Sunday, February 13, 2011

Pedestals and Prisons

A pedestal is as much a prison as any other small, confined space. -Gloria Steinem

If you ask a Mormon if women are suppressed, second-class citizens, they will tell you no. Women are not limited in the Mormon religion, or considered to be less than men; if anything, they are greater than men because of their greater spirituality and divine roles as mothers. Virtually any Mormon will tell you that they believe that husbands and wives are equal partners. And these Mormons won't be lying to you; they really do believe these things. Women are not subjugated in the Mormon church in the same sense as a chattel wife in the eighteenth century. But they are still prisoners to their prescribed roles.

Subjugation of women in the Mormon church is much more subtle than it once was, but that makes it no less real. Mormonism is very restrictive in the sense that it prescribes virtually every stage of a person's life for them, from cradle to grave. This prescription varies according to one's gender. The place of a woman is in the home.

As a child growing up in the Mormon religion, I was aware at a very early age that girls were treated differently from boys at church. The boys got to pass the sacrament on Sundays. The boys got to go to Cub Scouts, where they had camping trips and hikes and Pinewood Derbies. The girls got Achievement Days, which met half as often as Cub Scouts did, never had camping trips (although we did have hikes sometimes), and typically did things like painting wooden snowmen, baking cookies, and learning how to sew. I recall one activity where we learned how to be "ladylike"-- how to sit, walk, stand, and bend over like a lady.

It wasn't long before I learned about the priesthood, and learned that only boys got it. When I asked why, the response was memorable. I was fairly young at the time, perhaps seven or eight years old. The teacher made all the boys cover their ears, because she was going to tell the girls a great secret. Then she whispered to us, "You can't tell any of the boys this, because it's a secret-- but girls are special because they get to have babies. So God let men have the priesthood so they wouldn't feel bad."

I remember cocking my head to the side and thinking, "that doesn't make sense. Isn't having babies supposed to hurt a lot?" That explanation was so ridiculous, even when I was a brainwashed seven-year-old. It didn't seem fair. Besides, boys got to have the priesthood when they were twelve, and girls couldn't have babies until they were all grown up and married. That didn't seem fair at all.

Later on, when I was sixteen or seventeen, I was spending a Sunday afternoon reading some church books from my mom's large collection. One in particular was written for women, and this book talked about how bad it was for women to have careers, how it was vitally important that they stay at home with their children-- because their divine callings as mothers trumped all else. By this point, I had begun to amass a store of dreams for my future. I wanted to go to college and learn as much as I could. I wanted to write a book. At this point in my life, I was thinking about becoming a lawyer, or maybe a politician or journalist. I had ideas, and I had plans. I wanted children, because I had been taught to want them, but I did not plan on my children being my only contribution to the world.

What this book had said upset me. I thought, men get to be fathers and have careers at the same time. They get to go out into the world and engage with other people and make a difference in the public sphere. Why can't women be mothers and do the same thing?

At this point, I still had another two years of the Young Womens program ahead of me. And by the time I had finished with those two years, I was convinced that I didn't really want a career after all. I was enamored with my "divine calling" of motherhood. Shortly before I turned eighteen, I wrote in my journal that I had been so foolish for worrying about what I was going to do with my life. God, in his wisdom, had already planned that out for me. He knew what would make me happy, and I would follow that plan.

This change was a direct result of my time in the Young Womens program. About half of the lessons I had on Sundays were about women's divine roles. They had titles like "Preparing to Become an Eternal Companion," "Eternal Families," and "Obeying Commandments Helps Us Fulfill Our Divine Roles." I recall leaders regularly having the young women make lists of ways that Satan might try to keep us from fulfilling our divine roles. I want to make clear that I have no ill feelings towards my Young Women leaders; all of them were wonderful women, for the most part highly intelligent and genuinely caring. They were just as brainwashed as I was, and it wasn't their fault. But the organization that I was a part of attempted to steal my identity and replace it with pink pastel conformity.

Women are indeed placed on pedestals in the Mormon religion. They are supposed to be ever-faithful spiritual bastions and pure Madonnas. All our efforts were supposed to be ultimately focused on raising up a righteous generation. Our goals, our dreams, our intelligence, our creativity, and our sexuality were all subverted to this end. We were raised up on high pedestals, and our identities were circumscribed into the square foot of standing space on that pedestal. Our humanity was ignored in favor of our supposed perfection. In this way, we were placed in an elevated prison by an organization that wished to use us for its own ends.

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