can equality exist in patriarchy?
By Derrick Clements
Last month my family got together and had a rousing discussion about feminism in the Church. Whenever my five older siblings and their spouses get together, there’s always a good discussion to be had. Even though a few of my siblings are, like me, registered Democrats, these conversations tend to cement my place as the most liberal member of my fully active LDS family.
A question was raised that we were unsuccessful at really answering: In the Church or at home, does patriarchy (however benevolent) make equality impossible?
I say yes. It’s a conversation worth having, and unfortunately, a few roadblocks make this a difficult question to even discuss. We ended up getting distracted by the following questions instead of focusing on the one in bold:
- Men and women are obviously different (just lift up their skirts!), but does that mean they have less meaningful roles than men do?
- Since women only need to follow righteous husbands, are unrighteous husbands the ones to blame (rather than the institution) for unrighteous dominion?
- Since biology discriminates against men (who do not give birth), isn’t it justifiable for Church policy to discriminate against women (who do not hold the priesthood or serve as ward clerks, etc.)?
- Aren’t men actually lucky that they don’t give birth, and aren’t women actually lucky that they don’t hold the priesthood or serve as ward clerks? One set of responsibilities is enough for each gender to be in charge of.
So, since we didn’t really answer the question in bold at my family reunion, I’m interested in your thoughts. Here are some more detailed statements of the question:
Stepping back, is it an inherent contradiction in the Family Proclamation to say both “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose” and “fathers and mothers [and, presumably, husbands and wives] are obligated to help one another as equal partners?”
If so, what can we do to help improve the situation in the Church culture?
If not, what does that look like in a home situation for a husband to preside in a relationship of equals?
25 Responses to “can equality exist in patriarchy?”
Since I’m pretty confident that the Proclamation on the Family was intended as a political maneuver in preparation for the church launching its anti-gay marriage PAC in Hawaii, I’m not inclined to take it all that seriously as doctrine. The end.
Such an interesting discussion. I have had this discussion with some Mormon friends (I consider myself post-Mormon), and it boils down again and again to your first point that ‘men and women are just different, we have to accept that.’ And I’ve found it difficult to discuss past this point. To me it seems like if we were really separate but equal, half of us wouldn’t be bound by our gender to be followers rather than leaders. For me it is less about men holding the priesthood and women bearing children, and more about the fact that half of the population is entitled to revelation on behalf of the rest of us. Men become god’s agents while women become god’s subjects. I think its a good conversation to have, because I agree with you- patriarchy, no matter how benevolent, still puts one group as followers because of our sex.
You ask: Stepping back, is it an inherent contradiction in the Family Proclamation to say both “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose” and ”fathers and mothers [and, presumably, husbands and wives] are obligated to help one another as equal partners?”
YES. How are two people equal when one presides? They’re not. I can accept that “gender is an essential characteristic” but why does the male have to preside? Also, the men with the priesthood are in charge of every decision made in the church. If you are a woman–no matter what leadership position you may serve in–you always, eventually, answer to a priesthood holding male. Men are in charge of the money. Men are in charge of the membership. Any excuses as to why this is are usually condescending and patronizing, like the bullet points you listed and said your family got stuck on.
In a house of equals a husband does not preside, he should reject the word and the title. It’s offensive. As to how to change this, I have no idea. That’s why I plan on marrying a non-member. I don’t know how to change church culture even in the slightest ways without being labeled a radical.
Your answer to the question in bold is yes, so I’d be curious to hear your reasons.
Your comment brings out the sloppiness in my phrasing–I ask the question in the title in two opposite ways. I do believe that equality and patriarchy are mutually exclusive (so my answer to the title is no, my answer to the bold is yes).
As for solutions, I’m still hopeful that couples who wish to have a Mormon marriage can do so while still being equal partners, but it will have to involve some conscious planning to maneuver the messages at Church with both eyes open. It is what I plan to do.
This is a very thoughtful post. Perhaps I am a direct product of my exclusively Mormon upbringing, but I am inclined to lean towards the mentality of men and women are just different. Perhaps a patriarchy does exist in standard Mormon homes. But what I loved about the home that I grew up in, where my father was the “head of the house”, was that he brought my mom into every decision he made. Though he bore the responsibility in the end, she too bore his burden with his many church responsibilities.
Men and women bring different things to the table. Perhaps direct equality can’t exist, but that doesn’t mean that a woman’s role is any less important than a man’s. In importance, they are both very equal.
I am inclined to believe that people get far too afraid or defensive about that word “preside” and, as such, are far too quick to assign to it a myriad of connotations that aren’t necessarily true. Sure, a Bishop “presides” over a ward but any Bishop worth his salt necessarily counsels (and councils) with a wide variety of members/leaders within the ward before any decision is made. Same could be said of any other “President” within the Church. Sure, we have all encountered those that don’t, but that doesn’t change the reality that Councils are essential in the “government” of the Church.
Now, going back to the discussion at hand with families…
Having just gotten married myself, I cannot stress how much I was taught in the recent weeks (and certainly in the temple by the Sealer) the essential equality that must define my new marriage. It was interesting to me that that equality was always mentioned in conjunction with “counseling” with my wife. In some sense, it would seem to me that the “equality” is a product of counseling. Sure, I will have different perspectives and responsibilities and abilities than my wife but her perspectives and responsibilities and abilities are equally valid and, as such, deserve equal consideration (in political terms, she has the same number of “electoral votes” as me).
I’ve never understood the dissatisfaction with the “we’re different” explanation. As the Family Proclamation points out– our differences (as men and women and, even more broadly, as human beings) are essential characteristics and necessary for us to be come like God. I feel like our differences create a situation wherein we need each other. I can’t have kids with my wife, I can’t receive a priesthood blessing without asking someone else for help, etc., etc. I love that. I worry a bit when the pursuit of equality/equity becomes the pursuit of individualism at the expense of the community (if that makes sense). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t advocate dependence– I think all folks ought to have their own voice, etc.,– but, I do advocate interdependence.
I’m just rambling at this point, but I wanted to add my two cents.
I wanted to comment on the following two questions you pose.
“Since biology discriminates against men (who do not give birth), isn’t it justifiable for Church policy to discriminate against women (who do not hold the priesthood or serve as ward clerks, etc.)?
Aren’t men actually lucky that they don’t give birth, and aren’t women actually lucky that they don’t hold the priesthood or serve as ward clerks? One set of responsibilities is enough for each gender to be in charge of.”
I think that something we often forget is that other than childbirth and breastfeeding, there is no parenting task that a man cannot do. So, even though biology dictates that women give birth (and breastfeed), biology does not dictate that the mother should be the one to do any other parenting task. Currently, it is Church policy and not biology that dictates that women should be primarily in charge of childrearing tasks.
Furthermore, childbirth is a very small portion of the child’s life (and I would contend not the most fulfiling part for the parent) and most women have a good portion of their life in which to serve before they have children and a good portion of their life in which to serve after their children are more independent. Additionally, many women never have children and many women are fully capibile of serving in responsibilities while their children are at home. Although many women feel that they do not want more responbilities than they currently have, I would contend that a shift in current patriarchical structure wouldn’t necessicarily give women more responsibilities (many women currently do a lot in their callings) but just give them more decision making power in those responsibilities. Overall, sets of lifetime responbilities that men and women are given are a lot more flexible than we might think.
I just wanted to say how much I agree with Lauren and Jesse. People do get caught up in the word preside. It probably is not the best word to describe what men do – maybe Christlike leadership would be better. When a husband and wife live life like prophets have taught it boils down to a division of responsibilities to accomplish the huge job of raising a family and living in this life, and has nothing to do with “power”. . Presiding is just one of those jobs. A person who presides over a project is responsible for making sure it gets done and working with everyone that is doing it. The Priesthood is assigned that job along with the job of making sure the family is provided for. Sometimes women help with that but the responsibility to make sure it gets done is the man’s. Women with their unique and special nurturing skills have the job of creating a place or home for the job to get done. They are assigned the job of nurturing the children in this family. Men help with that but the responsibility for it being done is the woman’s. Both are huge jobs and both jobs are essential , both jobs are equal in their importance. It isn’t about power it is about getting a big job done and dividing the responsibilities.
Because my husband is given the responsibility to make sure the work gets done, he does not do it by himself and he does not make all the decisions – he just makes sure all the decisions get made. There is a huge difference. There is total equality in an Patriarchal order that sets up men presiding and providing and women making a place and family to be presided over. The happiest families I think are those that work together on all jobs, needs, and responsibilities -even the children – while the Mom makes sure that the nurturing and home creating jobs are done and the Dad makes sure the providing and administrating jobs are done. He makes sure everyone is doing their jobs. But everyone does the actual jobs. No power plays when the goal is to have a happy family, just a big job that gets done. That is what the family proclamation teaches us. Our gender is essential – each gender has a special skill set that benefits a home. We don’t have to do the same thing to be equal.
that anonymous was from Tammy Nelson I don’t know how to put my name on it. I will try it again. Oh I think I figured it out.
“He makes sure everyone is doing their jobs.”
You just assigned authority and power to the husband that the wife doesn’t have. I agree that preside means most of what you said it means. But I totally disagree with you when you say that the husband and wife are still equal. You are explicitly putting the man in a position of authority over the woman. “Christlike leadership” still makes him the leader, and still places him over the woman. If any man ever told me that him presiding over the family just meant that his role was to make sure the children and I did our jobs, I would be like, see ya. Even if it’s done lovingly, it’s still somebody asserting authority over me.
I have thought about these questions a lot, and I’m still working out what I think, but here are a few relevant thoughts.
First of all, to answer your question about whether it’s inherently contradictory to say that gender is an eternal characteristic and that husbands and wives ought to work together as equal partners, I would argue that it’s not a contradiction. I think that often we conflate sex and gender, but I have always interpreted that passage to mean that our sex (male/female) is eternal, while our socially constructed gender roles (i.e. women do the cooking) are not. I think it’s entirely possible for God to view men and women as total equals in the eternal scheme of things, despite our biological differences. I also think that our sex has no real bearing on how capable we are, so it makes sense to me that men and women ought to be equal partners in a marriage. If we’re equally capable but physically different, we can still be equals in our relationships.
That being said, I do think that having the husband preside over the family creates an inherently unequal situation. If both spouses’ feelings and opinions are equally valuable, then how can one of them be the assigned head of the house? Saying that the husband presides only in the sense that he carries the final responsibility for the family’s welfare still creates an implicit hierarchy. If I’m working on a team at work and we have a manager assigned to make sure that the project gets done, the manager will delegate work to the rest of the team and listen to their ideas, but at the end of the day, s/he still has the final say in the team’s decisions. No one would argue that a manager and his/her subordinates are equal. They may both be important to the functioning of the company, but there is a clear hierarchy. The manager has more authority, more visibility in the company, and is going to be paid more for his/her work. I guess I can’t see how we can separate the idea of presiding from the idea that one spouse has power over the other.
I also can’t believe that God wants women to be eternally lower in the hierarchy than men. I know that God loves me as much as he loves any of his sons, and it doesn’t make sense to me that he would put me in a position where I am eternally being presided over, and never presiding. If women were never meant to have real responsibilities and positions of authority, then why would God give so many women the skills and desire to fulfill those roles?
As far as what we can do to improve equality, I would say that I’d like to hear people stop using the word “preside.” I don’t see why families need a patriarch. Can we not just have fathers and mothers, husbands and wives? I think that having two equal partners responsible for creating a happy family seems ideal, because that requires both partners to learn to sacrifice and defer to the other when necessary. Of course each spouse will take on different responsibilities, but neither needs to preside. Designating one spouse as the one who presides seems, to me, to render equality impossible.
Also, I hate that whole discourse about women only needing to obey “righteous” husbands. First of all, it’s super unequal to say that women need to obey their righteous husbands but husbands do not need to obey their righteous wives. Secondly, I think that this line of thinking leads women to follow blindly, because how is she supposed to judge whether her husband is worthy of her obedience or not? He has the priesthood and he typically has more authority at church. How can she say that he is unrighteous when he believes himself to be entitled to revelation for her? I don’t see any way in which a relationship can have a patriarch and be equal. Also, I don’t think that blaming unrighteous husbands for their unrighteous dominion lets the institution off the hook. Of course, the husbands are ultimately culpable, but the institution shares in the blame for creating a culture in which the husband’s dominance is acceptable.
i know i am late to this discussion, but i just discovered this blog. i have to say, i do not think you can have patriarchy and equality. and i am going to get caught up on the word “preside,” because it does have meaning. it means that i need my husband to get through the veil, but he doesn’t need me. it means i must agree to submit to him in the most sacred spaces in mormonism. it means he stands between me and god in our most sacred, oral theology, and i am supposed to be ok and happy with that because “gender is eternal and essential.” guess what, i don’t give a shit. i agree we are different, but that does not mean we can’t work together in equality, both respecting each other and working towards each other’s needs. i think the problem with mormonism is that the sexism is so inherently woven into our theology and culture, that we don’t think about the actual implications of what it means for women to be systematically denied access to the decision making that goes on in the highest levels of the church. women are denied access to spiritual gifts, spiritual and administrative roles in the church, and then we are patted on our heads and told how important we are. excuse me while i vomit.
Well put and obviously something that is very personal and painful, which is why it is rarely put so openly and bluntly. Many women, myself included, feel the same way. And then we’re in a rock and a hard place.
Thank you Gwendolyn, I agree. Sexism in Mormon theology is so subtle that we think it is “just how God wants it.” Which is the quickest statement to end any serious discussion.
Wow! What you are doing is great! I am from India (State of Kerala), currently living in U.S. I myself have stepped out of the walls of religion about 2 years ago and ever since Father is doing wonderful things in our life. This is not to say that the transition was/is easy by any means. But I wouldn’t trade this journey for anything else.I have often wondered about the people in the same journey in India. When you said physical attack, I wasn’t surprised. Most of evangelical churches in India are unbelievably legalistic.My heart goes out to those who suffer persecution for leaving institutionalized church. From the bottom of my heart, I commend and admire what you are doing.I will stop by frequently to read/understand the ministries you are doing.Love and Freedom,Bino.
Hey Calum,Sorry, that was my post before (I was auatltoicamly logged in as Carla). Would be able to delete the previous post.I still think your reflection was very interesting though.
Once feminists realize equality is not sameness, I think feminism will die out.
I don’t think feminists want sameness, I think we want an equal sphere of influence as men. That does not mean we have to have the same nature, just the same opportunities to share our voices. “When male priesthood leaders give counsel to men, they speak from a position of shared authority; that is, even though men hold different positions within the priesthood hierarchy, all priesthood holders have authority to lead and direct on some level. When priesthood leaders speak to men, they speak to those who are also authorized to speak. Women, however, are in quite a different position structurally; women may be spoken to, but they do not speak authoritatively to others, men or women. It would be unthinkable, in the current system, for a stake Relief Society president to institute a program for men to clean their offices or to counsel them on how to wear their underwear, although this sort of counsel is acceptable from priesthood leaders to women.” -Dorice Williams Elliot….. From a feminist perspective, there is nothing inherent about the role of motherhood that means women can’t also be leaders, speakers, and participants in the church authority. That is where the problem of equality lies for me at least.
Pete, all we want is each person to be judged as individuals. Let’s forget the role that you’re supposed to have because of your biological make up! Fit the role that works best for you.
If you’re a provider, provide. If you’re a nurturer, nurture. If you like to cook, clean, lead, work, whatever, we fight for your right to do it, whether you’re a man or a woman.
We want you to be able to do whatever you want to do. A patriarchal society puts us into little gender role boxes that we have to live up to just because of the shape of our sex organs. That ain’t right!
In my sociology class today, we talked about the issue of the concept of equal/fairness, and I think that it has applicability to this discussion and the following definitions I use are from that class’s context. Equal means everyone having the same, right? Same power, same distribution of duties (parenting and working) same respect and authority within the church. A 1:1 relationship. But that model doesn’t work because a: it would be impossible in any situation to make sure that everything is equal and b: not everyone wants the same things or has the same aptitude or abilities. So we turned to the idea of fairness, which can easily be confused with equal in this kind of discussion, but which is actually different. Fairness is that everyone has what they need. And I’m not talking about having just their material needs of food, water, and shelter met. It includes finding purpose in life, having the opportunity to express oneself, make decisions, choose a life path, etc. These needs, in many ways rather abstract, can vary greatly between individuals and often have very little to do with gender roles (except for what people may have been socialized to believe is what they want; eventually they come to a realization that they are not happy in life because they are not following what they really want to do, just what is expected that they should want to do.) There are men and women who want to not only reproduce, but be parents. There are men and women who want an education. There are men and women who want careers. Who want to write, be artists, musicians, athletes, politicians, lawyers, activists, you get the point. For the purpose of this conversation, let’s say that equality actually means this definition of fairness, the opportunity to have ones needs met. In a patriarchal system like the LDS church, where gender roles are so rigidly defined and associated as inherent aspects of sex (meaning the biological markers of male and female), there is absolutely no chance for true equality. Separate but equal is never equal when one is given the authority, however benevolent, to preside over the other, to be the head of the household. The provider/nurturer dichotomy widens the gap: as one professor put it, “when one partner controls the economic foundation of a relationship, dependencies arise. And dependencies often engender infantilism on the part of women and children–the inability to be self-reliant and independently motivated.” Such a firm focus on this model of life limits the equality (in the fairness sense) for both men and women. Some women want to work because it is a basic need for them. Some men want to stay at home with the kids. Hierarchically, there are women who are just as capable, both mentally and spiritually, to serve in the same roles as men and guide the church, not just the women of the church. Patriarchy harms both men and women, creating a square when so many are circles, triangles, hexagons and heptagons and parallelograms. But the damage done more especially harms women, for they are the ones who are presided over in all aspects of their lives, taught to trust the council of leaders over their own intuition/personal revelation simply because someone with an XY chromosome is called to some position.
Now, having said all of this, there are people for whom the model established by the Proclamation does work; men and women who, regardless of religion or culture, would have chosen to form families and operate the exact same way; there are women who are happy to be dependent nurturers and men who want nothing more than to work hard and provide and lead their families. I am not discounting the role of motherhood, nor am I denigrating it. Those who choose to think so are misunderstanding the point I have tried to make. I am saying that the very Victorian ideas of gender in the church greatly limit the equality between the sexes.
I like the idea of not using the word preside but simply husband or wife.
I also think we need to stop comparing motherhood and priesthood in order to promote change. This idea in the church is old and doesn’t make sense. Motherhood is comparable to fatherhood and not an explanation of why women don’t have priesthood authority.
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