The Dilemma of Difference

I recently began research for my thesis into public policy and the way it affects women. One theme that I keep running into again and again is what feminist legal scholar Martha Minow calls the dilemma of difference. In her book Making All the Difference: Inclusion, Exclusion, and American Law, she writes:

“The dilemma of difference may be posed as a choice between integration and separation, as a choice between similar treatment and special treatment, or as a choice between neutrality and accommodation.”

This is an area rife with landmines for feminist scholars. Some believe that women should only accept equal treatment without regard to biological differences such as pregnancy if women have any hope of reaching a modicum of equality. Their argument is that by accepting special treatment, women risk reinforcing the age old narrative of women’s vulnerability and inferiority. But those who argue for special treatment believe that policy needs to be put in place that addresses the unique needs women have from men. They also believe that failing to acknowledge the differences does little to remedy systematic inequality.

There is no magic solution here, both sides have merit. American law was created by and for the male experience and it is increasingly well-documented that women are disadvantaged by this system. But because of the continued gender disparity in our legislative bodies it is unlikely that the situation will change anytime soon and women are not well served by perpetuating sexist stereotypes. In the end, women may be granted equal protection under the law but they certainly won’t get equal outcomes.

As I’ve thought about this dilemma in public policy, I’ve wondered how it applies to the Mormon female experience as well.  In many ways, Mormonism is where public policy was 50 years ago, on the brink of substantive progression towards equality. When secular feminists were confronted with this situation they were really only able to get the equal treatment laws like Title IX and the Equal Pay Act put in place. Special treatment laws like federal maternity leave or subsidized daycare were soundly defeated and nobody has the political will to fight for those things even though they would greatly equalize outcomes for women.

When it comes time for the Mormon church to further progress towards equality and I think it is a given that they will, I wonder if we won’t see a similar pattern. Women will be granted equality based off of the male experience. We may be given the priesthood and/or all of the bureaucratic responsibilities that go along with it but there will be very little engagement with aspects of the doctrine that profoundly affect women. Just as male legislators were unable to see how they’ve been privileged by policy designed for their experience, our male leaders may not be able to see how they’ve been privileged by having and knowing a male god.

Equal treatment does not necessarily mean equal outcomes. Until women have that same privilege, until we can look into a mirror and recognize the face of God, can we ever truly be equal?


  1. Just saw the name of this post and knew it was Minow! I just read that book for my occupational therapy degree. Great thoughts regarding feminism. Thanks for this.

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s read and enjoyed that book. Good luck with your degree and thanks for the comment, Merkat!

  2. I have been thinking about this very thing a lot lately. I think the loss of a feminine deity is more far reaching than we can ever imagine.

    Your posts are always well thought out and so well written. Thank you.

    • Thank you for your kindness, kimb. I agree, the consequence of silencing and shrouding our female deity are profound. What a tragedy that we’ve allowed ourselves as a religious community to believe that Heavenly Mother is not vital doctrine. Her loss is devastating.

  3. I think you bring up excellent points. I have often felt shy around Mormon feminists groups when I tell them that I don’t want the Priesthood. At least, not the beurocratic, heriarchical, strictly-to-the-handbook, you-must-get-the-permission-of-someone-other-than-God-to-perform-this-rite kind of Priesthood. Granting women the male equivalent wouldn’t be what I am looking for. I just want to be able to bless my child, my home, my food, my husband, my parents, my siblings, my work projects, and my community in a way that reflects my divine nature as a daughter of a Heavenly Mother and my pre-ordination to be a High Priestess and Goddess.

    • Absolutely, Alisa! You’ve articulated my concern exactly. I’m not against women receiving the priesthood but I don’t think it will solve all of the problems. Just like the Equal Pay Act doesn’t really account for the financial or career hits women take by being mothers in a society that still expects women to be the primary caretakers, being granted the male priesthood tells us nothing about our divine nature as women.

    • I should also add that another part of Priesthood function is leadership/administration in the church. While I don’t want this for myself (being the full-time provider and the mother of a special needs child is truly enough for me), I do think there are definite advantages to allowing women to serve in more administrative positions. Women should be represented by women (or a mix of women and men, just like a modern-day jury) in disciplinary courts, for example, and bishops and stake presidents would do well to have female representatives at the majority of their meetings. I’ve observed equal representation in other Christian churches (like the congregational church I like to visit), and it seems to work very, very well.

      So yeah, for myself, I would like the official go-ahead on using consecrated oil and the laying on of hands to bless others, but for the Church I would want a more expanded role of female leadership.

  4. I am probably going to make some mistakes as I get these thoughts out, but I have to make this quick:

    I think that there is a huge philosophical divide with feminists, and that is the essentialist/difference feminism and the equality/same feminism. When I write posts describing Heavenly Mother as deeply caring and nurturing to my soul, equality/same feminists criticize it as “gender essentialist.” Yet I cannot deny that having a female body gives me unique experiences. Even if I haven’t experienced what other women have (for instance, I have not experienced infertility treatments, I have not experienced being a virgin into my 30’s, and I have not experienced menopause), I can still appreciate reading about women’s embodied experiences, even if they are not, or will never by, my own. Yet when motherhood is addressed, some feminists are offended and call the woman sharing her experience of motherhood an essentialist/difference feminist (which is considered not such a good thing in some circles).

    My feeling is that every time one feminist accuses another of being an essentialist/difference feminist (and therefore not a REAL feminist), then Patriarchy wins. That criticism is meant to separate that woman from the experiences she has in her female body. There’s too much pluralism in feminism to be spending time fighting about who gets to be a real feminist or not.

    But before I go too far down that road, difference feminism is used somoetimes to support Patriarchy and to let equality slide. As a woman who absolutely has to work full time (my husband has been actively seeking work for 3 years) and a mother, I can’t believe how many times I have worried/cried over women on this blog saying that only women can be the right kind of nurturing parent, implying that my son who stays at home full time with his dad is going to be majorly screwed up because of our family’s financial circumstances. Clinging only to difference/essentialist feminism also creates harm.

    I think being a woman, and being a feminist, means learning to cope with ambiguity and nuance. You don’t have to be either a difference/essentialist feminist or an equality feminist. You don’t have to tear down other feminist thought experiments because they are talking too much about a woman’s bodily experience, or tear it down because an argument fights for women to experience the same opportunities as men experience in society. Life is more complicated than that. Being a woman is more complicated than that.

  5. Heinlein once wrote something along the lines that any time women try to be “equal” they end up getting the short end of the stick. Women are special and should be given all the special treatment they need to live happy worthwhile lives.

  6. What a new and interesting way of looking at the future of equality in the church mraynes! I have to say you’re probably right, at least in the timeline of progress. But this makes me sad, because in line with Alisa’s insightful comment, I think I’m an “essentialist/difference” feminist – at least as far as the priesthood goes. I believe there are women that could handle current male roles as well if not better than men, but I think if women are meant to obtain ordination or use of the equivalent, that it is meant to be a priestESShood and used for very different purposes. It would seem that looking for ourselves in a female deity would also support and promote this view of LDS feminism, except that we have no idea what role she plays so maybe not.

    In any case, similar to Alisa, I would like to see women able to bless and heal and administer, but I have trouble seeing how this will come about without more separation of roles – which of course makes it harder to see how situations like Alisa’s family would become more accepted (which I think they should be). Would priesthood functions be interchangeable or limited on either side? We can’t really know without a model.

    These are the things I’ve been thinking about lately. I don’t want to be a church leader or have any of the current priesthood duties as we typically think of them, but I do want so much to be added and/or changed within a uniquely female context because of my own background and interests and experience, and it has me wondering what ON EARTH the Priesthood actually IS? I can’t conceptualize it as a “hood”, and I can’t see it solely as “the power of God” because I feel that we all are capable of doing the things that this power enables one to do. So what is the difference really? If we are all granted revelation for those in our stewardship, we’re all set apart for callings, and we truly have the ability to lay on hands with our husbands for our children (and as Jonathan Stapley’s article presents, historically for others as well) then what are we needing it for – other than administration and representation – that we don’t currently have access to?

  7. I’m still pretty new on my Mormon feminist journey but this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about. I agree with others that I’d like to see a female priestesshood– not something that just gives women an exactly equal place as the men. Women are different. And being a mother IS different than being a father. I don’t know what it would look like but I’d like to have a female ordination that was specifically feminine and taught us in some measure what our Heavenly Mother’s role is in all this. I so yearn to know Her better and understand how I can be like her.

    • This reminds me of something that I think Nate Oman* (at T&S) brought up awhile back. The gist of it was that there is a long rich history and tradition associated with holding the priesthood- but that history is entirely for and about men. Simply grafting women into that system (by ordaining them to the priesthood) wouldn’t really give them a personal sense of ownership or association with that history in the way it does for men. In order for women to be on equal footing there would have to be a correlated feminine power with it’s own long history that is for and about women.
      Looking at it that way, women having the ‘same’ priesthood as men would still leave things skewed.

      *I tried briefly to find the post but couldn’t.

  8. Before I respond to some of the newer comments, I want to ask the question while it’s fresh in my mind. One of the big problems I see with difference feminism being accepted by Mormon feminists is its focus on motherhood. As we all know, not all women will be mothers. How do we reconcile this so that a female theology does not revolve entirely around the biological functions that make women different from men? I would love opinions on this because its a really tricky problem.

    • Definitely tricky, but I think focusing on the differences of women and a priestesshood doesn’t necessitate focusing on child bearing and rearing. It would certainly be a part of it, but women still need women in areas outside of this scope that I think it would be valuable to have female equivalent leaders and healers for. Just my view of it though.

    • That is a huge question and why I am a bit stuck on the concept. Mormon feminism for many is based on the empowering experience of childbirth– but for those of us who are infertile, Momonism and Mormon feminism based in child-bearing mean nothing. The concept of Mormon feminist awakening only happening in childbirth equally excludes adoptive mothers, single women and childless women as “not feminist”. I know this isn’t what you are saying (that non-child bearing women are excluded), but it is a huge issue in Mormon feminism… how can we include everyone? I often think of, and absolutely love the Book of Ruth. Ruth accompanied Naomi upon the death of her husband, Naomi’s son… Naomi even saying that she no longer had sons in her womb, so Ruth would be as desolate as Naomi was to become because there were no men protect them within that culture. Still, Ruth stayed. There is always empahsis on the religions aspect of her commitment to Naomi, but… I quite frankly found it to be a biblical surrogacy story- as after Ruth marries again, she give Naomi her first born son, so Naomi can retain property and status in the male society. As an infertile woman, I love the concept of surrogacy (but the church handbook “strongly discourages” it). I mean, wasn’t Mary in many ways a surrogate mother of Christ? (although she raise him, she did so for God.) But still, even with these powerful stories, they are based in the necessity of women to be child- rearers, if not child bearers. sigh I still love the Book of Ruth because of the sisterhood.

      • Excellent thoughts, Spunky. I am inclined to think that the church “strongly discourages” surrogacy because of the gray area it leaves for who is really the parent of the child and the possibility for strife that it could bring. I like to believe that if we all really could be Christlike, that the church would be fine with it. I am inclined to think that they are looking out for the well-being of the child involved because there is the potential for a surrogate to grow attached to the baby within- even if that were not the original intention. Just a thought I had- I don’t know if it is true, but that is what I would like to believe.

    • I am guessing when you say this, that you believe the only difference involves the ability to bear a child and all that goes with that. I am inclined to believe there are more differences than that…there are studies that say that mens’ brains are different from womens’ and I think that in general women are more prone to nurturing qualities than are men. Not that we, as people, shouldn’t strive to have all of those good qualities in our lives. But, even if a woman doesn’t have the ability to bear a child in this life, does that mean she will not in the next life? I don’t believe that an adoptive mother is any less of a mother than a biological mother.

      • It is excellent that you think that an adoptive mother is just as well as a biological mother, but many people do not. As for surrogacy, I have my own very stubborn opinion in regard to it- if you look at gestational surrogacy, then the surrogate is the “oven” and the “bun” is made of non-genetic ingredients, thereby making the surrogate a 9 month blood donor. This should not be taken as advice that “all” or any able women should be a surrogate, because it is like you say, that many women do grow emotionally connected to the child they are carrying… which again makes for an odd argument that is pro-adoption—if surrogacy is discouraged based on the connectedness of the mother- then shouldn’t adoption be discouraged as well? Because with birth mothers- they are not only 9 month blood donors, but they are genetically related to the child they are carrying and giving up for adoption. Your argument doesn’t gel for me because of that.

        No, I think the reason the church discourages adoption is because of the Sarah / Hagar issue. Abraham visited Hagar’s tent because Sarah could not conceive. Hagar gave birth to his first born, but she was a slave and not Abraham’s wife. Sarah became pregnant and within marriage- that son was to inherit Abraham’s line and title. Or should it be Hagar’s son? Hmm… let’s ask the middle east about that one….

      • As for the adoption/surrogacy issue, I am guessing that the church would rather women didn’t get pregnant outside of a fairly healthy marriage so that they can raise their biological child in a good environment. That being said, we all know that doesn’t happen all the time, so since there are people that can’t have children and there are unwanted pregnancies, that is the next best solution. I admit I am biased, as I have family members and friends who weren’t able to have children and have adopted and had some great experiences. It’s definitely an interesting subject and I don’t have all the answers for sure. Thanks for the viewpoint.

      • I understand what you are saying, Amy, in regard to a woman becoming pregnant outside of a “fairly” healthy marriage…. but…. if the couple that us unable to carry a pregnancy are sealed in the temple, and the woman offering to be a gestational surrogate has also been married, sealed and is in a healthy relationship, then wherein lies the problem?

        If both couples are sealed independantly (not in some creepy plural marriage way), the church still is in official opposition to the surrogacy. In all surrogacy cases, the IP (intended parents who can’t carry the child) must legally enlist a couple (who contractually agrees) will raise the child in case they die in the course of the surrogacy, because the surrogate is NOT the legal mother. In the rare LDS cases I am aware of, ALL of the LDS IPs asked the surrogate and her husband to raise the child, in the case that the IPs died during the pregnancy of the surrogate with their child.

        So the child is never in a position of being born without TWO married parents, making it very unlike adoption. Another complicated yet simple layer to consider in the course of assigning motherhood to women who can’t obtain motherhood without a lot more help than sex with a spouse.

  9. I think I generally consider myself an “equalist” feminist in that I really can’t fathom how separate can possibly be equal. Yes, I know men and women are different, but men and men are different and women and women are different. With the issue above- how difference feminism can be a lot about motherhood and leave out women without children- that’s kind of why I’m not a fan of difference feminism. But I do feel that a person should get special treatment/accommodations based on their physical needs/limitations, though. Women typically show different symptoms for heart attacks than men and that should be an important part of women’s health studies and medical treatment. Breastfeeding women should be excused from indecent exposure laws when finagling with a child at the breast. But this isn’t limited to sex-based characteristics. Parents should get leave from work when a child joins their family. Public places should be wheelchair accessible. Et cetera. I guess I feel that, barring the widely different needs we have because of the bodies we are born into, we all have the potential to be leaders, to be charitable, to be artists, to be teachers, to bless the people around us. So things like the way an organization runs shouldn’t be sex-based because that’s not related to the physical aspects of being a woman or a man. And in that way, I’m an “equalist.”

    • Thanks, TopHat! You said exactly what I was thinking. A priestesshood that is based on the assumption that women are more “nurturing,” or that women and men are so VERY different (with little overlap), doesn’t sit well with me. Separate is not equal. We need to acknowledge individual difference instead of assuming that there is some experience, leadership style, or experiential knowledge that is common to all women.

  10. A thought that has been going through my head on this topic is that we have seen that treating women like men doesn’t work. It is damaging to families and individual health. What about a paradigm shift and instead treat men like women? It would require structuring society off of the needs of women and children rather than men and business but we would likely find that when women are given time off work for a new baby, that men benefit from the privilege as well. So often as we look at policies that are good for women, we find that they are also good for men. Does anyone have other ideas for situations where this works?

    • Fascinating idea. I agree that structuring society with women as the primary beneficiaries would also benefit men, but I wish we had more examples of success with this to look at. Hopefully as more laws favor women (and children and childcare) we’ll have a better idea of what this would look like.

  11. The Mormon church is on the side that believes women should have special treatment. The idea that the Mormon church will soon treat women more equaly is false. The church teaches that men and women are different but of equal value. Being equal does not mean being the same. It is futal to try to make women the same as man. If a women competes on a man’s turf, she will almost always fail. If a women wants greatness, she needs to get it within her own God given realm where a man cannot win.

    The idea that greatness can only come with power and position comes from a bad attitude.

    From the proclamation on the family:

    “male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny”.

    “In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners”.

    • Your argument is so obtuse, I have to ask– are you a troll?

      Otherwise, what exactly is “man’s turf”? Your statements are grounded in Victorian Social Darwinism and have no place here.

  12. I would argue that the Priesthood should be available to all, but not given to all. Biological parts should never define who gets the power.

    Before y’all jump on me with, “But, women are influential, we do have x, y, z…. We participate in blahdiddity blah.” Sorry, I don’t buy it. Whoever sits on the stand, signs your recommend, gives you callings, and approves the handbooks, etc., etc., those are the people with power.

    And they are all men.

    • I’m sympathetic to your argument, Janna.

      I’ve heard people talk about women in Mormonism having soft power (power to influence) while men have hard power (power to make decisions). Seems pretty clear to me who has the upper hand in that power dynamic.

  13. It appears that there is a great lack of understanding in the doctrine of the church. There seems to be a lot of focus on gender where the focus should be on the role of the individual. For instance, who signs your temple recommend… you think in terms of man, where you should be thinking in terms of the person who is working in God’s stead. Where is the focus on Christ?? This church is Christ’s church not man’s church…… The priesthood is his priesthood not man’s priesthood.

    • Can you talk a bit more about your thoughts on the role of the individual in the church?

      I think you make a fantastic point that the focus should be on concept of a person standing in the place of God, as opposed to the gender of the person.

      • I’ll use myself as an example. Ultimately, my bishop does not determine whether I can have a temple recommend. I do, based on my own personal worthiness. And I am the first person to sign my own recommend, not the bishop. Without my signature first, no one else signs. Therefore, I hold the “power.”

        Of course, when I go in for my recommend interview, my priesthood leader asks me the questions necessary to hold me accountable for my choices. This is simply procedural. I do not understand how having a woman asking the questions enhances the experience. It is incumbent on us as members to trust that Jesus Christ is leading the church.

      • Andrea,

        Do you think Jesus wrote those questions? We’re talking about the man whose first miracle turned water into wine, right? And who drank so much with his disciples before performing the biggest Priesthood ordinance of his time (the Atonement) that they couldn’t help but sleep through it? This is the man who you think singlehandedly determines the standard you’ll be judged against for entering the temple, correct? And that there’s no history of any other man, a human, changing the temple recommend questions based on his political views, such as the repeal of the 18th Ammendment of the US Constitution?

        Just making sure it’s all undiluted Jesus in your mind.

  14. Andrea, I’ll just say it this way: if the gender of the priesthood holder doesn’t matter, then why is it just males?

    Having a woman ask the questions may not enhance the experience, yet, having only men ask the questions certainly detracts. The focus is then on men and not God. If either gender were eligible for being the priesthood holder, there may be more focus on God and less on people (i.e. the arm of flesh).

  15. Alisa –
    Yes I absolutely do believe that Christ in essence did write these questions by inspiring his leaders in the development of them. With that these questions are not intended for anyone to have control or dominance over us but rather to let us know what is expected of us to prepare to enter into the Lord’s house.

    • Why not use Christ’s own criteria? I could see a checklist created out of Jesus’ own list of righteous behaviors:

      35For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: 36Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

      I sincerely think if Christ were the personal author of the temple recommend questions, they would go like this: How many people have you visited in prison in the last 2 years? Hungry fed? Naked clothed? etc, etc.

      It seems to me that if Christ were the personal author of the temple recommend questions, at least one question would be about love. Love was the first two of his greatest commandments.

      I disagree. I think that a group of men, administrators and leaders in the Church, wrote these questions and policies. They may have had inspiration, but they don’t seem like the actual personal words of Jesus.

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