Thursday, 23 July 2015

Gender Roles Elephant

            For a long time I’ve believed that gender is contrived and gender distinctions are harmful and bad.  I’ve believed that girls can have short hair and be named Zack and boy can wear skirts and giggle.  Hair styles and clothing are cultural and superficial, but there is greater depth to this issue.  I belong to a church that believes that gender is not only real, but good.  I would rather belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than be right about gender and gender roles, so I am willing to submit as I seek to come to an understanding of the Church’s teaching about gender.  What follows are my ramblings as I try to figure this out.

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            What would an ideal family look like?  I know many people who were blessed by having a parent stay at home, this parent is often the mother.  Breast milk seems ideal, and men cannot breastfeed.  So perhaps there is a reason for the mother to stay home more, especially during the early years.  What would the ideal family look like?  Industrious: able to create and repair many goods needed within the home. If the husband has some skills, and the wife has other skills, together they will be able to accomplish the most.  Men can more easily gain muscle.  For that reason, if males can learn the skills requiring muscle, developing their strengths, they will be able to be a greater help in the future.  If they pass on these same skills to their sons, if mothers pass on their motherly skills to their daughters, if this happened across society, the necessary household skills would be present in every family with a mother and father present.

            There are a lot of skills unlearned, a lot of single parents, a lot of families where both parents are required to work full time in order to make a living, a lot of selfishness, a lot of pride.  Where does that leave us?


            As I read in A Parent’s Guide, I encountered a new idea: that gender roles are learned and should be learned.  Previously I found viewpoints on either side of this false dichotomy.  Some argue that gender roles are intrinsic and should be prominent in society while others argue that gender roles are a social construct which should be eradicated.  Rather, A Parent’s Guide suggests ways in which these roles can be taught to children, and the value these roles play.  An example given is of simple common courtesy of men opening the doors for women.  While this gesture has previously made me feel that I was perceived as weak, the manual suggested how having a social norm (in a potentially awkward situation where two people come to a door at the same time) can allow both parties to feel comfortable.  Living within standard expectations creates a comfortable environment.[1]  As our society moves further away from these norms, opening a door for a women can leave her feeling offended rather than comfortable.  This, however, does not require that gender roles be abandoned within the Church as well.  While we cannot control society, we can try to create a culture within the Church where individuals play unique roles which act to benefit the other parties present.  While A Parent’s Guide suggests equipping children with a variety of skills, it encourages teaching skills specific to the gender and to the interest of individual children.[2]


            While A Parent’s Guide places great emphasis on teaching gender specific skills to each child, suggesting the roles associated with each gender can be learned, gender itself existed before we were born.  The Family Proclamation is not alone in declaring that we were gendered beings in our pre-mortal existence.  James E. Talmage writes that “the distinction between male and female... was an essential characteristic of our pre-existent state.”[3]  Adding to this, Sister Margaret D. Nadauld teaches that “every girl was feminine and female in spirit long before her mortal birth.”[4]  Not only are our bodies shaped differently, so are our spirits.  Perhaps the reason why this teaching is difficult for me to accept is because I have often thought negatively of feminine characteristics.  I have equated them with weakness and lists of what women must not and cannot do.  However, Sister Nadauld goes on to encourage parents to see the potential in their daughters, to:

nourish their gentleness, their nurturing nature, their innate spirituality and sensitivity, and their bright minds, [to] celebrate the fact that girls are different from boys [and to be] thankful for the position they have in God’s grand plan.[5]

Likewise, I may see the potential in myself as Heavenly Father’s daughter and nourish and seek to increase my natural giftings.  I can celebrate rather that shy away from the fact that I am female.


Women and men have temporal and eternal gender roles.  The temporal ones are bound to change as society develops, but eternal roles stay the same.[6]  While it was once common for men to play the role of hunter or farmer, these skills are retained only by a few people.  However, fathers are called to be fathers for time and eternity, likewise, the call to motherhood is one that does not end.[7]  There are specific gendered roles that will continue on into the eternities.  The Family: A Proclamation to the World states that “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”[8]  While it is great when we love our individual roles, there are times when we must press forward with purpose for we were created with a purpose.  There is a purpose behind our creation as male and female.  James E. Talmage tells us that this purpose extends beyond this life, for:

in the glorified state of the blessed hereafter, husband and wife will administer in their respective stations… woman [shall] reign by Divine right, a queen in the resplendent realm of her glorified state, even as exalted man shall stand, priest and king unto the Most High God.[9]

While I am unable to fathom the eternities, it is interesting to note man and woman each have a role to play.  As the Quaker proverb puts it, “thee lift me and I’ll lift thee, and we’ll ascend together.”[10]  God did not create a human to be alone, neither here nor in the hereafter.  “Eternal are the purposes of God; never-ending progression is provided for His children”[11] of either gender.  As we press forward throughout eternity, we shall become glorified, perfected and continually better, men becoming better men, women becoming, not men, but better women.


Elder D. Todd Christofferson considers a family with a mother and a father to be the ideal.  However, he compassionately realises that this ideal is not possible for everyone.  To those who are single parents he says “you are left to manage alone what two together can barely sustain.”[12]  Single parents have a tough task, and while many do an excellent job, it is easy to see that single parenting is not an ideal situation (though in certain cases it is more ideal than the two parents being together).  Together a mother and a father are able to meet the needs of their children, each playing a different role.  They are to need and depend on each other.  If spouses act as though they do not need their partners, they “[diminish] the divine role of the other.”[13]  If we instead honor the roles of mothers and fathers we can create mutual respect and appreciation.[14]  Elder Boyd K. Packer explains that the “complementing differences [between men and women] are the very key to the plan of happiness.”  He continues on to say that “some roles are best suited to the masculine nature and others to the feminine nature. Both the scriptures and the patterns of nature place man as the protector, the provider.”[15]  It is humbling for me to accept this teaching.  My (feminine?) nature longs to argue against him and obliterate gender distinctions.  I work with a seven year old boy.  He likes to play fight.  Is that his masculine nature expressing himself?  In this modern country of Canada, how can I encourage him to use that positive desire to be a protector for good and not to harm?  How do I teach him to develop his masculine nature into useful skills?  Perhaps those are the questions I should be asking, rather than arguing with the late President Packer.  Also, it is important for me to remember that when one talks about “feminine nature,” they are not aiming to create Stepford wives or confining molds.  The feminine nature is expressed in various ways and is frequently praised by male authorities in the Church.


I could elaborate.  A Parent’s Guide specifically talks about helping children to further the skills they enjoy, even if they are not typical for a child’s gender.  Furthermore, it encourages parents to teach children a wide range of skills so if need be they can be independent.  Just as no two people are the same, every marriage and every family will be different.  Because “there is nearly as much variation within each gender as there is between the genders,”[16] The roles of the wife in one family may be radically different than the roles of the wife in a different family.  What matters then is that the mother and father work together for the good of their family, laying down their own interests for the sake of others.


Selfishness often calls for a break from traditional family structure.  There is no room for selfishness in families or in the gospel.  However, not all breaks from traditional families stem from selfishness.  While one mother selflessly abandons her career to stay at home with her children, another mother may have to selflessly give up the time she desires to spend with her children and work outside the home so that there is food on the table.  We cannot look at another’s actions and judge their motivation.  If we focus solely on what we want, there will neither be care for our children nor food on the table.  In every job there are tasks which are not enjoyable.  I’m sure this maxim echoes as true for a stay at home mother just as it does for a father working outside the home.  While we can learn to love the roles given to us, we must continue to perform our duties even when we do not love them.  Otherwise the garbage will never be taken out, (later we can argue about whose role it is to take out the garbage).  While it is often argued that it is a woman’s right to work outside the home or hold any profession that a man can hold, and it is indeed her right, Elder Dallin H. Oaks urges us to “recognize that qualifying for exaltation is not a matter of asserting rights but a matter of fulfilling responsibilities.”[17]  We become more like our Heavenly Father when we sacrifice even our rights for those around us.  We must give our all for others.  As women journey through life and pursue various hopes and dreams, President James E. Faust tells women that “becoming like men is not the answer. Rather, the answer lies in being who you are and living up to your divine potential by fulfilling eternal commitments.”[18]  While each woman has unique potential, in her perfected and ideal state she will still be female.  As we seek on earth to become our best selves, we should seek to become the best mothers and sisters.  Even I, who will probably never have children, am called to be a mother to those around me.  In the words of John A. Widtsoe, “Motherhood may be exercised as universally and vicariously as Priesthood.”[19]  I too can develop my motherly characteristics and use them for the good of others.  Opportunities to serve and nurture others are given to LDS women through various church callings.


In word church leaders continually elevate women.  It is then confusing why those in the highest leadership roles in the Church are men, and in fact hold positions women cannot.  While these positions seem lofty, they do not elevate an individual’s value.  Therefore, highly asserting equality of gender, does not demand destruction of gender distinctions. [20]  Rather women are valued as women and men are valued as men.  Elder M. Russell Ballard states that:

responsibilities and divine gifts of men and women differ in their nature but not in their importance or influence. Our Church doctrine places women equal to and yet different from men. God does not regard either gender as better or more important than the other.”[21] 

Creating distinct roles for each gender does not indicate that only men are capable of the roles given to males or that only women are capable of roles given to females.  However, as we focus on our gaining skills to succeed at gendered roles we can more fully complement one another and build up the kingdom of God better together.   The reasons for these distinctions were determined by God, and according to Neal M. Maxwell we “know so little… about the reasons for the division of duties between womanhood and manhood as well as between motherhood and priesthood.”[22]  I find contriving reasons for the distinctions does more harm than good.  While we can speculate how genders are different there are always exceptions.  I happen to be a frequent exception.  When I hear statements beginning with “Women are…” I am often caused to question my gender identity.  Many of these statements do not ring true to me.  Nevertheless, through the grace and power of God I will be capable of fulfilling every role I am given in the Church, even ones cut out exclusively for feminine women.  President Gordon B. Hinckley testifies that the Lord “designated that men in His Church should hold the priesthood,” and “has given [women our] capabilities to round out this great and marvelous organization.”  Furthermore he bears witness “before the entire world of [my] worth, of [my] grace and goodness, of [my] remarkable abilities and tremendous contributions” as a women.[23]

While men hold the tremendous responsibilities associated with the priesthood,[24] this is not for their gain.  A man cannot give himself a blessing, and every spiritual gift and priesthood blessing available to men is equally available to women.[25]  The priesthood does not exist for males but for the kingdom of God.  I have often seen the hierarchy of authority as a triangle of support.  Inasmuch as President Thomas S. Monson is the leader of all people, he is also our servant.  While the world may deem those with the most priesthood authority to be the greatest, Jesus Christ proclaimed that they must be servants of all.[26]


While I live with constant temptation to do away with gender, the Church holds on strong.  Though distinctions stated about gender often leave me feeling confused as I do not fit neatly into the feminine box, I cannot avoid the statements made by general authorities in the Church.  As an example I shall quote Elder Dallin H. Oaks at length:

We live in a day when there are many political, legal, and social pressures for changes that confuse gender and homogenize the differences between men and women. Our eternal perspective sets us against changes that alter those separate duties and privileges of men and women that are essential to accomplish the great plan of happiness. We do not oppose all changes in the treatment of men and women, since some changes in laws or customs simply correct old wrongs that were never grounded in eternal principles.[27]

My thoughts may have been richer had I studied the perspective of sociologists on gender.  However, I believe there are various and inconclusive thoughts on the matter (though I have not looked into it).  Furthermore, I do not know that sociologists can be trusted to tell me about my spirit (I do think they make many true statements about our spirits from their observation of life.  I think sociologists are great and have so much to offer society).  I could find a sociologist to support my desire to do away with gender.  However, I could also find one to support the Church’s view.  I choose to do neither.  While gender roles in the word blur together, in “the work of the Kingdom, men and women are not without each other, but do not envy each other, lest by reversals and renunciations of role we make a wasteland of both womanhood and manhood.”[28]  Despite my past habits, I’ll try my best to honour distinct roles between men and women.  This will require sustaining, in more than words or a raised hand, men in roles of authority in the Church, and believing in the complementary roles of men and women.  I will trust Saint Paul that “the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.”[29]  I must also have faith that with grace and strength from God I can learn to become a women of the Lord.

Mormons could join sociologists in debating the extent to which gender is or isn’t a cultural construct.  I’m not convinced that discussion bears much fruit.  God is able to work through all of his servants, and I have no doubt that if there was a need, women could hold priesthood authority.  One could show that women held greater authority in the early church[30] and that they continue to officiate priesthood ordinances in holy temples.[31]  Women have great abilities.  Gender roles do not encompass all that a member of that gender is capable of doing, but within gendered callings in the Church we are given specific responsibilities.  In focusing on one’s own responsibility, and not looking longingly at another’s, we work as a body to build up the kingdom of God.  Women don’t need to have the priesthood, or, as Saint Paul suggests, we cannot all be hands.[32]  While there are numerous arguments for why women can and should hold priesthood keys and authority, while some females would make better bishops than males, the Church is no worse off for not having females holding priesthood offices.  Questions of why remain unanswered, but I trust that if we are willing to submit humbly to the plan of the Lord, gender specific roles will create greater unity within the Church.  Pride and stubbornness on this issue (or any) will only tear us apart.

            I have not spoken here about transgendered individuals.  That is an Elephant in and of itself which requires further research and deeper thoughts.

[1] A Parent’s Guide, 1985,
[2] ibid..
[3]James E. Talmage, Ed. James P. Harris, The Essential James E. Talmage, Signature Books: 1997,
[4]Margaret D. Nadauld, “The Joy of Womanhood,” 2000,
[5] ibid..
[6] Martha Nibley Beck, “Women, Roles of: Historical and Sociological Development,” 1992,,_Roles_of.
[7] Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson, 2014,
[8] Gordon B. Hinckley et al. “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” 1995,
[9] Talmage, Essential.
[10] Robert D. Hales, “Strengthening Families: Our Sacred Duty,” 1999,
[11] Talmage, Essential.                                                                                                                      
[12] D. Todd Christofferson, “Why Marriage, Why Family,” 2015,
[13] James E. Faust, “Fathers, Mothers, Marriage,” 2004,
[14] ibid..
[15] Boyd K. Packer, “For Time and All Eternity,” 1993,
[16] A Parent’s Guide.
[17]Dallin H. Oaks, “The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood,” 2014,
[18] James E. Faust, “How Near to the Angels,” 1998,
[19]Mary F. Foulger, “Motherhood and the Family,” 1980,
[20] M. Russell Ballard, “Let Us Think Straight,” 2013,
[21] ibid..
[22] Neal A. Maxwell, “The Women of God,” 1978,
[23] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Women of the Church,” 1996,
[24] Spencer W. Kimball, “The Role of Righteous Women,” 1979,
[25] Joseph Fielding Smith, “The Fullness of the Priesthood,” 1970,
[26] Luke 22:26.
[27] Dallin H. Oaks, “The Great Plan of Happiness,” 1993,
[28] Maxwell, “The Women of God.”
[29] 1 Corinthians 11:11.
[30] Ordain Women, Wordpress,
[31] Oaks, “The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood.”
[32] 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.

1 comment:

  1. I am DH Towers, known also as Denidowi in many Internet circles. As I am selling a book these days online via Kindle at present [Winning Big Time], I go on my formal name as I first mentioned above.
    Back in 2010, you asked me to continue blogging [I am now doing it to promote my book on sport and winning in life generally, but under DH Towers].
    I see now ur biggest concern is under the need for roles - gender roles especially. I'm afraid my parents divided when I was only 3 - I don't count myself expert at handling the intricacies in dispensing but I have always loved girls being girls and guys being guys, though I love encouraging girls in playing sports and Serena has been a long time Fav of mine. However, there are many things where playing roles and taking certain responsibilities has been some expertise of mine - not necessarily gender roles. I am taller than average: here in Aust., we invented AFL football. In team games in particular, plying roles is imperative.
    In many teams I have been the nominated knock ruckman. ie when the ball is tossed up, I am the one to contest it in the air. I knock it down to a smaller faster player on the move. Other times they have played me on the forward line, where i am to take catches and kick goals. But every player has a role to make the team work most cohesively. The family is a team; it is not an individual thing.
    I wrote an article many yrs ago on the roles [the exclusive roles] within Deity; I don't think I have it now, but I can give a few thoughts just briefly:

    God, the Father:
    His role, which ONLY He could perform, to give birth to spirit children as even Jesus was merely an intelligence (with no spirit) before that event; in fact, Jesus is called, "The Firstborn" - He was the first spirit child of God. God also had an immortal body which could not be killed ... which leads us to Jesus, the Son:
    Capable of being born and dying, He came to earth to physically present as God here - to set the example and die for the sins of all. Only He among the three could do that, as someone had to remain unborn - the Holy Ghost, so that He could speak to and touch the hearts of all men and teach us via the spirit - because our spirits are eternal and the Spirit, being eternal also, is able to speak to us, heart to heart, which neither the Father or the Son, being now complete embodied beings can do.
    So, here is the case, or part of it, for why even the gods have essentially mutually exclusive roles that none other can do. So there HAS to be 3 - to be God and cover everything. Each is essential playing His role. It is rarity that gives us each value to one another. Bearing and nursing children gives women exclusive value. Men being mostly stronger and bearing the Priesthood is what gives them value to the ladies. Now there may be other things in eternity that are added to these