In the Mormon tradition, women are often held up by Church leaders and members as naturally more spiritual and selfless than men. While it’s nice that Mormonism escapes traditional Christian conceptions of women’s nature being inherently deceptive, seductive, and sinful (these ideas stem from the Eve narrative in Genesis 2), this characterization of women as naturally spiritual and selfless does present problems for some Mormon feminists like myself.
First, it often seems to be used a a palliative, as an excuse to not incorporate women into the priesthood hierarchy of the Church. Because women are naturally so spiritual, the common reasoning goes, women don’t need priesthood like men do — men must learn spirituality and altruism from their priesthood service in order to develop these same qualities. (In Mormonism, every male twelve and older is ordained to the priesthood, thus priesthood service is expected of all Mormon men.) In this way, the association of women with altruism and spirituality serves to pedestalize women, even as it pushes women off to the side, so that men can get down to the real business of running the Church and its congregations.
Second, such rhetoric constrains women and men, painting them into certain familial or societal gender roles that may or may not be a good fit for individual men and women, since women are expected to ideally inhabit the nurturing stay at home mother role (if financially possible) and men are expected to inhabit the provider, protector and presider role within the marriage.
Third, the association of women with inherent spirituality and altruism strikes Mormon feminists like me as unfair to men, since it implies that men are naturally handicapped spiritually and altruistically. Alisa, a blogger at the Mormon feminist blog The Exponent, explores this last concern when she writes about her sense that her newborn son is absolutely as perfect and full of potential as any girl:
“As I hold my son in my arms, I feel such a sense of fullness, of completeness…. I know that he is everything he is supposed to be. I do not sense any deficiency in his spirituality because of his maleness. I cannot imagine him any more perfect if he were female. In fact, I sense a strong…connection he has to the Divine. A focus he has. An understanding. Totally male and totally complete in God’s love and power.”
Alisa’s critique resonates with the feminist theological approach of Rosemary Radford Ruether who believes that “Whatever nuances of difference in style may exist through biology and socialization, men and women each possess the full range of all human capacities.”With this approach, Alisa defends her son’s full capacity to be everything that is good and noble, even without priesthood endowment.
While I am personally uncomfortable with the association of women with altruism and spirituality because I see how it can be used to constrain people’s life choices and roles in my Mormon context, I am interested in other feminists who might embrace this characterization. Perhaps outside of patriarchal religions, such rhetoric is empowering to women (and somehow not harmful to men?) I’d love to hear your experience with this. Do you embrace the idea that women are naturally more spiritual and/or altruistic than men? Why?
A Mormon feminist, Caroline is completing her coursework for her Ph.D. in religion with a focus on women’s studies in religion. Her areas of interest revolve around the intersections of Mormon and feminist theology and the study of contemporary Mormon feminist communities. She is the co-founder of the Mormon feminist blog, The Exponent
 Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Reimagining Families” excerpt in Christian Ethics: An Introductory Reader, ed. Samuel Wells (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2010) 253.