Gordon Monson: Here’s what many LDS women say they want, something they, unfortunately, do not have

It will be up to men, ultimately, to make the necessary changes.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune A combined Primary, Young Women and Relief Society choir sings at General Conference in 2015. Salt Lake Tribune columnist Gordon Monson discusses what Latter-day Saint women say they want in their religion.

Let’s get one thing straight, right from the jump here: I am not a woman. (In case you were wondering.)

I’ve never been a woman, never tried to be a woman, never walked in a woman’s shoes — although there was that time I wore heels, but let’s not explore that now. I never wanted nor intended to pat anyone on the head, to high-hat, to mansplain anything to anyone. I acknowledge that and proceed with caution and without condescension.

I’m a man, and, if anyone really wants to call that into question, the fact that I indiscreetly scratch and spit and burp, the fact that I’m the son to a mother, and have fathered five daughters and am the brother to four sisters should erase lingering doubt.

But in preparation for writing this column, I talked with, more importantly, carefully listened to, paid close attention to, observed many women who did more than approve what I’m about to present. Some of them urged me to do so. No patronization here, only regard and awe. Point No. 1 — they said they scratch and spit and burp, too.

This piece, then, is all about women, particularly Latter-day Saint women, and the way a large percentage of them are brought up in their church, taught from an early age to wear this, to not wear that, to do this, to not do that, to be this, to not be that, to do this better, to be that better. Doobie-doobie-doo better. Always better.

Here’s the tricky part for me here: Many of those “teachings” came and come from men, men who claim authority to tell women what to do, what to be, what to feel. As one woman told me, with a gathering of others huddled around, bobbing their heads up and down, “It’s too much patriarchy, and it’s exhausting.”

The result, I’m told, is that more than a few women feel heavy pressure to strictly follow a script laid out by church leadership and culture dating back 50 years, a hundred years, or more. Younger women are tossed the baton by old-school types, men and women, in a kind of intergenerational transmission, who were given an agenda —half checklist, half schedule — that seems out of step with more modern thinking.

The checklist

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Latter-day Saint faithful walk to the Conference Center for a women's session of General Conference in April 2022.

It goes like this: Graduate from Primary, go to Young Women classes, dress modestly, don’t wear two-piece swimsuits, don’t wear short skirts or low-cut blouses, don’t get too many piercings, don’t tempt boys because … well, boys will be boys, respect the priesthood, date, get an education, but even more, find a man, marry in the temple, have children, build a family, be a homemaker, be a mother, remember cleanliness is next to godliness, support your husband, respect the priesthood some more, go to church, accept church callings issued by male leaders, attend Relief Society lessons, teach in the Primary, advise the girls in your congregation, minister to fellow female ward members, make dinner for those who mourn, those who are sick, those in need, be service-oriented, listen to priesthood and church leaders, almost all of whom are men, be virtuous, be charitable, be righteous, be sweet, be lovely, be precious, do good works, be a choice daughter of God.

And, if you get around to it, be good to yourself.

To many, this is the blueprint etched out for women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and it’s a whole lot. Much of it is selfless; some of it is submissive.

I talked with a woman, a faithful believer, a lifelong member, who has concluded that her only hope is faith in and reliance upon the centerpiece of her religion: Jesus Christ.

The problem for her and many others is that while that last thing is the foundation of her faith, when she goes to church, she hears a kind of split message, divergent messages. The one is that Christ is her Savior, that through his atonement and his grace she is saved. The other is that that’s not good enough. She has to do her part, she has to take the one oar in her hands, while Jesus takes the other one in his to propel the boat forward. She has to earn her way. And sometimes, because of all the expectations she feels inside a high-demand church, the water gets rough, the rowing gets laborious. She said she always feels, no matter what she does, like she falls a bit short.

Another sister, gray hair now atop her head, said she attends church meetings every week, some during the week, same as she ever has, and the gospel of supposed good news wears her down. Her kids are grown now, one is “active” in the church, two are not. One is gay and feels unwelcome there. Her husband no longer attends. She said she reared her children responsibly, setting an example for them with her own behavior and belief, holding family home evenings, attending the temple, accepting and fulfilling callings, listening to her ecclesiastical leaders, doing and being everything she could.

And yet, when she sits in the pews, she feels as though she has failed at some levels — as a mother and as a wife. She does not like those feelings. She does not want to accept that her children and her husband are not “celestial” people, that her family will not be together forever, instead sifted and separated into lesser eternal realms.

This bothers her. She said she feels and fights waves of undeserved guilt.

Another woman, in the throes of bringing up her young children with her husband, said she has heard a thousand lessons about being virtuous and valiant, about keeping herself and her family on the covenant path, all while she works 40 hours a week outside her home to help pay the mortgage and other bills. She said she is barely hanging on — emotionally and spiritually.

One woman said she never has found a husband, never had children. What she has found is difficulty settling in on her place in the faith because she’s “outside the mold, outside the norm.” She goes to church and hears about the significance of forever families, but she floats in relative isolation, with no priesthood, no power.

“What’s my role in this religion?” she asked. “Have I done something wrong?”

Yet another married in a Latter-day Saint temple but is now divorced. Another married in a temple, had some kids, but her husband came to realize he is gay and has taken a different way. Another reached a point where she has walked away from the church because being attached to it in her so-called incomplete state is too difficult for her.

What’s missing?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Relief Society choir sings at General Conference in 2017.

Maybe there are men in the church who feel some of these same pangs and pains.

One thing men do not experience is being overridden on account of their gender. A local Young Women president, for example, said she had presented a plan for a modest church youth activity in a ward leadership meeting that was shot down by a priesthood leader who presumed he, not she, had the final say. And, as it turned out, he did.

Here’s the bottom line: It would be a blessing for one and all among the Latter-day Saints if the doors to the church were swung wide open, and that once they were, women of all conditions were made to feel accepted and welcomed and whole. It could be that that’s the intention of the church, but that that intention needs to be made clearer and more forcefully.

Here’s what’s a no-duh: Women of the church need to be empowered. Not just made to feel empowered but actually empowered. Their voices need to be heard, respected, sought after, valued, trusted as equally inspired, sanctioned with direct authority in a way that connects them not just to a Heavenly Father but also to a Heavenly Mother, so they never feel as though they need permission from men to stand in good stead.

It should be obvious that, in Latter-day Saint theology, those Heavenly Parents love and value their daughters as much as their sons, regardless of their race, their marital status, their sexual orientation, their adherence to commandments, their ability or willingness to serve, their level of perfection or their lack thereof.

That’s what a whole lot of women told me they want. How will that happen when men are the ones who preside and decide?

I have not walked in women’s shoes. I have just heard what they said. And it feels good to scratch, spit, burp and agree with them.

They want respect and love. Not in any sweet, precious, lovely sort of way. Latter-day Saint women want and need nobody’s condescension. What they want and need is what they lack — equality. Full stop.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune columnist Gordon Monson.

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