This post was inspired by my recent feminist awakening and Craig Harline's presentation "What Happened to My Bell-Bottoms? How Things That Were Never Going to Change Have Sometimes Changed Anyway, And How Studying History Can Help Us Make Sense of It All".
The Judeo-Christian God is clearly not big on instigating immediate social change. The Law of Moses was a substantial improvement on the more punitive Code of Hammurabi, but looks absolutely barbaric by today's standards in most countries. In biblical times, slavery was as ubiquitous and crucial to the economy as wheeled vehicles are today, and instead of condemning it altogether, God was just like, "Be nice to your slaves." So Christians defended slavery as a divinely sanctioned institution for hundreds of years but eventually decided it was an obvious unthinkable evil and how could we have ever thought otherwise? When Jesus showed up, He upgraded the Law of Moses and taught principles for self-improvement and eternal life, but disappointed the Jews waiting for a Messiah by declining to do anything about the oppression and atrocities of the Roman government.
And then there are the Apostle Paul's comments about women. He clearly assigned women an inferior position to their husbands, but he did tell men to be nice and love their wives. Maybe he was just speaking his own sexist opinions, as many assume, but I'm willing to consider that maybe it was legitimately good, even inspired advice for the time and maybe it improved women's lives - and yet even then, it's inadequate for the twenty-first century and doesn't need to be defended as if it were written yesterday.
A Muslim couple came and spoke to a class I was in once. Among other things, they said that when Islam began, it was very progressive for the time on women's rights. The problem, they said, is when adherents stick with that origin and refuse to make any further progress. I like that thought and I think it also applies to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which was ironically more feminist in the nineteenth century than the twentieth, perhaps as much because of as in spite of polygamy. I think we do ourselves a disservice when we pretend that the Church's teachings on gender roles have never changed, or feel compelled to defend wrong or at least obsolete attitudes and ideas as the Lord's will. With that in mind, I want to look at a couple of things that have changed and may need to continue to change. I should note that to my knowledge, the majority of Latter-day Saint women, and certainly the majority I've talked to personally about feminist stuff, feel happy with and empowered by their status in the Church, and I'm not trying to say they're wrong to feel that way or convince them not to feel that way. But I do think they deserve more.
In the nineteenth century, the Utah territory gave women the right to vote before anywhere else in the United States except Wyoming (until the federal government, in the process of persecuting the Church over polygamy, took it away). Throughout most of the country, men argued that women didn't need to vote because they would just vote the same as their husbands or because they had "moral authority" as a counterpart to men's actual authority. The idea that women don't need the same rights and privileges as men because they're special has, unfortunately, polluted our own rhetoric within the Church whenever someone wonders why they can't be ordained to priesthood offices, but at least we let them vote. And it was much easier for women to obtain a divorce in Utah than the rest of the country. And Brigham Young encouraged them to get jobs outside the home - more on that later. Martha Hughes Cannon took that advice to heart, becoming a physician and later defeating her own husband to become the first female state senator in the United States. She famously said, "A plural wife is not half as much a slave as a single wife. If her husband has four wives, she has three weeks of freedom every single month."
Certainly it was still a patriarchal religion and you could point out plenty of misogyny in the nineteenth-century Church as in the nineteenth-century everywhere else, but all things considered I think it did pretty good. The Victorian gender roles associated with it today largely settled in after it abandoned polygamy and tried to prove to everyone else that it subscribed to traditional American values like Victorian gender roles.
On Women in Marriage
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender male and a Latter-day Saint, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic, so you can't. Unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.