[The following is an excerpt from Neylan McBaine’s new book Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact. It is reposted here with permission of the author and Greg Kofford Books.]
In my August 2012 FairMormon conference talk, one of the most challenging points that I made is that I feel we do ourselves a disservice as Mormons—when communicating both to external audiences and internal audiences—when we continually assert that men and women are “equal” in our Church. While this may have made some listeners and readers squirm, almost all of the personal responses I received on this point expressed relief. It seems that while we feel confident in our doctrinal belief that men and women have the same worth in the sight of God, we feel uncomfortable doing the cognitive leaps required to claim that men and women are equal in our practice.
The questions seem to be: If we believe in equality, do we have an obligation to practice equality? And if we practice equality, what does that look like? These questions arise in our cultural consciousness because they are the same questions that American society has been wrestling with since the day we declared independence from Great Britain. It was literally “self-evident” to the founders of our country that all people are created equal. How that belief in equality actually translated into a practice of equality was a discussion that shaped the very foundation of our country: for our founders, practicing equality initially demanded that white settlers in America should have the same taxation and representation as their brothers in England. And from the first moments of the country’s founding, debate also raged over whether the equality the new Americans had fought to achieve extended to people of all races. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Americans asked themselves questions similar to those we had at our founding: What does equality look like? How do we practice it? What terms do we draw as a society to determine what opportunities, resources, and experiences are equal? How do our institutions support those terms?
And then there is gender equality. The American twentieth century was shaped to a large degree by how we answered these same questions regarding women: Did practicing equality mean that women could vote? Did practicing equality mean that they could apply for the same jobs as men? Did practicing equality mean that they could control how many children they had? That they could be paid the same as men?
Slowly but surely, the course of American history has determined that practicing the “self-evident” belief that people are equal to each other means that institutions (e.g. governments, employers, and schools) must treat people the same. American society has a doctrine of equality, but it also strives to practice equality in ways that are visible manifestations of that doctrine. The changes in women’s lived experiences since 1962, as I described earlier, are examples of those manifestations, and they all suggest a determined march towards American society’s ruling ideal: if men and women are believed to be equal, then institutions will ideally facilitate the same opportunities, resources, and experiences for people of both sexes.
Mormon women, who have been beneficiaries of this determined march over the past hundred years, are taught our gospel has a similar if not more glorious doctrine of equality than the one being played out in the world around them. But they are not seeing the institution of the Church practicing that equality doctrine in the same way as the world around them. They are not seeing the institution facilitate the equality opportunities that have resulted in so many open doors for our grandmothers, our mothers, and now us. We are challenged instead to separate the equation and believe in equality without practicing it in the same way to which we are accustomed. I’m not saying this is wrong; I’m saying it is hard.
There is no doubt that we Mormons claim some of the most exciting and affirming doctrine on the value of womanhood of any faith or denomination. For example, “glorious” Mother Eve is described in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism as “honored by Latter-day Saints as one of the most important, righteous, and heroic of all the human family. Eve’s supreme gift to mankind, the opportunity of life on this earth, resulted from her choice to become mortal.” Although we know little about her, we affirm a belief in Heavenly Mother. A BYU Studies Symposium paper by David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido collected and organized hundreds of references to Heavenly Mother by prophets, apostles, and other leaders, sharing “important historical accounts that cast serious doubt on the specific claims that, first, a sacred silence has always surrounded this treasured Mormon doctrine and that, second, Heavenly Mother’s ascribed roles have been marginalized or trivialized.” We have scripture that tells us God is no respecter of persons, and our official document on the family confirms that “all human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents.” It seems that what we Mormons mean when we say men and women are “equal” in the Church is that the worth of female spirits is measured to be of the same value as male spirits. What is poured into the vessel of our earthly experience is intended to have parity: the same amount of love from our heavenly parents who created us, the same amount of attention, the same amount of guidance, and the same opportunity of returning to live with Them.
But we live in a world of visual representation and of scientific measurements, and we attempt to overlay an absolute mathematical proof onto spiritual constructs. This is part of what it means to live in twenty-first century America. And in doing so, we recognize that if practicing the doctrine of equality means making sure opportunities are the same, we don’t measure up. Our contemporary American minds go to a place where the seats behind the pulpit become a free weight scale and a man on one side requires the counterbalance of a woman on the other to become mathematically equal. This same mathematical application is applied subconsciously every day of our lives to evaluate ideal situations in the contemporary world we inhabit: as we consider how few women serve in Congress, how few women are CEOs, or we evaluate whether a family’s sons and daughters are ideally balanced (or whether that poor lone boy will survive with all those sisters). We worry about girls in classrooms outnumbered by boys, or vice versa. We worry about men without wives and women without husbands. Our minds teeter back and forth, searching for that ideal place where things are 50 percent men and 50 percent women.
That search for equilibrium is not to be requited in Church leadership. This can be a difficult mathematical conundrum for us to wrap our brains around. How can “equal” not mean fifty-fifty?
. . . .
Several recent, well-placed statements by our general authorities make it evident to me that our Church leaders are recognizing the challenges of using the word “equal” to describe our gender practices to the world. There seems to be a deliberate effort to distance our definition of equality from the world’s, which leaders believe to be potentially erasing or negating any inherent gender differences. Our leaders are carefully and frequently clarifying that while we believe in equal worth, equal power, equal value in the eyes of the Lord, and equal opportunity to return to live with Him, our practice of equality does not demand the same opportunities to serve and lead.
In his trip to Uganda earlier this year, for example, Elder David A. Bednar was cited as saying that when women become more equal partners, the Lord will hasten His work, but that equal does not mean identical. Priesthood is not “male,” he said. The effort now seems to be on stressing the nonmathematical definition of “equal” as a measurement of intangibles, a measurement of worth rather than identical responsibility. Elder M. Russell Ballard dedicated his April 2013 conference talk to stressing that “men and women have different but equally valued roles.” Talks in October 2013 by Elder D. Todd Christofferson, Sister Carole M. Stephens, and Elder Neil L. Anderson also seemed intent on separating equality from its mathematical roots to propose that equality can actually be a feeling. Men and women can contribute differently, but their offerings are received by the Lord with the same degree of acceptance, approval and love. . . .
Elder Ballard restated this message in his talk at BYU Education Week in 2013: “Our Church doctrine places women equal to and yet different from men. God does not regard either gender as better or more important than the other.”
. . . .
The Encyclopedia of Mormonism further explains this idea that equality in a spiritual realm does not mean always satisfying the demands of mathematical absolutism:
All persons are of equal value in the sight of God. Each person (of every nation and every race) is as precious to him as another. From God all people will receive equivalent opportunities through Jesus Christ to attain eternal life, his greatest blessing. . . . They have equal chances to develop their abilities and equal opportunity to realize them in the work of Zion, all contributing according to their individual strengths and talents. A Zion people labor together as equals by organizing themselves according to the principle of “equal power. . . .” But equality of power also defines the relations between members so that each is the center of decision and action in performing an individual stewardship within the community.
The definition here seems to take pains to clarify that “equality” does not connote identical opportunity and responsibility. This is consistent with the language of the Doctrine & Covenants and the rhetoric of our contemporary leaders: the word “equal” is always qualified, as in “equal value,” “equivalent opportunities,” “equal chances,” “equal power,” with an additional emphasis on “individual strengths and talents,” and “individual stewardship.”
If, however, we believe that “equal” does not mean that opportunities and responsibilities have to be the same, as our leaders are teaching us, where do we look for an example of how to put this principle into practice? We do not seem to have a secular paradigm we can reference to see separate spheres for men and women—or blacks and whites, or straight and gay, or any other division for that matter—truly flourishing. In secular paradigms, greater worth almost invariably means greater access to visible responsibilities: think promotions in the work environment where greater skill and value to the company means managerial, public responsibilities. Those with public visibility are perceived to have greater worth (which of course is intricately connected to the previous discussion about the impact of visibility). This is the model we know. This does not mean the alternate model our leaders are advocating is wrong. It means it is hard to understand and implement, and there is going to be pain and misunderstanding and sacrifice in the process. And the Savior told us we would be uncomfortable. In fact, one of the most searing parables Jesus shared during his life in Judea addresses the basic human drive for fairness: the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.
The parable is often cited to support the idea that God saves by grace, not by worthiness. We don’t rack up tally points that get us into heaven. We are, instead, all granted the absolution of the Atonement no matter when and how we come to accept it. But the parable also challenges the paradigm of absolute measurements, pointing us instead to what we could call divine math. God does not apparently work in zero-sum games, where there are only a certain number of pie pieces to go around, and if one person gets one piece then someone else misses out. Neither salvation nor opportunities for growth or love are pieces of a pie.
The Savior recognized that this exponential multiplicity of reward challenges our natural drive for fairness and mathematical rightness when He shared the parable with His followers.
For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.
Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle?
They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us.
He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.
So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the laborers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.
And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.
But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?
So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. (Matthew 20:1-16)
“Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” Does my possession of something deny you of that same thing? In our earthly paradigms, the answer is often yes. We learn at early ages to defend what is ours—that fairness is paramount to a sense of rightness in young lives. It doesn’t seem fair, based on our earthly understanding of mathematical rightness, that a worker who labored only an hour receives the same pay as the worker who labored all day. Increased work and increased worthiness are so often rewarded with public recognition, through money or increased visibility or added responsibility. But Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor, reminds us, “Many of the Savior’s most profound teachings are counterintuitive. . . . The solutions that our minds are prone to develop are often different from those the Lord would have us pursue.” Christensen concludes, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8).
Challenging the mathematical concept of equality is not the only way the Savior asks us to “prove contraries,” but it may be one of the hardest.