My decision to leave the LDS Church had little to do with the traditional gender roles espoused by it (other than the fact that I felt strongly that polygamy was inherently misogynist). However, the smaller the LDS Church becomes in my life’s rear-view mirror, the more noticeable its distorted image of women appears to me.
Here are some of the problems I see with women’s role in Mormonism. In other words, this is why I wouldn’t want my daughters to be a part of it:
1. A Male Dominated Hierarchy:
Look at any leadership chart of the LDS hierarchy, and the thing that stands out is that it’s a hegemony of maleness; an all male club. The only leadership positions women have in the LDS hierarchy, are auxiliaries associated with women and children: The Relief Society, Primary, and the Young Woman's Program. And who chooses the women to serve on those auxiliary positions? Men, of course! The women leaders even have to get approval from their male chain of command when choosing their own counselors, and before making any important decisions.
Since women are not allowed to hold the Priesthood, they don't have prominent leadership positions; neither centrally in Salt Lake, or in local churches. Women can’t even serve as local ward secretaries, and are discouraged from holding positions in the Sunday School Presidency which oversees adult Sunday school instruction.
Even within the female Relief Society, women's independence has been curtailed by the male hierarchy. In 1970, the First Presidency issued a directive that ended the financial independence of the Relief Society. Too much energy was being devoted to fund-raising projects, so all financial assets were turned over to male priesthood quorums, “leaving the sisters free to perform their specially assigned tasks.” The Relief Society was also told to stop printing its own magazine. Now, all adults would read the same official Church magazine: The Ensign. Even Relief Society lesson manuals would be provided to them by the Priesthood Correlation Committee. It was basically a male organized shake-down of the only semi-independent female organization in the Church.
As late as 1946 women used to “be allowed” to give blessings to other women. That is, until Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith wrote the Relief Society, saying it would be “far better for us to follow the plan the Lord has given us and send for the Elders of the Church to come and administer to the sick and afflicted.”
2. Subservient Gender Roles:
In 1995 the First Presidency issued the “Proclamation to the World” which says that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual pre-mortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” Fathers are to “preside over their families in love and righteousness and are to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.” The Relief Society was never consulted regarding the Proclamation. Women’s “sacred” and “divinely sanctioned” job description as homemaker, wife, and mother is also emphasized heavily in LDS lesson manuals produced by the Priesthood Correlation Committee. Under traditional LDS gender roles, men are to provide monetarily for their families (which entails obtaining an education and marketable employment skills), while women are encouraged to stay home and raise the kids. Since LDS couples marry so early, this often means that women must forfeit their own education and career, in lieu of their husband's. Without graduate degrees or marketable job skills, women are usually left financially dependent on their husbands, with few options if their marriage does not last into the eternities (as many don’t).
The Proclamation also states that within marriage, men and women are “obligated to help one another as equal partners.” However, one may question what this “equal” status means when considering how the LDS Church opposed the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment which would have guaranteed women equal rights in the US. In addition to Utah, Nevada, and Arizona, (states with a strong Mormon presence) southern Bible Belt states also opposed passage of the ERA Amendment, thereby killing the amendment. The Church even vilified and excommunicated Sonia Johnson, a part-time school teacher and mother, for her role in organizing Mormon support for passage of the ERA Amendment.
One of the newest manifestations of LDS gender roles is demonstrated in the Mormon Mommy Blogs, where underemployed but overworked Mormon moms blog about their picture-perfect-life as homemakers, trying to convince others about how happy they are in their stay-at-home mommy role. A hilarious spoof blog on the mommy blogs is called "Seriously So Blessed."
3. Patriarchal Doctrine and Practice:
Polygamy is, at its core, a destructive practice that demeans and objectifies women, yet the LDS Church taught that it was essential for salvation for nearly 60 years. However, the only other societies that currently practice polygamy are backwards Middle Eastern and African societies where women have few human rights, and are treated as little more than the property of their husbands. Polyandry is also the sexual norm in gorilla and chimpanzee animal societies, our closest genetic relatives. It’s also practiced by other non-primate animals where alpha-male contenders engage in competition for exclusive mating access to the females. This should give you some idea of the underlying motivations of the men - Mormon prophets from Joseph Smith to Heber J. Grant - who taught and practiced polygamy.
Once LDS polygamy was openly practiced in Utah, women and girls were doled out to high ranking LDS males as rewards for their faithfulness. During the 1856-57 Mormon Reformation - in which rates of polygamous marriages increased dramatically - Wilford Woodruff wrote fellow Apostle George A. Smith: “All are trying to get wives, until there is hardly a girl 14 years old in Utah, but what is married, or just going to be.” (Journal History, 1 April 1857)
However, polygamy is a LDS doctrine that hasn't been completely abandoned yet. In temple marriage women cannot be “sealed” for eternity to more than one man, whereas men can be sealed for eternity to multiple women. Why the double standard? Because Mormons still believe polygamy will be practiced in the Celestial Kingdom. Therefore polygamy is still a doctrine of the Mormon Church, practiced in every temple today. I have a brother-in-law, who remarried in the temple after his first wife died, who plans on having two wives when they all reach the Celestial Kingdom together.
And marriage isn’t the only LDS temple practice where there is a double standard for men and women. During the LDS temple ceremony, women must raise their arm to the square and swear an oath of obedience to their husbands, while men only swear obedience to God. This is a troubling practice, even for many active LDS women today.
What makes LDS patriarchy look so unenlightened, is the fact that our gender is determined by a single random act that occurs during conception. God has nothing to do with it, unless He is directing the swimming patterns of millions of flagellating sperm as they race blindly toward the female egg after ejaculation. If a sperm carrying the Y chromosome reaches the egg first, the embryo will develop into a male (XY). If a sperm carrying the X chromosome reaches the egg first, the embryo will become a female (XX). If gender existed in our pre-mortal existence, as Mormons believe, how does the randomness of human fertilization fit into pre mortal gender?
Part of the Y chromosome, called the Sex-determining Region Y, causes embryonic tissue that would normally become ovaries to become testes instead. The testes produce higher levels of testosterone in the developing fetus, which subsequently leads to the development of male sexual characteristics. However, if these hormones are not produced, or if the male lacks testosterone receptors (a condition called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome), the child will appear and behave like a normal female, even though, genetically, she’s a male (XY). Female development is therefore the default sex in humans, unless testosterone derails embryonic development towards male development.
And in the ultimate irony, there exists in every male, even the most chauvinistic and patriarchal among them, homologous sexual structures just like those in females. All males have an undeveloped uterus (part of our prostate), labia majora (our scrotum), clitoris (our penis), and breasts (our worthless nipples). Even our testicles, our most prized “jewels” of manliness, are nothing more than reconfigured ovaries.