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Is Leaving Mormonism Easier for Women?

Talking to a couple of ex-Mormon male friends this week about the difficult path to managing relationships once they are no longer seen as “worthy” male members of the church, I found myself saying more than once, “Well, I guess it’s good I’m a woman because I never got to do any of those things and now I don’t miss them.” I don’t have to explain to my parents why I can’t give them a formal blessing with oil (and the male priesthood) because no one ever thought I could do that, because I’m a woman. I don’t have to explain why I can’t bless or baptize my child or ordain him to the priesthood because that’s never been something I could do in the first place. Lucky me, I guess.

I do feel for ex-Mormon men who have to talk about difficult things that I have really just refused to talk about. When I chose for the first extended family wedding not to go to the temple and sit outside instead (not because I was fully out, but because I had chosen not to get a temple recommend because of various problems I had with the church leadership and patriarchal structure, not to mention the temple ceremony itself), no one asked me why I wasn’t going inside. Some of them may have assumed I committed a terrible “sin” and I could have tried to disabuse them of that notion, but I didn’t. Honestly, within Mormonism, I’m not sure that being a heretic and a doubter is better than committing sexual sins or not following the Word of Wisdom (which hadn’t been my issues at all). But I suspect that if I’d been a man, there might have been more “splaining” to do.

Women don’t matter as much to the structure of power in Mormonism, so maybe we get less pressure to conform and follow the rules? But of course, any former Mormon woman knows this isn’t true. The rules for women in Mormon society are very carefully enforced. Whether you are old enough to wear garments or not, you’re expected to follow garment standards — even if you’re a baby. That means leggings on small girls, sleeved T-shirts under sundresses, and shorts under skirts even if you’re in your forties. I still remember when my editor came from New York to visit my ward in Utah that she had never seen so many women wearing ankle length dresses. She assumed that was a requirement for orthodox Mormonism. It isn’t, but it’s certainly a lot easier to show your virtue by going overboard on the rules than the other way around.

Men who leave Mormonism are seen as “unworthy.” Some of their wives are even encouraged directly to divorce their husbands so that they can marry someone else who will be able to join them in the celestial kingdom. I suppose it can work the other way around, but I haven’t seen it as much. After all, if you’re the unfaithful wife, your husband doesn’t have to get married again right now. He can always be polygamous in the next life. No problem. As long as he’s still a righteous priesthood holder himself.

I think that you don’t see the sexism in Mormonism until you see it, and then you can’t unsee it. I don’t think that I could have read this essay ten years ago and made any sense of it. I saw Mormonism as a place where women and women’s work were valued, far more than in “the world.” I saw men going out of their way to help women in difficult family situations, giving time and money to them. What I didn’t see was how Mormonism is part and parcel of a structure that sees women as less capable of managing on their own, that reinforces men’s power and importance, and that never ever lets women have authority over men in the structure of the system.

When I was in the Primary Presidency and we were told several times that even though we’d prayed over certain (male) names of those who we thought could help teach some of the boys we had stewardship over, we couldn’t have them because there were “more important” positions for them. With the men and Young Men, where they would model proper priesthood roles for the important men who would be “leaders” in the church in ways women wouldn’t ever be.

When the pandemic hit and I saw the numbers crunched on how many women were in homes that didn’t have a “worthy priesthood holder” to prepare Sacrament and then saw how leaders expressed sadness over this, but no attempt to make it possible to bless the Sacrament virtually because this was an “unusual situation,” despite the reality that more Mormon women were in this situation than not, I saw again how women just aren’t important to the leaders. They don’t have to listen to them in their structure, and so they don’t. They pat heads and then go on with their important, male, priesthood work.

So is it easier for me as a woman to leave Mormonism? I suppose it is. I lost less than most men did. And maybe I gained more, because the rules for being a Mormon woman were so strict, and I don’t have to pay attention to them anymore. I can wear whatever clothing I feel comfortable in whenever I want, without feeling like it’s a moral decision. I don’t have to see myself as only being capable of staying home and being a mother. I can choose to have a career, again without any sense of it being a moral choice. I don’t have to get permission to do stuff anymore.

But I suppose I would say just this one thing to men leaving Mormonism — that feeling you get when people see you as unworthy, women who are Mormon or ex-Mormon felt that all the time. They were never special, never important, never held the priesthood power to bless others.

Written by

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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