Recently, at the General Women’s Session of April Conference, several talks where given on the theme of “defending the family.” There have been a number of responses to this session already (including two very good ones here at BCC), so we can safely say that this is a topic that has been covered. So, why bother talking about it some more? Because I think that I have found, hiding inside President Bonnie Oscarson’s talk, a message regarding marriage and family that is practically progressive in its outlook.
President Oscarson’s talk, entitled “Defenders of the Family Proclamation,” begins with a story of a girl defending or protecting a group of missionaries in her family’s home. From this narrative, she segued into a discussion of the home more generally, and the role of women in protecting the home in particular. It is interesting to note that this role, the protection of the family and the home, is set aside for men in the The Family‘s seventh paragraph. This talk begins by undermining any strict notion of gender role exclusivity, which allows her to spend the rest of the talk discussing what really must happen if women and men are to be “equal partners” in marriage.
In order to do that, President Oscarson must first dispense with the elephant in the room, the oft-cited, current “war on the family.” She notes that there are many political, social, and economic trends that could weaken the strength of families, but interestingly, she does not name any of them. Perhaps this is done because, frankly, there always have been and always will be trends and legislation that may weaken familial bonds and, therefore, specifics are unnecessary. But the talk does not seem to be aiming for the timeless. In fact, President Oscarson cites the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Family as prompting this particular call its defense.
In asking her listeners to defend The Family, President Oscarson recommends three actions. The first of these is positive. In order to demonstrate the value of celestial marriage, men and women should strive to have better marriages now. It is significant that, for all the potential dog-whistling in this and surrounding paragraphs, gay marriage (or any of its euphemisms) is not named. If President Oscarson wanted to specifically call out gay marriage, or to encourage members to agitate against it in legislatures and other fora, she could have done so. It has been done in the past. But, faced with the challenge of encouraging members to defend the Mormon doctrine of celestial marriage, she instead asked husbands and wives to be better spouses to one another. It would seem that the key to defending the family and The Family is to actually attempt to have a good marriage.
But how should we behave in marriage? Here we come to the most interesting part of the talk. In the General Women’s Session of Conference, speaking to a crowd of mostly women and girls, President Oscarson assumes that every exhortation she gives applies to all members of the church, male and female. She states that we must elevate the divine role of mother and father, that there is no higher position to aspire to than parent of either sex. Functionally, she is saying that creation of the home is the work of both the husband and the wife. In fact, she simply states this in her final exhortation. “All of us—women, men, youth, and children, single or married—can work at being homemakers. We should “make our homes” places of order, refuge, holiness, and safety.” Every member of a family, not even just parents but children as well, is a homemaker. What we make of our home is our mutual responsibility within a family. This spreads the work of nurturing, providing, protecting, and, seemingly, presiding through all the members of the “equal partnership” of homemaking.
You might be tempted to say that, in spite of President Oscarson’s inclusive gender language, the fact that she said this in a women’s meeting indicates that these commandments are only intended for women. But that language in that setting tells a different tale. It takes for granted that a message, written and given by a woman, a president in a church auxiliary, presented in a women’s meeting, will be read, considered, and applied by men in the church. That this message was given in this setting in this way by this President represents serious pushback against common understanding of traditional gender roles in the church.
Now I may be wrong. I am drawing inferences from things left unsaid and playing on possible meanings of what was said. Of course, I might be guessing the things unsaid wrong and, therefore, misinterpreting the text we have. But, consider this, if President Oscarson really wanted to emphasize a traditional, exclusionary understanding of gender roles, why go to the trouble to avoid language to that affect? Why include men, who probably weren’t members of her immediate audience, at all? I suspect that what we see here is what a talk looks like when it makes “equal partnership” the key to defending the family. That is a goal I wholeheartedly support.