Patriarchy and Agency

Agency is central to LDS theology. We fought a war in the pre-mortal existence to preserve it, and it is an essential part of becoming like God. For this reason, one of the aspects of patriarchy that I find most disturbing is the way in which it affects agency, particularly female agency.

To make sense of this assertion, I need to start with a discussion of the nature of freedom. Mormons as well as other moderns tend to have what is called in theology a Pelagian understanding of freedom, as advocated by the early fifth-century Christian thinker Pelagius in his ongoing dispute with the well-known theologian Augustine. For Pelagius, freedom means the absolute ability to choose good or evil. The will is neutral, un-inclined in either direction, and entirely autonomous. Although in reality all humans fall short, perfection is in fact within human reach—there is no reason why a human being could not in theory make all the right choices. Sin is external to the will, something we choose; it does not infect the will itself.

There are a number of problems with this model. Perhaps most significantly, this approach does not reflect the actual experience of choosing. We do not make decisions in some neutral setting which is carefully insulated from the world. We do not exist, as one theologian puts it, “as executors of absolute choice in some kind of antiseptic neutrality above the involvements of real life.”1 From such a perspective, rather than having a person making a choice, we have an isolated, neutral will, which cannot be connected to any particular characteristics of the person. The will gets disconnected from ourselves as whole persons—ultimately, “a Pelagian account of willing saves the freedom of the will but loses the person.”2

I prefer an Augustinian model, which holds that the will is never neutral; it is always inclined in some direction. It does not exist in some isolated, detached sphere from which it surveys good and evil and then makes a choice between them. The will as we actually experience it is always oriented in some direction, always shaped by our desires and our moral judgments. Agency is exercised in a context of some kind, both internally and externally. From this perspective, we can talk about sin as infecting the will. Sin is not simply an alternate choice, after all; it is something that closes off possibilities.

This brings me to original sin. I realize that off-the-cuff, Mormons are likely to say that we do not believe in original sin. But what I think this assertion actually means is that we do not believe that children are born tainted in such a way that infant baptism is necessary. If we are talking about original sin as the reality which shapes our lives and our very nature after the Fall, such a perspective can be found throughout the Book of Mormon. Perhaps the most oft-cited comment on the subject is King Benjamin’s remark that “the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit.”3 But King Benjamin is not alone in this sharply negative assessment of the natural human condition. This an idea repeated throughout the book. Alma explains that the Fall resulted a “a spiritual death as well as a temporal,” which means that humans have become “carnal, sensual, and devilish, by nature.”4 According to the brother of Jared, “because of the fall our natures have become evil continually.”5 I think it is fair to say that the Augustinian view that the will itself can be corrupted is displayed in such passages.

How does this work, exactly? Contemporary theological models appeal to social structures as the means of transmitting original sin. We find ourselves in these sinful structures prior to conscious choice. As one theologian puts it, “before being able to choose, one is, merely by being historically situated, inextricably caught in an immense web of reciprocity in evil that one cannot escape and that has forming power.”6 These structures literally affect who we are, as aspects of society become embedded in a person’s most basic sense of self. It is from this perspective that we can talk about sin as in some sense corrupting human nature.

Sin in this sense is used in the singular, understood as a power, state, or condition, something that has cast its shadow over human existence—as opposed to “sins,” as particular, discrete human acts. These two uses of the term reflect the tension between talking about sin as something outside of us, outside of our control, and as something in which we are individually involved. The basic paradox in this notion of sin is that there is a way in which it is beyond our control, and yet also a way in which we choose it and are therefore accountable for it. We run into problems if we lose sight of either side.

I have found the work of Anglican theologian Alistair McFadyen to be particularly helpful in illuminating how the two interact. McFadyen is critical of much modern discourse on the subject of sin, with its emphasis on independence and autonomous choice. In the moral framework posited by modernity, he observes, freedom is understood as freedom from external forces. But this causes us to frame things in an either/or way—either I resist external forces, or I am overpowered by them—that does not actually connect to our experience of sin in the world. As mentioned earlier, we cannot pull out something called “personal will” and talk about it in isolation from other forces, because the very notion of personal will is already entangled in broader dynamics. The situations in which we are embedded exert more than an external pressure which overrides our individual will and forces us into particular behaviors; they actually appropriate the will.

How does this appropriation happen? The social dynamics in which we find ourselves shape our view of what is good, what is desirable, and therefore the way in which we make judgments. The problem is not that we have lost our ability to choose between alternatives. The problem is that our relation to those alternatives has been distorted. The way in which sin diminishes freedom, then, is not that it takes away our capacity to choose; what it does is “appropriate the means and criteria by and direction in which choices are made.”7 Sin is “an unavoidable reality conditioning and shaping our freedom.”8

Original sin, in other words, works by shaping the values, the norms, by which a person makes judgments. And what is the source of the norms and values which shape the will? On what basis do we judge something as good? I believe we draw on social and cultural narratives. Narratives serve an ethical purpose—it is through narratives that we learn to distinguish right and wrong, determine what goods are worth pursuing. Narratives are never neutral; they are always oriented in some direction, and they convey particular values. We cannot examine human acts in isolation, for our actions are always embedded in stories—and therefore, like the stories, have a teleological element, are aimed at a particular purpose, are guided by certain values. If sin has to do with values and norms, then, it is inevitably tied up with narrative.

And destructive narratives have the ability to undermine freedom, as they shape identity in problematic ways. A crucial point here is that narrative identity is not something we construct on our own, but is something which arises from our interpersonal context. I draw here on the work of Hilde Lindemann Nelson, who looks at the effects of oppressive narratives. She makes the point that “identity is a question of how others understand what I am doing, as well as how I understand what I am doing.”9 This is particularly important when we are talking about a person’s agency, because her ability to act freely depends on both the perception of others that she is morally trustworthy, an agent, and her own perception, her own view of herself as a moral agent. Agency arises interpersonally, in other words, as it requires recognition of one’s actions by both oneself and by others.

This brings me (finally) to patriarchy. I am not arguing that patriarchy is the original sin, but I do think it is destructive, and I find all of this to be helpful in making sense of how it functions. On an external level, it is fairly clear how patriarchy undermines female agency. Men are put in charge; they preside over women. Women thus have fewer opportunities, and have their actions constrained by male decisions. But patriarchy is more than an external system which subjugates women. It shapes our understanding of what it is to be a person in the first place. In a patriarchal system, to be a person, to be a full moral agent, is to be male. In the biblical narrative, Eve is created for Adam. Women’s very existence is explained in term of how it benefits men. All too often women are not even subjects, but objects, as in D&C 132, where they are part of men’s eternal reward. That the male is the default is bolstered by male-centric scriptures, and the worship of a male God.

In shaping the cultural narratives from which we construct our identity, patriarchy affects us internally as well as externally. It is “a pathology that distorts our internal dynamics.”10 Going back to what I said earlier, the problem is not that this system overcomes or stifles the will, leaving us unable to choose. The problem is that this form of social distortion shapes the will itself. In other words, this is not a Pelagian sort of choosing; we do not have a neutral will, which can survey the options and decide whether or not to select patriarchy. Rather, patriarchy becomes ” the basis and foundation of all choosing and acting, as the rules by which one makes choices.”11 Female attempts to challenge patriarchy are shut down by a system which interprets women’s experience through the lens of patriarchal norms, and de-legitimizes any experience which challenges the status quo.

Take, for example, the idea that men should lead, and women follow. One might argue that women still have their agency in such a situation, because they can choose whether or not to follow. But the problem is not that a woman loses the ability to say yes or no; it is that this choice is already shaped by patriarchal norms and values. It is taking place in the context of a worldview in which authority and obedience are central, and significant questions are things like who is the leader and who is the follower. In such a system, a woman’s choices are framed solely in terms of compliance and rebellion. Being limited to those options restricts her agency to a very narrow set of options.

Additionally, and perhaps even more disturbingly, putting a woman in this subordinate position conveys the message that her ability to make decisions cannot be trusted. Women are not viewed as full moral agents. Going back to Nelson’s work, oppressive narratives arise when “a powerful social group views the members of her own, less powerful group as unworthy of full moral respect.”12 Such narratives affect both of the perceptions of others, and the way in which an individual views herself. What is particularly troubling is that when someone believes a story in which she is not a full moral agent, she cannot simply challenge it rationally, because the story already identifies her as someone who cannot trust her own judgment.13 The narrative has already shaped her values in such a way that she loses the ability to challenge it. Oppressive narratives, then, diminish a person’s ability to act as a full moral agent by undermining that identity in both her own eyes, and in the perceptions of others.

Does this leave us with any hope? Is it possible to challenge patriarchy when all of us find it already shaping our values? I see hope in proposing alternate narratives, alternate worldviews. Take the tired notion that men have to preside in a family because someone has to be in charge, has to be authorized to make the final decision. This makes sense if one sees the highest good as efficiency, easy and clear decision-making. As mentioned above, it is steeped in a worldview which values hierarchy and authority.

The answer, then, is not simply to resist the authority; it is to resist the entire worldview. What might be an alternative? One possibility is a perspective in which the highest good is relationship. From such an angle, a hierarchical relationship between men and women is problematic because it undermines healthy relationships. Decision-making may become more difficult as a result, as one has to engage in the difficult work of negotiation and compromise—but this is ultimately positive, as it strengthens relationships. Since humans are fundamentally relational beings, this promotes development and growth for both women and men. Freedom is much richer, and has all kinds of creative possibilities.

But how do we judge between different narratives? What case can be made that the alternate worldview I propose here is superior to a patriarchal one? One way to make such an evaluation is to look at which  perspective most promotes human flourishing. This is very much in line with teachings about mortality as  a place for humans to develop their abilities and capacities. And if we truly do value agency, we need to examine the ways in which patriarchal narratives negatively affect it.

  1. Colin Grant, A Salvation Audit (London: Associated University Press, 1994), 343 []
  2. Alistair McFadyen, Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust, and the Christian Doctrine of Sin (Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 178 []
  3. Mosiah 3:19 []
  4. Alma 42:9-10 []
  5. Ether 3:2 []
  6. Stephen J. Duffy, “Our Hearts of Darkness: Original Sin Revisited,” Theological Studies 49, no. (1988): 616 []
  7. McFadyen, 128 []
  8. McFadyen, 108 []
  9. Hilde Lindemann Nelson, Damaged Identities, Narrative Repair (Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2001), 22 []
  10. McFadyen, 146 []
  11. McFadyen, 148 []
  12. Nelson, xii []
  13. Nelson, 33 []


  1. This is outstanding, Lynnette – one of the clearest articulations of the problems underlying patriarchal religious systems that I have ever read. I particularly loved this:

    In shaping the cultural narratives from which we construct our identity, patriarchy affects us internally as well as externally. It is “a pathology that distorts our internal dynamics.” Going back to what I said earlier, the problem is not that this system overcomes or stifles the will, leaving us unable to choose. The problem is that this form of social distortion shapes the will itself.

    Thank you for giving us such a substantive critique.

  2. Lynette: I love the theological work you do in this post (and in your posts generally). Your writing bursts with intelligence, and it helps me to see the world anew a little bit every time. More like this, please! (My biggest beef with patriarchy is that it tends to make gifts like yours invisible. The resulting loss is so obvious as to be staggering, and yet…)

  3. Lynette – excellent OP. I had one question that maybe I just missed in reading through it. Is the link between patriarchy (or male-dominated systems) with hierarchy & authority proven? I’ve certainly seen anecdotal evidence of this myself, but it is also a hallmark of conservative politics in general (whether in the GOP here in the US or in oppressive Asian dictatorships). And of course, conservatives are generally going to be more patriarchal in that patriarchy is status quo in need of conservation in their view. I have read some sociological studies that show female-dominated groups (e.g. nurses or teachers) tend to have flatter, more egalitarian structures that are less efficient but more robust at making decisions. I’d just love to know, if the correlation is proven, the source.

  4. Wow, Lynnette! I love this post! You make an excellent point, and I especially appreciate that where you might have lost a n00b like me with your terms, you walked the reader carefully through what you’re saying. If I might restate your major point with a sports analogy (sorry!), it’s like patriarchy isn’t merely an opponent of women’s agency, but is also the league organizer that has laid out the rules of how the game will be played. Let me know if I’ve missed it! 🙂

  5. Amen to everything you said. And to everything every commenter has said. I love you for this and for so many other things. Thank you, dear. Keep writing. Keep helping the rest of us find words for things we often cannot articulate.

  6. Lynette, I love this! Something like this is how ice always interpreted the phrase, “the blood and sins of this generation.” In the temple, we must be cleansed of this to be fully cleansed. But it seems that the cleansing takes a different pathway or procedure from the usual “Five R’s” repentance procedure for discrete acts of sin. To my mind, it then must be talking about something into which we are born, and thus have diluted accountability for, and something in which we immediately begin to participate and perpetrate, and thus do acquire accountability for. Systemic wrongs like patriarchy, unequal economic opportunity, and the like, are what I think fall into this category. I can hardly avoid to participate in the oppression of farm labor and so on, and yet can I say that I am without stain of it?

    And I love the way you connect this to an infecting of the will itself, in the victim. Brilliant.

  7. Wow. Wow! I also appreciated how you walk the reader through theological concepts, I’m always interested in theology but I’m not a trained student of it. You are an excellent translator. And this is a superb critique of patriarchy.

    Your idea that relationships are the highest good deeply resonates with me. It makes me want to read the scriptures with that idea in mind and look for narratives that can be seen as pointing in that direction.

    hawkgrrrl – I hope I’m not being rude, but “Is the link between patriarchy (or male-dominated systems) with hierarchy & authority proven?” stopped me short. It’s like saying, is the link between a polygon with 4 sides also having 4 corners proven? It’s inherent to the thing. Patriarchy puts men in an inherently hierarchical relationship with women. There is nothing to prove.

  8. I’m torn, because on the one hand I agree with a lot of what you’re saying when you critique other positions. But I find little support for any alternative outside of metaphysical speculations. I see no reason to believe that those two versions of the will exhaust the options, let alone that Mormonism is committed to either one. I’m all too suspicious of the idea that a system “distorts” the will, as if there were some such things an undistorted will that existed independent of all such systems. I find little support for the idea that patriarchy necessarily entails that a women’s actions are “solely” and exclusively framed in terms of obedience/rebellion or that she is being enslaved in any kind of way.

    Perhaps most fundamentally, your critique seems aimed more at a modern, (classical) liberal conception of choice and responsibility rather than a traditional, pre-modern conception. I definitely acknowledge that Mormonism has adsorbed much of the former, but I think it remains at its core committed to the latter. For this reason, I agree with much of your attack against modern, bourgeois values and worldviews regarding gender relations, but I disagree with you in seeing this as getting at patriarchy as such, especially as it is found within the church. (As a brief example, the modern liberal would hold that what the male does out in the public sphere and the market is the most important thing which strongly implies that what the female does within the home is merely auxiliary and thus subordinate do the former. A premodern traditionalist view, by contrast, often reverses this priority by making what the male does out in the public sphere as auxiliary and subordinate to what happens within the home. I find the latter view much more consistent with Mormonism.)

  9. Also, this reminds me of a quote I first heard a few decades ago. John Bradshaw, an advocate for adults courageously confronting their childhood demons (relics of alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional family backgrounds) said, “We are all in a post-hypnotic trance induced at birth.”

    You have articulated this same principle so beautifully: left unexamined, our unconscious/default relationship to the world around us predetermines how we respond to that world. We are doomed to recreate the relative dysfunction into which we are born, in part, because we can’t envision anything else.

    I agree with you that patriarchy is a telestial model. It is a result of the fall and, perhaps, is the best we have (or had) at the moment. If we are to progress as a people (see: City of Enoch) and as a planet (see: earth will receive her paradisaical glory) we must eventually replace a telestial-hierarchical model with what King Benjamin and Christ and others attempted to introduce to us: a celestial-egalitarian model.

    I think this blog post and all the conversations about these issues are evidence that we are trying to evolve, that we see the inadequacies, un-health (dysfunction, if you will) of the status quo in our church family. I think the spirit is moving us in the right direction. Thanks again for your beautiful mind and heart, Lynnette.

  10. This explains so much! Obviously it explains how patriarchy negatively affects women. It also explains how it negatively affects everyone, male & female, who live in a patriarchal system. Most of us, if not all of us, who are raised in Mormonism, have this system imposed on us-it’s a fact of life. I like these few lines, that really resonated with me because it was almost exactly what I thought when I started questioning myself about how I felt about the church: “What is particularly troubling is that when someone believes a story in which she is not a full moral agent, she cannot simply challenge it rationally, because the story already identifies her as someone who cannot trust her own judgment.13 The narrative has already shaped her values in such a way that she loses the ability to challenge it.” I remember feeling, at the time, that I really could not trust my own judgement- that the church leaders knew better and I just better get my thinking to be just like their thinking. I remember praying and asking god what was wrong with me. I wanted him to fix me so that I could fully accept what was coming down the patriarchal line from the leaders of the church. After some other experiences and my mind broke through some kind of wall, I realized that my mind was perfectly fine. That I could choose how I felt about certain things without feeling sinful. It made me happy to be able to THINK freely without restraints.

    *I also want to share something about my cousin. He grew-up in the LDS church too. His parents, and members at church were always having to keep a hand on him because he is rambunctious person. They tried so hard to keep him reverent and obedient. Later in life he found a church where he could be himself. He now feels more at home in a church where he can sing & clap to his heart’s desire. The patriarchal system was always trying to get him to obey. All he wanted to do was sing & dance. Maybe I am not making my point clearly, but I just wanted to show an example of how the rules imposed can inhibit who we really are & want to be.

  11. It’s amazing to me how some people want to hang onto patriarchy as if it’s a fundamental law in the universe. JeffG, I think you mostly missed the point of Lynette’s post. She isn’t saying there are only two worldviews, she’s critiquing patriarchy and giving a possible alternative, not saying her alternative is *it*. And to turn the discussion toward something as earthbound as public vs private labor shows a lack of engagement with the meat of her argument – the question of agency.

    Ichtaca – Exactly. Patriarchy hurts everyone, not just men. I was also struck by the quote you pulled out of the OP, and have gone through thinking similar to yours. It really is insidious, the idea that if you can’t get your thinking in line with the patriarchal worldview, then YOU are the problem, not the framework. It takes a lot of strength to throw that off. And even more strength, in my opinion, to keep searching for an alternative (as Lynette is doing), rather than just give up into the easy embrace of secularism.

  12. Emily,

    ” the meat of her argument – the question of agency”

    I see little reason to hang much confidence or moral weight on such metaphysical musings. Also, I think I got the point of the post just fine, thank you.

  13. A couple of quick questions. First, should we equate Agency with Free Will? It seems to me that both within scripture but also many major LDS writers they are different concepts. I know some equate them somewhat. (I can’t recall if Blake Ostler does – I’d need to check before commenting there) I recognize that has a few pages were agency is equated with choosing for ourselves. It does seem that before we get ahead of ourselves too much we have to decide what agency means. Even if we think it is related to free will there’s all sorts of metaphysical discussions to be held there.

    All that said I admit I’m quite skeptical towards some absolute freedom of will. So I really follow you there. It seems we’re always already thrown into a situation where things are more complicated. I think our natural state definitely means that we’re already biased, whether by basic biology or even the develop of our minds by the time we’re more or less accountable.

    You suggest we choose what is good by drawing on social narratives. But is that all we do? While I buy into the interpersonal aspect, I wonder if you think we can get out of that. While it’s easy to be lost in the crowd and simply treat “the good” as what they consider appropriate, surely we can also do more than that. It seems to me that you’re placing these social narratives on par with how the old Sapir-Worf theory put language. We’re trapped by language and can’t think anything language has not already prepared for us. Yet I think most people think that while language may bias us, it doesn’t really limit us that much. I think the same is true with social structures.

    That’s not to say we shouldn’t worry about them due to that bias. But I’m somewhat uncomfortable saying they shape us to the degree you do.

  14. Galdralag, thanks!

    Jason, it’s great to hear people express interest in and enjoyment of theology! Thanks for the kind words.

    hawkgrrrl, that’s a good question. I was coming at it more abstractly, from the angle of the values found in patriarchal ideologies. But I don’t know much about the sociology of it—I’d like to know more, too.

    Ziff, thanks—I’m glad it made sense! And yes, I think your sports analogy nicely articulates the problem.

    Melody, thanks for the kind words. And I hope you’re right that we’re moving in the right direction.

    Cynthia, yes, that’s it. Karl Rahner (one of my favorite theologians) uses the example of buying a banana—it can’t be done at a price that fairly compensates everyone involved in getting it to you. So your free decision to buy it enters into sinful structures, as it perpetuates social injustice. And yet you can’t avoid participating in such things.

    Emily, I’m glad this spoke to you. I really like thinking of things in terms of relationality as well—I think it’s actually at the heart of the gospel.

    Ichtaca, I know what you mean about being in a system which undermines your ability to trust your own judgment. That’s something I’ve really struggled with when it comes to the church as well. And I’ve found that I have a much healthier relationship with the institution as I’ve come to put more faith in my own sense of things, to trust my own connection to God.

    Clark, yeah, I didn’t really get into agency vs. free will. Or free will vs. freedom, for that matter (in the way the patristics use the terms, since I’m citing Augustine). I agree that there’s lots to be discussed there. And on the question of our relationship to social structures—it sounds like this wasn’t clear in this piece, but I do think we’re more than the sum of various social structures. I like approaching identity in narrative terms, because I think it balances the two—our personal narratives are always constructed in a social context, so they’re entangled in broader social and cultural narratives, but they’re also unique, constructed in the context of an individual life. So yes, I do think we can evaluate and potentially reject the good as described by particular social narratives, though I may indeed have a stronger belief in their formative power than you do.

  15. I fully endorse Lynnette’s rejection of the freewill debate which to me is way to caught up in the individualism that she rightly rejects. I also agree with Lynnette’s conception of agency as a collective phenomenon as this places so much more emphasis on our becoming one with the saints.

    What I object to is the negative implications that she derives from such things, or rather, the values in terms of which she construes and measures these implications. I think we all acknowledge that there are localized asymmetries of power between males and females (I can’t imagine anybody doubting this) but I think we can push back on the claim that this amounts to an overall asymmetry in importance and prestige and I definitely reject the idea that any overall asymmetry of power between the genders (to the extent that there is one) is automatically morally wrong or that it implies any kind of bondage from which females need emancipation *within the church*.

    With regards to gender relations out in the world, especially with the ways in which the male role has come to such prominence, I am much more on board with certain types of feminists. I think the solution to that problem out in the world, however, is to more fully abandon that world and its praise for the typically male-centered role as the career oriented bread-winner and to more closely live the restored gospel. To be sure, this isn’t near enough from the perspective of most feminists, but it is something.

  16. I think I’m much more in with her view Jeff. While I suspect she may overstate the power society has, it seems clear that we do take our situatedness in society such that in unreflective times we simply ape our culture’s views. For women that can definitely be a problem.

    The reason I have more hope is that I think we have more power over the meaningness we give to things around us including social structures. Consider at minimum that Christianity, outside of those sects with formalized priesthoods (like Mormons or Catholics), women seem to regularly become pastors despite the passages she outlines. And of course women are well known to be far more active within Christianity than men are. That suggests to me that despite these structures that women are able to see well beyond the limits it might impose.

  17. Fascinating post, Lynnette. It seems straightforward to me how patriarchy affects women from the get-go, but it is harder for me to be fully aware of how it affects me as a man. I think the effect is more hidden and insidious, but powerful nonetheless.

  18. Lynette, thank you for this post and thank you for introducing me to Alistair McFadyen’s theology.


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