In the discussion of the Let Women Pray movement, one of the comments I heard most frequently was something along the lines of “I never noticed women weren’t praying in Conference.” In a few cases, the context suggested that the statement was being made as a marker of being more righteous than thou, but in most cases, it came across to me as a genuine statement of surprise. Heck, I probably said something similar at one point. I don’t think I had ever really thought about the question until I read Cynthia L.’s post on the issue at BCC a couple of years ago.
Even for all of us who sincerely hadn’t noticed that women weren’t praying, though, I think a lot of people drew the wrong conclusion. Specifically, they concluded that because they hadn’t noticed, then it must not be a problem and must not need rectifying. I think this is completely backwards, though. The fact that so many of us hadn’t noticed this very public and constantly repeated instance of institutional sexism means that sexism in the Church is a huge problem.
Several years ago, someone at fMh wrote a post where she said her young daughter had complained to her that the Church thought boys were more important than girls. (Unfortunately, I don’t recall who wrote it and can’t find the post.) My recollection is that at least one commenter to her to task and said if she hadn’t taught her daughter to see the world through a feminist lens, this never would have occurred to her. Like the conclusions people drew from not noticing women weren’t praying in Conference, though, I think the commenter had it backwards. I think it’s surprising that more of us don’t notice the sexism in the Church.
The Church is full of responsibilities that women are barred from fulfilling. I’m sure if you’re reading this blog that you’re well aware of them. We don’t have women leading wards or serving as counselors to people who lead wards, or serving as clerks or executive secretaries for them. We don’t have women perform any ordinances outside a very few in the temple. We don’t even allow women to be official witnesses of our ordinances. When people join the Church, they are interviewed by and baptized by men. When they leave the Church, they are excommunicated by men. When babies are born, they are blessed by men. When people die, their funerals are presided over by men and their graves are dedicated by men.
To be active in the Church requires us to find a way to deal with all of this institutional sexism. Maybe we decide that God wouldn’t let the Church go astray, so it must all be God’s will. Or maybe we compartmentalize our church experience, and don’t apply the same egalitarian standards we’re more familiar with in the rest of the world to church. In one way or another, though, we largely learn to be blind to it. When another instance of institutional sexism comes up (women can’t be stake auditors?) we’re no longer surprised.
When such a highly visible instance of sexism goes essentially unnoticed for years, for decades, for over a century, this isn’t evidence that institutional sexism in the Church isn’t a problem. Rather, it’s evidence of just how much the Church is drenched in sexist practice. If the Church were more egalitarian, barring women from praying in our biggest meetings would have stood out and been noticed long ago. The fact that so many of us missed it demonstrates just how sexist the general background of the Church is.