Sheri Dew recently conducted a "Sister to Sister Event" at BYU with some current female church leaders (Primary General President Joy D. Jones, Relief Society General President Jean B. Bingham, and Young Women General President Bonnie H. Cordon). It was presented in a very familiar question-and-answer structure in which the leaders got to field inquiries from women around the world. I'm guessing none of these women spent any time playing baseball in their younger years, because they bobbled a lot of easy grounders.
The very first question Sheri Dew presented to them kicked things off on a really depressing note. The question read, in part:
How do we deal with the overwhelming concern that we are never enough? Everywhere I look, there are voices telling me to do more, be more, fit more in, spend more, more, more, more....None of this, by the way, comes from my husband or anybody important, but I feel it.
The woman who wrote this described her hectic family responsibilities, her plentiful demands from the church, and her struggle for personal improvement in a cluttered life. Apostles have already answered this question, more or less, as Bednar advised us in April 2014's conference to increase our load to get ourselves unstuck from the snows of life and Eyring indicated in the April 2017 priesthood session that if we feel overwhelmed, we should "take that as a good sign." Weird that members are still struggling with this, right?
What I think is most telling about the question itself is that this woman sounds so incredibly alone. She feels so deeply that her responsibilities loom before her with Sisyphean certainty, but she also feels the need to admit to this as a personal assessment, and not one that stems from her "husband or anybody important." What she needs is for someone to tell her that it doesn't matter if it comes from her husband and that her own emotional journey doesn't need to be validated by any priesthood leader—if it's important to her, then it's coming from somebody important.
But what to her fellow sisters in the gospel advise?
I know when we begin to feel overwhelmed and we put too much expectation on ourselves, it's easy to get discouraged and then we lose the spirit and we can't afford to do that because we need the spirit with us.
—Joy D. Jones
Okay, clearly this woman is already discouraged. You're telling her that this means she's losing the spirit, which is making her even more poorly equipped to handle the surfeit of critical responsibilities the church is hurling at her. That helps her...how? That tells her what she can do to "deal with" her discouragement...how? Way to answer the question.
With the Lord we won't stumble.
—Bonnie H. Cordon
I'm not really sure what the definition of "stumble" is here, because if it means to drop one of the three hundred eight-four balls we're juggling at any one time, you're either lying or you're telling this woman that she didn't have the Lord with her. But surely that's not what you mean by "stumble," because that would mean this is more useless advice that doesn't actually help this woman cope with her emotional exhaustion. In fact, you may be doing more damage to her by implying that she wouldn't be stumbling the way she feels she already has if she had the Lord with her.
What's also troubling is that, after Jean B. Bingham provides a similarly obtuse platitude by referencing Mosiah 4:27 ("it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength") and all three of them have concluded their answers to this woman, not only has no one given any direct strategies that can actually help her cope, but not a single one of them has applauded, acknowledged, or alluded to her stated desire to have a career in which she can help make the world a better place. They all focus on the church stuff and the family stuff.
Of course it's very honorable to be a mother and a wife, and everyone is entitled to pursue his or her own beliefs and priorities, but I think that when anyone expresses a strong desire to get out into the world, roll up her sleeves, and try to improve the human experience, we need to point that out. We need to encourage that. We need to nurture that. What we shouldn't do is ignore it and pretend like it's less important. We shouldn't pretend like that kind of desire isn't exactly the kind of thing we need to see in more people from all faiths and all cultures and all identities.
But on to Question 2:
I hear talks about how important women are in the church, but honestly, that has not been my experience. What suggestions do you have about working more effectively and in greater unity with priesthood leaders especially when, from time to time, some leaders can seem a little dismissive?
Okay, excellent question! How should Mormon women combat their belief system's built-in sexism and its de jure superiority of priesthood holders?
Bingham tells a story about a man she worked with in a previous ward who made her angry with his dismissive attitude toward her ideas. She described them as "purse-slamming meetings." But here's what she learned:
Over time, I learned to work with this brother. I learned that it was a style, a personality thing—it wasn't necessarily me. And I learned that if I prayed for him, if I worked to understand him, and better ways to express myself or approach him, that we worked much better together. And by the time I was released, I was actually sad.
—Jean B. Bingham
Okay, kudos to you for learning to coexist with an asshole. But I hope you realize that you're basically telling women worldwide that when they have a disagreement with a man, they should learn how to understand the man better and how to approach the man better.
Hey. Guess what. Sometimes, the man is wrong, though. Especially in a religion that gives upwards of ninety percent of the power to men and teaches that men are the only ones who have the authority to act in God's name, men can be prone to undervaluing and disregarding the opinions of women. This...really shouldn't come as a shock to anyone. So the advice to learn to better understand the guy who's being an asshole and the repainting of sexism as "a personality thing" isn't really helpful.
But then she gets to the part that, as far as I've seen, has induced more online ire than anything else from this event:
We, as women, tend to be, sometimes...can we be shrill or demanding or stubborn? We think it's...[laughter from all three]...we have the best idea ever and if they don't see it our way, well...then CLEARLY there's a problem here. [more laughter] So all I want to say is, sisters, when we ask that question that the apostles asked of the Savior—"is it I?"—that's a really good place to start.
—Jean B. Bingham
This is like a female television writer creating a strong female character and then dressing her in revealing skintight leather outfits and having her sacrifice everything for the love of a good man and then killing her off as a plot device to push the male character to his dramatic crisis.
Just because it's coming from a woman doesn't mean it's good for women. I mean, it's better for Bingham to say this than a man, I guess (same thing goes for Dew's earlier comment about how all three women are "adorable" and "well-put-together") but it's still not great. The "shrill" and "demanding" parts in particular play into stereotypes about silly emotional women who're always being hysterical. And then, of course, concluding with "is it I?" implies that women should first assume that they are the problem in any unpleasant interaction with a man.
In another context, the "is it I?" comment might not be so bad. Human beings, generally, should stop assuming the genesis of a conflict and stop placing the blame on their enemies by default. But when a female church leader recieves a question that cuts to the core of their sexist ecclesiastical environment and she responds by telling women they should ask themselves if they're the cause of any disagreement they may have with a man...that's...not...great.
Jones and Cordon largely echo Bingham's comments, reiterating that you need to make sure you're right with God when you're arguing with a man. And then...one of them drops this gem:
But I think if we realize that as we're sitting in councils and we're working with people, especially in the church, we have a wonderful opportunity to do something that I think is remarkable, and that's sustain. You know, where else, not in any other community but in the Lord's church, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Lord gives us an opportunity to say, "will you sustain these imperfect people?"
—Bonnie H. Cordon
There's a lot to parse out of this one.
First of all, how ridiculous is her claim that God doesn't give us the opportunity to sustain leaders in any other organization? Because...this is, purportedly, God's only organization. In case you were bummed that Elohim doesn't afford you the right to sustain your leaders at the Rotary Club, don't get your hopes up...it's never gonna happen. You know, where else, not in any other community but in Girl Scouts, in the Girl Scout organization, we're given the opportunity to sell Girl Scout cookies! I mean, sure, because that's how it works and Girl Scouts are the ones who sell Girl Scout cookies because they get them from the Girl Scouts to raise money for the Girl Scouts, but isn't it amazing how no other organization offers that?!
But more important that the silliness of that assertion is the pointlessness of the act of sustaining. She pretends like it's some kind of preternatural power that we're endowed with as church members, but it's an empty ritual, especially in this context. So there's a misogynistic power-tripping asshole in the ward council meeting...how is sustaining going to help with the situation? How does that get him to listen to the opinion of the uppity broad with delusions of equality? How does that help women to actually be seen as important in the church?
And it's also worth pointing out that sustaining often just makes you complicit in your own oppression. Even outside of a discussion of sexism, if you have any problem with a church leader, you can sustain him—and basically give a vote of confidence to someone who will continue to treat you the same way—or you can vote not to sustain him, which is about as good as abstaining from the proceedings. The church likes to pretend that sustaining is a proper democratic vote, but it's not. Because you can't even suggest someone else to replace the leader whom you believe is performing poorly.
Vladimir Putin is better at this than the church is. Sure, Putin will throw the guy you're trying to vote for in jail and then fudge the ballot receipts, but at least, theoretically, you have an alternative to voting for him and to just staying home on election day.
But I digress. Because the point here really is that all three of these women completely failed to address the premise of the question—that it was not this person's experience that women are important in the church. If anything, these leaders just lent more credibility to the claim that women really aren't valued in Mormonism.
Good job, ladies.
Oh, and before I move onto the next question, I need to include this:
One of the things that I love about my mother and my father...they taught us that if we're having a challenge with a leader in the church, we do not criticize. EVER, ever, ever. I never heard my parents say one negative thing. Because it doesn't help, and when you approach with love, as Bonnie said, that's how you find the charity to work forward.
—Jean B. Bingham
Jesus Christ, that's toxic.
Okay, so let's say, for example, we're talking about one of the many cases in which a Mormon leader has sexually abused a young member. If you think parents should not say anything negative about their leaders then, I'm struggling to see how you have any kind of conscience. That kind of behavior needs to be exposed and rooted out and prosecuted, and that's going to involve some unpleasant accusations and some negative words. I understand the desire for respecting the chain of command, but there are plenty of things that should supersede that desire.
If criticism "doesn't help," how are members who have been severely wronged by their church leaders supposed to resolve these situations? I'm all for approaching wrongdoers with understanding and with charity, but sometimes you need to approach them with criticism and harsh words so that their deeds can come to light and so people can be protected from them.
In my experience, I have found that people who don't tolerate criticism are generally those who feel especially vulnerable to it because their self-esteem is in the gutter or because they feel that their grasp on their authority is frail. People who accept criticism gracefully tend to be those who are confident in who they are and have less of a need to enforce their authority with an iron fist. Just sayin'.
How does someone who is childless or who doesn't have a picture-perfect marriage or who isn't married or whose family is fractured or who identifies as LGBTQ and doesn't feel that there is a place for them feel at home in a family-centric church?
Another good question! How do we make space for people who don't fit inside the boundaries of the weird little Mormon cookie cutter? Let's see what sublime wisdom our panel chooses to impart upon us:
In this church, we need to help one other understand that every single one of us belongs to the family of God, belongs to the Relief Society family, belongs to our ward family, that NO ONE is left out.
—Jean B. Bingham
Did...did you just restate the question in the form of a statement? The question was "how do we do a thing" and your answer is essentially, "we need to make sure we do a thing." Wow. Great, but the question was how. Bingham may be gearing up for a run for public office, because that was a pretty slick diplomatic sound bite that glistened just enough to obscure the fact that it was completely devoid of an actual answer.
Heavenly Father put us in families for a reason and we all have a family and they all look different.
—Bonnie H. Cordon
No! Were you fucking listening to the goddamn question?! These are people who feel like they don't have families! Until the church stops telling women their primary role is to bear and nurture children, until the church stops telling LGBTQ members that their identity puts them at odds with the eternal family structure of the Celestial Kingdom, and until the church stops dividing split-faith families along dogmatic lines, this is not a sufficient answer!
Imagine if someone shoots you in the gut. While you're bleeding out on the sidewalk, you ask the person who shot you, "Hey, can you do something about this bullet wound?" And then she smiles down at you and assures you that your body is merely shaped a little differently than everyone else's and that's okay and then she gives you a hug. Thanks, but I'm still in agonizing pain and serious medical danger because of you, so maybe could you actually do something about the bloody hole you ripped through my small intestine?
That was a little parable. See what I did?
When we follow through on that scripture, then everyone feels included, regardless of what their particular situation is. Married, non-; children, non-; challenged in many, many ways...
—Jean B. Bingham
Okay, so nobody has actually mentioned the dreaded lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, queers, and intersex people in their answers so far. And I'm concerned that this was actually Bingham's nod to that cross-section of Mormonism. It sounds to me like being married, being unmarried, having children, and not having children address every group mentioned in the original question except for the LGBTQ crowd and the not-picture-perfect-marriage crowd. I can't decide if it's worse if Bingham is putting LGBTQ people in the "challenged in many, many ways" category or if she's just ignoring them altogether.
She does, eventually, find her way to an umbrella statement that "everyone belongs," but...I think by then the damage is already done and it's not like the church is gonna put its money where her mouth is.
The event continues with a few more questions with a few more fluffy answers, but there's one last thing I want to comment on:
Our Savior, Jesus Christ, never hides from us.
—Bonnie H. Cordon
I hate to disagree, Bonnie (okay, that's obviously a lie), but hiding is exactly what Jesus has done for the last two millennia except for a few notable and uncorroborated exceptions. I would love it if she could provide me a complete list of living persons who have actually seen Jesus face-to-face. Even the prophet is intentionally ambiguous on the subject.
Sure, I realize she's being metaphorical, but it's misleading nonetheless. If Jesus wanted to show himself, he could. The fact that we're reduced to identifying his presence as a series of nonspecific, spiritual, and unauthenticated impressions, feelings, and coincidences means that either Jesus doesn't exist or he's meting out his manifestations in painstakingly paltry morsels—or, in other words, hiding.
As a general comment, I can't help but wonder about the rationales behind the arrangement of this event and the selection of the questions. My theory is that this broadcast is one of many recent moves to pretend like the church is addressing the tough questions. Because some of these were tough questions. And this meeting can be pointed to as evidence that the church doesn't shy away from them and even welcomes them (considering the strongly suggested, rarely used, and obviously carefully moderated option for viewers to send in live questions). This may work as evidence for a lot of people that the church is being transparent and forthright, but I would beg anyone who will be satisfied by this evidence to review how much of these leaders' responses consist of pleasant platitudes and how little of these leaders' responses consist of serviceable solutions.
I realize that, because of the all-female cast and the woman-centric material of this broadcast, it's possible that my criticism can be interpreted as its own form of the sexism I'm trying to denounce. That would be a fair claim, and one that's difficult to definitively refute. But I hope my criticism is focused on the content of the speakers' words instead of on the identities of the speakers. From my perspective, Mormonism has a habit of oppressing groups of people and convincing many of them that they are not oppressed. Women comprise one of the most notable groups for which this is the case. I don't think these women possess the levels of dishonesty and unscrupulousness and hypocrisy that I ascribe to Nelson and Oaks and Holland. Unlike some of the apostles, these women seem mostly genuine to me. They are trying to accomplish what they think is right within the confines of an organization that has forced them to internalize its imposed limitations on their gender. And after decades in the church, like so many other members to varying degrees across demographic lines, they don't realize how much better they could be without the organization.
And that, sadly, causes them to—with good intentions—become complicit in perpetuating the systemic marginalization of certain groups within of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It causes them to contribute to the sexism. It causes them to shore up the authoritarianism. It causes them to stoke some of the more toxic behaviors of the membership. And I'd be willing to bet that whatever higher priesthood authority gave the green light for this event hoped that's exactly what would happen.
Also, in case anyone recognized the reference in the title—I've had a certain song from a certain Danny Kaye/Bing Crosby film stuck in my head the entire time I've been writing this. The trigger for that, of course, was the "Sister to Sister" caption on the video.