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.