Men and women in the church are equal; they’re just not the same. They have different roles, but their different roles are equal. And when you let women do the same things as men do, you’re not making them equal; you’re just trying to make them the same.
This is among the most frequent means I hear of defending gender inequal—err, let’s call it structural imbalance, just so I can get the basic premise down—in the church. But it (I) appeals to a straw man argument, that feminists concerned by patriarchy are really just consumed by the heretical, gender-line-smudging agenda of making men and women the same, and (II) assumes that equality and sameness are neatly separable, and that it’s even possible to have one without having a certain amount of the other.
(I) deserves its own post, which would say in sum that I don’t think most Mormon feminists want – or maybe I should just say that I, as a Mormon feminist, do not want – to erase the differences between men and women. I just don’t see why, if there are all these natural, inborn differences, we really need prescriptive roles in order to maintain them; and I think we overestimate them wildly. The variation across each individual sex seems much greater than the absolute differences between the sexes.
As for (II), the notion that real equality doesn’t need sameness seems a bit apophatic to me: like we have this mystical, transcendent Equality that has no comprehensible qualities or features and can’t really be described because you just have to experience it. If this is what you mean when you say “equality,” that’s great, but you need to remember that you’re using fundamentally different terms that just happen to be spelled the same when you’re talking to everyone who just means regular old empirically discoverable equality.
2+3=5 and 1+4=5 and 2×2.5=5. None of these equations is exactly the same, but they’re all equal (2+3=4+1=2.5×2), and yet you’ll notice: they all have the same solution. No two equations can ever be equal without that fundamental quality of sameness; not a sameness which overwhelms all the differences in the forms of the equations, but nonetheless a fundamental, even ontological sameness.
Of course, people aren’t equations, unless you’re a super Marxist or a hardcore behaviorist, and I’m neither. So let’s think about race for a moment (just because comparing race and gender is traditional, clichéd, and at least a little useful.) Central High might have told its prospective black students, “It’s not that you’re not equal to us! It’s just that you’re different. And letting you come to our high school wouldn’t make you equal anyway – it would just be treating you the same.” And it’s absolutely true, that just allowing black teenagers in Little Rock to go to the same high school as the white teenagers would not grant them equality in the culture of 1950s Arkansas. But can you imagine Little Rock achieving racial equality without that sameness? In working for civil rights of all types (in terms of race, gender, or sexual orientation), the structural move towards sameness tends to correspond with the move towards equality. A great deal of sameness in the way the law treats its citizen is necessary to have equality among those citizens.
And in order for women to be structurally equal to men in the Church, yes, I’m afraid we’re going to have to expect some increased sameness. Equality of opportunity and equality of treatment require that one party isn’t denied opportunities that the other is given, that one party isn’t regularly treated differently from the other: both are treated the same unless there’s a compelling reason rooted in real differences between the two parties to justify a difference.
I think we mostly imagine up differences between men and women and then use them to justify the inequalities we’ve inherited; then, because we’ve convinced ourselves that men and women are just inherently different in these ways we haven’t bothered to actually study or investigate, it becomes very suspicious when someone talks about men and women as if they are, in so many ways, the same. But we can’t expect to really find ourselves treating them equally, giving them an equal voice in the church, addressing them with equal respect, and not find we are, in many ways, treating them the same. And if we’re so confident in the inherent differences between men and women, we don’t need to worry that treating them the same will elide those differences.