Holding the Umbrella

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Les Parapluies
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Les Parapluies

Recently April posted about priesthood ordination and included the line “it doesn’t matter who holds the umbrella.”  I had never heard that particular platitude before so I looked it up.  Evidently it is a metaphor employed to respond to/deflect the criticism of Young Women who might be baffled by exclusion.  As an object lesson, one young woman holds an umbrella and then others come stand under it.  The teacher then asks “is the person holding the umbrella drier than the others?” To which the girls are supposed to respond “No.”  Thus it doesn’t matter who holds the priesthood, because everyone benefits equally.

I suspect that one of the reasons I have never heard this before is because I have lived my whole life in western Oregon, and we tend to be experts on rain.  The first thought I had when I read about the umbrella metaphor is that of course all of the participants were equally dry — they were indoors.  If you take that experiment out into the rain it immediately falls apart.

My years of experience tromping through endless rain storms have taught me a bit about sharing umbrellas and I can confidently say that with a shared umbrella, the protection is always unequal.

Point 1: The holder of the umbrella will hold it at a height that is comfortable for him or her.  As for the co-shelterer, the tall become hunchbacked, the short tend to get wet.

Point 2: Consciously or unconsciously, the holder tends to pull it over him or herself, so the other person gets wet.  Even good efforts to protect the other person fall apart through inattention. No amount of cozy arm linking completely resolves this.

Point 3: It is possible, with a large enough umbrella, to both huddle under it and remain reasonably dry if you stay in one spot.  If you try to move forward, however, the above two rules come into play quickly, and are exacerbated by the different gaits of the people in question.

In other words, the umbrella analogy illustrates precisely the opposite of the intended message.  If you have to rely on someone else to hold the umbrella, you will come off worse no matter how benevolent they try to be.  Without meaning to, they will allow you to get wet because they don’t know the angle of the rain where you are, or they are trying to protect themselves, or they forget your needs are different from their own.

The only way for everyone to receive equal protection is for everyone to hold their own umbrella.  Indeed, if everyone in a crowd had an umbrella, there would be a roof and all would be protected.  We don’t need to creep under some other person’s shelter and hope they will be merciful.  We need a phalanx of able umbrella-teers.


  1. As a fellow western Oregonian, I add a loud, “AMEN.” The most protection Does come when we hold our own umbrella. I think this may also be true about our own testimonies, and in forming our own relationship to God.

    Some of your last remarks seem particularly apt in regards to the way patriarchy is currently played out: “Without meaning to, they will allow you to get wet because they don’t know the angle of the rain where you are, or they are trying to protect themselves, or they forget your needs are different from their own.” I think it is this over and over again. I do believe that most (male) leaders are trying very hard to serve females well, but it is easy for them not to do so.

  2. I love a good deconstruction of a bad analogy. This is even better because it turns the analogy around and illustrates the opposite point!

  3. *Great* response to this analogy, Em! I really like how you turn it around. Other possible points that occur to me are (1) if one person chooses when it’s rainy enough to open the umbrella, the two might not always agree, and (2) if one person has control of the umbrella, he (I use the word advisedly) chooses when to get a new umbrella, how large the umbrella needs to be, etc.

  4. Great post. I also think that those who truly understand the importance of any good advantage, would want to work to help others attain that same advantage. Umbrella holders should want others to be able to hold their own. Leaders should be developing others to be good leaders. Isn’t that part of seeking after good things?

  5. THIS. This is so perfect, especially given the round-table discussion (including female church leaders) a while back – they used this exact analogy, and this perfectly explains why it doesn’t work.

  6. I grew up on the southern Oregon coast, and learned by the time I was probably 10 that you can only use umbrellas in the movies–it was WAY too windy in real life. They were always getting blown inside out. Then I went to BYU and saw straight up and down rain for the first time–just like in the movies! It was surreal. You CAN use umbrellas in real life. Simply blew me away. Perhaps there’s a metaphor in there… 🙂

    • I love your comment.

      And perhaps this type of umbrella only works at places like BYU, where even the rain falls in straight lines. But all hell breaks loose when a drop moves sideways.

  7. love this…
    it also makes me feel that back in the day, the one holding the umbrella was meant to sacrifice their own rain protection to protect others, like when id walk with the kids in the rain, part of holding the umbrella was being willing to get wet to protect those you are guarding…
    If only life was as ‘easy’ as an umbrella analogy 😉

  8. Though it is not a particularly good analogy, a good retort to a poor analogy does not a good argument make – it is still an antithesis. The function of the Priesthood is nothing like the function of an umbrella, nor does it take into account that the PH is not nor can it be a self-serving tool. Similar to a recent FB meme, it is like the military officer who stands in the rain getting soaked while holding the umbrella over the POTUS as he speaks. No one who bears the PH can anoint, lay hands on, and bless himself even under the most dire need or extreme circumstance. There is no evidence or precedent, modern or historical that supports or affirms that authority. Based on my admittedly limited understanding I personally would not dare to attempt to exercise the authority of the PH in that manner. I frequently wonder whether the desire to take the power and authority upon oneself is exclusively out of a desire to do good, or an effort to wield power in a checks and balances manner to even out a perceived imbalance or inequity.

    • Fair enough about analogies. However, I think you fundamentally dismiss what happens when priesthood authority defines offices, decision rights and stewardships not just ordinances. Sure you can’t perform an ordinance on yourself. However, priesthood gives keys and decision rights. Men in positions ofmpriesthood authority hold the final say on eveyrything one church. Moho gets what calling. What is and isn’t allowed. Who gets disfellowshipped and excommunicated. What questions are worth seeking revelation for. What age women can go on missions. Whether women can pray in sacrament meeting or general conference. What clothes are considered modest or inappropriate. Etc. etc. etc. this has systematic consequences in everything from who can be sealed and unsealed here on earth to how abuse is systematically treated ecclesiastically. Real consequences for real people. Truth be told why I see no reason that women shouldn’t be allowed to perform ordinances, I would be happy to let men do the umbrella holding for ordinances in exchange for women being bishops or a truly independent RS or women having equal structural power in church decision making at every level. That is the umbrella I am most concerned about. The one that is tilted in a decidedly white, male worldview. It is this worldview through our entire structure that so clearly led to resistance to removing the priesthood ban and to the ban in the first,ace. We finally overcame that. How long before the umbrella holders decide to include women too?

  9. “they forget your needs are different from their own.”

    So, although I have come across a few bad apples, I believe that most leaders tend to fall into this category. The problem is exacerbated when the structure of the church allows, and even encourages, decision-making that excludes the input of the many different types of people affected. And now I’m thinking especially of an article that Rachel linked to on fb (but which no longer shows on her feed). It detailed a northern European nation that took input from women, and incorporated it into city planning, for a more equitable, navigable, and livable society. Rachel, where was it again? And how could all of our lives be improved by having a voice at the table?

  10. About two years ago I drove home from church after a Relief Society lesson on the priesthood. I couldn’t bring myself to get out of my car because I was distracted by the over-all feel of the lesson. As I sat in my driveway for a few minutes processing what I had just heard, I realized the lesson had been FILLED with anecdotes and explanations for why it’s okay that women don’t hold the priesthood (or aren’t ordained as are men).

    What dawned on me was this: We keep trying to make it okay. We keep trying to explain WHY it’s okay. We have created numerous analogies, explanations and stories to “prove” it really IS okay. I believe we do this because in our gut – in our heart and soul – we know it’s not okay. Shakespeare said it best, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks. . .”

    Methinks so too.

    • Excellent point, Melody. The fact that there are so many explanations offered that are often so confused and self-contradictory, and that people jump at the chance to offer them makes clear that there’s a tremendous amount of anxiety around the issue of women’s ordination. The sexism of the Church–the female priesthood ban–is so out of step with the egalitarian ideals of the world that it’s difficult for us to hold and reconcile the ideas in our heads.

  11. I loved reading this. Thank you for so thoroughly deconstructing the unfortunate umbrella analogy.

    I was thinking about these issues more while taking a walk through the rain earlier today—and holding my own umbrella, mind you. It seems to me that, as this post has so thoroughly discussed, the assertion that “it doesn’t matter who holds the umbrella” is really coming from the perspective of the umbrella holder—and specifically an umbrella holder who has no conception of ever not being the umbrella holder. I have no idea where the umbrella analogy started, but it stands out to me how it’s so thoroughly male/Priesthood-centered and yet, in my experience at least, is more often repeated by women (whose perspective, concerns, and needs are practically ignored by the reductionist analogy). Unfortunately, I think, that is a model that seems to be repeated far too often, particularly in many of the other arguments I’ve heard against female ordination.

  12. I am guilty of perpetuating this imagery. It occurred to me as a way of putting words to how I feel about some aspects of gender issues. I am not claiming to have originated it; if it came to me, it is obvious enough that others would have picked up the same idea. But I felt it was a great insight when I first caught the image of my husband with one arm around us and the other holding the umbrella. It felt like it fit, and seemed right to me.

    But let me me clear that when I use that image, I am expressing something that makes sense to me, not trying to convince anyone else. I am saying it out of sincerity, not playing mindgames. We are all different, with unique perspectives. It would be nice if we could rejoice in the diversity of each others viewpoints and not slap one another down as spouting platitudes.

    While there is thoughtful stuff in the OP, point #1 seems questionable. It isn’t a given that the holder will do what is most comfortable for themselves. Everything that I have studied about priesthood and the life of Christ says that priesthood is always used to serve others, never for one’s own comfortt. When that change is made, the other points also need some alteration.

    Although humans are imperfect, I think that it is a Good Thing that LDS men try to hold the umbrella for others. I thought of this a few years back, as a single mother of four kids going through a rough time. Because we live far from the intermountain west, my friends are at least half non-LDS. It was interesting to see the reactions, although I acknowledge this is a small sample size. The non-LDS guys kinda wished me well, waved and said they would see me whenever I was back in town. The non-LDS moms in my playgroup brought meals and offered childcare help. The LDS men and women were also helpful, providing assistance in ways I didn’t even realize that I needed. One LDS guy spent an hour cleaning out my refrigerator. And those non-LDS men were overall good guys; they just didn’t have a tradition or expectation of service. So I think at least trying to hold the umbrella and having an assignment to hold the umbrella can be a good thing in the lives of our LDS men.

    • I couldn’t teach this when it was used as an example in Primary Sharing Time. What would I have had to say to the little girls who wanted to hold the umbrella? “You can’t, but here are some dolls that some of you could hold instead.” The boys could have held both the dolls and the umbrellas. What if there weren’t enough boys to hold the umbrellas? “Sorry, girls…some of you will just have to share umbrella holders. You aren’t entitled to your own. Don’t worry, you’ll all be equally covered.” The analogy falls apart in so many hurtful ways.

    • Naismith, thank you for sharing this. Especially in a forum where opinions might lean in a different direction than yours. I like what you said about the opportunity for men to learn to be more compassionate and aware of the needs of others. And more willing to take action on behalf of others as result of bearing the priesthood. I’ve seen this in my own life too.

      I believe worthy men are blessed with an understanding of priesthood power as God’s love made manifest in the world. . . a call to offer human kindness and compassionate service. In this way, the priesthood acts as a shield and protection for them against the world’s definition of manhood: toughness, domination, control, self-promotion. It is truly a gift to men who serve God via the priesthood.

      One thought I’ve had is that priesthood ordination could do the same for women in terms of societal definitions. When women are endowed with equal power to administer priesthood ordinances, they are also protected from the negative worldly messages of what it means to be a woman: “Less than” in more ways than I can count. I see priesthood as having the potential to bring men and women both closer to what our heavenly parents want us to be: Confident, kind, courageous, generous and powerful servants of Christ.

      I’m not sure either men or women need the priesthood to be good disciples. But I believe there is real power in it. Because I believe in the power of the priesthood, I feel that this heavenly power could transform the world when used in righteous ways by both or either sex. The greater the number of bearers, the greater the transformative power.

  13. The analogy doesn’t even work if everyone has umbrellas. You don’t end up with a roof, you end up with the tall people both getting wet (from the runoff of the shorter people’s umbrellas) and getting repeatedly poked about the face and head (from the points of hte shorter people’s umbrellas). It’s only the short people who get to be dry in this case. Maybe a parasol, in places where it is mostly sunny?

    Anyone who has lived in a rainy area knows that an umbrella won’t keep you dry, just less wet.

  14. Those were my first thoughts about the umbrella metaphor as well–and I haven’t ever lived in a really rainy place unless you count Germany or San Francisco. It seems obvious to me that others would get just as wet, and I can totally imagine myself saying that to a Sunday School teacher. They used to sigh at the way I picked apart the metaphors they used, whether thought-up or straight from the manual.

  15. I know it’s a dead thread, but . . .

    I know there are some who are concerned that if everyone gets their own umbrella, then loving umbrella-partners will drift apart.

    My response: if these partners are only staying together because the umbrella-holder feels obligated to protect his partner, or because the umbrella-shelterer dreads getting wet, then they obviously don’t actually like each other very much. If they’re not staying together because they enjoy one another’s company, then it’s not a healthy relationship, no matter how close together they stand.

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