Once upon a time, I wrote a post titled "The Puzzling Mormon Gender Gap." It is still puzzling, primarily because it seems so inconsistent with the popular picture of the Church as a patriarchal institution run by old white males. When the topic came up recently in a ZD thread, the ZD discussants (generally a fairly rational bunch) simply denied the data. Well, I think the question is too important and too interesting to dismiss simply because LDS feminists (and I use that as a descriptive term, not a dismissive one) don't want to talk about it.
If data won't do, how about an opinion from an expert? Here is a paragraph from sociologist Marie Cornwall's excellent article "The Institutional Role of Mormon Women," included in Contemporary Mormonism: Social Science Perspectives (U. of Illinois Press, 1994).
Women's tendency toward religion — their greater willingness to affiliate and participate — created an imbalance in the number of males and females in local congregations. The LDS Church organizational structure assumes that each household constitutes a family (the smallest organizational unit), which is headed by a Melchizedek priesthood holder. Changing demographics created an organizational dilemma for the growing church, since many households are headed by mothers married to nonmember husbands, or single mothers, or single adults, or widows with no priesthood liaison in the home. Priesthood-bearing men became a scarce resource — more men were needed to carry out both institutional and familial priesthood roles. As a scarce resource, men became more valued than women, and the attention of the hierarchy focused on somehow restoring the balance by increasing the number of Melchizedek holders. Having delegated responsibility for women and children to the auxiliaries and the male head-of-household, church leaders focused on increasing the number of men who had been ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood and encouraging men's institutional and familial participation. An unintended consequence was that women, particularly single or divorced women or women married to nonmember husbands, are now more likely to be viewed as a liability than as a resource in the face of the institutionally defined demands of the rapidly growing Mormon church. (p. 259; citations omitted; emphasis added.)
The author accepts the existence of a Mormon gender gap and then discusses (in the paragraph and the article) why that it is a problem. The author's discussion is, in fact, quite friendly to what one might call the feminist critique of how the LDS Church marginalizes women, but you can't even get to that discussion if you deny the problem. If you just dig in you heels and deny there is a Mormon gender gap, you can't get to the important questions of why there is a Mormon gender gap (the question I raised earlier) or what the institutional effect of that gender gap is (as so ably discussed by Marie Cornwall in the article).
There are two aspects to the gender gap question. One is why there is a generic gender gap, why women in general are more religious and are more likely to affiliate and participate in churches. The second question is why the LDS gender gap is greater than for other American churches. Both are interesting, but obviously the second question is of more consequence for the student of Mormon Studies. What is pushing men away from participation in the LDS Church and doing so in greater proportion than in other churches? What is it about the LDS Church that disproportionately attracts participation by women and (unwittingly) discourages participation by men?
For those of you who have the irrepressible urge to do more research on the topic, here are some helpful links:
- The Pew Forum survey data.
- "In Defense of the Pew Survey: A recap" at JI, a nice discussion of the survey data with a paragraph addressing the Mormon gender gap.
Originally posted with comments at Times and Seasons.