Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Isn’t It About . . . Gender?

Recently, I was told that I wrongly attributed problems arising from my personality deficiencies to gender issues.

Incredulousness was my first reaction. I have fought bloody verbal battles in the past, defending against feminist accusations towards the Church, and pushing those with good reason to believe they have been discriminated against based on their gender to look beyond gender issues as the source of their problems. But I have a strong tendency to take personal comments from others to heart, so I have been taking a long, hard, and uncomfortable look at myself.

I have often gotten entangled in heated philosophical and theological discussions. My dad, brother, and I used to get into them all the time, so I was effectively raised in a debate environment, where I was encouraged to not only have an opinion, but to defend it. Part of the cost of my marriage relationship was no longer feeling that I had any right to exert my opinions, both because my perspective was inherently faulty, and because “debate” was the same thing as “contention,” and was therefore wrong. It has taken me the better part of two years to again grow enough backbone to believe that my perspective and ideas have merit, and to enjoy discussing philosophical issues again.

Parallel to this, I very much do not want to see the world through a feminist perspective, but my personal experiences with men have not given me many tools to fight the fire. My few romantic relationships have been such that I was expected to act certain ways to keep their attraction and attention, without much reciprocal concern about my needs and desires. And those ways generally parallel the ideal of womanhood, viewing the world though a softer lens than my experiences warrant. Some of the men have been very good men, but when I did not behave the way they expected, there was automatically something wrong in me that made me unworthy of further association unless I changed.

As someone who was a decided tomboy as a child, preferring boys to girls as friends, it has been hard for me to accept that my primary attractiveness lies in being sweet and happy, and deferring my opinions to a man. Sweetness and happiness is not what has kept me in the Church, and loyal to the Savior. Unflinching willingness to face the harsher realities of life has. And though I have been searching desperately for evidence to the contrary since my male friends entered puberty and began talking about girls as objects of attraction in my presence, my only evidence has been with men who are not attracted to me, and who have no level of authority over me. I have yet to meet many men with any kind of clear priesthood or work-related authority or implied romantic authority over me who do not expect my automatic submission to him based on that authority rather than on the merit of his ideas or on the strength of his concern or love for me.

After being accused of reducing interpersonal conflict to gender conflict, I began to wonder if the key lies in implied authority. What if it isn’t about being a woman, exactly, but rather about being expected to be submissive to authority? After all, there are other women who are just as outspoken as I am who may be accepted for who they are by the same men who are uncomfortable with me because they have no authoritative interest in those women. And there are men who are treated poorly because they don’t submit to authority when it is expected.

I know that while there are parts of my personality that people do not like, they are things that are easily seen from the moment someone meets me. Why would someone even begin a romantic relationship with me unless they expect it will change once they have implied authority?

I passionately believe that authority of any kind should not be exercised except on principles of righteousness, on genuine love. And I don’t accept authority unquestioned until I have first come to trust that the authority figure truly cares about me, whether the authority is from priesthood, a relationship, or employment. I believe this is closer to a divine perspective than believing that authority in inherent in position.

Unfortunately, our culture carries an element of male-over-female implied authority in romantic relationships. And I have no interest in entering into a relationship where I am subservient to the will of another by default. I recently came to realize that I have subconsciously created several ways to test my status in relationships that are guaranteed to turn off someone who is not comfortable with my personality for what it is. But I’m fine with that. I’d rather know early than late.

So my critic was right in a way, and wrong in a way. I really do not believe that interpersonal conflicts are strictly about gender, even in romantic relationships. But I think that there are many interpersonal conflicts that come into play because of cultural assumptions about the nature of male/female relationships that I am not willing to accept. Because when I see those conflicts not happening, it is in the absence of authority or romantic involvement.

There is no point in belonging to a Church only to submit to another imperfect mortal’s will without questioning. And there is no point getting married to a person who believes, even a little, that it is my eternal job to defer my perspective to his, even if I have useful experience and wisdom in a matter. Especially not when I feel free to utilize my agency by the things I have learned in my life to make decisions now regarding my home and family.

Please be willing to comment. This idea is relatively new to me, and I’d like to explore its potential. I may be completely off the mark, here.

But maybe I’m not.


  1. I don't think you're off the mark at all. You should ot expect any relationship to put you in a superior or inferior position simply because of the implied position (or gender) of the other person. No one should look at a marriage or any other interpersonal relationship as a way to assume or defer authority in that relationship. We werent given the picture of marriage that had a driver and an ox, where the driver directed and the ox did the work, but of being equally yoked, where both worked together to move the load.

    If there is a disagreement in a marriage about what or how something should be done (and its about something important enough to both parties) then the decision needs to wait for more prayer, pondering, discussion, and even debate, so moving the yoke in whatever direction is ultimately decided. The same is true for the Apostles, and should be true for Bishoprics, Beehive Presidencies, and employment situations.

    Debate can be a good thing. It can also be a bad thing. The difference is in the spirit accompanying it. If the desire it to subjigate the other to your will, its a bad thing. If the desire is to listen and understand the others opinion (and they are doing the same), then it is a good thing.

    Me, I tend to prefer to hang about women rather than men. I just feel I understand them better, even when I come across as a little creepy by doing so. Gender is part of who you are, but it is most certainly not all that you are.

  2. I think you're a feminist, whether you like it or not.

  3. I think, Kristine, on this matter you may be right. But on pretty much all other matters, I doubt "feminist" applies as cleanly. Particularly since I do believe in submitting to Priesthood authority, when it is genuine.

  4. You have written something very earnest here. Your honesty is very moving, and I agree that most issues are about power first, rather than gender. But my take is that you are a human and you are a woman both. You will always be both. Just as your human-ness cannot be denied, neither can your woman-ness. Sometimes it is about gender. And when it is, your perspective is just as valuable as a man's. That is where feminism comes in. Feminism does not strive to distract you from your shared humanity with men. The purpose is to give women the support in their desire to participate as equals, as partners in humanity. Women should be able to speak to the power that men still primarily hold in our world. We hold up "half the sky", as the Chinese proverb says. Yet, look at our world, our religions, our political sphere. Women still have great challenges in being heard, and then being treated as equals. Sisterhood need not be divisive from brotherhood. But sisterhood must absolutely be able to speak to power without fear of being punished or judged. And that has yet to be achieved, in my opinion.

    Excellent post.

  5. SilverRain--lots of Mormon feminists believe in submitting to genuine Priesthood authority. In fact, I'd say most of them do--how could they stay in the church otherwise?

    I don't really care whether you call yourself a feminist or not, of course, but I am interested in removing artificial barriers to friendship and unity among sisters. It seems to me that your insistence that you are not a feminist is such a barrier. (As is, perhaps, my insistence that I am :))

  6. I think adding -ists to one's definition of oneself creates more barriers than it removes, but I appreciate your motives. :)

    Such labeling also has the side effect of create a pressure to conform which I am not willing to accept. I'd rather be free to form my own opinions from a variety of labels, than be confined to just a few.

  7. I really like this. Thank you.

  8. I agree with a lot of what you say (I come from a similar upbringing of constant debate and sharing of thoughts/opinions), but it is simply not my experience that all men require their significant other to be subservient in the romantic relationship and that social norm is changing. In fact, I have seen quite the opposite in many relationships, where the male is subservient to the female. Both are wrong and have no place in a healthy relationship. I suppose it can be quite difficult to get the right balance and there always needs to be some give and take... and if we assume the other is simply trying to assert his/her will on us in an act of "unrighteous dominion", it may in fact be a mote and beam type of scenario if we aren't careful... I agree that it is often much more about interpersonal power dynamics rather than gender bias (though that definitely happens too, in both directions)...

  9. Why is feminist such a "bad word?" I mean most women are feminist weather they like it or not. I want equal rights and to be treated fairly as a woman and if that means I am a feminist, than I AM A FEMINIST!!!
    As for feminism in the church... I do see your point and I myself have struggled there. In the end though I have faith in the LDS church, my husband, the prophet, and the Lord. I think we loose sight of the bigger picture, we see it as the world does. What keeps me strong is knowing that the Lord has a plan for me on earth and after and who knows what that holds.
    Thank you for your thoughts, I hope you can figure things out. A good book,"Eve and the choice made in Eden" very good and very insightful!

  10. The Lord gave you your mind, your personality, and your fieriness for a reason. You would be doing yourself, or the church any favors by trying to conform.

    I consider myself a Mormon Feminist, and it has nothing to do with the Priesthood. I want all the lip service about women being honored and respected to actually come to pass.

  11. My thoughts are along the lines of Jon and Jacque. I think it's as easy for women to be dominant, and sometimes more so, because our culture is so charged with the concept of 'equality' that I think it can easily swing the other direction.

    I also think that ultimately, we have to learn to think beyond man vs. woman and try to think about how human, imperfect, and layered we all are as human. Being male or female is definitely a significant part of who we are, but weakness can't just be pinned on gender alone, and when we try to reduce each other to just our genders in interpersonal relationships, I think that only adds to the problem.

    And I don't know if I'm making any sense....


  12. You are making sense, and I agree.

    But I do think that there are cultural assumptions about how men and women should behave in a relationship. And I think those assumptions are influenced by gender. I also think there are assumptions in non-romantic relationships which can be influenced by gender expectations.

    Things people would not have problems with in other people are serious problems in people they have authority over, or a romantic relationship with. And I think those assumptions are so ingrained in some people, that they don't realize it, and they chalk their issues up to "interpersonal issues" when in reality they stem from gender expectations.

  13. I found this post fascinating...
    Part of me feels a little cranky at the person who originally said it to you. And I feel amazed at your ability to try and find the truth in such a statement (if there is any truth).

    For me, I find *I* behave differently when there is applied authority. I feel like I have to submit - even though everything inside of me screams NO. My beliefs about what a women should be is far more motivating than the men around me...

    Most of the men that have fallen into the idea of authority over me - really don't believe in it themselves. It's almost like they've only known one way that men and women can relate, so although they don't like it and don't agree with it, they go with it because they don't know anything else.

    Those are my (disjointed) thoughts.
    Thanks for writing!

  14. I tried to comment earlier, and was having technical difficulties, so let's hope it works this time.
    In my marriage, my husband definitely doesn't rule over me. In fact, sometimes I wish he'd defer to me a little less.
    So sometimes we wonder, if the idea of one gender "ruling" over the other makes no practical difference in our day-to-day life (and, many would argue, shouldn't), then why is it even there? If it's just for the sake of order or accountability, then why is it always the same gender who submits to the other? I believe in the oneness concept, but it seems like one gender is supposed to sacrifice more for the sake of unity than the other. Again, this is all theoretical, but even if it's never applied in reality, I just don't get it.

  15. This discussion reminds me of a great article by Elder Hafen and his wife (Crossing Thresholds and Becoming Equal Partners, Ensign, Aug. 2007).

    From my limited experience and observations, the happiest marriages are those that achieve this level of interdependence that the Hafens describe in this article. I am sure that there are marriages where such interdependence comes naturally or perhaps with little effort, but I believe that more often it requires mutual displays of striving for patience, forgiveness, tolerance, trust, charity, selflessness, etc. For me, the key is a sincere willingness to make the relationship a priority.

    When there is a perception of unequal interest in creating this type of interdependent relationship, it is very easy to then become disengaged in the marriage.

  16. My background is in education and the problem of how the sexes interact with one another is a major obstacle to the needs of indiviuals and society.

    We are at a point that a muddle headed patriarchy can deny us the contributions of many women, whether it be at work, inthe home or in society at large. Unfortunately, we in the schools often exascerbate this difficulty.

    The ways in which this occurs are numerous. Elementary teachers tend to recognize the very active male that raises his hand, instructors tend to ask more thought provoking questions of male students, counselors discourage females from taking math or science. The list can go on and on. It has gotten a lot better, but it is still there.

    But even worse, we do not train males and females on how to talk and listen to one another. We don't make them aware of the sexism in much of our behaviors.

    I tought 12th grade government for over thirty years. One of our major goals was to make good citizens, people who could make our society a better place to live in. One key part of that ws to get males to listen to and respect what women have say as well as encourage females to speak their mind on important issues. That is often much harder than you might think.

    One of the first things I would do each semester is to find an excuse to make the statement, "men exchange information and girls gossip." After a few seconds of approval and outrage, I would ask, "I just showed two examples of sexism. What were they?" The students would immediately pick up on the exchange information/gossip item. But it never took less than a minute for someone to catch the men/girl sexism. The discussion that followed would be the first of a number of efforts to get male and female to be able to debate, listen and talk with one another with greater respect.

    What really bothers me in the Church is the number of males who exhibit "unconcious" sexism and the sisters who do not recognize it. What makes it worse is that young boys and men seldom see women acting in leadership positions.
    We do not give them the visibility that engenders respect.

    In regards to the above, I like to use my wife as an example. She has been elected to county wide elective office, served on numerous commisions, been a union President, and a leading organizer of the successful effort to save Adult Education in California. In the wards we have been in, how many males would know of the leadership positions she held in Young Women or Primary?

    In many respects, I believe, we are only taking the first baby steps towards sexual equality, and you and others are oftenenduring the slowness of that process


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