Saturday, February 2, 2008

An Idle Princess in Paradise, or an Eccentric Camel?

A Review of "Should Mormon Women Speak Out?" by Claudia Bushman, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 41, No. 1. (This issue should be coming out very shortly. Keep checking the website.)

Claudia Bushman is a Mormon woman who has been speaking out since the late 1960's when she and some friends living in Boston met monthly for a "consciousness-raising" group. These women became the founders of Exponent II and put together the "pink issue" of Dialogue--vol 6 no. 2, an issue devoted to women's concerns--in 1971.

Speaking out by Mormon women has been met in a variety of ways by Church leadership since the 1960's. Some of the more publicized cases have tended to engender fear and reluctance to push the envelope. These cases influenced a generation of Mormon women, who were given the message that if their voice did not fit within strict parameters, they would be excluded.

More likely, an LDS woman who is speaking out will simply be ignored. Russell Ballard has recognized this, and urged Stake and Ward leaders to allow women a greater role in Church councils.

Claudia's article juxtaposes two sentiments: Eugene England, who opines that Mormon women writers are "more free, more daring, inventive, original in thought and unique in voice than Mormon men," and Susan B. Anthony's 1859 observation "why is it that all the pages of history glow with the names of illustrious men, while only here and there a lone woman appears, who, like the eccentric camel, marks the centuries?" Claudia comes to the conclusion: "Women do not speak out." Is her conclusion informed by the fears of the past when "women have spoken out and rued the day?" Or are women finding more of a voice in the Church today?

My personal opinion is that women have more of a voice in the Church than ever before. We see women speaking to a worldwide Church in General Conference. Women are being hired in greater numbers at Church universities. And the internet is one of the frontiers where this is happening. When women of the Church disagreed with RS President Julie Beck's conference talk, the internet was a forum for them to voice their concerns. It was also a place for women who agreed with Beck's sentiments to make it known. Though a number of women signed their names to an expression of disagreement with her talk, there was no official recrimination or disciplinary action. Regardless, there are perhaps some areas of improvement still worth considering which Claudia mentions in her article.

1. In the Church we tend to consider the basic unit the family rather than the individual, hearkening back to that old idea that the married man and woman were one, and that one was the husband.

2. Does having a voice negate the essential nature of women? What is the authentic nature of women and what are we supposed to learn in our sojourn on the earth?

3. Women used to have more opportunities to serve and develop their talents in Church work than they do now.

4. Our male hierarchy sometimes treats grown women as children.

In her article, Claudia proposes a practical program of action for Mormon women to encourage them to speak up and out. None of her suggestions are radical. I think that younger women will read the article and wonder what is the big deal. These women are already speaking out in their homes, their wards, and their stakes. Being more of Claudia's generation than many of the women on the internet, I relate to the fear she mentions. Experiences I've had in the past with male leaders are still very much a part of my life. These experiences, as well as the way women dissidents have historically been treated in the Church, make me hesitant to express my opinions in a Church setting.

I'd love to have some feedback from Mormon women to see how they perceive the woman's voice is being heard in their areas. Please take a minute to answer these questions in the comment section:

  • Do you feel your leaders, especially male leaders, know you and relate to you from a position of respect rather than need?

  • Are women's views well represented in your ward and stake?

  • Are women presenting and carrying out their ideas?

  • Are women given an opportunity to persuade and convince, or are their ideas silenced and ignored?

  • Do you feel less respected in the Church than in your professional position?

  • Do you feel that your voice is heard in the Church as much as you would like it to be?

  • How many years have you been an adult (over 18) woman in the Church?

Claudia points to Eve as an example of the direction LDS women today should take. Though she recommends a strong course of action, she also reveals a bit of her trepidation: "[Mother Eve] had to pay for what she did, but she did not remain an idle princess in paradise. She took action."


Stephen said...

A friend of mine was responsible for the BYU Women's Conferences for a while (she asked my wife to talk at one of them, you can read my wife's talk here: ).

One thing Kathy told me while we were at the conference (I was there to be a supportive spouse) was that she had met with President Hinckley who had stressed how important it was for women to participate in the Church and to provide leadership along with the men.

He saw it as a significant need and a real goal.

I would think there is a middle ground, one that does not prompt institutional memories of things gone awry, but that helps in meeting that need.

Stephen said...

Gee, as for my stake, our ward's relief society president is a single sister who everyone loves. She has two children and a long cold divorce.

Great kids, her father is the temple president in Switzerland. If he is anything like her, he is probably pretty neat.

Ami said...


I think it depends on the bishop and the stake president. There are a lot of lovely people in my ward, but I feel like I'm living in the land of princesses.

My partner had to do the visiting teaching lesson this month. I heard the Julie Beck talk both when I got visited and when I went visiting. It was with the other WOMEN I didn't feel comfortable talking out with, while they were praising it and saying how they needed to hear these things to feel better, that they were making the right choice in this evil world.

I haven't been in any leadership meetings, so I don't know how women fair in them.

Tanya Sue said...

Different leaders feel differently. One branch president was my favorite because he treated women like absolute equals. He expected them to have the same amount of intelligence, strength, etc. as men. This was both institutionally and personally. I loved that and haven’t experienced that since him 12 years ago. My recent leaders have been more misogynistic. From what I have seen it is much worse in the church setting than in their interpersonal relationships.

Some women’s are represented. However, the women that are represented are stay home moms that are still married (vs widowed or divorced). Women that do not fit in the role are not represented. I think women who fit the “perfect” woman role are heard, but no one else. However, I am in a new ward so I don’t know about this bishop. I look at the stake and ward relief society president, and I have concerns about them being able understand what it means to be something other than a stay home mom and adequately represent those needs and desires.

I am respected much more at work than I ever was at church. At work I am viewed as strong, talented and intelligent. I feel at church I am seen as single first and foremost. At work no one think my marital status has anything to do with my skill level and ability to understand.

One of the reasons I cannot currently attend is because I KNOW my voice is not heard. It may be heard occasionally, but it is discounted. Even before I got frustrated and angry I felt this to be the case-I think it is what made me get so angry and frustrated. I am 33.

I feel part of the problem is that there are so few leadership roles for women vs men that it is next to impossible to have women be adequately represented until there are more leadership roles. In the last singles ward I was in the relief society sisters brought the men in PEC and bishopric meeting breakfast every Sunday. I think that sums up the stake I am in and what women are seen as capable of.

m&m said...

I am 37, and feel that I have been valued all along the way, as a single sister, newly married (I had many talks with my bishop about how things worked, and he involved me directly in a certain situation in our ward), and now SAHM who is also active in volunteer work. (I have sent email ideas to my bishop that have been implemented. I talk to other leaders as well.)

Frankly, I have had more difficulty being heard with female leaders than with male ones.

I also think that we underestimate our value and impact in just doing our callings the best we can, and having a relationship with our leaders (this is as much our responsibility to make happen as theirs).

I'm not sure what Bushman wants to get at, though. I'll be interested to hear what she has to say (I've never been much of a fan of her approach to things, to be honest.) (Maybe that doesn't come as a surprise?)

I do think that once in a while you run into a leader who won't listen, but in all my years, I have never felt that in any way that would make me feel less of a person as a woman.

Tanya Sue said...

Stephen-I think if I lived in your area, church wouldn't be a traumatic experience! I love that your RS doesn't fit the standard "mold".

In response to your Pres Hinckly comment, I think it is telling that at the stake conference in our area (So Cal) he came down on the men to stop thinking of women as being barefoot and pregnant or something along those lines and that they needed to start treating women with more respect. I am not sure if that is was in everyone's stake conference or just So Cal, but it was very interesting that he felt it needed to be addressed that way.

If we are not comfortable putting women in bishoprics, why can't we come up with new leadership callings for women that would allow women to be in bishopric meeting and have a voice?

Michemily said...

# Do you feel your leaders, especially male leaders, know you and relate to you from a position of respect rather than need? Yes. One male teacher of Sunday School even asked the women one Sunday if he needed to change anything in the way he taught to include women more. I think we were able to give him some good feedback. I don't think it's a standard mold for Relief Society or church to exclude women, at least not from the wards and stakes I've been in.

# Are women's views well represented in your ward and stake? Definitely.

# Are women presenting and carrying out their ideas? Yes.

# Are women given an opportunity to persuade and convince, or are their ideas silenced and ignored? Women are not only given opportunities, they are encouraged to and they are listened to.

# Do you feel less respected in the Church than in your professional position? Here's something interesting: I worked in a professional Church position where I worked with an older couple. It was a twisted sort of experience: she had a lot of voice with him, but it was in a negative way, as if she wanted to be repressed. She would tell him that the women shouldn't be in leadership positions, and he would carry it out. It about drove me insane.

# Do you feel that your voice is heard in the Church as much as you would like it to be? In the Church in general? I think it is as much as it can be. I can't exactly write letters to Church headquarters and hope to be addressed immediately. I do think that there are definitely areas that need working on, but we seem to be headed in the right direction.

# How many years have you been an adult (over 18) woman in the Church? Almost five.

Ami said...

I thought the Relief Society presidents already attended those meetings.

Relief Society presidents actually have a lot of responsibility in the wards. Wards don't run well without a good RS president. We also underestimate the power of our Young Women's and Primary presidencies. Trust me: when they aren't doing their job, there are problems. And those jobs can be very challenging.

For instance, I don't think our bishop takes the primary organization for granted. We have some of the best people in the ward in our primary. Why? One reason is because some refuse the job. It's a hard job. Not only are there a LOT of kids with a required 2 people per class, but we have some special needs as well.

So anyway, I'll stop now before I get on my soapbox about thinking some callings mean you are more valued than others.

Tanya Sue said...

Ami-I am saying that women in those positions have way less power to do anything than men in their callings do. How often does the ward RS Pres and Primary Pres have an interview with the Stake President? They don't-only bishops and often EQ Presidents. When there is a visiting Area Authority, it is the Bishop and their wives that attend the special dinner-not RS President or Primary President.

Some callings absolutely mean you have more power than others. Women are not in callings that can make changes or even get feedback high enough up to be heard.

In regards to PEC-one woman to how many men in that meeting? I want women to have equal numbers so there is a better shot that more womens needs will be met.

Finally, like it or not people in the church associate you with your calling. When is the last time you saw people cry when the 8 year olds teacher was released and talk about how no one can fill their shoes? Rarely, because a Bishop makes more of an impact on more people and is valued more. I am sorry, but it is true. Yes, according to the gospel that isn't how it should work. However, it works that way anyway.

m_and_m said...

I think it's really, really important for us to really believe that our worth is not tied to position. It's something I haven't fully believed, and when I start looking at competing for position or 'power' I get depressed. Really. I think it is a path that we are supposed to avoid, as hard as it is to do.

Pres. Packer recently talked very specifically about this, and other GC also addressed it more indirectly. I have read and re-read his talk, and I'm trying to let myself trust it. I think that can go a long way to helping us see beyond who gets to attend what meetings.

Don't misunderstand me; I totally agree that women's needs need to be addressed and talked about and represented. But I am not convinced that that isn't possible with the way leadership is structured. I have seen it work so well, so often, that I just don't feel that women need to be in bishoprics or meeting with visiting authorities to be represented.

I am deeply sorry for those who don't feel heard, though. I hope that you will have experiences with leaders who really care, really listen, really recognize the diverse situations we are all in.

Bored in Vernal said...

Stephen, when I was a student at BYU I always loved the Women's Conference. I'm glad to know that women are responsible for planning and organizing this.

I appreciate the comments I've had so far--as I said, I think the situation is much better in the Church today. Many of the younger women come to their callings just expecting to be heard, and they are.

M&M, I think this might be one of the problems in having women be heard--women know that humility is a gospel principle, and there are so many who are willing to do their work behind the scenes. This is a good thing. Yet often male leaders do not pay as much attention to their concerns because they are so good at doing the work without asking for recognition. (btw, in this post I am not agitating for recognition for women--I think that's a different issue.)

Tanya Sue--re breakfast every Sunday--arrrrgh! In one stake I was in, in Tennessee, for many years Stake Conference has always fallen on Mother's Day. The women in the Stake spend the day listening to the male leaders and then fixing them a special luncheon after the meeting. They count it a privilege to do so, but are always a bit sad that they have missed their special day. This always made me furious.

Anonymous said...

To My Friends of Faith,

Recently a friend at our church brought this "film" to my attention.
Her son apparently was sent this web link from someone.

It's a movie clip (that has been recently released, or is about to,,, I'm not sure),,
anyway, it depicts Mormons as flesh eating ghouls, and it is just awful.

On behalf of myself and my husband, and our Mormon friends,
I would like to make sure that young people are NOT subjected to this terrible conception of our faith.

please let me know if you are able to help.

regards, Betty Toms

Tanya Sue said...

BIV-Have you ever heard Carolyn Pearson's sorry about how a bishop always did something for the priesthood restoration on Mother's Day. She actually talked to her bishop and he changed it at her request.

Incidently that proves my point. Either the women in leadershp weren't being heard, or the ones in leadershp did not represent all women-just their personal opinion that it was fine to have women cook and serve on Mother's Day. I would hope that it would only take one time of pointing out it was Mothers Day for them to have a man take over cooking and serving that luncheon to the priesthood leaders.

m&m said...

M&M, I think this might be one of the problems in having women be heard--women know that humility is a gospel principle, and there are so many who are willing to do their work behind the scenes. This is a good thing. Yet often male leaders do not pay as much attention to their concerns because they are so good at doing the work without asking for recognition.

I really don't see this happening much, to be honest, but I understand what you are saying. I think that it's important to remember that we can be humble while being involved. Men are supposed to be humble, too, right? To me, humility isn't invisibility at all. It's about relying on God and trusting Him.

One way we rely on Him in the Church is through the counsel system. And the best way for that system to work is for all to do their part to make it work. Women who think that their part is just to sit back quietly do not understand how things work, and men who don't encourage women to contribute and who don't listen when they do don't understand, either.

Where humility would step in in a functioning council system is knowing when to let go and being willing to recognize that you are wrong. I had a recent experience with this, and I didn't do so well. It's a process..... :)