Asriel: The Counterpoint Conference hosted by the Mormon Women’s Forum held at the University of Utah was a great event, with lots of thoughtful presentations. I didn’t go to the Mormon Women’s Conference that the Counterpoint Conference was intended to provide an alternate perspective to (Hannah’s notes from the conference are available), but hopefully these notes that Alex and I put together will be useful and interesting to some of the blog readers who weren’t able to attend the Counterpoint Conference (audio recordings from the Counterpoint Conference are available online).
Women in the Mormon Church: The Limits of Agency
Asriel: Some women are able to exercise agency in order to bypass church procedures that they find limiting, but being able to do so requires a lenient bishop. She compared her church experience to her job/workplace; while complaints to a priesthood leader may result in a little sympathy but a reminder that the church organization is inspired, her complaints at her workplace brought a listening ear.
Alex: I got the following from Stephanie Lauritzen:
- LDS agency is limiting, but only for men, truly, because only men truly have full agency in the church.
- Female agency and authority is full in the home but not in the church.
- Agency in public church settings is conditional not only on a lenient bishop, but also a lenient congregation.
- There are no real ways of contacting the people in charge of institutional power; one may only act on the “fringe.”
- Women cannot exercise power in the institution; they must wait for male approval—“Women must wait for an invitation to act.”
- Women are blank pages, but they are not the ones holding the pencil.
- Women should see power as a feminine trait.
- Directing your spiritual life is not unfeminine; it is human.
- Social norms are not reason enough to inhibit agency.
- Make your power and agency visible in official settings even at the cost of social currency.
–Mary Ellen Robertson–
Asriel: Women want to know–what about Heavenly Mother?
It is oppressive to say that feeling oppressed is a choice.
There is a lady (her husband is a GA) who says that she uses her agency to make her own path and take on causes that she feels strongly about, and she does so independent of her husband’s authorization. But had her causes been something about marriage equality or some other taboo topic, would her efforts have been intercepted?
Agency is messy. It will conflict with the agency of others. It is a constant balancing act for us to exercise our agency without treading on the agency of others.
Using your agency to view a system a certain way doesn’t change the inherent nature of the system.
Agency has both nurturing and constraining elements.
Alex: These are my notes from Mary Ellen Robertson’s talk on agency as problematic:
- Calls into question the thought that agency settles a lot messy questions.
- “’If we find things in Mormonism oppressive, that’s a choice that we’ve made…’ I don’t like that.”
- Simply choosing to be “alright” with what we see as oppressive in the church is not a protective coating from that oppression.
- Freedom from explicit instruction doesn’t equate to freedom from expectations of parameters.
- How long does this agency actually last if exercised fully?
- What most Mormon women experience in real life is not a blank slate.
- “Try wearing pants to church.”
- Is it agency to choose from a limited set of options?
- Agency is messy—it will eventually collide with the agency of others. What’s key is taking responsibility for your actions and not treading on others. We should be co-creators of agency.
- Agency shapes us.
- I’d like my choices to turn me into a better person.
- Agency isn’t magic—changing how I relate to an oppressive structure doesn’t nullify the oppression of the structure.
- Agency transforms us; it works within us.
- We are nurtured and constrained by the ways we talk about agency
Asriel: Complementarianism—the concept that men and women can be equal but have different roles.
An apologist website presents Christianity as the happy medium between patriarchy and feminism.
Critiques: Valerie Hudson–two trees thesis equating motherhood and priesthood; Neylan McBaine—roles are divided up cooperatively, not hierarchically; Maxine Hanks—equality is an eternal truth, but seeing it in LDS theology is a matter of excavating the equality that is already there.
These three authors seem to claim that contemporary definitions of equality are ineffective from an eternal perspective.
Where is this movement valuing gender equality coming from? The patriarchal order was revered not too long ago (remember, of course, Brent Barlow in the Ensign in 1973).
Now in 2012 we have more expectations of equality, and complementarianism is bridging the gap between contemporary ideas of equality and church practices without questioning the status quo.
This is essentially the development of chicken patriarchy—which is that we start saying there is equality even though it isn’t there.
Danielle and Jared Mooney call Hudson’s “Two Trees” “Mormon Fan-fiction.”
Alex: These are my notes on Kaimi Wenger’s discussion on the rise of complementarianism:
- Complementarianism is the concept of wo/men having complementary roles in the gospel. It’s basically bad patriarchy along with bad feminism.
- Comp. is posited as a middle-ground approach.
– Kaimi conducted a brief literature review of Valerie Hudson, Neylan McBaine, and Maxine Hanks.
- Valerie Hudson: Apotheosis of married wo/men
- Neylan McBaine: There is no egalitarianism in a secular view of the church; that is, a fallen worldview of equality results in perceptions of inequality that aren’t existent in the eternal scheme.
- Maxine Hanks: The inequality is invisible in Mormonism and needs to be excavated and extracted (I don’t know if I fully would agree with Kaimi’s view of Maxine Hanks as a full-blown complementarian, but she certainly is complicit in the trend of this panel: that is, acceptance of the status quo in search of changes).
– Key of ideas of comp. include:
- Recognition of pain; recognition that Mormon hierarchy doesn’t follow principles of equality.
- Equality as it is understood in a secular framework is a product of a “fallen world”; it’s an “earthly paradigm.”
- In the eternal scheme, equality is found by setting aside temporal equality for complementarianism.
– Why is complementarianism on the rise now?
- There’s been a shift away from unabashed patriarchy of yesteryear (which means that it still exists, just insidiously underground… muahahaha).
- The internet!
- There’s now a new vocabulary and perspective which imbues wo/men with a presumption of equality (legally, culturally, etc.) or at least the progressive movement towards it.
- Women who have or do ask questions (this creates a need for answers).
- The role of complementarianism is to give people who are troubled with concerns about equality a way to soothe and comfort their woes (not to put TOO fine a point on it).
– The following are rebuttals to complementarianism from the eternal principle of agency:
- Comp. is an acceptance of gender roles, which then establishes the act of acceptance as a “noble sacrifice”; i.e. the sacrifice of adhering to traditional, “eternal”, gender roles is not a choice made with full understanding, or perhaps simply without full eagerness. It is an acceptance, which is a crippled form of choice.
- Comp. moves towards rites of empowerment instead of inherent or natural empowerment; you, again, have the right to exercise your agency within a limited framework to empower yourself, instead of empowering yourself by holding and exercising agency either within or outside of a framework.
- Comp. promotes Mormon exceptionalism which is antithetical to the basic logic of agency and the mercy of God.
- Complementarianism is also rigidly heteronormative, which is often the most troubling aspect of Valerie Hudson’s theology and work at Square Two.
– The following are feminist responses to comp.:
- Is comp. just a side-show to disguise old-fashioned patriarchy?
- Complementarianism, and especially the Two-Trees, is “Mormon Fan-fiction.”
- Comp. recognizes, perhaps, but doesn’t fully acknowledge or address genuine pain in a way that ensures full agency or resolution
Asriel: Agency used to be empowering.
According to Brekus at University of Chicago, agency works differently for liberal and conservative women. Agency is not the same as intentionality.
In the church today, the principle of agency is being used as a weapon to silence questions.
By promoting a centralized church, are we silencing the Samuel the Lamanite?
Agency can be used for victim blaming when the individual chooses to critique the system.
Agency can be a weapon to guilt the questioner in order to avoid blaming the institution.
Alex: These are my notes on Margaret Toscano’s discussion on putting “agency” in the church into context with feminism:
- Agency was originally used to represent an agent acting against strong oppression. Now it is used to validate tolerance and multiculturalism.
- Agency is not only a transformation of social norms, but is also reproductive.
- Agency is on a continuum; not dichotomous.
- There’s a false dichotomy of “like it or leave it” in the church.
- The principle of agency is being used as a weapon to silence questions about fair practice or dissent.
- Agency can be a screen for cultural bullying.
- There’s a problem of using one ethical principle to invalidate the ethical principles of others; (foundation-less) ethical supremacy.
- Good people believe that they can’t do enough good in their lives—shouldn’t this be an institutional goal as well?
- Using coercion with agency is an act of oppression.
Points from the Q&A:
(Each portion of the conference ended with a panel of that portion’s speakers responding to audience questions.)
Asriel: One suggestion was that women do have agency; what they really want is for the church to approve their decisions.
Equal but with roles just means you are only equal to the role, not to any other role.
- Comp. is another name for separate spheres.
- People are shaped by roles and rise to them; allowing roles to become one’s primary identity is destructive.
- The priesthood is meant to bring men out of the telestial world; shouldn’t it do the same for women (were they to hold it)?