A Critique of “The Two Trees”

I would indeed be ungrateful if I didn’t acknowledge the contributions of my co-bloggers; Petra read an earlier draft and made a lot of great observations, many of which are included in the footnotes, and Kiskilili and Melyngoch kindly allowed me to quote them.

Many of you are probably familiar with Valerie Hudson’s talk, “The Two Trees.” (You can go read it here.) In this talk, Hudson explains that one of the things that she values about the church is its feminism. In her words, she seeks “to review the main points of LDS doctrine that make this a revolutionary religion from a feminine perspective.” I can see why people are drawn to the talk; it has some powerful imagery. I have to give her credit for arguing for an equality that in some respects goes well beyond standard Mormon apologetics about women’s roles. I like how she emphasizes roles for both Heavenly Parents, and is not shy about bringing Heavenly Mother into her scheme. I also like that both men and women are explicitly connected to spiritual power.

Nonetheless, as appealing as it sounds in places, I have some serious questions about this essay; I think Hudson’s methods of interpretation are often problematic, and sometimes have a rather sleight-of-hand feel to them. This comes through in the very beginning of the piece, when she says that D&C 132 makes it “absolutely plain that polygamy is an Abrahamic sacrifice.” This, she continues, means  it is necessarily “temporally bounded,” and there will at some point be a ram in the thicket. It is true that polygamy is brought up in connection with the Abraham/Isaac story (see vs. 34-37), but I think it a real stretch to say that this makes it “absolutely plain” that polygamy is an Abrahamic sacrifice; a more straightforward read, I think, would simply see those verses as an explanation that a particular behavior which is usually forbidden by God is can under some conditions be counted as righteous. More significantly, there is little if any support for the idea that there will be a ram in the thicket in the next life.  And especially given the next-life orientation of the section, I find it very difficult to believe that this is describing a temporally-bound situation.

However, polygamy is not her main focus, and we could go probably go back and forth about the meaning of various verses in D&C 132. I simply want to note here that she takes an interpretation that is at the very least a debatable one, and states that it is “absolutely plain.” This tendency hurts her credibility, and I think this pattern is a problem throughout the essay.

So—let’s look at the topics that are her focus.

I. Revolutionary LDS Teachings?

Hudson mentions some LDS doctrines which she describes as revolutionary, asserting that they contrast with traditional Christian teachings. I would like to look more closely at the teachings she brings up; I think there are instances when she misrepresents both Mormons and other Christians.

1) The existence of two heavenly parents

Hudson explains, “We are taught that there is no God without men and women loving each other as equals. Heavenly Father is not an old bachelor. In fact, the one who’s an old bachelor is Satan. This is revolutionary.”

I agree that a corporeal male God with a corporeal female counterpart is indeed strikingly different from traditional Christianity. But while popular culture has indeed portrayed God as an old bachelor, theologically, the God of mainstream Christianity is a being without gender, making the “old bachelor” claim simply nonsensical.

This is not to say that I do not see a tremendous amount of potential in the LDS doctrine of a Heavenly Mother—but I think this is largely unrealized. (If you want to know my concerns, see this post.) I also want to note that many of those mainstream Christians who do not believe in a gendered God have proposed feminine imagery for God, and and have structured their speech and liturgy to reflect that. Some, particularly Catholics, also have spiritual practice tied to feminine figures. Given this, I have a hard time seeing LDS teachings on HM as particularly revolutionary for women.

2) Importance/eternal nature of the body

Hudson tells a story about Rosemary Radford Ruether, one of the most influential feminist theologians, and how Reuther looked forward to not having a body in heaven. Hudson’s response: “I find the doctrine that my body is a great blessing and I get to keep it, to be an important part of why I stay LDS.” I was a bit confused as to the point of this story. Hudson sees her body as a blessing; Reuther does not. Both are female, and both identify as feminists. I would imagine that many women inside and outside of the church have ambivalent relations to their bodies, and the doctrine that if you are female, you will eternally have a female body may sound like a positive to some, and a doom to others. I’m not sure how this is relevant.

Nonetheless, I will say that I too appreciate the value of the body found in LDS teachings, and I have to note that the reclaiming of the importance of embodiment has been a significant aspect of contemporary feminist theology. But I have some unease with Hudson’s emphasis on this, because so often in LDS discourse women are defined in terms of the capabilities of their bodies; in fact, in this particular essay, womanhood and motherhood appear to be indistinguishable.

3) Issues of equality

Unfortunately, Hudson immediately jumps to the classic straw-person argument about equality, asserting that too many people do not understand that equality does not mean sameness. To demonstrate this point, she observes that “there are no two men who are identical, and yet they stand as equals before each other and before the Lord.” I think this is a poor parallel, because two non-identical men still have the same gender role; the situation of a man and a woman standing before God, on the other hand,  is a qualitatively different one, because their relation to God is intertwined with gender roles.

Hudson quotes what has generally become the model for marriage in LDS teachings; according to Elder Perry: “There is not a president and vice president in a family. We have co-presidents working together eternally for the good of their family.” I have to note that this is a recent notion, and is still not taught univocally by the Church, but I think it is legitimate to point out that this egalitarian model has become more and more dominant in LDS discourse.

However, I was seriously taken aback by this comment:

What an incredible vision! Especially for a Christian religion, many of which believe in some type of doctrine of submission of wives to husbands. That is not what the LDS believe.

I find this roughly similar to a Jew celebrating the fact that she, unlike those of other less enlightened religions, is allowed to eat pork. It simply makes no sense. And it requires  ignoring a whole lot, most obviously the language of the temple and the FamProc.

However, while at first read I thought this comment was simply disingenuous, after reading the whole essay, I think it might make some sense in the context of the worldview Hudson is attempting to build. Nonetheless, the idea that Mormons are ahead of other Christians on this still makes me flinch—it is arguably true that some evangelicals, for example, have more hard-core patriarchy than do LDS, but there are also many, many Christians who do not require a submission/obedience/hearkening model that has to be explained. (Though to be fair, she says “many” Christians, not “all.” I just have a hard time seeing LDS to be particularly radical on this subject.)1

II. The Garden of Eden

I now turn to Hudson’s discussion of the Garden of Eden, which is a crucial aspect of her argument.

1. Different Stewardships

Hudson makes the common argument that women and men have different stewardships, and she uses the traditional priesthood/motherhood parallel. I have to give her points for being creative in the way she describes it. “Women escort every soul through the veil to mortal life and full agency.” Even Adam, she notes, had to enter mortality “from the hand of a woman.” Here her two trees metaphor comes in. Eve gives the gift of the first tree  (mortality), and Adam gives the gift of the second (ordinances of salvation). “Just as the veil into this life is guarded by the women, the daughters of God, so the veil that brings us home, is administered and guarded over by the sons of God.”

Despite this appealing imagery, this model does not solve any the problems of a motherhood/priesthood parallel. This particular issue has been discussed so often that I don’t want to spend too much time on it here, but I will note a few basic issues. The priesthood is something given to men who are worthy. Motherhood, by contrast, is a biological capacity not tied to worthiness. These are simply not parallel situations. Notably, fatherhood does not even come up. And as usual, women who don’t have children are simply relegated to the next life. But since the Two Trees are about entering and exiting this life, women who don’t have children in mortality are failing to give the gift they are supposed to give, leaving their life purpose somewhat questionable.

I will say, however, that if the priesthood were only about saving ordinances, I would find this interpretation much more palatable. If women give birth, and men give re-birth (i.e., baptism), there’s some nice symmetry there. But the priesthood has a much, much broader scope than performing saving ordinances. And it does not naturally follow, for example, that because women have the special role of bringing children into mortality, they should have little voice in the highest levels of their own church, or be shut out from giving healing blessings.

Hudson does seem somewhat aware of the ecclesiastical issue—she explains that “the Church is supposed to be a gift to the family, the gift given by the sons of God, and that there is another gift to the family, and that gift is given by the daughters of God.” I presume that the latter gift is that of bearing children. I’m not entirely clear about the former. Is she saying that men run the church, so that they can bring that gift to their families? What is the gift, exactly? Being part of an ecclesiastical organization, and the benefits that can give you? Notably, women are not agents in this vision of the Church, but are those who receive it as a gift; and significantly, their participation is contingent on men.

2. Adam, Eve, and the Fall

One thing I like about the way Hudson depicts the Adam and Eve story is that both play agentive roles. I am also intrigued by her proposal that it was appropriate for a woman to take the fruit and choose mortality, because of the burdens that women bear in particular. Yet once again, I see problems with the way she sets it up.

First of all, we have the creation of Adam and Eve. As we all know, Eve was created as a “helpmeet,” which Hudson argues means “equal in power to save.”  This, says the Hebrew scholar on our blog, is a dubious interpretation.2 And as I have posted in the past, whatever the meaning of helpmeet, the fact that Eve was created for Adam is already a problem, because it leaves Adam as the main subject, and Eve in a supporting role. It is true that Hudson has an explanation for the chronology: she explains that Eve had to come second to demonstrate to Adam his helplessness before the First Tree. But this account, once again, values women in terms of what they can provide for men.

In considering the Fall, Hudson emphasizes that 1) in LDS beliefs, the fall was a good and necessary thing; 2) Eve did not sin; and 3) Eve was rewarded. I won’t dispute the first. The second is a little murkier; the challenge of making the fall a good thing but also a sin has led to a curious split between “sin” and “transgression,” a distinction I find questionable. But it is the third claim here with which I take the most issue. I think it is very hard not to read God’s proclamations to Eve as curses.

Hudson, by contrast, does not see them in a negative light. On the childbirth issue, she explains that “To have children, to be able to fully give the gift of Eve, is one of the most soul-satisfying parts of a woman’s life that she will either experience here or in the hereafter if circumstances have prohibited it here.” This sounds lovely, but I’m having a very hard time connecting it to the text:  Eve is told that she will have sorrow in childbearing, not that it will be a soul-satisfying experience for her. The text does not say, or even hint at, an interpretation along the lines of “Blessed are those who bear children, for they will have a rich experience.”3

And then we get to everyone’s favorite: Adam will rule over Eve. Hudson draws on the popular notion that what this really means is that he will rule with Eve. Again, I will note that this seems to be a implausible read.4 According to Hudson, “the concept of interdependent equal partners is well-grounded in the doctrine of the restored gospel.” I would say that it’s well-grounded in ideas in the second half of the twentieth century; her reading strikes me as notably anachronistic. I would also note that if you want to draw on LDS interpretations of this verse, President Kimball (for example) changed “rule” to “preside,” and preside is still a role specifically assigned to males (not to men and women together).

3. Reciprocal hearkening covenants?

Hudson proposes several ways of dealing with the hearken covenant. She points out that Adam first hearkened to Eve in taking the fruit, which presumably sets up a reciprocity in which after the fall, Eve is commanded to hearken to Adam. I don’t think this works, for several reasons. People have offered numerous ideas as  to why Adam went along with this (he knew it was ultimately the right thing, he didn’t want to lose Eve, etc.) But significantly, he has a genuine choice in the matter; he is not under a covenant to obey or hearken to her.5

Hudson also suggests that “it’s quite possible that en route to the First Tree there was also a covenanting where the sons of God covenanted to hearken to the daughters of God,” but she has no support for this.  I would say that the fact that she has to conjure up a completely extratextual scenario like this in order to support her arguments is actually indicative of the lack of textual support for a situation of equality. In any case, it is worth noting that in our liturgy, men, like Adam, are not put under covenantal obligation to hearken to their spouses; only women have that burden. Additionally, Adam’s hearkening to Eve in taking the fruit is a one-time instance; women, by contrast, do not covenant to hearken to their spouses only with regard to one particular situation.

At one point, Hudson addresses the men:“You covenant to be the equal partner of your sweetheart, to be faithful and true to her, and to help bring children into the world with her, and to raise them.” Maybe I’m overlooking something obvious, but I am baffled by this one. I appreciate the sentiment, with its equal partner aspect and its proposal that men should be involved in raising their families. I’m just wondering when exactly men make this covenant.6 My best guess is that she’s thinking of it as existing implicitly somewhere. However, it seems to me that a genuine belief in equal partnership would appear explicitly in formal covenants.

Hudson also suggests a rather unique definition of “hearken” in which it is only applicable when it comes to receiving the gift of the second tree. In other words, women are only commanded to hearken when it comes to matters which have to do with ordinances.7 Again, this is highly speculative, and not at all supported by the texts we have. This isn’t to say that I think there is no place for speculative theology, but the fact that she comes up with these sorts of interpretations without support makes her arguments much less persuasive.8

4. Patriarchy vs. patriarchal order

What about patriarchy? Hudson explains that a secular definition of “patriarchy” is “is an order in which men rule over women.” However, this is not true of the church, she argues; instead, we have the “patriarchal order,” which is the order “of family government as found in heaven based on the equal partnership of men and women.” This is a familiar argument; I would just say, yet again, that if we are actually rejecting patriarchy, let’s see if we can come up with a different word that doesn’t sound suspiciously like patriarchy, and can we please, please stop conflating “patriarchy” and “equal partners.”

5. Uses of priesthood

Hudson also describes the priesthood as giving “a God-ordained vision, of how men are to treat women.” She talks about men dedicated to chastity, who engage in child-rearing, who are dedicated to “upholding the safety, flourishing, and equality of women. Men who want to have children, and take part in raising them? Men who value their daughters as much as they value their sons?” I have to say here that I really do appreciate that the church offers a counter-narrative of masculinity, one which goes against many of the more troubling secular narratives. But I’m not all that confident that this is contingent on male-only LDS priesthood. For one thing, this description applies to many men outside the church. It is worth noting that there has been a broad cultural shift in the last few decades in terms of expectations for fathers; this is hardly unique to Church members. And if this were the kind of effect  that LDS priesthood produces, one would think we would have been ahead of the curve on this. Additionally, if good men are ones who uphold the equality of women, this actually demonstrates a lack of equality, because equality is not assumed, but is contingent on men’s choices.

Hudson proposes that men have an apprenticeship to become HF, and women have an apprenticeship to become like HM. At first glance, I like the idea—and again, the appearance of Heavenly Mother throughout this talk is quite refreshing. But I am a little more depressed when I see what this apprenticeship is: for men, it’s priesthood; for women; it’s motherhood.  This leads us right back to the model in which motherhood (not fatherhood) is the complement of priesthood. In fact, I think this idea makes the situation even bleaker. Defining HM in terms of her ability to be a mother opens the possibility that even in the eternities, women are primarily defined in terms of their reproductive abilities. (It is worth noting here that according to Hudson, female ordinances are “pregnancy, childbirth, lactation.”)

I do like this comment at the end:

That means that gender equality is not some “politically correct” ideal to the Latter-day Saints; it is not some maraschino cherry placed last atop a Zion sundae. No, relationships of gender equality are the bricks of Zion, without which you cannot build Zion, because gender equality is how Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father live.

This is great. I only wish church teachings gave me more reason to believe it.

I disagree with much of this essay, as I’ve explained at length, but as I said at the beginning, I see some power in it, some possibilities that go beyond our standard contemporary discourse about women. In this narrative, women are responsible agents, and Heavenly Mother matters. But I still find it disturbing. I see serious problems with Hudson’s attempt to make  motherhood and priesthood equivalent, and her identification of women with their reproductive abilities. In addition, the fact that Hudson so often has to resort to speculation to make her case is telling. She’s created a lovely mythology (and that’s not mean to be pejorative; I’m using the term in the academic sense), even if it’s one that I find problematic in several ways.  But regardless, if you’re going to argue that the church is revolutionary in its liberating possibilities for women, you have to rely on what the church actually teaches, not what you imagine might be the case.

  1. “In the same vein, she comments that it’s “radical, revolutionary” to believe that men and women are equal in agency, potential, value, etc, which I think fails as an assertion both for Christianity, as you comment, and for other religions—though the actual treatment of women varies, many other religions have equality-oriented scriptures. For example, the Qur’an (in translation) says “Their Lord responded to them: “I never fail to reward any worker among you for any work you do, be you male or female – you are equal to one another.” [3:195] (Petra) []
  2. “I’m skeptical that Hebrew ‘ezer cnegdo indicates an equal distribution of power. It means something like “helper as his counterpart.” Sure, she’s his complement. But it’s a strain to extrapolate from this phrase alone that Adam and Eve therefore have equal power, let alone equal power to save. Eve is an appropriate counterpart to Adam; she suits him in a way the animals do not. Yet, even in the story itself, Eve is created for Adam, and her value is contingent on his.” (Kiskilili) []
  3. “Asserting that childbirth is soul-satisfying for a woman, period, seems overly bold. Maybe mothering is soul-satisfying for everyone, but childbirth itself? To make such strong statements about what a woman should feel spiritually about something so physical is problematic for me on many levels, not least because of the wide variety of medical care around this physical act women have had through the ages. Has a woman failed at the “gift of Eve” if she was unconscious for the birth, 1950s-style? If she has a C-section? If she dies in childbirth? And what does it mean for a woman’s performance of her role if she just doesn’t find it soul-satisfying?  Also, the “in the hereafter” thing is really problematic for me—if a woman’s full earthly role is to bring children from the pre-existence to mortality, does it really make sense to promise that a woman who doesn’t get to perform her role on earth will do it in the afterlife, after everyone has already been through mortality? Also, given my discomfort with the idea of childbirth as automatically and universally spiritually wonderful for women, I’m worried at a feminist who relegates women to afterlife childbirth so easily.” (Petra) []
  4. See this discussion if you’re interested; in sum, Kiskilili  comments,  “I would be interested in seeing even one passage (besides Gen 3:16, supposedly) in which the phrase means “rule with.” I think we’re left with the uncomfortable fact: Adam rules over Eve, like a king over a kingdom.” []
  5. If you want to see a thorough discussion of what “hearken” means with reference to obey, check out this post from Melyngoch, who asks in conclusion: “But if we do mean “listen + obey” by “hearken” (and I think the context, in which Adam and Eve’s disobedience is the event that catalyzes the hearken covenant, strongly suggests this), then I wonder if it’s not just a little disingenuous that the word has been changed (although I am, as I’ve indicated, grateful for it.) Is this just a way of retaining that gendered structure of obedience, but trying to make it look and feel better for a culture that’s no longer so accepting of the expectation that women will obey their husbands? Am I being tricked into feeling better about making effectively the same covenant as I would have before the change?” (Melyngoch) []
  6. “Where is she getting the idea that the priesthood holders in the room covenanted to share all burdens “including housework” with their wives? The endowment doesn’t do that and the temple marriage ceremony doesn’t do that either—in fact, the only covenant in the marriage ceremony is one that says the wife gives herself and the husband receives her. That doesn’t sound like an equal burden-sharing covenant to me.” (Petra) []
  7. “Adam hearkened to Eve in the context of being re-born via the First Tree, the place and time where Hudson argues that “even Adam was born of Eve.” It seems reasonable here to draw the inference that men are bound to hearken to women only in that context, i.e. only when the women are their mothers. In some grand sense, then, yes, women command men when men are children and then men command women when they are both adults, but that’s not really equality.” (Petra) []
  8. Petra makes another good point about this: “Hearkening/obeying is very easy when you agree, but what if husband and wife disagree on spiritual matters? With the examples she gives, would she have said “you bet!” because of her  covenant if her husband had said “honey, I don’t want anything to do with the LDS church and I’m not going to allow our children to be baptized”? After all, that’s a matter that has to do with ordinances, and she’s covenanted to hearken, so by her own argument given here she should follow him.” []


  1. Ouch. Well done.

    Hudson is an interesting writer to me in that she seems to want things to be the way I would want them to be on a lot of issues, but her arguments so often strike me as bizarrely gymnastic. You’ve captured that sense very well here. As you say, there may be place for speculation, for allowing ourselves a little wishful theological thinking and invention of ways to resolve issues we have, but Hudson often fails to make any kind of distinction between that and actual extant supporting evidence. Indiscriminate is the word that comes to mind.

  2. Good work, Lynnette. Two Trees has been begging for such a thorough dismantling. Hudson is smart and she does her best, but ultimately she is trying to defend an indefensible position. It should give us pause to realize that our assumptions about gender have to rely on such threadbare arguments, and they require us to twist and turn in ways which would make a Las Vegas contortionist go green with envy.

  3. It amazes me that someone with her level of education can make so many non-sensical arguments. Bizarre gymnastics is an apt description. She wants things the way she wants them and will conjure up the most convoluted scenarios to produce the results that allow her to function as an active Church member.

    I know she’s quite respected in her field but, for me, it colors the way I look at anything she would produce.

  4. Great response, Lynnette!

    This line is a good summary of the whole:

    This sounds lovely, but I’m having a very hard time connecting it to the text.

  5. Thanks, all. I think Cynthia hit the nail on the head–she doesn’t distinguish between things she’s simply conjecturing, and things that are actually in the texts. That’s a lot of what makes me so frustrated when I read this stuff–you can’t just proclaim that polygamy won’t exist in the next life, or that female ordinances are a, b, and c, or that men covenant to be equal partners, and have that all be true simply because you proclaimed it.

  6. Just a quick note to everyone–I’m interested in people’s reactions to the talk, and to my critique of the talk, but it’s occurring to me that this could easily turn into a Hudson bash-fest, and I definitely don’t want that. So please be mindful of that in your comments–as always, feel free to critique the ideas, but don’t go after her personally.

  7. I really appreciate this analysis. I was given a copy of “Two Trees” by a relative when I was trying to find some sort of comfort from the temple ceremony’s strong-handed hierarchies. I remember feeling like it numbed things a little, but I also remember feeling as if something was off about it–that it wasn’t really answering my questions, just directing my attention temporarily to a hope that was so deeply wanted it could almost, almost feel a little bit real.

    But…that doesn’t mean it was real… You know?

  8. Well, I must say I didn’t see “the two trees talk” as a theological alibi for mormon doctrine, but much more as a theological “exit sing” from this patriarchal state of the colective mind.
    She is speculating, big time, but this speculation is mainstream enough for most people to like it without feeling “apostate” and that might create ground for further theological evolution.
    The fact is that there is no ground for feminist claims within doctrine or scripture (I might be wrong, but this is what I see by now). Scriptures were written by men, administered by men, and addressed to men. So seems here that there are two paths: new revelation (yeah right) or a slow change in mind that might allow this revelation to come forth. Or we might stay accepting that men are to rule over women, keep using euphemisms to talk about it and say that it’s ok because my husband is so nice I don’t mind that he rules over me (I hear that ALL THE TIME).
    Hudson offers a way out from inequality theology for mainstream mormons, that’s a whole lot. Not enough, not all, but a lot.

  9. Wonderful essay, Lynnette. I think the best that can be said of Hudson’s essay is, as Abigail says, that it may lead to “further theological evolution.” The trouble is, as you have so amply demonstrated, that the theological underpinnings of so many of her arguments are deeply problematic.

  10. In case you haven’t seen it, here is her essay on polygamy. While I think some of her conclusions feel strained, I think she does bring up some powerful points in her scriptural analysis.


    I am one who probably liked Two Trees better than most commenters here, because I do believe the doctrine of equality is truth, and I don’t expect that to look like a secular picture of equality (in other words, ideas like the equal but not same, or patriarchy having different meaning in our doctrine, to me have merit, but is difficult to talk about because people so quickly and easily shoot it down…which I wish could be different). But I also agree with some of the critique that Hudson’s arguments, as with the polygamy article, feel a little forced, more declarative than personally reflective, and I think that is a line that we have to be careful with.

  11. Abigail, that’s a good point, that this kind of approach offers a way out of inequality that’s probably helpful for a lot of members. Also, since Hudson isn’t perceived as apostate, her speculation is likely to come across as non-threatening in a way that wouldn’t necessarily be true of other feminists. I know that some women find this very empowering. (Even aside from my intellectual objections, I doubt I would have that reaction, because as a single, childless woman, this model conveys pretty bluntly that there is no purpose for me in this life. Though that would probably sting more if I took it more seriously.)

    My view, obviously, is that it’s ultimately a house of cards that can’t survive much serious scrutiny. But it’s a tricky thing. I don’t want to simply dismiss the reality that many women do find a place for themselves in this model, find hope there–and as I said in the OP, there’s stuff here that I like. I think what bothers me more than the speculation per se–on a practical level, I imagine a lot of us manage to stay in the church through at least some degree of speculation–is the fact that she’s presenting it as Gospel Truth, and that it’s being used apologetically as an argument that everything is just fine for women in the LDS church.

  12. it’s ultimately a house of cards that can’t survive much serious scrutiny.

    I agree with this, and I think it says a couple of things about us.

    First, Hudson’s effort here really is a good one, at least I think she did about as well as anyone could do, given the raw material she has to work with. But once we take even a cursory look, we see a dog’s breakfast of unsupported claims and logical leaps that are simply not credible. If this is the best we have to offer, well, we need to rethink a few things.

    Second, I empathize with people who like Hudson’s approach. I think this strong desire to have some kind of legitimate, well thought out explanation for some of the things we currently do speaks well of us. But since that explanation doesn’t stand up to even the slightest bit of scrutiny, we are again left with nothing to do but go back to the drawing board. I think it is time we admit this to ourselves.

  13. Excellent write up, Lynnette. I think other commenters have touched on this, but it’s difficult to have honest, sincere discussions about gender issues in the Church because so many LDS women are perfectly satisfied with Valerie Hudson’s interpretation of events and take comfort in the fact that women and men are “equal partners”, so any inequity they see in Church policies and practices are due to an oversight or the personal failings of individual male leaders instead of the results of a fundamentally patriarchal superstructure that inevitably values women as inferior to men.

    It’s easy to doubt your own sanity when you try to have a conversation about the meaning of “equal partners” and “presiding” with traditional Mormons, because as Valerie Hudson’s piece demonstrates, we’re not speaking the same language.

    At the end of the day, however, I’m not sure how useful Valerie Hudson’s perspective is if it makes people feel comfortable with the status quo in the Church that prevents women from being full, participating members.

    Thanks again for writing this, Lynnette! Hope you’re doing well.

  14. Wow, the arguments presented in this essay are mind-blowing. I think I may have to file this one away. It clearly and logically strips bear many of the poor metaphors and analogies that pervade Mormon gender culture. Thanks for this great piece, Lynette!

  15. I think someone should write an article comparing Margaret Toscano’s theology to Valerie Hudson’s. Specifically, what makes one creative reingineering of doctrine or liturgy subversive and another orthodox?

  16. At the end of the day, however, I’m not sure how useful Valerie Hudson’s perspective is if it makes people feel comfortable with the status quo in the Church that prevents women from being full, participating members.

    That is true though, I was thinking about that since I wrote my last comment.

  17. Re Kisliklili’s question in #18–As I’m sure you’ve considered, my guess is that Hudson is seen as acceptable because she doesn’t really rock the boat; instead she makes the case that rocking the boat is unnecessary, because all is well in Zion. There’s no threat to the status quo, because women who adopt this model aren’t going to clamor for change. By contrast, if you take Toscano seriously, it’s going to be very hard to be content with how things are.

    If I’m right about that (?), one thing I find disturbing is that it means that the persuasiveness of the ideas themselves isn’t relevant; rather, they’re evaluated on their potential effects. Scholarly credibility becomes less important than the threat of people being dissatisfied or wanting change.

  18. Thanks for the comments, all. Mark Brown, I appreciate your point that Hudson is working with incredibly challenging raw material–and if your belief is that this raw material must be true, you’re put in a very difficult position. If you don’ t have the option of flat-out rejecting an offensive text, you’re going to be incredibly motivated to find a way to radically reinterpret it. But as you say, if this is the best we can do, it might be time to go back to the drawing board. Something my sisters and I have occasionally discussed is whether the Adam/Eve story is redeemable, if we want to be serious about this whole equal partner thing. And I’m not sure that it is. Kiskilili’s at least half-convinced me that other creation narratives might be the way to go.

    Nice to see you, ECS! And I hope you’re keeping your sanity. 😉 I think where the conversation breaks down, where we’re speaking different languages, has to do with, as you say, whether you see the failings of patriarchy as systemic, or simply the result of imperfect human beings. (Not that it’s an either/or, of course.) But the former is simply not an option for many people, and that’s a pretty serious gap.

  19. Perhaps it’s dangerous to say men and women should be equal but it’s orthodox to say they are equal? It’s kind of fascinating to me that spinning new doctrine out of wishful thinking apparently isn’t heresy, at least in this case.

  20. That’s a fascinating question. If you say they should be equal, that leaves open the possibility that they currently aren’t—thus the subversive feel. And yet saying that they are is perfectly acceptable, even if you have to engage in wild speculation along the way. This is possibly too cynical, but I do think the church is highly aware of its social context, and failure to assert equality has become much less acceptable in the broader culture. Speculation is okay in this instance, then, because it leads to the correct conclusion, and bolsters the church’s ability to present itself this way. It’s notable that apologetics, as far as I’ve seen, are never aimed at making an argument that men and women aren’t equal and that’s okay (which would in theory be one possibility), but are instead playing games with doctrine in order to assert that they are. Can you imagine the brouhaha if someone got in ecclesiastical trouble for asserting that men and women are equal?

    I’ve wondered a lot about what heresy means in the context of a tradition in which trying to pin down doctrine is so difficult. My impression is that the label only gets applied to hot button issues: anything to do with gender, Book of Mormon historicity, etc. But if you’re dealing with less inflammatory topics, it seems like there’s a lot of room for spinning new doctrine out of wishful thinking (I like that phrase!)

    Also it’s a strange situation in which taking certain texts seriously is dangerous, but completely re-writing their meaning isn’t a problem. It would make more sense for it to be the opposite—unless, of course, engaging the texts isn’t actually the primary goal.

    This also reminds me of a similar oddity that exists around Heavenly Mother—you’re much more likely to get in trouble for believing in Heavenly Mother than for not believing. Asserting that HM doesn’t exist is not going to put you in the apostate camp, even if you may be a minority. Talking too much about her, on the other hand, is treading on dangerous ground. I would guess that Hudson gets away with more explicit discussion of HM because she defines HM solely in terms of her motherhood; you can make her as visible as you want, perhaps, as long as you make sure she’s following her gender role. It’s when HM is taken out of her box that accusations of heresy are more likely to arise.

    Which is a tangent from your observation–I just think it’s another example of the kind of strangeness you’re pointing out.

  21. Lynette, your critique was fascinating and so insightful! I’m currently working on a paper for a feminist religious thought course, focusing on Mormon feminist theology, and I definitely plan on discussing the differences between Toscano and Hudson. I also think that Hudson’s method of gymnastics is really representative of the lengths Mormon women may go to to justify the patriarchy, which can only be counter-productive.

    I especially loved how you point out that the somewhat shaky (and extremely literal) doctrine of Heavenly Mother is not all that remarkable, and in reality it is quite problematic since it focuses so much on the reproductive faculty, which isn’t exclusively feminine anyway. (Men do play a role in bringing souls to the earth, believe it or not.)

    It’s a shame that Hudson doesn’t address the very real issues at hand with possible and creative solutions (like Toscano does). Instead Hudson’s creativity (the dramatic speculations based on very shaky evidence) only diminishes her argument. I wish she would refocus her attention on solutions instead of justifications.

    Thanks for the fantastic review!

  22. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I’ve been meaning to do this for ages, but just haven’t and I’m so glad you did and in such a great way.

  23. Lynnette, this is fantastic.

    I am surprised she says female ordinances are pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, since this so obviously leaves out adoptive mothers, foster moms, and the we-are-all-mothers of devoted aunts and teachers. People are usually more sensitive about not insulting adoptive moms, at least.

    Also, as a person who has done the above, I think immediately of animals that do all the same. When you’re talking about biological functions that run their course whether you like it or not, the human female is just another mammal.

  24. This also reminds me of a similar oddity that exists around Heavenly Mother—you’re much more likely to get in trouble for believing in Heavenly Mother than for not believing. Asserting that HM doesn’t exist is not going to put you in the apostate camp, even if you may be a minority. Talking too much about her, on the other hand, is treading on dangerous ground. I would guess that Hudson gets away with more explicit discussion of HM because she defines HM solely in terms of her motherhood; you can make her as visible as you want, perhaps, as long as you make sure she’s following her gender role. It’s when HM is taken out of her box that accusations of heresy are more likely to arise.

    Wow, what a great point. I would love to see a blog post discussing this more in detail.

  25. Hudson’s approach to doctrine is like correcting your own exam paper. You find that while you’ve done a pretty good job, not all of your answers match those on the key…so you just change the key…voila! To borrow a phrase…the thought makes reason stare.

  26. And Wayne, yes, the thought makes reason stare. The mental gymnastics required are just too much for my old body….and mind. I’m not that flexible.

  27. Question: If lactation is an ordinance, then is formula Satan’s counterfeit? And does that make the manufacturers of formula guilty of priestcraft?

  28. Cynthia: Yes. Better for a baby to die than to be baptized by the devil’s milk, as it were. After all, we can always do breastfeeding for the dead by proxy.

  29. To be fair, the men should probably be assigned the breastfeeding for the dead. Men have nipples for a reason! No, it has nothing to do with evolution. It’s a reminder from God the Mother that they should lactate spiritually.

  30. Well said. Hudson has created a great myth. Every time I read Christ’s plan I winced. It was not Christ’s plan it was the Father’s plan. I didn’t like the idea of the white tree, the tree of life, representing anything other than the God’s love. There other are things I besides those you mentioned that made me uncommfortable. There is so much speculation stated as fact.

    Regarding the harkening covenant. I have decided harken means what makes me feel best. The thing about that covenant the seem widely overlooked is that it is not a covenant that is made directly with Adam anymore. I think that is an important change.

  31. I’m late checking back to this thread, but I have a couple of observations:

    1. Comments 33, 34, and 35 made me both ROTFL and LMBO.

    2. The reason those comments are funny is because they are ridiculous, to the point of being hilarious. And yet, I don’t think it is any funnier to say that lactation or menstruation (by proxy!) is the equivalent of priesthood than it is to say that childbirth is. This is the corner we have painted ourselves into, and we might as well see the humor in it. As Elouise Bell used to say, it only hurts when I laugh.

  32. Wow. Indeed– as much as I would love her conclusions to be supported by our current teachings and practice, they’re just not. And if I’m going to speculate that wildly, I’m gonna to make up something less patronizing.

    Caveat: I’m not terribly well-versed in old school Jewish culture (Stuff it, Jim– I’m a plant doctor, not an M.Div!) so those who have more detail to draw on can help out here.

    Let’s talk about Jesus. It’s fair to say that he’s a (the) central element of our faith; this has apparently been the case since the time of Eve & Adam, but for whatever reason he was not always a central figure in the way people practiced their religion.

    If I were an ancient Hebrew, I can’t imagine feeling very connected to the “Savior” aspect of the religion. Atonement and redemption meant killing a goat. The word from God at the time was the 10 Commandments and Leviticus, which can only be described as Christ-centered if you use the same kind of gymnastics used in “The Two Trees.” The clearest Christ symbol was… a big metal snake on a stick? Really?

    Sure, we can read Christ into that now. But imagine the mental gymnastics it would have required for an ancient Israelite to look at the brazen serpent and, from that, conclude that a person named Jesus Christ will live someday, and because of him they will be able to live with God. Again… really?

    So on the one hand I can use this to tell myself, ‘Look at how we describe ancient Israel now– as having only types and shadows of what we now recognize as central.’ It gives me some hope that our lack of Heavenly Mother in our religious life parallels the absence of Christ in earlier times: it means that like them, we are blithely, hopelessly apostate and severely lacking in essentials. It reinforces my gut feeling that having a church without Heavenly Mother really isn’t how we’re supposed to be, just because that’s how our faith is currently taught.

    (On the other hand, you look at how the ancient Israelite religion was practiced and say “Of course they didn’t know anything about Jesus. The most teaching they had about him was a big metal snake on a stick.” Dropping a few vague pointers here and there and expecting people to naturally draw correct conclusions is not teaching.)

    Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is, look how wildly ancient Israelites would have had to “speculate” in order to conclude that there was such a person as Jesus Christ.

    Let’s just say that that greatly validates my own personal urge to “speculate.”

  33. For a little background, just recently I heard Valerie Hudson explain how in the mid-90s, she went through a crisis of faith as she began to see how many inequalities there were in the church. She stated that she felt like “her skin was falling off’ as she walked around going through the church motions and that she wanted to just yell at all the women in the church questions of “why don’t you see it!” So she decided to pray and ask for answers about women’s place in the church’s theology. She explained that she not only got an answer for herself, but “a calling” of sorts to explain it to everyone else. And thus “The Two Trees” resulted.

    For what it’s worth.

  34. starbright’s comment brings home my thoughts on the issue: the ease with which we pick apart valerie hudson’s theology seems to come less from its implausibility than from her lack of authority. i’m not saying it’s not implausible, rather that if a GA were to present this or something like it as doctrine, i think it would be widely and gladly received.

    i’m not trying to blame anyone on this site for thinking critically about it either. the fact is we are brought up in the lds faith to believe that only those with authority can establish doctrine. anyone else is just speculating. this leaves women in a particularly cold place when it comes to considering our own divine place, nature, and potential. those in authority, for whatever reason, don’t bother to develop these things. those who do, like valerie hudson, are without authority. she may very well have had personal revelation of these things and a call to share them. but until she is ratified by a man, her ideas have no standing.

    the silencing of women is so deep in this culture, and reinforced at every turn.

  35. i also want to say that, while comment #35 made me lol, i do think the physical costs of childbirth to a woman, being so dangerous and so much greater than those of men, must have some spiritual, goddess y value. don’t know what that is, but i don’t like tossing the spirituality of motherhood (which is not, imo, equivalent to fatherhood) out of hand. just saying.

  36. i’m not trying to blame anyone on this site for thinking critically about it either. the fact is we are brought up in the lds faith to believe that only those with authority can establish doctrine. anyone else is just speculating. this leaves women in a particularly cold place when it comes to considering our own divine place, nature, and potential. those in authority, for whatever reason, don’t bother to develop these things. those who do, like valerie hudson, are without authority. she may very well have had personal revelation of these things and a call to share them. but until she is ratified by a man, her ideas have no standing.

    Thanks for this, npbiac. It’s an excellent summation of many of the hard issues faced by women in the church. Well said.

  37. also, re # 42, there is a Muslim custom that giving birth is an expiatory act; all mothers are made clean from sin by dint of their sacrifice. I’ve always thought it’s a lovely belief.

  38. thanks, g 🙂 and #44 is a great idea…i remember when i was in labor thinking, is this what the atonement was like? just wave after wave of horrible pain? not sure if that was a blasphemous thought or sacred but man, labor sucks.

  39. #41 I don’t think her speculation is unbelievable because of her lack of authority as a woman, I think it’s just bad scholarship (a lack of scholarly authority perhaps). I think if she wanted to present a very arguable case for the state of women in the church she would dig into some history, she would reference Joseph Smith, she would refer more to the whole discipline of feminist theology that is out there. She would talk about the reality of women’s experience, for instance, women who don’t want to be mothers, who hate their mothers, who hate being mothers and who do not see motherhood equal to priesthood. I feel like she’s essentializing women’s roles just as much as the patriarchy does. I believe Mormon women would do better to read feminist Christian theologies like Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is, who does fantastic scriptural scholarship and shows us what is already there, not what she just makes up.

  40. i know you jasie! i know you…click on my name for a link to my blog…

    so anyway i definitely agree that mormons in general would do well to read more works of christian and feminist scholarship, because there are many that are very well done. i also agree with you that her scholarship in this particular article is shoddy. but in a way that’s beside the point, to me at least (and makes me wonder if she was even going for scholarly, because you’d think she’d know what she was doing writing academic papers with her background). her scholarship could have been impeccable, and i still don’t think she would be taken seriously, at least as far as defining doctrine. the point is women can’t define doctrine, period. even doctrine concerning women.

    do you think that if a woman presented a unique but scripturally and doctrinally supported approach to women’s divine role, it would be generally accepted? i tend to think it would be written off as so much speculation by the majority of church members, because of women’s lack of authority. but maybe i’m just cynical.

  41. (ahh i know you and love you!)

    Ahem… So is it because her scholarship is shoddy that people are jumping on the Hudson bandwagon? (I’m sure you’ve seen all the posts on facebook about the Two Trees talk she’s giving at BYU). Is it because her wild speculations calm anxious members that she is seen by the church authorities as relatively harmless? I think if a woman presented a unique but solidly supported argument with possible solutions rooted in Mormon doctrine, history, and scriptures, she would be excommunicated. (Or at least she has been before.) It’s much safer to speculate without supporting facts than to critically examine a patriarchal tradition.

    So yeah, you are right. Women can’t define doctrine. Sadly if she continues to give talks like this I worry that the fiery Mormon feminists I know may believe her and be placated: We are equal and all is well. And that is me being cynical.

  42. I actually don’t plan to comment on the Valerie Hudson article, but on problem #8 at the end of the original post. Paraphrasing: What if your husband doesn’t agree on spiritual matters and he says he wants nothing to do with the church and for kids not to be baptized… Should the wife say “you bet” ?

    Before I found myself in a similar situation (temple married but with spouse who lost his faith and no longer attends) my answer would have been “NO WAY.” But given my experiences, I now would say something along the lines of “you bet” is reasonable. Not in those words exactly. Some compromise is necessary when there are such vital differences in your marriage. But the principle of respecting your spouse continues even when they make choices you don’t agree with.

    If your husband says HE doesn’t want anything personally to do with the church, certainly we should respect that for him. If doesn’t mean YOU can’t attend. Only that he doesn’t want to. God will force no man to heaven. You can continue to pray for your husband and reflect for him the love of Christ, by the way you show him love. But badgering him about the church in the name of your covenants will not help him, and will only destroy your marriage. A “you do your thing and I’ll do mine” attitude, with continued love and respect is in no way violating your covenants. Whether you call that “hearkening” is irrelevant.

    Now if it’s not the case that you and your spouse can show mutual respect, if he says “you can’t go either,” you are under no obligation to obey that, because it is unrighteousness dominion. (That’s the case whether it’s the husband forcing the wife to not attend church OR the wife forcing the husband TO attend church.) In that case the marriage is unlikely to survive, and the reasons will have nothing to do with the church, but with a lack of respect for one’s partner.

    I’ll talk about the kid issue in a minute. I just couldn’t resist putting my “two cents” in. I couldn’t let it go with everyone taking it as a given that the right thing to do in this situation is NOT to hearkening to one’s husband (listen and respect). Too many marriages are destroyed unnecessarily over differences in faith, because we make that assumption.

  43. Now on the issue of what to do if your spouse says your kids can’t get baptized. Ideally you could work out some kind of compromise whereby you can both feel ok with how your kids are being raised. (Head over to the board “Faces East” if you want ideas on how people are negotiating it.). Some families make it work by raising kids in the church, some by raising them out of the church, some by combinations of some religious teachings they can agree on, even if that is not the full LDS doctrine, some by parents sharing their individual beliefs with the child WITHOUT being unified in belief, but WITHOUT undermining the other parent. And without making the child feel they must choose sides and we think they love one parent more than the other. Yes it is hard. But we covenanted with God to make our families eternal. When does covenant keeping feel easy?

    Ideally in this situation, the non-believing spouse will still let the children be raised in the gospel. But if he does not, forcing the issue is not the automatic correct answer. The right answer may be to say “ok” and lead by your example and love, even if the kids are not baptized when they are 8. Many in this situation will allow gospel teaching but ask that kids wait until teens or adulthood to be baptized. That is a valid choice too.

    Think about it: if your spouse is vehemently opposed to your children being baptized, that may seem like a righteous cause to “put your foot down on,” and a battle worth fighting at all costs. But what will the costs be? If you sacrifice your marriage for this fight, will their father cease to be their father? Will he cease to teach them non-belief after you are divorced? Will he be any more excited about them being baptized? Will the children love the gospel when they perceive it as the cause of their parent’s divorce (for most kids an extremely traumatic thing)? In some cases continuing to love and respect one another, whether or not the kids are baptized, is the best choice. One parent sets an example as a believer and one as a non-believer, and as they grow up they will make a decision on which way to go by watching the “fruits” of their parent’s choices.

    Obviously, what to do in this situation will be different from family to family. For some splitting up may be the answer. For others the answer is to cleave to each other and compromise. Only we can know which is right for us, with God’s help. As to the temple, I define “hearken” as “listen to and respect.” For my family, the hearken covenant remains in force.

  44. I don’t have time to read through all of the comments right now, so please forgive me if this has already been pointed out. In her essay, Lynnette said:

    Hudson quotes what has generally become the model for marriage in LDS teachings; according to Elder Perry: “There is not a president and vice president in a family. We have co-presidents working together eternally for the good of their family.”

    I just wanted to note that this is only what Elder Perry said in the spoken version of his talk. This was edited in the published Ensign version to say:

    “Therefore, there is not a president or a vice president in a family. The couple works together eternally for the good of the family.”


    Subtle, but significant. The part about “co-presidents” apparently made someone uncomfortable, and it was removed.

    I’ve seen Hudson use this quote all over the place, always treating it as though it were binding and authoritative, and yet I’ve never seen her note that it was changed in the published version of the talk.

    If a counter-cult minister were using as authoritative something from General Conference that had been edited in the written version, and making no mention of that fact, I can’t help but think that LDS apologists would rake him/her over the coals for it. I’ve been told by numerous Mormons that only the written version of Conference talks are binding. So I don’t see why Hudson gets a pass and is allowed to use as binding things that the Church chose to edit in written form. It’s a little irresponsible on her part.

  45. The problem with re-defining “hearken”–or telling us we’re all idiots for believing that it’s “obey light”– is that some of us actually covenanted to “obey the law of [our] husbands” and there was no confusion for the pre-1990 women and men about what “obeying” meant then.

  46. Of course we generally agree that God is good, which involves not picking favourites, boys or girls. Which means that somewhere in God’s universe exists the explanation for all the stupid things that drive us crazy. But because we don’t have GA documentation of that explanation, we have to either make up stories for ourselves (in the face of spurious evidence) or question God’s fairness.

    As far as a made up story using spurious evidence goes, I like this one better than most. Because its model does include real equality (not necessarily for me, single and childless, but hey, it’s a start). And (@48) because its popularity could bring grassroots cultural change of young women/men actually believing a theological narrative of equality– and I only see good coming from that– I think it’s awesome.

  47. I realize this is an old post, but I just happened across it while researching something. Lynnette, thank you for this analysis.

    A number of months ago, a friend (distraught about my church/equality “issues”) suggested that all my trouble could be resolved by reading Hudson’s paper about the ruby slippers. I read it and then blogged about it.

    Again and again I came to the conclusion that while her ideas sometimes sound good, they require so many assumptions and “completely extratextual scenario(s)” added to make the theories work that they are, really, at least as contrary to current doctrinal claims as, say, Ordain Women’s ideas.


Comments are closed.