Monday, February 14, 2011

Women's Role in the Mormon Church

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.

Therefore, saying gender is an “eternal characteristic of individuals” that existed before we were born - and that determines who is allowed to hold the Priesthood, lead the Church, preside in the home, and who swears obedience to whom in temples - is not just misogynist and sexist; it’s uninspired religiously and scientifically ignorant.


  1. Josh, I have really enjoyed reading your blog! I left the church two years ago and what a struggle it's been!( although Im VERY happy about my decision) Next up is not getting to go with my daughter to the temple when she gets married this summer.....It's nice to know your not alone :)

  2. Thanks Crystal. It is a bit of a struggle leaving the Church - but well worth the trek. Not being able to attend your own daughters wedding has to be tough! My wife and I just went to San Diego for her brother's temple wedding. It was tough, and a little bit awkward, not being able to go inside with the rest of the family. Such as silly and hurtful practice! But - we went back to the hotel and had some great sangrias instead! That was nice too.

  3. Well worth the trek indeed! It's funny how, once you take a step back it all seems so silly and strange, yet when your in the middle of it, it seems so normal and wonderful. I think of it like believing in Santa...I love the thought of him being real, it gives me warm fuzzies and it's magical. It makes you feel good. But I guess he not real....even though I SWEAR I heard those sleigh bells on Christmas Eve!!!

    Ps. Have you ever tried putting a little Sprite in your Sangria...yumo!!! ;)

  4. wow! that is really well done josh! i feel like there might be more to say, but my head is kinda swimming with ideas and i think i better read the polygamy post before i add anything.

    i will say, the covenant to my imaginary friend in the temple was never an easy pill to swallow, no matter how hard i was trying to be "faithful".

  5. Yes - read the polygamy posts. Polygamy is really the most abusive manifestation of male power and sexist gender roles.

  6. Alright Josh, I have a bone to pick with you. I want to respond to your comment about seemingly happy women trying desperately to convince everyone "even themselves" that they're doing ok. Some of us, maybe even most of us, are exactly what we say and appreciate having our words taken at face value. (I'm speaking as an overworked, underpaid, stay-at-home-mom, not a Mormon Mommy Blogger here.)

    And it's simply not true that women can't be sealed to more than one man. It's not common, and I'm not sure it even happens while women are alive, but when doing work for the dead, women can be sealed by proxy to more than one man. If a woman and her husbands (like one dies and she marries another) have all been faithful and upheld their covenants she'll be sealed to both. We figure God can straighten it all out.

    And...I guess I've got no beef with the rest of this.

  7. Thanks for keeping me honest Erin. I need to clarify those lighting-rod statements of mine:

    1. I am not saying that stay at home moms can't be happy and fulfilled. Heidi is very happy being a stay at home mom (although she is now finishing up her education and planning on working soon). I know there are many, many happy stay at home moms out there too. I just think Mommy bloggers can sometimes project a fairly rosy, picture-perfect world to other moms out there, who may feel they can't keep up with a very high seemingly perfect standard. That is the point of the Salon article I linked. I'm not saying it's a universal either. I agree - that it's better to take people at their word. I'm sure there are many happy Mommy bloggers out there too. My apologies if I didn't make that clear.

    2. As for temple polygamy, it seems that in 1998 the Church quietly changed it's policy related to temple sealings. Now, women can be sealed to more than one man - but only by proxy after they are dead. So, there still exists a double standard since men (as a widower) can be sealed to as many wives as he wants while he is alive, but women have to wait until they are dead to be sealed to more than one man.

    The Church isn't entirely clear on why they made this change, or what it means. But it still suggests that polygamy or polyandry will be practiced in the afterlife, and that men will have more than one wife if they were sealed to more than one on earth. Maybe women can choose who they get to be sealed to? But the double standard still exists since they have to be dead to be sealed to more than one man.

  8. I'm a big fan of the HBO series Big Love, and am really liking the direction that Barb has been making this season. She's slowly evolving into quite the feminist, and is bucking some of the patriarchal elements of the LDS world.

    I saw this Joanna Brooks article in RD that discusses Barb's feminist evolution during this season of the show. I think the article highlights the point that the modern LDS Church is becoming LESS feminist as time goes on. Not really the direction that I think we should be heading in:

  9. You're right. Thinks aren't yet equal, but they're changing and improving. Gotta give credit where credit is due.

    I love Big Love! Can't wait for this season to come out on DVD so I can watch it start to finish.

  10. Come on now, let's give the whole picture here... oh boy.

    I'm going to post this for members of the Church who become easily dismayed by this stuff. I'm not attempting to bring anyone back to the Church that doesn't want to be there.

    Truth is not to be found by wallowing around on the internet, choosing to believe this opinion or that, according to what one likes to be true. Truth is independent of man's opinions and is found by asking God, not a blog.

    So, for members who stumble onto this concerned with the polyandry issue and change in Church policy, read below and and pretend the word "offered" is italicized. Therein lies key to unlock your worried mind. Then, go to and read something that's of greater value. Have a great day!

    "There are no Church teachings clarifying whether polyandrous relationships can exist in the afterlife, so some church members doubt whether this possibility would apply to women who are sealed by proxy to multiple spouses. The possibility for women to be sealed to multiple men is a recent policy change enacted in 1998. Church leaders have neither explained this change, nor its doctrinal implications. It should be noted, however, that proxy sealings, like proxy baptisms, are merely offered to the person in the afterlife, indicating that the purpose is to allow the woman to choose the right man to be sealed to, as LDS doctrine forbids polyandry."

  11. Giving the "whole picture" - or at least the other side of the story - is exactly what this blog is about. Please refer all of your friends to my blog if you like.

    "Truth is independent of man's opinions and is found by asking God, not a blog."

    Like God, however, my blog cannnot answer questions that people ask to it :) But as for polyandry or polygamy, you can read my three-part-post on the subject if you want more "light and knowledge." I also list some good history books for anybody who wants to know more. There are lots of answers in history books.

  12. as much as i agree with this post, you should consider removing the photo. or at least give credit linking back to her blog or instagram feed. ya know. i truly think i would not care at all if it wasn't a blogger i adore and have followed for years. BUT. i nodded in agreement to most of this post.

  13. also, i'm sure you know but the source is

  14. My apologies for not giving credit to the photo. I actually found it in an article from Salon about mommy bloggers. Thank you for your help giving the photo credit where credit is due.