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Guest op-ed: LDS women need more opportunities, not more praise

By Keith Burns - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Dec 11, 2021

Ever since its founding in 1830, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been exclusively governed by men, a phenomenon which by no means is exclusive to the LDS tradition. Local congregations are led by bishops, who are overseen by stake presidents, and General Authority Seventies have stewardship over stake presidents. Fifteen Apostles compose the Church’s top governing body and have final authority over its theological tenets, financial assets and top-down policy making.

In line with broader cultural patterns of American society, LDS teachings have relied upon a patriarchal order that domesticates women. The Church’s 1995 document called “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” outlines gender roles as follows:

“By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.”

Hundreds of General Conference addresses have similarly emphasized the “innate” nurturing and compassionate attributes of womanhood, praising women for their immeasurable impact on children, families and society. In fact, despite obvious power differentials between men and women in church leadership, LDS women are often framed as “spiritual and moral giants” who have profound gifts and abilities. For example, Elder D. Todd Christofferson said in a 2013 message entitled “The Moral Force of Women“:

“My plea to women and girls today is to protect and cultivate the moral force that is within you. Preserve that innate virtue and the unique gifts you bring with you into the world. Your intuition is to do good and to be good, and as you follow the Holy Spirit, your moral authority and influence will grow.”

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland also said of women:

“Today I declare from this pulpit what has been said here before: that no love in mortality comes closer to approximating the pure love of Jesus Christ than the selfless love a devoted mother has for her child.”

In contrast to women, LDS men are frequently portrayed as hard-headed, prideful and even stupid. Many members of the Church can immediately recall a General Authority, bishop, or stake president giving a talk or testimony in which he vehemently praises his wife while simultaneously debasing himself. It is often said that “men need the priesthood to keep them in order,” while women do not because of their natural proclivity for benevolence. For example, President Russell M. Nelson declared in 2018 that “effective ministering efforts are enabled by the innate gifts of the sisters and by the incomparable power of the priesthood.” Sentiments like this, although gentle on the surface, hold in place structures that keep women out of church leadership. Ironically, the very attributes and abilities that are essential for priesthood leadership (i.e., love, discernment, sensitivity, kindness) are supposedly possessed in great measure by women, the very individuals that are barred from serving in those positions.

Why is it that LDS men praise women incessantly while regularly criticizing themselves? While there are certainly multifaceted and complex factors that play into this phenomenon, sociologists of Mormonism Ryan Cragun, J.E. Sumerau and Emily Williams believe that one important factor is something they refer to as “soft influence tactics.” They define this as rhetoric from those in power that praises, compliments and comforts subordinated groups in order to sound respectful, while simultaneously preserving existing power structures. LDS leaders frequently do this with LGBTQ+ individuals, preaching love, kindness and compassion and praising them for remaining celibate or pursuing mixed-orientation relationships. Such an approach puts a kinder and gentler face on the same old classification schemes that frame homosexuality and/or transgenderism as inferior to cisgender heterosexuality. The same tactics are used on women, who are frequently told how wonderful and righteous they are and how important their voices and contributions are to the success of the Church.

While women’s roles and opportunities have seen modest improvements in recent years, patriarchy still permeates every aspect of church government from the top down. However, as recipients of endless male praise, it is common for LDS women to internalize the idea that they in fact are treated fairly and equally, thus obscuring power structures that privilege men and disadvantage women. It is therefore crucial that both women and men become aware of the use of soft influence tactics, so that a more concerted and collective effort can prevail in challenging and overcoming LDS patriarchy.

This patriarchal structure, which relies on a concept of mid-20th century western divisions of labor, has only recently received scrutiny. In recent years, an increasing number of LDS women have begun pursuing careers and sharing parenting responsibilities with their spouses. As a surrounding secular society (often referred to as “the world” by LDS authorities) continues to gravitate toward gender equality, the LDS Church lags behind and continues to restrict women from serving in upper leadership positions. To mask the inequities that exist in church leadership, LDS men (especially leaders) praise women as the “moral and spiritual fabric” of the family and the church, while simultaneously preserving their own power and influence. A far more genuine and productive step toward gender equality requires institutional adjustments that allow women the same leadership and administration opportunities currently available to men. Such a shift would come with the notion that one’s ability to lead and influence has no correlation with one’s gender identity. In this way, both women and men could lead congregations and stakes and serve in general authority positions. I call upon LDS leaders to replace their hollow adulation of women with actual institutional opportunities, liberating women from the bonds of patriarchy that so pervasively dominate the Church.

Keith Burns is a graduate student at Sarah Lawrence College who specializes in Mormonism & Sexuality.

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