Gender and the LDS Church in the Global South, Part 1

Women dancing, Fiji, photo by author

I didn’t suspect that inviting the missionaries for dinner would launch a research project.  

While we were eating, the Fijian missionary mentioned that showing good table manners in her home meant that her dad (the LDS bishop) and brothers ate first. After the men and boys had eaten, her mom and sisters ate the leftovers. 

Because I was interested, I wrote down her exact quote: “I have four sisters and three brothers. My brothers are good at eating. I wished there to be enough.” With good humor, she made this comment with a laugh and her head held high. 

“I have four sisters and three brothers. My brothers are good at eating. I wished there to be enough.”

Talking with this missionary about the gender-based rules and traditions in her culture made me wonder how the gendered practices of the church are interpreted in places like her Latter-Day Saint home and her Latter-Day Saint ward.

I have a general understanding of how Latter-Day Saints in the United States (US) and New Zealand (NZ) interpret the gendered practices and teachings of the Church. So my research question was directed toward the so-called Global South, with Fiji as a case study: How do LDS church members in the Global South interpret the gendered teachings and practices of the LDS church?

I presented my project at the 2021 Mormon History Association conference. I gave my presentation online resulting in limited opportunities for discussion. Because the project is ongoing, I welcome any comments or suggestions that might inform the next iteration. 

I’ve included a video of the presentation followed by a written outline. The video includes context, observations, and depth missing from the outline, but the outline is a solid overview of the project.

Gender and the LDS Church in the Global South, Part 1 (11 minutes)

An ethnographic introduction to issues of gender and religion in the Global South.

Research Question

How do LDS church members in the Global South interpret the gendered teachings and practices of the LDS church? 


– semi-structured interviews in Fiji, New Zealand, USA

– notion of the Global South

– ethics approval, University of Otago

Selective sample with inclusion criteria:

– female

– married

– endowed for at least 2 years

– less than 35 years old

– access to the temple

– attend temple at least 6 times per year

– contacted everyone who fit the inclusion criteria within pre-determined geographic boundaries

Interview Survey – 8 Topics

– Temple: What are your favourite aspects of the temple? Do you find anything challenging? 

– Temple: Have you noticed differences in the temple ceremony between women and men? If so, what do these differences mean to you?

– Sealing policy (a man can be sealed again if he remarries but a woman cannot): How do you explain this policy to yourself? 

– The Adam and Eve account is recorded in the Bible and in the Pearl of Great Price. What meaning do you take from this story? 

– What do you like about being a woman in the LDS church? What do you find challenging about being a woman in the LDS church? 

– Equal Partnerships in Marriage: Does your church membership help or hinder you in creating an equal partnership with your husband? Examples from your life?

– Nurture / Preside: What meaning do these words have in your life? 

– Male Priesthood: How do you explain male-only priesthood to yourself?

2019 Temple Updates

I planned the interview survey just before the 2019 temple updates, and conducted the interviews early in 2019, so a discussion of these updates became an interesting and serendipitous part of the research.

Research Aims

The research was not meant to discuss the gendered practices and teachings as  “right” or “wrong.” Research goals were to explore the meaning the participants took from gendered teachings and practices. How do participants explain these practices and teachings to themselves? How are these meanings manifest in their lives? 

Anthropologists around the world have recognised that respect should be offered to people in any religion or culture regarding ceremonies that are meant only for the initiated. 

Results, part 1

Fijian participants: The Church is ‘ahead’ of the ‘outside’ culture’ in empowering women – 100% saturation.

 – Women learn to speak up

 – Fewer rules for women’s behaviour and dress in the church than out of the church

 – Women eat together with men

 – Women stand up to domestic violence

– Excerpts from interviews; analysis and observations

  • When I go to the village I cannot be the way I am [in the church] and talk like I’m one of the chiefs.”
  • The way we women are treated in the church is way ahead … the church is really advanced.”
  • Even with my own family, my dad, we tried to practice the gospel culture; in fact, my dad would be the last one to eat.”
  • When we had a ward activity when I grew up, it’s always the men who were always eating first. [Not any more.] The change is really drastic. For me, I attribute it to the mission experience. When we go out, we see, and when we come in we say, ‘okay, no, this is how it is supposed to be done.”
  • Outside, there are certain rules you have to follow, like when you are in the village you can’t wear shorts, you have to follow, like when you are in the village you can’t wear shorts, you have to wear a skirt or a sarong. For us women there are certain rules here: you can’t laugh so loud. Sometimes I have a weakness of laughing very loud. I feel like for a woman outside, you have a lot of rules you have to follow, but in the church, there aren’t as many rules.”
  • Going on a date is a no-no in the Fijian culture, but in Young Womens as young as you are – what is it, 15, 14? Young Womens is encouraging you to go on a group date.”
  • There are times I say things out loud without even thinking. If I were married to somebody else I would have got a slap, like the normal Fijian.”
  • Because of the [traditional] culture, it stops women here from intervening, from going in and saving the woman. Because of the gospel in me, I overstep the culture that I have, and I ran into the house and just CLIMBED on [the abuser.] “STOP IT.”
  • The church teaches me to be an independent woman. I was coming back from the temple that day, and the Spirit just tell me, enough is enough. It’s about time that someone tells him that what he’s doing is wrong. ‘Today it will be the last day that you EVER abuse my mother-in-law in front of me.’ I actually said those words.

-Analysis and context

(Results to be continued in Part 2)


  1. Vinka Vaka Levu.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. Looking forward to all your results. Having just finished watching “Equal Means Equal” on Prime Video yesterday, and as a church member who believes that the church does not fully live the basic gospel principle of equality of all God’s children, this was balm to my soul to see that gospel principle lighting these women’s lives and blessing those around them.

  3. wayfarer says:

    Absolutely fascinating. Sometimes we forget that this is a global church. I would love to see the church emphasising good behaviour in a family context as it did in my youth. I came from a very dysfunctional family who converted and continued dysfunctional, but it made the dysfunction clearer to me and allowed me to put the responsibility for that dysfunction where it belonged, and helped me address that in myself when I became a parent, and to become part of the solution in my own birth family. We forget I think the really good work we could do if we just stopped with the siege mentality and started putting out a much more positive message about good ways of doing family, however it is constellated.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks for making this more accessible, Holly. Your presentation was one of the most important that I saw at MHA and I’m glad to see it get more traction. I’ve thought about issues like this a lot since listening (and also reading Colleen’s work about Africa, and Ellen Decco’s dissertation).

    “Today it will be the last day that you EVER abuse my mother-in-law in front of me.”

    Powerful stuff.

  5. This was fascinating – thank you. It’s so refreshing to see where the church can help empower women in other cultures. So different from our western perspective.

  6. Thank you, Holly. I remember hearing similar perspectives a few years ago from research in other cultures (not global south)—that women experienced and perceived that activity in the church encouraged men to treat women with more kindness, respect, and refrain from abusive behavior. I love that your report also highlights women’s feelings of empowerment. May it be so.

    I’m not sure whether that’s true of church member behavior compared to the prevailing culture(s) in the US.

    It also reminds me that, once upon a time, the early church was in many ways progressive compared with its surrounding culture, rather than reactionary. And most of the recent policy focus of the institution does seem to be in relation to US culture and govt, despite membership here being a minority within the global church—so I would indeed say reactionary.

  7. On a related note (just run today):

  8. I’ve read of similar anecdotes of how wives of Priesthood holders, use the church as a way to transform their husbands from the patriarchy of society to worthy priesthood holders. It’s a language and a resource that other women in those societies don’t have available to them.

  9. I have seen positive changes too as a result of Church influence (when I lived in Ghana, the LDS family I lived with told me about how the dad used to beat the children until he joined the church). I agree it’s good to remember we are a global church.

    That said, I feel like “not eating before women” is a pretty low bar. It seems we could also have that good influence without reinforcing the patriarchy in other ways AND making things awful for LGBT folks.

    Arguing that other culture are ready for more progressive policies (not saying you are arguing that, only that this line of reasoning could lead there) seems a lot like justifying the race-based temple and priesthood ban because white weren’t ready to accept blacks. And that’s immoral.

  10. *are not ready …

  11. anonforthis says:

    On the one hand I really like this research and would encourage more. My strongest reaction is to list more countries, especially southern hemisphere countries, where I’d like to know more. I would add a question or two about economic participation. (A personal interest, but also women’s role in economic development is a big deal and I would want to know whether the gendered practices and teachings are helping or hurting or neutral.)

    On the other hand, I get little shivers about the feeling of colonialism.

    On the third hand, I like the reported results–modest as they are (cf Elisa’s low bar comment)–so maybe I have some colonialist aspects to my own character. It’s just that religious people call it proselytism.

  12. Thank you for presenting some of your findings here. This is illuminating work. I remember once as a missionary asking a Fijian elder why some Fijian women were missing teeth, and he replied that it was because their husbands beat them. It upset me a lot. Fijians are absolutely wonderful, friendly people, but tragically many people accept domestic abuse as normal behavior.

  13. Holly Miller says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. Especially thanks for the kind words and appreciation. I feel vulnerable putting myself out on the internet like this.

    Elisa and anonforthis: I share your hesitations and appreciate you for articulating them.

    Also, anonforthis – good idea about the economic participation. I assume you are wondering how Church membership affects the economic participation of members, especially women? It’s a good question.

    Of interest, the women I interviewed in Fiji were of a wide variety of economic levels, which I wasn’t expecting inside such small geographic boundaries. Educational levels ranged from basic high school to master’s degrees.

  14. Sylvia Cabus says:

    Sadly, women eat “least and last” is universal. I’m interested in hearing your observations about women’s status as a function of life stage, and the impact of male out-migration.


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