This weekend, Mormons across the world will be tuning in to the 184th annual General Conference. A smaller selection of Mormons, many of whom engage Mormonism daily through blogs in the bloggernacle or Facebook groups like the Mormon Hub, will be paying attention to the actions that Ordain Women will decide to take at General Conference. Ordain Women is understandably a controversial and polarizing group — Priesthood authority is a central aspect of the Latter-day Saint religion, so proposals to change its makeup are fraught. I have noticed that frequently, people opposed to women’s ordination (or Mormon feminism in general) will argue that the proponents of women’s equality incorrectly assume that equality means sameness. For a recent Mormon take on this trope, see this Deseret News post from Linda and Richard Eyre on Women and the Priesthood in Mormon theology. As they write:
But there is one problem that pervades the feminism culture and that is actually working against the ultimate and worthy goal of total equality. It is the notion that equality means sameness. In actuality, striving for sameness will never produce equality, because there will always be small variants and no two people will ever be the same. True equality comes only when we realize that two very different things can be precisely equal in importance, in beauty and in ultimate potential.
Julie M. Smith had a great post at Times & Seasons (not written directly in response to this article, but it reads as if it could have been…that is how common the equality-sameness argument is) on this issue. Stepping around Julie’s comments on the problem with the “separate but equal” conceit (because while it is a great point, it is also worthy of its own discussion), here’s something Julie pointed out through a comparison of young women’s roles vs. young men’s roles in sacrament meetings:
So we are assuming that the Young Women don’t need to be treated the same (that is, ordained to the Aaronic priesthood and given a chance to prepare, bless, and pass the sacrament) to be equal. But they do need something. What recognition are they receiving in sacrament meeting? (The pathology of publicly praising our sons as a community every single week in the context of worship while never doing that for our daughters as a group is a very deep one. Imagine a family where the son was praised weekly and the daughter never mentioned: no one would think that this is acceptable parenting.) What sense of purpose are they developing? What is motivating them to attend sacrament meeting? What spiritual opportunities are they given? How will they grow?
What struck me from reading Julie’s post and thinking about Ordain Women’s call for women’s equality was the sense that the divide between men and women and the church is wide enough that even if one doesn’t want to risk being accused of advocating sameness, there are still plenty of changes that can be made that will nevertheless recognize the difference of the genders. Here are just three changes in the church that even Mormons against women’s ordination can (and ought) to support.
What Can Mormons Do to Show They Care about Equality Without Advocating Sameness?
I highly recommend that Mormons visit Heather’s “Equality is not a feeling” series at Doves and Serpents, because this post is going to rely heavily on several entries therein.
1) Equalize representation in non-priesthood administrative roles, like the Church Educational System.
Let’s look at a recent edition: the gender division of all of the Commissioners of Education for the Church Educational System since 1888. Equality doesn’t have to mean sameness. If one doesn’t agree that women should be ordained just as men are, one can still recognize that the status quo of how the Church Educational System is run is still far off from anything resembling equality. Peggy Fletcher-Stack wrote an article recently about the “rare honor” of a female BYU professor being named to run an Institute of Religion in Cambridge, Ma. How is it that women so rarely oversee Institute at a local or regional level, in addition to having no representation as the top commissioner? This is not an issue that requires priesthood ordination to solve, so the least a Mormon can do is be in favor of shifting this administrative matter in favor of equality.
2) Evaluate roles for young women in the “congregation at large”
For the second item, let’s look at Heather’s “Equality is not a feeling” entry for the roles of young women and young men relating to the congregation at large. This relates to the post I linked earlier from Julie, but speaks about more than just sacrament.
Recall the paragraph I quoted from Julie. What sense of purpose are the young women developing? What is motivating them to attend sacrament meeting? What spiritual opportunities are they given? How will they grow? Understandably, if you are against women’s ordination, you might think that many of these items are priesthood only, and thus not on the table for negotiation. However, are all of these items things that require priesthood to perform?
3) Close the gap in recognition for women leaders in the church organization
Finally, I’ll post Heather’s “Equality is not a feeling” entry for the male-female breakdown of the top leaders in the church. I hear many people say that women already have plenty on their plate in the church, so they shouldn’t be burdened with additional meetings. And indeed, women are represented in church leadership in the Relief Society and Young Women’s presidencies, as well as in the Primary presidency (and, accordingly, women throughout the church may serve locally through Young Women’s and Relief Society). And not only this, but we recognize that women do excellent work — how often do people say that the Relief Society and Young Women are far more organized than equivalent priesthood counterparts, especially when it comes to organizing and serving?
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These three changes are just a few things to think about that don’t require any changes or adjustments to priesthood ordination. Even though I have posted just three articles from Heather’s excellent series, the series currently has 22 articles and counting, and several point out gaps and discrepancies by gender that really can’t be fixed without changes to priesthood. Still, even conceding that any changes to the priesthood are off the table, why not at least support changes in these areas?