One of the great things about being a Mormon is that you stand a very good chance of sitting close to small children in church meetings. Over the years, I have made many friends among the under five set by discreetly going cross-eyed, pulling faces, wiggling my ears, and not ratting them out to their parents when they take second helpings from the tray of bread as it passes by. Paper Rock Scissors is a lot more fun when you need to play it so as not to be detected by authority figures.
Two Sundays ago, I sat near a family consisting of a mother and a father, a five year old girl, a three year old girl, and a newborn girl in a pink onesie. The older daughters were constantly wanting to sit cross-legged in their dresses, and mom and dad were constantly instructing them to sit quietly with their legs together and their hems over their knees. During the meeting, the mother fed the baby, then placed her on her shoulder and began to gently pat her back. Soon enough, the child’s esophagus produced the expected burp, but it was more like an eruption. It was a BUUURRRP! that caused heads to turn and faces to smile, and probably moved the needle on the nearest seismograph. Mom handled the sudden attention by cradling her baby daughter and saying in a whisper: “Goodness gracious! That wasn’t very ladylike!”
Let me hasten to say that I find no fault with these parents. If I were in their situation, I would undoubtedly do the same things. But I’m guessing that if the two older children had been boys, sitting cross-legged would not have been a problem, and if the infant had been wearing a blue onesie, mom and dad might have just shrugged and said: “Well, he’s certainly all boy!” Dad might have even tried to give his son a high five.
It was interesting to see how we teach our children about masculinity and femininity, even when they are only six weeks old. And there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with that, in itself. But why do we make such an effort to indoctrinate and teach gendered behavior if we believe that gender is eternal? When those girls are Beehives, they will hear lessons telling them that feminine refinement is a natural part of their identity which they brought with them from the pre-mortal life. That will certainly be news to their parents, who have had to work really hard over the years to get them to stop pulling hair, belching, and picking their noses.
Traditional gendered behavior from 150 years ago looked like this: The women raised the children, kept the house and the farm, raised pigs and chickens and milked the cows. When the family needed cash, she sold butter, cheese and eggs. Meanwhile, the men roamed the mountains, exploring, hunting, and fishing. Two decades ago I was taught by a stake president in stake priesthood meeting that we men should avoid floral print neckties and briefcases which come with a shoulder strap because both things were effeminate. Fast forward twenty years, and my current stake president wears, you guessed it, floral print neckties and carries, yes, a briefcase with a shoulder strap. Our construction of gender is so transitory that it seems foolish to want to freeze it and make it eternal.
The Proclamation to the World on the Family is the primary document that sets forth the idea of eternal, gendered spirits, but it provides little insight into what that might mean. We are a literal-minded folk, and we sometimes try to map behavior that is an accomodation to a fallen world onto eternity. I reject the idea that women will nurture small children and men will be providers, bringing home the bacon in the afterlife. If I awake after the resurrection to find myself seated at a conference table listening to 3rd quarter budget projections, or explaining that the accounts receivable for the big Kolob project are past due, I’ll know I’m not in heaven.
I think we can explain almost all of the observable differences between the ways males and females behave by accounting for physical differences, evolutionary biology, and the surrounding culture. What, then, is left? When our church teaches that gender is eternal, what does that mean?