I am going to start out with a couple of thought questions.
First of all, in general do Mormon women see Mormon men as spiritual authority figures and spiritual role models? I would say, yes. Many Mormon women look up to their Bishops and Stake Presidents and listen carefully to the insights that they share over the pulpit. Many Mormon women listen carefully during General Conference and later study and highlight the words of the male General Authorities. When they attend council meetings, most Mormon women will agree that the Bishop or Stake President gets final say and will do everything they can to support the leader’s decisions.
Ok, second question. In general, do Mormon men view Mormon women as spiritual authority figures and spiritual role models? I find this question a bit harder to answer. Spiritual authority figures? I would say no. Spiritual role models? I would say, perhaps. I think that it is highly unlikely for men to view Mormon women as spiritual authority figures given the structural organization that dictates that women never preside over men. There are a few (but very few) exceptions to this rule such as the Primary President presiding over male primary teachers. What about spiritual role models? One could argue that many men see women as spiritual role models because they often praise the righteousness and spiritual superiority of women. However, I would argue that truly seeing women as spiritual role models requires that you identify specific women to emulate, listen carefully to their words, carefully observe their actions, and try to be like them. While many Mormon men praise the idea of women’s spiritual superiority, I think it is unlikely that they had identified specific women that they are trying to emulate. The exception is men who try to emulate their mothers or wives. While, I do think that it is noteworthy that a man would emulate his mother or wife, it is a vast cry from the number of specific male leaders that women listen to and try to emulate.
So why is it unlikely for Mormon men to view Mormon women as spiritual authority figures and role models? I think there are a number of specific structural aspects of the Mormon church that contribute to this trend.
1-As I mentioned previously, women almost never preside over men, thus men are less likely to listen to and look up to women. When I was in a singles ward, I had a friend in the ward who was serving as a temple worker. One day, he complained to me about how the Temple Matron corrected something that he had done. He was very offended and taken a back because he didn’t feel like it was her place to correct him. What strikes me about this situation is that it is highly likely that the Temple Matron had more experience and more knowledge about how things should be done in the temple than he did. However, although she had a calling that was “higher” than his calling, he didn’t feel like it was her place to correct him because technically she didn’t preside over him. No matter how high a woman rises in the leadership structure, I think that men are still unlikely to view her as a spiritual authority figure and a spiritual role model. I don’t think many Mormon men would identify members of the General Relief Society or Primary Presidencies as their spiritual role models even though these women have callings that are much, much higher than the average male member.
2-Through social cues, men are often identified as the most important or “key note” speaker during church services. I am not sure how universal this is, but at least in the U.S. we have very strong social cues that indicate who the most important speaker on the program is. That person usually speaks last and speaks for the most amount of time. Currently in many Mormon congregations, sacrament meeting follows the structure of having a youth speaker speak first, a woman speak second, and a man speak last. Although, there are many congregations that have veered from this pattern, this cultural tradition still exists in many, many cases. We also follow a similar pattern during Ward and Stake Conferences. During these conferences, you may have some women speaking earlier in the program (or in many cases not at all), but the Bishop or Stake President usually speaks last and for the longest amount of time. I think these social cues have a strong, but profound, effect on members of the congregation. When the key note speaker stands to speak you can see people perk up as if to say, “Now we really need to listen because we are going to hear something important.” These cultural markers reinforce the idea that men’s words are the most important in these settings.
3-Most of the leaders for both the general church and on the local level are men, and in all cases the male leaders are much more visible than the female leaders. During one conversation about how women will never be Bishops or Stake Presidents, someone pointed out that there are plenty of men who are unlikely to have these callings either. Thus, their argument was, that just because you are a man doesn’t mean that you will end up having a lot of decision making power in the church. I agree that this is true. However, I also think that who the leaders are and what they look like impacts everyone else in the congregation. I would argue that seeing only male leaders contributes to a subconscious tendency to give more weight to the words of men and less wight to the words of women. (I would argue that the race of the leaders has a similar effect). Thus, the lack of visible female leadership impacts all women in the church because they, by proxy, are less likely to be viewed as spiritual authority figures or spiritual role models. Likewise, the men who will never be Bishop, enjoy the benefits of looking like the Bishop and are more likely to be listened to. My sister recently shared with me her frustration about only certain people being listened to during Sunday School. She studies the scriptures and tries hard to offer insightful and intelligent comments during class, but she often feels that her comments are dismissed. I asked her if the people who are usually listened to are older men. She responded that they were and that the Sunday School teacher refers to them as “the scriptorians.” He will say things like, “Do any of our scriptorians have anything to say about this?” while looking directly at several of the older men in the room.
How can we increase the likelihood that men will view women as spiritual authority figures and role models? I think small structural changes could help a lot. For example, women could be included as the last speaker in Sacrament Meeting and even Ward, Stake, or General Conference. Women could be included in more callings that don’t require the priesthood which involve presiding over both men and women such as Sunday School President. However, maybe small structural changes would not be enough, and larger structural changes would be needed for women to viewed as role models.
What do you think? Do you think that men in the church are less likely to view women as spiritual authority figures and role models? How do you think this could be changed?