremony a whit.

    You’ve found a good solid practical domino that would perhaps yield the maximum benefit for women in the Church. I would choose the temple for exactly opposite reasons: to create the minimum, the situation that’s the absolute minimum in terms of what’s tolerable for me as a woman. In fact, I doubt changes to the temple would result in changes anywhere else in doctrine or policy. But I refuse to worship God if he refuses to acknowledge me as an agent. So for me it’s maybe less of a linchpin than it is the irreducible point, the most personal sexist practice, for which there can be no compromise without compromise to integrity.

    That said, I do think if God really viewed women as full agents and really micromanaged the Church, absolutely everything would be different.

  27. 27.

    Kiskilili – I’m very interested in this statement:

    That said, I do think if God really viewed women as full agents and really micromanaged the Church, absolutely everything would be different.

    I have several questions about this: Are you saying that both A and B would be necessary to change things? As in, if A [God really views women as full agents] were true but B were not [God does not choose to micromanage], then Church culture would be the same (or perhaps only minimally altered)? I ask this because I think it’s quite clear that the combination of LDS doctrine and practice does indeed call A into question, despite pulpit protests to the contrary. This is, for me, the crux of the issue.

  28. 28.

    Yeah, it’s the crux of the issue for me too. I don’t think both A and B can be true. Which makes God look either abusive or neglectful. But theoretically, they shouldn’t both be necessary for change–neither one could be true, and the Church could become more woman-friendly without it being God’s will!

  29. 29.

    [...] couple of years ago, Kiskilili wrote a post about the question, “what’s your feminist linchpin”, or the issue that you see as [...]

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