A more perfect patriarchy

Elisabeth’s recent post, posing the question of whether women are precluded from holding the priesthood by policy or doctrine, particularly interested me. Last month I finished a personal essay on women in the church today for the upcoming summer issue of Dialogue and in tribute to the 3 so-called “pink issues” Dialogue has published. It’s in the can and after it is published, I will welcome your comments. Now I would like to follow Elisabeth’s lead and invite a discussion corollary to her great question and relating to some of my essay.

Regardless of the source of Mormon patriarchy, we, male and female, must find a way to love and serve all of our brothers and sisters, both to aid them and to purify our souls. Our understanding of priesthood is key to reaching the mark. To the extent the male priesthood results in any feelings of superiority in men and inferiority in women or disregard for the righteous needs and desires of women, it is less than it can and should be. I would suggest a pressing question is “Are we collectively capable of surmounting male pride and abuse of power, as well as female pride, jealousy and pain as a result of that abuse, under the current system?” You might enjoy Tania Rand Lyon’s essay “How My Mission Saved My Membership” in Dialogue V36, No. 3, Fall 2003, for one woman’s thoughtful experience with this issue.

Many of my friends have left the church because they did not believe they or their wives and daughters were either considered appropriately in church decision making or given opportunities to use their talents within their religious community. The Relief Society manual, the podium and the Ensign are just some of the predominately male aspects of our culture; women sometimes find it hard to identify at church. Even the most painful women’s issues seem ignored. For example, here in Seattle, the recent sex abuse verdict against the church was big news. Though, as an attorney, I realized the church would have to craft a statement to members very carefully, I did expect a statement of reassurance from the pulpit. Something along the lines of “We cannot discuss an ongoing appeal but we want you all to be assured bishops and stake presidents have been trained to take accusations of sex abuse very seriously and to obey the law which calls for the protection of victims.” Nope, silence. Corporate fears seem to have trumped the fears of the abused debating whether to seek church help. In the process, some may see the continuation of old and discredited practices which protected priesthood holders at the expense of their victims. Marginalized by men in instances as important as this, as small as what size refrigerators will be available in ward kitchens (a surprisingly hot button issue in large geographical wards), or as common as the absence of female voices in meetings and teaching materials, we pray sisters do not feel less important to God. Too often simply telling women they are loved and valued rings empty and they struggle for a personal spiritual confirmation of their value to the ultimate patriarch, Heavenly Father.

So I ask you: are we capable of creating a truly inclusive and loving community within a patriarchal structure and, if so, what would that community look like? Can we make women more visible, learn their concerns and better use their talents short of extending the priesthood to them? What presently priesthood functions might be shared to the benefit of all?


  1. Thank you for bringing this subject up. As a single adult woman in the church, I have felt like an invisible outsider my entire life; I have felt unloved in the midst of loving people; and I have thought long and deeply about whether I have worth to Heavenly Father.

    I don’t know if it’s possible to create an inclusive and loving community with the structure we have. For example, how do you convince single women to attend a ‘couples’ party for the Elder’s or High Priest’s Quorum? How can single women feel like part of ward family when they have very little in common with many of the other women and it is against the rules for men to talk to them :-) I can only hope that Heaven has a place where single women can be all they are meant to be,including Queen’s and Priestesses…and not as the 3rd or 4th wife of some man who is chosen for them.

    I wish I could think of a solution; but it may be impossible. How do we,as human beings, overcome our selfishness, suspicion, prejudices, jealousies,labeling,stereo-typing, and judging of others? When these flaws are overcome, maybe there would be hope of a better community. Until the’status quo’is set free, and issues are openly and honestly discussed, I don’t see anything changing.

    I asked a friend of mine why they don’t give the Priesthood to women and he pointed out that if they did, men would have nothing to do because they would happily let the women take over all church responsibilities. Good point!

  2. Eric Russell says:

    Onlooker, I’m sorry to hear about your difficulties, but I am nonplussed by your questions.

    how do you convince single women to attend a ‘couples’ party for the Elder’s or High Priest’s Quorum?

    Hold on here, if a party was specifically labeled a “couples” party, why would a single person want to attend? Are single people even invited to a “couples” party? If so, why is it a “couples” party? If it were indeed a “couples” party, why would we want single people to attend? Also, why would the problems of a “couples” party be any different for a single woman than a single man?

    How can single women feel like part of ward family when they have very little in common with many of the other women and it is against the rules for men to talk to them.

    Once again, I don’t see any difference between single men and women in this case and, if anything, there are much greater difficulties for a single man in a family ward. More important, however, is the fact that the church created singles wards specifically for this purpose. In fact, I think church leaders would even say a single person’s discomfort in a family ward is a good thing. I don’t think they want single people getting too comfortable in a family ward.

    I can only hope that Heaven has a place where single women can be all they are meant to be, including Queen’s and Priestesses…and not as the 3rd or 4th wife of some man who is chosen for them.

    It’s one or the other, huh? Well, if you want to know the truth, I don’t think there’s any evidence that there’s a place for either of those types of women in heaven. I think we’ll all be paired up one for one.

  3. enochville says:

    I think one place to look for a potential answer to the original post’s questions is to find out why many women in the church today already feel included, visible, and that they are making good use of their talents. Then use what we learn from those successes and see if we can’t first make sure that whatever is being done right in those cases are being done in the other cases in which women do not feel included, etc.

    I think it is fully possible to accomplish all that the original post desires in a patriarchal organization, because many women are already experiencing it, as my wife would attest. Now, in saying that I do not wish to ignore those that feel marginalized. We need to do a lot better, but I feel a large part of the solution lies in living the principles of the gospel better.

  4. Being a first generation Mormon and trying my best to honor my priesthood and wife I failed miserably in my first marriage. The results of which I still suffer in my children.

    For me it was too much to change religions, culture and try to adapt to a changing Mormon culture by
    following the examples of great priesthood holders of the past.

    Like you I now look to the future for the answers we all long for. My present wife enjoys the benefit of my past failings and is sensitive to my own struggles to be a good husband, father and priesthood holder. We are both active in the church.

    However, my former wife and many of my children(6) from both marriages are not. Recently at Zelophehad’s Daughters I carried on a conversation with my only daughter Emily on “The Role of Women in Heaven” . Her feelings and insights on these issues between men and women reveal the wound that needs healing.

    My cure was to look to the future by quoting my Patriarchal Blessing,

    “where it refers to a day in the future when I shall live with my wife in heaven as a priest and a priestess; a god and a goddess.”

    Emily’s wrote,

    “the ultimate destiny of mankind would be to recognize the greatness of women … then the world will be a celestial place … So I guess we can try to focus on this life and what women can do here so as to progress the world to a higher level.”

    This tells much about the differences between men and women, generations and a father and a daughter.

  5. As the official big mouth broad in my ward, possibly my stake, I am constantly dismayed at the way leadership will dismiss my best suggestions. I become more strident and insistent the worse they treat me.

    For instance, I recently served in the nursery. We needed the chalkboards taken down because the kids kept hitting their faces and head on them. I was working with a very nice demure wife of a member of the stake presidency and the very nice demure wife of the bishop. They both repeatedly asked their husbands to take care of this.

    I was quite willing to go in with a screwdriver and a crowbar and take those damn things down myself, but my husband warned me not to, and said he would fix it in an attempt to save me from jail.

    He went in and put foam on all the chalkboards.

    But damn, those guys were stubborn in their efforts to resist common sense. Now I’m on them for other things. I’m going to write to that damn stake president every week until I die.

  6. darn. darn stake president. very nice man otherwise. sorry in advance.

  7. Rosalynde says:

    Molly, thanks for your positive and constructive approach. We’ve discussed on many other occasions the measures that might be taken from an administrative position to facilitate women’s fullest participation in the church, and I’m sure all those items (and more!) will be suggested again here. What interests me is your useful observation that the sources of present pain—and, perhaps, the onus for change—touches men *and* women: we need to surmount “male pride and abuse of power, as well as female pride, jealousy and pain.”

    Recognizing that most structural change will have to originate with priesthood leadership, I nevertheless think women themselves can do a lot more to improve their experiences in the church. For example:

    —take it upon ourselves to know scripture and doctrine, and to participate constructively and collegially in doctrinal discussions

    —make sure our loyalty to the Church is beyond question (this doesn’t mean, of course, never opening one’s mouth or asking a question—but I’ve always found it ironic when women distressed about not holding priesthood office talk about leaving the church in protest: any organization, it seems to me, would be foolish to hand the reigns to a group whose ultimate loyalty is uncertain)

    —take it upon ourselves to initiate constructive and mutually respectful communication with priesthood leadership, and in doing so combat stereotypes of women’s emotionalism and irrationality

    —do what we can to banish the all-too-common (and cursedly stereotypical) interpersonal problems that plague many RS: develop thick and humorous skins to avoid over-sensitivity and needless offense, avoid gossip and mean-spirited judgement, be large-spirited and patient

    —learn to accept criticism gracefully, and to avoid the herd response of uncritical group rallying: leadership positions will always invite criticism, and we have to prove we can take it

    —do the hard work of magnifying our callings meaningfully: forget the tablecloth and centerpiece, forget statistics about VT v. HT—let’s wrestle with mind and spirit to minister to Christ’s body where it’s most in need

    All of these efforts can only go so far, of course. But they’re a necessary accompaniment to any policy or structural change we might hope for.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    I think there are small things that can be done to help matters. Whether these kinds of steps will be taken in any individual ward will depend on the attitudes of local leadership, which is always going to be the case in our lay-structured church. But the potential is there.

    Two examples spring to mind. First, if I were a bishop (perish the thought!), I would treat the RS President no differently than the EQP and HPGL; in particular, I would request that she attend PEC meeting (not just Ward Council and Welfare). My experience (being a former EQP myself) is that the men tend to have a shoot-from-the-hip, easy going style, while the women tend to devote more time and energy to the leadership callings and tend to be more organized and on top of things. As a bishop, I would want to tap that leadership resource within my ward. Also, as a bishop, I would delegate virtually all delegable duties to my counselors, the priesthood leadership and the auxiliary leadership, in order to spend virtually all of my time dealing with people (rather than programs). I wouldn’t treat sisters in leadership positions any differently than brothers (except in the obvious case of performing ordinances, which would be outside of my control).

    A second small but meaningful example is calling a sister to be GD teacher. I just did a stint as SS President, and encouraged this, and indeed the bishop called a sister to this position, who is serving there still. GD teacher is in some ways the most visible and important calling in the ward after bishop, and a model of gospel scholarship to the rest of the ward. And there is no priesthood impediment to putting a sister in this important role.

    I’m sure there are other things that can be done within the framework of our existing system and culture to improve matters.

    I would also like to say that all of the bishops with whom I have personal experience have been very eager to be responsive to the needs of the sisters in the ward. Following Rosalynde’s suggestions, there is no reason why a sister’s voice cannot be heard and be an influence in local church governance.

  9. A great question, Molly, and an excellent discussion. Although a lot of this is beyond my control, I’d like to see some attempt to address the rhetorical imbalances that seem to grow out of structural inequalities. The institutional subordination of women seems to lead to a lot of compensatory saccharine about how very, very special and beloved women are and a lot of corresponding male-bashing (men are so inherently degenerate that if we didn’t let them have the priesthood, they would lie around the house in their underwear, reading pornography and teaching the kids to freebase). While we can’t always stop these kinds of claims from being made, we can refuse to make them ourselves and politely but clearly question them when others do so.

  10. In our ward, sisters hold the following callings (outside the “traditional auxiliaries”)”

    – Chair of the activities committee (which has a lot of power in our ward)
    – Gospel doctrine teacher
    – One of the two seminary teacher callings
    – Building scheduler (you’d be surprised at how much power this calling has, when she tells the men that no, they can’t have the keys to play ball on a Thursday night because it interferes with other activities)

    The stake RS presidency sat on a committee to help select the design for the stake center. When our ward was remodeled, the ward RS presidency was tasked with making most of the decisions about appliances for the kitchen, the color schemes, the carpeting.

    Wards in our stake have the RS president attend PEC meetings as well as ward council and welfare meetings. The RS president takes the lead on welfare issues.

    As with most day-to-day issues, I see this topic as being, largely, one of local execution, not the product of doctrine or SLC directives. Bishops already know that they are supposed to involve the sisters in leadership and decision-making. Whether or not they do that is not the “Church’s” problem, or is it?

    Sometimes ya gotta just take command. Back to the example of our building scheduler (whom I home teach), she saw many cases where the local priesthood quorums were using their “keys” (physical) to go play ball when the building was reserved for other activities. She took charge of the situation and put a stop to it (if I recall correctly, she went to the stake president after the agent bishop ignored her).

  11. More suggestions –

    1. Structure the work we do to include both men and women, working together. There is nothing in the boy scout rules that says Beehives, Mia Maids and Laurels cannot be invited to participate in an eagle scout service project. And I’m pretty sure that a young woman would be delighted if some YM showed up to help her.

    2. Men can stop looking at the RS as “the food making arm of the church”. Lots of men like to cook and are good at it. We can volunteer, and ask the RS president to think of us when meals need to be prepared.

  12. Molly,

    I have to admit that your post really turns me off–mostly because of its style, but partially because of its content. It’s almost as though you are working off a worn script that requires the use of certain hackneyed phrases and buzzwords. You’ve got the obligatory “Mormon patriarchy,” “abuse of power,” and “marginalized by men” in there. As one attorney to another I have to confess my favorite is “corporate fears.”

    It seems to me that Mormon’s of a certain vintage keep talking about the same old issues, using the same old phrases and making the same old claims. If this sort of paint by the numbers discussion is what passes for dialogue, then heaven help us. Even a pseudo-intellectual like me can see that the old rhetoric needs an overhaul. When people accuse the brethern of stagnating in their discourse the usual response is that they will talk about different things when we change. I’m hoping for a different response from you.

    In regards to the content of your post, I fail to see how child abuse is a “women’s issue.” Government statistics show that the male and female children are abused at about the same rate, but that girls are sexually abused at about four times the rate of boys. I understand the urge to advocate for those who are most affected by a tragedy, but a better approach in this instance, it seems to me, is to advocate for five out of five victims.

    In regards to refrigerators, I happen to be the person most likely to suffer from our units space constraints as I am responsible for making deliveries from the bishop’s storehouse. If I can’t make the delivery because no one was home and the ward fridge is full, I have to find another place for it. Of course that is a sample size of one and maybe there are really wards full of women whose pleas for a larger refrigerator are falling on deaf ears. If so then by all means, let’s get the topic out in the public sphere and give it the attention it deserves. I would be a welcome change from the usual stuff.

    In regards to making women more visible and giving them more opportunity to use their talents. Agreed. The faster the better. Let’s just find a way to advocate for it without the word “patriarchy.”

  13. Great comments everyone. Rosalynde was my favorite. In many wards that I have been in women almost seem to dominate. The RS is often more ‘active’ and magnify their callings in a more meaningful way than do EQ and HPG. They often touch more people as well. Many of the most meaningful things you can do to influence someone has nothing to do with priesthood. Ask almost any bishop if they would rather do without the RS president or do without the EQP, I would imagine he would do without the EQP in almost all cases.

  14. And I’m pretty sure that a young woman would be delighted if some YM showed up to help her.

    This would be nice, but the way the program was set up in the ward I was in I couldn’t count the hours of service I had organized the way the boys could for their Eagle Scout projects. For instance a young women’s 20 hour service project had to have her doing 20 hours of service, not including planning. A 20 hour service project for an Eagle scout could have 20 people doing service for an hour that he wsa responsible for planning. I’m not sure if that is how it is supposed to work, but that’s how it did work.

    Anyhow, I have seen wards doing what you suggest in having men and women working together. A ward I was in recently would call married couples to be teachers in primary and sunday school. The bishopric specified that they were to take turns teaching every week. (There were nearly no single people in the ward so they were at liberty to do this without fear of alienating the single members) This was also an effective way expand the number of important callings available in a large ward. This way we were able to avoid having hymn book coordinators and 30 members on the compassionate service committee.

  15. One of my previous Bishops made a special point of calling up the recipients of the Young Women Program awards as well as the recipients of Boy Scout awards. He usually pointed out that the Young Woman award was the more challenging one as well. He also started the practice of having the RS President attend each Priesthood Executive Commitee (After Bishopric Meeting, PEC is where all the real decisions in the ward are made).

    I’ve said it before, but the story bears repeating since annecdotes here typically seem to skew negative.

    I wouldn’t mind seeing the Church institutionalizing the practice of having the RS Pres at PEC though …

  16. Matthew, in #12 you objected to the use of the term “patriarchy.”
    Can you explain your complaint? Molly used it to accurately describe an institutional feature of our organization. More than that, from my perspective, she went out of her way to allow that the patriarchal structure may have positive or even divine roots.

    So, why whine?

    You also objected to her phrase “marginalized by men.” I’m male, I don’t feel marginalized. But, it is a fact that many Mormon women do feel marginalized (as examples I can cite my wife, 3 of 6 sisters, 1 of 1 mothers, 1 out of 2 daughters, comment #5, 2 out of 10 cousins, etc.) What’s your complaint that she identifies an issue?

    Good post, Molly.

  17. Eric wrote (#2): “I don’t think there’s any evidence that there’s a place for either of those types of women in heaven.”

    Did you mean that? If I’m single and didn’t feel marginalized before, all I need is some male glibly assuring me that in his opinion there’s won’t be any of my “types” in heaven….

  18. Morgan A.,

    I object to the word “patriarchy” as Molly used it because it serves as a springboard for a wide-ranging litany of complaints bound together only by the fact that “Patriarchy” is to blame. If you did their geneology you would find that Patriarchy and The Man are close relatives.

    Posts like Molly’s serve to perpetuate a rhetoric of victimization that is more harmful than helpful. She asks some great questions in her closing paragraph, but reserves the bulk of her post to catalogue the ways that women are marginalized at church. I don’t want my daughter to choose between feeling marginalized and feeling empowered through recognition of her victimhood. I want her to believe that by taking action she can change things–and to then take action.

  19. Matthew, you and I apparently are more in synch than I would have guessed.
    I agree that “Patriarchy and The Man are close relatives.” I also agree we should work for an environment where a daughter should “believe that by taking action she can change things–and to then take action.”

  20. Certain of the comments here strike a nerve with me in that they set up an artificial contest between things male in the church and things female.

    For example: “He usually pointed out that the Young Woman award was the more challenging one as well.” Recognizing, of course, that this is Seth’s bishop and not Seth, what is the value in a comment like this? Must there be competition between the awards, and therefore between the YM and YW? What end does such a comment serve? It makes YM unnecessarily defensive about the value of the work they are pursuing. Why foster an “us vs. them” mentality?

    Rosalynde nailed it with this comment:

    “Do the hard work of magnifying our callings meaningfully: forget the tablecloth and centerpiece, forget statistics about VT v. HT—let’s wrestle with mind and spirit to minister to Christ’s body where it’s most in need.”

    If we all, men and women, keep the mission of the Church as the highest priority, the cultural trappings that create so many of the misunderstandings that are at issue here fall away.

  21. “Must there be competition between the awards, and therefore between the YM and YW? What end does such a comment serve? It makes YM unnecessarily defensive about the value of the work they are pursuing. Why foster an “us vs. them” mentality?”

    MDS, I agree with your comment about creating an us vs them mentality. I also cannot speak for Seth’s bishop but as a member of the patriarchy I’m guessing that he made this comment not to put the YW on the defensive or to offend women in the congregation, but to praise the YW for their hard work and to disabuse any men of the notion that the YW award is second class.

    Your comments illustrate the difficult situation many men are faced with, in and out of the church. If the Bishop had not said the comment there would certainly have been someone offended that he did not stress the difficulty of the YW award, demoting its significance by his silence.

    I served in a Bishopric that invited the YW president to PEC after she complained (rightly in my mind) that if the YM are to be represented there the YW should be as well. She was released and a new president called. After a few weeks my wife told me that the new president was upset about attending PEC every week. In her mind it was just another example of the insensitivity of men in church leadership positions who don’t understand the burdens of a wife and mother.

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t…

  22. I was living in Boston in the early 90s when Mitt Romney was the local stake president. In about ’92 he held a stake-wide meeting with a formal meeting topic along the lines of “How to increase the role of women in ward and stake management/leadership.”
    Mitt’s introduction to the meeting was similar to Molly’s question of: “Can we make women more visible, learn their concerns and better use their talents…? What activities presently viewed as priesthood functions might be shared to the benefit of all?”

    One of the changes that seemed to arise directly from that meeting in our Cambridge ward (although we moved at just this time so we only heard about it) is that our bishop appointed a female ward member to be a “sacrament meeeting coordinator.” My understanding is that in that role she organized sacrament meeting once a month. That is, she determined (or delagated to someone else) what music would be sung/performed and who would speak and prayer.

  23. Katherine says:

    Personally, I think that the jealousy of the priesthood mentioned may stem from women either not knowing or not understanding their role in the church. I had an aunt who left the church because she didn’t understand why women couldn’t hold the priesthood. It’s sad when that happens.

    I think that you guys are spot on with the argument that women need to be more actively involved with church leadership. Being relatively fresh out of the Young Women’s program, I see a need for better leadership training in the program. Being a class president is great and all, but it’s very passive and not that involved, even when implemented properly. Also, those callings are focused on the girls who come to church every sunday, and are relatively strong in the church (as it should be). But what about those who fall between the cracks?

  24. Re #22, I was in Arlington, Virgina in 1992, and we had a similar meeting in our stake, so I wonder if that means there was a regional effort to hold these meetings. It was certainly welcomed as a breath of fresh air in our ward.

  25. I agree that the Young Women (and Young Men) need better leadership training. I disagree with Katherine that the calling of class president is “very passive and not that involved, even when implemented properly.” When youth are taught to organize their leadership meetings around the mission of the church, and assisted by the adults, rather than lead by them, they can become very powerful leaders even at a young age, and do much to bring souls to Christ.

    An anecdote from a recent conversation with a friend bears out the need for better training, and at a young age. Shortly after marrying, at age 22, she was called as RS president in an inner city ward. She was suddenly confronted with huge problems amongst the sisters she was now responsible for, including murder, rape, incest, etc. These were not easy problems to deal with, or counsel her sisters about. Her YW years had not prepared her for having to offer such counseling. Why not? Shouldn’t our youth be being trained in how to spiritually counsel others? Shouldn’t they be experts on the healing power of the Atonement? How are they going to teach others how to use it, either as missionaries, or in other adult callings, if we don’t prepare them for those teaching and counseling opportunities that will inevitably confront them as adults (if not sooner).


  1. […] I missed Elizabeth’s Enrichment Announcement, which frankly makes me want to cry. Please Elizabeth, stop being so darn nice and put it back.  Please. (or email it to me!) And then I looked back a little further and saw Molly Bennion’s post on A More Perfect Patriarchy, don’t know how I missed that one, but if you did, you shouldn’t. Then over to T&S where What about the Children?  by Kristine Haglund Harris pretty much sums up my every thought, only deeper and stuff. Authority on Her Head by Julie M. Smith, is . . . classic Julie which is always wow. […]