As most of you know, I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, formerly (and more commonly) known as the Mormon Church (the “Church”). In Church circles the past couple of weeks, there has been a lot of chatter about recent changes to the Church’s temple ceremony, which is known by its members as the “endowment.” We are instructed not to discuss certain aspects of the endowment outside the temple because of its sacred nature so I won’t go into many details here. Suffice it to say, the changes had two main purposes: (1) to shorten the time of the endowment, and (2) to remove many of the patriarchal aspects of it. Not surprisingly, the changes relating to patriarchy have garnered the most attention. Although much of this post will focus on these changes within the Church, I believe the events surrounding these changes can help us better understand how all organizations operate – a church or otherwise.
The feelings of Church members about the changes in the endowment regarding patriarchy generally fall into two categories. First, those who believe the changes came about as the result of the Church’s belief in continuous revelation. Said another way, those who think God directly told the head of the Church to make the changes. The second category is those who consider the changes to be a reaction to social pressure. I have found few things in this life to be completely black or white, so perhaps the changes occurred partly because of both reasons, but I would place much more reliance on the latter – the Church’s reaction to changing times. But I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. And we should welcome the changes (albeit many years later than they should have occurred) as they are changes for the better.
During my recent trip to Australia, we went to a wildlife reserve specializing in animals unique to Australia. One of my favorite parts of the sanctuary was a demonstration of the herding talents of Australian sheepdogs. These dogs, by their very nature, love to work and do so tirelessly at their job of herding sheep. The sheep, of course, do not faithfully follow the dogs to where the dogs want them to go. Instead, the dogs have to continuously run circles around the sheep, always nipping at their hooves, and gently steering them in the desired direction. To get the sheep to change directions and end up at the desired location requires patience, but in the end, the dogs successfully herd the sheep.
Sadly, an organization will not change unless it feels relentless pressure from outsiders or from the lower ranks of the organization itself. Churches, in particular, seem reluctant to change, relying on the tenet that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. History, though, has shown that is just not true. For example, the Bible supports the practice of slavery, as it is replete with rules governing slaves, but no Christian religion today would openly support slavery. Changes, then, in most well-established organizations, typically have to be coaxed from the outside in or the bottom up, similar to how an Australian sheepdog persuades its herd to move: by yapping at its heels.
The Church has been a patriarchal organization throughout its history. Even today, women still cannot hold the priesthood or be ordained bishops. But I give the Church credit for providing many of its faithful women positions of importance (but always under the direction of the men-only priesthood leadership. Ultimately being under the direction of that male leadership has been an issue for many women (and men) since the feminist movement began, if not sooner.
I am old enough to remember the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (the “ERA”) in the 1970s and the beginning of the crusade for equal rights for women under the law. I was in law school at this time, and some people asked me if I supported the ERA. By then, some of the longstanding laws that treated men and women differently had already started to fall, and so I answered, the ERA is important symbolically, but practically, the courts, over time would wipe out laws that supported gender discrimination. And that is what has happened.
Recently, the film, On the Basis of Sex,[i] showed how Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, almost single-handedly, convinced the courts to stop gender-based discrimination. But it was not easy. Here is a clip from the movie illustrating what it was like when women first started to attend law school. In short, men saw them as not much more than a novelty:
Incredibly, both Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the second woman on the Supreme Court, had difficulty finding jobs after graduation from law school. These difficulties seem impossible by today’s standards, as O’Connor and Ginsberg graduated respectively at the top of their classes at Stanford and Columbia. Ginsberg settled on being a law professor at Rutgers, and O’Connor started her legal career as a paralegal. Back then, it was a man’s world.
Like those Australian sheepdogs, though, Ginsberg never stopped yapping at the heels of the patriarchal society of the day. Even her husband, who was remarkably supportive of her, didn’t realize that, in Ruth’s mind, the time for change was now, not future generations:
Ginsberg, and others like her, rejected the notion that laws treated women differently because they needed protection. Women, however, did not want that protection. They sought equality:
Through the efforts of women like Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sandra Day O’Connor, and many, many others, the world today for women is a lot different than it was a half-century ago – not just for lawyers but in every other profession as well. And as evidenced by the recent “Me, Too” movement, there is still a ways to go before full equality and respect for women is reached. But at least we are on the right path.
Others have taken up different causes to change organizations for the better. Here are just a couple of examples:
- Thurgood Marshall, similar to Ginsberg, was the most influential lawyer before the courts in connection with race discrimination. With Marshall leading the legal challenges, American society changed to a less biased one. Here is a scene from the film, Marshall:[ii]
- The whistleblower, Jeffrey Wigand, a tobacco company insider, exposed the truth about the harmful effects of smoking. One of my favorite scenes from the movie, The Insider,[iii] tells the story of how a single yapping sheepdog (Wigand), changed an entire industry. Here is a link to that scene:
- My list would not be complete without honoring the men and women of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team whose doggedly, persistent, investigative reporting broke the shroud of secrecy regarding Catholic priest abuse. Here is the closing scene of the movie, Spotlight:[iv]
The Church has had its instances of sexual abuse, although perhaps not to the same extent as that which occurred in the Catholic Church. But through the sheepdog efforts of Sam Young, hundreds of stories of pastoral abuse and shaming by Church leaders have been compiled and made public. Young’s efforts led the Church to make some small improvements in how private interviews are handled, especially with youth, but there is more work to be done. And Sam promises to continue to yap at the heels of the Church until it makes other vital changes.
But this post especially honors a small band of women in the Church – those women, acting as sheepdogs, who have encouraged the Church from the inside to make changes toward gender equality. Here are a few examples of these women:
- Church historian, Dr. Claudia L. Bushman, defines a feminist as someone who believes that “all of the talents and abilities of women should be developed for the benefit of themselves, their families and their communities.” If that is what a feminist is, count me in. And every man, woman, or child, based on that definition, should be a feminist, too.
- Beverly Campbell, who wrote the entry on Eve in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, points out, that part of the negative stereotype of Eve (and women in general because of Eve) comes from Genesis calling her a “help meet” for Adam, which we often misunderstand as being synonymous with a “servant.” But Campbell goes on to say the Oxford English Dictionary defines “help meet” as “even with or equal to.” Or as Campbell would retranslate Genesis 2:18: “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make a majestic, saving power, equal with him, to be his companion.”
- Therapist, Dr. Julie Hanks, tells of a Church bishop who, one Sunday, got up at the beginning of sacrament meeting and excused one of his counselors from sitting on the stand. He was sitting in the pews with his children because his wife was sick at home. Dr. Hanks then points out that not once in any sacrament meeting was the bishop’s or either of his counselor’s wives acknowledged for sitting alone with their children week after week while their husbands sat on the stand. Why? Because women are expected to perform the bulk of what Hanks calls the “invisible labor” required for maintaining relationships. Men expect women to perform this invisible labor, whether a woman is good at it or enjoys it, and regardless of their church callings or whether they work outside the home. Hanks then concludes, “One of the best ways we can strive to move toward true equality, toward partnership in relationships, is to recognize, to celebrate, and take on the invisible labor that women across different ages and cultures so often carry the responsibility of performing.”
- Author and poet, Carol Lynn Pearson, sums it up this way, “We may say we value women, but what we mean is we love their service, we want their sacrifice. [But] [w]e don’t want their wholeness and their perspectives and their humanity. Being treated with politeness, consideration, even respect is different from being treated as an equal.” Pearson continues, saying that enjoying a real partnership as husbands and wives, as men and women, might require a paradigm shift in our attitudes toward each other. She describes that paradigm shift as follows:
“Long ago, humanity shifted scientific theory from … the earth at the center of the solar system to … the sun at the center of the solar system. I yearn for the paradigm shift that moves the male-female relationship theory from the patriarchal system ([with] the male at the center of the universe with female orbiting around him) to the partnership system ([with] male and female dancing in perfect balance at the center of the universe). No one is personally harmed by the fiction that the earth is the center point of everything, but this other fiction – the fiction that maleness is central and femaleness auxiliary – this affects the daily life of every woman and every man that it touches and leaves us disoriented, many of us displaced and disheartened, and some of us seriously abused.”
Perhaps with the new changes to the Church temple ceremony, that paradigm shift is at least starting to occur. I, for one, hope that it is and that the changes continue.
I am grateful to women such as these, and many, many others, who were not afraid to take a stand and speak up for what they believed in. And like those loveable Australian sheepdogs, are willing to put in the tireless work and have the patience to help bring about change for the better.
we all have the courage to yap when it’s appropriate.
[i] On the Basis of Sex:
- Production Companies: Amblin Partners, Participant Media, and Robert Cort Productions
- Director: Mimi Leder
- Screenwriter: Daniel Stiepleman
- Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, and Justin Theroux
- Release date: January 11, 2019
- Production Companies: Chestnut Ridge Productions, China Wit Media, and Starlight Culture Entertainment Group
- Director: Reginald Hudlin
- Screenwriters: Michael Koskoff and Jacob Koskoff
- Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, and Kate Hudson
- Release date: October 13, 2017
[iii] The Insider
- Production Companies: Touchstone Pictures, Forward Pass, and Blue Lion Entertainment
- Director: Michael Mann
- Screenwriters: Marie Brenner and Eric Roth
- Starring: Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, and Christopher Plummer
- Release date: November 2, 1999
- Production Companies: Participant Media, Anonymous Content, and Rocklin/Faust
- Director: Tom McCarthy
- Screenwriters: Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy
- Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keeton, and Rachel McAdams
- Release date: November 20, 2015