This post is an honest and personal admission of my raw feelings about attending the temple as a woman and my budding concerns as the mother of a daughter.
As my daughter has entered Young Women this year, I’ve been contemplating her eventual endowment in the temple, and the experience she will have that I had over 25 years ago. Every week she is told, as I was, that attending the temple will be the loftiest goal of her life, the culmination of her religious experience, and the final step in ensuring her eventual exaltation. And I hope it will be! How do I help her to embrace what is good in the temple rites and covenants without being sidetracked by the inherent sexism and secondary status women face in each of the ceremonies? How will I prepare her for the temple without feeling like I’ve sold her out?
When I first attended, in preparation for my mission, aside from the rites being unfamiliar and very different from our usual low key church services, and aside from the discomfort of wearing underwear that was made from about six times more fabric than anything I’d ever worn before, the elements of the ceremony that differed for women felt like a slap in the face. I was making the same covenants, but my eternal reward came with caveats that did not exist in the language used for the men. I made the same sacrifices, but my then non-existent husband was put in place as my intermediary where I had thought the savior was. No matter how great my husband is, he’s not Jesus. I don’t recall this bait and switch in any of the church lessons I was taught.
When I first attended the temple as an initiate in preparation for my mission, I was fresh-faced and enthusiastic, sure that this was going to be the crowning experience of my mortal life, the final step needed to bind me to my earthly family, the place I could go in future to seek comfort, the place where I could seek personal revelation unhampered by the concerns of the world. And I found those things. But I also found heartache and deep doubt about my place in the eternities. For the first time, I had serious doubts about the celestial kingdom as a place I would want to be.
I returned to the temple over and over again, as if by mastering its rites I could erase the discomfort I felt with the inequality. I wondered if I was missing something, some key piece of information or understanding that would suddenly make the sexist differences comprehensible to me, that would make me feel that they were right and that they reflected who I am. I took pride in my ability to memorize the ceremony, to find new meaning in the symbols, and to be one of the first ones done at each stage. I enjoyed the beauty of being surrounded by faithful people of all ages dressed in white, there for a common purpose, full of love and acceptance. But the sexist distinctions continued to intrude on my experience. That feeling has not changed in the 25 years since I first attended. I have never attended without feeling that I’m complicit in accepting my female status as eternally inferior, an eternal loser.
When I was sealed, a few years later, the inequities in language were another slap in the face. Was my husband not under covenant to me at all, but I was under covenant to him? Was he not actually bound to me? Was I the only one getting married?
When she was 9 years old, my daughter noticed that her brothers were passing the sacrament but that the girls didn’t get to participate in that way. She was irritated by the sexism inherent in this distinction. I downplayed her concerns by pointing out that it’s kind of lame anyway, but she disagreed. She thought it would be really cool to get to participate in the service like that. I didn’t really have a good explanation why girls aren’t allowed to participate in the service at all, although I pointed out that we give talks and say prayers, and that the boys just serve the sacrament to others, receiving no unique benefit to themselves. She thought it would be cool to be able to contribute, to have her presence there matter, to be given the gift of being an integral part of the service. I suggested to leadership that we as a ward should consider letting the girls hand out programs or be ushers, but nobody was interested. Since I had no solution to offer her, I hoped her feelings would fade away, although I suspect they haven’t. She just stopped talking to me about it because I didn’t have an answer.
The explanation that one day when we are in the celestial kingdom we will feel differently (our eventual celestial lobotomy) rings hollow. I realize that’s similar to what they said about childbirth, but let’s be honest. Childbirth sucks. It hurts a lot. Was it worth it? Sometimes. It’s cold comfort to tell my daughter that God probably isn’t a sexist and these things aren’t really the eternal order of things. If so, how should she feel about the temple? For many women in the church, the temple feels like it is pitted against our self-esteem and our personal feelings of worth. In order to accept the view of women in the temple, we have to sell ourselves short.
I know there are women who feel at peace in the temple. I have felt peace there at times as well. I have even felt peaceful enough to fall asleep a few times! Usually women make it work one of three ways: 1) they simply ignore the differences in language and basically don’t listen or they selectively hear only the good things (these women are the most successful at making it work, and I’m not knocking this strategy; it just doesn’t work once you know what’s being said), 2) they assume God’s not sexist and it will all work out in the eternities, or 3) they look at the world around them as being sexist, so they see this as a cultural infiltration and mentally separate it from any theological implication, which would be fine except our current leaders keep insisting that it is theological. I mean, honestly, that’s how I “make it work,” but it doesn’t really work, and my daughter is being raised in an even less sexist world than I was. Having to ignore what is really said to women isn’t a very faith affirming experience. Ignoring things takes some level of energy. Deliberately not paying attention still requires some attention.
I would prefer that my daughter embrace the covenants of the temple, that she choose to live a Christlike life, to make sacrifices, and to bind herself to her family in love. But if the price for that is that she has to be subjugated to the arm of flesh (her husband) while the reverse is not true, and that her eternal reward is permanent second class status, that’s a hard sell. I can’t sell what I don’t buy. If the choice is between my daughter’s self worth and the temple, I don’t see how the temple wins.
If that’s not really our doctrine, then it’s time to finally update the temple script. We have revised the temple ceremonies continuously since they first began. I can only hope that thoughtful changes are in the works. In ten years, it will be too late for my daughter. It’s already been 25 years too late for me.
I understand that many of you will probably feel the instinct to come in and help me fix my problem. Please resist that urge. And, gentlemen: please think twice before you attempt to explain away my experience.