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.