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The Gendered Commandments of Mormonism

When I was fully enmeshed in Mormonism, I didn’t see inequality for women at all. I was one of those Mormon women who would have said quite vehemently that I didn’t want ordination. I didn’t want extra work and responsibility. I had plenty of that, thank you very much. And besides, I was happy with my role. I enjoyed being a mother to young children. I liked staying at home with them. In writing this, I am trying desperately to channel that other version of myself so that I can try to find ways to help Mormon women see the inequality that others see, not to make them unhappy necessarily, but to help them to see what their daughters are seeing and to find ways to help Mormon men see the problems, in the hope that there can be real, substantive change.

I remember when women didn’t pray in Sacrament meetings. I also remember the first time a woman prayed in Sacrament meeting and the brief conversation I had with my father about this change, that basically it had been a policy change that didn’t mean anything, not that the leaders had been wrong before, but that they were simply moving forward with the times. I remember at ten years old being tired of the list of things that a girl wasn’t supposed to do because it was “unladylike”:

1. Chew gum.

2. Climb trees.

3. Let people see her underwear.

4. Fart.

5. Say curse words.

6. Wear “immodest” clothing.

7. Be in charge.

I hated these rules and the ways in which they made it difficult for me to do simple things that I wanted to do every day. I didn’t understand why my brothers didn’t have to follow these rules. They could climb trees all they wanted. They might get told not to curse, but not because it was “unladylike.” They could take off their shirts whenever they got hot and no one got mad about it. They could tell other people what to do and it was admired as a “leadership” moment.

When I joined Young Women’s, however, things changed. While I was less interested in being beautiful, I was very interested in nurturing roles and I wanted to be a mother to my own children. When I had children of my own, and in particular when I was pregnant, I felt very vulnerable and appreciated the idea that my husband would protect me and work to support our family because my brain wasn’t functioning as well as it had before I was pregnant. The same was true for some months after any of my children’s births. I needed help and was glad that the Mormon church encouraged men to be kind to their wives and to help support them in staying home.

So what changed? Part of it was watching my daughters grow up and seeing them become frustrated with the message that they weren’t supposed to be career-minded. I could see the Young Women’s program differently when I wasn’t the target of the messages. From early years, I’d been taught that my “natural” role was as a mother and that while an education was an important “back-up plan,” it wasn’t the most important thing in my life. While I loved my children and was glad that I’d built the bond with them that I had, I began to have questions about the gendered system I’d grown up in.

Why didn’t we ever talk about the Mother-God that Mormons supposedly believed in? Why wasn’t she part of the temple ceremony? Why didn’t we ever see images of her? Why were women’s roles so conscripted within the church, that they couldn’t ever be given revelation from God that didn’t go through men first? Why were all the prophets in church and in the scriptures men (at least the ones quoted from in church)? Why did male leaders always speak at women’s meetings, but women weren’t even allowed to enter men’s meetings?

Still, for a long time, I saw the problems and accepted that the church was moving slowly toward more leadership roles for women. Even w hen looking polygamy, I defended the church. I simply didn’t believe I’d be asked to live it. I argued with other women who were convinced that the deep seeds of polygamy were still inherent in a lot of Mormon doctrine and in the temple ceremony itself. They were seeing things that weren’t there. We were a church of monogamy now. We were mainstream. That was part of the reason the church was so much against same-sex marriage, wasn’t it? We had rehabilitated ourselves as Mormons so that we didn’t support weird marriages.

But looking at polygamy again now, I am less concerned about whether or not Mormons will ever practice it again and more concerned about the way in which women are still treated in the church as either children or second-class citizens or simply as property. The old doctrine of polygamy was that God Himself was polygamous, that there were multiple Heavenly Mothers (my understanding is that they were all of different races), and that men had to have multiple wives to imitate God in order to have the promise of eventually becoming gods themselves in other universes, replicating a pattern of moving from mortality to godhood as had been done for all of eternities.

I know that this doctrine of godhood, too, has been less emphasized of late in Mormonism, and perhaps it isn’t at all what I was taught as a child. I suspect I’d be asked to be quiet if I asked about it publicly in church. I’m not arguing that everyone still believes this, only that I think that some of the bits and pieces of that doctrine remain within Mormonism and refusing to talk about them or look at them clearly means that they continue to remain part of the culture and the gendered roles that are replicated by our “eternal families.” If only men become gods who are in charge, and women are merely the means to creating spirit children in the eternities, then are we fully equal? If God the Father is the one who speaks to the male prophets and apostles of our day, and Heavenly Mother is too busy loving and nurturing children or perhaps creating new souls, then what does that say about women’s roles in our church and in theoretical eternities?

These are deep problems within the doctrine of Mormonism that haven’t been fully updated. Part of the issue is that we are a divided church, with older generations still in charge, while younger generations reject the idea of gender complementarity almost entirely. For all that we talk about “common consent,” there’s no longer any mechanism of giving feedback to the leadership. Letters to the General Authorities get kicked back to stake leadership, often with threats of excommunication. Refusing consent in public at General Conference is another quick way to get excommunicated. It’s not about a conversation. It’s about very much (white, male) authority.

My last year of full activity within Mormonism was teaching the Sunbeams, the youngest Primary class of three-year-olds. How I loved those kids. And how I hated sitting through sharing time and singing time, where old ideas of what women could do and what men could do were being perpetuated. I couldn’t do it anymore. Yes, I tried to adapt the lessons to something I believed in. Yes, I sang different words to songs to make them more inclusive. It never felt like enough. Ultimately, I was being harmed by sitting there and being unable to talk about my own experiences with the Mother-God I hear in my prayers. I needed, and I think my little girls needed, images of a Mother-God and images of women leaders who hear her.

All of this is not to say that I’m firmly attached to the idea of a need for gendered gods in the first place, only that it helps for me, a woman, to see God as a woman, just as I think it helps for black people to see a black God and Asian people to see an Asian God. Trans people perhaps imagine God as trans and non-binary people a god like them. And why not? If we are to speak of the divine in ourselves, the divine must fit us all uniquely.

When Mormon men tell me that I just have to “follow the commandments” to get into heaven, I’m afraid I have to ask, but which ones? The men ones or the women ones? Because there absolutely are different commandments for men and women. If you haven’t noticed that yet, you haven’t spent much time thinking about what it’s like to be a woman in Mormonism. There are different rules about clothes and sex, but also about how you talk about your spiritual experiences, how you teach in church, your duty to speak your truth or not speak it, and more. I don’t know how to be me and also to be a Mormon woman because I see the divine in myself and I don’t know how to share that at church. My deepest spiritual experiences are never to be spoken there, and it hurt me. I think it’s hurting every woman there, and every LGBT+ and racially diverse person, too.

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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