Fembryology Part 4: A Feminist Critique of the Proclamation on the Family – “Gender”

By Elisothel (Also posted at feministmormonhousewives.org )

Family Proclamation

As we did last week, let’s review the difference between the terms “sex” and “gender,” which the Family Proclamation uses interchangeably:

-The “sex” of a person refers to male or female (or possibly other sexes), as indicated by body parts.

-The word “gender” refers to the social constructions, expectations, roles, and behaviors associated with a person’s physical sex.

A person is one’s sex, but a person performs one’s gender.

The Definition of “Gender”

Last week I asserted that when most Mormons read the Proclamation, they read the word “gender” to mean that “sex” (male/female) is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”

The Proclamation doesn’t just talk about “sex” however – it also arguably discusses actual “gender” as defined above.  I have heard multiple Mormons refer to the Proclamation as a divine declaration of “gender roles” – a concept that aptly reflects the more nuanced definition of “gender” as social constructions, expectations, and behaviors.  So let’s see what we can learn about “gender”/roles from the Proclamation.

How “Gender” Works

Societies set up “Gender” expectations with behavior ideals, and an individual will be rewarded or punished by his/her community depending on how s/he meets those gender ideals.  Those ideals will include how one dresses, how one acts, who one loves, how one spends time, and how one uses their sexuality.

Any person’s conduct will NOT be seen as an isolated response to one’s personal spirituality – it will be judged in the context of one’s sex and perceived differently if one is male or female.  For example, if a boy wants priesthood, this is seen as a good thing, but if a girl wants it, it is seen as a bad thing.  The social collective will send all kinds of signals about how it expects each gender to engage the other members of the group, and will set boundaries that should not be crossed without grave consequence.  In other words, gender is a social thing, requiring an audience and other interactive/feedback elements.  How one’s performance is judged, enforced, rewarded, or punished will depend on the taste of the audience.  Taste is defined by society and culture.  In other words, gender is culture-dependent.  I’m sure many Mormons would disagree with that statement – God defines gender roles, not society, right?

Mormon “gender roles” As Based On Mormon Culture…Not Gospel Truth

While we prefer to believe that gender roles have been authored by God, I would argue they are actually the result of the evolution of “Mormon Culture.”  We are no exception to the rule when it comes to establishing social values and aesthetics just like any other mortal culture.

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Mormonism at the General Level continues to reflect as its ideals the gender norms of a 19th-Century Victorian womanhood mixed with a post-World-War-II American family dynamic.

Victorian womanhood reflected the “angel of the hearth” idea, where a beautiful, devoted wife and mother served as the guardian of the home and purveyor of a slice of heaven to which the man, who must toil away in “the world”, can return for joy and comfort.  Women were expected to stay within their “sphere” as wives and mothers, and were not considered capable, either physically, mentally, or emotionally, of engaging in skilled enterprise, public life, or the currency-based economy (except as consumers of course).

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The irony is that many 19th century Mormon women themselves rejected this in large measure.  Though they certainly idolized “domesticity” to some extent, it did not define them – they saw themselves as capable of far more than “just being wives and mothers.”  As Saints in Zion and Daughters of God they participated in production, city-building, temple-building, and many public roles through Church, the polls, and the production economy.  I have spent time reading the words of Mormon women from 19th century Utah, and they used  up a great deal of ink decrying the ridiculousness of the idea that women should be only wives and mothers, and how “the women’s sphere” was an idea directly from “the world” which the gospel was actively refuting in the amazing accomplishments of the female saints in Utah.  I read these words with a heavy sense of irony, since the woman’s “role”/sphere is now an idea the Church actively promotes as God’s will.

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The Women’s Exponent (1872 – 1914) was stuffed with assertions like this:

It has been the popular cry that no woman could be a good, true, loving wife, and at the same time successfully follow any profession.  If so, neither can a man do justice to any professional calling and prove a kind, affectionate and considerate husband.  The truth is, man has been looked upon as the soul proprietor of the head, and woman has been considered as merely a possessor of the heart; whereas, to each have both been given.    (Women’s Exponent, Nov 15, 1874)

Emmeline B Wells, who would later become a Relief Society President, wrote:  Women are shrewd enough to perceive that if they launch out into any field of labor (save that of domestic everyday life) they invite criticism, public and private.  Whether married, or single, old, or young, ugly, or beautiful, they all come under the ban of ridicule, burlesque, or censure. Yet from motives worthy the approval of heaven itself, some of them are willing to face public opinion and endure the frowns and biting sarcasms of their nearest and dearest friends in the hope of benefiting the human family, bold in defense of those principles they honor and have espoused. (Women’s Exponent April 1, 1875)

The Women’s Exponent was run by early female leaders of the Church and recruited readership from the Relief Societies…and it was a decidedly feminist publication.  So while 19th century womanhood was rejected by the Mormon women of the 19th Century, somehow the Church has adopted that model for the 20th and 21st centuries.

The Mormon ideal of manhood is the patriarch.  The ideal husband role is based on the Post World War II boom time in American history when, after the war had jumpstarted the economy, families enjoyed the privilege of being able to survive comfortably on a single income.  Men could gain stable employment sufficient to support a family with a high school degree, and health insurance and pensions were generously offered by employers in order to attract workers.  Before World War II, Mormon men and women had subsisted primarily on farms akin to those of their pioneer ancestors, but as the modern economy emerged and men went to work while women stayed home, this new family model, sustained only by the unprecedented economic affluence of the time, powerfully impacted Mormon consciousness.  The single-wage-earner model has not, and could not, exist through much of human history.

The reality is that most Mormons living today never participated firsthand in either of these cultures….though many of our church leaders have, and they are in a position to perpetuate them.  However, due to enormous cultural variability over time and space, it is unrealistic to theologize any one specific set of cultural values or their associated gender roles as “eternal.”

Is “gender” Eternal?

Under the socio-cultural definition of “gender,” it is easily observed that expectations of gender behaviors vary widely between cultures and vary widely over time – they are not eternal.  In one culture women may be expected to behave in certain ways which, in another culture, could be construed as completely inappropriate.  For example, a woman may be rewarded for:

-dressing a certain way (alluringly versus modestly, sporty versus elegant)
-having certain skills (playing the piano versus cooking well versus practicing law)
-participating in the economy under certain parameters (women farming while men hunt, or men farming while women raise kids, or women volunteering versus men working for pay).

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It is essential to apply this understanding of cultural gender in Mormonism because we are inclined to assign religious significance to “gender roles.”  At Church our roles are not just mere social interaction – they can translate into the establishment and enforcement of a person’s specific place before God.  How we Mormons express our “sex” (maleness, femaleness) through our gender (social roles) directly impacts our spiritual status (callings, worthiness, salvation).  One could be seen as less of a Latter-Day Saint woman, for example, if she wore pants to Church, spoke in an assertive tone in ward counsel, had no children, or spent time at a job.  She is no less a woman if she does these things…but we may see her as theologically “less” than a woman who meets a Mormon Womanhood ideal.

One Eternal Culture?

Using the distinct definition of gender as a cultural construction would imply that if “gender is eternal” there could be some specific eternal culture in heaven with eternal gender roles and eternal gender behaviors determined by that One Eternal Culture.

I can imagine that some Mormons may assert that “gender roles” are eternal because they reflect the culture of Zion, an idealized society that we are trying to build on earth.


Do church teachings on gender reflect an ideal, heavenly, eternal culture?  Perhaps, but arguably, “gender” teachings of any dispensation are easy to identify as reflecting values linked to the specific historical period of that dispensation.  The religious institutions of Adam and Eve, the Isrealites, Mosaic Law, King David, The Babylonian Exile, Roman Jerusalem, the Lamanite nations, Early Christianity, and the Restoration are ALL examples of the same gospel refracted through different cultures.  Those cultures each theologized the “traditions of the fathers” as God’s will.

Spiritual gender roles are not consistently taught through each dispensation, suggesting that there is no revealed eternal understanding or expectation of eternal gender roles.  We do not, for example, expect modern Mormon women to cover their heads or remain silent in Church as Paul would advise.  We do not expect bishops or General Authorities or wards to enforce the women-centric parts of the Law of Moses (thank goodness!!).  No Mormon women considers herself ritually unclean while menstruating.   Even though those ideas are in the canonized scripture, I know of no Mormon woman who feels that those passages are in force for her or her sisters.  Yet we are quick to enforce far less canonized ideas as God’s will when we teach women only a narrow definition of Mormon womanhood, or expect all people to conform to our own sexual paradigms.

Instructively, Jesus was silent on the topic of gender roles, except perhaps when he rejected social divisions altogether:

“For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female:  for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Galatians 3:27-28

Despite this, the modern Mormon Church is no exception to people’s penchant to theologize gender roles based on cultural context. Though we may try to teach eternal gender roles, even within the modern Church itself the “culture” of worldwide Mormonism is not uniform, nor does it stay the same over time.

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Since our understanding of gender roles is so closely linked to the social constructions of the historical time period of any dispensation, I suggest that culture is often theologized in practice even when such practice and theologizing is not based on revelation.  People are social, and we build societies.  As a covenant people building a covenant society we are particularly vulnerable to the fallicy that things are the way they are because they are God’s will (All Is Well In Zion!) instead of considering that we refract the gospel through our imperfect, culturally-contextual selves.  Teaching the “traditions of the fathers” (culture!) as God’s will will directly make us inclined to see cultural gender roles as religious gender roles…to the detriment of those who do not profit by a given social gender construct.  I simply suggest that if there is no consistent revelation on gender, that it has been demonstrably flexible over time, is not eternal, and that since we hurt people by preaching gender roles, we should perhaps stop and re-evalutate if we really want to put our culture before the souls of some of God’s children.

Your Role In Gender Roles

This is not just about “the Church” – it involves each of us.  Culture is the playwright when it comes to gender roles, and to get the lead part in your own life, you have to meet the job description:

First, you must get in character.  You are expected to enact the gender that society assigns to you.  You are constantly appraised and given feedback on your gender projection.  For people who receive positive feedback, they will enjoy privileges such as accolades and prizes…for those who do not, they are booed, smattered with rotten tomatos, and crucified in print.  Showbiz is tough.

Secondly, you are not just an actor performing a script onstage…you are concurrently an audience for everyone else in the play.  You, too, are evaluating, appraising, cheering, or booing the other actors for their gender projections.  You are a critic for every person you meet.  Your criteria for evaluating others is not self-authored:  society (the playwright) also gives you a rubric to follow.  How you yourself are judged will be how you judge others.

Finally, culture (the playwright!) commissions you to not just evaluate, but also to enforce the gender expectations.  If you don’t call others out for their violations you may be seen as a sympathizer or even lumped in with an offending group.  Just try arguing against Prop 8 in Sunday School and you’ll see what I mean.  Perhaps you are not comfortable enforcing gender expectations but are afraid to not participate.  I believe that many well-meaning people discriminate against others not because they don’t like them, but because those people are afraid of what their friends will think if they don’t participate in enforcing the norm.  Therefore everyone owns a personal stake in how they live their own gender, how they perceive others’ genders, and how they think others appraise their own enforcement efforts.  How we treat people regarding gender is not just about “others” who are different or even about us objecting to what they do.  It is also, a lot, about our own fears and our own standing in our own community.  It is as much about “us” (me!) as it is about “them.”

As you can see, gender enforcement involves a certain amount of “judgeyness” on the part of the members of a culture as they participate in rewarding or punishing others’ conformity to gender expectations.  This inevitable policing does, in my opinion, directly conflict with the concept of unconditional Christlike love.  ”Judge not, that ye be not judged.”  (Matt. 7:2)

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If we judge others and cause them pain, we dull others’ sympathies for our own legitimate causes.  We make God the aggressor, and do harm in His name.  By letting culture define people as “others” instead of our own heavenly family members, we hurt people and make ourselves the target of righteous indignation.  Perhaps most tragically of all, when we act this way we push people out of the gospel  A message of divine validation would help those who struggle, yet we snatch it from them in the name of our own fear.  Is it really worth it?  As the above scripture implies, I guess we’ll find out the answer on our own Judgement Day.

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What The Proclamation Really Says About Gender Roles

The Proclamation on the Family is not as sweeping in its assertions as many Mormons claim.  For example, it does not outline the “roles” of men and women, but specifically just the responsibilities of HUSBANDS AND WIVES.  It does not define womanhood or manhood, or outline things men or women shouldn’t do because of their sex.  I suggest that the responsibilities listed in the Proclamation are actually much more about parenthood than they are about doctrinal theology surrounding maleness or femaleness.  Let’s examine them:

Both Mom and Dad Should:

-Love and care for spouse and children
-Provide for kids
-Teach kids
-Be married when they have kids
-Honor marriage covenants
-Help their spouse as their equal

Dads specifically should:
-provide necessities of life

Moms specifically should:
-nurture kids

That’s pretty much it.  The Proclamation lays bare the lowest-common-denominator responsibilties of the LDS marriage contract and the duty parents have to take care of their kids.    The Proclamation doesn’t say that ONLY men can protect their families, or that ONLY women should nurture their kids…that just wouldn’t work at all.  The Proclamation simply divides the ultimate responsibility of tasks between members of the partnership so that not all the duty is incumbent on one spouse.

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Meanwhile these guidelines don’t even pretend to apply to every family. If one of the partners is incapacitated, or if someone finds themselves divorced, then obviously they can and must take over the duties normally given to the partner of the other gender. No church leader would dispute that.  The reality of community context or the abilities of each person in the marriage partnership may require the woman to work to supply the economic needs while the husband does his part nurturing the kids.  It doesn’t mean that they are “usurping the other’s responsibilities”…it would be better framed that they are delegating the responsibilities in the way that provides the most benefit to their marriage, their family and their children.  As the church becomes less hostile to LGBT parents, it will actually be quite easy to frame the Proclamation in the same way – that the parents must adapt their “roles” (or in other words, they must execute the family duties) based on the reality of their own family circumstances.

Perhaps the only gender-theology asserted in the Proclamation is that pesky word “preside.”  The term is ambiguous these days, since the hierarchical nature of it is called into question with the concurrent use of “equal partners” in the same paragraph.  I have struggled to figure out what the Church means when it says “preside,” since equality and hierarchy by definition cannot coexist.  My present interpretation is that it simply means that men can hold priesthood office.

Why then do we believe that the Proclamation on the Family is a declaration of gender roles?  Because we read our current Church culture into the Proclamation and interpret it as divine justification for the status quo.

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If we Mormons as a people decide to embrace our bodies as part of the soul, and theologize those bodies, we must exercise a great deal of awareness and restraint to avoid allowing cultural understanding of gender, which is man-made and fallible, to infringe upon our theology of the sexes. If we, as a covenant people,  use culture-roles to define gender-roles to define gospel-roles and our relationships to God and each other, then our teachings  will continue to fall short of representing the true, enormous, gorgeous potential of the gospel.

I believe that one of the most powerful threats to the gospel comes from the inside when members themselves readily adopt “culture” as “doctrine.”  As a feminist,  I consistently observe Mormons claim that feminism is an idea of “the world” and “popular culture”… a claim they make while simultaneously upholding their own non-revelation-based cultural beliefs and prejudices and calling those the will of God.  Perceiving where revelation ends and culture begins is a mind-bending and exhausting pursuit, and can only be accomplished with purposeful awareness, hard-fought mindfulness, and humble honesty.

For those of us who are aware of the weak spots in the current culture (as regards traditions about gender), and how they hurt people, we have a duty to make plain the specifics about how the gospel can operate outside of culture.  We need to demonstrate that Mormons really need not discriminate to be good Mormons.

We have many opportunities to model and practice productive gender cultures with those in our most local contexts, namely, in our homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, and wards.  I truly believe that doing so will produce questions we can take to the Lord, leading to revelations, new models of Church function, and eventually, to the further light and knowledge we need to constructively embrace all the human family into the full blessings of the gospel.

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