As a teenager, I had very little self-confidence, and I was—and still am—an idealist. My mother, who suffered from diabetes and heart disease, never worked outside the home. She raised four children—one with disabilities—and found a great deal of happiness doing that when we were young. She died at the age of 49, when I was 21. By that point in my life, I had serious questions about my worth as a female member of society. How much of this was due to my family, how much was due to my religion, and how much was due to my middle-class American background? That is hard to answer. But I would probably say that my 21-year-old angst had more to do with witnessing my mother’s health challenges than anything else.
I never pictured my future looking any different than my mother’s and my aunts’, and until the reality began to stare me in the face, I thought I was OK with that. Raised in the Mormon diaspora of the American Mid-West, they all received bachelor’s degrees, married men with advanced degrees, and then settled down into the male-breadwinner model of marriage. For them, marriage marked the beginning of the joys and difficulties of family life, and the end of personal ambitions. That was just what you did as a woman. There was nothing tragic about it; in fact, I am close to my extended family to this day because we had family reunions every year. I admire my aunts for being the smart and spunky women that they are. I have concluded that a religious woman needs to be that way to deal with the patriarchal assumptions that undergird the Judeo-Christian tradition, including Mormonism. And that was where my mother—and I—ran into problems.
Now, I have talked to many Mormon women who are confident and well-adjusted—untroubled by questions of patriarchy, either because they don’t spend time worrying about scriptural teachings, or because they are unaware of the problematic passages in the Bible (1 Corinthians 11) and in uniquely Mormon teachings. My feisty, sarcastic aunt told a friend who had joined the LDS Church and was asking about whether Mormon women were supposed to follow their husbands’ advice, “Most women I know don’t take that too seriously.” In other words, just be yourself, and don’t worry about having to listen to someone who leaves his socks lying around the house. Theory is one thing, and practice is another. The way to deal with patriarchy is to dismiss it altogether.
Slowly, I’ve gotten to this point as well. I have become more confident, more realistic, and more determined to reach my personal goals. But I am a sensitive soul, and I was in a much different place at the age of 21. I faced a lot of internal conflict after my mother died. I began to ask if her life was what it could have been. I felt guilty about not being home to help my dad care for my disabled sister. That was what a Christian woman would do, I thought. Interestingly, a Mormon bishop (pastoral leader of a Mormon congregation) steered me away from such a disastrous move. “God did not send you here to waste your life,” he told me.
I share this story because it illustrates some themes we have been discussing in Patrick Mason’s course on “Gendering Mormonism” at CGU this semester. This past week, we read the Mormon feminist theology of Janice Allred, in which she argues that Jesus pointedly modeled the role of the Mother God: by comparing himself to a mother hen, Jesus was making the statement that the godly human being has perfectly integrated culturally “masculine” and “feminine” traits. Like Adam and Eve after the fall from Eden, we find ourselves initially incomplete and divided—either aggressive or submissive, selfish or selfless.[i]
That my own experiences and amateur understanding of codependence resonated with Allred’s theology gave me pause. Have we, by and large, misunderstood Christian theology for 2000 years? Do women intuitively better understand the implications of the scriptures on questions of gender, especially how problematic the language of male headship is? Should a woman have no sovereignty? So often religion and psychology have been at odds. Religionists see psychologists as corrupters of the true principles of religion, promoters of sin; psychologists often see churchmen as upholders of the hierarchical status quo in gender relationships and one of the reasons why so many downtrodden people end up in their offices seeking emotional help. Feminist theologies such as Allred’s have the virtue of allowing us to bridge this divide.
For one thing, psychological theory about healthy boundaries and Allred’s theology are both founded upon the principle that the individual can discover what is best for himself/herself. As Caroline Kline explains, Allred’s “constructive theology,” as opposed to “orthodox theology,” is based on the principle of the “inherent worth and equality of all human beings and the centrality of revelation.”[ii] Similarly, rather than provide authoritative answers for every individual’s questions, family therapists would agree with Allred that the better approach would be to affirm a person’s worth and capacity to determine his/her own limits. Retaining difference is a way to differentiate the self from the other/controlling person.[iii]
Also, Allred’s theology about the quest for an integrated male and female selfhood bears similarity to the concept of self-actualization. What psychologists call codependence, Allred describes as the natural state of women and men in the dichotomized world of mortality after the fall from Eden.[iv] I don’t know the percentage of women from conservative religious traditions who become subsumed in the needs of others, but because of the exigencies of childbearing, I suspect it is significantly higher than that of men. And that is Allred’s point—sexed bodies are stubborn things.
So while psychologists would teach individuals how to overcome the codependent state by respecting their own and others’ boundaries and by nurturing mutual relationships, Allred would turn to the example of Jesus Christ to convince women and men of their need to integrate what she calls “masculine” and “feminine” traits (traits society has ascribed to either men or women). By modeling this perfect integration, Jesus challenges our assumptions about the inferior value of women’s traditional roles and, therefore, of women themselves. At the same time, Jesus provides an example for us of the whole human being. When men learn from his example to be compassionate instead of to compete and to put down in order to inflate their own ego, they begin to become whole. When women take seriously Jesus’ commendation of Mary for seeking after that good part—wisdom and knowledge—in spite of her sister Martha’s confining expectations, women begin to become whole.
By balancing what we tend to think of as the Enlightenment ideal of the autonomous self with the Christian principles of charity and sacrifice, Allred’s Mormon feminist theology provides a refreshing and needed corrective, in my opinion, to interpretations of the Genesis creation account that have upheld patriarchal authority at the expense of women’s self-confidence. In short, like Christ, a woman retains her sovereignty if she gives willingly out of love, is not coerced, and pursues her own selfhood. Because Allred turns my focus to the divine feminine in Mormon theology, and away from masculine authoritarianism, she quiets my urge to take scissors to sacred writ.
[i] Janice Allred, God the Mother and Other Theological Essays (Signature Books: Salt Lake City, 1997), 30.
[ii] Caroline Kline, “From Here to Eternity: Women’s Bodies, Women’s Destinies in Janice Allred’s Theology,” in Element, vol. 5, issue 2 (Fall, 2009), 43.
[iii] Mike S. O’Neil and Charles E. Newbold, Boundary Power: How I Treat You, How I Let You Treat Me, How I Treat Myself (Sonlight Publishing, 1998).
[iv] Allred, 27.
Elizabeth Joy Mott is a doctoral student in the History of Christianity and Religions of North America at Claremont Graduate University. She plans to write her dissertation on American religious women’s responses to modernity.