Women Are More Spiritual than Men? The Mormon Conception by Caroline Kline

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.”[1]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

[1] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Reimagining Families” excerpt in Christian Ethics: An Introductory Reader, ed. Samuel Wells (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2010) 253.

Categories: Mormonism

11 replies

  1. Great reflection. A few thoughts:

    (1) The idea that women are “naturally” more spiritual than men surely flies in the face of what notable care theorists Carol Gilligan implied and what Nel Noddings explicitly maintained – that men more than women needed to “transcend” the physical reality of everydayness and “invent” divinities.

    (2) Statistically speaking–and bracketing altogether the question of what is natural–women outnumber men in religious observance (as measured by prayer, pilgrimages, acts of devotion, etc.) in nearly all the world religions.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Not all religions have to do with transcending the physical–indigeneous and neolithic and paleolithic religions celebrate the spirit in life, nature, body.


  3. You’ll want to read Barbara Welter’s article, “The Cult of True Womanhood,” which appeared in around 1960, I believe, in American Quarterly. It and many subsequent works of women’s history address the way that women’s sinfulness, blamed on Eve, was transformed into the piousness, submissiveness, and domesticity that has been projected onto 19th and 20th century women in the US. My own new book, _St. Mark’s and the Social Gospel: Methodist Women and Civil Rights in New Orleans, 1895-1965_ (Univ. of Tennessee Press) deals in part with how the women responded to the expectations that they be “True Methodist Women” (Jean Miller Schmidt’s term used to analyze how “True Womanhood” was experienced by Methodist women).


    • And then after you read Welter, you should read: “The Impact of the “Cult of True Womanhood” on the Education of Black Women” by Linda M. Perkins. She is a close friend (I’m also her R.A/T.A.) and she is one amazing scholar of Higher Education. She is also the Director of the Applied Women’s Studies Program at CGU.

      Welter excludes a lot in her article, so it is good to get other perspectives too.


  4. Thank you for your comments!

    Grace, thank you for pointing out Noddings’ and Gilligan’s perspective on the idea of women’s innate gift for spirituality. As for women and altruism, if I remember correctly, Noddings was more comfortable with that association, and Gilligan too, though she wouldn’t make any claims about the tendency to care reasoning being inherent in all women. And as for women’s greater religious observance, in my tradition, there are more women than men practicing as well, though I understand that the ratio is closer to 50/50 than in other Christian traditions. This is one reason some Mormon sociologists don’t support the idea of women’s ordination — they think a large portion of men will drop off and not practice if they don’t have these exclusive duties to perform.

    Carol, I’m glad you pointed out that the type of spirituality I’m referring to here is largely transcendent. In indigenous religions, I wonder, are women more associated with the immanent divine?

    Ellen, thank you for the reference to Welter’s article. I had heard the phrase, ‘cult of true womanhood’ before, but I have never read that article. I should definitely check it out, as well as your own work on Methodist women. It sounds like there could be some parallels between our traditions on this subject.

    John, another good reference. Thanks!


  5. Two thoughts: The first is to view this Mormon doctrine as a perfect example of how Judith Butler describes gender roles as being determined performatively, rather than by any legitimate assessment of psychology. They are set by those who have the power to set them, then used to marginalize a particular gender.
    Second: There is much work in feminist philosophy of religion which actually agrees with the notion that women may have an insight into religion which the make chooses to ignore, by focusing exclusively on the rational, and leaving out the visceral, emotional element in religion. This is at the heart of my thesis that Nietzsche anticipated this very point that feminist theologeans are building on today.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. My friend Laguna Pueblo Indian Carol Lee Sanchez used to say that in her matrilineal and matrifocal tribe the women understood that the men had to assert their importance while women knew their importance without needing to make a big deal of it. As long as these kinds of systems stayed intact, everything worked well. But when they begin to fall apart, the males’ assertion of their importance can all too easily become male dominance.


  7. Caroline, thanks for this post, and for posing a question at the end – so inviting! I was immediately drawn to this topic, because, though Judaism is more my religious tradition than my academic field, I am often bothered by the claim by friends, rabbis, and popular Jewish thought that Jewish women are more “spiritual” or “closer to God” or “more pure” (my favorite) than men. This claim is more often in response to the question “Why don’t Jewish women wear kippot (head covering)” or “why are men not allowed to touch women during menstruation?”.Frankly, when I walk in to a synagogue, even if it self-identifies as egalitarian, progressive, etc, I feel instantly uncomfortable upon seeing the swarms of men wearing kippot and tfillin (prayer shawl) and a only scattering number of women donning religious adornments (except, of course, the magen david necklace). In high school I wore a kippah to services, but once I became a non-believer I felt that wearing a kippah signified something I wasn’t comfortable performing. But what is non-believing, Jewish feminist to do? I refuse to believe that women are more “spiritual” or “altruistic” than men – this prescription, in my eyes, as you say, is a palliative to excuse the exclusion of women from institutional power. At times I wear a prayer shawl, and I will most likely wear a kippah in the future, but I think the real work has to do with cultivating spaces in which women are comfortable exploring their spirituality, no matter what they wear.


  8. Great post; what always bugs me, is when a church leader gets up and talks about how women are nurturing and empathetic. I’m not nurturing or epathetic–even though I’m a mother. I have Asperger’s syndrome. This stereotype bugs me on a couple different levels: First, that there’s only one (right) kind of woman and second, that there is no “room in the kingdom” for a misfit like me. When I was younger, I left the church partly because I was made to feel not good enough the way I was. Now, however, I’m too old and crotchety to let other people hurt my feelings hurt, so it just bugs me instead.


  9. It is not run by men, but by God. Women have says for inspiration for the ward if their husband is bishop. There are councils for almost every decision that have women on the boards to give their insight. Woman participate in the temple in ordinances equivalent in importance as baptism. If you were the least bit spiritually sensitive you could see that women do you give off a light that isn’t as strong as men.


  10. I personally really struggle with the idea that women are more spiritual or altruistic than men. To me it seems like yet another stereotype that women are forced into. Traditionally (True Womanhood) and presently (Neurosexism) stereotypes are used to justify socially discriminatory systems. Some of my thoughts turn to why one would want to be stereotyped. I also don’t see any benefits for women being perceived as more spiritual within Mormonism, though I could be wrong as an outsider looking in at this religion.


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