Build a bridge and get over it. Or not.

A recent post by the highly talented Andrea R-M on Juvenile Instructor explained the difference between oppressive patriarchy and benevolent patriarchy, an important distinction for Mormons who are (on the whole) opposed to the former and in favor of the latter.

In theory, benevolent patriarchy is a bridge between oppressive patriarchy and actual equality.  Oppressive patriarchy exists in cultures where men can beat or rape wives, where women have no control over reproductive decisions, where women cannot own property or vote. Oppressive patriarchy views women as a threat to men, forcing them to cover up or stay at home because they are scary temptresses. Oppressive patriarchy says that women must be controlled because they are inferior to men.

The church doesn’t preach that women are inferior, but rather that they are different and in some ways superior to men.  For example, men are scolded for their sex drives and supposed porn addiction, whereas most women are viewed as being above and apart from such craven desires.

Some traits of benevolent patriarchy that will sound familiar:

  • Men & women are (collectively) different.  The underlying message is that (all or most) men are like this, (all or most) women are like that.  Examples include that men are visual or women are emotional.  Men are from Mars, and women are from Venus.
  • Gender essentialism.  From the Proclamation on the family, it states that “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”  Most statements about gender in the church deny, downplay or ignore the cultural influences that foster gender differences.
  • Proclamation on the Family and “divine gender roles.”  We preach to people to fill specific roles, not to be individuals or play to individual strengths; outliers are often overlooked.
  • Ignoring exceptions.  We talk about “preaching the ideal” which also means exceptions are either ignored, denied, or dismissed as inferior.  But that includes a very large range of human experience:  homosexuals, bisexuals, women who earn, men who nurture.
  • Puts women on a pedestal.  This line of thinking says that women are angels, too good to be bothered with politics or to work outside the home.  It says women need to be protected.  Women on a pedestal are the “moral authority” but in painting this portrait, women aren’t allowed to be real people with flaws.  For a prime example, look no further than the talk:  “LDS Women Are Incredible!”, but there are many many more examples of General Conference talks in every conference that take this approach.
  • Women need to be protected.  This approach is appealing to women who want to divide labor, including the woman taking less responsibility outside the home and the man taking more responsibility for financially supporting the family.  It also appeals to some women who like to feel protected or who equate protection with masculine love.  We are even told that Heavenly Mother, presumably a goddess, needs to be protected which is why we don’t mention her.
Unfortunately, it was also a man who tied her to the tracks.

But is benevolent patriarchy really being used as a bridge to equality?  It seems to me that, theologically speaking, we are building a house on the bridge and warning people that both shores are dangerous and that the bridge is eternal.  That’s a tenuous position.

Benevolent patriarchy should scare women.  Being dependent on men to be generous and good, rather than having the ability and means to take care of yourself means that if a man is not generous or not good, you are in trouble.  You don’t have any recourse or the means to sustain yourself financially or often even socially.  Of course, we are teaching our men to be generous and good, to be a good marriage bet, so it often does work out.  But not always.  Life happens.  People have agency. And even if it works out, role prescriptions limit human potential by limiting our development. Women may not finish education or develop leadership skills.  Men may not develop their teaching or nurturing skills.

If women are either viewed as morally inferior temptresses who need to be controlled or morally superior nurturing angels who need to be protected, which view of women is driving the following practices:

  • Not letting women hold their babies when they are being blessed?
  • Not having a woman speak last in sacrament meeting?
  • Not talking about Heavenly Mother?
  • Not including women in decision making councils?
Separate but equal.

Both views of women fail to represent an ideal or an accurate picture of women’s potential.

Why is benevolent patriarchy a (possibly necessary) bridge to equality?  Well, “separate but equal” was likewise a way for racists to make the move from seeing minorities as inherently inferior to meriting equal rights.  The law required “equality,” but allowed states to implement it at their discretion.  We all know how that played out.

First we see women as different and inferior in intelligence, reason and morality.  Next, we see women as different but complementary and necessary to men.  Finally, we see them as fully equal, noting the similarities, not focusing on differences.  Given the inevitable outcome of this path of thought, the less time spent investing in the short term middle step, the less we’ll have to backtrack and pretend leaders meant something different than what they said.  Time to move forward.  The other side of the bridge awaits, and it is a great place to be.