An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Gender roles’

Genghis Khan and Women’s Rights

For anyone interested in a real game-changer, I recommend Jack Weatherford’s book, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Weatherford, an anthropologist, accessed sources of information not available to authors of 20th century history books. The Secret History of the Mongols written in 13th century Mongolian was translated from its Chinese characters in the late 1970s. The author also visited sites in Mongolia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Lack of information has fueled Western concepts of Genghis Khan as a murderous barbarian destroying civilized countries. It is true that Genghis and his warriors were illiterate animists, yet their acts of warfare were in many ways less barbaric than those of Christian crusaders of the day. While Mongols had no compunction against killing enemies, they abhorred torture and preferred taking captives (who could be sold or used as slaves) to genocide.

It seems odd to think of war as a means to peace, but Genghis united the small, warring tribes of Mongolia into a peaceful kingdom with an economy based on plunder of neighboring countries. Not great for the neighbors, but a real step forward for Mongolia. Countries taken into the Mongolian Empire thrived. Genghis imported scholars, including clerics, from China and Persia to teach his people.

Although they adopted literacy, arts, and sciences from other countries and tolerated Taoism, Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity, Mongols kept their own culture—including an active role of women in their social and political life. Mongol society lacked the belief that female sexual purity was a value to be defended at all costs—including defense of and seclusion of women. When one tribe was ambushed by another, the men fled on horses so they could live to fight another day. Captured women were taken as wives by the conquering warriors. If the men escaped, they attacked and recaptured the women. A recaptured wife might be pregnant with her captor’s child, but the child was raised by her husband as his own.

While the warriors were off sacking and looting—sometimes for more than a year at a stretch— Mongol women ran the country. Mongolian girls as well as boys were educated when schools were established. Both Genghis Khan’s wife and mother influenced his governing decisions.

True, Mongolian women did not have total equality, and prosperous Mongols could take more than one wife. Yet, compared to women in 13th century Europe, China, Persia, and the Arab world, Mongolian women had a good deal.

And what about the present? Despite the lifting of legal restrictions on gender discrimination, too many American women are limited by the Cinderella syndrome—the notion that somewhere a prince awaits them—a man who will save them from the drudgery of the working world. The obvious problem with this line of thinking is the dearth of men with large incomes. The competition to snare a good breadwinner is fierce, especially in Mormon circles.

Despite Church emphasis on modesty, many devout Mormon mothers enroll their three-year-olds in dance classes, dress them in skanky costumes, and paint their faces with lip gloss and mascara for performances. Planning weddings is a frequent Primary activity for girls. Make up sessions are regular YW activities. Even before puberty, girls are groomed for the meat market.

One possible solution is to bring back polygamy for multi-millionaires. Only a sentimentalist would object to being Mitt Romney’s 20th wife. The living would still be more lavish than being the sole wife of an average wage-earner.

A less likely solution would be to encourage girls to develop their talents and abilities and opt for a marriage where equal partners negotiate the best way for each to support and nurture their children.

Or, we can follow the Mongol lead—send the men off to war and let women run the country.

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Real Men and Real Women

“I think I’m losing my masculinity,” George said yesterday after attending a League of Women Voters meeting with me. “I’ve been doing the Susan Komen Race for the Cure—even wearing the T-shirt with pink logo. Now, I’m thinking of joining the League of Women Voters.” (The LWV has included male members for several years). George even gave up deer hunting several years ago when he saw the deer’s eyelashes through his rifle scope.

George’s lament made me think of my brother’s comments at our dad’s funeral. Dooby talked about our dad functioning as both mom and dad after our mother died leaving him to raise a 10-year-old, 8-year-old and 2-year-old alone. Dooby talked about Dad working long hours in his grocery store while juggling meals, child care, parent-teacher conferences, doctor and dentist appointments. “He showed me what it is to be a man,” Dooby said.

Dooby’s right. Being a man isn’t about killing animals, building biceps, or forcing others to submit to his will. It’s about doing what needs to be done—whether he wants to or not.

Likewise, being a real women isn’t about bra cup size, reproduction, or cupcake decorating. A good friend undergoing chemotherapy last summer wrote me about three women in her ward who showed up to do her yard work. These women didn’t ask the bishop to send over the priesthood to help their friend. They saw a need and took care of it.

I really did have a neighbor once whose husband worked out of town—sometimes for weeks at a time. Her family spent the whole winter slipping and sliding on snow-packed sidewalks and driveway—apparently because neither she nor her three teenage daughters could figure out how to operate a snow shovel.

Thank heaven our culture has moved beyond the stereotype of rigid gender roles. And more power to NFL football teams who wear pink during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

God Gives Second Chances

Novelist Judith Freeman gave a reading in Salt Lake last week. Born in Utah to a large Mormon family, married right after high school graduation, a mother at 18, Judith seemed set on the typical path for Mormon women of her era—stay-at-home-mom with a big family. Instead, she found herself divorced at age 32, supporting herself and child with a series of entry-level jobs. A few years later, her son chose to live with his father and Judith moved to LA and became a writer.

I find her story fascinating because the more common course for a divorced Mormon woman is to repent of real or imagined trespasses and pray for a good man to take her to the temple. Mormons, especially women, often sacrifice goals and dreams in this life in hopes of qualifying for a next life—a marvelous concept—but supported by no empirical evidence.

Judith Freeman’s fulfilling life contrasts with that of Jenny, a young woman I met last summer. A have-to marriage at age 17 and years of berating from herself and others for her “transgression,” have shackled Jenny with sadness and shame which more children—legally conceived—and a temple sealing have not healed.

Had I the voice of an angel, I would tell Mormon youth, especially girls who carry the brunt of stigma for sexual experience, that life isn’t over when you have to suffer the consequences of immature choices and actions. Violating social and church rules of conduct does not make a person bad or undeserving of God’s love or of a better future. What harms people more than “sin” is being beaten up for stepping off the straight and narrow. God is better than that.

Breaking the Code

George recently learned from his sister, Joan, that she’s been a life-long Democrat. This surprised George because her family is a clan of rabid Republicans. “When Ed was alive, I never said anything about politics,” Joan confessed, “and he turned all the kids to his side.”

My brother, Dooby, like most Tea Party Republicans, strongly opposes government spending for social programs (excluding his own Social Security checks) as well as regulations on business and environment. My sister-in-law keeps her mouth shut while Dooby spouts, but she drives a Prius, buys organic, and recycles everything.

Another relative shocked her passionately Republican family when her husband and sons ranted about the terrible person Bill Clinton is. “I don’t see how anyone could have ever voted for Clinton,” Dear Husband thundered. “I did,” his help meet replied. “Twice.”

Being silent over political differences may be a gender issue—women are trained from childhood to be submissive. But it may just be a realistic strategy for limiting marital conflict. My cousin Sylent Suffrer never contradicts his wife’s strident political pronouncements. Harmony at home is apparently more important to Sy than expressing his own views.

 I suspect more than one marriage has been saved because one partner has learned to use “Yes, dear” as code for “Up yours.”

Guys Just Don’t Get It

When our son’s firstborn arrived in Seattle, two years ago, Wort wanted us to fly up immediately to see the baby. I demurred, saying we’d wait until his wife, Cookie, felt like having company. “But her mother’s here with us,” he said. Wort couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that mothers-in-law are not the same as mothers. Cookie didn’t extend an invitation, so after two months we solved the dilemma by staying in a hotel when we came to see the baby. Since that time, we’ve gotten better acquainted with Cookie. I spent ten days helping her after the birth of baby number two and I think she enjoyed my stay. But George and I still limit our visits to a long weekend—respecting the old adage, “Company like fish, smells after three days.”

When I help out with my daughter’s children, I know Lolly will forgive me if I put the dishes away in the wrong places—I’m her mother. She has to forgive me. When I use my haphazard methods of child control rather than her psychologically-correct methods, Lolly doesn’t expect any better. But a daughter-in-law probably has higher expectations of competency and a lower level of tolerance for mishaps during a visit.

Contemplating a worst case scenario, Lolly and Doc have considered who they want to raise their children. (Of course, the answer to that is, “No one else”—but we’re talking worst-case scenario). Since they descend from families of late-bloomers, Lolly and Doc realize the grandparents would likely not live long enough to see the kids through high school, so their logical choice is siblings. Lolly opts for her sisters who are childless and who both adore her kids. Doc opts for his brother’s family because they are active Mormons and would take the kids to church—something they couldn’t expect from Lolly’s sisters. Doc fails to understand that even a woman with the best of hearts would feel overwhelmed with four more kids dropped into her family—and that his brother’s wife couldn’t be expected to feel the same about these nieces and nephews as her own children. Children taken to church every Sunday but who are raised without love will not grow into healthy adults.

My 86-year-old aunt, blind and suffering from advanced dementia, resides unhappily in a nursing home. Her only son lives six hours away. After Aunt Lucy’s bishop took her to their ward Christmas party, he advised my cousin to take his mother home and enjoy her while she’s still alive. This good bishop has no idea of the care Aunt Lucy needs 24/7 or the burden her care would place on the daughter-in-law Aunt Lucy has never liked. Taking Aunt Lucy to a party provides no window into what Aunt Lucy’s care would do to my cousin’s marriage.

Most American husbands help with child care and household tasks, and most American wives work outside the home at least part time. Still, the major responsibility for care giving falls on the wife. And even the best of husbands fails to understand what a burden that can be—especially if the care giving extends to relatives by marriage. Guys: Before making statements or decisions about care giving, check with the woman who will shoulder the responsibility—or better still, spend a week as sole care giver in the situation.

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