Thursday, November 20, 2008


[being discussed at The Exponent.)

wash me
During my youth and early adulthood I had a bit of an obsession with being spiritually clean. The peak of this obsession came during my mission and the ensuing couple of years; through dedicated church service, scripture study (including a fixation with memorization), prayer/meditation and temple attendance I sought God's approval, desperately wanting to be found worthy, clean. What I find ironic is that this was the time of my life where I felt the most unclean, the most unworthy, and none of my full hearted sincerity or excellent memorization skills could wash that out. Looking back I'm not sure if I worked hard because I felt dirty, or if I felt dirty because I could never work hard enough (scrubbing away... 'out damn spot!')

Pondering my own experience, it occurs to me that this tendency to feel unclean targets the female gender. Yes, I'm projecting, I am definitely generalizing (big time), and my only evidence is personal observation; but what I am wondering is if LDS women (in general) feel inherently MORE dirty and therefore work HARDER than their male counterparts. Yes, the gospel says that ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And yeah, we typically think of men being 'dirtier' with leaving socks lying all over the place etc, but historically women's bodies have been the recipient of the most censure for filthiness and I have a sneaking suspicion that such ideas still underlie and inform a good deal of our belief systems.

In every ward I have been in there is usually the open recognition that the ladies work harder than the gentlemen; visiting teaching stats outstripping home teaching stats, women spending proportionally way more time in lesson preparations (even if that is merely in making crafty handouts), etc... It seemed that every temple endowment session I attended women easily out numbered the men (except in the Provo temple when districts of elders were in attendance). These facts are used as the anecdotal evidence that women are just naturally more spiritual than men, but when that rhetoric is combined with the real life fact that having a superior spiritual nature doesn't translate into any real decision-making power in the organization, perhaps women just implicitly feel they have more to prove. To themselves. To God. To the ward.

Maybe we can chalk it up to traditional gender roles that have the man of the house as the main breadwinner, spending hours each day bringing home the temporal bacon. The stay-at-home wife sees a church calling as a serious full time job to which she can dedicate her energies, providing a sense of purpose, a sense of responsibility, and a chance to prove herself. Maybe this is part of a gender construct that gives women more accolades for frequent tearful testimonies than men. Cultural training about masculinity and femininity (and whether or not it's okay to be in touch with your feelings).

Or maybe there is the subtle implication that women are a little less worthy, and the little pedestal of superior purity is a smokescreen. Cleanliness before God is a huge part of our belief system; baptism to wash away our sins, bits of bread and sips of water on a weekly basis to sanctify us, continual repentance of the blemishes that constantly mar our souls; all of this leading up to the ultimate purification of the temple initiation and endowment, preparing us to pass through the veil that separates us from God. A promise of being clean enough to enter his holy presence.

The women in the room will now please veil their faces.


Chandelle said...

And yet, in church I heard all the time that women are inherently more spiritually-aware and evolved than the men - after all, that's why men "need" the priesthood but women don't, and why the men get chastised at GC and the women are stroked and patted on the head. Right? Quite a juxtaposition.

G said...

yes... and the flattery, and the pedestal and being treated with kid gloves doesn't really do anything for women's self-esteem.

those are just ways of trying to avoid the hard questions.

Chandelle said...

Exactly. I remember I once mentioned the issue of how the church treats women, and my SIL said, "But they put us on a pedestal! All we hear about is how great we are!" I told her, "That's part of the problem. That's just another form of oppression." Predictably, she thought I was nuts.

pb said...

I'm not LDS and haven't been since I was 16 or so, but having been raised in the tradition, I'm familiar with the attitude toward women. For whatever reason, it never rubbed off on me. And, being inherently rather lazy, I certainly never felt any need to work harder than others on church assignments, or any other assignments for that matter. The gender issue was problematic for me, however, and it was probably the single biggest reason that I ended my involvement with the church. No one could ever explain satisfactorily to me why men should have the priesthood and women shouldn't. My mother would say, "You just don't get it." Sort of how she would say, when we talked about gay marriage later, "Marriage is just between a man and a woman." As if that's an answer. When younger, I was completely intolerant of -- what I considered to be -- such intellectual compromise. If I am to believe something, I've got to be able to carry it through to the end and resonate with it completely. I probably now have more understanding for why people compromise to remain in a religion that is not satisfactory for them in many ways. I still have a difficult time, however, understanding how women can resonate with this particular religion that tells them in no uncertain terms that they are not the equals of men.

G said...

thanks for the comment, pb.
I think that one of the problems here is that for women in the church there is no message "in no uncertain terms". there is the rhetroic that is spouted from the pulpit about equality... and even inequality with the woman being "better". but yet the real take home message from where the rubber hits the road is one of female submission. Kiskilili wrote a wonderful post here about chicken patriarchy in the church... about all the double speak and ambiguity surrounding gender in the church's culture, that I think addresses this subject superbly

pb said...

G, I read the chicken patriarchy post. It's very fine. And I understand that for some people, the messages that the church sends are uncertain. I do not find them so. Double speak does not equate to uncertainty. It's just dishonesty.

Apparently, according to the church, the priesthood is some kind of big deal. Therefore, it must be available to me. If it is not, then there must be a reason. What is that reason? No answer. (Except of course, the always available, because God said so. Just like God said the races should be segregated. Not persuasive.)

Man is the ordained head of the household. He is to rule with benevolence, but he's the head. Whether woman is at his side or behind him doesn't matter. What matters is Why, if there must be a head, is it arbitrarily designated to be the man? Why not arbitrarily designate it to be the woman? Never got an answer.

Much later, I found myself at a fireside for lawyers. (I was in law school at the time.) A church leader who was also a lawyer was speaking -- a man of course -- and he was asked how he felt about female lawyers. He lamented that he hated to see women involved in the legal profession as it might sully their femininity, make them hard at the edges, take them away from their true purpose. It was shocking to me that so many of my fellow female law students were apparently willing to take this kind of talk. This man was a jackass, obviously. Why didn't they just get up and walk out? But they didn't, and they don't.

And finally, the one that cannot be tiptoed around: the doctrine of eternal marriage, which just happens to be polygamous. One man and several wives, that is, banish the thought of a woman ever having more than one husband. And this is supposed to be my reward, if I'm really, really good? In what universe does anyone think that I am going to be motivated to make it to the CK so that I can share my husband with a bunch of other women?

There's nothing uncertain about mormon doctrine as it pertains to women, at least as I see it.

adam said...

I cannot speak for the experience of women, however I used to struggle a lot more with the issue of being `clean.´ I felt the need to constantly go through the so-called steps of repentence and often needed assurance from the spirit or from leaders that that I was worthy of whatever. Fortunately during the last few years I have been able to relax a little, and while my behavior has not changed much, I don´t feel the need to constantly worry about repentance and ect. and a nice result of that is it is easier now for me to be chaste and committed to my marriage than ever before. Go figure.

Thanks for the post. I love reading about the experiences of women in the church. I know I will never be able to really understand what it is like, I do like to try.

Eris said...

I completely understand this obsession with being clean and never understood why my husband did not feel the same pressure to perform spirituality (which is basically what it is, as we mostly do these things to be able to check them off or have someone else see us do them) as I did.

In the last year I have allowed myself much more latitude in all things churchy (no longer a regular scripture reader, not attending temple as often, etc.) - this can be called laziness or a slow falling away, but it is what I have had to do to survive all the demands on my time.

The funniest part is that Mr. Eris and I are now about equal in these areas and yet I felt so much worse about it... and he felt justified in calling me on swearing more. I explained to him that he was not my spiritual guardian and since we have never had an equal relationship when it comes to performing spirituality he should really just back off and let me slip a bit. I also told him I didn't like getting a lecture like the little wife. He was amazing about it and told me I could say whatever the hell I wanted and he wouldn't bug me anymore.

The point of my long rambling? I have realized that all the performing I had to do was actually taking the joy out of being a part of the church and once I let the pressure go I am a much happier person.

Eris said...

Sorry that answer was so long, but I forgot to add that the other part of the point was that my husband never felt this pressure - in fact he found non-performing funny - so he was blissfully happy. I don't know why it was ok for him and not me, but I am willing to entertain the thought that it is a prodcut of our LDS culture.

Elizabeth-W said...

You know what I'm doing next Friday, right? Six more days....
This topic is highly relevant to me. But...I don't know what to make of it.
Growing up in the church I don't think I ever felt 'less than' due to my XX status. My parents have a very loving relationship; my dad was the CEO and mom was the CFO--it was clear he couldn't function at all without her. So perhaps this idea or interpretation of less than has to do with what was modeled for us at home?

Lisa said...

I hear this.

As a SAHM in the church, I hear this. At first I enjoyed the continuous patting on the head, the "Women are so much better than the men. Men have the Priesthood, but women, you women get to be mothers!"

After a while I recognized an inherent condecension in their words. Especially when I think back to things such as polygamy and read corresponding scriptures.

I don't know what to do with it just yet, but I'm tired of hearing how great I am only to feel totally and completely not great.

I don't covet the Priesthood, never have. I just want some real honest respect. Not words, action. It would go miles with me.

Lessie said...

I don't remember feeling any actual issues with being unclean, but I did feel enormous pressure to perform spiritually. I prayed twice a day, read scriptures at least once a day. I wrote in my journal every day. I attended the temple weekly there for awhile. And it irritated me to no end that my husband didn't seem to see the importance of these rituals. It was enough for him to waltz into the back row five minutes after Sacrament meeting started and attend the block. I think it's interesting (and that you're definitely on to something) tying it to the gender inequality in the church. But it was certainly not a connection I made when I was still faithful.
As for that last line about the sister's veiling their faces, STICK IT TO 'EM, SISTA! God that used to gall me. I remember right before i left the church, we were at the temple with a couple we had befriended. We had just finished sealings and the man asked one of the temple workers why, since the sisters veiled their faces in the prayer circle, didn't they have to veil their faces in the sealing ceremony, "i just think that would be cool," he finished. I almost spit on him right there in the temple. It was beyond him that for some women, asking them to veil their faces was just as painful as if they had said outright, "you're not worthy to see god."
Whew. Deep breath. :) Great post, chica!

angryyoungwoman said...

My dad (who can sometimes be a complete douchenozzle) once said women could never understand the pressure men were under because the priesthood required them to be so spiritual and clean and we women tempt them so and it's just so hard for the poor weak men (who are entirely ruled by their bodies and their hormones, dontcha know?).

I think a part of the "uncleanness" is that we are constantly taught that our bodies will make men lose control. Of course, that is mixed with the virgin/whore dichotomy--all female archetypes seem to be based on one extreme or the other, and somehow any woman who messed up in any way somehow brought about great destruction (you know, like the fall of man). It's no wonder women have some feelings of uncleanness.

I dealt with this stuff as long as I was in the church. In fact, it was right after I turned eight that I started washing my hands until they bled. I remember thinking when I got baptized, "now I just never have to make a mistake again because I am all clean." Right.

Sorry about length, convolutedness, emotional messiness. It's one of those days.

Allie said...

Elizabeth-w, I think we have the same parents!

I used to feel like I needed to make sure family home evening happened, and that we said our prayers, and that my Mister didn't fall asleep at church. I'm slowly learning to let go of the need to control those things.

I don't know why women don't hold the priesthood. It's thankfully never been an issue I've struggled with, I've had enough others.

I kind of view the commandments and all that as things that help guide me through life avoiding things that would cause me pain. I view the things that I don't "get" as the faults of humans, and I firmly believe that God looks at each of us as individuals and loves us, and if we do our best, then whatever happens, we'll be happy.

Life is not black and white, far too many people in the church think it is, and it causes too much pain for those who don't fit the black and white ideas.