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The Double Bind of Mormon Women

Mormon women are in a double bind. In order to have any power in the patriarchy, they have to agree with the men in power. They have to be even louder than the men are about how much they love their subservient roles. They have to say that God wants them to have these roles. But of course, they can’t be too loud about it, or too charismatic. That’s for the men. But the strangest thing for me is that the Mormon women who are often elevated to the few positions of power that exist for Mormon women are often the women who least fit the mold of stay-at-home mother and quiet, behind the scenes worker for the church. The women who get power within Mormonism are the same women who get power in the world itself, women who have an education, who demand to be seen, who have ideas and are forceful in presenting them, often women who have had high-power jobs (though usually in women-centric fields like nursing, counseling, social work, or charity services).

It is frustrating to see that women are held up as the ideal of femininity who are actually very carefully dancing on the edge of a sword. A friend of mine who was asked to speak to the general (male) church leadership of Mormonism walked out at one point when she looked around the room and saw that every woman there was a woman who had ignored the very direct advice of President Ezra Taft Benson about women staying at home and had kept a job. They were women who had made sacrifices to get an education, often at the expense of their children and husband — not to mention their church service. And their visibility was rewarded while the women who had done what they were told, and stayed home, were ignored or silenced further.

I see the same thing when it comes to women who are trying to get church leaders to change doctrine or policy with regard to Heavenly Mother or women being allowed to witness or hold their babies during a blessing or being part of the weekly ward leadership meetings, once reserved for male priesthood holders only. Maxine Hanks was excommunicated for her book Women and Authority in 1993, simply chronicling the ways in which women were once allowed to hold the priesthood and give blessings to each other in the early half of the twentieth century, but were gradually told they couldn’t do this, but had to wait for men to come and use God’s power on them. Women who tried to pray openly to Heavenly Mother (a divine woman married to Heavenly Father — a unique doctrine of Mormonism) were also threatened with church discipline (excommunication or disfellowshipping) if they didn’t stop. The arguments were that “we” only pray to the male God the Father through Jesus. When women asked to be part of baby blessings or to witness baptisms or for sister missionaries to have more power, they were also excommunicated. Until the brethren decided that it was time, that God had decided to change things, but only a few things.

The women who have been successful at changing the church are the ones, it seems to me, who are willing to stand on that knife’s edge, the ones who don’t quite ignore the call to stay at home, but moderate it in some way, who are able to speak softly (not shrilly) to the leadership when asking for changes, who ask for small things and are grateful for each and every one of them and talk about revelation and blessing and don’t criticize or demand too much. But who still go about their regular day jobs in their suits with their secular power to prove that they are forces to be reckoned with. It’s a complicated problem with a complicated solution, if you can call it that. I see the women who do this and I hope they continue to manage to not be cut by that sword. It cut me and I fell, bleeding, a long way. But I suppose the advantage for me now is that I’m not trying to get approval anymore.

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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