Zelophehad’s Daughters

Please, Emperor, Prayerfully Consider a Wardrobe Change

Posted by Mike C

In the story of the Emperor’s new clothes, the Emperor is fooled by some charlatans into paying a lot of money for some invisible clothes. As he parades through the town in his underwear, the cowed crowds lining the street applaud and praise his marvelous new clothes. It is not until a boy yells out, “The Emperor has no clothes!”, that everyone finally acknowledges this truth.

I was reminded of this story when my wife, a Young Womens’ leader, related her latest Sunday experience. In the new youth curriculum, the June lessons are about the Priesthood. So, this week the Young Women’s president asked a couple of male leaders to come talk to all the girls about the Priesthood.

The first man, a member of the stake high council, was also a father of one of the girls. He and his wife are delightful, salt-of-the-earth, extremely conventional true-believing Mormons. He did a nice job speaking about the Priesthood, after which he asked the girls, “What is it that the boys and men in the Church do?” His daughter, who had just turned 12 and was brand new to Young Womens shouted out, “They do all the cool things, like passing and blessing the sacrament.” Her dad squirmed slightly but continued on. “What is it that the girls and women do?” Again his daughter piped up, “Well, it’s not very exciting. They do the cooking and the cleaning.”

At this point the bishop’s counselor joined in, perhaps in an attempt to rescue the high councilor. “Well, you know, the Priesthood is about service, so as long as men are blessing others it is OK, but as soon as they do anything for their benefit, then that is wrong.” To which the 12 year-old asked, “But don’t you receive blessings for service?” Uncomfortable pause, followed by hemming and hawing. No satisfactory explanations were forthcoming, because there are none.

So here we have the youngest girl in Young Womens, born and raised in a most conventional Mormon family, where the Family Proclamation has a prominent spot in the living room and is quoted frequently, and yet she sees the problems of Church gender inequality every bit as clearly as the boy who shouted that the Emperor was in his skivvies. I don’t know that she understands or appreciates the implications of what she sees, and perhaps she will never follow those implications to their logical conclusions, but she instinctively identifies the problems.

If even this young girl perceives the inequalities faced by women in the Church, and views them in a negative light, surely many of the older girls and women do as well. And now this young girl, who is developing her sense of self and trying to assemble her worldview, must come to terms with what these uncomfortable inequalities mean. For such a girl, it seems that she can process Church gender inequalities in three ways–two of which seem tragic, and the third of which we don’t provide the tools to handle.

First, she can decide that she is deficient because she is female. As a girl she is simply less valuable than boys and men. She concludes that God views women as less important, treats them as appendages or adornments to men, and codifies this through Church doctrines and structures. Her ambitions are curbed and her dreams curtailed because these lessons seep into her consciousness, like water into the basement. A sense of deficiency can become engrained in her thinking and outlook on the world. She defers to men because they are more important, more favored of God. Her opinions matter less and she puts herself in a subordinate, one-down position in her relationships with the boys she dates and the man she marries, with her church leaders, and with men at work and in the community. If she is abused in some way, it is easy for her to reason that she deserved it, or that she has even less value as a result. To me, this way of processing inequality is the most harmful, the saddest, and possibly the most common. And as a Church we are causing women to come by it honestly.

A second response might be to conclude that God is a jerk. What kind of god would teach that men are more important, more central to his purposes, more worthy of his attention? Praying to this god becomes unsatisfactory, unhelpful, painful. What is the point? This response can lead to estrangement from deity, or even to a loss of belief in any god, since this presentation of the Mormon god seems so awful. Losing a connection to the divine is sad to me, since the God I believe in is wonderful, and a wonderful resource. I hate to see a healthy relationship with God closed off to young women, yet this perception of God as jerk is rational, given the inequalities presented in our church. This conclusion can lead not only to estrangement from God, but also estrangement from the Church, whether or not the woman remains active. Although letting go of Church activity may be healthier, by doing so she often gives up much that is precious to her, and it is hardly the outcome the Church intends.

A third response, and in my opinion, the healthiest (and most correct, as I told the brethren), is to conclude that God does not intend such inequality and therefore the Church has it wrong, or at least has not yet progressed to a fullness of the true Gospel. Now, here on the Bloggernacle such a conclusion is hardly novel or remarkable. But most of the girls in our church are not prepared to handle it. Rather, we have prepared our youth to believe in the Christmas lights theory of Church truthfulness. If one light goes out, they all go out. If one doctrine is false or incomplete, or one policy is wrong, then the whole Church is a fraud. To conclude that Priesthood gender inequality is not God’s plan–but rather the unsurprising result of men seeking revelation while influenced by prevailing societal attitudes–would cause most young women to feel that the Church is not true anymore. So, they either leave the Church, or else their cognitive or social dissonance forces them to return to responses one or two.

The only way we can make space for girls to reach this healthier response is to retreat from the all-or-nothing, black-or-white, absolutist framing of Church truth. We know that anyone who performs even a cursory review of our history will see that this absolutist framing has more holes than a block of Swiss cheese. We have a living Church, meaning: changeable. Major doctrines and policies have changed over the years, sometimes dramatically. Current leaders have completely disavowed some teachings of previous leaders. These are verifiable facts. Why hide them? Why not use them to our advantage to highlight the living nature of the Church? This will serve to inoculate our youth so that they can choose response number three while not feeling obliged by their integrity to leave the Church.

This is a job we can do. While it would be nice to get help from SLC, we can use our influence to speak against the so-called practical infallibility of the Church. When we teach and share our testimonies and interact with our church friends, we can take opportunities to problematize the absolutist view, and to preach the virtues of nuance and fallibility. We can do this job and we should do it.

But we cannot change the inequalities ourselves. We can leave because of them, but we cannot change them. For those of us who still wish to affiliate with the Church, these inequalities are our reality. We cannot pretend that they don’t matter. So we turn to our leaders and ask them to bring these issues to the Lord. Just as the daughters of Zelophehad petitioned Moses to plead to the Lord on their behalf, just as Jared begged his brother to beseech the Lord on behalf of their kin, so we cry out to our leaders: “Please, go to the Lord on our behalf, pray for new revelation that might alleviate the pain and sorrow of the many women who suffer because of gender inequality in the Church.”

All is not well in Zion when even the young girl in the Church sees that her possibilities and value are circumscribed by rigid gender roles that seem more rooted in our culture and history than in eternal truths and potentials. And so for this girl and for ourselves we also raise our voices to the heavens, “O Lord…let thine ear be inclined; let thine heart be softened…Remember thy suffering saints…” And we pray that the Lord will still, “…reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God,” and that one of those things will be full equality and inclusion of women in the administration of the spiritual and temporal blessings of the Church.

18 Responses to “Please, Emperor, Prayerfully Consider a Wardrobe Change”

  1. 1.

    A few years ago, my oldest daughter was Laurel president and my youngest was Beehive president. During BYC, the Beehive piped up that the YM should not go on the hike and horseback riding activities, but should do the same things as the YW – quilting and scrapbooking. The Laurel seconded, stating it just wasn’t fair how things were done between the YM and YW programs. Crickets. Uncomfortable dead silence. And then BYC continued as if they had never spoken at all. They both still talk about how marginalized and demeaned they felt (and still feel).

  2. 2.

    The three responses in the post don’t constitute an exhaustive list. A fourth response is to decide that the things that seem not very exciting might eventuality seem valuable and the roles that look unappealing might eventuality be a source of happiness. My grandmother says she’s glad to have followed that response, but it is quite understandably not for everyone. A fifth response is to cultivate a sense of value independent of church service opportunities. Maybe in some of those perspectives, the inequalities are still visible but don’t seem too important. And there are other responses and combinations of responses. This isn’t to undermine your conclusions. Responses one through three happen, and sometimes they bring unnecessary tragedy.

  3. 3.

    Brian, the two responses you outline are just variations on #1. The reaction is to circumscribe yourself and learn to like it, or to accept your marginalization as natural and learn to work around it. That is absolutely what is described above.

  4. 4.

    “What is it that the girls and women do?”

    Wow, what kind of response could he possibly have expected? The only thing I can think was something along the lines of women raise children. However, it would be a strange to expect that kind of response from YW because most of them (thankfully) do not have this role during adolescence. Arguably, young women are one of the sub-groups that have the least institutional involvement in church. In some ways the discrepancies between the YM and YW are even larger than he discrepancies between adult men and women’s involvement in the church. At least most adult women have callings.

    If your interested, you can refer back to my blog post about this issue http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/2012/08/03/the-mormon-adolescent-roles-and-responsibilites/

  5. 5.

    Jana, that’s a really sad story. I wish we could say it is an isolated event but I’m afraid it happens more often than we’d like. My wife observed another event in our ward where the Laurels wanted to go ziplining. Apparently they were turned down because the boys couldn’t go–it was against BSA policy. Someone noted that it wasn’t against Church policy, to which someone else responded, “Well, that wouldn’t be fair for the boys.” Facepalm.

    Brian-A, I agree that my list may be incomplete, but I also agree with Justine that some responses may just be workarounds of things on the list. The response I didn’t include, that may be similar to your fourth one, is that someone wise or inspired (the Church leaders in this case) knows that something you don’t like is good for you anyway, and that if you just follow their counsel you will discover that for yourself. Like eating broccoli instead of potato chips, or saving sex for marriage. However, I think this is also problematic for girls in several ways.

    1. This teaches girls not to trust in their own feelings, to learn their own authority, or to value their own wants. Other people’s wants take precedence. This is pervasive in LDS culture, and I believe detrimental to many women. What they want doesn’t matter.

    2. It is unfair. Boys can always cook and clean if they choose to. Girls cannot choose to bless or pass the sacrament or perform other priesthood duties.

    3. It is common for boys to enjoy participating in the sacrament or performing priesthood duties. Boys may sometimes complain, but in general they like it. These activities bring the spirit, they are publicly recognized ever week, they make boys feel important and they provide leadership opportunities. Nearly no one would claim such benefits for cooking and cleaning, etc.

    4. It is inconsistent. Unlike the analogies we can think of, the girls know that the priesthood activities are righteous and of benefit to boys. God values these activities. So they can hardly be compared to potato chips or sex within marriage or whatever other analogy we can come up with. To a girl who would like to also do the “cool things”, she knows that they are good for boys but that somehow they are not good for her because of her sex or gender.

    I am glad that your grandma is happy with her choices. But what about those women who are unhappy with the limited choices they are given? I think these women matter too and if we are trying to approach Zion as a church then we need to remedy things that are harming them.

  6. 6.

    [...] men, it’s that women shouldn’t supervise priesthood holders.” And how do you deal with the effects on young Mormon women? (Despite these interesting pieces, Molly had some harsh criticisms for the Mormon feminists, and [...]

  7. 7.

    Thank you for your patience with my earlier comment; it wasn’t my best. My first couple readings of the post gave me the impression that the three responses were presented as the only possibilities, but in rereading now I can’t see why I thought that. I raised my quibble because I felt some need to emphasize that even those who don’t recognize their experiences in that list should still take the last four paragraphs seriously. I wasn’t trying to advocate the responses I mentioned, only to note their existence. All of the various responses that accept intrusive gender roles will share some negatives, I agree.

  8. 8.

    [...] http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/2013/06/20/please-emperor-prayerfully-consider-a-wardrobe-change/ [...]

  9. 9.

    As a life long member, former Elders Q president, free thinker and rebel I would like to make a few points.
    #1- Some women who do work in the temple have been given the preisthood.
    #2- Men are slackers, requiring preisthood to be envolved in running the church insures that men have to be there. If we could figure out a way to turn the whole thing over to women we gladly would and we could stay home and watch football.
    #3

  10. 10.

    This makes me want to cry and shout.

    “All is not well in Zion when even the young girl in the Church sees that her possibilities and value are circumscribed by rigid gender roles that seem more rooted in our culture and history than in eternal truths and potentials.” — HUZZAH!

    Beautifully written. Well done. And thank you.

  11. 11.

    Brian-A, thanks for engaging on these issues. What I gather you may have been saying was that many women have different experiences than those I outlined. I think this is very true. I tried to emphasize that for this particular girl, who already intuited some differences that troubled her, the 3 responses may be the most common. However, I think it is very important to remember that many women don’t have these experiences and the Church works very well for them, which also suggests that the Church is doing much that is right and good.

    Glen H, regarding your first point, it is encouraging to me that women seem to hold or exercise the priesthood in some form in the temple. I think that sets a great precedent for expanding women’s priesthood participation to other spheres of church life. Regarding men staying home and watching football, I’m offended that you would categorize men in such a way. That does not describe me. I would stay home and watch soccer (unless you are not American and actually meant the football that the rest of the world watches). But to be serious, I find your overgeneralization troubling. I know many men who aren’t slackers and many women who are. I think it is unhelpful and unfair to both sexes to describe their characteristics as categories rather than treating them as individuals with individual character strengths and weaknesses. Regarding your third point, I’m drawing a blank.

    And thanks, Melody. I wish all were well in Zion, but as long as there is suffering caused by Mormon doctrine or policy, I think we as members should do what we can to alleviate it. I often wonder how much my efforts matter, but I am encouraged by thinking that my efforts don’t have to matter to a large number of people–perhaps just a few would be enough.

  12. 12.

    I have nothing to add. Thank you, for expressing everything I have felt.

  13. 13.

    I agree that here is an inequality inherent in the culture.

    The problem:

    The leadership training, or lack thereof.

    BSA provides multiple levels of required leadership training for our YM leaders, including introductory courses on various high adventure activities.

    The YW have no equivalent. And they don’t have a similar network of leadership mentors. So, if they do want to plan a high-adventure activity, they usually don’t even know where to begin.

    The Solution:

    I think every YM presidency needs to reach out the YW presidency, and say, “Let us help you with the outdoor activities.” And then have a leadership-only event (fireside) where YW leaders can get introduced to things like rappelling, hiking, canoeing, target shooting, etc. It doesn’t have to be in depth for each thing; instead, just a simple 15 to 20-minute presentation on what gear is used, what the safety rules are, good locations nearby, and who to contact (certified instructors) to schedule an activity.

    PS — Mike C. – As I understand it, the church has adopted BSA’s Safety Guidelines for all mutual (YM & YW) activities.

  14. 14.

    Michael S,

    I think cross-training of leaders is a good idea, although I don’t see why it shouldn’t go both ways (i.e., women training men, too). I do think girls should have more opportunities to do outdoor activities and high adventure if they would like. I also think the boys should have other options if they don’t like those things. Personally, I was not into camping and fishing–sports was my thing. But fortunately there were lots of church-related opportunities for that. Girls, on the other hand, are often channeled into stereotypical girls activities whether they like it or not.

    That being said, I disagree with your solution. Better training of youth leaders will not give girls the opportunity to prepare, bless, or pass the sacrament, to baptize others when they turn 16, to give healing blessings when they get older, or to lead groups of women and men. Training will not give women equal representation in church councils. Nor will better training eliminate the promotion of proscribed gender roles from the Proclamation on the Family or the gender hierarchy taught in the temple. I think better training is a great idea, but by itself it’s a little like rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic. The bigger inequalities are structural, thus the plea for leaders to seek new revelation.

  15. 15.

    True Christianity often requires disruptive empathy.

    From Rene Girard: “disruptive empathy”: A combination of ardent solidarity with persecuted people, coupled with a willingness to shatter conventional behavior patterns in the act of reaching out to them”

  16. 16.

    Just my thoughts:

    First, excellent post Mike C, as usual.

    Regarding the High Adventure thing: when I was a Laurel, we did a High Adventure, without any help or input from the Scouts. Believe it or not, women are capable of figuring out how to go white-water rafting, camping, and hiking all by ourselves! We had awesome leaders who made sure we had balanced activities and listened to our input constantly. We had to raise money, since we didnt have the BSA budget to work with like the boys do, but it was really fun.

    Mike C: you have outlined every feeling Ive had about this, and I really appreciate it. I have a soft spot for the YW because I remember being their age and asking the same questions.

  17. 17.

    when I was a laurel and the boys were off water skiing, etc and we were at the church knitting slippers (1999) we petitioned and the bishop said, if you want that activity you have to plan it yourself. RIGHT. 16 year old girls with no help from leaders? as our leaders were dead set against it. who do we call? who has the resources we need?

    {crickets chirping}

  18. 18.

    The bishop came to Senior Primary a few months ago to talk about the priesthood. He asked, “So only boys and men get to hold the priesthood. Is that fair?” And the girls yelled out together, ‘No!” He then tried to explain that it really is fair because everyone gets the blessings of the priesthood, but he underestimated how outspoken and stubborn these little girls are. They all kept yelling out about why it still wasn’t fair and how girls are as capable as boys. It was amazing, but it broke my heart at the same time. That confidence and tendency to be proactive isn’t going to survive in a lot of the girls as they go through Young Women. I have three little daughters and I just can’t bear the thought of them being broken in that sense.

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