An exercise in historical imagination, if you please: youâ€™re sitting in the tabernacle on a hot Sunday afternoon, Brother Brigham at the pulpit. He says,
I want the sisters to so far use the abilities which God has given them as to learn to set type, and have your printing office and carry it on. It looks very unbecoming to me to see a great, big six-footer stand and pick up little type and put it in its place to make a word or a sentence, a book or a paper; and when he has got his stickfull, taking the type out of the stick and setting it on the galley. To see a great six-footer doing, this, and measuring off tape, which is about the same, has always appeared to me, according to that which I understand, as if men were out of their place. â€¦ I know that many arguments are used against this, and we are told that a woman cannot make a coat, vest or a pair of pantaloons. I dispute this. It is said that a man is stronger and that he pulls his thread stronger than a woman does. I will take any of these ladies to a tailor’s shop and they will snap every thread a tailor sews with. Tell me they can not pull a thread tight enough, and that they can not press hard enough to press a coat, it is all folly and nonsense. The difficulty is the tailors do not want them to do it, and they try to shame them out of it or to make them believe they can not sew a seam, press a collar, wristband, sleeve or body of a coat, and if women do it ever so nice the tailors will say it is good for nothing, and so the great, big six-footer sits there cross-legged sewing. This is not the order of prudence and economy; neither is it according to the nature of the calling and the ability that God has given us as men and women, to see a man measuring tape, and such light work, it is far more suitable for women. â€¦ They say ladies do not eat enough to make them strong-why I have seen scores and scores of them that could pull a hand press, and we do not use them now; they would have nothing in the world to do only to take the paper and lay it down. “But don’t you let a woman know she can do this, don’t say to a woman that she is capable of setting type, or of setting a stick of type on a galley, and making up a form and locking it up with a little mallet that weighs eight or ten ounces. Do not tell a woman she can do this-no, no, it would spoil our trade.
Suffice it to say we want to enlist the real understanding and good sense of these women, and to tell them what their duty is. We want to make our own school books. We are paying now from thirty thousand to sixty thousand dollars a year for school books that can be made here just as well as to send and buy them abroad. This is carrying out the plan and principles of building up Zion, whether you know it or not. (JD 14)
When I get my hands on the remote to the Great Videotape in the Sky, you can bet Iâ€™m going to watch this episode. Aside from its entertainment valueâ€”Brighamâ€™s comic repetition of â€œgreat big six-footerâ€? kills me every timeâ€”this passage sketches in some fascinating features of early-Saint gender. In Brighamâ€™s view, masculinity is the primary definitional category, and femininity, as the natural complement to masculinity, fills in the social blanks. If itâ€™s indecorous for a man to work at indoor handwork, and if that work must nevertheless be performed, then it is proper for women to do that kind of work. And both masculinity and femininity, in this formulation, are secondary to Brighamâ€™s characteristically overriding concern with home industry. Some historians have suggested that polygamy freed up women to work outside the home, citing the celebrated woman physician Ellis Shipps as evidence for this view. This passage, however, suggests that early LDS womenâ€™s roles were overdetermined primarily by ideologies of masculinity, not by family structure.
Iâ€™m interested in present-day Mormon masculinity, and in the ways in which church practice and teaching reinforce or define what it means to be a man. As feminism has politicized ideologies of femaleness, ideologies of masculinity have moved out of the social spotlight. It is my suggestion that the primary and secondary definitional gender categories have been reversed since that afternoon in the tabernacle: femininity now carries most of the weight of prescriptive definition, and masculinity merely fills in the social blanks. If women must be the nurturers, and if nurturing precludes breadwinning, then men must be the breadwinners. Itâ€™s never (or rarely) argued that men are inherently better equipped to bring home the bacon from the modern marketplace, or to hold public or spiritual positions of leadership, or to fulfill any of the traditionally male roles; rather, itâ€™s argued that women are inherently better equipped to nurture, or love, or serveâ€”that is, to fill the traditionally female rolesâ€”and thus men must fill in the blanks.
Still, there exist what sociologists call â€œhomosocialâ€? spaces in the church, spaces where men predominate and a positive ideology of masculinity might be promulgated, including church sports, priesthood quorums, most of mission culture, and home teaching. What is the ideal of masculinity that emerges from these spaces? Is there a coherent and distinct Mormon masculinity?