17 September 2013

Feminism and Faith: A How-To Guide

I've thought a lot about how I'm going to say what I want to say in this post. It's a topic close to my heart for many reasons and I hope that it is taken well no matter where you stand on the ideas of feminism and/or faith.  It's a bit long.  Bear with me.

Lately my Facebook feed has virtually exploded with a resurgence of articles about current issues with feminism in the LDS church, largely related to the Ordain Women movement.  I am fascinated by the commentaries on both sides of the argument, and baffled by how vicious and personal the arguments have been.  "You're just doing this for power and social stigmas!" shouts one side.  "You don't understand what it means to be a woman!"

"No, YOU don't understand what it means to be a woman!" replies the other side.  "Don't you see how oppressive your environment is?  Don't you see the cultural inequalities?!"

I find myself often sitting in the middle of such arguments.  For example, I understand why girls feel left out when they watch their boy companions passing the sacrament.  The boys have a clear, definable task in the overall picture of how the ward functions.  They are thanked every week for their assistance in giving the sacrament to the congregation.  They are also honored with great ceremonies for earning their Eagle Scout Award, while the girls, when given their Personal Progress Award are given little more than a pat on the back and a brief acknowledgement in church.

But I also understand that I am a loved daughter of God.  I have many personal experiences where I have felt that love.  I believe in Him and in His love for me.  I believe that by following the counsel of the living Prophets, I will be blessed.  I have faith that God has a plan for me.  My interest in the movement largely comes from experiences I have had where I feel of God's love for me and trust in me.  My life has not taken a conventional road, but I feel very firmly that I am where God wants me to be at this time.  If it is true that where God wants me to be at this time is not married and not as a mother - then surely I can't be the only one on this planet who has a less traditional role to fill.  Surely God has plans for the women of this church that are not only linked to our ability to get pregnant.  I don't know what the afterlife holds for me, but I doubt that it is a perpetual eternal maternity ward.

There are many who have a difficult time reconciling how these two sides can exist in the same person.  How can you be a faithful feminist?  How do you seek for greater recognition for and understanding of the roles of women in a church that advocates so ardently for recognition of the differences of gender roles?

This in mind, I'd like to present a few dos and don'ts for people involved or not involved but interested in the current Mormon Feminist movements.  These points aren't strictly related to the Ordain Women movement, but do, I think, provide a good framework in supporting greater understanding:

1. DON'T get caught up in the nit picking of the comparisons between men and women.  Although many people compare feminism to the civil rights movement, the simple fact of the matter is that men and women are different from each other in some universally significant ways that aren't just biological.  The church teaches that gender is eternal, and while we may not fully understand how this pans out in the afterlife, God seems to have some ideas on roles set aside for men and set aside for women.  We may not understand all the facets of this in the grand scheme of things yet (which is where some of the confusion is currently coming from), but throwing everything out seems a bit reckless.  There is power in strong sisterhood and strong brotherhood, just as there is power when the two come together.

2. DO: Recognize that there are people in both genders that don't feel like they quite fit the stereotypical mold, and that God may have a plan or pattern for them than is different from yours.  The plain fact of the matter is that not everyone in this life will be able to (or maybe even want to) live the image of a perfect family.  The other plain fact here is that personal revelation exists, and many of these people are active members of your ward aching because they wish they fit the mold and they just don't.  I feel this as a single woman with a successful career and no husband.  A married couple may feel this if they can't have children - or don't want them quite yet.  Or perhaps they do, but they don't want many.  Or perhaps they have, for whatever reason, reversed the traditional roles and find that it's best for their family that the wife works and the man stays home.  There are hundreds of possibilities.  The one clear constant here is that you are not their personal judge, and how they live their life is between them and God.

3. DON'T knee-jerk-judge because of the word "feminist".  The word 'feminist' is such a buzzword in Mormon culture.  It calls back to quotes made years ago during the cultural feminist movements of the 70s-90s where women were burning bras and demanding equal pay for equal work (gasp!).  It reminds people of negative connotations implied over the pulpit in General Conference and other settings.  Although there are surely some remnants of this in the current "Mormon Feminist" movement, most Mormon Feminists I've come in contact with are faithful women of the church.  They are mothers.  Loving and supportive wives.  Homemakers and crafters.  Many of these women would, from all outside appearances, seem to be as Mrs. Cleaver as they come.  The strains of Mormon Feminism are similar to those of cultural feminism, but are not exactly soul sisters.  The women involved in this movement do not hate men, and they do not hate the church.  If they really hated the church so much, then they would leave it.  As it is, they are doing what they can in the only way they know how to support each other and to raise awareness of a concern.

4. DO: Recognize that we are on the same team.  This goes for everyone.  Right now we have people outside the Ordain Women movement who are terrified that these women (and men) are rebelling against God, and that they are making demands instead of asking questions.  We have women (and men) inside the Ordain Women movement who don't understand why something that seems so obvious wouldn't be readily accepted on the other side.  On both sides of the coin are people set in their opinions and beliefs and experiences.  Women and men who are happy with their current situation and women and men who are not.  Ultimately, both sides need to come together and recognize a common goal: trying to do what God wants us to do, and to draw closer to Him.  We talk about the path being straight and narrow, but that does not mean that we walk like lemmings in an identically shaped and formed line.  It means that we walk in the same direction, and through the same basic steps.  When we come from a place of teamwork, then recognizing the differences that arise becomes and opportunity to grow and learn more about yourself, and about others.  It is an opportunity to love as Christ loves.

5. DO accept that everyone has a unique role to play in the eternities just as they have unique roles to play now.  I have a hard time imagining a heaven where every house looks the same and everyone does the exact same thing all the time.  That would be terribly boring, and I don't intend to be bored in heaven.  That wouldn't be heaven.  That would be hell.  One of the key parts of the creation was the intent to make the world both beautiful and varied.  This extends into humans.  We forget this, sometimes.  When we aren't discussing religious things, we accept different personalities and tastes, but when it comes to the gospel, we often seem to expect or imagine that everyone will feel the way we do and apply virtues the way we do and have the same vision of eternity as we do.  Although it is true that Zion is a city where the people are of one heart and one mind, this does not mean that we will all feel and think the exact same way.  It means that we will have minds single to the glory of God, and hearts that are soft and pure.  It means that when we ask God a question, or come to Him with a problem, we have the strength to accept whatever his answer may be.

6. DON'T forget why you belong to the church in the first place.  It is easy to get wrapped up in discontentment.  It is true.  The church evolves and changes over time to help meet the needs that arise.  It is also true that until we bring our concerns to the Lord, he will not fix them for us because it would interfere with agency.  It is also true that there are better and worse ways to bring those concerns to the attention of the Lord and the Presidency of the church.  Making demands of the Lord is a dangerous path.  Prayers are not a "Room of Requirement"that transform our lives into exactly what we need them to be at the time.  This is, ultimately, my concern with any movement that has the strains of protest in the gospel.  When I bring a concern to the Lord, am I really bringing him a concern and willing to accept what answer I receive, or am I making an all or nothing demand?  Am I throwing out everything that has been good because of something that is hard?  The Lord has promised that He will hear and answer our prayers.  He has also told us that He will not answer questions we don't ask.  It is not uncommon for a problem to be brought to the Lord's attention and a solution to be given that is much, much better than we could imagine on our own.  And, miraculously, His solutions are those that will lead to happiness no matter our personality quirks or personal preferences.

Ultimately, my prayer is that we will all learn to get along a little better in the different ways that we express our beliefs. I firmly believe that it is just as important for Mormons to learn how to live with each other as it is for us to learn how to live with our non-Mormon friends.  There is simply no excuse - ever - for blaspheming your neighbor because of their doubts or challenges or weaknesses or questions, and I think this is perhaps even more true when that person is sitting next to you in Sunday School.