Updated: Jul 11, 2022
"And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed;" (Genesis 3:15).
One of the key doctrines of a certain brand of feminism is that traditional institutions have, since the dawn of time, been waging a war on women. From this perspective, the family and the Church are twin instruments of women's slavery and the ultimate emancipation of women depends on the overthrow of both.
For people like me, it's tempting to dismiss such charges without a second thought. Believing deeply that the Church and the family are key to the emancipation of women, I seek to shore them up against efforts to dismantle them. But sometimes, a fortress needs to be strengthened before it can be defended. And, as Moroni learned in Alma 61, you need to become aware of and deal with the treachery that's been at work in your heartland before you can prosper against a foreign enemy.
So let's talk about Satan's particular war on women.
I believe it started in the Garden of Eden, when the Father told the Serpent, "I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed" (Genesis 3:15). Granted, all humankind is woman's seed, so that can be broadly understood to reference a general antipathy toward Satan that the Lord placed in our hearts at that time, as discussed in a recent post. But I also believe the Lord provided a particular fortification against Satan for women, and that it was directly tied to the burdens we carry in relation to childbearing. In fact, the Lord's promise of enmity was closely connected with motherhood in two ways. First, there is the reference to her seed. While this does seem to allude to the virgin birth of Jesus Christ and to His ultimate triumph over Satan, the scriptures tend to be multilayered with meaning. "Her seed" also brings to mind women's procreative powers, both Eve's and her daughters'. The second connection is what comes next as the Lord turns to Eve and continues: "I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children" (Genesis 3:16).
The Great Quest of Life
Much has been argued in recent years about the unfair burden with which biology saddles women in human reproduction. What I want to consider for a moment is whether that unfair burden is, in fact, a boon. And I think the answer depends on our objective for coming to Earth in the first place. What was it about the opportunity for mortality, including all its attendant difficulties, that led us to shout for joy (Job 38:7)? I doubt that it was because we were excited to launch stellar careers in pursuit of wealth and exploitive power. Nor was it an eagerness to spend our lives in the pursuit of sensual pleasures. I believe it was because we wanted to grow to be like our Heavenly Parents: beings of pure, unalloyed love. Just before giving His life for us, Jesus taught, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). I believe that, whatever our gender, the pinnacle of success is to learn to love as Jesus does (see Moroni 7:46-48). And to that end, I see the burdens of motherhood as a very generous boost forward.
Childbearing Is A Crucible
We each experience the burdens of childbearing differently, but they tend to be intense to the point of transforming us and teaching us Christlike love. For myself, with my five babies, I suffered unrelenting nausea from about 6 to 20 weeks. At night, I had recurring dreams that I was sitting at a banquet of food, only to wake up in the morning, weak with hunger and unable to tolerate the thought of eating anything. I would get brief cravings. If I was able to get ahold of that specific food within about the next half hour, I could usually tolerate it and keep it down. Otherwise, I could often keep food down if I ate it right after throwing up something else. I frequently felt like I was starving and I worried about my baby. My doctor told me that was one thing I did not have to worry about. My body would deplete its own resources and hold onto enough food to nourish my baby. In my case, he was right. My babies were born large and healthy, even though their mother spent the first half of pregnancy looking very, very ill.
And then there was birth. I heard birth stories before I was a mother and pushed the traumatic elements aside. People reassured me that I'd forget the worst of it. That's probably true. But I remember the first time those squeezing pains consumed my world. This was a normal childbirth. There was no back labor and the baby wasn't breach. But this did not feel like something my body had been created and prepared to do. It felt wrong and dangerous and I realized I could die. I thought about how my mother (who did have complicated deliveries) survived this, and her mother before her, and so on, all the way back to Eve. But I also thought about many other mothers who did not. I comforted myself that maternal mortality is negligible in the developed world. But even in a modern hospital bed with a well-trained medical team attending me, I felt I was walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
Then, finally, I had a baby; an innocent who was wholly attuned to me, for whom I had just endured nine months of sickness, discomfort, and alienation from my own body, followed by a brief but intense transition of surprising pain. Each of my little ones was fully, sometimes terrifyingly dependent on me for life as well as for comfort and nurture. And I alone could suckle, comfort and protect them like no-one else in this world. Never mind that the early stages of nursing always involved cracked and bleeding nipples so that my babies wound up sucking my blood along with my milk, that sleep deprivation left me prone to recurring bouts of mastitis. That didn't matter compared to this precious baby, the love of whom had transformed me into a willing sufferer for my child's sake.
My experience differs from other women's in the details, but there tend to be a lot of similarities in the general outline. I believe there is significance in Isaiah's comparing the Atonement to childbirth (Isaiah 53:11) and pointing to a nursing mother's love as the closest earthly equivalent to the Saviour's (Isaiah 49:15). I think that says important things about how childbearing speeds us along the way to developing Christlike love.
Other Avenues for Developing Christlike Love
That is not to say that childbearing is the only peaceable avenue for us to follow Jesus Christ in suffering, bleeding and even grappling with death for the sake of another. The scriptures are full of references to others who learned Christ-like, sacrificial love without bearing children. There was Esther, whose faith and courage led her to risk execution in order to save her entire people. And there were numerous faithful high priests who laboured in the spirit, wrestled in prayer, endured violent persecution and even put their lives on the line in order to bring souls to God. (It's interesting that Paul compared his ministry to childbirth, calling his converts "my little children of whom I travail in birth ... until Christ be formed in you" [Galatians 4:19]).
What is unique about childbearing is that it's virtually the only way that suffering, bleeding and risking death for another comes almost by default, decreed by our biology and, at least until the modern day, with very limited avenues for backing out. I remember when my mom became greatly limited in her ability to function during the final weeks of her last pregnancy. Hormones had caused her hips to soften so that they would dislocate, causing stabbing pains and reduced mobility. My parents and most of my many siblings slept at the top of a steep flight of stairs, which Mom could no longer manage. Normally, she was a whirlwind. Now, she was trying to manage a busy household with ten children from the couch. She knew her family needed her to function better. She had faith that the same God who parted the Red Sea could heal her hip. So she asked Dad for a priesthood blessing of healing. He laid hands on her head and promised her strength to endure. Mom was not impressed. "If I'd wanted to endure," she said, "I would not have asked for a blessing!" But endure she did, as all mothers do -- and it changes us, individually and as a group.
Fortification Against Satan
Childbearing is a crucible that carves out reservoirs of love in our hearts. It also acquaints us with vulnerability and teaches us something about the value of every human being. When we voluntarily endure pain, privation and even risk our lives to bring life to another, we partake of godliness. As a result, Satan's enticements toward violence, exploitation and so forth tend to fall rather flat.
The account of Lamech and his wives Adah and Zillah bears this out. The Book of Moses speaks first of Adah's and Zillah's motherhood. Then it recounts how Lamech boasted to them that he'd entered into a covenant with Satan, had become "Master Mahan" and then murdered a young man who was revealing his secrets. He considered himself greater than Cain. His wives, though, wanted nothing to do with it and cast him out. So the covenant with Satan "began to spread among all the sons of men... And among the daughters of men these things were not spoken, because that Lamech had spoken the secret unto his wives, and they rebelled against him" (Moses 5:45-52).
Note the verse above references "daughters of men" rather than "mothers". Could that be because it isn't just mothers who are naturally fortified against Satan, but also their daughters -- whether or not they play with dolls? Girls are seen as prospective mothers; they are prepared by the mothers before them and by society at large for the crucible that may lay ahead. They watch their role models, hear the stories, and learn that womanhood is bound up in investing in the well-being of others, in nurturing and self-sacrifice. These are Christ-like qualities that fortify us against Satan, when they are freely chosen.
It‘s not surprising that the enmity between Satan and women goes both ways. If we were going to be fortified against him, he was going to wage war on us. And he would do it in the worst way possible. Not only would he commission his sworn servants against us, but, more importantly, he would mingle his hatred with the word of God to try and turn our strength against us.
When exactly Satan authored the lie that women were inferior to or less important than men is lost to history. The doctrine has been as pervasive as it is false. Of special note, though, is it’s tendency to steal credibility from the story of the Fall (because it was Eve who first partook of the forbidden fruit and then persuaded Adam to do likewise) and then to entrench itself among the people of the Abrahamic covenant. For example, according to a podcast with Book of Mormon Central co-founder Dr. Lynne Wilson, the attitude of the pharisees toward women was extremely demeaning around the time of Jesus Christ. Women were wholly dismissed as temptresses; they were to call their husband's "rab" (meaning master), to be hidden from view (they must show neither their hair nor their ankles), silent (if a woman's voice was heard outside of the home, her husband had a religious duty to divorce her), confined to the women's section of the home, and not even worthy of engaging the conversation of their husbands (in fact, some taught that a man would go to hell if he wasted time conversing with a woman, because he should be studying the law instead and women were the source of temptation). Women were considered so untrustworthy they were not allowed to testify in court. By contrast, Jesus' treatment of women -- His eating and conversing with them, treating them as His disciples, traveling with them, and making them His first witnesses (both of His coming and of His resurrection) -- was a shocking shake-up of those norms. Clearly, the misogyny of those who professed to follow Jehovah did not come from Him.
Another, less obvious weapon Satan has used against women is coercive socialization. He has worked to undermine the spiritual benefits of childbearing by making it obligatory. And not just child-bearing, but every ennobling thing associated with femininity. He has striven to routinely strip women of their choices by liberally shaming and even murdering those women who didn't follow the appointed path. This has been harmful to all of us.
Coercive socialization cannot produce righteousness. That is one message that is eloquently expressed in Lehi's dream of the Tree of Life. He describes watching people "press forward through the mists of darkness, clinging to the rod of iron, even until they did come forth and partake of the fruit of the tree." But as soon as they partook of the fruit, rather than rejoice in its sweetness, they "cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed." That was when Lehi noticed the great and spacious building, filled with people who mocked them. "And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost" (1 Nephi 8:24-28).
It's hard to imagine feeling ashamed for partaking of a fruit that is surpassingly sweet and fills your soul with joy. But what if your experience of the fruit depends upon your reasons for partaking? What if it wasn't really the love of God those people were pursuing while they clung to the rod of iron and stayed safely in the path? What if they were trying to fulfill expectations, to get approval and be good enough? And then they partook of this fruit that was supposed to make them happy and they didn't even notice what they were tasting because they were looking to others to figure out how they were supposed to interpret this experience, and they encountered scorn.
Mormon taught that it isn't what we do that matters so much as our motive in doing it; if a man gives a gift grudgingly, "it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift... And likewise also is it counted evil... if he shall pray and not with real intent of heart; yea, and it profiteth him nothing" (Moroni 8:8-9). It follows that, if Satan could get us to practice motherhood for the wrong reasons, grudgingly and without real intent, he could rob us of much of our power against him. Hence, the application of coercive social pressure to regulate everything associated with motherhood.
The Enemy is Satan, Not Men
Satan is behind the social castigation of women for sex outside of marriage. Women are disparaged as "fallen", as "whores" and, in some places may even be executed by their male relatives for unchastity, while their male partners are just "sowing wild oats." Both extremes of the double standard are wrong. The gospel teaches that the law of chastity applies equally to men and women. And Jesus demonstrated how those who are not yet keeping it, like the woman at the well and the woman taken in adultery, should be valued, taught, and lovingly invited onto the path rather than condemned.
Satan, not the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 7:2-5), is behind the idea that a woman owes her husband sex. Paul's counsel speaks of mutual care for one another. But Satan introduced the idea that wives are a sexual commodity owned by the husband and that rape cannot occur in marriage. The idea gained so much traction that it was enshrined as a principle of British common law principle and was not overturned until 1991. In many homes, this belief reduced sexual union from a unifying expression of committed love and devotion to an obligation from the wife to the husband that must be met, regardless of the health of the relationship. I have loved in such a home and grieved as the relationship soured, then shattered.
Satan is behind the idea that a woman needs to be attached to a man in order to have any value, placing women in constant competition with each other in order to get and keep their men. He also introduced the fiction that, unless they produced children, women were worthless. Around the meridian of time, this manifested as rabbis teaching that it was a man's religious obligation to divorce a wife who had not produced offspring in ten years of marriage. But the idea did not originate with the misguided rabbis. In fact, the Biblical record first records its appearance among women. It was Sarai who begged Abram to take her maidservant as a concubine "that I might obtain children by her" (Genesis 16: 2), not the other way around. Rachel seems to have pressured Jacob to do the same, lest she die, in order to catch up with Leah's childbearing (Genesis 30: 1-3), and then Leah used a similar strategy when Rachel got ahead (Genesis 30:9). Hannah's husband Elkenah adored his wife without any diminishment due to her infertility. When she wept and could not eat because his other wife, Peninnah, taunted her about her barrenness, he showered her with tenderness and asked, "Am I not better to thee than ten sons?" (1 Samuel 1: 5-8).
Today, the coercive socialization that seeks to keep women "in their place," and submissive to male authority is generally blamed on the patriarchy. But that's an oversimplification. And while I agree that patriarchy is oppressive in the forms that it's been practiced throughout history, I disagree that any of those forms resemble the patriarchal order that the Father established with Adam and Eve.
Patriarch is the key word in both terms. It derives from the Greek patēr, meaning father (or patria, meaning family) and archēs, meaning chief, leader or ruler. From my study, I'm persuaded that the key difference between the two concepts lies in the specific meaning of the word archēs: that it means "leader" in the case of the patriarchal order, as opposed to "chief" or "ruler," in the case of patriarchy.
The Patriarchal Order
I realize my analysis runs counter to wording of Genesis 3:19, which tells us God indicated that Adam would "rule over" Eve. But that language was written much later, after Satan had been actively promoting misogyny and unrighteous dominion in all aspects of human life for millennia. God speaks to us according to our language and understanding. He teaches us line upon line, and takes the long view to leading humanity out of darkness. That's part of the reason that the teachings of the current prophet take precedence over those of the prophets who have gone before. So I'm inclined to look at the example of Jesus Christ and modern revelation in order to come up with a better understanding of the patriarchal order.
As far as modern revelation goes, I'm surprised that I can't find the term "patriarchal order" anywhere in the standard works of scripture. The closest I can get is this, from The Family Proclamation, "By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness".
There's a lot of confusion about what it means to preside. But it would be hard to argue that it means something different from what Jesus demonstrated. His example on this was just as shockingly counter-cultural as His treatment of women. According to Dr. Wilson, a master teacher was so highly esteemed in Jesus's day that his students might seek to fill the role of his servant in order to spend more time with him. This could be abused, so the pharisees created rules about what sort of duties a disciple would be permitted to fill. He could, for example, feed his rabbi or help his rabbi dress. One thing he could not do, because it was too far beneath him, was wash his rabbi's feet. It's no wonder, then, that Peter was horrified when Jesus did for the disciples the demeaning duty that was forbidden for them to do for Him.
On that occasion, Jesus said,
"Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you" (John 13: 13-15).
He then proceeded to Gethsemane and on to Calvary, where he suffered, bled and died in behalf of all those over whom He presides.
From Jesus' example we learn that presiding is not about being "above" or in charge of anybody else. It was Satan's plan to force obedience. Jesus presided by serving, loving, and taking upon Himself the responsibility to carve from His own flesh a way for us to return to the Father. He didn't see any duty as beneath Him. And He reserved His stinging words, not for the woman taken in adultery, not for the publicans and self-acknowledged sinners, but for the scribes and pharisees who used their power to condemn and control.
D&C 121:36-46 teaches that it is the "nature and disposition of almost all men" to abuse the authority with which they're entrusted. But the priesthood is an antidote to that tendency. It is "inseparably connected with the powers of heaven" and wholly dependent upon "the principles of righteousness." Presiding does not mean exercising "control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of men" but instead, practicing "persuasion...long-suffering...gentleness and meekness, and... love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile". There are times when the one who presides needs to reprove, like Jesus when He cleared the temple and reproved the scribes and pharisees. But those times are to be directed by the Holy Spirit and followed by a demonstration of increased love. By following the path of committed, long-suffering love, the one who presides obtains an 'everlasting dominion" that flows to him forever, "without compulsory means."
What I have come to believe is that the patriarchal order is God's system for imbuing His love in His children and building with fathers and mothers a covenantal relationship that redounds in blessings upon our children. Within that order, He gave to women the crucible of child-bearing; and to men, the crucible of priesthood service. Both roles, when embraced with an understanding of what they're all about, are equal in their power to lead us toward sanctification.
Satan’s Sponsorship Of Patriarchy
Of course Satan wanted none of that. Of course he twisted in the minds of both men and women what it meant to preside. Of course he promoted the idea of man having a divine right to be obeyed, rather than a divine call to win hearts with long-suffering service. Because he was also promoting misogyny, he could dismiss long-suffering service as weak and womanish. And, once he’d promoted the fiction that presiding meant compulsion and domination, he could point to God’s calling men to preside as further proof that women were inferior and should rightfully be subservient.
That continued for millennia. And then, in about the mid-19th century, when women started revolting against his lies, he deepened his deceptions. He pointed their fury, not at him, but at the faith traditions into which he had insinuated his lies, and even at God. He could do the latter because we tend to base our expectations about our Heavenly Father on our experience of our earthly father. So when Satan persuaded generation upon generation of men to exercise unrighteousness dominion, and to excuse it with scripture, it wasn’t hard to also persuade men, women and children that God was an autocrat, intent on punishing and controlling. This is deeply ironic, considering that it is Satan who wants to punish and control us, and God who loves us with a self-sacrificing tenderness that is beyond human comprehension.
The Faithful But Misguided Defence of Patriarchy
And what was the reaction of people of faith? It was to defend God, who we knew to be loving, and the patriarchy (or rule of men) which we believed He had set up.
That was my reaction. I believed my role was to submit to my husband so well and wisely that he would not engage in tyranny. I thought I was to teach my children to honour him as the head of the house when he made unreasonable and punitive pronouncements. I bit my tongue and kept my head down and taught them the dance of appeasement while trying to figure out how to raise them up in the patriarchal order.
When the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stopped using the language of Adam ruling over Eve, I still didn’t realize that presiding was something different from being in charge. I still believed that my role was to be righteously submissive (whatever that meant). And I assumed that the Church had changed its language in order to avoid triggering women who were so wounded that they couldn’t bear the doctrine of submitting to male authority, which I believed I could bear if only I could figure it out. But gradually, bit by bit, those changes in language worked on me, enough that I was finally able to understand my covenants in a way that allowed me to break free from the tyranny.
And finally, in writing this blogpost, I learned that the change of language was in fact a rejection of male rule. I learned it when I looked for a definition of the Patriarchal Order in the Gospel Library and found Brent Barlow's February 1973 Ensign article "Strengthening the Patriarchal Order in the Home." It was a painful-to-read defence of patriarchy, which quoted President Joseph F. Smith’s teachings that the Melchizedek-Priesthood-holding father holds the highest authority “in all home affairs and family matters“, and that this “is not merely a question of who is perhaps the best qualified. Neither is it wholly a question of who is living the most worthy life. It is a question largely of law and order“. Furthermore, the father’s ”authority remains and is respected long after a man is really unworthy to exercise it.“
What was a delight to read was the editor‘s note at the top of the page:
Articles in the magazines archive may reflect practices and language of an earlier time. More current messages from the magazines on the relationship between husbands and wives include “Spiritual Treasures” and “Achieving Oneness in Marriage.” See also “Marriage” in Gospel Topics.
In contrast to the 1973 Ensign article, the recommended current resources teach the following:
On Priesthood power — ”the heavens are just as open to women who are endowed with God’s power flowing from their priesthood covenants as they are to men who bear the priesthood” and “every woman and every man who makes covenants with God and keeps those covenants, and who participates worthily in priesthood ordinances, has direct access to the power of God” (Spiritual Treasures).
On partnership — ”Marriage, in its truest sense, is a partnership of equals, with neither person exercising dominion over the other” (Marriage) and “as President Gordon B. Hinckley said, ‘In the marriage companionship there is neither inferiority nor superiority’” (Achieving Oneness in Marriage).
On decision making — “This side-by-side, equal partnership manifests itself in all aspects of the marriage relationship, including in how couples make decisions together. To be one we must counsel with our spouse in all things and strive to come to a union of mind and heart on all matters” (Achieving Oneness in Marriage).
Women’s Opportunity Today
Should I be troubled that the Church used to teach male dominance in the home but now teaches full equality in marriage? No. Because the restoration is ongoing and such corrections will continue. God has been patiently leading us through all of human history toward the explosion of light and truth that will herald the Millennium. Also, His restorative mercies extend beyond the grave and He will make it gloriously right with all who have suffered from Satan’s assaults.
What I can do instead is rejoice at the opportunities that are before us now. God anticipated every tactic of Satan’s war on women and takes advantage of even those in His plan for victory. Today, at least in the Western world, the coercive scripting that made chastity and childbearing obligatory for women has been dismantled. That means we can freely chose to embrace both and reclaim all of their power.
I was in high school when President Spencer W. Kimball (whose love I felt and whose prophetic calling was personally witnessed to my heart), said:
To be a righteous woman is a glorious thing in any age. To be a righteous woman during the winding up scenes on this earth, before the second coming of our Savior, is an especially noble calling. The righteous woman’s strength and influence today can be tenfold what it might be in more tranquil times.
I felt the majesty of it and six months later, when the song "Walk Tall, You're a Daughter of God" came out, I sang it over and over, with conviction. In just another six months, President Kimball prophesied:
Much of the major growth that is coming to the Church in the last days will come because many of the good women of the world (in whom there is often such an inner sense of spirituality) will be drawn to the Church in large numbers. This will happen to the degree that the women of the Church reflect righteousness and articulateness in their lives and to the degree that the women of the Church are seen as distinct and different—in happy ways—from the women of the world.
Ever since, I have been trying to walk tall and to be "distinct and different -- in happy ways -- from the women of the world." But I could never quite figure out how to walk tall while also walking within the role that was specified for me. I felt the need to cut myself down to size, bite my tongue, serve as the silent partner, because I thought it was my role to be ruled by my husband.
Realizing that it's not, that recent changes in language from the Brethren are not efforts to euphemise a hard doctrine for those who are not ready to bear it, but actually reflect a quantum change in our understanding of the patriarchal order, is like shaking off a heavy weight. I feel excited and free.
I think the prophet Isaiah saw this moment and sent his words across the ages to urge us to seize it. He recounted our history of being ordered “Bow down that we may go over — and thou hast laid thy body as the ground and as the street to them that went over.” Then he delivered a message from the Lord:
“I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again... Awake, awake, … put on thy beautiful garments… Shake thyself from the dust; arise, sit down, O Jerusalem; loose thyself from the bands of thy neck, O captive daughter of Zion“ (2 Nephi 8:22-25).
Satan has been waging war on women since the days of Eve. He even succeeded in distorting the family and confusing the Church so that both were used in his arsenal against us. No matter. Because the Lord has been our champion all along and has been patiently preparing us for today. Now we get to wield righteous power in ways our enemy never anticipated. What an exciting time to be a woman!