This is a post I actually wrote over two years ago, long before Ordain Women was founded, before a woman prayed in General Conference. I was surprised to find it in draft, fully written, and yet still mostly timely. I’ve done a little updating to include some current references and five suggestions for next steps given today’s situation.
Discussions with faithful LDS women have illustrated to me how frequently women feel disenfranchised and misunderstood in the Mormon church, as if the messages are crafted by men for men, and we are simply there watching passively like outsiders. Even many of the talks that are ostensibly meant for women are often really directed at men – telling men to appreciate the women in their lives or telling the women why they are valued, but only relating it to ways in which women are a blessing in the lives of men (bearing their children, making their homes a heaven on earth, kissing their skinned knees as boys).
Is the Mormon church a church by men for men?
What would an all-male organization look like? I can think of a few places that are stereotypically viewed as havens for men: the locker room, an abbey, the MTC (at least when I was there), a harem, a comic book shop, a strip club. These are ostensibly male enclaves, designed by men for men. So, what do these things have in common with the Mormon church?
- Protects male privilege and interest
- Doesn’t understand or cater to female interest or needs
- Speaks to women as an extension of male interests
Conversely, I was wondering what an all-female organization would look like? A few possible places come to mind: a hen party, roller derby, salons (except in Scottsdale where I have sometimes been the only woman getting a pedi, surrounded by middle aged men, natch), the Girl Scouts, Ann Taylor. What if women ran the church? What would it look like?
- Men are feminized and domesticated
- Women’s interests trump male interest
- Speaks to men as an extension of women’s interests
What is interesting about these lists is that in many ways, the church displays the characteristics of both a male-led and a female-led organization. Is this a byproduct of gender essentialism? While the church claims to be a patriarchy, it also makes exaltation for either sex contingent on a successful pairing with the other sex . In making male / female bonding essential to exaltation, both sexes are defined almost exclusively in relation to one another. Both sexes are limited in their value (from the church’s vantage point) to what contributes to the family and the marriage. To the feminist ear, attuned to hearing women’s issues, much of the church’s rhetoric sounds like (and indeed, is) sexism. But often men in the church cry foul because they too feel limited and defined by their role in relation to women, marriage and family. The sexism (or gender essentialism) cuts both ways.
Clearly, there is male privilege in the church. No matter how worthy, righteous or connected to God a woman is, she will never be a leader over men in the ranks of Priesthood leadership. Even if she leads an organization (of women, girls or children), her budget and leadership decisions will all be subject to review by a male leader. If she is empowered, it is through male generosity. Her worthiness to enter the temple, including her sexual purity, will be assessed by a man in authority over her behind closed doors. Should she ever run afoul of the church, her very membership will be determined by a panel of men with no female representation.
The type of female privilege the church generally provides is reparative and apologetic. In some cases, women are given the benefit of the doubt or lower expectations whereas men are held to a higher standard and given greater responsibility.
Can the church get past gender essentialism? I really don’t think so, although I wish it could. Although our worship of the family was less central in the 1980s when I was growing up, it has only gained momentum and focus in the last two decades, crystallizing around a very stereotype-based narrative of the sexes. We are very invested in marriage and family being our core doctrine. To unbox that would be extremely difficult at this point. And we got here ironically through our rejection of polygamy (although an anti-gay marriage campaign certainly upped the ante). 80% of Mormons consider polygamy to be one of the worst sins possible.
Of course, gender essentialism doesn’t require an all-male Priesthood. On the contrary, if we continue down the path (and indeed we do in our temple ceremonies), it’s quite clear that women too have the power of Priesthood (insert caveats from E. Oaks’ latest talk).
So, what happens when the sexes integrate?
According to an observation by feminist Caroline Kline, women disappear when men and women integrate. She is describing is the problem of inherited sexism that I have explored before, that existing systems were built with men in mind and therefore continue to favor male interests even when females are integrated. An example of this is when women joined the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s and 1980s. For decades, women were still disadvantaged by a system accustomed to male communication styles, workstyles, and work-life balance needs. In many cases, women are still disadvantaged by this existing structure. Ms. Kline uses the example of Relief Society as an organization run by women for women (until it was placed under the supervision of the all-male Priesthood).
This has been my chief concern about female ordination; as a woman, I don’t find the existing male priesthood structure appealing. (Unfortunately, I often find Relief Society equally unappealing). While it’s true that the more gender-integrated an organization becomes the less hostile it is toward either sex, it can take decades of unpleasantness to get there, and it’s hard to declare victory when it is rising from the ashes of a one-gender structure.
Full gender integration certainly doesn’t seem to be on the cards anyway, despite the efforts of some very bright women and men to promote it. Regardless the outcome, the current situation would be improved through a few simple means:
- Promote female spiritual equality through equal missionary service. We’ve gotten really close on this one with the mission age change. I believe this is the groundwork to putting women on truly equal footing with men, preparing them for equal stewardship in the church.
- Integrate women fully in all decision-making bodies; grant them full authority without priesthood (following E. Oaks’ rhetoric).
- Cut the stereotypes. While it’s true that men & women are different, it is likewise true that not all men are the same as all other men and not all women are the same as all other women. When we only preach to stereotypes, we miss the very high percentage of people for whom those stereotypes simply don’t resonate. Stereotypes are often based on a narrow majority of a group having a characteristic. 
- Completely eliminate sexism from the temple ceremony. Enough said. Any men who don’t find it sexist should cross the aisle next time.
- Women should address men in the Priesthood session. When men are accustomed to being taught by women, they will value their input more. 
Let’s get your input.
- Is the church really just men talking to men or is gender essentialism creating rhetoric that primarily talks to men in relation to women and women in relation to men?
- Is gender integration necessary to achieve equality for women in the church?
- What are the best next steps to improve female voice?
 For purposes of this post I’ll ignore the unsettling yet excellent point made by elisothel at FMH regarding only males being exalted.
 For example, in the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator psychometric, results show that 55% of women are “feelers” preferring to make decisions emotionally, and 55% of men are “thinkers” preferring to base decisions in logic; bear in mind that this means that 45% of men and women do NOT fit these stereotypes. That’s too many people to be treated as outliers or exceptions. So it is with many gender stereotypes.
 At bare minimum the newly minted term “Sister Leaders” needs to stop immediately. They’re just “leaders.” Calling them “sister leaders” is like going to China and asking for some Chinese food. It’s just food there. Either they are leaders or they are not. Adding “sister” to the front sounds like it is a qualifier, clarifying that they are not actual leaders.