Mormon feminists struggle with patriarchy on (at least) two levels. First, since women are excluded from priesthood ordination, women have very few opportunities to rise in Mormon leadership. They can participate as leaders (under the male bishop’s jurisdiction) on a congregational level, but beyond that, the opportunities are very slim. Second, Mormon feminists struggle with patriarchy on the home front. Because all Mormon men are ordained as priests, Mormon wives have not just a husband in the home, but also a priesthood leader. They are instructed to support and sustain their husbands in the home, as he presides over them and the family.
In the world of Mormon feminism, the shorthand term we use to designate this issue of patriarchy in the home is ‘presiding.’ The oft discussed debate among Mormons is how this concept of ‘presiding’ can be compatible with other injunctions by our leaders to act as ‘equal partners’ with our spouses. It was only recently that I realized that this debate is not only alive and well in the Mormon community, but also in the Christian community at large, though the terms they often use are ‘male headship’ vs. ‘equal regard.’
The concept of males presiding in the home is a troubling one for many Mormon feminists. I identified as feminist in my teens, so by the time I met my devout Mormon husband at 22, this issue had long been on my mind. I’ll never forget the first night we really discussed the issue.
My then boyfriend/later husband was sympathetic with my discomfort with the idea of males presiding in the home, and he proposed that perhaps presiding didn’t involve decision making, but that it instead had to do with ultimate responsibility. After we’re dead, he mused, it might just mean that the man, as the priesthood holder, would bear a greater responsibility if the family went off track. He was just throwing this idea out there — he wasn’t strongly advocating it — but it made me feel nauseous. It was the only moment in our whole courtship where I thought we might not make it. How could a just God expect more from him than from me? How could a just God blame him more than me if our family went off track? How could a just God look at me as less than fully responsible for my own shortcomings? These were the questions I countered with, but nothing was resolved and I went away from the conversation feeling disturbed.
In the first few years of our marriage, we returned to the presiding discussion several times. Thankfully, the ultimate responsibility argument had dropped out of the discussion. The ultimate decision maker idea was never something either of us was ever going to entertain, so that was off the table too. We decided that no matter what Church leaders said about his role as presider, we would focus on the equal partnership idea and live our lives to that end. In practice, we are co-presiders, and it works beautifully for us.
There is no ultimate decision maker in our marriage. Instead we compromise or take turns when big decisions arise. There is no religious presider. Instead we decide together how religion functions in our home, and we try to make it egalitarian.
I feel great about the way our co-presiding marriage works. I know this isn’t every Mormon’s cup of tea, but I do take heart when I see other young Mormon married couples that have a similar dynamic. They may not articulate that they co-preside — in fact, many young Mormon women are quick to verbally embrace and defend the idea of men presiding in the home. However, in practice I see them emphasizing the equal partner model. I only hope that some day, on a large scale, these young Mormons will match their rhetoric to their equal partnership actions.