(Authorial Note: This post looks long, but if you ignore the appendix section, it should be a fairly quick read. )
Women and the priesthood, wearing pants, sexism, the place of Heavenly Mother, and so forth are all major issues on the bloggernacle these days. The common thread in each issue is whether women are equal to men in the Church. Some people take the apparent inequality as a given, while their critics argue that these people have the wrong perspective. Men and women are equal in the church; these folks just need to look at the issue differently. And so the debate rages.
Generally the discussion goes round in circles because the debaters share an actually unshared assumption: the meaning of equality. I suggest that there are three forms of equality that this discussion invokes, and since discussion partners are often using one or two different forms of equality, they end up talking past each other. We need to fix this if we are going to move the discussion forward.
So these are the three forms: equality in terms of responsibility, acknowledgment, and theology.
Responsibility equality: Women give service. Men lead and give service. Or, if we count leading as a type of service, men give more kinds of service. More than that, the priesthood has a special kind of value with no strong female equivalent. Usually we compare priesthood with motherhood, but a more fitting comparison is fatherhood with motherhood, which leaves priesthood something extra for men, a mark of worthiness, and a special dimension for spirituality in male lives (or also in female lives via worthy men).
Recognition equality: Women get acknowledged for their hard work, but priesthood camaraderie offers a kind of appreciation among men that keeps women feeling on the outside. We have a very appreciative culture for young men making the next priesthood office and going on missions. Young women are far less recognized. And sometimes this starts even in the primary, anticipating the kinds of tracks these two sexes will go on once they reach twelve. Furthermore, the recognition adult women get for their service is often demeaning or overlooked. This would probably be much less of a problem if there were more women in leadership roles.
Theology equality: Men and women have equal access to the celestial kingdom. They both receive revelation. They are (supposed to be) equal partners in the home. In this sense, there is a fairly undeniable equality between the sexes. However, there are also a few theological inequalities. Some women take issue with wording in the endowment. Heavenly Mother remains a largely mysterious figure and therefore an ambiguous role model for women. Nevertheless, on a theological level, the sexes are largely equal.
So what? I hope that this discussion shows that if women are equal to men in some ways, in other ways there are stark inequalities. Does that mean that those inequalities are wrong? That’s a topic for another time. But in the meantime, if we accept that these inequalities are real, we can at least know in what ways they are real.
I originally planned on making this part of the post proper, but I figured that too few would be willing to read this much, so I’ve included it as an addendum. Here are four characters representing four sides of the debate (these names were randomly chosen, by the way). I’ve given each of them a position with three supporting arguments. These may not be the best arguments, but I think they are representative. And hopefully they’ll show how the points I’ve untangled above get mixed into the arguments that the opposing sides actually rely on (in a gist of the argument form).
Alice thinks that women are unequal with men in the church, and there needs to be some reform. Alice bases her arguments mainly in the context of responsibility inequality.
(a) Men have the ultimate say in everything. While relief society presidents oversee women, the bishop oversees the relief society president, which means the buck stops with a man.
(b) Relatedly, men have more responsibility than women in the church, such that a 12 year old deacon has more authority to oversee general church operations than an adult woman.
(c) There is no clear woman-equivalent power to the priesthood. While some people compare nurturing and motherhood to the priesthood, the analogy falls apart on almost every level.
Stacy thinks that women may be unequal to men in some respects, but ultimately, that’s a good thing. Inequality doesn’t mean that women aren’t valued, and there’s no reason to try to change things (at least mostly). Stacy uses all three types of (in)equality to advance her argument.
(a) Since men have the priesthood, they have to do more. Stacy doesn’t want priesthood obligations added to her other responsibilities.
(b) God gave men the priesthood for a reason, and we should respect that, even if we don’t understand why.
(c) But most importantly, motherhood is a sacred role like no other. Men can’t have it, and women don’t need to supplement this role with priesthood obligations.
Jim’s argument closely resembles Stacy’s. Jim thinks that women and men have quite different roles, but those roles are ultimately equally important. Or rather, the perceived inequality doesn’t actually exist. Jim basis his arguments in the context of recognition and theology (in)equality.
(a) Motherhood really is a good match to the priesthood. This is because both are critical for developing the attributes God wants us to have.
(b) Women are valued for their input in leadership positions and have considerable say in what goes on in the ward.
(c) The priesthood makes up for a spiritual deficit that men otherwise lack. So at least in this sense, without the priesthood women would have an unequal advantage in God’s kingdom.
Gary thinks that women are basically equal with men in the church and a discerning figure will agree. Gary’s arguments fall under theology equality.
(a) Men need women just as women need men to get to the celestial kingdom. So men aren’t more important than women.
(b) Women have the priesthood as evidenced in the temple. So those petitions to get it are redundant requests.
(c) Women have the same access to inspiration as men do, and they don’t need the priesthood in order to receive God’s blessings.
Have I done these sides justice?