Equality without Unity?
“I am a feminist.”
What does that mean?
At the heart of it, it’s “a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women … A feminist is ‘an advocate or supporter of the rights and equality of women.’”
In the article I linked to above, Gayle Laakmann McDowell asks, “Don’t you support equal rights for women? Then you, too, are a feminist. Almost every single person I know is a feminist. At least, I sure hope they are!”
So, according to McDowell, I am a feminist.
Many of the women of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are bitterly divided over feminism. Even within the Mormon Feminist movement, there seems no clear or united goal. That lack of unity causes a problem for Mormon women who would like to be part of a movement to empower women, especially because of something the Savior said to us:
“if ye are not one ye are not mine”
That is a nine word summary for why I have never felt comfortable declaring myself a feminist.
But some aspects of the feminist movement appeal to me.
First of all, feminists are generally (but not always) less judgmental than those who reject the feminist movement. This appeals to me because it breaks my heart to watch people use anything, but especially religion, as an excuse to judge others. I think there is no religion whose members are more inclined to use religion as an excuse for judgment than members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The way Mormons do it is quite intriguing, too. Mormons are probably less likely than other religious people to judge people not of their faith (that is, as Mormons we are less likely to say a non-member was going to @#!*%). However, we are probably much more likely to judge people who are of our faith (that is, as Mormons we are very likely to call another member an apostate for starting a movement where all the women wear pants to Church one day). The same Mormon who would judge a woman for working outside the home to make ends meet would turn around and serve dinner at a soup kitchen. So I really respect feminists, because (for the most part) one of their goals is acceptance and a non-judgmental attitude.
Second, feminists are against the oppression of women – by anyone, including Priesthood leaders. I can get behind this 100% because God himself told us,
We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion … No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile – Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.
An interesting reading of this scripture is that power or influence is not maintained by virtue of the priesthood, but rather by the virtues of persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness and meekness, love unfeigned, kindness, and pure knowledge. I think this is where some who are clamoring for change in the Church misunderstand the priesthood. The power and influence of men in the Church cannot be maintained simply by virtue of ordination to the priesthood. This would suggest to me that there is no power or influence for a woman to have that can’t be had without the priesthood, and that men who are oppressive of women, especially under the guise of priesthood authority, actually have no power.
The problem with feminism for many members of the Church, including myself, comes when we start talking about equality. When we talk about racial and ethnic equality, we can usually come to an agreement. It doesn’t matter what color your skin is, what your ethnicity is, or what your country of origin is – a person is a person is a person. We should all be treated the same as human beings. It’s easy because there really is no difference between a white person and a black person, a Jew or a Christian, an Asian or an African. We are all the same.
But when we start talking about equality of gender, things get a little stickier. Women are, quite obviously, not the same as men. Women and men have, inherently, different needs. I’m not talking about “Women need lots of girl friends,” or “Men need to go hunting.” I am talking about things such as, “A man will never bear a child.” There are other biological differences, but the ability to bear children is definitely the most notable. I would say it is also the most important difference between men and women. And I find that Mormon feminism frequently dismisses childbearing as a relatively unimportant and particularly distasteful part of gender identity for a woman.
The simple question, “Do you want equality for women?” is not the question dividing Mormon women.
The questions that divide Mormon women (and men) on the issue of feminism are much more complex.
What does gender equality look like, and how do we come to an agreement? Neylan McBaine, Joanna Brooks, and various Mormon feminist bloggers out there all seem to have their idea of what it looks like, but there are also many people who think there is gender equality already within the Church. So how do we form a consensus and become united?
It might help to look at two areas of doctrine – unity, and equality.
Christ stresses unity in the Church, and we have had the discussion that unity does not mean homogeneity. Christ does not want us all to be identical people with identical views and perspectives and experiences. He wants us to be different, but He wants us to learn to understand and appreciate each other for our differences.
Godhood has been on my mind lately, especially when I think about equality and unity. While there is not a plethora of revealed doctrine on the characteristics of God, I believe that God is Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother, together. With the little we do know about celestial glory and exaltation and marriage, it seems that unity of man and woman plays a big role in exaltation. If we are going to be exalted with our spouses, wouldn’t it be logical that Heavenly Father is exalted with His spouse (Heavenly Mother)? I think so. And I think this image of God being neither male nor female, but the perfect unification of male and female, makes more sense to me than God being male.
I can’t answer questions about why we worship Heavenly Father only and not Heavenly Mother, but I have a suspicion is has to do with the same reasons why men are ordained to priesthood offices and administer the ordinances of the gospel. I don’t really know what those reasons are at this moment – but that’s why I post things here, because I believe that faithful discussion can lead us all to better understanding of gospel doctrines and principles.
The Book of Mormon contains perhaps the most oft-quoted scripture about equality:
He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.
I also think this is one of the most misused scriptures about equality. Nowhere in this scripture does it say that men and women are identical in purpose or that both men and women will be ordained to priesthood offices. This scripture is a simple statement that God is no respecter of persons with regard to the saving ordinances of the gospel – everyone who is eligible may receive them – black and white, bond and free, male and female, Jew and Gentile.
I’m not sure there is a doctrine of equality that goes outside of this guarantee of salvation for all. Just as unity does not mean homogeneity, neither, I believe, does equality mean that men and women are interchangeable in their identities. I have a strong sense that there is a reason I was born female, and there is a purpose to that identity that is separate and different from (but not less important than) the purpose of a male identity. I do not think it was chance that I am a female.
Perhaps the key to the equality that we are seeking is found in the doctrine of unity. That is, “neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.” Perhaps neither man nor woman can have equality as separate beings, but must become one and if they are one, they are equal, but in a way we cannot comprehend if we are not one with our spouse.
- What do you think about the connection between unity of man and woman and equality?
- Might we be thinking about equality in the wrong light?
- Would a change in thinking about gender equality help us become more unified as feminists?
Image Credit: Tim Green (CC)