In the April 2011 General Conference, Elder Quentin L. Cook gave the probably most-discussed talk: “LDS Women Are Incredible!” My attention went mostly to a very short line—“The recent highly acclaimed book American Grace…noted that Latter-day Saint women are unique in being overwhelmingly satisfied with their role in Church leadership.”
At the risk of assuming too much, I think that in including that one line Elder Cook was aiming at two related criticisms: First, that the Church’s gender-based organization harms women, and second, that it blunders by not fully acknowledging women’s distress over that issue.
First, one might criticize the study’s methods, but the American Grace data are still formidable evidence, conducted by highly respected scholars who have no conceivable bias in favor of Mormon female contentment. Therefore, the argument that LDS women are ipso facto harmed by the gender-based organization has to clear the high hurdle of establishing a mass case of something like Stockholm Syndrome. (I say ipso facto because of course there are plenty of anecdotes showing specific instances of abuse or harm. But those can be explained, and hopefully corrected, on a case-by-case basis; systemic harm is the real debate to have.) I am, predictably, not impressed with any suggestion that my contentment with the Church’s status quo can be chalked up to my false consciousness or whatnot. And accusations that Utah (hence, LDS) women are addled with depression and Prozac don’t hold up to scrutiny.
Second, critics in a traditional church necessarily band together for discussion as best they can, now made marvelously easier by the Internet. When a website receives thousands of hits from hundreds of cities and dozens of anecdotes telling of similar problems, it’s easy to conclude that a large movement is in the offing. And large movements feel deserving of respect, acknowledgment, and validation. With due respect to the sincerity of those concerned, it is invalid to conclude that theirs is a movement the Church cannot credibly fail to fully engage.
For one thing, despite the perception of those in it, the movement is proportionally small. Size isn’t dispositive of truth, but because no one really expects an announcement that revelation now directs that priesthood be conferred on women, all that’s up for grabs is the upper hand in the debate over the supposed harm to women. In the latter, numbers matter very much, and can easily be distorted by a vocal minority claiming the moral authority of personal victimhood. For the Church to extend recognition to the few as a gesture meant to validate their feelings of distress could correspondingly invalidate the contentment of the many—and the many’s feelings are no less respectable.
Moreover, as discussed above, the evidence of harm is thin, but the Church expressing acknowledgment and sympathy for the critics’ position would, rightly or wrongly, be widely interpreted as concession of ipso facto harm, or even a malicious basis for the current organization.
Our culture lauds full and open discussion of distress, but general conference isn’t a cozy chat, and validation of personal feelings is not the highest good. Elder Cook’s one-liner served an admirable purpose that critics doubtless dislike but can hopefully respect.