Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Feminist Review of Daughters in My Kingdom: Part One

A few weeks ago my Relief Society president handed out free copies of the church's new publication Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society. I finally finished reading the book last week and since the book was plugged multiple times during last weekend's Relief Society General Broadcast (prompting my TBM mother to state that the broadcast was "one big infomercial"), I'd figure I'd post a review.

I should mention that when I first tried sitting down and writing my review, it ended up being nearly 20 pages long, so I decided it wouldn't work for a blog post. However, if you want to read my full, in-depth analysis with notes on each chapter, I've posted it on a Google Doc.

Instead, I'm going to condense and break up my document into smaller parts, each part discussing some of the major themes of Daughters in My Kingdom.

Daughters in My Kingdom is a 208 page, full-color, glossy booklet discussing the history of the Relief Society and the role of women within the church. Since the booklet was handed out for free in my ward and since you can buy it for only $3 at the Church Distribution Center, I'm guessing the church is printing this book at a net loss. Whenever the church does something like that, it means that they really, really want people to read it. I can't help but wonder if the church is feeling the pressure of increasing criticism from feminist groups inside and outside of the church. (I discuss my evidence why I feel Daughters in My Kingdom is a response to feminist groups such as LDS Wave in more detail in my Google Doc, if you're interested.)

With that in mind, I was feeling fairly optimistic when I began reading Daughters in My Kingdom that it would be a step in the right direction towards gender equality within the church. And while it there are indeed aspects of this publication that are progressive, I nevertheless feel that Daughters in My Kingdom is not a very satisfactory response to the very valid concerns being raised by Mormon feminists.

The Relief Society as an "Ancient" Organization
The idea that the Relief Society is a divine organization was a central theme throughout this book. In Chapter 1, the book spends a great deal of time discussing the women in the New Testament and how Christ valued and involved women in his ministry. It also suggests that Christ organized the Relief Society as part of "the same organization that existed in the primitive church" (see the 6th Article of Faith). This chapter quotes Eliza R. Snow twice (once in the chapter heading and once in the actual chapter) as saying: "Although the name may be of modern date, the institution is of ancient origin. We were told by our martyred prophet that the same organization existed in the church anciently" (1, 7). Side note: if you want to read my discussion of why I think this idea is patently false, you can read my detailed notes for this chapter. But I won't dwell on it here because I want to focus more on how this idea is important to the book's overall argument.

Chapter 1 equivocates on Snow's statement a little bit by stating: "While little is known about a formal organization of women in the New Testament, evidence suggests that women were vital participants in the Savior's ministry" (3). Although this qualifying statement is an indication that the church is unwilling to fully commit to Eliza R. Snow's assertion that the Relief Society existed in Christ's time, the chapter ultimately allows Snow to have the last word on the matter by including her quote in the chapter's final section. In this way, the book subtly gives an official church endorsement of the idea that the Relief Society existed in the primitive church.

The book's suggestion that the Relief Society was established by Christ as part of the primitive church is very important to one of the book's main arguments: that the church's current ecclesiastical structure is divinely justified---and therefore cannot be changed. Women cannot have the priesthood or hold priesthood-only leadership positions because Christ intended for them to have a separate, complementary women's organization. The "separate, but equal" pattern of organization for the contemporary church is divinely authorized and therefore unnegotiable.

The Relief Society was Organized "Under the Priesthood"
Chapter 2 continues in this same vein by discussing the history of the organization of the first Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. It discusses how Sarah Kimball, Margaret Cook, and Eliza R. Snow first approached Joseph Smith with their idea to form the Relief Society in the spring of 1842. Although the evidence couldn't be clearer that the Relief Society was Kimball, Cook and Snow's brainchild, the chapter quotes Sarah Kimball's 1883 memoir in which she remembers that Joseph Smith responded to their proposal by saying: "This is not what you want. Tell the sisters their offering is accepted of the Lord, and he has something better for them than a written constitution. I invite them to meet with me and a few of the brethren next Thursday afternoon, and I will organize the women under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood" (12). The chapter then goes on to argue: "Rather than pattern a Latter-day Saint women's organization after the women's societies that were prevalent and popular at that time, the Prophet Joseph Smith organized them after a divinely inspired and authorized manner" (12).

This chapter repeatedly emphasizes that the Relief Society was set up under priesthood authority. The book states: "As the Lord's prophet, Joseph Smith held all the keys of priesthood authority on the earth. Therefore, when he organized the Relief Society to function under his overall direction, he unlocked opportunities for the women of the Church to play vital roles in the work of the Lord's kingdom. They now served under the authority of the priesthood" (15). Later in the chapter, the book states: "The Relief Society was not just another group of women trying to do good in the world. It was different. It was 'something better' because it was organized under priesthood authority" (16). Side note: you can read my detailed notes on this chapter for why I feel that this portrayal of the history of the early Relief Society is flawed. I discuss evidence supporting the theory that Joseph Smith wanted to use the Relief Society to introduce the female temple endowment, but later abandoned it when the society became too popular (and was therefore no longer elite).

What I want to point out is how chapter 2 further supports the book's larger rhetorical purpose of justifying the church's contemporary auxiliary structure. The book doesn't allow the Relief Society to be Kimball, Cook, and Snow's idea---it has to be Joseph Smith's idea (and therefore the Lord's idea). It has to be organized "under the priesthood after a pattern of the priesthood" (12) in order to be authorized and authentic.

What about the Structural Reorganization of the Relief Society in 1971?
Frankly, the assertion that the Relief Society was organized "under the priesthood" is an anachronistic view of the Relief Society's relationship to the priesthood---meaning that it is being filtered through the lens of the contemporary church institution in order to justify its current structure. The fact that the Relief Society's history is being filtered through the the lens of the contemporary church is made obvious by the notable omissions of key historical events from Chapter 6 of the book. This chapter (which covers the history of the Relief Society from 1946 to the present day) makes no mention of the sweeping organizational changes that occurred within the Relief Society under Harold B. Lee's Correlation program in 1971. Under Lee's administration, all of the church's auxiliary programs (which included the Relief Society, the Primary, the Young Women's and Young Men's programs, and the Sunday School) ceased to be fully autonomous organizations.

Prior to 1971, the Relief Society was an independent organization. Its relationship to the church was similar to the relationship an after-school program has with a school: they were definitely connected, but they ultimately existed independently of one another. The Relief Society had its own leadership structure, its own publications, its own curriculum, and---perhaps most importantly---its own finances. In the 1970s, the Relief Society lost its autonomy and came under full priesthood control on a general, stake, and ward level. Their finances were seized and surrendered to the church. Their publications were discontinued. The General Relief Society Presidencies, who had previously served in their callings for life (the way a prophet and his First Presidency serve for life), were eventually released by their new priesthood leaders. Side note: for a detailed history of the controversy over the Correlation changes, see chapter 7 of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism and Part 2 of Daymon Smith's discussion of Correlation on the Mormon Stories podcast.

In short, the Relief Society only began to exist "under the priesthood" in 1971. It wasn't this way in Christ's time and it wasn't that way in Joseph Smith's time. The book's suggestion that it ever was that way to begin with is terribly anachronistic. And it reveals the book's true purpose: to give divine legitimacy to the current institutional structure of the church, the "separate, but equal" organization for men and women.

I counted nearly 18 other instances in Daughters in My Kingdom in which the authors took great pains to constantly assert that all of the actions of the Relief Society are and were authorized by priesthood leaders. In many cases, these assertions were very awkward and redundant, which suggests that they were deliberate and consciously inserted into the text (probably by the Correlation Committee). Here's a couple of examples:
  • "The Saints were blessed by priesthood power through the laying on of hands by brethren who held the priesthood" (32).
  • "[T]he Relief Society established the Relief Society Social Service Department in 1919, with the full support of President Heber J. Grant" (67).
  • "In 1924, with support and encouragement from general and local priesthood leaders and Sister Williams [the General Relief Society president], the Cottonwood Stake Relief Society established a maternity hospital" (69).
In each of those cases, it appears that the book took great pains to make it very clear that all Relief Society actions fell under priesthood governance. I've listed more of these citations in the General Observations section of my Google Doc. 

Earlier I used the term "separate, but equal" to describe the church's current auxiliary structure. This was intentional, my purpose being to allude to the name of the constitutional doctrine under which racial segregation was legalized. My argument is that the church's "separate, but equal" doctrine functions in a similar way to Jim Crow laws: it creates a system in which there are two classes of citizens (in this case, men and women) with the purpose of denying the second class of citizens any real kind of power or voice within the governing body.

A Mormon woman's relationship with her God is constantly mediated by males. Although she has the right to personal prayer, personal revelation, and spiritual gifts, beyond that she is wholly dependent on males for salvation and exaltation. A male priesthood holder must perform the saving ordinances for her (with the notable exception of the Initiatory rites in preparation for the endowment). A male bishop must interview her for worthiness to enter the temple. A male prophet is responsible for communicating  a male God's will to her. And male leaders on a general, stake, and ward level have the final say in all decisions that affect a woman's day-to-day experiences within the church. Males, in turn, have no such dependency on females, with the exception of their need to be sealed to a woman in order to receive the patriarchal priesthood. And, according to Daughters in My Kingdom, a female auxiliary leader must have authority (a fancy word for "permission") from her male priesthood leaders to enact changes to her organization that she feels are needed. I fail to see the purported equality in this system.

I find it offensive when church members try to suggest that this inherently inequitable system is what God wants and intends for his children. I'm an agnostic (bordering on atheism), which means that I am skeptical of God's existence but could possibly be convinced otherwise. If God exists and does indeed speak to humans through personal or prophetic revelation today, I feel confident that we receive that communication imperfectly, filtering this revelation through our own biases and prejudices. James Madison expressed my current view succinctly in The Federalist Papers: "When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated."

With that in mind, I've come to feel that God is a blank screen onto which we project ourselves---complete with our biases, prejudices, and our assumptions about the world. We project our perceptions of goodness onto God and then turn around and use that projection as justification for a theology we constructed ourselves. The current leaders of the church were born and raised in an era of patriarchy. Therefore, when they "talk" to God, they filter it through that lens. I'm highly skeptical that God is such a blatant misogynist---and if he is, then he is not a creature who is worthy of my worship.

1 comment:

  1. It's funny that you should post this when you did. Your last two paragraphs reflects my feelings exactly about our perceptions and God. My friend Stephanie posted this on her blog:

    I'd love to talk to you about what she says there when we have a chance.