Reviewing the weekend with fresh eyes, I believe it would be hard to deny that our leaders are aware of or concerned about the most prominent distresses of gender relations in the Church. I was immensely grateful and humbled that our leaders took the time to consider and speak about concerns important to me, when there is a global community that may have other needs and concerns addressed as well. There were many moments in which my heart caught with gratitude, not because our apostles and leaders were saying exactly what I wanted to hear, but because I recognized love and seeking for truth and admissions of uncertainty, all of which deeply touched me.
Several of the Twelve alone spoke about or referenced gender issues, including Elders Cook and Andersen. The talk perhaps most pointed toward women was delivered by Elder D. Todd Christofferson in the Saturday morning session, and I would like to offer a few thoughts on it. To start, let me just get this out there: I know all the reasons I'm not supposed to like Elder Christofferson's talk. I know I am supposed to feel that a man speaking about the goodness and virtue of women is merely a pat on the head, justifying the exclusion of our voices rather than demanding our inclusion. I know there are some who felt that way.
But for me personally, the talk worked. I felt warmth and authenticity through this talk, and I don’t think this was simply due to rhetorical skill, although Elder Christofferson had clearly crafted his talk to avoid some of the more egregiously patronizing pitfalls. For me, I felt Elder Christofferson was trying to do something substantial and admirable: offer a reframing of women’s “role” and purpose within the complementary workings of a male/female partnership.
By identifying and emphasizing women’s influence as “moral authority,” Elder Christofferson offered a fresh definition, even a fresh purpose, for women. Why is this significant? Because I do not believe Mormon women are in a power struggle; I believe we are in a purpose struggle. In many respects, a man exercising priesthood can have a “check the box” element of fulfillment to his role: if a man passes the sacrament, or gives a blessing, or attends a bishopric meeting, his priesthood has been honored in a black and white sort of way. He has a purpose, and with purpose comes a sense of belonging and accomplishment. But at the 2012 Women and Agency conference, I talked about the “blank page” we face as women: our own outlets for spiritual growth are much less delineated. We must fill those blank pages of our spiritual development with activities of our own initiative. Specific administrative responsibilities – whether it was suffrage, or grain management, or training midwives, or managing welfare – defined much of our early Relief Society and provided unity and purpose. Over the past decades, much less tangible responsibilities such as being the keepers of “virtue” and “nurturing” have replaced the administrative and communal responsibilities of earlier eras.
Defining women as a “moral authority” rather than the keepers of virtue and nurturing gives women’s purpose semantic parity to men’s: whereas they have priesthood authority, women have moral authority. If I am right in hearing this parallel in Elder Christofferson’s words, moral authority working in cooperation with priesthood authority offers an administrative (priesthood) and ministerial (moral) pairing which gets closer to a complementary gender paradigm I find quite beautiful. Some might say these are just words. I believe the way we talk about things matters to how we act on them and feel towards them. This matters.
Additionally, even though Elder Christofferson stated that a woman’s moral influence “is no more optimally employed than [in the home],” I feel that women as the “moral authority” leaves room for women to play on a broader world stage than the other go-to descriptor of women being “nurturers,” which has a decisively domestic context to it. Women as nurturers is hard to disentangle from women as mothers, which is of course a vital identity for many of us, but may not satisfy the search for purpose by our single or childless sisters. If our purpose is to be a standard of moral authority, that can play out in the home… and in the boardrooms, and in the classrooms, and in parliaments more effectively that being the standard of nurturing. If women are to offer moral authority, our single and childless sisters may find a wider range of ways to fulfill that responsibility in their school, work and community lives than they do the role of nurturer. Angel mothers are not the only ones who can offer moral authority.
Lastly, one of the chief discomforts with women being described as nurturers is that nurturing necessitates a particular personality characteristic that not all women feel they posses. I, for one, love my kids to no end and mostly feel that I am a good mom, but I would not remotely describe myself as nurturing. It is easy to see how Mormon women like me might doubt their abilities to fulfill this prescribed purpose when nurturing is not a part of our innate traits. Happily, being a moral authority seems to carry with it far fewer connotations of specific personality and behavior traits that women are supposed to posses. In my mind, a far wider range of unique personalities and strengths can carry the weight of moral authority than can claim to be nurturers. If I am to answer the call to provide moral authority, I can use my own voice, my own characteristics to fill that responsibility in a way that feels more authentic to who I am.
A rhetorical shift may seem like a small step, but I saw in Elder Christofferson’s talk an attempt to try something new, to reframe our gender doctrine in a way that may speak to more souls. Anything that helps give much needed shape to our women’s direction and purpose is, I believe, worthy of being celebrated.
What I'm Listening To:
- Florence and the Machine's Ceremonials. She's my hero.
- Anna Netrebko's Verdi album. My 9- and 7-year old sat through four hours of her Eugene Onegin on the Met in HD on Saturday. No force was involved. Just popcorn and lemonade and Junior Mints... (Happy Birthday, Mr. Verdi, by the way. You were my dad's hero.)
- Arvo Pärt's Spiegel Im Spiegel. Here's a lovely little YouTube video of this divine piece.