Saturday, February 19, 2011

Is this really what I want?

I think that I've always been a feminist. By feminist, I don't mean the man-hating, bra-burning, reverse-chauvinistic kind of feminist. I think that kind of thing goes against what feminism is supposed to be-- the belief that all people are born free and equal, regardless of gender, race, religion, nationality, or anything else beyond the control of the individual. But from the time I was small, I've always had big plans and big ideas. I want to do things, know things, be something. When I learned that, throughout history, other women have been kept from their dreams simply because they were women, that knowledge ignited a passion in me for women's rights. No one should be kept from their dreams. No one should be forced into a prefabricated mold.

As a child, I was convinced that I was as good as any boy at anything I wanted to try. No one told me otherwise, to be sure. No one ever told me that I was less smart, less strong, or less anything than a boy. I was frequently even told that I was better than the boys-- see my previous post, "Pedestals and Prisons." But, as I described in that post, my self was circumscribed into a very limited, idealized role. I might have goals and dreams, but they had to be compatible with my divine calling as wife and mother. 

I was never told not to pursue dreams outside of being a wife and mother in Zion. But when I went to church on Sundays, the women who were held up to me as examples were not women like Susan B. Anthony, Mary Wollstonecraft, or Elizabeth I. Our role models were nurturers and helpmeets-- Florence Nightingale, Emma Smith, Ruth. (As a side note, I feel that the LDS church has committed an enormous travesty in its portrayal of Emma Smith. She is shown as a demure, compliant follower of her husband Joseph, when in fact she was a woman with intelligence and spunk. She threatened to leave Joseph multiple times because of his antics, and very nearly did on at least one occasion.) 

My patriarchal blessing told me that I would marry a priesthood holder in the temple, that we would build a home that glorified God, and that I would be charged with bringing up our children unto the Lord. In seminary, we had an "education day," where we watched a BYU video about college education. There was a special section for the girls-- it showed a pretty young women with an embroidery hoop in hand, telling the young women that "even though you probably won't need a career to support your family, it is still good to have an education so you can teach your children, and so you can work to support your family if your husband is incapacitated." No mention of intellectual development for its own sake. No mention of women pursuing careers for their own sake. We were encouraged to go to college, but with our divine roles in mind. 

I've always been a bit of a nerdy type. I would read nearly anything I could get my hands on, and my parents had a substantial collection of church books. I would spend hours poring over these. I developed a habit of looking up things like "women," "polygamy," and "plural marriage" in the index of nearly every historical book I read. I had become aware at an early age that most history books didn't say much about girls until modern times, and this bothered me. I felt left out. Surely the women deserved as much attention as the men when it came to telling the story of the human race. Slowly, I began to assemble a picture of what it meant to be a woman, and what it meant to be a woman in the LDS church. 

One of the ways I rationalized polygamy was that women in polygamous marriages could leave their children with their "sister-wives" and pursue education and careers. This did happen in a few cases, like that of Martha Hughes Cannon. But these cases were the exception, not the rule. Even Martha lived towards the end of the polygamy era in Utah, and received her medical degree before she became a plural wife. A woman's lot as a plural wife was not generally so rosy, particularly in the early years. Ann Eliza Young, one of Brigham Young's plural wives, wrote about her experiences in her memoir Wife no. 19. It was not pretty. 

In Mormonism, a woman's primary role is that of a wife and mother-- I hate to use such a blunt and perhaps clich├ęd term, but the ideal Mormon woman is a baby machine. I don't intend to belittle, marginalize, or otherwise disrespect women who choose to have children, perhaps even many children, and to stay at home to raise those children. Such women do, if they take their job seriously, contribute a great deal to society. But no woman should be forced, coerced, or pressured into motherhood. It must be her choice, a product of her genuine desire for motherhood. Motherhood isn't a "divine assignment." It is one of many equally valuable options available to women. 

This role of woman as baby-maker does not end with this life. According to the LDS view of God's great "Plan of Salvation," men may become gods. This is summarized in a couplet by Lorenzo Snow: "As man is God once was, as God is now man may be." In this vision of the universe, a god (who was once a man) creates a world, and populates it with his own spirit children, who are in turn tested for their worthiness to become gods themselves. 

And where do these spirit children come from? 

Why, a woman has to bear them. 

Think of how many people live, have lived, and will live on our earth alone. Think how many spirit children that is. Now, obviously one woman, no matter how perfect and eternal, couldn't bear that many children. The solution is simple: the gods practice polygamy. [Source: Discourses of Brigham Young, volume 11, page 313.]

This is the eternal destiny of the faithful LDS woman. An eternity spent sharing her husband with who-knows-how-many other women, perpetually producing spirit children to populate her husband's planets. Not planet. Planets. [Source: Moses 1:33] Women: know your place

It didn't take long for me to put these pieces of the puzzle together. On this issue, I never read a single anti-Mormon source until after I stopped believing altogether. I learned all this doctrine while I was a teenager. I learned it in bits and pieces-- a comment from a seminary teacher here, a passage in a church publication there-- and when I opened the door to questioning my religion, the obvious picture of eternity that I had been hiding from was staring me in the face. A woman's divine calling was nothing more than sexual slavery.

I would sit in church on Sunday and watch the men pass the sacrament. I had never been treated badly by a man at church-- oh, sure, I had been harassed as a Beehive by immature deacons, but that hardly counted. All the Mormon men I knew were good, kind, caring men who treated their wives and daughters with love and respect. But, no matter how good of a man my future husband might be, did I really want to spend eternity as one of his many wives, eternally bearing his spirit children? 

The pieces snapped together, and I realized what awaited me. And I wanted nothing to do with it. 

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