055: Women and the LDS Church Part 1 — An Introduction
June 4, 2007
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The text of this introduction is (roughly as follows):
In 1789, the United States of American entered its first official year of operation. To many, the US represented a shining, new symbol to the world of Liberty. Equality. and Freedom. And rightly so.
Notwithstanding, for the first 82 years of its history — the nation born under the ideals of “no taxation without representation” and “of the people, by the people and for the people” — denied voting rights to over 50% of its adult population — including blacks, and women. Some of the founding fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were themselves slaveholders.
81 years later, in 1870, the 15th amendment to the United States constitution was ratified — guaranteeing (at least in theory) the right to vote to black men.
Many of the women who played pivotal roles helping to free the blacks were hoping that they, too, would benefit from this new era of electoral openness — but it was not yet to be. Once black men got the vote, it took another fifty years — or until 1920 — for women, of any color, to obtain the same voting rights as these male, former slaves had received.
That’s 131 years from the time the country was founded.
How could this have happened? What does it mean that it took 131 years for women to get the vote in the USA?
In some ways, it’s almost as if women were the afterthought beyond afterthoughts, in American society. Is that unfair to say?
On April 6th, 1830, the Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter Day Saints was established within the USA. Since its inception, both blacks and women have played pivotal, but structurally limited roles within the church. And while it is clear (to me at least) that the status of blacks within the church has improved dramatically — especially over the past 30 years — it seems to be much more of a mixed bag where women are concerned.
As I have begun reading a bit about the history of women in the church, I am somewhat stunned by how many very basic, yet dramatic things I simply didn’t know, after almost 40 years as an active member.
For example, I didn’t learn until last year, at age 36, that for over 100 years, the Relief Society was an autonomous organization — surprisingly empowered and entrusted to manage its own membership, affairs, publications and budget. I was a bit saddened, then, to learn that in the 1970s, as a part of overall correlation, the Relief Society was placed under priesthood leadership, and since does not enjoy the autonomy it once had.
I didn’t learn for myself until yesterday that once upon a time, women in the church were not only allowed, but were encouraged to heal the sick by the laying on of hands.
Brigham Young, speaking in the tabernacle on 14 November 1869, said, “It is the privilege of a mother to have faith and to administer to her child; this she can do herself.”16
The year before in Cache Valley, Apostle Ezra T. Benson (one of my distant grandfathers) had called on women who had been “ordained” and held “the power to rebuke diseases” to do so and urged all the women to gain “the same power” by “exercis[ing] faith.”17
In the early 1900s, Relief Society president Margaret Ballard wrote in her journal “how she had been impressed to bless and administer to her father who was sick and suffering and he had been healed. Had also been impressed to bless her husband and he was healed.”
I was also quite surprised, and perhaps a bit saddened to learn that in the mid 1900s, this practice was terminated.
I was also surprised for at least a several year block leading up to 1978, women were neither allowed to pray in LDS sacrament meetings, nor were married women apparently allowed to enter the temple to do endowments without their husbands. Fortunately, these things have changed.
I do remember a few somewhat progressive things regarding women happening in my lifetime, such as in 1990, when endowed LDS women were no longer required to make an oath to “obey” their husbands. Even though some still struggle with the word “hearken” — I do feel like it is a step in the right direction. Still…obey their husbands? This feels so foreign to my 2007 world. It’s hard for me to really wrap my brain around.
To illustrate a bit further, I thought I would conduct with a small, informal test. Please bear with me… this exercise actually has a point. So if you are willing…please get a pencil and paper out. Poise your finger onto the pause button of your CD player or iPod. Ready? Let’s begin!
Question #1: How many of the leaders of the women’s rights movement in the USA can you name? Just like Frederick Douglas with the abolitionist movement and MLK/MX with the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement in the US has been replete with heroic women who fought courageously for freedom and equal rights. If you’re like me, you’ll be lucky to come up with 2 or 3. It makes me wonder — why, as a group, are we so comparably literate when it comes to race issues, but less so with gender issues?
Question #2: How many of Joseph Smith’s wives, other than Emma can you name? Better yet, have you ever heard mention of ANY wife for Joseph apart from Emma as part of any official church meeting? Now…to many of you, this may seem like an absurd question…but to me, it seems very odd that Joseph Smith is the central figure (other than Christ) within Mormonism, that women and families are held as absolutely central to the church’s core mission and purpose, and most significantly, we seem perfectly comfortable learning all about Joseph’s parents and siblings, his childhood illnesses, his temperament, and even his foibles — yet we know precious little about his wives — apart from the fact that Emma suffered much hardship, and ultimately wasn’ tfaithful. Shouldn’t we all know at least a little bit more about Joseph’s family?
Question #3: Most of you (thanks to the primary song) can name all of the modern-day LDS prophets. now for the hard part: How many of the wives of modern day prophets can you also list? There are dozens and dozens to choose from. Can you name even 5? If you weren’t able to come up with many names…..doesn’t this seem even a BIT strange to you? We know about George and Martha Washington. We know about John and Abigail Adams. We even know about Abraham and Mary Tood Lincoln. Why do we know so precious little about the wives of the prophets? Can you imagine a day when in both priesthood and relief society, we study the lives of the wives of the prophets for a full year — as we do today with the prophets?
ok…Here’s another one. Question #4: How many past presidents of the Relief Society can you name? How about the current presidency? I won’t even ask about the YW or Primary presidencies.
A few more…and then we’ll be done. Question #5: How many women can you name from the Book of Mormon? This answer should actually be somewhat easier than you might think. Believe it or not — and this came as a major shock to me, but did you realize that throughout the entire 531 pages of the book of Mormon — only 3 female characters are mentioned by name (apart from biblical characters like Mary, etc.). 3. You might say to yourself, “Women were oppressed back then…of course they weren’t mention….” that is until you discover that the Bible mentions more than 180 females by name, let alone all those where names were not included.
We’ll end with an easy one. Question #6: Think to the last LDS Sunday service you attended (or try this exercise next Sunday). For sacrament meeting — count the number of quotes used in church talks, or in church manuals, made by men, vs. from women. In my experience, the number of quotes used from women is always surprisingly low, in spite of the fact that we have general presidencies in the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary….and several women are now allowed to speak each general conference.
I really don’t mean to be mello-dramatic, but to me, something is amiss in all of this. If I ponder with my full mind, heart, and spirit — something something seems unbalanced.
To me, it seems as though — even in 2007 — women in Mormonism, again, are in many ways still the afterthought — in spite of our sincere insistences to the contrary. And I am as guilty of this as anyone listening.
So…what, if anything, does all of thsi tell us? My answer: nothing, really. In fact, they probably say more about me, than they do about anything, or anybody else.
You see, in 2005, Mormon Stories podcast was launched — and while (to this date) I have produced 54 episodes for the the podcast — I, too, have neglected to discuss the issue of women in the church.
A few months ago, three of my closest friends from the podcast, each on separate occasions, said to me, in essence — “John. “What the hell? Why haven’t you done any podcast episodes on women in the church yet?”
Each time I heard this, I was speechless. I knew that it was an important topic….it just somehow didn’t rise (on its own) on my list of priorities.
Once again — women often become the “afterthought.”” I feel so ashamed.
So…I guess what I’m saying is — I, and many of us Mormons for that matter, have a LOT to learn, and to digest, about the history, role, and status of women in the LDS church. This podcast series is my feeble attempt to help make this happen — both for myself, and for others within the church.
In this multi-part podcast series, I will try to cover the following:
We will interview a professor of women’s studies about the 3 different waves of feminism in US history
We hope to have an episode or two exploring and rejoicing in some of the prominent women in LDS church history
We will interview Claudia Bushman, and learn about her historical role and perspective as both a devout, prominent member, and as a feminist within the church.
We hope to spend some time delving into late 20th century feminism in the church, and the church’s reaction to it.
We will spend some time on the ethics of sexuality within the church, and explore modern perceptions about sexuality among Mormon women.
And finally, we hope to interview a few women about their experiences in the church today — and their hopes for the future, as women in the church — including (among others) Lisa, from the superblog “feminist Mormon Housewives”.
Maybe we’ll even throw in a surprise or two along the way.
Anyway, this, is my feeble attempt at repentance for allowing women to become an afterthought — both in my intellectual life, and in my podcast. I truly hope to do this very important topic justice.