Parsing Parity

September 5, 2006 | 18 comments
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Taryn Nelson-Seawright has originated a lively thread on BCC presenting some new data on the gender disparity in Mormon Studies and inviting ideas on the reasons and remedies for that disparity. I congratulate Taryn for generating some new data and for stimulating a vigorous discussion. What I’d still like to see, though, is a reasoned argument in favor of taking institutional action to achieve gender parity in Mormon Studies. It seems to me that this ought to be in place as we respond to the picture we’re seeing in the Tables of Contents.

One argument might go something like this: Mormon Studies plays a small but necessary part in the overall health of the Church’s self-understanding and public image. In light of the Mormon ideal of consecration, therefore, church members who have the aptitude should place greater value on participation in Mormon Studies than on other “leisure” activities that have no effect on the church’s health (scrapbooking, video games, karaoke). Because women evidently have less inclination or opportunity to participate than men—whether as a result of discrimination or neurobiology or the stink in the nursing lounge at church—they should be specially urged to overcome their disinclination with aggressive recruiting, promotion, and “Mormon Studies Moment” in RS. After all, we expect men to overcome their disinclination to hometeaching for the health of the church, too.

Or we could approach it from the value to the participant rather than the value to the Church. For instance: The critical engagement of Mormon Studies and other analytical pursuits provides personal benefit in the form of intellectual growth and wisdom to the participant. Because women evidently have less inclination or opportunity to participate in these pursuits, their involvement ought to be specially facilitated. After all, the church provides men with opportunities for personal growth through person-to-person service to which they might be otherwise disinclined.

Or one could try to make a doctrinal argument for an ethics of diversity from the scriptures. Here we might begin from the scriptural assurance in 2 Nephi 26:33 that “The Lord … doeth that which is good among the children of men; … and inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; … and all are alike unto God.” From this one might argue that we are bound by duty to “invite all”—male and female—to come to us and participate in every good thing, the Mormon Studies community included. Because women may be disinclined to heed that invitation, we ought to issue an especially clear call to them.

I don’t have anything in particular invested in any of these arguments, and I’m not sure I’m fully persuaded by any of them, either. I’m sure many of you can do better, so let’s have it: an open thread for reasoned arguments in favor of working toward an ideal of gender parity in Mormon Studies. (If you’d like to discuss the reasons for the current disparity, including institutional discrimination or neurobiology or whatever, please do so on Taryn’s thread at BCC.)

In other discussions recently I’ve noted my skepticism to the notion that that women’s and men’s preferred ways of thinking are mostly an effect of social conditioning or discrimination. I hope I haven’t given the impression that I don’t want women, many of them, to join our brothers in glorifying God with intelligence. The truth is that I’d passionately love to see a vibrant corps of my sisters in Christ engaged in the life of the mind—if not in my generation, then perhaps in my daughters’.

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18 Responses to Parsing Parity

  1. Matt Evans on September 5, 2006 at 7:13 pm

    Arguments of this kind always fail because gender parity (or parity across racial, educational, or any other demographic axis) is a worthless objective. Parity can be achieved by depressing the above-average group rather than lifting the others. The moral solution is to ensure that everyone who can and desires to partipate in Mormon Studies, or excel in school or any other worthy pursuit, be encouraged and empowered to do so. Looking to someone’s gender or race before helping them is unchristian and immoral for a people striving to be like Christ.

  2. Kaimi Wenger on September 5, 2006 at 7:13 pm

    Why does gender parity matter, Rosalynde? (You’re absolutely right, or course, that this is a question we should ask before blindly charging towards some ideal of parity.)

    I think it matters for a few reasons.

    It matters because different voices bring different experiences. Women’s voices will inevitably differ from men’s voices. It’s not always night-and-day — sometimes it’s dusk or twilight or even three nights without darkness — but there is a difference that cannot fully be masked.

    Women read Mormon studies periodicals. Women read Dialogue, and Sunstone, and BYU Studies, and even FARMS Review on occasion. Those magazines should be interested in portraying and understanding the Mormon experience from different angles. Women’s experiences and perspectives are a fascinating facet of Mormon experience, and a Mormon studies literature that underrepresents those experiences is less rich, less representative, and less inviting than it ought to be. As much as I may think about an issue or read about it, I will never write the same women-and-the-priesthood post that you or Julie or Kristine or Melissa or Margaret will write. I just don’t have the same body of experiences in the church to draw upon.

    I’ll never write the same motherhood posts as fmh-Lisa; I’ll never write the same posts on feminism as Lynnette or Kiskilili or Eve or Seraphine; I’ll never write the same posts on women and community as Deborah or Jana or Amy or Caroline. And so we need more voices than mine (or those of other men); we need women to talk about these things.

    To the extent that we think that Mormon studies periodicals serve any purpose at all — and this takes us to broader questions, like why anyone should write about Mormon studies topics — we should seek to cultivate an environment that brings women’s voices out into the open.

    This is particularly the case given the lack of parity in other avenues. We already have a church magazine that skews four- or five- or eight-to-one male; we don’t need more of the same, do we?

  3. Rosalynde Welch on September 5, 2006 at 7:36 pm

    Ah, very nice, Kaimi. I presented sample arguments from the perspectives of the good of the Church and the good of the individuals, and you’ve presented one from the perspective of the good of Mormon Studies itself (which presupposes that Mormon Studies has enough value to merit efforts to strengthen it). Interesting essentialist twist—that men’s and women’s ways of thinking ARE inherently different, and that we need to preserve the difference rather than resocialize it.

    Matt, what do you mean when you write that “Parity can be achieved by depressing the above-average group rather than lifting the others”? Do you mean that, by and large, underperforming groups don’t have the capacity to be lifted?

  4. Kaimi Wenger on September 5, 2006 at 7:47 pm

    I don’t know if it’s really an essentialist twist, R (with the exception of the motherhood angle; when it comes to motherhood I am indeed essentialist).

    I can’t write the same posts about women-and-priesthood as you or Julie or Eve or Kiskilili not because of my Y chromosome, but because we are the products of differing social expectations and norms. I just haven’t been limited by social norms in the same way that you have. I can’t tell war stories like a veteran; I can’t tell farm stories like a farmer. And I can’t tell women’s stories like a woman.

    Women’s experience leads to stories that only women can tell and arguments that only women can make — not necessarily because of some innate gender difference (absent a few sub-categories such as motherhood and nursing) but rather because it is women and not men who experience the social and cultural and religious experiences and expectations and norms that our society and culture and religion place on women.

    I’m not essentializing my Y chromosome (I hope!); I am saying, though, that the variety of different expectations and experiences I’ve had — due to societal and cultural norms relating to gender — limit my ability to accurately and effectively tell some stories.

  5. Matt Evans on September 5, 2006 at 8:32 pm

    Rosalynde, Mormon Studies could achieve gender parity tomorrow — the relevant publications could refuse a higher number of articles submitted by men. Presto!

    Kaimi, the problem with the essentialist (whether innate or experiential) answer is that it admits the essentialist (whether innate or experiential) problem. If women see things differently than men we should expect women’s interest in Mormon Studies, scrapbooking, and ultimate fighting to differ from men’s, too. There’s no point aspiring to gender parity if the genders have different interests and perspectives.

  6. Tom on September 5, 2006 at 8:47 pm

    Kaimi, it sounds like what you would like to see happen is that a critical mass of women participate such that the entire spectrum of the Mormon experience is represented. In that case, isn’t it the absolute number of women who are participating that matters and not the relative number of women compared to men? It makes a lot more sense to me to bemoan a paucity of female voices than to bemoan gender disparity. You can have parity and still have a paucity of female voices and you can have a disparity, yet have enough female voices.

    It’s much harder to make a case that there is a paucity because how much is enough is pretty subjective. But disparity is meaningless by itself.

  7. Naismith on September 5, 2006 at 8:55 pm

    “Mormon Studies plays a small but necessary part in the overall health of the Church’s self-understanding and public image.”

    I think you are taking this far, far too seriously. I believe Mormon Studies has zilcho effect on most members of the church. The vast, vast majority of members when one considers the worldwide church. I have never met a bishop or relief society president with time to bother reading any of that stuff (but maybe other wards have easier loads).

    “In light of the Mormon ideal of consecration, therefore, church members who have the aptitude should place greater value on participation in Mormon Studies than on other “leisureâ€? activities that have no effect on the church’s health (scrapbooking, video games, karaoke).”

    A reminder that the law of consecration has to do with building of the kingdom of God. And one of the journals included in Taryn’s analysis was Dialogue. Are you really going to claim that Dialogue is part of the kingdom of God? A distant colony at best, IMO. Through the years I’ve had several friends had their testimony impacted negatively by Dialogue. (I am not saying that it CAUSED their problems, but rather fed some pre-existing doubtes, provided support for negative feelings, etc.) So I don’t consider Dialogue to be an integral part of the kingdom of God, and clearly the law of consecration does not apply to it.

    Because I *do* believe in the law of consecration, I share my talents with the church. A while back I responded affirmatively to a request to write a history of our stake. That’s a whole ‘nother issue from Mormon Studies, much of which does NOT “glorify God with intelligence.”

    I have a graduate degree and I work as a researcher, so you’ll be pleased to know that I live “the life of the mind.” But if I get any leisure time, I want to spend it on something different than the work I do all week. I resent very much the implication that I am failing to use my intelligence if I don’t want to waste my time on the same issues that interest you.

  8. Tom on September 5, 2006 at 9:07 pm

    Naismith, I agree with you re: the unimportance of Mormon Studies to the vast majority of Mormons.

    The argument that you (and I) are disagreeing with is not an argument that Rosalynde endorsed. She’s putting it forth it as one possible argument for the position that the gender imbalance in Mormon Studies needs to be rectified.

  9. Julie M. Smith on September 5, 2006 at 9:09 pm

    “I believe Mormon Studies has zilcho effect on most members of the church.”

    I do think there is a trickle-down effect: an article in BYU Studies is very likely, I would think, to be read by someone on the writing cmte for, say, a new seminary manual, which means it is bread and butter to the entire next generation of Saints. As an example, the newest seminary teacher’s guide contains a discussion of chiasmus that owes all to John Welch’s work.

  10. Ardis on September 5, 2006 at 10:05 pm

    “Mormon Studies” is defined too narrowly in both threads. Taryn limits it to published articles in a limited list of journals; Naismith faults one or two journals at the extreme liberal end of that list and dismisses Mormon Studies as therefore irrelevant if not destructive.

    There is at least one producer of Mormon studies that Taryn doesn’t mention but which achieves the gender parity Rosalynde is looking for — and does so by institutional action.

    There is a corps of researchers at LDS Church Archives that is virtually equally divided between male and female. The professional staff gives a slight numerical edge to men; the single sister missionaries who are called in addition to the large number of missionary couples balances the sexes. These people produce an enormous amount of Mormon history — Mormon Studies — but their work product is distributed among an even larger pool of users, and none of it appears under their own names. And don’t mistake their talents and skills — these aren’t the sweet-but-nearly-useless volunteers at the Family History Library; these are the best of the best of retired professors and scholars who are hand-picked for assignments at the Archives.

    These are the people who continue to hunt out Mormon overland trails narratives, and do the detective work to identify the members of each pioneer company (you would be wrong to dismiss that as mere family history, because they use the same tools and skills as any of the authors of signed works). They assist General Authorities with their addresses at conference and other occasions, digging out the stories that are used as illustrations. They give countless addresses and unpublished papers of their own to audiences of church employees — including those on the staffs of the magazines and curriculum committees — to correct and sharpen the feel-good-fuzzy histories that have obscured the real actions and decisions of church members in the past. You read their work every week when you pick up the Priesthood/Relief Society manuals (although they don’t choose which writings are used, or how they are redacted, or what gospel points they are supposed to teach, they DO locate and verify the writings). They deal with callers every day who want the church’s imprimatur on the most outlandish urban legends and manage to keep most of those ridiculous stories out of manuals and magazines — but not always, when their scholarship is rejected by some editor who “just knows better.” They respond to questions from church members and authors daily, some of which require an professional level of knowledge and awareness.

    On the other hand, if you look at the patrons who are there voluntarily, there IS an overwhelmingly male presence. There’s Maureen Carr Ward, and Marlene Kettridge, and Beth Olsen, and me, producing materials for our wards and stakes, and at least in my case for my newspaper column and conference papers. (Just because you don’t see my conference papers published doesn’t mean they aren’t up to — even surpass — the quality of much of what you do see published; it means only that there are so many new ideas to track down that I’m off on something new as soon as a paper is given — I don’t have an especial need to see my name in Taryn’s tables of contents). There are two female Ph.D. candidates who work there occasionally (one at Columbia working on women’s studies, and one at Cornell using a Mormon example for her financial/statistical degree). There’s Jill Derr working upstairs with the Joseph Smith Papers project. Claudia Bushman comes in once in a blue moon; Kathy Daynes even less often. But that’s it. All the other regular patrons and producers of Mormon Studies are male.

  11. Rosalynde Welch on September 5, 2006 at 11:05 pm

    Ardis, thank you for this. I had no idea that missionary couples and singles are called to the church archives. Your description of their work is simply fascinating—I had no idea! What sorts of materials are the women you name producing for your wards and stakes? Is there any way for those of us who can’t attend the conferences to access the fruits of your archival work?

    I appreciate the correction on the parameters of Mormon Studies. In drafting this post I intended to broaden the the discussion by referencing the “conferences, journals and online activities that constitute Mormon Studies”, but somehow left it out. I should have included archival research as well.

  12. Ardis on September 5, 2006 at 11:41 pm

    Rosalynde, the women are generally working on ward and stake histories. Maureen Carr Ward’s will be something out of the ordinary, I’m sure, because of her background as editor of the Nauvoo Journal/Mormon Historical Studies and her work on the original Relief Society sisters, umpteen previously-unidentified early Iowa branches, early Philadelphia Mormons, and on and on. Marlene K. has an article in an upcoming BYU Studies about Mormons’ feelings for their cattle on the overland trail — more interesting and revealing than you might suspect. Beth Olsen does community history for Pleasant Grove.

    Part of what I do is to write a monthly article on some unknown woman from Mormon history for my ward’s Relief Society newsletter (there’s Gohar Yegaian Davidian, an Armenian woman in Syria; and Annie Griffith Burbank, who died at about age 30 “alone among the Gentiles” in Massachusetts after writing an extraordinary letter to Brigham Young; and Frances Swan Clark, a supposed apostate in San Bernardino who recognized a disguised Thomas L. Kane and helped him on his way toward Salt Lake; and …) Because of the audience, these pieces have no scholarly apparatus; I have kept all that, of course, and will someday publish these stories the way they should be done. (It’s my fantasy to take some Church manual — almost any one would do — and replace all the tired and over-exposed stories with other examples from our history that make the same points in fresh ways — these are a start.) Can you pick up my email address from behind the scenes of the blog? Send me your mailing address and I’ll mail you a set of what has appeared so far.

    And I do a monthly history column for the Salt Lake Tribune. That can’t be explicitly Mormon (although some of the other writers in the rotation are explicitly anti-Mormon), but I often tell stories about Mormons and Mormon events for a secular audience.

    Most of the other women I mentioned should be familiar to readers of published Mormon history. But it’s the work of the professional staff and the missionaries who dig out so much material for incorporation into other people’s studies that ought to be better known.

  13. Brenda on September 6, 2006 at 12:20 am

    “I believe Mormon Studies has zilcho effect on most members of the church.�

    Based on my experience in Relief Society, I think that Oprah has a greater audience with women in our church than anything in Mormon Studies. I wish it were the other way around.

  14. Jonathan Green on September 6, 2006 at 3:22 am

    Rosalynde, I think you could make a tenable argument, if not an overwhelming one, something like this:
    The church and its members, as elements of American history and culture, will be the objects of academic study whether they like it or not.
    The institutional interests of the church and the personal interests of the members are best served by academic studies that are as sympathetic, correct, convincing, and comprehensive as possible.
    Gender or other disparities in Mormon Studies publications raise the possibility–no more than a possibility–that some aspect of Mormonism is being ignored more than it should as an object of inquiry. If 95% of the contributors to BYUS are English-speaking Americans, I’d wonder if we’re really covering all the angles of the church in Latin America, for example.

    The uncertain effect on quality multiplied by the modest value of Mormon Studies to the average member means that arguments from the perspective of the church or its teachings will be pretty unconvincing. The strongest argument is from inside of Mormon Studies, essentially what Kaimi describes above, but it applies primarily to the field’s own practitioners. In other words, I think the church and its members can safely ignore the gender disparity among Dialogue authors, while it should be a cause of concern for the editors and authors and readers of Mormon Studies journals. It could be that the gender disparity is a consequence or a symptom of some other aspect of church culture, so studying that disparity might just lead to something interesting, but the disparity per se is only a cause for concern inside the field of Mormon Studies itself.

  15. DKl on September 6, 2006 at 10:17 am

    Rosalynde, I think that you’ve conflated two issues here. The statement that there “should” be parity between the genders in Mormon Studies publications is ambiguous. Specifically, it can mean one of two things:

    1. If you started with a baseline environment that was free from prejudice, bias, and other confounding factors, then you will have roughly equal participation between men and women in Mormon studies endeavors.

    2. Given an unequal gender distribution (for whatever reason), efforts should be made to ensure participation by women.

    The lively BCC thread that you mention assumes proposition #1, and no argument is ever offered to support it (I personally do not think that it’s obviously true enough to be taken as axiomatic, and I’d still like to see someone advance an argument for it.) You leave aside the question of whether proposition #1 is true, and argue for proposition #2.

    I agree with each one of your arguments. Though I do not see the uneven distribution as (necessarily) a sign of inequity, I’d like to see more women participating in Mormon studies. I’ll offer a couple of reasons of my own reason for this, though I don’t think that it quite amounts to an argument:

    First, I think that women do tend to have a different view of what shapes history. Based on my readings in history (a decidedly small sample, mind you), I’m inclined to say that men are more prone to write history about Great Men, and women more often write history about other participants. I see these as two sides of the same coin. For example: Though it’s difficult to understand the Renaissance without understanding Galileo’s contribution to it, studying Galileo alone does not give one an accurate view of what life or the world were like in the Renaissance. I think that Mormon Studies benefits from both approaches.

    I haven’t the slightest amount of empirical data to back up this harebrained theory of gender bias in historical scholarship, and I’m guessing that most people will probably reject it. But I think that these tendencies are shaped by the roles that men and women have played and have aspired to over the past several centuries. (A problem with this thesis: Fawn Brodie, my favorite Mormon Studies scholar, was clearly a participant in the Great Man approach to history, though I think it’s fair to say that my second favorite scholar, Juanita Brooks, was much less so.)

    Second, I’d like to see more people participate in Mormon Studies in general. So insofar as any push for female participation increases the numbers, I’m all for it.

    On a related, but tangential note: I’ve commented repeatedly about how un-important the field of Mormon Studies is in the scheme of things, and I agree with Naismith that (as it has been defined in both this and the BCC thread) “Mormon Studies has zilcho effect on most members of the church.” That said, I think that Ardis makes an outstanding point. In fact, her comment has persuaded me that the triviality is a function of the definition of Mormon Studies that we have been working with, and not a property of Mormon Studies per se.

  16. plutarch on September 6, 2006 at 1:45 pm

    DKI’s observation that women scholars are less likely to be involved in the Great Man approach to history may have its roots more in the academic fashions of the last generation or two than in interests inherent in gender. Since the 1970s, the dominant academic approach has been away from Great Men and into the “small people” of history. Another influence is the rise of women’s studies. Almost by definition if you want to study women in history, there are many fewer Great Women to focus on, leaving more normal people and trends as the object of study.

    Still, in Mormon history Joseph Smith and Brigham Young are pretty central. And we are still a pretty authoritarian church, run from the top down, although the sorts of figures Ardis mentions balance that somewhat (and sound fascinating to me, at least). There’s lots of room for good biographies of Great Men (and Women) in Mormonism, e.g. Bushman’s recently-published biography of Joseph Smith and Edward Kimball’s remarkable volumes on his father.

    However, I’m also finding that as a descendant of several generations of church members, my ancestors (who seem to have written very little about what they did and why they did it) had a significantly greater effect on my life than most church leaders have, the women no less than the men. Maybe that’s why Ardis’ more obscure figures appeal to me. (I say that, having several ancestors in common with Rosalynde’s husband.)

    One premise of all this discussion seems to be that the approach to Mormon studies needs to be engineered and not left to the invisible forces of the marketplace of ideas, then–even the limited marketplace of Mormon studies.

  17. Rosalynde Welch on September 6, 2006 at 3:34 pm

    Another excellent comment, plutarch. (I wish I knew who you are! And I wish more commenters would use their real names, although I do understand concerns about google visibility and privacy and so on.) I’m not sure that the engineering of Mormon Studies was the premise of the discussion, though; I took it to be the putative claim of the arguments I advanced. If the claims fail, then, presumably, we ought to simply leave things be. But how do you think the market makes its invisible force manifest in Mormon Studies?

    DKL, right, I tried to make it clear that I was addressing the second issue. I have a hunch about the first, but I think the question is probably undecidable. You and Jonathan and Kaimi are making the same sort of argument, if I’ve understood you: that women tend to produce a different sort of scholarship than men do, and that it’s that unique product—rather than the paticipation of women per se—that strengthens Mormon Studies. If that’s the case, then perhaps the proper metric is not the number of women participating, but the number of articles/projects/presentations that women tend to produce. This seems to me a rather different objective than gender parity.

  18. DKL on September 10, 2006 at 6:05 pm

    Rosalynde, about your hunch about why there is not equal participation between genders in Mormon Studies, does this cartoon capture it?

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