If We Don't Feel Oppressed, Are We?

07/22/2015 09:42 am ET Updated Jul 22, 2016

Many women have come to me personally to ask me why I write about lack of representation of women among Mormon leadership. They tell me *they* don't feel oppressed. They tell me that Mormon church callings are a service that men do for women, so how can that be about power or oppression? They tell me that Mormon apostles and the Mormon prophet have been called by God, so how can I complain that they are all male? After all, God is male, and this is the order of His church. Besides, what difference does it make if the messenger is male or female? Surely, what should matter is the message itself, not who it comes from.

These women also tell me that they are happy to be stay-at-home mothers, that they are grateful that their husbands do the hard work of making a living for the family so that they can focus their talents where they are meant to be focused. They are grateful for the protection from work-place problems that their lives provide them. They feel that the feminist movement denigrates their role as women and tells them that they have no value unless they take on the male world. In contrast, Mormonism tells Mormon women that they already have value, that being feminine is a good thing, that it's something to be encouraged and respected. Indeed, every time the ERA is polled in Utah, Mormon women overwhelmingly vote against it. Mormon women are very suspicious of feminism in general, and specifically of feminist political demands from abortion to equal pay to women being included in the draft.

I recognize that Mormon men often spend hours each week running the church and are given few tangible rewards as a result, often losing money because of the fewer hours they are able to work. I love and honor my own husband, who provides for our family and has for many years. I am glad that Mormon scriptures warn men against using their power for their own aggrandizement.

And yet, I sometimes feel less of a person because of the lack of female leadership in the Mormon church. We talk sometimes of Heavenly Mother, of women being priestesses and goddesses, but I honestly have no idea what the feminine divine looks like. I am told on the one hand that women and men have different roles and on the other hand that women should simply adapt the pattern of male goodness for themselves. Or look at the silent, invisible women all around me to see how to behave "properly" or "appropriately" as a woman of God.

Let me talk about a few examples I have seen that might make my problems more clear:

Example No. 1: When I worked in the Primary Presidency a few years ago, our (female) president was told that she should go to the Lord in prayer about filling the positions in her purview and then take the names to the bishop. Over and over again, the bishop told her that she was "wrong," and that the person she thought was God's choice to serve in the Primary was needed more elsewhere. Eventually, we all became so frustrated that we stopped asking God about who should be called and instead simply asked the bishop who was available for us to choose from.

Example No. 2: A woman in a ward called to teach Relief Society prayerfully considered the lesson in the manual and felt inspired by God to ask a guest speaker to come and offer some insights to the ward on the topic of same-sex marriage. This guest speaker was openly gay and Mormon and spoke about her experience being ostracized by members of the church. She did not try to argue that the Mormon church should allow same-sex marriage. But the bishop "peeked in," listened to the lesson, and then saw fit to get up the next week and tell the whole Relief Society that lesson materials MUST be followed, and that any guest speakers were to be approved by him. Clearly, he felt that this woman's "inspiration" was wrong, and he knew this because he was appointed as bishop and God would, of course, speak to him first.

Both of these examples show the same thing in my opinion, that women, who are called by men to fill positions of leadership in their wards, are overseen by men and are frequently told that their inspiration from God is invalid. Perhaps this is actually true, and God does not speak to women as clearly as he does to men. But I don't believe that God is a "respecter of persons" in this way. I think that authority in the church is sometimes used as a cloak for ignoring other voices, specifically the voices of women. Of course, there are other ways that these circumstances might be dealt with. A bishop could be more understanding, could accept that sometimes women have revelation from God, and that it might be the bishop himself who is wrong. But the organization does not demand that of the men who are in authority.

In my home, though I am told that my husband "presides" over me and our children, I have never had an experience where he insisted that he knew better than I did when it came to revelation from God. If he and I have a different impression about what is right, we have to keep praying about it until one of us is convinced of the viewpoint of the other. He would never take the attitude that his revelation is superior to mine because he is the male priesthood holder. He would never say that when there's a dispute, he makes the decision as the man of the house. First of all, he knows that would make me angry. Second of all, that's not the way that he sees the world or the Mormon priesthood.

One more story: A non-Mormon friend of mine told me a story about her rising through the ranks of her church because she was very intelligent. She studied Hebrew and Greek so she could read the Bible in the original languages, and she was asked to travel around the country to speak to others of her religion about the insights she had gained. Until one day she found herself in a situation where she was speaking only to a group of men and one of the men stood up and told her that she was a woman, and therefore was not to "tell men what to do." She had to sit down and was humiliated in front of all of these men. After that, she couldn't see any way to stay in her church. She could see how sexist it was.

Now, hearing this story, I at first wanted to think that this would never happen in the Mormon church. But of course, it happens all the time. Men speak at the Women's General Conference every year. Women never ever speak at the Men's (Priesthood Conference). Is this because God doesn't speak to women? Is it because women don't know anything useful about the priesthood, but men do know important things about womanhood? Men frequently are visitors in women's local meetings in our wards, and none of the female leadership positions are done without supervision by males in authority above the women. Yet women do not "peek into" men's priesthood meetings to see what is going on and to make sure it is all appropriate. Why is this? Is it really because we believe that God speaks to men more than women? Is it because God would never tell a woman something that has anything to do with men? Is it because women are always so emotional and men aren't? Is it just because men are designated to hold certain roles and therefore it is their "right" to receive revelation in certain circumstances, and it's not for women?

Look, it isn't that I think that the prophets of the Mormon church are bad men or that they intend to take power to themselves. But they do have that power, and women do not. In my opinion, this diminishes us as a group. It makes our possibilities smaller. It places us in a box, so to speak. It tells us that we are limited in what we are allowed to speak about when we speak in church or in General Conference. We speak only for our own sex, it seems, not for the church as a whole. We do not call men out on bad behavior. Only men do that. And men also tell us when we are doing a good job, metaphorically patting us on the head.

I do not think that a church organization is exactly the same as a business is. I haven't used any comparisons to business situations, saying that businesses should try to have more equality in leadership, so churches should, too. I think churches are different than businesses. But I don't see why Mormon theology means that women must always ask for permission from men before they do anything related to spiritual things or the church.

I am not angry at the local leadership in my ward or stake. I think they are good, hard-working men who are trying their best. But the institution itself is, well, problematic from my point of view.

To most women in the church who say they don't feel oppressed, maybe you truly aren't. But look around you. Do your daughters feel as important to the church as your sons? Are good, faithful women ever in situations where men tell them that God isn't speaking to them, despite their firm belief that He is? Is it possible that you are accepting the status quo because it is easier for you to do so? Do you stifle your own questions because it makes too many waves to push them? Do women really lead in the Mormon church? Do we have the same access to God and revelation that men do? Can we speak to anything that we feel inspired to speak to? I don't think we do, and that is my problem. Until we get to that point, I don't think we're really having a discussion at all. We're just ducking our heads and being grateful that it's not worse for us than it is for lots of other women. And that's not really freedom from oppression, is it?