The Unequal Burden of Women
Economic disparity between men and women has been well-documented. Equal pay for equal work continues to be an elusive goal for those women worldwide who can even find equal work. Closely linked to economic disparity is social inequality, where women do not enjoy the same rights and protections as men in some societies. Even in our own LDS culture, although we publicly preach of the equal partnership of men and women in parenting and marriage, we have a cultural history of treating the subordination of women as our own unique brand of equality.
This thought became clearer to me as I had a short Facebook conversation with my Stanford-graduate, returned-missionary niece this weekend. She was happy about this article in the April Ensign, which, in her words, is “not compromised by patriarchal / hierarchical undertones.” She then commented that in her youth, she felt the subordination-is-not-inequality message was “ubiquitous and quite ridiculous” (and she rightly credited her own grandparents for showing a better example of equality in marriage).
It is against that backdrop that I went to hear a presentation of Rob Gardner’s Lamb of God, performed by the Michigan Concert Choir last weekend. This is the same Lamb of God that was performed by a 240-member troupe in Salt Lake City recently. Our production included a much smaller choir and half a dozen instrumentalists. I offer no review of the music or the performance here, except to say that I’m glad I attended.
One of the things Gardner’s work does is pay close attention to the reactions of the women in the Savior’s life, particularly His mother, Mary, and Martha, sister of Lazarus. As I listened to those particular numbers, I reflected on the burdens carried by the women in the Savior’s life.
Martha and her sister, Mary, were saddened at the death of their brother. They summoned the Savior in time (they believed) to save him from death, and yet He arrived four days after Lazarus had died.
In the production, when Martha speaks to the Savior, she sings,
Lord, if Thou hadst been here,
If Thou wouldst have heard us,
My brother then would not have died,
No. If Thou hadst been here,
Thou couldst have saved him.
She also reiterates her faith in the Lord and His eventual resurrection:
I know that he shall rise again, Lord…
I know he shall rise again in the resurrection
At the last day.
But then Gardner does something wonderful. He goes beyond the scriptural text and imagines Martha’s prayer for greater understanding:
Yea, Lord: I believe that Thou art the Christ,
which should come,
The Son of God,
But I do not understand…
Touch my eyes and bid them see…
Touch my ears and bid them hear…
Then touch my lips and bid them sing…
Oh touch my heart and bid it know
That ev’ry breath I take
Is by Thy tender grace,
And Thou wilt make me whole,
And Thou wilt make me whole,
Oh, Thou wilt make me whole again.
It is easy for me to identify with Martha’s grief over the loss of her brother. It was illuminating to imagine her humble desire to understand more and to be taught.
Later, Gardner imagines how Mary the mother of Jesus responds at Pilate’s judgment and the crowd’s condemnation of her son. She sings:
Is this not enough?
O Lord, my God,
Show mercy on my Son!
Has not Thy will in this been done?…
Has not the bitter cup been emptied?…
When is it enough?…
O Lord, When is it enough?
My breaking heart,
Though pierced and torn within,
I’ll keep my vigil here with Him.
Behold, The handmaid of the Lord.
Be it unto me…
Until it is enough.
I confess, until I heard these words, it had never occurred to me how the Savior’s mother might have felt at His sentencing to death on the cross.
As I pondered that idea, I realized there are many things that do not occur to me because they are not part of my experience. I did not give birth to my children. I did not grow up being taught that my success was dependent upon my children’s behavior and choices. Though I heard the clever seven iamb saying, “No success can compensate for failure in the home,” I was not bound to it in the way a mother is — a mother who lives in the shadow of 2,000 stripling warriors who did not doubt their mothers knew it — a mother who counts the number of eagle scouts (who are told how much thanks they owe their mothers) and departed missionaries.
Similarly, I do not personally know the burden of not bearing children in the same culture which so praises and honors motherhood.
I understand (at least intellectually) the burden of motherhood in the LDS culture because my wife has learned to articulate it to me. Both she and I recognize intellectually that children have agency, that even Heavenly Father’s children make poor choices, that famous parents throughout the scriptures have children that stray. But as interesting as all that is, it does not eliminate the burden of motherhood – motherhood that is divinely ordained and appointed and motherhood that is culturally cued to children’s choices and success.
For all of our desire for equality, men and women will carry separate burdens in this life. We may, in fact, carry burdens around the same things — a straying child, for instance — but our burdens will be different. As we come to understand those differences, we can begin to bear one another’s burdens and mourn with those that mourn.
- How can we better understand one another’s burdens?
- How does recognizing our difference of experience help us to grow in charity?
- What is the proper relationship between seeing our differences in experience and our commonality as children of one Father in Heaven?