I’m going to interrupt my plans for follow-ups to my last few posts here at BCC to talk about something more immediately relevant to my own life right now, the Relief Society. More specifically, I’m going to talk about whether it’s a good thing or not.
To my mind, gender segregation is a problem. As a member of a church with a massive social division between women and men, a community with widespread, intense, and often explicit anxieties about the propriety of casual friendship between women and men, and with painfully long weekly church services, I worry that condoning the continuance of the Relief Society and Priesthood Sunday meetings is in effect condoning a pernicious problem and a Sunday meeting schedule which may encourage inactivity due to its repetitive length.
I do not doubt that such concerns seem overblown, or downright crazy, to many of my fellow members. But as a person who spends most of her social life outside the church, I have seen first-hand the difference casual, non-sexualized interactions between people of the opposite sex can have in the character and quality of social relationships. Women who have learned to expect respectful, normal conversation from men often find it; men who have learned that women may initiate conversations for non-romantic purposes treat women like people they can, well, have a conversation with. Such interactions greatly expand the social and career opportunities of all involved; and they provide fertile ground for innovation, be it of the social, institutional, or intellectual variety. Should the same not be true in our church?
When I go to church, I hear talk about the importance of gender segregation in our religious lives–Relief Society and Priesthood meetings at least theoretically offer a place we can let our hair down, speak openly about our questions and ideas, and so on. The idea behind this seems to be that such things are not natural occurrences in mixed-sex groups.
I also hear about the danger of unchaperoned interactions between women and men who are not married to each other. Who has not heard whispered stories of the bishop and the Relief Society president who spent too much time alone working on the ward’s welfare needs? (Apparently, people in such situations are liable to speak very personally, and consequently develop an emotional bond which promotes adultery.) Who has not heard of the dangerous, nigh-irresistible temptations bound to arise when a woman and a man carpool alone to a stake function?
Finally, I hear constantly about the incomprehensible differences between women and men. I hear wives complaining that they cannot understand their husbands–men, after all, are clearly unlike women. I know my husband hears husbands’ complaints about the irrationality of their wives’ motives and behaviors. I hear that women are emotional and spiritual, while men are apparently morally defective. (I have heard it said that this is why men need to run the church; they need plenty of practice. According to some people, they need to be bribed with social power to maintain church activity as well.)
Honestly, I feel no more comfortable in Relief Society than I do in Sunday School. My beloved sisters are as likely to understand or misunderstand me as my brothers; they are as likely to judge me; and my brothers are as likely to share in my communion with our savior.
I have spent plenty of time alone with men besides my husband. I’ve even gone on week-long business trips with colleagues, all of whom were male besides myself. No one seemed to feel the impulse to have lots of wild adulterous sex; I know I didn’t. And frankly, if close inter-gender relationships threaten our marriages, we as a church need to work on strengthening the emotional bonds between our husbands and wives.
Last, we are all of us children of the same God. We are all of us, female and male, made in His image. Where we find difference, we should actively promote dialogue and understanding; how else will we all be one? I have known many men more prone to emotional exchange than my female acquaintances; I have known many men more inclined to bare their souls before God and humanity. I have known many deeply spiritual men. I have known many immoral women. Our differences, inasmuch as they exist, are dwarfed by our similarities.
I believe that our continuance of gender-segregated Sunday activities encourages us to maintain false ideas about inter-gender relationships and about individuals not of our own sex. I believe that such ideas can only be harmful to our church in the long run–they limit our understanding of and love for one another; they divide our community; they weaken our institutions. I believe that, since I hold these convictions very firmly, there is something unsavory to my own Relief Society activity.
I’m not willing to give that activity up, however. My husband and I are new to our ward, and my Relief Society calling is helping us in our struggle to become part of a congregation we don’t fully fit into socially or professionally. It helps me meet women and make them aware that my childless state isn’t a sign of selfishness. It provides me an avenue of church service and planning which I, as a woman, won’t have many opportunities to indulge in. Besides, I want to maintain my temple recommend. So I go to Relief Society every week; I attend weeknight activities; and I wonder about the morality of my actions.