Feeling Equal

An oft-made statement in discussions of gender equality in the church is something along the lines of, “I’ve never felt unequal.” (Or, if the speaker is male, “My wife/daughters/sisters have never felt unequal.”) Sometimes there’s a barb in it: “I’ve never felt unequal, so why do you? What’s wrong with your testimony?” But more often than not, I think it’s simply an honest account of a person’s experience, combined perhaps with a bafflement that other women have the concerns they do.

While I want to respect the legitimacy of people’s varying experiences, I have a problem with equality being discussed in the framework of “feeling.” I don’t think equality is best understood in terms of subjective experience. If nothing else, it shuts down conversation—“I feel equal” is countered with “I feel unequal,” and it becomes a situation of people essentially bearing their testimonies of equality / inequality at each other. But equality is more than an inner state of being. It’s a question that can be considered empirically.

And I would say that there really is no question that men and women are not equal in the LDS church. I could make a very long list, but just a few examples:

—To start with the obvious, women do not have equal opportunity to hold the priesthood. This means that they also don’t have equal opportunity to experience the spiritual growth that can come from holding the priesthood.

—Women do not have an equal voice in church government.  In addition, women aren’t equally necessary in the ecclesiastical sphere. (You can have a ward of all men, but not all women.)

—Women are not equally represented in scripture.

—In temple covenants, women do not have an equally direct line to God, but are a step removed.

—Woman do not have equal access to divine role models of their own gender.

I imagine that at this point someone is going to helpfully suggest that I’m confusing equality with sameness. I would refer you to Melyngoch’s excellent post, “Actually, sameness and equality have a lot in common,” particularly this point:

And in order for women to be structurally equal to men in the Church, yes, I’m afraid we’re going to have to expect some increased sameness. Equality of opportunity and equality of treatment require that one party isn’t denied opportunities that the other is given, that one party isn’t regularly treated differently from the other: both are  treated the same unless there’s a compelling reason rooted in real differences between the two parties to justify a difference.

My sense is that when women say, “I feel equal,” they’re expressing something along the lines of, “this set-up works for me, it brings positive things into my life, it doesn’t make me feel less valued or important.” This can lead to a framing of the problem as one of self-esteem: if women knew how important they were, so this argument goes, they wouldn’t chafe at (apparent) inequalities. Feminists, then, are deficient in that they lack this vital understanding.

But I would argue that the question at stake isn’t actually whether men and women are equal—because it seems fairly clear to me they’re not—but whether the inequalities are harmful. I, doubtless, unsurprisingly, would argue that they are, that they limit women’s potential in a number of ways, and in some instances are downright spiritually destructive. I think there are ways in which men are also harmed by the inequalities; for example, they are all too often described as spiritual handicapped (the familiar “men need the priesthood to be as good as women naturally are.) But regardless, I think equality has to be more than a feeling if it’s going to be a serious subject of discussion.


  1. I have never thought “equality” is a fruitful way to think about Mormon feminism. Equality implies a weighing and comparison, and the criteria for such weighing are too subjective. You could say that Mormon women are “equal” to Mormon men because the women are put on a pedestal and protected from the “man’s work” of running the church. But the fact that LDS men might be weighed as “equal” by some criterion to LDS woman is not the point. The real issue is that within the church’s patriarchal orderings, women and women’s issues are almost always subordinated to men and men’s issues. Men are the “center,” while women are the “auxiliary.”

  2. I usually use the “I feel unequal” line of thought. I really enjoyed this post. It made me reconsider what I was actually saying when I use the word “feel”. Thank you!

  3. The first part of your penultimate paragraph sums up how I feel about this. As to the second half of that paragraph, it would never cross my mind or come out of my mouth. Or the second half of the first paragraph. I’m not denying that people have said those things to you, I’m just saying that NOT every woman who does feel equal is also judging those who do not.

    I appreciate that we all have a different path in life and may view things differently. The church is a mosaic, where each of us brings our bright colors to make a greater whole, not a melting pot where we have to give up our sense of self.

    And yes, I did use the evil f-word of feeling because that is what it comes down to, for me. My thoughts on the differentness of women were shaped by a sweet experience at the temple a few years after I was married. So call it personal revelation or whatever–to me, it was and is a feeling.

    What you say makes perfect logical sense if we were just talking about men and women. But I think that motherhood is the “compelling justification.” The church seems to make supporting mothers a top priority, which is what has worked so well for me, in particular.

    As we count the costs of such an approach, it should also be noted that there is damage inflicted with other systems. I live far from Utah, in a college town where women are treated the same as men, and the effect is not all positive.

    A lot of colleagues have only one or no child because they feel they have to earn their equality. They will only be seen as a full partner with their husband if they are doing the same things he is, i.e. earning a salary. Contributions in other ways, such as homemaking, is not factored in. Producing children is not a goal of the partnership but viewed more like a hobby. Some women have told me that they envy that all the work I do is valued by my husband, and that raising our kids is a priority. Some of them want to have another child, but it is impossible for them. (In my case, my unborn children called to me quite clearly and insistently, so I am very glad not to be in their shoes.)

    One woman I worked with is now a department chair at a major research university in the midwest. Very successful professionally. But she told me several times (and told other people) that I was her role model, and she would never have gotten the doctorate if she had known how much work that raising kids was and that one could do interesting professional stuff and still be home with your kids after school as I was. She felt betrayed by what she had been taught and encouraged to do by faculty and career counselors, etc.

    I could go on with story after story of women who are damaged when everyone is treated the same according to male-normative standards. I love that the church values mothering and acknowledges differences between the genders.

  4. I agree, this is an important distinction. It takes time to explain the semantic difference between equality as self esteem and equality as a descriptor of the different opportunities given to women and men, which I think is why people often talk past each other on this issue.

    I also agree that inequality hurts men. It hurts everyone, if only for the opportunity cost! As a small example, if I imagine all of the sacrament meeting talks given by women that have enriched my spiritual life, then imagine I had never heard them, I would be worse off as a person. Then imagine all the general conference talks that could have been given by women, that have never been given. We are all worse off for that, and we don’t even know the extent of how much worse off we are.

  5. Thanks for your comment, Naismith. Feminism needs voices that celebrate the traditional feminine. Sometimes I am sad for my children because while they will gain some things as genders equalize, they will lose some other very important things.
    My best friend is in a marriage where roles are traditional and her contributions are not valued, whereas I am in a marriage where my traditional contributions are very much valued.

  6. I have frequently wondered about the common but oddly nonsensical phrase “feel equal”. I think people turn equality into a feeling because, as you explained so well, if you simply look at equality from a measurable point of view, there is no way to justify calling men and women equal in the church. In contrast, no one can argue with someone about what their feelings are.

    With regards to sameness, I think equality and sameness. diverge when some kind of accommodation is needed to achieve equality. For example, a mother of a breastfeeding infant cannot equally participate in the workforce without accommodation for pumping. But in many other cases, sameness is a simple and rational solution for solving equality problems. I would support a whole lot more sameness in the church

  7. Chris, your post said, “The real issue is that within the church’s patriarchal orderings, women and women’s issues are almost always subordinated to men and men’s issues. Men are the “center,” while women are the “auxiliary.”

    My nebulous feeling of inequality coalesced into feminist feeling during my first Bishop’s Planning Meeting. I was the new Primary President. It did not matter that I was also someone who was successfully balancing motherhood and a demanding career. I quickly found out that my job in that meeting was to keep quiet and take notes of the proceedings.

    After pondering the LDS gender equality problem for decades, I’ve decided that there will be no solution as long as the Church is a Patriarchal one where the Sacred Feminine is a forbidden subject.

  8. Chris (1), I agree that talking about equality can be challenging—because, as you say, people use such a variety of criteria. And I also think the language of subordination, and the model of central versus auxiliary, are helpful ways to describe the problem. I’m not ready to give up on equality as a way of approaching things, though, because for one thing it’s the language that is the most widespread—even the FamProc uses the phrase “equal partners.” Though actually, I have no idea what that means (especially in the context of presiding), so you do have a point!

    Biborit (2), thanks! I find myself using the language of “feeling unequal” too, so this was also making me reconsider it.

    Emily U (4),

    It takes time to explain the semantic difference between equality as self esteem and equality as a descriptor of the different opportunities given to women and men, which I think is why people often talk past each other on this issue.

    Exactly. Thanks for summing it up so concisely.

    Galdralag (5), thanks for the link—that’s such a great list! Everyone should check it out.

    ExII April (7), yes, that’s exactly my concern—you can’t argue with people about their feelings, so construing this as an issue entirely of feelings can be a way of evading hard questions. And I agree that there are times when equal treatment doesn’t mean the same, like in your example of breastfeeding. Though like you, I think those times aren’t as common as the church makes them out to be.

    River Morgan (8), it’s been fascinating to me to read comments from men saying that in all their years of being in various church meetings, they’ve never heard anyone disparage women, so there isn’t a problem. I have to wonder what they’re not noticing. I can believe that they aren’t explicitly talking about women as inferior, but situations like yours seem to frequently go unnoticed. (Not to mention that there’s something strange about saying that everything is fine because the men in charge, the ones who make all the final decisions, don’t say bad things about the women who have no voice in these meetings.)

  9. Great post, Lynnette. The dozens upon dozens of “but I don’t feel unequal at church” comments on Facebook were just leaving me shaking my head. I was also told by one commentator that “logic is subjective” and “I feel it is perfectly logical that men exclusively hold the priesthood.*” I get that the LDS church encourages an epistemology where truth is deduced based on feelings, but I think some Mormons are really taking it too far.

    (*Of course, there’s nothing illogical about men exclusively holding the priesthood. What’s illogical is calling that “equal treatment.”)

  10. This post and this comment (“The dozens upon dozens of ‘but I don’t feel unequal at church’ comments on Facebook were just leaving me shaking my head.”) are what I struggle with when it comes to feminism. I’m oversimplifying for the sake of brevity, but Feminism can seem condescending. I’m just guessing, but I imagine if you polled the women of the church the majority would say, quite happily, “I don’t feel unequal at church. I find great peace/happiness/spirituality/enlightenment there.” And then the femnists come along and grab them by the shirt and say, “But don’t you see what is REALLY going on! I don’t feel equal and neither should you!”

  11. I think that part of the disconnect, why so many women don’t “feel unequal” and so many feminists insist that equality is objectively measured, is because each side is measuring different parameters of power. The type of hard power that feminist struggle over just isn’t important to women who find other types of power more important.

  12. Ben (#13), I do think it’s unfortunate when people are condescending (whether they’re telling people that they should feel equal, or that they shouldn’t.) But the point of this post isn’t that women should or should not “feel equal”–it’s that equality isn’t a feeling in the first place.

  13. I’m glad people are still commenting on this post – it’s such an important issue.

    The OP and comments touch on something that comes up a lot in anthropological research on women who participate within (instead of fight against) highly structured gendered religious hierarchies.

    Saba Mahmood, for example, explains that women of faith who don’t contest gendered institutional/structural subordination tend to have a different overall approach to their religious tradition than women who do agitate for change. Instead of viewing themselves through a filter of political equality and rights, these women orient their understandings of self and role in terms of their inner spirituality and personal obligations to God.

    Based on my anecdotal experience as a Mormon woman, I think many of us are quite comfortable focusing on our personal spirituality, individual relationships with God, and opportunities to learn, grow, and serve others – right up until the point that institutional and structural inequalities create real harm to us or someone we love. Then many of us feel a moral obligation to look at the structure and to ask if everything about it is truly God-given and God-required, or if there are ways that the institution may be altered that would lessen the possibility of harm.

  14. Lynette (#15): Thanks for the follow-up. I suppose that boils it down to the point of your post. You are saying that feeling one way or the other about how equal things are in Mormonism misses the point. Empirically, for lack of a better word, things are not equal. That is, you can calculate the measure of inequality.
    My point is that when it comes to Mormonism you are going to have a hard time convincing someone their feelings are trumped by ‘numbers’. Heck, how many of us have maintained a testimony in the face of contrary evidence (DNA, horses in the BOM, etc)?
    I’m not saying that using numbers to trump feelings is bad or wrong. I’m just saying it can come across a little presumptive. Just my take.

  15. I have had real harm done to me and mine through structure and cultural assumption.

    But I have found that real change comes through patience, earnest entreaty, and prayer, rather than agitation for change.

  16. I would argue that the question of equality is not equivalent to the question of BoM historicity, but is closer to the question of BoM content. Historicity is an issue that requires extrapolation from multiple sources of investigation and resists definitive resolution. In contrast, we have direct experience with the content of the BoM, in the same way that we have direct experience with the gendered structure of the church.

    There’s undoubtedly some subjectivity in both those sets of experiences, but I would argue they’re bounded pretty narrowly by external constraints. Feeling gender equality in the distribution of power in the church is the rough equivalent of feeling the BoM includes a recipe for a chocolate pudding that can double as a salad dressing.

    It might be presumptive to maintain there is a communal reality in the face of others’ insistence on relativism. But that relativism is rarely well thought-out, or those who feel equal would have no basis for privileging their feelings over others’ feelings of inequality.

  17. I don’t know that this holds water, though. Feminists’ stated goal in the Church, among other things, is to get more men and women banding together under feminist ideals. This means that feminists, ostensibly, want to persuade those women who currently DON’T agitate for change to change their mind.

    So if that is really the goal, as opposed to simply validating one’s own feelings, there is a serious basis for privileging their feelings.

  18. Thanks for your thoughts Kiskilili. I think I got too far into the weeds with the BOM/DNA example. My main point is the trouble I have with the approach feminism takes, as explicated in this post and some of the comments.

    I’m not picking on you by any means but your comment underscores my point. When you say “that relativism is rarely well thought-out” I can’t help but feel like I’ve been slapped in the face. If I were a woman and felt things were equal and going fine for me I would be pretty turned off if someone came to me and said, “Hey, I don’t think you’ve really thought this out”. And we’re not talking about shoes here. We are talking about strongly held beliefs, buttressed by years of emotional investment.

    Again, I don’t want to debate whether or not things are equal in the church. I’m more focused on how the message of inequality is delivered. Thanks again for the good conversation.

  19. Ben, thanks for articulating your concerns about this; I can see your point. It’s frustrating to have people assume that the reason you have the views you do is because you haven’t thought them out. On my end, that’s why I get exhausted by the all-too-common narrative about feminists that we “just don’t understand” the gospel. (My read of Kiskilili, by the way, was that she was pointing to the inherent contradiction between relativism and and the belief that one is right, as opposed to a general assertion that women who feel equal haven’t thought that out.)

    The challenge, I think, is that there are in fact some significant disagreements about these topics. Can we talk about them without assuming that those with different views are just clueless, or are less developed versions of ourselves (i.e., “I used to think that, but now I’ve become enlightened”)? I’m sure I could stand to do better, and I’m sorry if the OP came across as condescending; I really was trying to avoid simply dismissing the experience of those who see the current set-up as positive. But at the same time, I do disagree with not just the content, but also the underlying framework, that underlies so many of these discussions, and I don’t find it helpful to appeal to subjective experience as the primary (or only) authority, because it closes down the conversation; it doesn’t leave much room to talk about our substantive disagreements.

  20. Sorry, Ben—that wasn’t phrased well. I see a fundamental problem in general with using the position that subjective experience is the ultimate trump card as a defense of the status quo, or prescriptively (“people’s individual experiences are the ultimate authority, so everyone should try harder to experience what I’ve experienced”). I didn’t mean to imply that I ascribe this position to you, although I can see how I came across this way.

  21. I see a fundamental problem in … using the position that subjective experience is the ultimate trump card … prescriptively.

    This is the crux of the matter to me. As Mormons, we encourage people to approach the Divine personally and individually, in the hopes that they will have a transcendent and transformative sacred experience. We tend to phrase those experiences in terms of feelings, and we tend to tell people that they should (or that they will) have specific transcendent feelings if they are righteous and sincere enough.

    When we apply the language of feeling to something that is not emotional – like equality – we are adding heavy LDS cultural weight to the words. This can alienate those who do not have “feelings of equality” because of the implication that “not feeling equal” is a mark of unrighteousness or lack of faith.

  22. “We tend to phrase those experiences in terms of feelings, and we tend to tell people that they should (or that they will) have specific transcendent feelings if they are righteous and sincere enough.”

    I am not sure where this “tendency” is coming from or how widespread it is. I have always considered such experiences to be gifts. And D & C 46 makes it clear that we all get different gifts. So I wouldn’t expect to get the same transcendent feelings as my neighbor. And I would never think to judge another who has different experiences.

    “When we apply the language of feeling to something that is not emotional – like equality – ”

    Feeling equal or not is absolutely emotional. Most feminists who tell their stories cite emotional pain as a reason for their commitment to feminism. So are they also wrong to have feelings?

    “we are adding heavy LDS cultural weight to the words. This can alienate those who do not have “feelings of equality” because of the implication that “not feeling equal” is a mark of unrighteousness or lack of faith.”

    If one WAS insisting that anyone else with a different feeling was unrighteous, that would be a point. But it is entirely possible to find something that works for you, without expecting anyone else to feel the same. And in that vast space is much room for conversation.

    But if we are worried about “alienation,” then what of people who DO have transcendent experiences that shape their view of equality, who work hard to achieve equality in their relationships? Might they not also be alienated at being told that no, they are not equal, that’s an indisputable fact? Um, then where is the room for conversation there?

    Why is someone else’s empirical judgement supposed to be more “real” than feelings?

    Let’s take a situation in which a stranger is rifling through my financial records, with access to all the accounts and ability to steal everything. The facts would indicate a criminal or scam artist! But no, wait, that was a financial planner that I hired because of the benefit to me. So I feel fine about it.

    Or a man who is naked and has his genitals fondled by a man, who even penetrates his anus with a finger. The facts would indicate that this is a violation! But no, it is a medical exam, and he will benefit from early warning of disease. So he feels fine with it.

    Feelings matter, and it is part of an accurate assessment of reality.

    One might argue that in those cases, there were facts missing. Of course one could come to a different empirical conclusion if all the facts were known! And do we really know everything about gender relations? Or is it possible that there are details available through revelation that might not be found in a college course or feminist tome?

    As for being impressed when someone says, “It is clear to me that the facts are….” Sorry, but I have been married too long. In the first decade or so, one of us had a habit of saying, “Any rational person can see that….” We learned that actually a lot of empirical facts can actually be seen in different ways.

  23. Naismith, you forgot the punchline for your example of women in the church: the context—made apparent through revelation—that makes it acceptable for women in the church to be poked in the anus, as it were.

    Of course, even this issue doesn’t quite address the post, which is about whether a man can receive a revelation during a medical exam to the effect that he is not, in fact, naked or being fingered, however he might “feel.”

  24. Ben ~ My point is that when it comes to Mormonism you are going to have a hard time convincing someone their feelings are trumped by ‘numbers’. Heck, how many of us have maintained a testimony in the face of contrary evidence (DNA, horses in the BOM, etc)?

    With all due respect, this was kind of my point—although I am willing to say that using feelings to trump hard data is bad. It strikes me as problematic that Mormons reach so readily for what they “feel” (which is highly subjective) instead of being willing to reason through what can be empirically observed.

    When people say things like “I don’t feel unequal,” it leaves me shaking my head both because equality isn’t about what you feel, and because it’s thought-stopping rhetoric of sorts that shuts down the conversation. After all, all I can really say to someone who has played the “feeling equal” card is that I feel tremendously unequal when I attend an LDS church, and then we’re locked into a variation of the dreaded testimony head-butt.

    (And yes, Naismith, feminists sometimes discuss their hurt feelings—but those feelings are usually reactions to empirically observed inequality. The defenders of the status quo under discussion are doing the opposite, starting with good feelings and then using those to insist that things are empirically equal. It’s cart before horse.)

    I’m sorry if my frustration comes across as condescending; if that’s the case, I really don’t know how to make it sound not-condescending. I hope the post I linked to shows that I’ve sincerely agonized about how best to respond to Latter-day Saints who play their feelings as truth. That said, I’ve been getting condescended to all over Facebook from LDS defenders of the status quo for the past two weeks. I’ve been repeatedly told that my position is “stupid” and “a joke,” that I’m an “outsider” who doesn’t understand the principles of the gospel, and that I’m not willing to listen to others, whereas probably the worst thing I’ve said to anyone is that their argument isn’t rooted in logic. So I really don’t think that’s some kind of problem with feminism.


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