It looks like one of the major responses that will be offered in the current discussion of women’s roles is that “equal does not mean the same.”
First, let me suggest that given the hideous history of “separate but equal” and its toxic legacy, it may not be the wisest move rhetorically to use “equal does not mean the same” even if it is true. The sentiment starts with an incredible disadvantage; those who want to defend the status quo might do better to pursue other lines of thinking.
Moving beyond that, I think the debate over whether you can have “equal” without having “the same” is an interesting one, but I’m not interested in engaging it. Instead, I’ll stipulate for the purposes of this post that you can in fact be equal without being the same. (I’m not sure whether I believe that. I’m just assuming it so we can move on.)
OK, so equal does not mean the same. But it does mean something. Let’s look at one part of current Mormon practice: the YM administer the sacrament in every ward every week. This has the following results:
recognition, in the form of a leader of the ward saying something along the lines of “we’d like to thank the young men for administering the sacrament,” spoken to the entire congregation during our worship service–not to mention their presence on the stand and in the front rows, which are specially set apart for them, for part of the meeting
purpose, in that the young men know that they have an important role to fill in their congregations
motivation, in that in some marginal cases, some young men will avoid whatever sin is tempting them on Saturday night so they can be worthy to administer the sacrament (or, at the very least, not socially stigmatized by their refusal to do so)
spirituality, in that, we hope, they will feel the Spirit as they participate in this ordinance and serve their community
growth, in that, we hope, they will learn something from the experience
So we are assuming that the Young Women don’t need to be treated the same (that is, ordained to the Aaronic priesthood and given a chance to prepare, bless, and pass the sacrament) to be equal. But they do need something. What recognition are they receiving in sacrament meeting? (The pathology of publicly praising our sons as a community every single week in the context of worship while never doing that for our daughters as a group is a very deep one. Imagine a family where the son was praised weekly and the daughter never mentioned: no one would think that this is acceptable parenting.) What sense of purpose are they developing? What is motivating them to attend sacrament meeting? What spiritual opportunities are they given? How will they grow?
In this example, “equal but not the same” might look something like one (or more) of these examples:
1. The Young Women are assigned the task of being the ward greeters. They work out the logistics of this in their class, just as the YM work out the logistics of passing the sacrament in their quorums. The same sense of importance of the task–namely, that they are welcoming worshippers to the Lord’s house, that they are setting the tone for the most important meeting of the church, that they are charged with identifying and welcoming new people and lost sheep–is impressed upon them.
2. The Young Women are collectively given the task of managing the sacrament meeting music–they choose the hymns, conduct, play (or assign these roles to others), with the same emphasis on its importance and recognition from the bishopric.
3. A YW speaks in sacrament meeting, every week.
4. The YW open and close the doors as the YM deliver the sacrament to those in the lobby.
5. The YW are formally charged with observing the congregation and aiding where needed–whether that is sitting with a preschooler whose father is on the stand and whose mother has left with a crying baby or sitting next to a new member. Perhaps 1-2 of the YW would even sit on the stand every week in order to better carry out this assignment.
6. The bishop meets with the YW monthly to observe as the YW brainstorm potential topics for sacrament meeting talks.
7. The YW introduce the theme of the meeting with a scripture and/or quotation.
8. The YW take notes, which are later distributed to people who were sick, out of town, or in the lobby with their screaming children. (I’m enough of a busybody that I really like to know who was called and released; this would be a service to me.)
9. The YW present (really) brief bios of the speakers before they speak. (This means they would ‘interview’ them during the week.)
As far as I can tell, all of these are congruent with the handbook. (By the way, I stole most of these ideas.) There are no institutional impediments to making our YW equal-but-not-the-same.
But I don’t really want to dwell on the sacrament meeting experience of Young Women. My larger point is that if you want to argue that equal doesn’t mean the same, that’s fine. But “equal” does mean something and we have lots of work to do before many current LDS practices could be described as “equal” in any meaningful sense of the word.