Over the past several months, I’ve noticed that in LDS circles, we often use the term “role” in reference to gender. From official talks over the pulpit, to blog posts, to casual conversations, it seems we’re always hearing about “gender roles”: role of men and women, role of mothers and fathers. The more I’ve noticed its use, the more uneasy I feel when I hear the word “role. ”
Maybe it’s because it seems to be used more frequently in conjunction with women’s roles so it seems odd or out of balance. After a quick search of LDS.org for “role of women” (8 pages of results) and “role of men” (1 page of results) I realized that it wasn’t just my imagination. We are hearing a lot more about women’s roles than men’s roles. Hmmmm. Interestingly, “role of men” was only used in the phrase “the role of men and women.” Maybe that’s why I feel uneasy. But I knew there was more to it. So I’ve continued to pondered.
In the theater world, a role is scripted and pre-planned. It’s something you assume, something you play, but it doesn’t describe who you actually are. There’s something odd and uncomfortable to me about playing roles (particularly gender roles) in real life because it feels like a prescribed performance not an authentic expression of the divinity within us.
The History of the Term “Roles” in the Church
My curiosity about this topic led me to explore it a bit more; I wanted to understand the origin of the term “role” as we so often use it in a Mormon context. I searched the online Corpus of LDS General Conference talks and discovered that “role” was rarely used prior to the 1950s. Only in 1956 did the word “role” begin to be used to indicate behavior relating to gender and to differentiate responsibilities relating to men and women, mothers and fathers. Since the 1960s the word “role” has been used over 100 times in General Conference talks each decade. We are only mid-way through our current decade and the word “role” has been used 112 times in LDS General Conference.
Interestingly, we have embraced the word “role” in LDS culture and yet I was surprised to find that the word does not appear in the actual text of the scriptures (it’s used once in a summary paragraph in Genesis 3), nor does it appear in the The Family: A Proclamation to the World. Even the section of the document that speaks to men and women’s unique responsibilities doesn’t use the term “roles”.
Have We Adopted the Language of Social Science?
So why the uptick in usage by Church leaders beginning in the mid-1900’s despite it not being used in scripture or other sacred text? Upon further research, I came upon some interesting information that may be the key to understanding why: the term “gender role” was coined in 1955 by a researcher named John Money to describe the performance of masculinity or femininity by individuals who were not clearly either biologically male or female. This makes sense in the context of our country at the time, and Money was simply using the terminology of his day. “Role theory,” as it was called, was an influential school of thought that gained traction in the mid twentieth century and highlighted certain expectations with regard to gender and social status. Robert Merton was one of the most prominent sociologists to develop the idea that human beings fulfill a certain role in society, and his 1949 book “Sociology: Social Theory and Social Structure” has been translated into 20 languages and is considered one of the most impactful publications in the field, even today.
I don’t think the timing here is coincidental at all; based on the evidence, it’s my strong belief that as a church, we adopted the language of the sociology that had made its way into mainstream culture. But since “gender roles” perhaps doesn’t accurately describe our lives, and since it doesn’t appear to be scripturally based, I propose that we reframe this paradigm and instead think of our God-given responsibilities relating to our gender not as roles, but instead as stewardships over general spheres of life. Here are some ideas to consider to help us restore the balance and truth when it comes to the Mormon gender conversation:
1. Shift Our Language from “Gender Roles” to “Gender Stewardships”
Role is more prescribed, assigned, behavioral pattern based on societal status. Roles can put people in a box with little wiggle room. Stewardship implies responsibility and oversight of a particular area. With stewardship comes the possibility for creativity, possibilities, options to order and delegate as we see fit. To incorporate a metaphor, the “role” of women or men or “role” of mother or father brings to my mind a rigid suit of armor that has already been hammered, shaped and sized and that we have to contort ourselves to fit into it. On the other hand, language of gender “stewardships” conjures up an image of a cloak that each person wraps over themselves. The cloak forms around the person wearing it, not the other way around.
In addition to simply feeling more appropriate to me, I think there’s a strong case to be made that stewardship is a more doctrinally accurate description than roles, as it is rich in gospel connotation. The word “stewardship” and “steward” appear over fifty times in the scriptures. Returning again to the Family Proclamation, the words “primarily responsible for” and having a “sacred duty” echo this same meaning of being stewards of our family.
2. Emphasize gender stewardships as management and accountability for a certain spheres of family life, not rigidly prescribed performance of certain tasks
Going along with the idea of stewardship, I think we can stand to do a better job teaching and modeling to our children that a married couple can and should work together to decide how to craft their family in a way that works for them and their needs. By staying close to the Spirit, we can gain insight into how to best maintain our own homes and manage our individual and family stewardships.
We know that the Lord has given us guidelines to organize our families; the Family Proclamation mentioned earlier is the most notable example of this. After a close study of the document, it’s my belief that the Lord is specific enough in the family principles He asks us to live, yet general enough that He allows us to create our own routines in a way that isn’t akin to micro-managing. The first few lines of the section dealing with marriage and family life state: “Husband and wife have a solemn responsibility to love and care for each other and for their children” and that “parents have a sacred duty to rear their children… [and] provide for their physical and spiritual needs” (emphasis added). The theme of family stewardship seems crystal clear here.
I look to our first earthly parents as an example that women and men do not have clear-cut “roles”; Adam wasn’t a breadwinner, and Eve wasn’t a stay-at-home mother. In Moses 5:1, we learn that “…Adam began to till the earth, and to have dominion over all the beasts of the field, and to eat his bread by the sweat of his brow, as I the Lord had commanded him. And Eve, also, his wife, did labor with him.” As far as we can tell, they worked as equal partners to provide for physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of their family. Other than things related to physical differences in the sexes (Eve gave birth to their children) I doubt they were focused much on what was and wasn’t their prescribed behavior. They both provided for their family.
3. Let go of fear that gender differences will be erased
In this discussion about gender, I’ve observed that some individuals seem to resist the idea that men and women can (and should) develop what we traditionally considered masculine and feminine characteristics and behaviors. Some resist becoming a little more flexible and creative in their approach to their family stewardships because they are worried that men may lose their masculinity and women their femininity. Though it is not my intent to mock or belittle those who hold this view, I think this is an unwarranted fear. If our Heavenly Parents have indeed blessed men and women with differing strengths, gifts, and stewardships, then we can be trusted to utilize those strengths. If gender is eternal, then I can have faith that everything I do will be infused with my personal expression of “femininity,” even if it’s in areas that might be considered a man’s stewardship.
Gender stewardships can be thought of as overlapping spheres and not as thick, rigid fences that cannot be crossed. In my own experience, my husband has participated in every aspect of our children’s lives since they were born — bedtime routine, clothing, homework, meals, carpool, laundry, teaching, praying. I feel an extra responsibility for certain aspects of our family life, but that does not mean that they can’t or shouldn’t be participated in by my husband. I have contributed to our family income throughout our marriage, led family prayers and family home evening. Because our stewardships are flexible doesn’t mean that we are the same or will do the same things in the same ways.
The Lord has given men and women stewardship over their families. We can share our responsibilities while still celebrating our unique strengths; we don’t need to fear that a woman acting in the “man’s role” (earning income, etc.) or a man taking a lot of the caregiving responsibilities (changing diapers, cooking) will obliterate our differences.
4. Stop dividing family work into categories based on paid and unpaid work
Providing can be either paid labor or unpaid labor. Why do we divide providing based on whether money is exchanged? Drawing this distinction essentially creates division instead of connection between men and women and ranks one type of work above the other. In Western society, we have inherited a paradigm that values money, status, and “power over” more than unpaid volunteer work and caring for other human beings. I think we also view non-paid labor as more caring, more loving, and essentially, more feminine. But this kind of dichotomy can very limiting to women and men.
For example, in a family situation in which a woman is earning the paycheck and the man primarily takes care of the children, it may be tempting to assume that the woman is not really the nurturer, and the man is not really a provider, but in truth, both individuals are both of these things! Someone earns the money to buy the food, and someone cooks and prepares the food, but they’re both working to provide for and nurture their family, and manage their stewardships.
I was encouraged hearing President Bonnie Oscarson’s talk in the April 2015 session of General Conference when she suggested that “all of us—women, men, youth, and children, single or married—can work at being homemakers. We should “make our homes” places of order, refuge, holiness, and safety…What a difference it would make in the world if all people would see themselves as makers of righteous homes” (emphasis added).
It seems that we as a culture have adopted language of academia in our discussions around gender, and I firmly believe our current language is limiting not only our understanding, but also our practical options in family life. The concept of “gender roles” may be perpetuating feelings of unnecessary guilt about not performing our roles “correctly” and may be contributing to a sense of alienation in our community by those who don’t seem to fit the mold. Framing conversation around gender roles allows for ranking of different kinds of family work and can also make it easier to pass judgment on others for not performing their divine roles in the way we think they should. I believe that reframing our conversation from gender roles to gender stewardships over spheres of family life more accurately describes eternal truths relating to men and women, providing and nurturing. It also opens up the possibility for more diversity and creativity in how men and women manage their stewardships based on personal revelation. I would much rather wear the cloak of stewardship than try to fit into a pre-made role, a suit of armor.
This article was originally published on Meridian Magazine here
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