No Woman Is An Island

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” So wrote John Donne.  This is true for all of us.

Donne’s point is that we’re interdependent, not autonomous.  In everything from its emphasis on the crucial need for service to the sealing requirements for exaltation, the gospel agrees with this philosophy of connectivity.

I was reminded of Donne by reading Alison Moore Smith’s, “A Mormon Mother of Daughters Talks to a YSA Bishop About Intimacy ,” a response to a Meridian piece about modesty for women.

Smith writes[i] that men need to do a better job of not objectifying women[ii].  Fair enough.  However, there are numerous flaws in her essay.  The greatest error isn’t in anything she writes, though.  It’s in what she doesn’t write.

She’s correct in her assertion that men have a duty not to lust after women.  But nowhere does she note any reciprocal duty of women towards men.

We are all striving for refinement, bending ourselves into a shape better matching a divine example.  The very beginning of discipleship compels us each to recognize that we must commit to suppressing natural inclinations.  The church teaches that this path entails, among other things, working for and with others, molding ourselves to respond to their needs.

Some of these responsibilities are universal, such as exercising charity and gratitude.  Some are more gender specific, such as (like Smith notes), the male obligation to control their own lustful looks and thoughts.

But the absence of any mention of female obligations in her essay is troublesome.  Surely we agree that such obligations exist.  So what are they?

The lack of a proactive directive for women creates a dangerous void.  I studied the essay looking for a single reference to what women should be doing (I also read her follow-ups here and here), and came away empty handed.

Smith pays lip service once to the idea that women should be modest—“I think modesty is important (I just don’t think we teach it very well)”— but she certainly doesn’t define the duty.  In fact, she wisely defers to a greater authority on that, while still making sure to get in another jab at fallible, mortal men:

When I have attended Education Week at BYU, one of the most popular classes (including a packed room and multiple packed overflow rooms) is one on how to identify the Spirit. So it’s no wonder some members anguish over decisions and want more clear guidelines. But the hard lines often aren’t there. And, even though it’s challenging , it is our work to work out our own salvation. Local leaders should give up trying to look omniscient and just tell the truth.

Yet right before this, she says:

Eastland seems to be annoyed that his congregants ask him for specifics about church standards and so he throws this back at his them as if they are slackers trying to get away with something….

In my experience local leaders don’t like these questions because there are few church-sanctioned answers and leaders really hate looking stupid and uninformed.

So seeking the Spirit for guidelines is good, but when members seek guidelines from leaders, counseling them to examine themselves and find their own answers makes the leaders lazy and disingenuous?

The worst thing here, though, is her sarcastic portrayal of leaders judging members with modesty concerns as “slackers” who are, as she quips soon after, “trying to get away with stuff.”

Not always, and hopefully not often, but sometimes that’s exactly the case.  That’s human nature.  As Neal A. Maxwell noted, there’s a tendency to establish a home in Zion while keeping a summer cottage in Babylon.  Some men in the church try to get away with stuff.  So do some women.  To deny that—or to acknowledge it for one gender and not the other—is what’s truly disingenuous.

And that gets back to the fundamental flaw in Smith’s piece.  By focusing solely on what men need to do, ignoring any similar need for women, her essay insults the women it seeks to elevate.

At one point, Smith writes:

So, Mr. Eastland, let me explain that it’s not my job to “make” any guy better. Particularly not any guy I’m dating. Historically, I’ve had enough trouble making myself a decent person. I don’t need you to lay the character building of “the brethren” on me, too. Keep the responsibility where it belongs. What was it? “Squarely on the shoulders of the young man…”

But this is contrary to the Lord’s plan for discipleship.  As Donne observed, we all have a charge to each other.  We are, in fact, our brothers’ keepers.

One of the best sacrament meeting talks I’ve ever heard was given by a ward Relief Society president, who challenged everyone to sacrifice more in their service to others.  She inspired me to try.  Was she wrong to do so?  Removing the injunctions to repent and minister from women doesn’t protect them, it infantilizes them.

Ultimately, all Latter-day Saints—male and female—are under covenant to control some impulses and to change themselves according to the needs of others.  Not recognizing that obligation equally just serves to spiritually bubble-wrap women.  It’s degrading.


[i] Actually, her main agenda—based on pure frequency of repetition—is that men should not be involved in counseling women about intimate matters at all:

•“I’m hard pressed to believe that a man would be the best source for intimacy information for women, but I’ll set that aside for the purposes of this post as well.”

•“[I]f this is where we are, can we at least admit that ‘the sistren’ should be running the church and the men should be doing what we tell them to?”

•“[M]en aren’t equipped to counsel women.”

•“Why don’t we just stop right there. Right at that sentence. Just stop. Stop addressing women. Stop lecturing women. Stop telling women what their problems are.”

•“I know a heck of a lot of women (read that: all women on earth) who are just really uncomfortable talking to an older married man they barely know about their underwear habits.”

 

[ii] •“So, yes, it’s obvious that men ogle women, focus on the physical, check out the skin, and lust after women. But maybe that’s the problem.”

•“There are, likewise, many men in our own culture who have chosen to change/manage how they respond to women and women’s bodies.”

•“’The brethren’ can help but look. It is their duty not to look. ‘The brethren’ should be able to stop admiring things that are inappropriate, whether they are showing or not. (Heaven help us if a woman wears a (one-piece, church-approved) swimsuit. Because she’ll be showing ‘a lot of [her] legs’ and the guys will lose control.) ‘The brethren’ — you know, the guys bestowed with the power of God — can focus on something besides flashes of bras. In fact, perhaps they can even recognize that bras are functional pieces of fabric and not incredibly interesting unless your mind is constantly seeking sexual stimulation. ‘The brethren’ can probably be described — and expected to behave — in ways unlike animals.”