Is gender inequality bad for mental health?

Editors’ NoteThis article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Mormon community here.  

I know this is a difficult subject to dialogue about in our current state within Mormonism – where things can seem pretty polarized in light of the recent excommunication of Kate Kelly.  However, I think this is an important question for all of us to consider.  And whether or not the answer at the end of the day is women’s ordination, I think we can all agree that there are many things that can occur within our current theological system to call attention to and change aspects of gender inequality.

So,

Is gender inequality bad for mental health?

Patriarchy is defined as a hierarchical system of social organization in which cultural, political and economic structures are controlled by men.  The Mormon church fits this definition.  In fact, most religious history (and history in general) has been male-dominated, with only a few exceptions throughout the course of time and more so now in Westernized modern times.

Problems with gender inequality affect social systems in numerous ways: larger numbers of sexual assault on women, less learned ability for leadership skills of women over men, gendered expectations of both sexes instead of focusing on the skills each individual brings to the table, increased rates of depression and anxiety among both genders, superficial elevation of the oppressed gender (i.e. women are so spiritual they don’t need the priesthood), superficial degradation of the non-oppressed gender (men need the priesthood in order to even get close to the spiritual level of women), lowered self-esteem for both genders, unfair domestic roles, increased rates of domestic violence (including verbal abuse – which can be used by both genders to deal with inequality within the relationship), harmful stereotypes that leave people feeling trapped, education gaps, and sexual stereotypes/expectations.  These are just a few of the implications I can think of from the top of my head that we face as we continue to engage gender inequality in any setting we currently participate in.

So why do we allow it?  And even a more poignant question, why do women in particular seem to be more resistant to change than men when it comes to the specific topic of priesthood ordination? I’m not sure I have sufficient answers to these questions.  Many theories and speculations ensue.  One is that when a group has to buy into their own subordination, it becomes difficult to put aside the investment it took to buy into it to begin with.  The status becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts that is difficult to deconstruct.  Second, resistance to change is a common human tendency – even when the change is beneficial.  This is because any type of change is difficult and requires adaptation.  Third, fear is a natural emotion to experience when change is present and when an unknown lies ahead.  Fourth, we (particularly as women) don’t have the power to change it in this particular religious institution – which cycles us back to Kelly’s question to begin with.  I hope that we would all take the time to at least ponder these questions and share our ideas in respectful dialogue with one another.  I would welcome these in the comments section please.

As far as some of the most common pushbacks I have seen after the recent excommunication of Kate Kelly that I don’t believe contribute to the healthiest of dialogue within the communication patterns of our current Mormon family:

“We should be willing to follow the Lord – His will, not thine or mine, be done.” I sincerely believe within this religious community we are all trying to do exactly that. This is not about how we follow the Lord. This is about how we follow the men who have access to priesthood authority in our church who represent the Lord to the best of their abilities. So do we sustain them through the principle of obedience? Or do we sustain them through the principle of engagement/councils, or the principle of self-authenticity/integrity? As a culture it seems like we value obedience more than other principles – but I believe a balance between the many principles we ascribe to would be beneficial to all. Otherwise, one gives up all personal authority to another mortal being – and that is not a healthy way to develop spiritually in one’s life. It’s not even doctrinally supported. So let’s please stop assuming that when we differ in our engagement with church leaders – that somehow this means we are not willing to serve or sacrifice for our Lord and Redeemer.  Not to mention that when we bring up our interpretation of God as a debate trump card, the conversation has nowhere to go.  Dialogue ceases and the ultimate goal of mutual understanding is not reached.

“Why then don’t men ask for the capacity to have babies?” Women asking to have equal administrative power in the church is not about asking for the capacity to ejaculate sperm. This current debate has nothing to do with female or male anatomical functions. This is about having the same power, rights and privileges to offer service, administration and ordination within a religious community.

“I’m a Mormon woman and I don’t want the added responsibility of having the priesthood.” This one is really confusing to me, because as Mormon women we have TONS of responsibilities. I don’t see us as any less busy than the men. And since when are Mormon women shirkers? These are some of the toughest, hard-working, sacrificing and service-oriented women I know. Why would we be resistant to the idea of being able to tap into powers from on high that would help us with the duties we already engage in, as well as be willing to engage in new administrative duties that would balance gendered concerns? I think we just say this as a cultural cop-out in order to make sense of something that doesn’t – because it’s not how we act.  When I think of the General Relief Society Presidency and the amount of work they do compared to the Brethren – versus the amount of authority they share with the Brethren, it becomes crystal clear that this is not an issue about work load.

“If you don’t like it, then just leave.”  We are talking about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints!!  Let me repeat please – the CHURCH of JESUS CHRIST.  Saying to someone they can just leave the church if they don’t like it, is like uninviting somebody from a party you’re not a host of.  Jesus Christ invited ALL to come unto Him.  If we can’t figure out how to get along due to the fact that discomfort rises when we face difference of thought or behavior – that’s a problem we need to figure out for ourselves.  Instead of asking others to leave – we might need to dismiss ourselves temporarily until we can figure out how to live up to our own baptismal covenants.  It also completely minimizes the complexity of someone’s relationship to their faith and religion.  Just because one person may not be content or comfortable with one aspect of how their religion functions – does not mean they don’t hold sacred many other aspects, beliefs, traditions, etc.  Please stop asking or recommending that others not of your liking leave this church.  This is extremely painful, confusing and emotionally harming to those who hear this message.

May we all find peace in this time of inner conflict.  May we all take time to reflect and self-care.  And may we all remember the calls from Christ Himself: turn the other cheek; blessed are the peacemakers; love one another.


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