How do we describe women’s participation in the Church to non-Mormons? There have been a few recent published statements that have all attempted this and have, in my view, all gotten it wrong in the same way.
First, there’s the Church Newsroom’s recent Mormonism 101: FAQ post, which said as part of its response to the question “Do Mormon women lead in the Church?”
While worthy men hold the priesthood, worthy women serve as leaders, counselors, missionaries, teachers, and in many other responsibilities— they routinely preach from the pulpit and lead congregational prayers in worship services.
Then, last year, in a post titled “What Mormon equality looks like” Church Public Affairs Head Michael Otterson said,
Women in the Mormon faith regularly preach from the pulpit to the congregation and lead prayers during Sunday services.
Finally, Linda and Richard Eyre, in a Deseret News column on women and men in the Church, said,
Though men are ordained to hold the priesthood, women have been integral and vital to the leadership and governance of the church from the beginning. They preside, lead, teach, preach, pray, organize and sit in council with male leaders.
All of these statements have struck me as disingenuous. While technically true, they are potentially very misleading about how much actual power and influence women have in the Church. Yes, women serve as leaders, but always under a male authority. Yes, they preside, but virtually always over children and other women. (The only exception I can think of is male primary teachers presided over by female primary presidents.) Yes, women sit in council with male leaders, but always while being presided over by them, and almost always while being vastly outnumbered by them. Yes, women preach from the pulpit, but they never preside from it, and they are typically outnumbered by male speakers (consider, for example, that bishops often speak in sacrament meeting, that ward and stake conferences are dominated by male leaders speaking, and that there is no regularly scheduled female speaker corresponding to a high councilman).
In short, my problem with these statements is that in only listing the things that women can do in the Church, they leave a reader who doesn’t know any better to incorrectly fill in the blanks. They seem designed to lead such a reader to conclude that the list of what women can do in the Church must be roughly comparable to the list of what men can do. But of course, this is false. Women can’t lead congregations or set budgets or bless babies or bless sacrament or count tithing or preside over sacrament meetings or baptize people or serve as witnesses or serve on church courts or extend callings. For a start.
All that being said, I recently thought of an alternative explanation for this kind of statement. Maybe they seem so misleading to me because the people making the statements are thinking about women’s participation using a different reference point than I am.
Think of a continuum of how much women participate in their churches. At one extreme, they cannot participate at all, other than by simply attending. At the other extreme, they participate equally with men, with all church work being equally open to women and men. (In theory, the continuum could be extended to a mirror image where at the other extreme, men can participate only by attending, but I suspect it’s the rare church that falls on that side.) Here’s a picture:
The LDS Church falls somewhere along that continuum. I’m sure there are lots of different ways we could figure out where exactly to put it. Maybe one way would be to count things people do at church and figure out what proportion are open to both women and men. I’m not concerned here, though, with exactly how that measurement would be done. And I’m also not arguing that the Church belongs exactly where I’ve put it in the figure above. You could probably persuade me that it should be moved either to the right or to the left. The one point I did want to make was that it’s definitely somewhere in the middle, and not at either of the end points. Clearly women can participate more than simply attending. And clearly women can’t do everything that men can do in the Church.
My alternative explanation for why people make statements about women’s participation like the ones I quoted above is that the people making the statements are looking at the “no participation” end as a reference point. To them, the default state of an organization is that women don’t participate at all. Therefore, any participation by women–they preside over each other, they sometimes give talks, they’re invited to some meetings–is what should be commented on. Their statements sound misleading to me because to me, the reference point is the right end of the continuum, where women participate equally with men. Therefore, what I find worth commenting on is how much women don’t get to do in comparison with men, rather than how much women do get to do in comparison with doing nothing.
If this explanation is correct, I suspect at least part of the reason is age. The tone of Church discourse on women (as on so many other things) is largely driven by General Authorities. General Authorities are mostly old. They came of age before the peak of Second Wave Feminism, when the default assumption in many organizations was probably that women should participate only by attending, if at all. It’s not surprising, then, that Church descriptions of women’s participation would focus on how much more they can do that nothing at all. By the same token, it’s not surprising that I, having grown up with Second Wave Feminism as a given, look at equal participation as a reference point, and expect deviations from that point to be what’s worth commenting on.
What’s your take on these statements about women’s participation? Are they deliberately misleading or are they just looking a different reference point? Or some combination of the two? Or did both my explanations miss the boat?