Question: Are Mormon women taught to be “gratefully subservient to Mormon males” and that women must “not aspire…to independent thought”?

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Question: Are Mormon women taught to be “gratefully subservient to Mormon males” and that women must “not aspire…to independent thought”?

These claims are total nonsense

In an unpublished paper “Mormon Women, Prozac, and Therapy," by Kent Ponder (copyrighted 2003, readily available on the Internet), the idea is put forward that women in the LDS church are taught to be “subservient” to men and are considered “eternally unalterable second-class.” Among some of its more colorful statements are the claims that women are expected to be “gratefully subservient to Mormon males” and that women must “not aspire…to independent thought.”[1]

The criticisms made in Ponder's 2003 paper suffer from the following defects:

  • An overarching sexism, both overt and benevolent
  • A particularly pointed and derogatory sexism leveled at devout LDS women
  • The misrepresentation of LDS doctrine and clear signs of being out of touch with current Church structures and instructional materials
  • Poor research methods, the use of unreferenced authority, and misleading terms
  • Claims that contradict official statements of Church leaders and ignore the experiences of devout LDS women

These flaws are fatal to the arguments. The 2003 paper is not useful in an analysis of gender politics within the LDS Church. Instead, it is misleading, unduly inflammatory, and ought to be disregarded.

Statements

Summary: Statements by Church leaders regarding the roles of men and women with regard to each other.

The following is a response to the problems with Kent Ponder’s work from a Feminist perspective

Problems with Ponder

The author of the article is Kent Ponder.[1] The focus of his paper is on anti-depressants use among women in the state of Utah. A general treatment of many of the logical, methodological, and psychopharmacological problems with Ponder’s work can be found here: Utah/Statistical claims/LDS use of antidepressants.

Problems with Underlying General Sexism: "Thank the Lord I’m Not Female."[1]

In an attempt to show how gender politics in Western society have evolved over the past 100 years, Ponder offers a description of former roles and power dynamics:

"Most women used to be naturally dependent upon men for safety and livelihood, resulting in more-natural subservience to male control. Because subservience to males was more needed and natural, it was less oppressive..."[1]

This characterization of centuries’ worth of male oppression of females as something that was once "needed and natural" is clearly sexist. We have never required nor benefitted from subservience and male control. To suggest we once did is to approve and validate the suffering of millions of women and girls throughout the course of human history.

Also advanced in the paper are hackneyed stereotypes of our feelings and behaviors. The claim is made that we "tend to be more alert to social relations than men." The author writes at length about our abilities to "intuit." He sets up our supposed intuitive powers in opposition to the ability to use reason and make deliberate inquiries. He introduces the thoughts of women he’s spoken with by saying, "Women tell me they intuitively sense…"[1] In another place, it’s observed that a problem is so glaring that "The women notice too."[1]

This isn’t the only way we are treated as an inferior intellectual sub-class in the article. In a section meant to show "The Larger Perspective," a review is given of the wisdom of thinkers who could help us in our struggles. All of them are men.

The paper dismisses hallmarks of LDS feminism such as self-reliance and the doctrine of a Heavenly Mother. According to the paper, this doctrine is a ploy meant to bind us up and secure our compliance.

There are misogynist cheap-shots too like an insult of the athletic ability of prominent female role model, Oprah Winfrey.

Benevolent Sexism

Along with these examples of overt sexism, the paper is steeped in benevolent sexism.

The word "innocent" is repeatedly invoked to describe LDS women who use anti-depressants. The word occurs six times, usually not far from other kinds of inflammatory language like "torment," "horrendous," and "anguish." To describe grown women as "innocent" is to describe them in a diminutive way that diminishes the notions of their adulthood and autonomy. The word makes them seem childlike and desperate for the "needed and natural" male control and protection spoken of elsewhere in the paper. By making the women "innocent," they are drawn back into a paternalistic, sexist system. Ponder's use of the word is patronizing. It’s classic benevolent sexism.

The patronizing tone and language continue throughout the paper. Ponder recounts marrying an "LDS girl."[1] Perhaps he is speaking frankly about marrying an under-aged person. What’s more likely is that he is speaking of a peer woman using a childlike descriptor. Later in the paper, when talking about marriage, Ponder says women must marry "a man" rather than saying, "a boy." This shows that his use of childlike descriptors is not evenly applied between the genders. It's another example of benevolent sexism. Cutesy monikers are used in other places to describe women as well. Depressed LDS women are called "unhappy campers"[1]-–a term often used to describe fussy infants--in another sexist diminution.

The view the paper takes of women is so simple the author presumes to be able to read our minds. In several places, he refers to what women – those inside and outside his interview group -- are thinking and feeling. At one point, he ventures an explanation of what "nearly all LDS girls internalize from near-infancy."[1] Such a concept has never been measured nor is it measurable. "Near-infants" cannot report on their internal states.

Sexism Toward Devout LDS Women in Particular

An effective tool used by oppressive, small "p" patriarchs to make sure women do not unite and grow in power is to orchestrate situations where we will fight amongst ourselves. Such tactics are blatant in the paper when the "best and brightest"[1] of LDS women – that is, the disaffected and depressed – are pitted against the rest of us.

One stage in this tactic is to vilify devout LDS women and cast them in caricature. At the height of this kind of rhetoric, the paper compares the religious convictions of devout LDS women to "people willing even to strap bombs around their waists and blow themselves up."[1] The suicide bomber comparison is revisited a second time, later in the paper.

In Ponder’s analysis, by definition, devout LDS women are not smart women. The claim is made that we are "unable to comprehend"[1] the thoughts and feelings of the women Ponder has interviewed. The paper denies the existence of "intellectually curious"[1] yet devout LDS women. It even warns, "Remember that, for many LDS women in Utah, this is really all they know."[1]

On the other hand, Ponder’s respondents are described as being of "the highest-caliber in intelligence, education, rational ability and conscientiousness"[1]. No data nor other reasoning besides his opinion are provided to support this claim.

An analogy is crafted using metaphors about frustrated swimming prowess to illustrate the tension between the groups of LDS women. At its conclusion it is argued,

"The happy LDS woman is often the one who likes restriction of choices. She gains security from having to make fewer decisions since so many are made for her." [1]

Again, the claim is made without any supporting qualitative or quantitative evidence. It is an expression of the author’s bias and nothing more.

Problems with Misrepresentations of Doctrine

Ponder speaks as if he’s an expert on LDS doctrine and life. However, a few glitches in the paper reveal a writer who is out of touch. He refers to positions in the Church hierarchy that do not exist right now as if they are current, namely, the Church Patriarch and Assistants to the Quorum of the Twelve. He also describes the format of Relief Society lesson manuals. But the format he knows is an old one that hasn’t been used at all in this century. It was replaced with manuals identical to the ones used by the men of the Church years before the 2003 copyright date of the article. This is not a writer who has intimate – or even cursory – knowledge of daily life in the current Church.

Similar gaffes come to light as LDS doctrine is put forth. Ponder produces a list of 24 things he claims "Any Mormon…will recognize"[1] as being mandatory for LDS women. The impact of the list is under-whelming. Most of the items – like tithing, doing genealogy in cultures that use patrilineal systems, being assigned a geographically determined Church unit, accepting callings, etc., -- apply to both male and female Church members equally. Some items deny and ignore the roles women play in the Church as teachers and leaders. And most items claim that female subservience is part of Mormon doctrine without providing any references to scriptural or prophetic sources authorized to make statements on doctrine.

All these references to the indoctrination of young women beg a question: what does the Church actually teach girls? At no point during the paper are there any direct references to what Church leaders and educators really say to young women about social and spiritual gender roles. The lesson manuals of the Church’s Young Women’s program for girls between the ages of twelve and eighteen contain a curriculum which emphasizes the importance of marriage and family but that also teaches girls that "each young woman has the power to bring happiness into her own life." [2] Lessons on responsibilities inside the home are balanced with lessons about self-reliance and the value of work, education, and personal development. Far from preaching inferiority and subservience, the Young Women's manuals include quotations such as this one by late member of the Quorum of the Twelves Apostles, John A. Widstoe: "There is indeed no privileged class or sex within the true Church of Christ." </ref>Young Women Manual 1, 2002.</ref>

When addressing a worldwide gathering of LDS girls in 2001, Church President Gordon B. Hinckley said:

The whole gamut of human endeavor is now open to women. There is not anything that you cannot do if you will set your mind to it. You can include in the dream of the woman you would like to be a picture of one qualified to serve society and make a significant contribution to the world of which she will be a part. [3]

Perhaps no references or quotations from Church leaders or official Church materials are presented to buttress Ponder’s claims about what young women are taught because such instruction on subservience simply does not exist and are, in fact, contradicted by the actual record. The author cannot quote what has been said because it annuls his position. And, of course, he cannot quote what has never been said.

Ponder correctly reports that an LDS woman "learns that she absolutely cannot enter the highest heavenly kingdom without a temple-married husband."[1] However he does not go on to mention that, according to LDS scripture, the same is true for men. D&C 131:2-3

He also contends that we require "permission from men"[1] in order to make decisions. Again, no evidence is offered to prove this claim – not even any anecdotal evidence from the "nearly three hundred" interviews or from Ponder’s family life. It’s a serious problem because the claim misrepresents how we live. No LDS woman is expected to grovel for permission or to follow the leadership of a man who leads her away from her Christian ideals. Through our scriptures and ordinances, we are taught to only consent to male leadership that is meek, compassionate, and loving. D&C 121:41-42

There is even an example in LDS scriptures showing how women ought to act when men try to compel them to choices they know to be wrong. The story of Lamech and his wives, Adah and Zillah, depicts women who rebelled against male authority after Lamech confessed he had committed a murder. He tried to administer an oath of secrecy to his wives but, "they rebelled against him, and declared these things abroad, and had not compassion." Moses 5:53

LDS doctrine is not properly represented in Ponder’s paper, either due to ignorance or for some more cunning reason.

Problems with Methods

The paper is not presented or intended as a rigorous work of social science. However, even in an informal study, certain minimum standards ought to be respected if one hopes to enjoy the privilege of making quasi-scientific claims.

Ponder claims to have done "extensive research"[1] through interviews. However, no methods are outlined and very little data is presented. No sample size is identified though he claims to have corresponded with "nearly three hundred women." [1] Ponder never describes how the sample was selected so reviewers are not able to assess it for sampling errors. In the analysis of the data, no demographic profiles or other aggregate measures are provided. Key terms like "church-active believers"[1] are not defined. With a sample of this size, it’s surprising to find only seventeen direct quotes from respondents in the text of the paper. Most are brief and colorful rather than substantive. When it comes to articulating the subjects’ beliefs and attitudes, the author seems to prefer to use his own words.

Some other errors are failures to provide sources for statistics. Also missing are references to "studies" that go unnamed and uncredited. Experts are quoted but no names are given. Attempts at quantitative claims are usually vague and couched in terms like "very large" and "far more."[1]

The text is peppered with phony psychological conditions like "cognitive-dissonance headaches"[1] Ponder also misrepresents Church parlance by repeatedly enclosing certain pet phrases like "One Size Fits All"[1] in quotation marks as if they are taken from common use in the LDS community and will be acknowledged by general Church membership. They are not.

Problems with Personal Confounds

Ponder acknowledges the role of his personal experiences and relationships in his contentions. He frankly reveals that his emotional state is not objective but "deeply offend[ed]."[1]

As is not uncommon in such critical pieces, Ponder expresses something like good will for the Church. He speaks for his female family members when the moment comes to complain about the Church. Ponder outlines hardships female family members have endured. They deal with problems such as: housework, childrearing, household finances, and mental and physical health problems.

Ponder reports that his approach to these struggles was once callous. He says:

"What astonishes me now is recalling that, at that time, I blithely took for granted everything she was doing. I'm ashamed to admit that I never gave most of it a second thought. I was too busy exulting in my LDS male role to even perceive her work-horse status, which I accepted as normal status quo." [1]

He goes on to deduce that it was the family’s connection to the Church that made life difficult. He claims, "some Mormon beliefs are direct root causes of serious harm to many women."[1]

This is one of many instances where a clumsy leap is made from correlation to causation. One factor does not necessarily cause an effect simply because they occur in the same place, at the same time.

The problem of overloading female members of households is not exclusive to LDS homes. It’s an endemic problem – one revolving around flaws in the exchange economies of specific family units regardless of their religious beliefs. Outside the Church, women may not be burdened by large families. Instead, they swap this burden for the burden of full-time work outside the home. Even in homes where both adult partners have jobs, work inside the home is not equally divided. Women still do far more housework and childcare than men and they tend to perform the onerus and odious tasks. [4]

Still, men’s overburdening of the women within families has been denounced by late Church President, Gordon B. Hinckley:

"I see their husbands, and I feel like saying to them: "Wake up. Carry your share of the load. Do you really appreciate your wife? Do you know how much she does? Do you ever compliment her? Do you ever say thanks to her?" [5]

President Hinckley also sought to relieve our stress by assuring us, "You are doing the best you can, and that best results in good to yourself and to others. Do not nag yourself with a sense of failure." [5]

Ponder admits feeling "ashamed" for his part in his family’s unhappiness. This is a critical confound of his opinions and findings – one that we cannot assume is adequately counteracted by the mere admission of his feelings. Even if it were, his family’s experiences are not limited to LDS life. The case for causation has not been made and LDS doctrine cannot be accepted as the cause of their troubles.

Perhaps what's most troubling about this part of the analysis is the underlying assumption that outside LDS life, women live in some kind of well-balanced, egalitarian paradise where there's no longer any need to struggle and work toward greater gender equality. This assumption is badly flawed. It belongs in the same category as claims that racism has ended in America. Sexism has not been extinguished outside the Church. Those who imply that it has been -- including Ponder and other critics -- are complicit in advancing a dangerous, backward, sexist delusion.

Ensign, "Women of the Church"

Gordon B. Hinckley,  Ensign, (November 1996)
First let me say to you sisters that you do not hold a second place in our Father’s plan for the eternal happiness and well-being of His children. You are an absolutely essential part of that plan.”


....

No man who engages in such evil and unbecoming behavior is worthy of the priesthood of God. No man who so conducts himself is worthy of the privileges of the house of the Lord. I regret that there are some men undeserving of the love of their wives and children. There are children who fear their fathers, and wives who fear their husbands. If there be any such men within the hearing of my voice, as a servant of the Lord I rebuke you and call you to repentance.”

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Notes

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 1.20 1.21 1.22 1.23 1.24 1.25 1.26 1.27 Kent Ponder, “Mormon Women, Prozac, and Therapy,” unpublished, 2003. Online version accessed 30 May 2012. All emphases in original. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "ponder" defined multiple times with different content
  2. Young Women Manual 1, 2002.
  3. Gordon B. Hinckley, "How Can I Become the Woman of Whom I Dream?," Ensign (Apr. 2001).
  4. Arlie Hochschild, The Second Shift (New York: Penguin), 2003.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Gordon B. Hinckley, "To the Women of the Church," Ensign (Nov. 2003).