Zelophehad’s Daughters

“All Lanes Open”

Posted by Ziff

While driving back from a wonderfully enjoyable Thanksgiving visit with my sisters, I saw an electronic billboard by the side of the highway. It was the kind typically used to announce construction ahead. But this one wasn’t doing that. Instead, it said, “All lanes open.”

This struck me as an odd use of the billboard. Isn’t the default state of a road to have all of its lanes open? Why the need to announce this with a billboard? That the announcement was needed suggested that the road had been under construction, perhaps for a long time, and was now open, or perhaps that it had been scheduled for a construction project that had been cancelled.

I thought for a while about this question while driving. (Yes, it was a loooong and boooring drive. Why do you ask?) I think what this case illustrates is that stating what should be obvious calls into question whether it’s actually obvious. It should have been obvious that all the lanes on the highway were open. The presence of the sign calling my attention to this fact suggested that in reality it wasn’t a given that all the lanes should be open; like I said before, maybe they had been recently closed or had been scheduled to be closed.

Thinking about the phenomenon even more generally, it appears that this is a situation where saying one thing has the effect of suggesting the opposite thing. If I had seen no billboard, it’s unlikely that I would have spontaneously wondered whether any of the lanes were closed. But once I saw the sign telling me that all the lanes were open, I started mulling over reasons why it might be necessary to tell me this. I did start thinking about lanes being closed, which was the opposite of what the sign had told me.

I think this inadvertent suggestion of the opposite by stating what should be obvious occurs in two church settings. First, in the recommendation (but not requirement) that boys and men blessing and passing the sacrament wear white shirts, and second, in General Authorities’ frequent assurances that women of the Church are loved and appreciated.

White shirts

The Church Handbook says this about the issue:

Those who bless and pass the sacrament should dress modestly and be well groomed and clean. Clothing or jewelry should not call attention to itself or distract members during the sacrament. Ties and white shirts are recommended because they add to the dignity of the ordinance. However, they should not be required as a mandatory prerequisite for a priesthood holder to participate. Nor should it be required that all be alike in dress and appearance.

What if the last two sentences were dropped from this section? Ties and white shirts are recommended, and that’s it. The last two sentences run into the same problem as the “All lanes open” billboard, I think. They state what should be obvious: wearing a white shirt shouldn’t be a requirement and having everyone dress alike shouldn’t be a requirement. Unfortunately, in doing so, they bring to mind their opposites. Why would there be a need to explicitly point out that these aren’t requirements if there weren’t people who were making them requirements?

I think this is particularly a problem because many Church members seem to relish the idea of living a slightly “higher” (i.e., more restrictive) law than everyone else. If no tobacco or alcohol is good, no chocolate or white bread is better. If no R-rated movies is good, no PG-13 rated movies is better. I think these lines in the Handbook are well intended, but given the commonness of the idea that more restrictive is better, I wonder if they don’t sometimes have the opposite effect that they’re intended to have. They may inadvertently put into readers’ minds the possibility of making white shirts and identical dress requirements to bless or pass the sacrament.

Consider a hypothetical alternative wording of the Handbook, and imagine what its likely effect would be. Setting aside the line about what is recommended, what if the Handbook reminded us about non-requirements like this?

It is not required that priesthood holders who administer the sacrament be circumcised.

Well of course it’s not required. But if the Handbook went to the trouble to say so, it would suggest that some people think it’s required, and given that it’s more restrictive that just letting any old priesthood holder administer the sacrament regardless of the status of his foreskin, I suspect that at least a few local leaders would hastily implement this new higher law.

You can make up fun examples all day. What if the Handbook said this?

The sacrament table need not be shaped like the Salt Lake Temple.

Well of course it doesn’t need to be. But now that it’s been suggested . . . maybe it would be safest to do it just in case.

Assurances to women

General Authorities frequently give talks in which they tell women how essential they are, how much good they do, and how loved and appreciated they are. I suspect this is obvious enough that I don’t need to provide examples, but just in case, here are a few from the past decade or so:

  • President Uchtdorf: “You are an essential part of our Heavenly Father’s plan for eternal happiness.”
  • Elder Cook: “Much of what we accomplish in the Church is due to the selfless service of women.”
  • President Hinckley: “Women are such a necessary part of the plan of happiness which our Heavenly Father has outlined for us. That plan cannot operate without them.”
  • Elder Ballard: “There is nothing in this world as personal, as nurturing, or as life changing as the influence of a righteous woman.”
  • President Faust: “I do not have words to express my respect, appreciation, and admiration for you wonderful sisters. . . . We are humbled by your acts of faith, devotion, obedience, and loving service, and your examples of righteousness. This Church could not have achieved its destiny without the dedicated, faithful women who, in their righteousness, have immeasurably strengthened the Church.”

These things should be obvious. Of course the Church couldn’t function without women and of course women are essential to the plan of salvation happiness. But when these things are said so often, their obviousness is called into question. Would women get this much reassurance about their importance in the Church if there weren’t clear reasons for them to question their value in the Church? That General Authorities address this issue so often seems to me to be tacit admission that they know lots of women feel less valued in the Church than men do. I’d like to believe they are also aware that, at least in some cases, it’s simply the sexist structure of the Church, and not some failure of local leaders or neuroticism on the part of the women that’s driving this feeling.

You probably get the idea, but just because alternative examples make the point more clearly, here are a couple. Consider the message that would be sent if General Authorities were constantly reassuring other groups of Church members of their value:

You left-handers are a crucial part of God’s plan of happiness for his children.

Even though the content of this message sounds completely benign, the fact that they were singled out for reassurance would probably make left-handers feel immediately less valued.

I do not have words to express my respect, appreciation, and admiration for you wonderful Black people.

Again, even though on the surface it might sound benign, the singling out of Blacks suggests that they have reason to feel less respected, appreciated, and admired.

A caveat

One objection to my conclusion that stating the obvious calls into question that it is in fact obvious is that people state obvious things in conversation all the time. For example, if you ran into me at church while I was holding my 13-month-old daughter, you would likely feel compelled to point out that she is, in fact, the cutest kid ever born. (You probably couldn’t help yourself. I would understand.) This is a pretty obvious thing to say, but it doesn’t really suggest that my daughter’s cuteness has been called into question. I think this is because the intent of casual conversation is typically more to maintain relationships than to convey information. In the examples I’ve cited above–the electronic billboard and Church pronouncements in the Handbook or over the pulpit–it’s pretty clear that the primary goal is to convey information. So this is a limiting condition for my conclusion.

28 Responses to ““All Lanes Open””

  1. 1.

    Sometimes common sense isn’t that common, so these statements are necessary.

    For instance, my current ward has the white shirt/tie policy in place. And I do know that women are not valued equally across the church, either by the leadership or the members. The bishopric in my current ward has really embraced the new delegation policies, but my parents’ home ward has not and doesn’t involve the RS in decision-making that they should be involved in (church welfare, etc.).

    Members also bring their own misogyny into the system and it is rarely addressed. I’ve heard “barefoot and pregnant” used nonironically too many times to say it’s just a few bad apples.

    “All lanes open” signs usually signify that the HOV lanes are open to all.

  2. 2.

    I think women as an entire sex (although maybe only in the US, I don’t know) are prone to more self-doubt about everything in their lives. Most women (not all) need more assurance that they are doing an acceptable job in their various roles in life. Do I look pretty? Do you like the food I cooked? Was my talk/lesson well-delivered? Did I do a good job? Am I a good mother?

    I know I and my friends are much more prone to self-doubt and self-examination that our husbands, even though we are generally confident women. I think women in the church want to know if their offering is enough. And the general authorities give these assurances and reassurances to help us know that it is enough. I like to think that the Lord knows the minds of women and that the prophets are speaking to us like this because they are prompted to do so.

    Personally, I suffer more from complacency than self-doubt so I wish they would give us more kick-in-the-pants talks like they do the priesthood. But I feel like I’m in the minority of the women in this.

  3. 3.

    E.D.

    common sense isn’t that common

    Common sense doesn’t imply that the “sense” is held by a majority of people — but that the “common person” [as opposed to the elites] has sense too.

    I saw a road sign yesterday that read:

    Obey traffic signs: It’s the law

    But if I had the sense to read that sign and obey it, then that means I don’t require the sign. Whereas, if I habitually don’t observe — or observe and don’t obey — traffic signs, then what good would that one do?

    To your example of shirt-color and the sacrament, the problem I have with:

    Ties and white shirts are recommended because they add to the dignity of the ordinance. However, they should not be required as a mandatory prerequisite for a priesthood holder to participate. Nor should it be required that all be alike in dress and appearance.

    is that the language is always ambiguous — veiling requirements as “wise suggestions” and “inspired counsel”.

    It’s like the pieces of flare — sure it’s not required to have 37 pieces — but don’t you want to go above the required minimum in the service of your Father in heaven?

  4. 4.

    Tara, I would like to submit the theory that women are more prone to self-doubt because of the patriarchal culture they’ve grown up in. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: women feel less valued because they have no authority and are routinely limited to the low-profile spheres of their homes; General Authorities talk about how important women are, which in turn reinforces the feeling that obviously, women are less valued. Their attempted solution is really just another manifestation of the problem.

    Ziff, this is fabulous. Great post.

  5. 5.

    ZDs are a necessary and vital part of the bloggernacle. Our ZDs are incredible! Even in those rare moments when they aren’t wearing cummerbunds. Which they should be, of course, because all non-evil people wear cummerbunds and matching cuff links at all times. But cummerbunds and cuff links are not specifically absolutely required, per se. They’re just part of the the higher law, which is the law that is not lived by heroin addicts. But I’m sure that none of the ZDs are heroin addicts. The ZDs are an essential part of the bloggernacle.

  6. 6.

    Miri, that is an interesting point. I can see that it might be true in some cases. All I have to go by is my own experience and the experiences of those I know. And my acquaintances are mainly women with similar backgrounds as I have. Obviously I have a very small sphere of influence.

    For me, I feel like “the low-profile shere of my home” is really the only thing that matters. My husband’s job and many of his daily experiences are not important in the long run, nor do they seem to matter to him as much as the little things at home with our family. In my family growing up, and my home now, I have never felt less valued. I have felt equal, despite the fact that I have different purposes and responsibilites than my husband.

    But I fully see that many other women in the church might feel differently than me, whether it is due to their experiences, or their own feelings. And it’s sad to me that people feel less valued for any reason. But I don’t think it is the the general authorities’ fault.

  7. 7.

    Ok, Kaimi. I have worn a cummerbund but did not realize the significance it held for you until now.

  8. 8.

    Hmm, some strange autocorrect artifact there.

  9. 9.

    I disagree about the sacrament issue. Some people take recommended to mean required and require further explanation. It’s like they have been living in a construction zone. So maybe i agree about the concept but disagree that it’s unnecessary. This post is spot on with the women and the church issue. I especially love the fake quote about Black people. That drives the issue home perfectly.

  10. 10.

    Actions speak louder than words. Instead of just stop talking about it, do something!

    Most church members will believe that a white shirt isn’t required when one of the GA’s gives a conference talk in a non-white shirt.

    Most church members will believe that women are essential to the work of the church when women regularly give prayers in the Saturday/Sunday sessions of GC and more than 5 of the GC talks are given by women (3 of those talks were in the RS session the weekend before and it was really only 4 different women as Sister Thompson gave a talk in the RS session and the Sat. AM session).

    (I say “most” instead of “all” church members because there will always be the uber-conservative holdouts.)

  11. 11.

    Ziff, I love this so darn much. I have often complained/lamented/groaned when I hear these assurances that women ARE indeed loved and awesome and needed in the church. If women really are that loved and awesome and needed, it wouldn’t require non-stop reassuring and reminding and cheerleading.

    It’s only because it’s the plain obvious ;) truth that women are NOT treated equally in our church that we bang our hands against the walls trying to convince ourselves otherwise.

  12. 12.

    Amen, Mindi! That’s really the ultimate point.

    Tara, I hope you don’t think I meant to diminish the sphere of the home; low-profile only means low-visibility, not in the public eye, and that was the best way I could think of to describe what I meant.

    Basically, in the patriarchal culture, women are of equal value only to other women and children. Where women visit and teach other women, men visit and teach whole families; where women in General Conference almost exclusively address other women and children, men address the entire church. There’s nothing wrong with being in the home, and it is wonderful. But when you’re told–both explicitly and through countless interactions throughout your entire life–that you should be only in the home, even a woman who loves that sphere can have a problem with it. And I do think the General Authorities contribute to the problem by continuing to acknowledge it, but doing nothing about it (like Mindi mentioned).

    For the record, though I suppose it’s a bit of a threadjack, I don’t believe that nothing outside the home is important in the long run. Family is hugely important to me, and I love children enough I’ve been working with them voluntarily for the last fifteen years. But I disagree strongly with the notion that a woman’s entire life should be completely centered around having and raising children; I believe motherhood is an amazing and irreplaceable part of life, but only one part of it.

  13. 13.

    I agree, Miri. And it’s a part that will last 25 years (give or take–depending on how many kids you have). When my kids are all graduated from high school in 10 years, I’ll be 48. What then? Is my life done/over? The most important central part of me, whoosh, finished. Talk about a letdown . . .

  14. 14.

    Love this post Ziff. On a related topic, I have been thinking recently about the need to emphasize or add certain labels to indicate when you are talking about women. For example, we talk about “the missionaries” when we mean men and “sister missionaries” when we mean women. We talk a lot about women’s divine role, but you hear very little about men’s divine role. The recent manual “Daughters in my Kingdom” is also an interesting example. Would you ever see a manual called “Sons in my Kingdom”? It appears that when we talk to men we use general terms (children of God), but when we talk about women we use more specific and directed terms. It makes me feel like I am not part of the general category, but am a set apart subset of that category.

  15. 15.

    Interesting ideas—I love the connection to the white-shirt “non-requirement”; that wouldn’t have occurred to me.

    I always think of the “women are important” rhetoric as “the left wing is not on fire” phenomenon (although it’s not a perfect parallel, unless the brethren are trying to play a prank to stir up anxiety). In the John Cleese film How to Irritate People a bored airline crew starts making announcements to the passengers like “the left wing is not on fire.” Everyone bails out of the plane. Technically, it’s true the left wing is not on fire. But if the crew announces this, obviously, you should be very worried, not reassured.

  16. 16.

    P.S. Your 13-month-old daughter is adorable beyond words.

  17. 17.

    Beatrice, when I was reading Daughters in my Kingdom I was thinking about the same thing.

  18. 18.

    I think women as an entire sex (although maybe only in the US, I don’t know) are prone to more self-doubt about everything in their lives. Most women (not all) need more assurance that they are doing an acceptable job in their various roles in life. Do I look pretty? Do you like the food I cooked? Was my talk/lesson well-delivered? Did I do a good job? Am I a good mother?

    I know I and my friends are much more prone to self-doubt and self-examination that our husbands, even though we are generally confident women. I think women in the church want to know if their offering is enough. And the general authorities give these assurances and reassurances to help us know that it is enough. I like to think that the Lord knows the minds of women and that the prophets are speaking to us like this because they are prompted to do so.

    Personally, I suffer more from complacency than self-doubt so I wish they would give us more kick-in-the-pants talks like they do the priesthood. But I feel like I’m in the minority of the women in this.

    Tara – this is a good point, and I agree with you that women tend to be more self-doubting than men, generally-speaking. However, those doubts occur on an individual basis, not a collective basis. For example, we don’t think “Do women look pretty?”, “Do women as a race cook well enough?”. Individual doubts towards ourselves require individual reassurances. To reassure an entire sex is to assume that the entire sex is doubting itself, or that others are having doubts about the entire sex.

    For example, in my work when I’m having a hard time, or feeling unsure of my contribution, my boss will remind me that I’m doing a good job and that my work is appreciated. Or he might reassure my entire team that we are all working hard and getting a lot of good work done. But if he were to address the team and say, “I’d like to reassure the women on this team that they are doing great work and are much appreciated by management”, everyone would quickly assume that either there was an issue of appreciation of the women on the team that needed addressing, or the women did something wrong and needed to be reassured that their jobs were still in tact.

    And if the Church leaders are trying to acknowledge that there IS an issue of women being under-appreciated in the Church that needs to be addressed, then this kind of rhetoric would be acceptable. But instead, they are attempting to prove that there is NO problem of under-appreciation of women in the Church, and in reassuring everyone, they are only proving that there indeed IS a problem.

  19. 19.

    I meant “do women as a GENDER cook well enough”. Not race… lol

  20. 20.

    This is an interesting post, and reading the comments has been very interesting as well. As a man, I have observed the gender bias, but have obviously not been the recipient of it. So thank you for helping me to see what it like on the receiving end of things. I’ve got a bit of a different perspective, so I thought I would share what I have seen and experienced in the church.

    White shirt & tie: I remember growing up and being told that you have to wear a white shirt and tie to bless and pass the sacrament – that it was required. In other parts of the world where people cannot afford such clothing, I have seen Americans insist that they are required. It is inappropriate to insist someone spend money on clothing when they are not even sure where their next meal will come from. Other parts of the world have different ways of dressing entirely, and a white shirt and tie are not available, or they would not be considered dress clothes. I think for reasons like these, the handbook specifically says they are not required. I can also see why they would recommend a white shirt and tie, so that the focus can be on the sacrament itself, and not what the deacons/priests are wearing. Some cultures and religions use very fancy outfits for those performing ordinances. While it is appropriate there, it isn’t appropriate in our church. Usually, things spelled out that seem obvious are there to correct issues seen in multiple locations – while they may seem obvious to one person they aren’t always obvious to others.

    Assurances to women: I think it is important to keep in mind that the general authorities, when speaking in general conference or in magazines like the Liahona, and speaking to a worldwide church. “Obviousness” is often culture dependent. There are many parts of the world that have very male-dominated societies (so much that it makes our US society look like a matriarchal society). While the US has made positive strides, we still have a ways to go. In many of these societies, women are severely undervalued. Talks given by general authorities that talk about the value of women are needed to boost the women’s self-confidence, and to call men to repentance. (Not all women need this, but there are those who do, and I’m glad to see an authority figure publicly praising women) I don’t see it as a way to mask existing inequality, but as a way to expose it and to teach true doctrine. Can and should they be more direct in listing inequality they have seen and ways to correct it? Sure. I wouldn’t be surprised if they do at some point.

    Again, thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts. It helps me to understand a different perspective, and it helps me to be more aware of how my actions/words may affect others.

  21. 21.

    I think that’s a good point, it’s a worldwide church, lots of cultures are taken into account. It’s setting an example of appreciation for women.

    Though as a Mormon woman, it does sometimes sound condescending in tone, I have to be honest.

    By the same token, am I going to complain about being appreciated? Appreciation is a great thing.

    On the shirt and tie thing, I think that’s so picky. The fact that people have been arguing about wearing shirts and ties and dresses and drinking caffeine and rated R movies and on and on tells me that people have too much free time. Go out and serve your fellow man, do some volunteer work or community service. You’ll learn that there’s real issues in this world to deal with.

  22. 22.

    Not to mention the ZILLIONS of times appreciation for women is expressed at church by leaders, men, congregation members, and it’s not condescending at all. Maybe we should notice that….

  23. 23.

    Also, they use that same tone with the men, in priesthood sessions and such “We appreciate you, we need you..” Almost the same wording, even..

  24. 24.

    Coming back very late, I’ve run across a couple of more potentially interesting data points on how saying what should be obvious suggests that it’s not obvious.

    First, Katya pointed me to Paul Grice’s cooperative principle of how people talk to one another. One of his maxims that makes this up is the maxim of quantity: a speaker says something when she believes it adds information to the conversation. Therefore, by frequently telling women how appreciated and wonderful they are, GAs are suggesting that women know they’re not appreciated.

    Second, in Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, he briefly discusses Jane Austen’s opening sentence in Pride and Prejudice in a way that’s related to this issue. Here’s Austen’s opening sentence:

    It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

    Here’s Fish’s comment:

    because attention is called to the absoluteness of the claim, that claim is ever so lightly undermined; “must be” in combination with “truth universally acknowledged” is a little bit too insistent and allows us to suspect an author mocking her own absolute pronouncement. It may seem counterintuitive, but you’ll have a better chance of persuading readers that what you are about to say is universally acknowledged as a truth if you don’t actually use the phrase “It is a truth universally acknowledged.” (p. 47-48)

    I don’t think GAs are intending to mock their absolute pronouncements, but in their insistence in delivering this message repeatedly, I think they bring up the same effect Austen does: they suggest that there’s doubt about the truthfulness of their pronouncements.

  25. 25.

    Not to mention the ZILLIONS of times appreciation for women is expressed at church by leaders, men, congregation members, and it’s not condescending at all. Maybe we should notice that….

    I wasn’t talking about the content of their communication or saying it’s condescending, though. I was saying that the volume of their communication directed at this one point that should be obvious suggests that they know it’s not obvious.

    Also, they use that same tone with the men, in priesthood sessions and such “We appreciate you, we need you..” Almost the same wording, even..

    It’s interesting that you say that, because my impression is that they address women and men in very different tones and with very different choices of words. Are there particular examples you have in mind that parallel the ones I mentioned in the post?

  26. 26.

    I’ve been thinking about this ever since you posted it, but with regard to an historical issue rather than current church life. I hope it won’t be a threadjack at this point:

    Some who want to claim that the Mountain Meadows Massacre came as the result of a direct order from Brigham Young say that his message to the militia in Southern Utah (the message he sent back in response to an urgent request for instructions on what to do with the Baker-Fancher party) would have been unnecessary if he hadn’t earlier given such an order: Why tell the militia not to kill the emigrants if he hadn’t previously given an order to do just that? I’ve always countered that by asking whether my telling a toddler not to run into the street means that I have previously told him that he SHOULD run into the street? Of course it doesn’t, but I know that it isn’t obvious to the toddler that he shouldn’t run into the street so I give him my “order.” It’s quite possible that, even without having given previous orders to kill, Brigham Young realized that it wasn’t obvious to the militia that they should not kill the emigrants. Horrible thought, but it speaks to the minds of the militia without necessarily condemning Brigham Young (unless he should be condemned for not having made it obvious to the militia much earlier that hey, we don’t murder passing wagon companies).

    The application to your conversation here is that realities and perceptions get tangled. When women don’t feel valued in the church, that perception may not be created by male leaders’ spoken messages of “you are valued,” or even necessarily prove the existence of earlier messages of “you are not valued.” But I don’t see how a male leader can say “you are valued” if it isn’t already obvious to him that there’s a perception of non-value.

  27. 27.

    That’s a really interesting comparison to the MMM situation, Arids. Thanks for pointing it out.

  28. 28.

    [...] and important and valued. The problem with this kind of rhetoric is that, as I argued in a post last year, it only suggests its opposite. Why would they need to tell women how much they’re [...]

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