As a professor of history at a predominantly Mormon university, lately I have been a magnet for students with questions about the changes for Mormon women, especially considering the recent public attention to the roles of women in our traditional religious culture.
I don’t teach specific courses in Mormon history or Mormon women’s history. Instead, because my students are all LDS, I seek relevant ways to insert discussions of women’s rights within my other courses: American Foundations (similar to BYU’s American Heritage) and my introductory history courses for our majors. (I will be teaching my first U.S. Women’s History course this fall.) Students are naturally curious about these discussions of the place of Mormon women, and not quite sure how to sort out everything they have been hearing and observing. Why are some Mormon women wanting more equality? Don’t we already believe in men’s and women’s equality? That we have different roles, but that those are equally valued? They want to understand the context of why the Church has made recent changes for female members, especially in lowering the missionary age, allowing women to pray in General Conference, granting more visibility to female auxiliary leaders, and changing the format and demographic of the General Women’s meetings that are held twice a year prior to General Conference.
Typically my young students– like many others who are observing and commenting on this issue– are coming at this without much historical, cultural, or doctrinal sophistication. So, here is a dilemma for me: While I am personally in favor of promoting greater gender equality and inclusion for women, how do I teach the history of women’s rights from a Mormon perspective, with some attempt at objectivity and dispassion, without sounding like I am ‘advocating’? I am limited in certain ways by my audience, my employer, my colleagues, and my own desire not to undermine foundations of faith. So, how do I try to help freshmen and beginning history students to understand the history, evolution and forms of gender relationships, as well as some of the underlying power structures at the heart of most societies, while leaving them to draw their own conclusions? But even more challenging, how do I do this without exposing them to heavy academic theory? Admittedly, I’m approaching a very complex topic from an overly-simplified framework. And of course, I can’t promise that they won’t end up questioning constructions of gender roles– in fact, I want them to question their assumptions about patriarchy– but at least I can hope that I am modeling a path of both faithful and academic negotiations for them.
I begin by using a very simplified historical context, defining basic concepts (patriarchy, feminism, equality, protectionism, separate-but-equal, structural power, and agency), and showing them well-placed and illustrative visuals, capped off with some useful side-by-side comparisons. This helps me to place my students’ gendered religious understandings into larger national, historical and theoretical contexts, while also highlighting important concepts about natural rights, political equality, and the expansions of democracy. So I make sure that students know that women’s rights were part of human rights from the very beginning of the emergence of Enlightenment and liberal principles in the late-18th century.
1. I start off by asking “What do we mean by the Women’s Rights movement?” Students give various answers, eventually getting to a summary of “”The political movement to overturn women’s oppression or inequality in education, politics, government, legal rights, property rights, marriages, and religions.”
2. What were the roots of this oppression? This is where we can talk about the Medieval Christian doctrinal, cultural, and institutional frameworks for interpreting women’s roles through the lens of either Mary, the idealized godly mother, or Eve as the evil temptress. Of course, assumptions about women’s character were rooted even farther back in Aristotelian and Platonic attempts to essentialize women, but in an introductory course or lecture, we can’t really complicate this message too much. Especially because the Mary-Eve binary works really well for my target audience: they are both figures who come already inscribed with the gendered and theological meanings inherited from Mormonism’s pre-Restoration roots. Plus, it allows me to present the idea that how women have been treated throughout European/American history has depended upon whether they have been seen as Mary: acceptable to society’s expectations, like being married with children, domestic, submissive, pious, private, and virtuous, or as being Eve: trouble-makers, public, outspoken, temptresses, seductive, and evil. Then we can explore the concepts of pedestalizing women vs.the oppression of women, that the romanticizing of women’s goodness and maternal instincts have placed women ideally above men– but still out of reach of political and legal power–, while the highlighting of women’s depraved and sexual nature has placed women below men– allowing for even more violent institutional and societal forms for keeping women in their place. Neither approach has achieved equality. I struggled with how to portray this visually for students, so I tried a couple of versions, by using some contrived, but quite useful trigonometry. This first version was part of that visual brainstorming, but after getting some feedback from colleagues, this later version captured better my intent to show that both the pedestal and oppression lead to inequality. I recognize the problems with this from a mathematical perspective: What are the X and Y axes in my parabola? It is admittedly a work in progress, but for now, it works.
From that point, I can move on to discussing how subsequent religious, political, legal, educational, and marital power structures for hundreds of years were built around these notions of women’s inequality due to their essential natures. And how these structures were transferred to the American experience via the British common law notion of feme coverture, or that women’s identity, property, and autonomy was given up to her husband in marriage. (At this point, we have lots of fun referencing Jane Austen books and films to illustrate the importance of marriage for women with no potential to own or inherit property of their own.)
This also meant that women had no political enfranchisement, could be legally beaten or raped in marriage, enjoyed few external legal rights like voting, holding political office, acquiring higher education, serving on juries, retaining custody of their children, or keeping their own property after marriage, while also enduring the devastating double standards of sexual purity for women. (See Tess of the d’Urbervilles). From there, I introduce students to a definition of patriarchy, both from the most oppressive standpoint, as well as what we call benevolent patriarchy, or the notion that women were willing to sacrifice their legal, religious, political, and marital equality, as long as they might expect kind, deferential, and loving protection of male husbands, teachers, and government leaders. Benevolent Patriarchy also depended upon societal and cultural norms that protected and controlled women’s sexuality, valued– or even idealized– motherhood as women’s only role, and emphasized female ‘moral superiority’ (authority) in compensation for their absence from concrete forms of authority. Again, some useful visuals:
Once this framework of patriarchy has been established, then we can discuss how modern, secular democracies, beginning in the 19th century, sought to bring equality to women by changing those traditional structures that had kept women away from forms of power; ie., through the expansion of educational opportunities for women, coeducational colleges and universities, women’s greater professional and employment avenues, voting rights, married women’s property rights, access to divorce (as a liberation from abusive marriages), and even preferencing mothers’ roles in the custody of children.
As these changes took place, some religions actually embraced these larger societal changes for women, while some held onto tightly to their patriarchal frameworks. Thus, a divide emerged between the secular democratic goals of gender equality, and the traditional religious goals of social order rooted in maintaining conservative gender roles. I then present to students a side-by-side comparison of the notion of “equality” against the notion of “protectionism,” as it was/is rooted in patriarchy. With this useful visual, I can tease out the following contrasts: The ‘equality‘ approach believed that gender differences are mostly socialized, while the “protectionist” approach focused on the natural differences between the sexes. Or that the “equality‘ approach recognizes women as unique individuals with individual rights, while the ‘protectionist‘ agenda grouped all women together, assigning them universal, shared characteristics, with strictly separated roles, justified by the ideology of “Separate but Equal.” Protectionism says that women should focus solely on the private, domestic sphere, while the Equality perspective says women might expand their influence into the public, political, and business spheres previously restricted to them. But most importantly, the equality perspective suggests that men and women might share decision-making power in government, education, politics, and religions; the protectionist approach believes that decisions should be made by men for women, and that women might offer support to male leadership through their “moral authority” or “soft power.”
I try to present this list as an objective contrast; ie., “Here’s one approach . . . . Here’s another approach . . . ” thus allowing students to act as outside observers. In one class, without even telling them where I was going, one student looked at the two columns, pointed to the “protectionist” or Benevolent Patriarchy column, and blurted out, “But that sounds just like us!” Unfortunately, since this is a one- or two-class introduction, I do not get the opportunity to explore all of the complex tensions within and among various feminisms, particularly “difference” feminism and “equality” feminism, or to explore the evolution of feminism(s) during the various theoretical and political waves of the women’s rights movement. But the following graph allows me to touch on some of that complexity:
How do I bring this all back to Mormon women? Mormonism presented a unique blend, of both the radical restructuring of gender roles (female deity, reframing Eve’s role in the Fall, inclusion in temple rites, liturgical healing, support of suffrage and coeducation, and an autonomous women’s organization), as well as holding onto the primacy of male authority and decision-making power, and women’s marital submission to men as the “heads” of their families. Of course, polygamous marriage was an interesting mix of both departing from 19th-century marriage and sexual norms, while also accepting the usual expectations of male authority and feminine submission in marriage. Within Mormonism, the forms of “Benevolent Patriarchy” have always exposed important gendered tensions in our culture, both within the church, as well as in contrast to the expansion of women’s opportunities outside of the church. We’re at the point right now– a major crossroads– in which historians, activists, church leaders, and both feminists and traditionalists alike are trying to grapple with how much of our gendered constructions are divine, how much they are culturally and historically determined, and how much things can or cannot change. These are not easy questions to solve. Quite frankly, the historical, doctrinal, institutional, cultural and marital prescriptions for Mormon women are a big, fat, hairy, chaotic mess.
I leave those discussions for later, but this basic presentation and introduction for my students allows me to neutralize the topic, inviting students to reconsider their assumptions from a historical perspective, and to recognize complexities. Rather than hitting students hard and fast with disruptions to their gendered frameworks (as they might find in other universities’ Women’s Studies courses!)– and risk putting them on the defensive, instead if I can walk them through the history and evolution of women’s roles and rights carefully, they are much more willing to explore the notions of equality and patriarchy in careful and open-minded ways.
This approach also allows me to present this line of questioning to my students: What are the benefits of Benevolent Patriarchy? What are the challenges? For both women and men? Why might so many women want to hold onto patriarchy, when it comes at the cost of shared decision-making and women’s larger institutional and spiritual contributions? Is it because women enjoy feeling protected and valued, and to a significant degree, having lesser accountability in the day-to-day workings of the institution? In contrast, what are the benefits of equality? What are the challenges? How do we even define ‘equality‘? What do people fear about equality that causes them to resist changes in that direction? Is it because of fears of blurring gender differences too much that might lead to acceptance of homosexuality and other sexual identities? Is it fears of the often-cited, but misdirected accusation of “Equality = Sameness“? Fears of losing societal order because “no one is in charge”? Fears of female discontent with traditional nurturing roles and domesticity? Fears of the erosion of traditional masculinity? In examining the spectrum between equality and protectionism, where have we already seen change from one to the other? Within a religious institution that accepts certain models as divine, what are appropriate and accepted routes for seeking change within that institution? Where might secular models be beneficial or not? How much can women petition for changes for themselves, as opposed to waiting for those changes to be granted by male leadership? And what does all of this say about women’s agency? Is female agency limited or expanded in a patriarchal, hierarchical organization, and in what ways?
I hope that in laying out my teaching methodology, I have also reached beyond my student audience and the teachers/professors who will find usefulness in these ideas. I have had the opportunity to present this introduction to a handful of groups, including students, a Mormon intellectual/historian gathering, and my own department colleagues– all to very positive response; and I sincerely hope that these ideas will continue to find an audience among church members and leaders alike, who hope to understand the complexity and history of women’s roles, spheres, expectations, and rights in a more sophisticated manner. Mostly, a caution: Given this historical and theoretical context, we should avoid strong claims to Mormon women’s ‘equality,’ when we might really mean that women are ‘protected‘ or cherished. There is a difference.
I invite useful feedback from our readers, especially regarding my visuals, slides, comparisons, generalizations, and lines of questioning. And considering that this IS an introduction, what might be missing from my overview? What suggestions do you have for my approach to understanding Mormon women, equality, and patriarchy, both in terms of content as well as tone? I invite all respectful suggestions and feedback.