There are several phrases commonly used to shut down discussions surrounding gender issues in the LDS church. My co-bloggers have already discussed several including: “If you only understood your role as a woman, you would be happy.” and “Admit it. What you really want is the priesthood.” One that I have been thinking about a lot recently is the phrase, “Men and women are just different.” This phrase is often used to justify any differential treatment of men and women within the LDS church. However, I find it a pretty poor justification for this differential treatment for several key reasons.
First of all, there is often no explanation of what those differences are. The few examples of differences that I hear most often are: women are more nurturing then men, and men are less righteous/spiritual than woman (feel free to add any additional ones in the comments section). However, it is hard to say whether these differences are really part of our doctrine (I honestly hope not), or if they merely are apologetic justifications for differential treatment within the church.
Secondly, there is almost no explanation of how the differential treatment is tailored to the inherent differences between men and women. Maybe the statement, “Men need the priesthood because they are more sinful and selfish than women” would fit in this category. However, explaining how the differential treatment is tailored to inherent differences tends to be the exception rather then the rule. For example, have you heard any doctrinally based explanations for any of the following questions? Why do men and women meet in separate classes during the third hour of church when they are being taught the same lesson? Why do women have both home and visiting teachers assigned to visit them whereas men only have home teachers? Why do cub scouts meet every week with a larger budget while the same-age girls only meet every other week with a smaller budget? Why does God talk mostly to and about men in the scriptures? Why are certain callings given only to men or only to women? In my experience, most of these questions remain unanswered beyond the response “because men and women are different.”
Third, by creating differential treatment along sex/gender lines, we ignore the variability among different women and among different men and, thus, unnecessarily limit people’s options. For example, let’s imagine that you conducted a research experiment and you found a difference between how men and women learn. Say that you found that men learn better when they presented information visually and women learn better when they were presented information auditorily. Would it make sense for you to try to create separate learning experiences for men and women that are tailored to these learning styles? For example, would you create a male and female version of the same college class? The answer is, probably not, and here is why. It is extremely rare to find a large, striking difference between men and women on almost any psychological trait. When differences are found, the effect size (how much the groups differ from each other) is usually relatively small and there is a lot of overlap between the two groups. So, you may find that as a group, men learn slightly better than women when they are presented information visually. However, there would be plenty of women who learn better when presented information visually and plenty of men who learn better when presented information auditorily. This inevitable overlap creates a problem when you don’t give people options. So, if you did create two separate classes, wouldn’t it make the most sense to allow people to choose which class to attend? Wouldn’t there also be advantages to teaching one class in which you encorporate both teaching styles? One the big problems with differential treatment and opportunity within the LDS church is we limit people’s options and, thus, we don’t know if things would be different/better if people were given those options. Additionally, because of the inevitable (and, in my opinion, wonderful) variability among human beings, the system may work just fine for a majority of people, but there will always be people who the system doesn’t serve very well. Is there a justafiable reason why we are limiting their options?
Overall, we need to take a good hard look at how we structure experiences and opportunities for men and women and whether that differential treatment is actually beneficial. In the comments, feel free to discuss why you think specific structural differences that fall along sex/gender lines are beneficial or not to members of the church.
1-I find the argument that “it is just easier to leave things the way they are” a poor justification for structural differences. Change is hard, but should we keep traditions and structures in place that are not serving people’s needs? And likewise, is it really easier to have different structures in place for men and women? In many ways, it would be easier to treat men and women more similarly within a church context.
2-I don’t think structural differences are justified when they benefit one group and harm the other. So the argument that “men would all leave the church if they couldn’t be in charge” is a poor justification for limiting women’s leadership opportunities.
3-One could make the argument that there are some opportunities that cannot cross sex/gender lines (e.g. pregnancy and breastfeeding). While that is absolutely true, there are relatively few examples that fit in this category. Furthermore, just because these opportunities cannot be equalized, is it justifiable to not equalize other opportunities? Especially given that not all women will have the opportunity to be pregnant and/or breastfeed, and given that different women experience pregnancy and breastfeeding so differently? (“You don’t get to have certain opportunities because you get to be pregnant” is not comforting to a woman who will never be pregnant or to a woman whose pregnancy was difficult and/or painful).
- 28 February 2013