Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Feminism: Into the Fray

Finding myself in an ever-increasing number of friendships with individuals (inside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and out) who claim the "feminist" title, I feel impelled to enter the discussion concerning gender roles. I have noticed a wide spectrum of views concerning men and women, from both genders; some of these I have found interesting and uplifting, others I have found patently offensive and bigoted. (For the record, these are NOT divided along gender lines.

I do not and cannot yet claim expertise or even familiarity with the breadth, depth, and variety of feminist philosophy or literature currently available; my attempt in this post is not to survey the intellectual field or debate a specific position. I simply wish to establish three ground-rules for the discussion.

First, debate concerning gender-roles must be centered on cooperation, on the reconciliation of the battle of the sexes. I do not here imply that awareness of gender-differences are to be eliminated - indeed, although I personally intend just the opposite, I leave the specifics of that question to the debate itself. The goal of any discussion of gender-roles, however, should and must be to help both men and women live happier, more fulfilling lives. In religious terms, gender-role discussion must help individuals become more like the Heavenly Parents of us all.*
Therefore, separatist or supremacist arguments from either gender are here inappropriate. If the battle of the sexes is to become a "raw, red war" (Gordon R. Dickson, The Star Road) then discussion devolves into mere intelligence-gathering. A reader may have just that purpose in mind; if so, they may continue as they wish, but I have nothing to say to that individual.

*(As a point of background information, my conception of deity is a perfected union of a perfected man and a perfected woman; however, I leave open for discussion the definitions of "perfect," "union," "man," and "woman." Indeed, my attempts to refine my own definitions of the same are the reason for this post).

In a similar vein, views of both genders must be respected and evaluated based on their internal merit, not based on the gender of the speaker. Yes, the two genders probably do not understand each other completely. Yes, it may be impossible for me as a man to really understand how a woman feels when she is threatened intellectually/emotionally/physically/sexually/spiritually (though I will in the future provide a critique of this position). However, neither of these arguments contribute to more perfect understanding of gender roles. Statements to the effect of: "That's easy for you to say, as a man" or, "That's easy for you to say, as a woman" are somewhat deceitful tactics used to end debates, not to contribute to them. If we are to take the communication barrier seriously, no one woman or man can express anything to any other man or woman, barring a belief in telepathy. If we accept the imprecision of inter-personal communication, let us also accept the imprecision of inter-gender communication and at least try to understand one another.

Third, the purpose of the discussion is to help each reader live a better life, hopefully with a greater respect for and appreciation of members of both genders, and of the unique and wonderful differences gender yields human existence. We speak for understanding, but if that understanding does not change our pattern of existence, then we have not succeeded in our discussion. In short, contributors to a gender debate should love their audience; the purpose ought to be mutual improvement, not the satisfaction of vengeance, the vindication of pride, or the denigration of others. I anticipate that a good gender-role discussion should be somewhat life-changing - for ALL parties involved. Therefore, a plea: to myself and to us all, let us be humble enough to listen to another point of view.

If all involved (including myself!) can abide these rules, then let us "reason together" (Isaiah 1:18) concerning gender. What is a woman? What is a man? What is a perfect woman? What is a perfect man? And what is a perfect union of the two?


  1. I identify myself as a feminist and I thought I would give you my take on it. (my comment is too long and will be put into two comments)

    First off, let me tell you that I am not well-versed in feminist theory. However, I do know that Feminism has what is called "waves" and with each wave the thought process and strategy has changed and evolved. I may not agree with the premise of all of these waves, but I do think that the process has helped push feminism along and we may not be here today without those steps. I also recognize that as a female, I identify with the female experience, but not as much with the male experience. This is why it is so important to discuss this in mixed gender groups (and why in all councils and organizations we need similar representation)
    My feminism is based on the idea of "choice." I feel that a person should not be pushed into a certain "role" based on their gender. I do not believe that one gender is more spiritual, righteous, kind, mean, stupid, etc. than the other. I do not believe that one person in a marriage relationship should have the "final say."
    I do recognize physical differences in males and females. My husband can't have children or (practically speaking) nurse them. I also know men tend to have more muscle mass than women. However, I understand that (many) physical differences between men and women are on a bi-modal distribution but not mutually exclusive. IOW while most males are stronger than me, not all are.
    However, just because I don't have the same muscle mass ratio doesn't mean that I can't mow the lawn, run a marathon or shovel snow, etc. It definitely doesn't mean that I can't perform the same white collar job that a man does and do just as good of a job and get paid the same wage for the same work.
    One problem of feminism in the past has been that we get caught up in the same sexism we blame men for. For example, some feminists promote the idea that women should be 100% like men. Don't have children, enter the workforce, etc. I think this places too much value on "men's work." People should have the choice (men and women) to choose whatever vocation they want. Domestic skills such as cooking or sewing shouldn't be considered "lesser." The responsibilities of living in a household rest equally among all participants regardless of gender and all contributions are equally important and valuable.
    For single person households, the entire responsibility of the household rests on that person. They have complete decision making power. For those in a multi-person household, members of that household (men and women) should come together to discuss who should be the provider in the family, who should cook, clean, do the dishes, the laundry, fix the cars, balance the budget and so forth. These lines may fall on traditional gender lines occasionally. That's not bad as long as each person in the relationship has an equal voice and accepts the terms of the agreement. I believe all of these responsibilities can be shared equally and gender should not dictate them.

  2. You ask about the perfect man and woman -- they are not different. The perfect man or woman is one who is like Christ. The perfect union is a respectful, equal partnership.

    Your comments about Heavenly Parents is interesting. I allow you the right to receive your own revelation, but mainstream LDS teaching is that the Godhead is God the Father (Elohim), Jesus Christ (Jehovah) and the Holy Ghost. No mention is made of our Heavenly Mother as part of the Godhead. Some (non-mainstream) have speculated that she is a part of Elohim (I believe the word is plural) and some have speculated that she is the Holy Ghost. Others tend to think she is a fourth being.

    Current LDS thinking about HM is troublesome to me. She is intended to be our role model (especially for women), but we know very little about her. We know she is the mother of our spirits. We know that we are taught to not pray to her. Did she have any part in creating the world? According to LDS thought, ELohim (portrayed as one man), Jehovah and Michael created the earth.

    Why can't we communicate with her? If I become a God(dess) will I be able to communicate with my spirit children? Will I help create earths/worlds? Will I even have a body? (as per the HM=HG theory) Will I be required to "hearken" to my husband for eternity? Why am I a priestess and queen "unto my husband"? Why isn't my husband a priest and king "unto his wife"? What does that say about gender roles in the after life? One person said once that in the temple she felt more like God's Daughter-in-law than His Daughter. It's like God only cares about me because I'm married to His son.

    Frankly, with the current teachings of the LDS church, I'm not sure that I would want to attain the Celestial Kingdom if it means I am cut off from my children, must "hearken" to my husband (without reciprocation), don't get to help create worlds and be one of many wives "given" unto my husband. I do not want earthly "gender roles" to exist throughout eternity. I do not believe they are intended to be eternal.

    The "As men are, God once was--As God is, Men may become" theory doesn't seem to incorporate the female experience very well.

  3. Catherine, I like your comments, and thank you for sharing them. I wonder if I may take them together as a first external contribution to a new blog I'm starting for gender-role discussion, anothergenderperspective.blogspot.com?

    That said, I must disagree with some of your characterization of "mainstream" LDS theology, and respond especially to the "Eternal Mother as Holy Ghost" theory.

    First, LDS theology is descriptive, not exclusive. For example, we are taught that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost make up the Godhead, but mainstream LDS teaching does NOT limit the Godhead to those three beings. Indeed, LDS teaching is that we can become co-equal with the Father, become literally one in Him as He and Christ are one. Thus, I do not find doctrinal support for the idea that an Eternal Mother CANNOT be part of the Godhead; that seems to conflict directly with LDS doctrine of exaltation. Also, I disagree with your characterization of the term "Elohim" as plural as "non-mainstream;" it's an argument I've certainly heard dozens of times, usually with the interpretation that "God" is a title for a married couple.

    Concerning creation: I wish to point out the section in the Pearl of Great Price, in which "the gods" create the earth, the heavens, etc. Similarly, Christ stands amidst the noble and great ones, and says to His companions, "WE will go down and organize a world whereon these may dwell." Considering Pres. Joseph F. Smith's characterization of "our glorious Mother Eve" as one of the "great and mighty ones" (D&C 138), I find doctrinal support for the idea that female spirits were involved in the creation of the earth. Even if you don't believe that, there isn't doctrine to negate the idea. LDS doctrine shares only that Elohim, Jehovah, and Michael were involved in the creation of the earth; it does not state that these three and only these three were potentially involved.

    I think that is a general critique of some of the things you have written; though the Father is the only one mentioned of our Heavenly Parents, LDS doctrine and scripture is fairly careful to avoid stating that our Eternal Mother is excluded. The Qu'ran, states that God isn't a Father and isn't a Son; we have no similar verse stating that "God doesn't mean a couple, and no female was involved in the creation." Like Nephi says, - I haven't written everything, but what I have written is true (1 Ne. 14:30). Visualizations of the same are similarly not exclusive, though I understand how they could come across that way. Just because one man is shown does not mean he is represented completely; indeed, the glory and appearance of God are only given in rough approximations at the best of times (see D&C study manual interpretations of Joseph Smith's description of the Savior, for example), so any visualization is going to be intentionally incomplete. That may sound like a gross injustice to women, but makes more sense considering how absolutely little we know about our Eternal Mother.

  4. Similarly, with prayer, I would be surprised if sometimes our Savior doesn't answer prayers, but acting in the name of the Father. Since they are one, it doesn't make a real difference. Thus, though I have no doctrinal support for it, I can say also that our Eternal Mother probably does communicate with us; we just assume it's the Father speaking, because the two of them are in perfect union.

    Visualizations of the same are similarly not exclusive, though I understand how they could come across that way. Just because one man is shown does not mean he is represented completely; indeed, the glory and appearance of God are only given in rough approximations at the best of times (see D&C study manual interpretations of Joseph Smith's description of the Savior, for example), so any visualization is going to be intentionally incomplete. That may sound like a gross injustice to women, but is (a little) more palatable considering how absolutely little we know about our Eternal Mother.

    As far as the theory that our Eternal Mother is the Holy Ghost, I find this absolutely incompatible with LDS scripture. LDS doctrine is that after the resurrection, the spirits and bodies of every person to have lived on the earth are reunited, never more to be separated. (Alma 11:44-45 especially) Hence, the concern that women won't have a body, upon which the idea of an Eternal Mother as the Holy Ghost seems to depend, is simply incommensurate with LDS doctrine. Similarly, every description of the Holy Ghost as an individual is gendered – He is a “he.” Nephi provides perhaps the best example of this – meeting with the Spirit of God as a personage of Spirit, Nephi states that “He was in the form of a man, and he spake unto me as one man speaketh unto another.” (1Ne 11:11) Thus, I don't think that your celestial fate as a woman is something disembodied.

  5. All that said, I can see how LDS doctrine could seem depressing or unjust, interpreted as you have. I hope with my response, however, I have shown that it is the interpretation of LDS doctrine that is causing much of your stated concern, not the doctrine itself. My goal has been to provide an alternative interpretation of LDS theology that leaves room for eternal female happiness; seeing the hand of the Lord in my own life and in the lives of my female friends, I have to believe that our Heavenly Father has prepared a system in which half of His children aren't systematically denied a “fulness of joy.” More specifically, we are promised that the Celestial Kingdom is a perfection of joy – but that doesn't mean our current understanding of the Celestial Kingdom is correct – and it certainly doesn't validate LDS conjecture on the subject!
    On a few doctrinal points: I think it a bit ironic that some LDS interpretations posit that women are cut off from their eternal children; the sealing ordinances for our mortal families appear to be the exact opposite of that. But from a premortal perspective, the concern is certainly valid. Similarly, in terms of hearkening, an LDS feminist named Valerie Hudson put forward the idea that wife hearkening to husband (as long as he does as God commands) is the parallel movement of man hearkening to woman in the process of being born, etc; essentially, Hudson posits that there are two hearkenings, that the female comes first through natural means, and that the priesthood one comes second through ordinances, achieving some sort of equality. I'm drawing from her “Two Trees” discussion, of which I will later post a more thorough analysis.

  6. But in these doctrinal questions, I'm quite unsure. There isn't much revealed about it. However, since there isn't much revealed about it, I find equal reason for hope or despair. It could be a tragic thing, or something wonderful; I don't know enough about gender roles in eternity to be certain exactly how things will play out, but I choose to be optimistic based on my other experiences.
    So we come back to the question – what is a perfect union of a perfect man and a perfect woman? You dismissed my query rather glibly, but I think it's the heart of this discussion – I don't think a perfect union – a married God – is a relationship in which the male partner is dominant and the female excluded from the things that bring her joy. For the record, that sounds like a pretty depressing relationship to me, too – I'm not looking for an eternal pet, but an eternal equal. So, in LDS terms – what are limits of LDS doctrine (i.e. women are embodied in the Celestial Kingdom) and what does that mean for how I should organize my life here?

  7. The blog may have eaten my comment...I tried using HTML tags, so that may be it.

    Yes, you may use my comments. Please email me a link to them at catherine.rains@gmail.com

    Here are some other LDS feminism references:
    www.feministmormonhousewives.org; www.the-exponent.com and just saw this cool post http://bycommonconsent.com/2010/12/19/god-the-wife/

    I'm not sure how familiar you are with the "Bloggernacle" but if you are interested in creating a blog for LDS audiences, you may want to consider participating on these other blogs via comments and submitting a guest post to get your name out.

    I'm not going to re-write my response to your comments at this time. (I'm secretly hoping that it posted and did not get lost)

    I may try again when I have more time.