Bloggernacle voices (and I’m one of them) often point out that church structurally disadvantages women in a number of important ways. Women are denied the formal leadership structure of the Priesthood; limited in other official roles; subjected to a variety of messages. Indeed, an outside observer might think, from reading bloggernacle posts alone, that women would be fleeing in droves from this anti-feminist church, leaving behind only a foul-smelling, unshaven, male-populated shell of an organization.
They would be wrong. In fact, women seem to consistently be the most active church members. This is perhaps the trickiest conceptual problem for the Mormon feminist: Explaining the appeal of this anti-feminist church to so many actual women. If the church is such a bad place for women — and conversely, such an unfairly good place for men — then why are women so much more likely to attend church?
A few interesting suggestions have been made in the bloggernacle. For instance, Ziff at ZDs has suggested that the church doesn’t actually hold on to women so well — that actually, women are more religious than men in general, and that the LDS church isn’t particularly unique in holding on to women.
This explanation may or may not be enough. It suggests, in essence, that women may be relatively less active in the particularly patriarchal LDS church, as compared to their higher activity in other (also generally patriarchal) churches. So compared to the background phenomenon of female religiosity, LDS women aren’t all that unique. (And may in fact be less religious than their non-Mormon counterparts.) That begs the question though — how do we explain the background phenomenon of female religiosity in general?
There are potential explanations. For instance, one might accept any of a number of gender essentialist premises about womens’ greater natural spirituality — the “women are naturally more spiritual” camp. However, for at least some of us, those premises are themselves troubling. Is there another possibility?
One could also suggest that Mormon women have been collectively brainwashed, and have thus internalized anti-feminist values — false consciousness — even though those values are harmful to them. Again, this explanation is troubling. It is extremely paternalistic (maternalistic?) — positing that outsiders know what’s good for Mormon women, more than Mormon women themselves do. Do we really want to give such a low value to the opinions of Mormon women themselves?
Others suggest that self-selection plays a role. For instance, Kiskiliili has observed that,
A significant number of unhappy people have left. Those who stay represent a disproportionate sample of those who find peace with the institution. Mormon women are, after all, a self-selected group of people whose beliefs are at least somewhat compatible with Church teachings.
This is also undoubtedly true. And yet, it doesn’t really explain the greater participation by women, does it? If the unhappy women have left — and some of them certainly have — then a ratio of greater womens’ participation can only be maintained if the church is even less welcoming to men. That is, if it’s driving away, say, 30 men for every 20 women.
Why on earth would that happen?
Notice also, the dog that isn’t barking.
Women’s status in the church is sometimes compared to the status of Blacks, prior to 1978. (I’ve probably made that comparison myself.) Like pre-OD2 Blacks, women in the church are barred from the priesthood as well as many formal leadership roles.
Yet the two groups have responded in extremely different ways.
Blacks, prior to 1978, made up a vanishingly small segment of church members. Even today, 30 years since the Priesthood ban was lifted, Blacks are a very small percent of church membership. Blacks continue to struggle with acceptance in the community (see, e.g., Jessie Embry’s Black Saints in a White Church).
That is, we can say that Blacks have historically been marginalized in the church community. And in fact, the numbers bear out what we would expect if the group were excluded.
Why not women?
This is one of the most difficult questions for the Mormon feminist, I think. It’s one that’s perplexed me for a while. I’ve had a number of conversations with smart people — many of them Mormon, feminist, or both — and there’s no consensus that I can see. (Except for perhaps “the troglodytes can’t be right, can they?”) I can’t claim to have a perfect answer, but there are a few possibilities. I’ll discuss one major possibility in this post, and discuss some other factors in a follow up post.
One plausible explanation comes from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s _Good Wives_. Ulrich notes that women in pre-revolution New England were also highly religious, also in religions which denied them full participation. Ulrich notes: “Most congregations were predominantly female, though women were denied full participation in the establishment or the governance of religion.” (Good Wives, 215).
And why were these women active in church? Ulrich continues (216):
Still, church membership was one of the few public distinctions available to women. Men could be fence-viewers, deacons, constables, captains, hog reeves, selectmen, clerks, magistrates, tithingmen, or sealers of leather. Women could be members of a gathered church. In a society in which church membership had to be earned, this was no small distinction. Furthermore, church membership was not contingent upon any other social role. A woman could be admitted to the Table of the Lord regardless of the status, economic position, or religious proclivities of her husband.
Ulrich sets out some other interesting analysis, but let’s focus on this one, for a moment. It’s a fascinating idea: Women were active in churches because, even though churches may have given women only limited participation, nevertheless this was still a greater degree of participation than was otherwise available. Church allowed women real avenues for social position and advancement, independent of their status in other fields which were often entirely closed to women.
So, churches may have been patriarchal, but society at large was even more patriarchal — and given that backdrop, church participation in fact became a net gain for women, a natural movement into an arena where they enjoyed more influence than was otherwise available.
Does the same hold true today? (And, could it explain the appeal of the church for Mormon women?)
In some ways, it seems clear that underlying societal sexism continues. Yes, the LDS church is patriarchal and grants limited participation to women — but then, society at large is also still rather patriarchal. Yes, there has never been a female LDS prophet . . . but then, there has never been a female U.S. president. Men outnumber women as general conference speakers . . . by roughly the same proportion that men outnumber women in the Senate.
So maybe the church isn’t any worse on gender issues than the rest of the world. Maybe it’s even a little bit better. And if that’s the case, it could make sense that women remain attached to the community, even if it’s one that does not grant full participation. The church could be _relatively_ woman-friendly, even if it’s not _absolutely_ woman-friendly.
(And if that’s one of the main underlying factors — how will it play out, going forward? Will women’s church attendance continue, if sexism in general wanes in society at large?)