Presiding: Its History Within My Marriage By Caroline Kline


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.

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Categories: Mormonism

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13 replies

  1. When I was in my first year as a graduate student Barthianism was very prevalent and I was open to the idea that Barth’s ideas were true. Barth says man (and God) have “initiative, precedence, and authority” over woman and humanity. I remember trying to talk to my boyfriend about this and he didn’t want to even get into it. Neither to disagree with Barth nor to agree with him! Later I wrote a paper arguing that if we reject Barth’s view of the man woman relationship we need to question his view of the God human relationship too. Our professor tossed my paper aside with the words, “I never thought this issue was important.” But I followed up on it and changed my views of God’s power. In a process view God does not have all initiative, precedence, and authority, because as Hartshorne said, “God makes us make ourselves.”

    When I discussed the issues you discuss here with my Mormon brother, he stated that a marriage cannot work with equal sharing of authority. As I was in the process of divorce from an egalitarian marriage, my protests fell on deaf ears. I don’t know if he has changed his views since, but I rather doubt it.

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    • Carol, I too love that Hartshorne quote. That resonates with me as a feminist, and funnily enough, I think it also kind of resonates with me as a Mormon. Mormonism puts huge emphasis on individual agency — the ability of people to make choices for good or ill that shape their lives — and because this emphasis on human agency is so strong, Mormons also believe in a limited God who does not violate these greater principles of agency. To me this jives rather well with process/feminist ideas about humans being co-creators with God.

      How disturbing that your Mormon brother believes marriage can’t work without hierarchy between spouses. I’m sure he’s not alone in thinking like that, but I sense things are changing… One thing I have noticed among a lot of Mormons — they want to retain the language of patriarchy because it’s so much a part of our scriptural and historical tradition, but the concept has been effectively neutered by a lot of our Mormon leaders. Presiding is often reduced to the man asking family members to say prayers at dinner, planning a family home evening activity, and giving blessings to family. If that’s all presiding is to these Mormons — something that doesn’t involve real decision making — then that’s something to be relieved about. (Though of course, I’d like to completely erase the whole concept all together.)

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  2. Caroline,
    Excellent (and hopeful) critique of your marriage as co-presiders. From your vantage point, as you witness more and more young Mormon couples exercising an egalitarian marriage, is this making a difference in Mormon doctrine?

    Looking back at my own marriage the rhetoric of equality existed, yet the lived experience was something else. A strange dynamic began to unfold of me surrounding my voice/initiative to his. This allowed him more authority in decision making, but also released me from responsibility, which I feel cost me deeply in the end. He grew while I receded as partners. My point: having the male take the lead in this life or the next, feels justifiable to the woman because she can live her life in the shadow of her husband, no risk taking or failures to encounter. A dynamic that, I feel, will in time cost her deeply.

    Carol,
    Your comments are always so informed and insightful. I have placed your quote from Hartshorne above my desk. Have you ever done comparative work with process theology and Meister Eckhart? Eckhart’s understanding of us as co-creators fits beautifully with Hartshorne’s ” God makes us make ourselves.” A wonderful way into Eckhart. Thank you!

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    • Cynthie, emphases are changing in the rhetoric of Mormon leaders. 30 or 40 years ago, there was very little emphasis on equal partnership. But now that language always comes out whenever marriage is discussed. Leaders say things like “The woman’s place is not to walk behind the man or in front of the man, but by his side.” They also use the term ‘equal partners’ over and over again, but it’s often combined in the same breath with some more traditional ideas about gender roles ‘males as presiders’ ‘women as nurturers.’

      In my opinion, church leaders are trying to have their cake and eat it too. They seem to be trying to say that presiding can coexist with equality, that it’s not about hierarchy, but about different roles for men and women. I have a hard time buying that. To me the concept of presiding is inescapably linked with hierarchy, and I don’t buy efforts to argue that it’s compatible with equality.

      I totally understand what you’re saying about receding as a person as your husband grew in his profession and you primarily took responsibility for kids. (I’m assuming this was when you were a young mother.) I’m in that position too. I do feel like Mike sees me as his equal and his co-presider, but I can’t deny that I am in a much more vulnerable position in the marriage, with my resume drying up and my work experience becoming obsolete.Your point about living in the husband’s shadow to avoid risk is also something I’ve thought about too.

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  3. Caroline,

    Thank you for this article. You are certainly educating me about the Mormon faith. I have been more focused in my studies of Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity; one often forgets the different disciplines that make up the Christian faith.

    To step outside of the norm of your faith is quite difficult. For me, I married someone outside of my faith; in fact I might suggest that he leans on the side of being agnostic. That meant all religious decisions in the household were left for me. So in that role I am more dominant.

    I will say that this did make for an interesting dialogue when I went back to school to pursue my degree in theology and religious studies. He calls it ‘church stuff.” What this means is an automatic barrier when discussing issues of faith and an isolated experience that becomes lonely when you cannot share this with your partner (especially when you become so passionate about items that you read and discover).

    I give you and your husband so much credit for being able to reach a compromise that works within your faith belief and, just as important, in your marriage.

    I look forward to more posts about your faith.

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    • Michelle,
      Even though I married within my tradition, my husband and I joke about the fact that we have an interfaith Mormon marriage. My approach to Mormonism differs a lot from his, so I understand what you’re saying when you mention barriers that go up when some things come up. I’m quite sure my husband doesn’t tell me about spiritual experiences he has within the Mormon framework, for fear I’ll blow him off or make some snarky comment about patriarchy. (I’m trying to be better about that, but I know I’ve done that in the past.). Likewise, I don’t always share with him the things that move me because I know they just won’t resonate with him. So what you say about the loneliness of your faith journey makes a lot of sense to me. When my husband and I talked about improving our marriage recently, I mentioned wishing that we could share our inner journeys more with each other. Maybe some day… Thanks for your comment!

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  4. Caroline:

    As a man and former Latter-Day Saint, thank you for your post.

    My wife came from a patriarchal Mormon family, where her mother gratefully acquiesced to her husband in any decision making he claimed authority over. On the other hand, for a long period of time her father was religiously inactive and failed to take a leadership role in family religious matters. My wife came out of that family with a lot of anger at men and male hierarchy.

    I was raised by a single mother and just saw joint decision making the logical result of an equality that I presumed. And in our marriage it has worked well. When we disagree, rather than taking turns as you and your husband do, we both try to fairly gauge who actually cares more about the issue, and that person’s opinion prevails ultimately after hearing the other one out. Our system is rife with opportunity for abuse, but it works because we trust each other, and it seems to balance out in the end

    However, my wife did retain some attachment to the notion of male presiding. Looking around her Mormon community in central Utah, and especially in her own family of origin, she saw that the men tended to be more disengaged than women when it came to the family. This included caring for the home and children, but extended to religious matters as well. Of course men presided at church, but leading the family in prayer or family home evenings was another matter.

    I left the Mormon Church a few years into our marriage, so my wife’s concern about male disengagement became confirmed in a way. I began identifying as Pagan after a few years, but only recently have I started to include my family in my religiosity, by creating seasonal Pagan family rituals, and Pagan prayers to say with the kids. My wife has been very supportive and is actually relieved to have me take the initiative in these matters. I never did this before I left the Church, and interestingly, after I left the LDS Church, my wife never led the kids in prayer or family home evening either.

    So my wife retained an attachment to the notion of male presiding, which she will tell you is because men are lazy and need to be given authority in order to assume any responsibility for family. She would be quick to tell you that I am an exception, but she maintains that men “need the priesthood” in order to fulfill their responsibilities as men. I balk at the notion, though. What are your thoughts.

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    • “men “need the priesthood” in order to fulfill their responsibilities as men. ”

      Hi John,
      Thanks for your comment! I know a lot of Mormons who say that – that men need priesthood in order to not be lazy bums in the family and church. I have a hard time with that, though. I think it’s insulting to men to say that the only way they will contribute in the home or church community is to give them special power that others don’t have. I’d like to think that both men and women are born with equal capacities to love, nurture, administer, and be spiritual. If for some reason certain men aren’t living up to those innate equal capacities within the family, then the problem probably stems from them not being taught from a young age that they have just as much responsibility and capacity for these things as the women around them. That’s where the problem should be fixed, in my opinion, rather than in giving them power over others and hoping that gets them excited to be involved. That latter option seems to me to play into the worst of people’s human natures, i.e. the idea that people will only contribute if they have special privilege and power.

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  5. Beautifully written. Any chance you learned first about “equal regard vs. male headship” in my Intro to Christian Ethics course? (Not that I need credit or anything, I am truly curious…)

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    • Yes, it was indeed in Intro to Christian Ethics that I learned about that debate. I knew, of course, that some Christians took Paul’s thoughts on women very seriously, but I never had any terminology to describe what it was they were advocating. ( I loved that section of the course!)

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  6. Caroline, Thank you for your generous window into your faith and your life.
    I was caught by your discussion of presiding. I will soon be presiding over Eucharist in our little local church but have rather been thinking of presiding more as one presiding over a wonderful meal, there to make sure everyone is fed.I wonder what presiding would look like should Mormon women preside. I would bet women’s presiding would look more like what you and your husband have built together.

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  1. We Are Responsible for Asking the Questions by Caroline Kline « Feminism and Religion

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