Alice Walker, who wrote about the heartbreak of female genital mutilation quoted an African proverb in the beginning of her book Possessing the Secret of Joy: “I have seen the axe, and the handle is one of us.” Are women our own worst enemy when it comes to reinforcing stereotypes and norms that limit women?
There was recently an excellent post on Exponent II about the difference between “good” feminists and “bad” feminists at church. I wanted to broach this topic at Mormon Matters to get your thoughts about the role of sexism and feminism in the church.
Here are some anonymous comments from a panel of LDS women discussing issues women face in a patriarchal church, especially from other women:
- I don’t know if women do the most harm, or if it is most hurtful when women do the harm because I want to feel that they should know better. Margaret Toscano made the point once that women who are benefiting by fitting into the patriarchy have more to lose by it going away than do men. So, the RSP has power, and (for the most part) women who are true to the church are the RSPs, they are the ones pushing the patriarchy the most. For instance my RSP says we can’t have enrichment without a defined higher purpose because “we can’t take women out of their homes” without cause.
- Men can’t really preach the patriarchy because they know how sexist it makes them sound, so they leave it to women. I admit it has gotten better, but how many times do women say “I don’t really want the priesthood” as a reason no woman should be able to make that choice. It is very rare for a man to even admit that women are excluded.
- There is also a huge culture war between the SAHM and working mother, and I think people who made that decision out of fear or authoritative institutional pressure are the first people who have something to lose when the church eliminates predefined gender roles. Those who made their decisions themselves are more confident in them and don’t receive their worth from a statement in the proclamation on the family.
- As a professional with a graduate degree, and as a wife without kids, I’ve been surprised at the sexism promoted by other women. I have unfortunately been blindsided by this more than once in very painful ways. I figure if a woman wants to have kids, then great! And if she wants a career at the same time, or a career without kids, great too! But I notice a lot of other women are uneasy with women who seize their opportunities and power. They feel they should get to make the choices for other women, or more accurately, that other women should be forced to make the same decisions they have made. I had one friend, a SAHM, call me and condemn me (using the prophet’s counsel) for not having the faith to have kids – only for her to break down minutes later crying about how bad her financial situation was. And it’s not just a SAHM v. career woman thing: I’ve witnessed sexism especially by other career women. A woman getting a promotion can be much more controversial than a man (and it’s the women, I’ve noticed, who are more outwardly bugged about the promotion than the men). Legally and ethically, sex and family circumstance should not lead into those business decisions, but the culture has a hard time getting over that.
- Women are great cultural enforcers. We keep the codes of society together. And one of the best faces patriarchy can have is a female face. A woman who says, “I would never want the responsibility of the Priesthood” appears meek and humble, making women who would like to be empowered, or see other women empowered, looking anything but holy. I see this on Mormon feminist blogs each time we post on a directly feminist topic. From an article I read: “Often, when women live under the weight of silence and fear speaking out, they have the least tolerance for other women who break the rules — they use them as targets to discharge their pain and rage.”
- Obviously, it’s both men and women who are accepting this culture the way it is. My business partner who is a great therapist/couples counselor always tells her clients “you are your own advocate, nobody else will do it for you.”
- I don’t think it matters who is perpetuating the situation, but women not only accept the situation, they compound the situation when they do not question the status-quo. If women rose up and spoke up or even just started asking questions, the men would address the issues at hand. At the very least, the more assertive women are making a difference in their individual wards by expecting respect and action.
- When Susan (name has been changed) was writing about how she thought she’d get dismissed as a feminist heretic by her bishop, I thought “Good!” At least he’ll know some of those cool sisters out there are feminist heretics.” I wonder how many men in leadership roles realize how important equality is to so many of the sisters. We need to own our equality in order see change in our individual lives. The community will follow.
How do you feel about the concept of patriarchy in the church? Does patriarchy limit women’s choices? Does female exclusion from the priesthood constitute sexism? Does the Proclamation on the Family’s description of male and female roles limit women or protect the interests of families? Is there a culture war between SAHMs and working moms in the church? Are women the most oppressive toward other women in the church in limiting women’s roles and choices and lashing out at women who don’t conform? What constitutes lashing out (e.g. silence, criticism, guilt, ostracism, correction)?
And a quick poll, to make it even more interesting: