Listening to the women of The Church of Jesus Christ

Gender inequality and gender complementarity are not primary moral-evils or concerns. Indeed, the non feminist women I interviewed often found what could be described as liberation in their membership in this patriarchal church. (Allie Kneeland)

Never would I have thought that with so many of the ongoing conversations regarding The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Heavenly Mother, women and the priesthood, and gender inequality, a research article would prove that certain Latter-day Saint women don’t feel oppressed in the Church. In Mormon Women at the Crossroads, Caroline Kline proves exactly that point. 

Kline supports the idea that some female members don’t feel oppressed by this religion that is male-dominated, and that the ideas regarding gender inequality in the Church vary depending on geographical location and race, among others. 

Through her research, she compiled experiential information and data after interviewing dozens of women of color in Mexico, Botswana, and the United States. She explained how these women she interviewed “often found what could be described as liberation in their membership” in the Church. The idea that women see the Church as their way out of abusive marriages, communities, or cultures, repeated itself throughout the book. 

Gender inequality and gender complementarity are not primary moral-evils or concerns. Indeed, the non feminist women I interviewed often found what could be described as liberation in their membership in this patriarchal church.

Carolina Kline

Kline interviewed women from the global south to hear other perspectives that hadn’t been recorded before, and as she puts it, “to amplify marginal groups such as women, that historians often overlook.” 

A topic that was often repeated throughout the text and the interviews, was the idea of “intersectionality,” or the acknowledgement that there are certain categories describing an individual — such as class, race, sexual orientation, gender, physical ability — that make his or her experiences different and unique compared to anyone else’s. 

The author seems to realize mid-research that the answers or stories she anticipated to hear about women in the Church were very different from the ones she was getting. The LDS women she interviewed generally did not analyze their experiences in the Church through the lenses of gender inequality. Instead, most of them admitted they never had even thought they were experiencing anything of the sort as members of the Church. 

On the other hand, these women did express their sense of freedom and hope when joining the Church. Members from Botswana and Mexico explained how they felt oppressed, abused, and mistreated in their marriages, families, or communities before joining the Church. 

They told stories about sharing the abuse they experienced for years with ecclesiastical leaders, who were the first ones in their life to empower them to encourage their husbands to be better. Kline called this sentiment so often shared by her interviewees, the “non-oppressive connectedness” effect. LDS women from Mexico and Botswana never thought or felt that by joining the church they were entering a religious community governed by gender inequality. On the contrary, they felt a sense of belonging where they never needed to question whether they were being treated unequally and unfairly based on their gender, since they felt that by joining the Church, they had stopped being oppressed and had begun being a part of a bigger and more supporting community.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some anecdotes and stories Kline compiled which included not-so-positive comments about some of the leadership in the Church. A few women explained how they felt like Church leaders hadn’t done enough to discourage the domestic violence they said they were experiencing. 

Another group of women expressed their initial confusion when they learned about the idea of an equal partnership between a man and a woman, and how that idea clashed with the family being led by the man. In general, however, these women expressed gratitude and relief after becoming part of a community that offered so much support to its members, with a leadership that listened to their experiences.

It was eye-opening to read about how the norm in Botswana is to prioritize having kids over being married, since marriage is mainly an economic proposition where “bridewealth” (similar to a dowry), is necessary for the bride’s family to give away their daughter. Many men in Botswana are forced to postpone any wedding plans in an effort to save money for the bridewealth, but the pressure to have children is still present. This leads to couples having intercourse long before being legally married. This is one of the many socially accepted behaviors in certain cultures that are opposed to the Church’s teachings, and by contrast abiding to the Church’s teachings felt liberating to women in Mexico and Botswana.

Maybe a question worth asking is whether this type of research — experience-based — is effective when it comes to recording and analyzing the female experience in the Church. What Caroline Kline seems to prove in her book is that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a global Church and therefore, needs to listen, be aware of, and consider all its members worldwide. 

By assuming that a white woman’s negative experience when it comes to following a predominantly male leadership and putting into practice the teachings that the household is a patriarchal system represents all women in the Church, we are failing to include a great part of the Church’s membership and we fail to apply the idea of intersectionality. I believe as members of the Church and the BYU community, we should follow a similar approach and listen to non-white groups of women and men on campus to understand how other cultures, geographical locations, and races understand and implement the gospel teachings. 

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