Feminism vs. Mormonism: the Argument after the Panel Part I

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The Sunstone panel on "Advancing Feminist Sensibilities among Mormon Men" occupied the final time slot of the afternoon, which meant it ran until 6:15 p.m. I was starving by the time it ended, and would have headed out the door to get dinner, except for two things: One, I'd posed this ambiguous question about sex no one could understand, and people kept asking me for clarification; and two, in attendance at the panel was a man I barely knew who had caught me off guard earlier by telling I was one of his very favorite writers and asking me to have dinner with him, and I kind of wanted to see where things could go. It was only later that I realized I should have learned something from the fact that however great the interest he professed in me, when push came to shove, he would rather stand around arguing about the church than talk specifically with me or fulfill the offers he made me.... But that's another story.

So I ended up as part of this prolonged discussion about the panel and its implications, whether change in the church was possible, and what we should or shouldn't do to encourage change.

There were dozen or so of us: a young couple active in the church, whom I'll call Bob and Aimee; a woman I'll call Debbie who had never been Mormon (she was Episcopalian, as I remember), but was married to a post-Mormon; two members of the panel, one of whom I'll call Alan; a long-time LDS feminist who has done graduate work on the topic of women and religion, and who remains active in her ward (which she loves, as opposed to being active in the church at large, which she does not love), whom I'll call Judith; a guy I'll call Luke, who has avowed a desire to "completely destroy the church;" two or three other people whose names I didn't know or won't reveal; and me.

I do not claim to be absolutely accurate in my summation of various positions; this happened two months ago, and while my memory is usually pretty precise and thorough, I was distracted by constant hunger and occasional frustration, so I wasn't always paying close attention. I invite anyone who was part of the discussion to correct any mischaracterization I might make of their beliefs and opinions.

At one extreme was Luke, who refused to believe that any of the members of the panel were truly feminists, since they still remained active in the church. He argued that because the church systematically discriminates against women, one cannot be both a feminist and an active member of the church. "What's more important than justice?" he kept demanding.

The other extreme, that women in the church are treated just fine, mercifully was not taken up by anyone. Everyone in the discussion recognized that when it comes to dealing with gender, the church sucks.

Bob and Aimee, young and hopeful, seemed to feel that with regards to women in the church, change was not only possible but inevitable, as people became more aware of the cost of the sexism and called for change, and as younger, more enlightened men were called to lead the church.

That was also basically the position of Judith and Alan as well. Judith stressed to me later, however, that change can't happen in the church quickly enough to suit her, so her loyalties to it are limited. Alan is an academic, and retained, in many regards, an academic's detachment on the matter. A very nice guy, he is nonetheless remarkably difficult to pin down, even on questions like, "What is your favorite dessert?" For various reasons he has decided to remain within the church, even though he knows it's a flawed institution, and will work to effect change from the inside.

That last bit, which drove Luke crazy, was also echoed by several other participants in the discussion. But as I'll discuss tomorrow, I'm not convinced it's such a bad approach for those who can manage it, even though I was not one such person.

Debbie had asked a question during the Q&A about economics and feminism--as I understand it, she thinks we need to rethink labor and work in order to achieve equality between genders. In the discussion afterwards, she drew a distinction between paternalism and patriarchy. Patriarchy is "a social system in which the father is the head of the family and men have authority over women and children" while paternalism is "treating or governing people in a fatherly manner, especially by providing for their needs without giving them rights or responsibilities." This distinction supports the argument that the church is not merely a patriarchy but paternalistic, and so infantalizes EVERYONE but those who wield power. (Debbie told me later that her views on such matters are heavily influenced by Richard Sennett, whose book The Hidden Injuries Of Class [co-written with Jonathan Cobb and published in 1972] offers, according to the Guardian UK, a "sensitive and subtle exploration of working-class lives. It dissects the ways in which doctrines of equality may work against most people in the modern world; with inherited social distinctions now apparently erased, ‘social difference can now appear as a question of character, of moral resolve, will and competence.' It is an argument which has as much resonance in the age of so-called depressed affluence as it had 30 years ago.")

For a while those of us in this discussion after the panel talked about the possibility that the church might accept gay marriage before it truly empowered women, because gay marriage was this new thing the church didn't know how to deal with, whereas the subjugation of women was this thoroughly entrenched thing with all this cultural baggage that people felt invested in, in ways both large and small--actually, I might have been the one to bring that up; I don't remember. If I wasn't, I agree with it, for the reason mentioned above as well as the fact that gay men, until they leave the church, are able to enjoy the "blessings" of holding the priesthood and wielding (albeit limited) power in the hierarchy, so they are more likely to affect change. Even at Sunstone, there are more straight men participating in panels on how to make life better and more just for gay members of the church than there are men on panels about how to improve the lives of women. Consider as well the situation in the Catholic church, which has recently decided to bar gay men from becoming priests. Many gay priests and seminarians are expressing pain and outrage at the move to exclude them from the priesthood, but how many of them have worked actively to extend the right to hold the priesthood to women?

(You read more of my opinions on the topic in The Exclusive Territory of Straight Men, A Happy Marriage with a Good Man and Mormon Social Taboos.)

This has gotten quite long, so check back tomorrow for the end of the story, which involves M&M's.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on September 27, 2005 12:16 AM.

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