LAST SUNDAY NIGHT, a cute set of young male missionaries, along with a brother from our ward, visit-bombed us, primarily to meet my non-practicing 20 year old son who escaped the surprise experience mid-way through. Everything about this visit with the missionaries was pleasant and typical, including that moment at the end when it was time to ask someone to voice the closing prayer. The senior companion turned to my husband and began, “Since you’re the head of the househo…”
This was the point at which my junior high school experience in drama finally paid off. Without missing a beat, I shriveled in my chair, groaning, as I performed my best impression of a speech-enabled slug suffering as salt pours over it. Lo and behold, the four men in the room immediately gave me their full–and puzzled–attention.
Hence came the time for the denouement of my spectacular improvisation. First, I eyeballed the man who drove the elders to our place, a man who actually lived with us for several months and knows me fairly well, and said, “You really should’ve warned them.” He laughed, held up his hands, and protested his innocence, but I turned from him, knowing the more important lesson should be delivered to the young’uns in the room. I’m not sure of my exact words, but I explained (with a quick side-eye to my husband to ensure he stayed in line) that in our house, we don’t do Mormon sexism. At all. My husband cupped a hand to his mouth and whispered, “She’s a Mormon feminist.” The missionaries gave off the distinct impression they had never encountered such a creature before. Awkward pause. Then my dear husband prayed for all our souls.
But really, folks, putting aside the silliness, here’s the truth bomb: no one–and I mean no person and no institution–gets to decide who is the head of our household who isn’t my husband and myself. If a husband and wife are truly equal in Mormonism, then the head of household garbage would disappear from our records and attitudes.
I think about these cute elders in their white shirts, ties, and matching dark slacks, going into the homes of unsuspecting, non-LDS [hetero] couples and modeling the very impolite assumption that the “man of the house” is also the “head of household.” Front doors will very likely close permanently behind them. Maybe not every door. Maybe not the doors of older couples or those already in faith traditions that are also mired in patriarchy, but I think it’s safe to say that turning to the husband for the closing prayer assignment because he presides over his wife isn’t going to fly with a lot of women. So I did a little missionary training right there in my lime green, crushed velvet, MCM-inspired chair.
It’s mind-boggling to me why LDS people can’t see that the head of household assumption diminishes the value and place of a woman in her own home. In systems or structures in which one person presides over others, there is no waffling about who is in charge, who is in control, and who is most important. This creed simply cannot coexist with equality. The husband and wife cannot be equal partners if he is always the person with the control.
Will the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ever become less patriarchal? It’s hard to imagine, considering the church doesn’t seem able to recognize its sexism. I’m of the mind that the church will stop being patriarchal only after women stop putting up with it. Still, most practicing LDS women participate in the church as if the sexism is somehow divinely appointed, an idea that is easy to hold on to when it is the idea on which you’ve been raised. These women live in denial that the church repeatedly places us second. But I submit that patriarchy is not a divine order but rather the refuse left behind by the might-makes-right history of humankind. A few societies resisted patriarchy in favor of matriarchy, but what we should be building is a society that promotes equal partnership. Such a society must begin at home. It begins in my home and, hopefully, yours.
I say to women, if your husband is good and honorable and the two of you agree that he will be the decision maker in your home, the one who charts the family’s path, then that’s all fine and good. But please resist the temptation to think what feels right for your family is somehow a universal truth. Remember, not all men are honorable and not all marriages can thrive when one person has been pre-selected as the family chief. In some families, the “head of household” attitude that pervades LDS doctrine, creeds, and culture has led to physical, psychological, and spiritual abuses of women and children. There’s no getting around this. In other families, this type of sexist language is like a slow drip of water on the forehead of a woman, a quiet torture that results in resentment and breaks bonds of trust. Regardless, all of us should be teaching the church’s future missionaries to think outside the small box our culture hands them.
Equality isn’t an affront to God, nor is it something to fear. Equality is the prioritization of our divine nature over the flesh, a way to figuratively peel back our outer shell and discover the immenseness of our divine nature, unfettered by mortal limitation and untrapped by human perspective. Equality is a soul deep confirmation that what is divine within us is what matters the most. If our language doesn’t reflect the equality of our souls, it can’t reflect the love God wants us to feel for one another.
And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. Luke 6: 31