Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Reporter: Fundamentalist Mormon Culture Actually a Matriarchy

The February 2010 issue of National Geographic ran an article on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS Church), a fundamentalist Mormon denomination that continues to practice polygyny.

Polygyny is where one man takes multiple wives. For instance, among those highlighted in the article were FLDS elder Joe Jessop, who has "tried to fulfill his duty to build up his 'celestial family'" by taking 5 wives. Consequently, Jessop has 46 children and 239 grandchildren.

For some further background, the leader of the church, always a male and claiming to be a prophet acting out the will of god, assigns young women and girls of so-called marriagable age to specific men. This "prophet" also exercises a right to reassign women to different men, who they claim god tells them are more worthy than other men. In short, "...a woman's primary role in the FLDS is to bear and raise as many children as possible, to build up the 'celestial family' that will remain together for eternity. It is not uncommon to meet FLDS women who have given birth to 10, 12, 16 children."

Given this scenario, writer Scott Anderson, finds it "curious" that FLDS women defend such a system. Indeed, he proposes a unique explanation. More on that in a moment.

First, it is worth nothing that patriarchal cultures have never been able to perpetuate themselves without the complicity of women. A patriarchy would not be able to exist and repopulate otherwise. Indeed, the greatest real-world exaggeration of a patriarchy is perhaps a culture much like that seen in the FLDS. Men are the head of household, family, and society, with women existing within a subordinate reproductive class. While men are agents of power in such a system, women operate with the illusion of power.

Because women play a more significant role in reproduction than do men, women are imprisoned on a pedestal that serves as a substitute for full personhood. For, while every married man is the head of his household with authority over women and children, while all men worship a god who is male like them, and while no man is denied a leadership role in society merely on account of his sex, women exist as the class Woman- a homogeneous category of being, reduced to its reproductive capabilities.

It is a natural consequence of such an ideology that a man would be allowed to take multiple wives. Marriage in any patriarchal system is not a marriage between two persons, but between a person and his reproductive property.

At this point, it is fitting to return to National Geographic Anderson's inventive theory as to why women defend such a system:

"...[W]hat has all the trappings of a patriarchal culture, actually has many elements of a matriarchal one."

Understandably, Anderson doesn't tell us what these "many elements" are that make FLDS culture totes matriarchal. Instead he offers us this:

"It would seem there's another lure for women to stay: power. The FLDS women I spoke with tended to be far more articulate and confident than the men, most of whom seemed paralyzed by fear. It makes sense when one begins to grasp that women are coveted to 'multiply and replenish the earth,' while men are in extraordinary competition to be deemed worthy of marriage by the prophet."

Here, it is fair to note that it is not fair to young boys that they do not get to choose their own reproductive property for themselves, but that the "prophet" chooses it for them. Patriarchy hurts men too, after all. Yet, it is a bit disingenuous to suggest that, compared to boys, girls are so very lucky that men "covet" them, want to take them into their polygynous families, and make them bear children for much of their reproductive years of life. The absurdity is extended when Anderson suggests that this biological luckiness gives girls and women "power" in such a society.

Anderson mistakes Woman's place on the pedestal of reproductive non-personhood for actual power. Real power, defined how it's usually defined in terms of accomplishment, authority, and capability, would mean that girls possessed the survival skills that would allow them to choose the roles of wife/mother and to choose other roles if they wanted, instead of having those roles imposed on them by a man who deems himself "prophet."

See, I've thought often of what a matriarchal society might look like (It would involve uniforms, lots of uniforms!) and there are exactly zero "elements" from the FLDS culture that I would borrow in my matriarchal utopia. In fact, in a culture with "many elements" of a matriarchy, one would expect that it would be unusual for women, such as this former FLDS woman, to feel like leaving such a culture was like:

"stepping out onto another planet. I was completely unprepared, because I had absolutely no life skills. Most women in the FLDS don't even know how to balance a checkbook, let alone apply for a job, so contemplating how you're going to navigate that world is extremely daunting."

Why Anderson dismisses this explanation as to why women "defend" an exaggeratedly patriarchal culture is something I do not know. Women's complicity in their own oppression is hardly a Startling Revelation, so maybe it's not edgy or fun or newsworthy anymore.

But to mistake an illusion of power for actual power just to put a new twist on an old story is a dangerous step toward condoning and affirming an unequal status quo.

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