One of the most powerful and frequently cited Mormon feminist blog posts, Kiskilili’s “The Trouble With Chicken Patriarchy” on Zelophehad’s Daughters discusses the strange brand of patriarchy Mormons contend with in the modern LDS Church. On the one hand, Mormons are told that men are to preside over their wives, and on the other hand, husbands and wives are told to act as equal partners with one another. As Kiskilili shows in her post, this embracing of two seemingly contradictory stances towards the issue of male headship leaves many Mormon feminists frustrated. She writes:
This rather mind-boggling situation, in which the Church simultaneously embraces most of the spectrum on gender roles from traditionalist positions to egalitarianism, is not simply soft patriarchy, although a recent tendency to soften patriarchal language is one important ingredient in the mix. Neither is it traditional patriarchy; nor egalitarianism. Chicken Patriarchy never allows itself to be pinned down to a single perspective; chameleonlike, it alters its attitude from day to day and sometimes even from sentence to sentence, too chicken to stand up for what it believes. By refusing to settle down in any one place on the map, Chicken Patriarchs can embrace egalitarianism and still continue to uphold time-honored traditions of male authority.
Unfortunately, Chicken Patriarchy lacks the moral backbone to repudiate unequivocal occasions of patriarchy still observable in our scripture, ritual and organizational structure. It can never exorcise the more-or-less dead ghosts and occasional live demons of women’s subordination or expected subordination because it fails to take a consistent stand, emitting as it does a storm of mixed signals. In the spirit of Elijah, I wonder: How long halt ye between two opinions? If patriarchy be appropriate, follow it; but if egalitarianism, follow it.
If patriarchy is God’s will, why not stand up and take the flak for advocating values that have been taught from Adam to Paul, from Joseph Smith through most of his heirs, from the temple to the pulpit? If it’s not, why continue to cling to patriarchal language and women’s ritual submission to men?
I love Kiskilili’s colorful description of Mormonism’s slippery chicken patriarchy, and I share much of her frustration. However, the optimist inside of me is hopeful. While I fully acknowledge that there is real danger in such egalitarian language obscuring deep and important issues of patriarchy within Mormonism, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps this insertion of egalitarian ideals into the patriarchal framework might someday open up space for more and more Mormon leaders to leave behind the old thinking and open the doors to gradual but permanent shifts in understanding.
This gradual shifting of emphases is how change comes about in the Mormon Church. Rather than repudiating old viewpoints, leaders simply stop talking about them and start emphasizing new ones, letting the old fade away into history. Because of Mormonism’s conception of continuing revelation, in which new ideas and emphases from Church leaders are privileged over old ones, this newer focus on egalitarian principles might be signaling the possibility for a permanent shifting away from patriarchal family dynamics. It would take generations for patriarchal language to completely fade from our Mormon leaders’ rhetoric, I know. But this Mormon feminist hopes that we might be witnessing the start of such a shift.
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.