Liberate me! I’m repressed?

A few weeks ago, while traveling, I met an American woman with whom I had a lengthy conversation. She was in her late 50s or early 60s. She wanted to know about my work so we discussed philosophy for awhile among other things. I quite enjoyed talking to her. But later that evening I mentioned that I had met people at church who let me stay in their homes for free. She immediately asked me what church I attend. When I told her I am Mormon she was quite shocked. She asked me how I could be so educated and part of such a sexist church, thus allowing myself to be repressed. I said, “Women are encouraged to get as much education as they can and I’m not repressed.” She told me that yes, I am repressed. When I asked her how I am repressed she just said, “Well, you have to admit that you belong to a sexist church.” I said, “the church is patriarchal, yes. But that doesn’t make me repressed. How am I repressed?” Our exchange continued in this way as she got increasingly more distressed and insistent. She never explained to me in what ways I am repressed. She simply insisted that patriarchy and conservative religion necessitate my repression.

She asked me how I could be politically liberal and belong to a conservative religion. I told her there were many liberal mormons, that one could be socially and politically liberal while being religious. This is the point at which she lost control of herself. She said “How can you be so educated and a philosopher and believe in such superstitions? Yours is a superstitious religion. Are you a true believer? Do you really believe that God spoke to Joseph Smith and all of that?” I responded, “Yes, I do believe it. I’ve questioned the doctrine and studied it and don’t find it contrary to reason. So there is no conflict between my religion and my academic work.” Her face got red and she screamed, “That’s scary. I find that truly scary!” Then she stormed out of the hostel kitchen.

This whole exchange lasted about 30 minutes. Every time I challenged one of her assumptions she changed the subject instead of answering my questions. By the time she left, I found myself extremely angry and insulted. Though I kept my cool with her the whole time. I sat down at the table to finish my meal and smiled at the smirking German. Then the woman came crashing back into the kitchen saying, “The sad thing is that they are truly beautiful people, the mormons. So are most fundamentalist Christians.” I smiled at her and then walked out.

In order to resolve my anger I had to recognize that she had issues with herself, not with me. Even though I felt insulted, she really fought against her own fears. My faith threatened and scared her. At one point she mentioned that she grew up in the Church of Christ and knows what it’s like for fundamentalist women to be repressed. So at some time in her life she turned her back on her family’s traditions. The fact that an intelligent, educated, liberal woman could believe in a religion like mormonism, which she obviously equated with all fundamental Christianity, rocked her worldview. She must hold a fundamental belief that religion is only for the ignorant women. Once I realized this, my anger turned to sadness for her.

There are at least two issues for discussion here. Are Mormon women repressed? And if so, then in what ways? I don’t feel repressed but maybe, as the woman insisted, I am repressed and just don’t realize it. I’m also single and childless so maybe I have escaped the repression that comes with having a family. Wives and mothers, are you repressed by your families?

The other issue is the perceived conflict with intellectualism and faith/religion. This woman could not accept the existence of a religious and educated woman. She obviously absorbed the Enlightenment ideals of rationalism over ‘superstition’ or faith. Our popular culture is similarly steeped in such ideals. So, lets explain away this false conflict or justify it as a real problem or rant about it or whatever else your hearts desire.

Jennifer J


  1. Julie in Austin says:

    “Wives and mothers, are you repressed by your families?”

    No, no, and no.

    However, I would say that falling into an intellectual void is the path of least resistence for an at-home mom, and you will certainly not be criticized at Church if you have no ‘intellectual’ interests and are solely devoted to your home, family, and maybe a hobby or two.

    However, no one will stop you from advancing your intellectual interests, either.

    I think LDS men are more repressed. What acceptable choice is there besides working 40+ hours per week? Whereas a ‘righteous’ woman can fit everyone’s expectations as long as she is not working full-time when her kids are small. That leaves a lot of leeway for part-time work, hobbies, activism (not that this actually happens a lot, but it is institutionally possible), education, etc. I feel blessed to live in a time where conveniences and low standards make the burden of actual housework very low, and allow me time and energy to pursue other things.

  2. As you suggest, I suspect that the woman’s vehemence had more to do with her own personal history with fundamentalist religion as with any thing she knew about Mormonism.

    With regard specifically to Mormonism, I think we have to acknowledge that there are some factors that we can’t do much about which not unreasonably influence general public perceptions, such as the right-wing voting habits of our brothers and sisters in Utah and the Church’s occaisional pogroms against certain outspoken feminists and intellectuals.

    The thing we can do something about is responding to modern attitudes toward faith and belief. Apologies to any readers who hear me babble on way too much as it is in Gospel Doctrine class, but I was struck in reading through the recent BoM lessons on how this issue is addressed there. In Alma 30:13-17 Korihor very concisely presents a modern sceptical materialist epistemology. Then in Alma 32:17-36 Alma presents a religious epistemology. At the end he asks “is not this real?” (Alma 32:35).

    I think that is the nub of the question. We are dealing with two different worldviews when we contrast modern materialist scepticism with religious belief. The two have very little common ground on which to base a rational discussion. The believer can only say “I have had these experiences and they are real to me.” The sceptic can only respond “no, they are not real, they are only in your own head” (Alma 30:16).

    I think the only productive discussion that can follow is an affective one — what are the consequences of the two worldviews. Then you can have an exchange of some sort if the discussants are open-minded. As has been pointed out, this is not always the case for many on both sides.

  3. Heidi, oh how I miss you. So nice you’ve found us.

    I think what you’ve alluded to is that women in the church have varying notions of what kind of power they have under a patriarchal system. I think you could ask 10 different women and get 10 different answers ranging from “I don’t want power” to “my power is informal” to “yes, I don’t have power and I want it.” We live in the grey, but so often philosophize in black and white. And then there are the true believers who live in black in white, and it sounds like this woman was probably one of them.

    I’m pretty much living in the grey myself, (but not actually going grey….mind you…) And I do consider myself to be of the second generation of feminism, the one that enjoys the freedom and opportunity for power, but also feels comfortable making less militant decisions for myself.

    At the risk of sounding like a communist, I think it can be compared to the Hegelian dialectic. The thesis was life before feminism, when the entire society was patriarchal and oppressive, the antithesis was the feminist movement (necessary to break down the entrenched injustice) and now we are living in the synthesis. Valuing both the traditions of family and God, but also valuing the greater power and equality given to women. I agree with Heidi, in that I’m also glad to be a woman now.

  4. I don’t mean to glib, but I have to admit that my first thought in reading Jen’s post was of Monte Python — “Help, help, I’m being repressed!” ;)

    Anyway, I think I understand where this anonymous American intellectual was coming from. During high school and college I felt exactly the same way. [It didn’t help matters that my Bishop at the time had exclaimed that “it is always the smart ones that have problems with the church”–not exactly reassuring.] I even had several arguments along the same lines as Jen and this mystery woman with my Mormon friends.

    For me, the first step in clearing this obstacle was getting to know several bright (even brilliant), well-adjusted, and yet exceedingly faithful members who were willing to put up with my skepticism. It is easy to lose site of the importance of faith when one is surrounded by the philosophies of man. Perhaps Jen’s “friend” will never come to see the other side of things, but hey, you never know; perhaps her run-in with Jen was the first step down a different path.

  5. Christian says:

    I shouldn’t be getting involved in a discussion at 1:15AM, but here I am. I may be preaching to the choir but there’s nothing sexist in the Gospel although there may be sexist ideas in prevalent misunderstandings of the Gospel. It is just deeply unfortunate that there are so many misunderstandings. I could say more but somehow I think we all agree that the Church is the best thing that could happen to women.

  6. I think it is less an issue of being mean (depending upon what you mean by that) than simply having difficulties communicating. The ability to discuss ideas that you may even find repellant without reacting emotionally takes practice. It’s one of the benefits ideally of an university education. However it often appears that even there it doesn’t take. The problem is, of course, that those with college educations or this ability unwittingly assume others can do the same. Thus what seems like a good discussion to one seems like an attack to an other.

    I’ve found this many times. (With me on either side)

  7. I think there may be a threshold of liberal education out there, which tends to define people as intellectual + intolerant (as Jennifer’s experience shows) or intellectual + tolerant (as Karen’s experience shows). I wonder what the difference is — more education? More real-world experience?

    We can try and isolate the causes by wondering, would the woman Jennifer encountered be equally as close-minded were she not as educated?

  8. I’d just comment on the “Are Mormon women repressed” thing. On the one hand, could you be more arrogant than to tell someone they’re repressed, even as they insist they aren’t? If someone is perfectly happy with the life they are living, how can you be so conceited as to tell them they really aren’t happy and that they’re just brainwashed? The simple fact is, the vast majority of active Mormon women don’t seem to care that they don’t have the Priesthood or leadeship positions.

    On the other hand however, there continue to be women in Afghanistan who vigorously defend the Taliban regime. Women in Saudi Arabia happily accept their lower class status. Fundamentalist women in Colorado City, many of whom I would consider “repressed” (having never had a chance to see or know anything about the outside world) insist that those who want to help them are doing the devils work. These examples seem extreme to us, but to someone on the outside of Mormonism, not being allowed any leadership roles, not being allowed to bless your own children, being told a career is not for you if you’re a mom, etc, may sound pretty extreme in itself.

    As a side note, a member of the bishopric in my ward (a great guy I really admire and respect) asked me if they could extend a calling to my wife. I was caught off-guard and said “Sure,” and was about to follow up with “Don’t you think you should ask her?” when he said they’d contact her. Is it a tradition or policy to ask husbands first in the Church, or is this a unique situation? And couldn’t that be seen as a sign of repression to an outsider?

  9. Jennifer says:

    I’d like to comment on the criticism of liberal education and intolerant academia. I’m not sure the woman I met had finished college. She worked while her husband was getting a philosophy PhD and she might’ve told me that she quit school when she married him. (But I’m not sure.) She was not overly educated, and had wanted to know more about philosophy and what I do which is what the first part of our conversation was about. She wanted a sample of what I teach so I went over my problem of causation lecture with her. Explaining how Hume showed that inductive reasoning is merely probable, and that we cannot prove that causal connections are real.
    Which means that all of our scientific ‘truths’ are only highly probable conjectures. She found all of that fascinating but then threw it back in my face and said I studied that kind of thing because I needed to justify my ridiculous religious beliefs.

    Point is–she was not an academic and could not even engage in a rational arguement with me. My colleagues who know I’m religious generally respect that because they know they don’t have superior evidence for their worldview or belief structure. At least those who are intellectually honest with themselves admit that their beliefs stand on the same kind of faith as mine do.

  10. I’d not dare tread on the “repressed” theme. (My own view is many Mormon women are naive or sheltered, but I don’t think that is the same a repression)

    I have noticed though a sort of view in academics where in one sees an intrinsic opposition between academics and religion. This is more pronounced, of course, in the humanities. It’s fairly common in the sciences and engineering for there to be deeply religious people. (Even if many aren’t) Further it never seems to be a big deal. I’m not sure why that is – there are people upset at religion of course. Dawkins is the classic example although there are many others. But in the humanities there often is this oughtright amazement that someone can buck the dominant social view.

    It always facinates me.

  11. In my experience, looniness is certainly not restricted to the left.

    And I can only speak to my own experience. I’m acquainted, and have formed close friendships with, a number of very liberal, very well educated people. They, without exception, are supportive and respectful of my faith.

    Clearly there are people like those that Jennifer runs into. I just think that it is a pretty unusual case. (And pretty fascinating–quite frankly).

  12. Interesting story. It just goes to show that regardless of your beliefs, you’re either open to new ideas or you’re not. This conversation reminded me of many I’ve had with Church members over matters of history, doctrine, or Church culture. As they get to know me and realize I’m not part of the “norm” they get increasingly frustrated and angry. Many “enlightened” people act the same way. This woman and some of these Church members I’ve spoken to are two sides of the same coin.

  13. It is church policy to ask husbands about callings for their wives first. In our stake and ward, it is also policy to first ask wives about callings for their husbands.

  14. Jennifer,

    Not to repress you more than you already are, but:

    “When I told her I am Mormon she was literally shocked. “

    That’s bordering on a usage problem. Literally means “actually,” not “figuratively.” I know, shocked can mean surprised as well as electrocuted. But combining it with literally (which means non-figuratively), you make it sound like your acquaintance stuck a knife into a toaster just as you were telling her your religious affiliation. Which is always a possibility, I suppose.

  15. Jennifer,
    I actually have a lot of sympathy for the woman you talked to. Haven’t we all be in a position like this, when our accepted notions of the way the world works suddenly turns a corner we were unprepared for? I know it’s happened to me.

  16. Jennifer, frankly, I’m a little surprised that you had this exchange with someone. (In a hostel in Europe of all places, where openmindedness is a necessity…) I’m an outspoken politically liberal, religiously faithful woman, and I’ve never had anyone get angry with me before. I’ve had them ask questions, and they were surprised at my answers, but most liberals are so open-minded that they never get too fussed about anyone’s choices.

    I wonder if another aspect of this woman’s response is the tension between feminists of her generation, and feminists of our generation. There’s been a trend towards women in our generation using their feminism to choose to stay at home, loosening up on pro-choice stances, and in general rejecting the militism of those women in their 50s and 60s who had to fight for their rights, whereas, we just sort of take them as facts. Am I off base here, or do you think that may have played a role?

  17. Jennifer, thanks for sharing this story! I have had several run-ins like this too. They always make me physically sick.

  18. Jennifer: “My colleagues who know I’m religious generally respect that because they know they don’t have superior evidence for their worldview or belief structure.”

    It’s interesting that you put it in those terms. My colleagues who know I’m religious generally respect that because they’re nice people or because religion enjoys special workplace treatments. It’s my experience that they usually don’t respect what I believe because they don’t have superior evidence… although they don’t, I guess.

  19. Karen – being liberal and openminded means different things to different people. While there a lot of wonderful people who are willing tolisten and respect your and my choices to belong to our Church, there are a lot of people, who claim to hold liberal views, who assume that everyone has to agree with their views, and they get very defensive and angry when someone dares to disagree. This kind of behavior, unfortunately is quite common among the academic types one finds in most University campuses. Not too surprising, because a lot of academic types seem to have become members of the loony left

  20. Karen,
    I’ll jump in here and “take” your different generations of feminism notion. I think that could have been a factor, although it is difficult to tell from the story.

    I have mixed feelings on the issue of different generations of feminism. One the one hand, I think first generation feminists probably rightly feel that their sacrifices are not sufficiently appreciated by many modern women, even those who freely benefit from the options created by their efforts. On the other hand, I dislike the notion that feminist women should have a monolithic agenda and identical values and that all women should just stick with the goals and values of the first wave of feminism come what may.

    I think perhaps this women did subscribe to a worldview in which “liberated” “feminist” women should have largely the same values and perspectives. That would explain her inability to accept shades of grey in the feminist community. This outlook seems to fit with your first generation of feminism theory.

    I also think, however, that it may not be so unreasonable for someone to form the opinion that a woman who subscribes to and believes in a patriarchically structured community is not a true feminist. In a patriarchy, women are denied power; feminism is (at least in part) about transferring power to women that was previously denied them. So in this woman’s mind, it is impossible to reconcile the two. One is black, one is white, and there is no grey.

    Oh, and I loved the women have options, men have responsibilities quote. I think there is a kernal of truth to that, and I am so glad to be a woman during this period of human history. We really do have so many options. Thanks to the first generation feminists and our pioneer foremothers alike! (Think about it: no boring white shirts for the sister missionaries!)

  21. Jennifer says:

    Sorry I haven’t been back to check the comments, hence not responding to your generational question. I considered that aspect myself at the time. It did seem like the woman was stuck in the mindset of another generation.

    And speaking from inside academia and personally knowing some feminist epistemologists, there are definitely distinct movements within feminism. The 2nd-wavers(1st wave was Susan B Anthony and the suffragists) had to be militant to be heard, now that they have broken so many barriers for the rest of us, we have the option of being more moderate.

    The women in feminist philosophy who are 50+ have a much more extreme and limited view on gender roles. They think the notion of gender itself is purely a social construction and so any institution that makes gender distinctions commits acts of repression. By claiming that women are different from men, an institution limits women and confines them to whatever role they are prescribed. Most articles coming out of this feminist movement are really interesting reading.

    The woman I met had a fixed idea of what an educated and liberated woman was supposed to be. Believing in a God and ‘submitting’ myself to male authority because of that belief must violate her closed-minded idea. I’ve never met someone who had that kind of reaction to my religion before. I think my faith threatened the security of her own belief structure because previous to learning of it she respected me.

  22. Karen, I’ve met both kinds, just as I’ve met both kinds of “conservatives” (i.e. those tolerant and those intolerant.) I’m not at all convinced that tolerance correlates well with political belief.

    What I think tends to happen is that we *notice* the intolerant ones even if most people we meat are tolerant. Also, the fact is that political discussions between radically opposed views are very easy to turn heated, even if neither person would normally do it. It is often hard to discuss with an other when your “givens” or premises are so radically different.

  23. Karen, that different generations of feminism stuff is bunk. The only true feminist is a radical one, and a 1st generation. The rest are poseuses.

  24. Most people are blatantly intolerant of others. It doesn’t matter if they are “conservative” or “liberal”. People are, well, people, and most people are mean.

  25. Jennifer says:

    Oh yeah, Steve,
    I agree about Eve. She is way under-rated. I even gave a sacrament talk once about how much we owed to her for her thirst for knowledge. She was a hero who broke the law because she wanted more truth. You could say she had more courage than Adam, rather than describe her as the weaker one who gave in to temptation.

  26. On a simplerlevel, I have to deal with the same kind of mindset in my daily interactions with folks in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I live at. Yesterday, I had to deal with a friend who had read a book about Mark Hoffman, and then he could not understand why I insisted on as he put it, “belonging to a cult based on a series of fakes”!!!! And like the woman Jennifer met, my friend actually got kinda apoplectic towards the end , when he realised all his angry ranting, and all the “evidence” he presented wasnt changing my mind about the BOM being true, and wasnt going to change my desire to stay active in our Church, regardless of what he said!!!!

  27. So Steve, Eve was a feminist and the rest of us are just faking it?

  28. Someone mentioned Korihro and epistemology. There’s an old Ensign article by Gerald Lund that talks abot Korihor, epistomological systems, etc.

  29. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for the correction. That sentence looked weird to me after I read my post, but I didn’t bother to figure out what was wrong with it.

  30. Thomas…do you really think that most people are mean?

    Clark…absolutely understand your point about miscommunication. Happens in the blogosphere too, but probably less frequently as we have the (blessed) ability to edit before we post.

    No takers on my different generations of feminism notion….helllo? hello? anyone?

  31. We’re ALL repressed. Look at the commandments that we try to adhere to. No premarital sex, no drinking, no drugs, and any number of other things that society at large feels are acceptable. The odd thing is that Mormon women and men are both expected to live these standards. In many patriarchal cultures the men are expected to sow their wild oats and break the “rules” while expecting the women to keep them. At least in the Church the standards are the same for everyone. While the theory and the practice are two different things, Mormons seem to do a pretty good job of practicing what is preached. In fact, in some instances the church will come down harder on a man because he is priesthood holder.

    While the fact that the church is patriarchal might lead some to say that women are repressed that seems almost minor compared to how repressed we all are in the eyes of society at large.

    While I do think there is plenty of sexism in LDS culture, my wife’s aunt’s favorite saying always gives me a chuckle: “Women have options, men have responsibilities.” Of course my perspective as the husband of a doctor who plans on working two days a week while I continue to work full-time might have something to do with my affinity for the thought…

    On a side note, I have often seen people who claim to be liberal and “open minded” suddenly become very closed minded to ideas that strike them as conservative. While conservatives are often closed minded, at least they are following their intellectual tradition in being so. :) We could probably all stand to be a little more able to entertain other perspectives.

  32. yes!!! Thank you, marta! Eve was the original feminist, and one of the most under-rated women in scripture, IMHO.

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