One of the many prejudices I have encountered in talking about my Mormonism with those outside of the church is the idea that Mormon women are oppressed and have no will or power of their own within the church. Part of this may be due to the fact that Mormon missionaries used to be largely male (though more women are serving since 2012, when their age to serve changed from 21 to 19), and because our biannual General Conference is led by a group of exclusively male General Authorities. Even in church on an average Sunday, the people who lead typical Mormon meetings are male bishops and counselors. And of course, there is the reality that Mormon women are encouraged to have children, to stay at home with children, and the legacy of historical polygamy in Mormonism.
In fact, Mormon women are often given leadership roles in local congregations (called wards), though usually they have authority only over other women and children, in Relief Society or Primary. And Mormon women lead behind the scenes on many occasions. Any Mormon bishop knows that without the support of his Relief Society president or the women as a whole, little of his agenda will be carried through. Women bring meals, help organize and set up events, and provide the support necessary for men to do more of the visible work of the church.
In my experience, Mormon women are powerful, capable, outspoken, encouraged to get an education, and have also had an impact on much of the revelation given to Mormon men, including Emma Smith's insistence to Joseph that the men chewing tobacco and smoking in her house was wrong -- which led directly to the current Mormon law called the "Word of Wisdom." In addition, Mormon doctrine states that men cannot achieve the highest level of the celestial kingdom without marriage to women. This seems to indicate that it is the marital unit led by a man which has authority rather than the man alone. If a Mormon man is divorced, he may have to be released from certain callings, because in a way, it is the marital unit that has been called, not just the man.
Still, Utah as a state has one of the lowest rates of compensation of men versus women. Mormon women have more children than the national average, and suffer more in the workforce for doing so. Rates of bachelor's degrees among women are the lowest in the country in Utah. Rates of depression among Mormon women are higher than average. Because of the suggestion that men avoid contact with women at work, who might encourage them to break their marriage vows, even non-Mormon women in Utah may feel like they are not treated as equals.
Personally, I am sometimes frustrated with the way in which I feel that women are so frequently invisible in the culture of Mormonism, even outside of Utah. On Mother's Day in particular, I feel uncomfortable with the way that women are often described as "angels" or "pure," as if we weren't quite human, and as if women are only truly fulfilling their role if they sacrifice all that makes them individuals in the quest for divine service. Taking away our flaws seems to take away our humanity. I worry how it makes my daughters feel about becoming mothers and erasing themselves. I worry about how it makes my sons look at women in general, and potential mates in particular.
Neylan McBain's book Women At Church does a wonderful job of laying out some of the problems of the invisibility of women in the daily workings of the Mormon church. She also suggests some ways to change it, such as having Young Women usher in meetings, asking the Relief Society President to sit on the stand alongside the bishopric during meetings, and so on. But she points out that women often feel culturally uncomfortable with positions of power in Mormonism. What do we do to cure that?
I think one of the deeper problems with women in Mormonism lies in The Book of Mormon, where there are no prophetesses and hardly a woman named at all. Nephi, who goes on a journey to the "Promised Land" with his visionary father and complaining brothers, never mentions the name of his sisters or his wife. Only his mother, Sariah, is named. The Book of Mormon is said to be a more perfect translation of the gospel than the Bible, but the Bible definitely has more women in it, from Mary Magdalene who first saw the risen Lord, to Jezebel, who might have been evil but definitely had power.
And though women were instrumental in the founding of the Mormon church, from Joseph Smith's mother, Lucy Mack Smith, to his wife Emma, the emphasis on the history of Mormonism tends to be patriarchal. In some ways, this has gotten worse in the modern age. It was not always true, but now the Relief Society must get approval from the male bishop for all activities and finances have been combined with the bishop in charge, rather than the RS President. Standard lessons for men and women are the same, and focus now on a "prophet of the year," which means that strong women in our past are rarely talked about except in relation to the men in their lives. Almost no Mormon manual would survive the "Bechdel test," for instance, because all the material is about the male prophet and what he had to say, even about the lives of women.
Personally, I find this problematic at best. At worst, I feel like strong, open and loud Mormon feminists are being hunted down and excommunicated for daring to demand that questions about women take the forefront in gospel discussions. Each year, I wait eagerly to see which female General Authority will speak in our semi-annual General Conference and feel disappointed when the one chosen speaks only about family, about upholding the priesthood (and never questioning it), or to the children in the audience. I feel a little sick when in the women's session of General Conference, the best speaker in the house is the clean-up male speaker, who has perhaps had far more experience in leadership and speaking, but who is also the only speaker who seems to feel comfortable speaking on a heavy-hitting gospel topic rather than about family and the role of women. I am frustrated that I have to count how many women have ever given prayers in General Conference.
On the other hand, Mormon doctrine seems radically feminist. We have a Heavenly Mother alongside Heavenly Father, and a feminist revision of the Garden of Eden story. Instead of talking about a woman's foolish choice causing the downfall of mankind, and justifying many hateful attitudes and actions towards women through this origin myth, Mormons have reinvented it to be woman-positive. In one Mormon version of this story, Adam and Eve argued for a thousand years about taking of the fruit of the tree, and finally, Eve convinced Adam on logical grounds that she was right to take the fruit and face the consequences. In the end, Mormons believe that Eve was wiser and perhaps braver than Adam was, and she was less selfish, choosing clearly (not ignorantly) to experience pain in order for the other spirits waiting in heaven to have bodies that were their only way to become more like God.
Scholar and convert Valerie Hudson Cassler, argues that women are vitally important to doctrinal Mormonism, far more than in other versions of Christianity:
It is through women that souls journey to mortality and gain their agency, and in general it is through the nurturing of women, their nurturing love of their children, that the light of Christ is awakened within each soul. And we should include in that list of souls Jesus the Christ. Even Christ our Lord was escorted to mortality and veiled in flesh through the gift of a woman, fed at his mother's breast, and awakened to all that is good and sweet in the world. Women escort every soul through the veil to mortal life and full agency. It is interesting to think that even Adam, who was created before Eve, entered into full mortality and full agency by accepting the gift of the First Tree from the hand of a woman. In a sense, Adam himself was born of Eve.
And there is the doctrine of Heavenly Mother in Mormonism, which comes largely from a woman poet and Relief Society president, Eliza R. Snow, famed for her song "O My Father":
In the heav'ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal
Tells me I've a mother there.
When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?
Then, at length, when I've completed
All you sent me forth to do,
With your mutual approbation
Let me come and dwell with you.
I wish that Mormons spoke more about Heavenly Mother, and what her role is, but she seems as invisible and behind-the-scenes powerful as women are habitually in Mormonism. There was a movement to pray to her in the '90s, but it was quickly quashed and no new revelation has come about her for quite some time.
Yet Mormon temple ceremonies makes it clear that women are destined to become "priestesses and goddesses." And let us not forget that Utah was the second territory in the union to give women the vote (in 1870; Wyoming had given women the vote a year earlier). Prominent Mormon women held office in the late nineteenth century, and it was considered perfectly in accordance with their role as wives and mothers to do so, to work for the improvement of their communities and government. One Mormon woman (Martha Hughes Cannon) even ran as a Democrat -- against her husband, who was a Republican. And she won!
While it may look like Mormons are living in a paint-by-numbers 1960s world of traditional male and female roles, the reality is rather more complex. We are in the midst of a change in the visual of the Mormon church, and, I hope, in the midst of a greater change in the real workings of the church. Men and women within Mormonism are willing to ask more questions and as a new and younger group of apostles oversee the growth of the church in other countries, it will be interesting to see how the culture follows the doctrine that has been there all along.