What Women Know

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When we speak plainly of divorce, abuse, gender identity, contraception, abortion, parental neglect, we are thought by some to be way out of touch or to be uncaring. Some ask if we know how many we hurt when we speak plainly. Do we know of marriages in trouble, of the many who remain single, of single-parent families, of couples unable to have children, of parents with wayward children, or of those confused about gender? Do we know? Do we care?Those who ask have no idea how much we care; you know little of the sleepless nights, of the endless hours of work, of prayer, of study, of travel—all for the happiness and redemption of mankind.Because we do know and because we do care, we must teach the rules of happiness without dilution, apology, or avoidance. That is our calling.I once learned a valuable lesson from a mission Relief Society president. In a conference, she announced some tightening up of procedures. A sister stood up and defiantly said, “Those rules can’t apply to us! You don’t understand us! We are an exception.”

That wonderful Relief Society president replied, “Dear sister, we’d like not to take care of the exception first. We will establish the rule first, and then we’ll see to the exception.”

Boyd K. Packer, General Conference, April 1994

I sit in a house wanting for housework but housework has a churchy quality about it. It is always there and there is never a time when I can say it’s perfect. A recent event occurred with Sister Beck’s talk entitled “Mothers Who Know”. A firestorm of protest erupted from women who were left out of her picture that seemed to put too much emphasis on housework. I think a few of Sister Beck’s sentences could have been better thought out but as a woman who knows how difficult it is squeeze the thoughts in my head past the tongue in my mouth, I know that with time and experience Sister Beck will parse her few allotted words more precisely. So the issue for me is not about the first brief talk of a new Relief Society President, it is in how we as members react to statements from leaders that leave us wanting.

We have to always deal with LDS culture that demands conformity by disallowing contention. It can be seen as restrictive, oppressive and dysfunctional. Or it can be seen as creating an environment that is welcoming and safe for everyone regardless of predisposition or circumstance. Mormon Manners function as any set of standardized manners function in any society. Everyone knows what fork to pick up, when to lift it and what to say while doing it so no one stands in awkward isolation outside of the group. I know that I will be safe and welcome in our Mormon world within a world if I extend the same manners to others regardless of our idiosyncrasies or ill conceived words.

The topic has re-emerged because of a presentation regarding this petition given at Sunstone West on Saturday. I identified myself as a critic of the petition in the Q&A and two of the presenters were kind enough to approach me after the session. They were delightful women and I hope to get to know them better. I was not comfortable during the presentation, particularly when their own critics were ridiculed by reading emails (and those emails were certainly silly) in a mocking voice. When I spoke to the women in person, however, something quite different happened. But it happened because we all immediately and unconsciously slipped back into Mormon Manners and met in the familiar place where we say and do the things that make one another feel comfortable and welcome. That is when the magic happens and we can see one another as individuals with important things to say. That is when we open our eyes and ears.

I have only had one petition and that was to request a sealing cancellation. I resented that I had to do this for many years –until I received a response. Only then did I see that we may be in a church of rules but we were all treated as exceptions. Can we come together as women with this realization and turn our efforts to making sure that each exception is attended to by us rather than expecting it to come in every random twenty minute talk? I think we can and I think we will be better for it.

7 thoughts on “What Women Know

  1. Doe Daughtrey

    You are an extraordinary woman, and I am so grateful that you spoke up and that I got to meet you and look into your eyes. As someone else who once had to request that cancellation of sealing, we have even more in common than I thought. I want you to know that my interactions with you were not informed by Mormon Manners but by my intense desire for you to know that I had, indeed, heard your concerns and that your opinion, ideas, and experience are all of great value to me. Thank you, thank you, for being so gracious. I look forward to getting to know you.

  2. Juliann Reynolds Post author

    Thanks for responding so generously, Doe. What I was thinking of was the “A Diaologue on Womanist Theology” selection from the recently published Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies.

    [quote]“First, in the analysis of Keely Brown Douglas, womanist theology is accountable to ordinary women–poor and working-class black women. This means that womanists must teach beyond the seminaries and divinity schoools and in churches and community-based organizations. Put differently, “it will be church and community-based women who will teach womanist theologians how to make theology more accessible.” (p. 307)[/quote]

    I think this is applicable to LDS and puts words to my discomfort with elitist rhetoric that passes right by (or alienates) the community-based women who are the majority.

    I don’t put “Mormon Manners” at odds with sincerity. I think we have a method of getting to negatives but we sort of back into it and walk around it. I think most of what was said could have been done by simply extracting from other talks (without implying that the community of women were supporting killing by including an anti-war statement that slammed all of us who use the Stripling story). I think Bushman’s democratic theology would have a better chance if the community was brought in by using sources that speak to them.

  3. c jane

    Though I disagree that Sister Beck’s talk needed any sort of editing, I do agree whole heartedly about this, “we may be in a church of rules but we were all treated as exceptions”

    Very enlightening statement.

  4. Cal

    ” So the issue for me is not about the first brief talk of a new Relief Society President, it is in how we as members react to statements from leaders that leave us wanting.”

    It almost seems like there are two ‘gut’ reactions to this type of situation–first, we might internalize by attacking ourselves, feeling guilty etc. This is what the petition addressed to a great extent in my view, expressing support for women who didn’t match the ideals, hoping to stem this type of reaction. The other ‘gut’ reaction is to externalize–’it’s not my fault just because I don’t measure up, it’s wrong to have such standards in the first place’. The petition could be seen as this type of external attack to protect the inner selves–anger or at least annoyance rather than guilt or shame.

    But there is at least one other way of listening to our leaders and that is ‘likening the scriptures,’ taking what ideals are being described and seeing it in our own unique blend of behaviours…we may not have the ironed shirts on outside of our kids, but our children’s souls are ‘clean’ and ‘pressed’, for example. Our house may not be orderly in the sense of everything in the kitchen is in the right drawer or cupboard, but it can be orderly in the sense that our children understand what is required of them, their roles in lives clearly defined so they know what is expected of them and can be expected by them, in essence their life is one of mental and emotional order and not of confusion. We can recognize and say to ourselves “yes, this is important as women and mothers to do and while the speaker and others do it in their way, I do it in ‘this way’. What is most important is that we are all working on it together, though in our own way.”

    I think this was probably the ultimate goal of the petition, but it was not as well expressed as it could be and came out too critical, too rejecting on occasion.

    If we do the ‘likening’, we can then use the ideals described as positive motivation for improvement in areas we haven’t addressed yet without having to feel guilt or shame for supposedly not addressing it at all even if our particular method never gets mentioned in any church talk ever though I admit it is much easier when you can pull out a statement somewhere that specifically deals with what you do, lol.

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    I like the term “Mormon Manners.” It expresses well the concept of the context our communication takes place in. It is not about sincerity–false, insincere courtesy, after all, is not really about ‘good manners’ but more likely a subtle and sometimes not so subtle form of insult–but more of what I see as sharing a community language that is not only words and their context, but the nonverbal expressions and the host of expectations, experiences, etc. that we bring to any dialogue in the church community. I don’t know of anyone that I might meet at church that if they act in this way, I’d have doubts about their sincerity–sincerity is pretty much a given in our community, isn’t it? We take the “brothers and sisters” family type of love and respect pretty seriously as a group in my experience.

    As a group these “manners’ have been created not to get in the way of understanding, but because we want to communicate and share with each other, we want to understand and support…so we’ve created a ‘language’ that does this along with simple sharing of information. And I think it is something that is much better experienced on a one to one or grassroot level than through a computer screen or even across the pulpit, possibly because even a pulpit can contribute to a sense of ‘us/them’ feeling for some people so it becomes not a dialogue with someone, but feeling like one is being lectured…and who likes that, lol.

    There is a difficulty when something new comes up for one of the individuals involved in dialoguing…such as doubts about some aspect of community doctrine or practice, but I have found that if the Manners are generally respected and patiently used and people don’t try to shortcircuit the conversation, that new experiences can be eventually embraced into the community experience/dialogue.

    Mormon Manners is the two-sided coin; the half full or half empty glass; the safe place or the confined quarters. I’m not sure I could articulate exactly what they are, but I sure know when they come into play or are missing.

    I think LDS have a real benefit that our leadership is very much a part of the lay membership, even the higher ups because it helps to establish and maintain this community dialogue that supports personal growth and understanding so significantly. On occasion we can lose sight of the active dialogue and shift into passive student/listener mode. While in some ways this is quite comfortable…it requires less work after all, it is not satisfying to someone trained to look on personal progress and growth as a core individual attribute and I think this dissatisfaction can end up being expressed as dissatisfaction with the individual we have placed in the role of our ‘teacher’ when if we were to look on that person as someone trying to work along side us in support of ourselves, that dissatisfaction might well disappear.

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