Friday, March 20, 2015

Women and church and change and why it'll probably be okay

In 1979, President Kimball "gave" an address at what was then called the "Women's Fireside Address" where he charged women to be "sister scriptorians," a phrase that didn't take long to be inducted into standard Mormon vocabulary.

Andrew and I were having a conversation today and that phrase popped into my head so I used it...and  then I figured that I should probably read the talk so I knew the context around it. I've said it a million times before and have heard it even more times, but I've never read President Kimball's talk.

In my defense, I wasn't even born when it was given so...I'm not entirely culpable.

But how in the world did I not know that his wife read his talk on his behalf?! And why in the world did that shock me so much?!

I think it's a beautiful sentiment that The Prophet of God sent his wife to read his address to the women of the church (he, meanwhile, was sick in a hospital bed), especially when his talk begins with him assuring us that "the ways of the world will not prevail, for the ways of God will triumph."

He then states that "we had full equality as his spirit children. We have equality as recipients of God's perfected love for each of us"

Then he quotes Elder John A. Widtsoe, who wrote, "The place of a woman in the Church is to walk beside the man, not in front of him nor behind him. In the Church there is full equality between man and woman. The gospel, which is the only concern of the Church, was devised by the Lord for men and women alike" (that's from the Improvement Era, Mar. 1942, p. 161).

Sending Sister Camilla Kimball—his equal partner, his "special helper"—to fill in for him proves to me that he believed those words fully. I just can't get over my surprise that a woman acted as the mouthpiece for the prophet. Still, another part of me can't believe that I should have cause to be surprised.

Now, President Kimball did, of course, mention that "within those great assurances [of equality], however, our roles and assignments differ. These are eternal differences—with women being given many tremendous responsibilities of motherhood and sisterhood and men being given the tremendous responsibilities of fatherhood and the priesthood."

He has parallel phrases in there that made me smile big. So often—today—we're told that men have the priesthood and women have...motherhood.

Let me take a minute to be perfectly clear: I do not mind motherhood. I love motherhood. I am a stay-at-home mom, for crying out loud, so for goodness' sake do not use that argument against me.

I sweep floors. I check homework. I sing lullabies. I read stories. I organize FHE. I brush hair. I fold laundry. I force kids to practice music. I cook. I apply bandaids. I build forts. I push swings. And I'm gearing up to push yet another human being—my fourth, folks—out of my body. Motherhood is amazing and fulfilling but there's more.

Motherhood is not the female equivalent of the priesthood because do you know that the male equivalent to motherhood is? Fatherhood. It's fatherhood.

The female equivalent of the priesthood is...sisterhood. It's Relief Society, which was organized "under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood," a phrase that gave us authority and direction, a phrase that gave us sacred responsibilities (source).

Sometimes I feel a little lost because the priesthood is rather well organized. A young man turns twelve and he knows what his duties are. A young woman turns twelve, and the program for young women in the church is wonderful, but what are our duties? You know?

I love what Sister Elaine Cannon said in this same meeting (because if you read one talk from the General Women's Session in October 1979, you may as well read them all—why not?):

She said, "...ours is the errand of influence," which made the second verse from As Sisters in Zion pop into my mind:
The errand of angels is given to women;
And this is a gift that, as sisters, we claim:
To do whatsoever is gentle and human,
To cheer and to bless in humanity's name.
And a little from verse three for the same reason I read all the talks from the meeting and not just one (and that reason is probably more along the lines of "I'm procrastinating sorting through all the kid clothes I made my husband haul out of the attic" than "look how pious I am"):
How vast is our purpose, how broad is our mission,
If we but fulfill it in spirit and deed.
Our purpose is vast and our mission is broad. It's an errand of influence. It's an errand of angels.

"Remember, sisters," says Sister Cannon, "a woman doesn’t have to stay in the house to be in the home. Neither does a woman need to leave her home to extend her influence to others. We will, however, be more effective on our errand if we have studied the gospel [become sister scriptorians!], developed our skills, and reached up and beyond our own first associations. The sooner we start, the sooner we’ll soar. Growth is gradual. Time is so swift—crickets call, then Christmas comes. One day a little girl—next day a woman. “Sunrise, sunset,” the nostalgic song reminds us. And so it is. Tonight you’re twelve and then suddenly you’re in a holding pattern just past forty. There is no time for delay in personal improvement. Proper preparation for life doesn’t happen overnight."

I love that she mentions reaching "up and beyond our own first associations."

Our charge as members of Relief Society, as Sisters in Zion, our charge as a sisterhood extends beyond ourselves, beyond our families, beyond our friends, beyond our ward, beyond our neighbourhood. We need to reach outside ourselves, outside of our families, to be an influence in our communities, to be an influence in the world.

That's a hard challenge because being a mother feels so selfless that it's hard to imagine focusing so strongly on building our own families as being...selfish. That's a strong word to use, I realize that. And it's mostly from the conversation Andrew and I had, so don't read too much into it. It's just that I sometimes think we—or maybe it's just me—tend to use motherhood as an excuse not to do things. Like, I don't have to serve other people because I'm doing the greatest service there is, kind of a thing.

And I haven't quite figured this out because usually the only service we're regularly asked to give in Relief Society is to bring people meals and—you guys—I'm a terrible cook. My kids complain that I don't even make quesadillas right. Quesadillas! They're tortillas and cheese! How does one even make those wrong? I don't know. All I know is everyone in my house is happier when Daddy cooks, including Daddy.

I made pancakes last night—using Andrew's favourite recipe—and Miriam took a bite and said, "Wow, Mom! These aren't even bad!" It's like she was shocked that something I made wasn't horrible.

So cooking's not my thing. Whatever.

And also I can't sew, so that kind of puts a damper on homemaking projects.

But I digress.

Because I'm also awesome because I made a dress once, remember?

But that's kind of digressing again.

President Kimball said that "as families are raised, the talents God has given you and blessed you with can often be put to effective use in additional service to mankind.... [P]ursue and...achieve that education, therefore, which will fit you for eternity as well as for full service in morality. In addition to those basic and vital skills which go with homemaking, there are other skills which can be appropriately cultivated and which will increase your effectiveness in the home, in the Church, and in the community."

He wants us to get out there, too. It's not just me and Sister Cannon!

Now, he also says this: "Among the real heroines in the world who will come into the Church are women who are more concerned with being righteous than with being selfish. These real heroines have true humility, which places a higher value on integrity than on visibility. Remember, it is as wrong to do things just to be seen of women as it is to do things to be seen of men. Great women and men are always more anxious to serve than to have dominion."

With this little "feminist movement" in the church, I've often heard it argued that women don't need to be seen for this very reason, but when I read this the first thing that popped into my mind was "pinterest" (and other similar things (like blogging when you point out that you made a dress once (I can be hypocritical sometimes—are you shocked?))).

I think that I need, that women need, that my daughters need to see real righteous women. I don't think having women be more visible at church is the same as having them "be seen of (wo)men." I don't think President Monson does what he does to "be seen of men," in that sense. I don't think that Sister Linda Burton is the General Relief Society president to "be seen of women." I don't think that the bishop is the bishop to be seen of men, either. And I, yes, think it would be beneficial to have more women in the public eye of the church that women can turn to as examples of righteous women...without having it amount to "being seen of (wo)men."

I don't follow that line of thinking.

Sister Cannon related the following story:
Recently I stood with Sister Camilla Kimball while President Kimball greeted the little children at an area conference. A young mother-to-be rushed toward us and threw her arms around Sister Kimball, hugged her, and wept. Then as she gained her composure she said, “Oh Sister Kimball, you are so beautiful, so serene, and so supportive to your husband.” Fresh tears accompanied this outburst and then she said, “Oh, Sister Kimball, my husband says this is how I’m supposed to be.”
Sister Kimball, who is all that the woman said and more, spoke quietly to her, “It will come. We all have to learn through experience.”
The young mother-to-be went away comforted. The beginning wasn’t the end! She lifted her head in hope, as I believe we all must do, to move steadily forward in ultimate faith that the end can be better than the beginning, wherever we may start.
I don't think that Sister Camilla Kimball went about being "so beautiful, so serene, and so supportive" to be seen of men. I can't really claim to have "known" her, and I can't claim to have "known" Sister Marjorie Hinckley either, but who didn't love her? Who didn't she inspire to do as her husband urged and "try a little harder to be a little better"?

I don't think that involving women in more things—like saying prayers during General Conference, for example—will suddenly cause women to turn vain and selfish. Rather, I think it will help inspire more women to "move steadily forward in ultimate faith."

In fact, President Kimball said that many people would be drawn to the church as "women of the Church reflect righteousness and articulateness in their lives and to the degree that the women of the Church are seen as distinct and different—in happy ways—from the women of the world."

So he wants us to be seen by the world, just not..."of (wo)men." And there's a huge difference there, I'll admit it.

I'll also admit that a large part of this conversation between Andrew and me happened as I was relating my shock at the response I got at book club when I shared an article about changes to the hymn book over time—specifically regarding gender in the hymn book. I don't know why I continue to be shocked about things like this. Like, gun control. It's completely shocking to me that people aren't just like, "that makes sense to me" because I grew up in a place where gun control made complete sense to virtually everybody. I'm just a titch liberal, due to my cultural background. And I forget about that sometimes. And am shocked when people don't just nod and say, "that makes sense" and instead act all scandalized. Ahem.

Anyway, there's this paper by Dr. Douglas Campbell (who taught at BYU's computer science department for 30 years and who received his PhD from UNC) in the Dialogue Journal. He details changes in various editions of the LDS hymn book and I find the changes fascinating, as I've mentioned before. One of my favourite changes, though, is Called to Serve Him, the lyrics of which were changed from Sons of God, and children of a King to Sons and Daughters, children of a King before it was included in the 1985 edition of the hymn book (which is the current one).

I love that I grew up singing that song. But how many songs we missing out on because they aren't gender-neutral? A lot, according to Dr. Campbell, who details the 100+ male-gender centered hymns before concluding his paper with this: "I look forward to the time when my wife, daughters, and mother can sing hymns in which they appear directly, not by inference, so that their sense of value as individuals may be increased."

Not to take men out of the picture, not to elevate women above men, not to have women be "seen of (wo)men," but to make it easier for the weakest among us to know that we have "full equality as [His] spirit children" and that "we have equality as recipients of God's perfected love for each of us."

And that's my little feminist rant for the day.


  1. " I'm just a titch liberal, due to my cultural background. And I forget about that sometimes. And am shocked when people don't just nod and say, "that makes sense" and instead act all scandalized. Ahem."

    I guess others "act all scandalized" because little or no gun control is part of THEIR cultural background, and they can't believe you'd say such a thing! Isn't it fun learning about others? :)

    I like some of the newer versions of the Bible for some of the same reasons that you like the changes made to your hymns. I like when "daughters" are included, and not just sons.

    Good rant!

    1. Oh, for sure, I understand that guns are a huge part of the culture here, but some things will never cease to amaze, I suppose. ;)