Mormon Studies in the Classroom: Mormon Women, Patriarchy and Equality

By May 8, 2014

As a professor of history at a predominantly Mormon university, lately I have been a magnet for students with questions about the changes for Mormon women, especially considering the recent public attention to the roles of women in our traditional religious culture.

I don’t teach specific courses in Mormon history or Mormon women’s history.  Instead, because my students are all LDS, I seek relevant ways to insert discussions of women’s rights within my other courses: American Foundations (similar to BYU’s American Heritage) and my introductory history courses for our majors.  (I will be teaching my first U.S. Women’s History course this fall.)   Students are naturally curious about these discussions of the place of Mormon women, and not quite sure how to sort out everything they have been hearing and observing.  Why are some Mormon women wanting more equality?  Don?t we already believe in men’s and women’s equality?  That we have different roles, but that those are equally valued?  They want to understand the context of why the Church has made recent changes for female members, especially in lowering the missionary age, allowing women to pray in General Conference,  granting more visibility to female auxiliary leaders, and changing the format and demographic of the General Women’s meetings that are held twice a year prior to General Conference.

Typically my young students– like many others who are observing and commenting on this issue– are coming at this without much historical, cultural, or doctrinal sophistication.   So, here is a dilemma for me:  While I am personally in favor of promoting greater gender equality and inclusion for women, how do I teach the history of women’s rights from a Mormon perspective, with some attempt at objectivity and dispassion, without sounding like I am ‘advocating’?  I am limited in certain ways by my audience, my employer, my colleagues, and my own desire not to undermine foundations of faith.   So, how do I try to help freshmen and beginning history students to understand the history, evolution and forms of gender relationships, as well as some of the underlying power structures at the heart of most societies, while leaving them to draw their own conclusions?   But even more challenging, how do I do this without exposing them to heavy academic theory?  Admittedly, I’m approaching a very complex topic from an overly-simplified framework.  And of course, I can’t promise that they won’t end up questioning constructions of gender roles– in fact, I want them to question their assumptions about patriarchy– but at least I can hope that I am modeling a path of both faithful and academic negotiations for them.

I begin by using a very simplified historical context, defining basic concepts (patriarchy, feminism, equality, protectionism, separate-but-equal, structural power, and agency), and showing them well-placed and illustrative visuals, capped off with some useful side-by-side comparisons.  This helps me to place my students? gendered religious understandings into larger national, historical and theoretical contexts, while also highlighting important concepts about natural rights, political equality, and the expansions of democracy.  So I make sure that students know that women’s rights were part of human rights from the very beginning of the emergence of Enlightenment and liberal principles in the late-18th century.

1.  I start off by asking “What do we mean by the Women?s Rights movement?”  Students give various answers, eventually getting to a summary of “”The political movement to overturn women?s oppression or inequality in education, politics, government, legal rights, property rights, marriages, and religions.”

2.  What were the roots of this oppression?   This is where we can talk about the Medieval Christian doctrinal, cultural, and institutional frameworks for interpreting women’s roles through the lens of either Mary, the idealized godly mother, or Eve as the evil temptress.  Of course, assumptions about women’s character were rooted even farther back in Aristotelian and Platonic attempts to essentialize women, but in an introductory course or lecture, we can’t really complicate this message too much. Especially because the Mary-Eve binary works really well for my target audience: they are both figures who come already inscribed with the gendered and theological meanings inherited from Mormonism’s pre-Restoration roots.  Plus, it allows me to present the idea that how women have been treated throughout European/American history has depended upon whether they have been seen as Mary:  acceptable to society’s expectations, like being married with children, domestic, submissive, pious, private, and virtuous, or as being Eve:  trouble-makers, public, outspoken, temptresses, seductive, and evil.    Then we can explore the concepts of pedestalizing women vs.the oppression of women, that the romanticizing of women’s goodness and maternal instincts have placed women ideally above men– but still out of reach of political and legal power–, while the highlighting of women’s depraved and sexual nature has placed women below men– allowing for even more violent institutional and societal forms for keeping women in their place.  Neither approach has achieved equality. I struggled with how to portray this visually for students, so I tried a couple of versions, by using some contrived, but quite useful trigonometry.  This first version was part of that visual brainstorming, but after getting some feedback from colleagues, this later version captured better my intent to show that both the pedestal and oppression lead to inequality.   I recognize the problems with this from a mathematical perspective:  What are the X and Y axes in my parabola?  It is admittedly a work in progress, but for now, it works.  Mary Eve Slide

From that point, I can move on to discussing how subsequent religious, political, legal, educational, and marital power structures for hundreds of years were built around these notions of women’s inequality due to their essential natures.   And how these structures were transferred to the American experience via the British common law notion of feme coverture, or that women’s identity, property, and autonomy was given up to her husband in marriage.  (At this point, we have lots of fun referencing Jane Austen books and films to illustrate the importance of marriage for women with no potential to own or inherit property of their own.)

Pride-and-Prejudice This also meant that women had no political enfranchisement, could be legally beaten or raped in marriage, enjoyed few external legal rights like voting, holding political office, acquiring higher education, serving on juries, retaining custody of their children, or keeping their own property after marriage, while also enduring the devastating double standards of sexual purity for women.  (See Tess of the d’Urbervilles).  From there, I introduce students to a definition of patriarchy, both from the most oppressive standpoint, as well as what we call benevolent patriarchy, or the notion that women were willing to sacrifice their legal, religious, political, and marital equality, as long as they might expect kind, deferential, and loving protection of male husbands, teachers, and government leaders.  Benevolent Patriarchy also depended upon societal and cultural norms that protected and controlled women’s sexuality, valued– or even idealized– motherhood as women’s only role, and emphasized female ‘moral superiority’ (authority) in compensation for their absence from concrete forms of authority.   Again, some useful visuals: Oppressive Patriarchy

Once this framework of patriarchy has been established, then we can discuss how modern, secular democracies, beginning in the 19th century, sought to bring equality to women by changing those traditional structures that had kept women away from forms of power; ie., through the expansion of educational opportunities for women, coeducational colleges and universities, women’s greater professional and employment avenues, voting rights, married women’s property rights, access to divorce (as a liberation from abusive marriages), and even preferencing mothers’ roles in the custody of children. Equality vs. Pedestal

As these changes took place, some religions actually embraced these larger societal changes for women, while some held onto tightly to their patriarchal frameworks.    Thus, a divide emerged between the secular democratic goals of gender equality, and the traditional religious goals of social order rooted in maintaining conservative gender roles.  I then present to students a side-by-side comparison of the notion of “equality” against the notion of “protectionism,” as it was/is rooted in patriarchy.  With this useful visual, I can tease out the following contrasts:  The ‘equality‘ approach believed that gender differences are mostly socialized, while the “protectionist” approach focused on the natural differences between the sexes.   Or that the “equality‘ approach recognizes women as unique individuals with individual rights, while the ‘protectionist‘ agenda grouped all women together, assigning them universal, shared characteristics, with strictly separated roles, justified by the ideology of “Separate but Equal.”  Protectionism says that women should focus solely on the private, domestic sphere, while the Equality perspective says women might expand their influence into the public, political, and business spheres previously restricted to them.  But most importantly, the equality perspective suggests that men and women might share decision-making power in government, education, politics, and religions; the protectionist approach believes that decisions should be made by men for women, and that women might offer support to male leadership through their “moral authority” or “soft power.”

I try to present this list as an objective contrast; ie., “Here’s one approach . . . . Here’s another approach . . . ” thus allowing students to act as outside observers. In one class, without even telling them where I was going, one student looked at the two columns, pointed to the “protectionist” or Benevolent Patriarchy column, and blurted out, “But that sounds just like us!”  Unfortunately, since this is a one- or two-class introduction, I do not get the opportunity to explore all of the complex tensions within and among various feminisms, particularly “difference” feminism and “equality” feminism, or to explore the evolution of feminism(s) during the various theoretical and political waves of the women’s rights movement.   But the following graph allows me to touch on some of that complexity: Patriarchy vs. Feminism

How do I bring this all back to Mormon women? Mormonism presented a unique blend, of both the radical restructuring of gender roles (female deity, reframing Eve’s role in the Fall, inclusion in temple rites, liturgical healing, support of suffrage and coeducation, and an autonomous women’s organization), as well as holding onto the primacy of male authority and decision-making power, and women’s marital submission to men as the “heads” of their families.  Of course, polygamous marriage was an interesting mix of both departing from 19th-century marriage and sexual norms, while also accepting the usual expectations of male authority and feminine submission in marriage.  Within Mormonism, the forms of “Benevolent Patriarchy” have always exposed important gendered tensions in our culture, both within the church, as well as in contrast to the expansion of women’s opportunities outside of the church.  We’re at the point right now– a major crossroads– in which historians, activists, church leaders, and both feminists and traditionalists alike are trying to grapple with how much of our gendered constructions are divine, how much they are culturally and historically determined, and how much things can or cannot change.   These are not easy questions to solve.   Quite frankly, the historical, doctrinal, institutional, cultural and marital prescriptions for Mormon women are a big, fat, hairy, chaotic mess.

I leave those discussions for later, but this basic presentation and introduction for my students allows me to neutralize the topic, inviting students to reconsider their assumptions from a historical perspective, and to recognize complexities. Rather than hitting students hard and fast with disruptions to their gendered frameworks (as they might find in other universities’ Women’s Studies courses!)– and risk putting them on the defensive, instead if I can walk them through the history and evolution of women’s roles and rights carefully, they are much more willing to explore the notions of equality and patriarchy in careful and open-minded ways.

This approach also allows me to present this line of questioning to my students:  What are the benefits of Benevolent Patriarchy?  What are the challenges?  For both women and men?  Why might so many women want to hold onto patriarchy, when it comes at the cost of shared decision-making and women’s larger institutional and spiritual contributions?   Is it because women enjoy feeling protected and valued, and to a significant degree, having lesser accountability in the day-to-day workings of the institution?  In contrast, what are the benefits of equality?  What are the challenges?  How do we even define ‘equality‘?  What do people fear about equality that causes them to resist changes in that direction?  Is it because of fears of blurring gender differences too much that might lead to acceptance of homosexuality and other sexual identities?  Is it fears of the often-cited, but misdirected accusation of “Equality = Sameness“?  Fears of losing societal order because “no one is in charge”?  Fears of female discontent with traditional nurturing roles and domesticity?  Fears of the erosion of traditional masculinity?  In examining the spectrum between equality and protectionism, where have we already seen change from one to the other?   Within a religious institution that accepts certain models as divine, what are appropriate and accepted routes for seeking change within that institution?  Where might secular models be beneficial or not?  How much can women petition for changes for themselves, as opposed to waiting for those changes to be granted by male leadership?  And what does all of this say about women’s agency?  Is female agency limited or expanded in a patriarchal, hierarchical organization, and in what ways?

I hope that in laying out my teaching methodology, I have also reached beyond my student audience and the teachers/professors who will find usefulness in these ideas.  I have had the opportunity to present this introduction to a handful of groups, including students, a Mormon intellectual/historian gathering, and my own department colleagues– all to very positive response; and I sincerely hope that these ideas will continue to find an audience among church members and leaders alike, who hope to understand the complexity and history of women’s roles, spheres, expectations, and rights in a more sophisticated manner.  Mostly, a caution:   Given this historical and theoretical context, we should avoid strong claims to Mormon women’s ‘equality,’ when we might really mean that women are ‘protected‘ or cherished.   There is a difference.

I invite useful feedback from our readers, especially regarding my visuals, slides, comparisons, generalizations, and lines of questioning.  And considering that this IS an introduction, what might be missing from my overview?  What suggestions do you have for my approach to understanding Mormon women, equality, and patriarchy, both in terms of content as well as tone?   I invite all respectful suggestions and feedback.

Article filed under Christian History Comparative Mormon Studies Gender Methodology, Academic Issues Miscellaneous Mormon Studies Courses Women in the Academy Women's History


  1. This is really great, and far superior to anything I got as an undergrad at BYU. Strong work, Andrea.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 8, 2014 @ 10:58 am

  2. I confess that I have a far better understanding now of some of the issues and terms that have been slung around the Bloggernacle without explanation than I ever had before. Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 8, 2014 @ 11:11 am

  3. Amazing. Can this be put into the curriculum at the MTC, Seminary, Institute, Sunday School. Relief Society, Elder’s Quorum and High Priests. This is faithful and fascinating and so very needed.

    Comment by EmJen — May 8, 2014 @ 11:56 am

  4. Thanks for letting us in on how you built this lecture/discussion and how you’ve modified and improved it based on student feedback. Introducing these topics on a conceptual level helps give students tools to discuss without it being all about personality, or opinion, or their own personal experiences. Having some theory in hand can be really empowering. This is terrific.

    It also strikes me, by way of feedback, that this is something that would lend itself well to being conveyed in a short video or illustrated slide lecture module which could be used as a drop-in across different kinds of classes or (thinking selfishly here) adopted/borrowed by other instructors… Kind of the Khan Academy of Mormon Gender Studies.

    Comment by Tona H — May 8, 2014 @ 12:28 pm

  5. Oh, I second Tona’s suggestion! Thanks so much for this thoughtful post.

    Comment by Saskia — May 8, 2014 @ 12:37 pm

  6. This is the first time I have ever for even a moment hoped that one of my children would attend BYU-I 🙂

    Comment by Kristine — May 8, 2014 @ 2:02 pm

  7. Good work, Andrea!

    Comment by Kevin Barney — May 8, 2014 @ 2:55 pm

  8. This posting is fantastic and outstanding.

    I should add: well the drawing of equality feminism, that circle and square combined, reminds me of something I’ve seen somewhere.

    Comment by some dude — May 8, 2014 @ 5:03 pm

  9. Wow. Would that this became part of our youth curriculum…

    Very well done.

    Comment by some dude — May 8, 2014 @ 5:29 pm

  10. Should be required reading for every Mormon. Excellent work.

    Comment by hawkgrrrl — May 8, 2014 @ 7:17 pm

  11. I would include quotes from the Apostles and prophets that address the education of women (I believe Pres. Hinckley spoke about the importance for women to get an education), women in the workforce, and the “eternal role” of motherhood. Students should see that their Church leaders have spoken about the goodness that comes from an educated woman, that they are aware that many women need to work to support a family, and how they strongly support mothers. Anything from the general authorities and women leaders about women equality issues would be beneficial. Statements from the Proclamation on the Family about motherhood and adaptations would be helpful.

    Whatever you teach them, it should enlighten their minds, but also strengthen their faith in the Restored Gospel.

    Comment by Rachel — May 8, 2014 @ 8:08 pm

  12. Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

    First to Tona: Yes, I would love to do a kind of ‘packaged’ presentation that could be shared with many classrooms, across disciplines and institutions. I’ve even fantacized about doing a kind of TED talk on it.

    Emily: I have fantacized even more about what you suggest, that somehow this approach become an important resource for church members, teachers, and leaders, to contextualize our own gendered constructs and assumptions, to better understand why we say and do the things we do. I get so frustrated with all the armchair commenters who don’t understand the difference between an equality approach and a protectionist/pedestal approach. They are two different things.

    Rachel; Thank you for your suggestion. I have actually thought about that a lot. But since this is more of an academic, historical, and contextual exercise, rather than a devotional one, a more useful approach might be to use General Authority quotes to illustrate exactly the spectrum I am describing here. The quotes you suggest certainly lean more toward an ‘equality’ approach, but the whole history of GA statements about women over 180+ years reveals the entire spectrum of Equality, lots of Benevolent Patriarchy/pedestalization, and even some oppressive patriarchy. So it might be better to show how even church leaders, coming as they do from their own gendered backgrounds and contexts, have grappled with the place of Mormon women, with some revealing much more enlightened views than others.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — May 8, 2014 @ 9:44 pm

  13. Wow. Fantastic all around. Thanks, Andrea!

    Comment by J Stuart — May 8, 2014 @ 10:38 pm

  14. Such a great, great post. I love it.

    Comment by BHodges — May 8, 2014 @ 11:17 pm

  15. This is totally fabulous. Very careful, thoughtful, and brilliant. Thank you. Do you mind if your readers use this (read: me) with appropriate acknowledgement?

    Comment by Cheryl McGuire — May 9, 2014 @ 9:10 am

  16. Thanks Andrea! I have been struggling to help people understand my thoughts. This framework helps me. More than that, though, it’s a great reminder to start where people are at and then move from there rather than just giving an opinion.

    Comment by Audrey Bastian — May 9, 2014 @ 9:35 am

  17. This is so helpful. Thank you for sharing, Andrea.

    Comment by Karla — May 9, 2014 @ 10:01 am

  18. […] Radke-Moss, blogging at the Juvenile Instructor blog, offers a marvelous approach to explaining gender equality issues in Mormonism to the students she teaches at BYU-Idaho. She acknowledges the challenges of […]

    Pingback by Signature Books » Mormon News, Week 19, May 5?9 — May 9, 2014 @ 1:30 pm

  19. Nice work, Andrea! This is a very useful synthesis.

    Comment by Liz M. — May 9, 2014 @ 4:32 pm

  20. “Given this historical and theoretical context, we should avoid strong claims to Mormon women?s ?equality,? when we might really mean that women are ?protected? or cherished. There is a difference.”

    I think there is also a difference between structural or functional equality and doctrinal equality. Because when it comes to accessing and being covered by and saved by and empowered by and compensated through the Atonement — which is, of course, central to the plan — we really are equal. He truly “denieth none that come unto Him.” A conviction of that doctrine to me is central to being able to navigate some of the inevitable tensions that are inevitable in a male-priesthood church.

    Comment by Michelle — May 10, 2014 @ 1:48 am

  21. Andrea,

    Great work. The current predominant cultural and “theological”/policy stance on gender in the church, to me, is an almost perfectly encapsulated example of benevolent patriarchy. I would be curious to hear what the “modal” response is that you get from BYU-I students as well as some characterization of the variation around that response.

    Comment by rah — May 10, 2014 @ 10:02 am

  22. There are actually at least three branches within feminism that handle the “different but equal” issue differently.

    One, a very old-fashioned branch of feminism, says that men and women are equal, but their spheres of life and responsibility are basically separate, in a complementary way. This branch of feminism was more common in the 19th century than it is today.

    Another view argues that men and women should be treated exactly the same, that non-biological gender differences are entirely socialized, and that any attempt to assign different qualities or responsibilities to the genders in work, school, religion, or home life is to infringe on people’s personal freedom to define their own “gender.”

    The third is to say that there are inherent biological and spiritual differences between men and women, leading to somewhat different responsibilities that are designed to complement each other, but that men and women are mostly the same. This last one is prominent in Catholic feminist scholarship, in response to Pope John Paul II’s call for a new feminism, and I believe it is what our general authorities are trying to espouse. However, I think they do so in an imprecise, non-unified way because we have so little revelation on the subject (so far).

    You’re absolutely right that many Latter-day Saints mistakenly assume that feminism is always (or even primarily) the second option, but your crash course in feminism here explains things very well. 🙂

    Comment by Michael Reed Davison — May 10, 2014 @ 10:07 am

  23. This is excellent.

    “But I don’t feel oppressed. Women are loved and revered in the Church,” is a sentiment expressed by many conservative Mormon women when confronted with feminist ideas. When I hear that, my response is usually a mixture of annoyance (because it seems like they’re missing the point)and a desire to validate their experience (because they do feel valued and heard, they enjoy their roles). Your distinctions between benevolent patriarchy, oppressive patriarchy, and equality, and the historical context you present are so helpful!

    Comment by Genevieve — May 12, 2014 @ 10:08 am

  24. I had a class at BYU as an undergrad (sorry, but I am too far removed from my BYU days to remember which class it was) that went through the history of women and mens’ work. The professor showed that in an agricultural society the husband and wife worked together to get the crops in and harvested. When not doing that, they both worked domestic issues. However, as society moved from an agricultural to industrial society, the bread winner/domestic roles we know today were put into practice. It was an eye opening revelation. Likewise is your research and conclusions. Thank you.

    Comment by Cathryn — May 12, 2014 @ 12:07 pm

  25. Echoing previous comments, this is excellent. In particular, I love the fact that you’ve put as much thought into examining your motives and outcomes as you have into the information itself. Very thought-provoking, and heaven knows we could all do with some thinking. 🙂 Thank you!

    Comment by Grey Ghost — May 13, 2014 @ 9:33 am

  26. I was interested and thoughtful until I read the questions you said you’d be able to present to students. Those questions are leading and skewed. Don’t accuse people of “lesser accountability.” And “what do they fear that causes them to resist…” You’ve picked a side. You aren’t coming at this at all unbiased.

    Comment by Rachael — May 15, 2014 @ 1:48 am

  27. Rachael, if you happen to come back to this discussion, I can’t speak for Andrea or anyone else here, but I’d be very interested in your actual thoughts on this issue.

    You have had an emotional reaction to the content, but have masked that by, as they say, “attacking the messenger,” and that’s not very helpful for anyone in this discussion. It would be useful to me to understand your thoughts and where you feel challenged and why. And I’m serious; I’m not criticizing you or asking with an ulterior motive.

    My daughter is currently finishing her mission papers, and belongs to an online group with thousands of other young women in the same situation. It’s a closed group so I haven’t seen the discussions myself, but evidently many of them are trying to grapple with issues surrounding their place in the church and in temple worship and with many other practical issues that are arising, and are sometimes having a complicated time doing so.

    Do you think it would be useful for these intelligent and dedicated young women to be exposed to a framework to understand some of their experiences, and how and why things are the way they are, and how they might change over time? Is it useful to know how and why the structure will be different than what they’re exposed to in many other contemporary environments? Do you see discussing and seeking to understand the structure as a problem in and of itself, and if so, why? Do you feel that it is important for members of the church to hold anti-feminist views, as you seem to be expressing here, and if so, why?

    Thank you for any feedback you can share. As I said, I’m interested in this issue right now due to my daughter’s experience, and you’re the first commenter who has replied critically about the content of this presentation, so perhaps you or others who feel similarly but haven’t commented would have additional feedback on these questions.

    Comment by Regular commenter at JI, anon for this — May 15, 2014 @ 7:31 am

  28. Thank you, Andrea. On a personal level, I’ve grappled with these issues in my everyday life since I was a teenager, when I didn’t even know what feminism was. Though my understanding and embrace of feminism has grown over the years, your presentation eloquently yet simply puts into words and context what I’ve ineptly tried to express for a long time. I feel this is something I can share with family and friends and have them understand where I am coming from.

    Like other commenters, I would like to see this presentation shared widely, including with church leaders.

    Rachel, human beings cannot be “unbiased.” We can be balanced and fair, and Andrea’s presentation achieves that.

    Comment by Barbara — May 15, 2014 @ 10:06 am

  29. When I was in high school I liked to play Dungeons and Dragons. While I enjoyed thinking about elvish magic users, dwarf fighters, and mystical creatures, I understood that the internally consistent and complex rules that governed the game did not reflect reality.

    I think to a certain extent this also applies to feminist thinking. I don’t think the various frameworks for understanding the world as presented by feminist thinkers does a particularly good job at describing reality – and in many ways is just as fantastical as the fantasy world of AD&D. But at the same time, I think it is much harder to see that, particularly for those who are professionally wedded and ideologically committed to its concepts, or for those you are young and impressionable.

    I think that any ideology that insists as a fundamental premise that one sex is out to get the other is flawed and, frankly, morally suspect.

    Comment by TheMeanGuy — May 20, 2014 @ 7:48 pm

  30. “A fundamental premise of feminism is that one sex is out to get the other,” said no informed person ever.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 21, 2014 @ 3:57 am

  31. C’mon, Ardis, don’t ruin his alternate reality. I’d rather interpret this as TheMeanGuy participating in what he thinks is a theoretically constructed mind game. You know, like Dungeons and Dragons.

    Comment by Ben P — May 21, 2014 @ 4:07 am

  32. “When I was in high school I liked to play Dungeons and Dragons.” Thanks. NEXT.

    Comment by Heywood Jablome — May 21, 2014 @ 10:45 am

  33. Adris, I agree with you 100%.

    Ben, also feminism.

    Heywood, don’t knock it till you try it. But if you don’t enjoy imagining battles between wizards and goblins, then imagine battles between marginalized communities fighting to upend rape culture and other mechanisms of oppression instituted by the patriarchy to perpetuate male-centered power structures.

    But to the open-minded person I would ask: does it really make sense to view the interaction of men and women as being centered on control and oppression? Or, in other words, is one sex really out to oppress the other? Feminism emphatically says “yes” and, for those who identify as feminists, the thinking on this question clearly has been done.

    But I am skeptical.

    Comment by TheMeanGuy — May 21, 2014 @ 11:15 am


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