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Women at Church: Translating Gendered Doctrine

It’s Not About That Bass

This isn’t the post I intended to write this weekend. But something happened that pushed it forward.

Translating Gendered DoctrineThe discussion on my recent post Mother: Where Art Thou? took an interesting, but familiar, turn. I intended the post to be mostly a personal expression of how I hoped for more knowledge about my Heavenly Mother and to support Julie de Azevedo Hanks’s music reflecting that goal. But (predictably, I suppose) it has become mostly a discussion of whether and why learning about Her matters at all.

It’s a typical pushback among Mormons. It always looks something like this, “Why are you making a fuss? If the church doesn’t already have it, the church obviously doesn’t need it. If the church needs it, it already has it and you are just too stupid to see it. If the church is lead by prophets and apostles of God, it’s just how it should be.”

Kind of like, oh, the filthy school of the prophets. That presumptive, treacherous Emma, who had to get all up in Joseph’s face about it. As if he didn’t have that whole Word of Wisdom thing already worked out in the Lord’s proper time. 

Reader Jim Cobabe felt compelled to call interest in learning more of Mother in Heaven “feminist propaganda” that, apparently, no one gave a rat’s backside about until free love, the Beatles, and marijuana replaced patriarchal common sense. He also claimed the implicit Mother in Heaven is so obvious each time Father in Heaven is stated, that explicitly including her is an exercise in silly duplication.

As of this writing, he hasn’t reported how his public church prayer explicitly inserting (the already obviously implied) “Dear Father and Mother in Heaven…” worked out. (I’m not holding my breath.) I suspect it wouldn’t be well received in even the most progressive wards because, in fact, “Mother in Heaven” is no more an accepted and understood addendum to “Father in Heaven” than “women” are included in every scriptural or policy notation of “men.” (The latter a fact that Cobabe will defend to his dying breath.)

It’s All About That Book

Last December I began reading Neylan McBaine’s epic book, Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact. It was one of those events when you immediately begin smacking the table (or the desk or the treadmill or whatever surface is at hand) repeatedly, audibly declaring, “Yes! Yes!”

It was much like (hang onto your hats, liberals, the true tea party conservative is coming out again) the early 90s (before the internet took itself seriously) when I first heard Rush Limbaugh on the radio. I had spent my entire adult life hearing news from a liberally skewed media and sincerely thought I was the only one who didn’t buy the spin. But with every few sentences out of Rush’s mouth I slapped the dashboard. “Yes!” For the first time I heard someone far removed from me with whom I generally politically agreed.

McBaine gave voice to my long-held thoughts, ideas, and questions about church governance and policy and did it in the most faithful, respectful way I have ever seen.

From the first page, I was madly highlighting passages on my iPad. It was the kind of highlighting that 8-year-olds do on their first set of scriptures, where so many passages are highlighted that it becomes nearly meaningless. From about chapter two (“A Brief History of the Conversation about Women”), I knew I wanted to write a series of posts discussing particular portions in depth. (And I had no idea until page 155 that she quoted me a couple of times, but I’m honored.)

So here is the first installment.

To be clear, I do not intend this series to be a male-bashing free-for-all (or male bashing at all). I love men and, generally, get along with them better than women. I love analysis and debate and thought and I get annoyed (a feeling, I know) when feelings get in the way of finding truth and solutions. Most men are OK with that and lots of women take it personally and get angry about it. (Sorry, but the stereotypes are true, in my experience.) I have no qualms about countering feminist rhetoric when I think it’s wrong.

The truth is, however, those who aren’t impacted by a situation often don’t see it very clearly. Honorable men and women should be willing to have a candid discussion—with an open mind and heart—about the experiences of others.

Translating Gendered Doctrine 101

In light of the incredulity about needing more light and knowledge about our Heavenly Mother, I submit to you this passage from the book. I cannot count the number of times I have heard similar, unintended acknowledgments from men.

The most gratifying thing in McBaine’s conversation was that the man actually recognized the problem all on his own. In my own experience, this has never occurred and when the problem has been pointed out, it has never been thoughtfully received in a church setting.

Read about this situation and see if it looks familiar:

Next time you find your mind wandering at church, read the scriptures replacing all male references to female ones. Can you imagine the Book of Mormon with a Nephia and Moronia? Imagine what it might feel like to see all women on the stand instead of all men. Imagine reading only the words of women in our Relief Society and priesthood manuals. While discussing women of the Bible at work recently, a good-hearted male colleague happened to mention that he hadn’t really paid much attention to any of the women in the Bible because he couldn’t relate to them. The moment he said this, his hand flew to his shocked mouth and he apologized profusely to me. We had a good laugh about his response because it was such a textbook moment of realization for him: women are constantly engaged in a process of likening male role models unto themselves, while men rarely have to go through the same process of disassociating their own gender to find inspiration in female characters.

McBaine, Neylan (2014-08-28). Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact (pp. 71-72). Greg Kofford Books. Kindle Edition.

He doesn’t really relate to women. Similar to the “Oh, look, it’s the (one of two) obligatory female conference talk(s). Time for a bathroom break!”

Women in the LDS church are acculturated to:

  1. Receive scripture, doctrine, and policy from a male perspective through almost exclusively male deity, authorities, speakers, writers, and interpreters
  2. Parse it appropriately (meaning remove themselves from the unwritten list of things that don’t actually apply to women)
  3. Accept that men and women are eternally different and gender matters, so roles and practice are impacted
  4. “Liken” it to themselves in ways that are deemed acceptable and faithful in the gender context

Men almost never have to do this. The package is delivered directly to them in their language, no translation or excepting needed.

Hello, My Name Is Alison and I’m a Sexist

The startling thing to me is that when I replace men with women—much as when I replace Heavenly Father with Heavenly Mother—it seems sacrilegious. As much as I want to hear from women and see women as authorities, my reflexive response is that putting women in those positions seems wrong and bad. Or at least I feel as if I have to keep it a secret because I’ll get in trouble if anyone finds out.

Last week I substituted in Gospel Doctrine and even though I had a couple of great quotes by women, I wasn’t sure how they would be received if I used them. I knew it wouldn’t seem “normal” to have female quotes stuck in there. (They weren’t from the manual. The manuals rarely quote women.) So I chose more typical quotes.

I’m quite certain that if a person takes up the prayer challenge I gave to Cobabe, s/he will be reprimanded. I’m quite certain that if a local YW leader inserted “We are daughters of our Heavenly Mother and Father, who love us, and we love them” into the theme, the same would occur. Is it doctrinally contradictory? No. Is it doctrinally inaccurate? No. But we can’t say it out loud just the same.

In Florida, a member of the bishopric not only insisted that women couldn’t say opening prayers, but that saying “Young Women and Young Men” was unacceptable. The male organization should always be named first. (Pay attention next time we have a solemn assembly. Unless things are changed, it’s about forever and a day before any females are asked to sustain. We come last on the totem pole.)

While these unnecessary but obviously sexist practices exist at every turn in the LDS church, they still seem normal and even correct, simply due to their familiarity. It’s hard to break out of that paradigm even though I want to. As I said in “Dealing with Negativity About Temples and Garments“:

Surprisingly, the sexism in both the endowment and sealing ceremony largely escaped me initially. I did notice some differences, but having grown up not only in a sexist society, but in a church that had enormous gender disparity, not only did it not bother me much, but I expected it to be there.

McBaine’s book opens the conversation about which differences are divinely inspired and which are cultural artifacts. She helps us see how we can start to make things better.

How do you translate predominantly male doctrine to female practice?

{ 16 comments… add one }
  • Moss April 18, 2015, 1:14 pm

    Everything about women in the church is assumed, everything about men explicitly stated. After going to the temple, I realized that much of what I thought I knew about women I had assumed. I wonder if the atonement even applies the same way to women as it does to men. Do we even have a Heavenly Mother? Is this the biggest assumption of all?

  • Kristy April 18, 2015, 1:36 pm

    I’m still working on translating things into female practice but what I always make sure I do is to sure all my frustrations and concerns with my husbands. It has really been an eye opener to him and he is trying to be more aware of stuff with women in the church.

  • Alison Moore Smith April 18, 2015, 1:52 pm

    Moss, there are myriad authoritative references to Heavenly Mother (and I’m not talking about Eliza R. Snow, who (sadly) wouldn’t be). Check out the link to a free PDF download at the bottom of the post Mother: Where Art Thou?

    That said, do you remember when President Hinckley told the story about the 13-year-old girl who wrote him to ask if women went to the Celestial Kingdom, too? (This was in the 90s.) He said they did, but seemed surprised that she didn’t understand that. I was surprised he was surprised. We assume things and yet, we can’t assume, can we?
    Alison Moore Smith recently posted…Lifestyle Hacks: Increased Productivity With Personalized RoutinesMy Profile

  • Alison Moore Smith April 18, 2015, 2:04 pm

    Kristy, absolutely!

    Years (actually, decades) ago, my husband went to a “youth training meeting.” He was on the high council and assigned to the Young Women (yes, we both get the oddity there…).

    The man giving the training was dressed in a scout uniform and carefully and adeptly gave his well-prepared presentation…about…Young Men. At the end he asked for questions and my husband raised his hand and said, “What about the girls?”


    The poor man was mortified at his oversight. My husband came home and told me about it. He said that if he hadn’t had daughters and a wife who spoke up, he likely wouldn’t have recognized it himself. The culture is pervasive.

    Similarly, I’ve had bishops and other leaders:

    1. Provide all sorts of fundraising (and freebies) for YM but none for YW (back when we had to earn all the money and when scouts already has lots of events, such as “Friends of Scouting,” ahem).
    2. Fully fund SCUBA certification without including the girls and offering nothing to them. (We did get permission for a reciprocal activity, but by the time I moved NOTHING the girls submitted was approved…)
    3. Expect YW to plan an activity, create invites, decorate, prepare food, serve food, and clean up. The YM were to put up tables. (Hmmm…sounds a lot like ward parties to me…)

    And on and on.

    Sometimes pointing it out gets people to say, “Oh! Well, hmmmm. I didn’t notice that. Ah, maybe we can,…um…” Sometimes it gets, “The Young Men aren’t going to prepare the senior citizens a dinner!” (True story.)

    We have a long way to go.
    Alison Moore Smith recently posted…Church Supports Religious and LGBTTQQIAAPFPOC* Rights – Sort OfMy Profile

  • Margie April 18, 2015, 5:32 pm

    I wish more people understood and could explain what you did here. So many people don’t understand and men label it as whiney.

  • Jim Cobabe April 18, 2015, 6:07 pm

    Alison, I did not make comments to argue. Obviously yours is a advanced intellect. I bow to your superior wisdom.
    Jim Cobabe recently posted…Bees won’t sting idiotsMy Profile

  • Jim Cobabe April 18, 2015, 6:10 pm

    We invite those who oppose any of the established doctrines and teachings to contact their Stake Presidents. 🙂
    Jim Cobabe recently posted…Bees won’t sting idiotsMy Profile

  • Jim Cobabe April 18, 2015, 6:15 pm

    Or perhaps you would feel more comfortable with reporting your complaints about me to mine.

    John David Bell
    Provo Utah Sunset Stake
    Jim Cobabe recently posted…Bees won’t sting idiotsMy Profile

  • Carrie April 18, 2015, 6:36 pm

    I’ve heard Jim spout all over the Bloggernacle and on Facebook. He has no intention of ever EVER seeng anything from another perspective. Sadly, you’ve wasted your breath on him, but there are many who are influenced fir good. Thank you.

  • IdRatherNotSay April 18, 2015, 7:49 pm

    Jim looks like one of those older men who likes to strike up doctrine-based arguments with the instructor and others in gospel doctrine every week regarding issues of which he has no factual evidence. You know who I’m talking about. Every ward has at least two – they need an opponent and an audience. I think they lay awake at night every Saturday rehearsing their agendas for the following day. I was asking myself why he reads a feminist blog if he disagrees with it so much but then I realized what it was. It is always about the conflict and the audience. The Internet generously supplies this for him Monday-Saturday when he cannot “impress” everyone the way he thinks he does on Sundays.

    The sad part is, Alison is more likely to get her wrist slapped for talking about Heavenly Mother online than Jim is for using rude, misogynist language. Who is being more Christlike? Notice how he knows this, too, being willing to publicly provide us with his personal information and all. Something tells me he hopes someone will report him so he can be praised for his activity. Kind of sad coming from such a “righteous” priesthood holder. How’s that for protecting the women of the church?

  • jennycherie April 18, 2015, 11:04 pm

    Thank you for this Alison! Well put.
    jennycherie recently posted…Don’t forget to vote on Tuesday, April 8!My Profile

  • Jon April 18, 2015, 11:47 pm

    Well articulated. My wife and .i need to read McBain’s book.

    IdRatherNotSay, There is a man in my ward just as you describe. Not a credit to my sex.

  • Richard Alger April 19, 2015, 6:33 am

    Jim Cobabe,

    Responding to the valid concerns of Alison with a request that she take any concerns she has with her Stake President or yours is heavy handed and not at all in harmony with the principles in D&C 121.

    The thought experiment of the reverse gender roles is a powerful one. I strongly believe in article of faith 9. And while it is important to not get ahead of the train of the church. Revelation has always come from asking questions.
    Richard Alger recently posted…Next to the standard works…My Profile

  • Jim Cobabe April 19, 2015, 8:48 am

    Hoist with his own petard.
    Jim Cobabe recently posted…Bees won’t sting idiotsMy Profile

  • Angie Gardner April 20, 2015, 8:50 am

    I really like what you’ve said here, Alison. I look forward to reading McBaine’s book, it’s on my list!

    Regarding mother in heaven (haven’t read through all the comments on the other thread yet), I wonder if part of the reason we rarely hear anything about her is that we just don’t know. Considering our polygamous past (and present) is it probable that we have mothers in heaven? According to much of what I’ve read and heard over the last few years as I’ve studied this issue, that’s pretty likely. But for church leaders to come out and say that might cause women who don’t currently have issues to have issues, kind of like the essays are doing for some people.

  • Alison Moore Smith April 20, 2015, 11:10 am

    Angie, I think it’s because we don’t know and the powers that be have not seen it worth pursuing. I don’t say that as some kind of slam. Gender issues are very sincerely culturally new. My parents generation almost completely accepted the gender divisions and, in fact, embraced them. Women may have been more vocally opposed to woman getting the vote than men.

    Today, what do you see in church? Do you see masses of women demanding (or begging and pleading) for ordination? Or do you see pockets of it with tons of women taking the apologetic position of the church status quo? (For the record, I see the latter.) The “faithful” position is seen today as saying, “Whatever the leaders are currently doing must be right because God runs the church.” Period, end of story, no discussion needed.

    As for multiple Heavenly Mothers, I don’t think historically that has been a reason not to seek further light and knowledge about her. When people were living in polygamy, they did so under the understanding that it was the “celestial” way to be married. In fact, given our doctrine of becoming gods, I think the would assume that whatever was godly would have been using God’s model. So they wouldn’t be doing it unless it was what God did, too.

    Today, I do think it’s a problem. The church doesn’t like to talk about it and only does so under duress. It’s messy, it’s muddy, it’s confusing. The essays, IMO, didn’t clarify anything except that the church finally acknowledged what has been carefully documented for decades. In other words, “faithful” members have to stop saying that all the baffling history is just “anti-mormon propaganda.” :/ But we are no more enlightened about what it all means.

    Given that the church quite nearly threw Brigham Young under the bus for the black temple/priesthood ban, I’m not convince the same won’t eventually happen with Joseph Smith and polygamy. (Yes, I do hope we disavow it. I’ve never been shy about saying that.) It’s more problematic to do so, but not impossible.

    Yesterday, in RS, for example, there were numerous comments along the lines that basically everything Joseph Smith ever did had to be God-derived, because if they weren’t nothing he ever did could have been correct. Of course that’s obviously false, but since so many seem to think that is true, disavowing something JS did (and, in fact, put into scripture) would be messy.


    Honestly, the older I get and the more I think about it, the less polygamy works at all.

    P.S. Please do read McBaine’s book. So positive and uplifting. Couldn’t put it down.

    I’m currently reading The Silent Sex: Gender, Deliberation, and Institutions. It’s a much more dry, academic read, but has lots of good info as well.
    Alison Moore Smith recently posted…Mother, Where Art Thou?My Profile

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