21 A Mormon in the Cheap Seats: Half a Foot (or Church)

Last week I put up a post called “Half a Church.” This is a continuation, of sorts, of that post.

The church is a social institution. It is comprised of individuals whose behavior is governed by social norms and organizational policies. These norms and policies are sustained over time by the actions of the same individuals they govern. It is a closed, self-reinforcing cycle.


I think this is easier to see with something like footbinding in China.

Footbinding started around the year 1000.  One theory suggests the practice may have had its origins in a empress’s club-like feet, which came to be viewed as fashionable. For hundreds of years it was practiced by a relatively small portion of the population (the rich, the elite), but by the 1800s, the practice was widespread. From the start of the practice to its demise in the 1950s, it is estimated that a billion Chinese women endured the practice.

In most cases, proper foot binding involved breaking the bones of the arch and essentially folding the foot in half.  The ideal size of the foot was 3 inches. It was a painful process. Here (and here, and here) are some pictures.  Now, let me pose a few questions:

1) Did the parents who did this (take a look at the pictures again, if you want) love their daughters?

2) If the practice was harmful (and clearly it was, it hobbled a good percentage of the Chinese female population), why was it perpetuated for hundreds of years? Why didn’t “they” just stop doing it?

3) If we have to blame somebody, who do we blame? Do some of those involved in the practice deserve more blame than others? If so, why?

Of course Chinese parents loved their daughters. You could argue that parents did this to their daughters because they loved them. They wanted them to be accepted by their peers, to marry well, to have social status, etc.

If it was harmful, why didn’t “they” stop? They didn’t stop doing it because it was just something that was done. It comes down to sticks and carrots. No one wanted to risk being one of the first (or few) to stop, because of the negative social consequences (i.e. the stick). On the other hand, everyone wanted the individual benefits of adhering to the institution, such as the admiration of their peers, social status, etc. (i.e. the carrot). And so, people continued to do it, and because people continued to do it, it was perpetuated ”as just something that was done”–and because it was “just something that was done,” people continued to do it (and so on).

Think of the social institution of footbinding as a human pyramid. Think of social change as moving the pyramid from point A to point B.  So how does change happen? Those in leadership positions (i.e. those on the top of the pyramid) might demand that those on the bottom move (and they might). On the other hand, those on the bottom might demand that those on top climb down so that they can move (and they might). Or we might end up with a stalemate that leaves the pyramid intact (and in the same place).

So who do we blame? The higher up the pyramid, the more balance is required–and the less latitude for action. Leaders are sustained by those under them. If they lean too far in any direction, they’ll fall (and be replaced by others with better balance). Those on the bottom of the pyramid are absolved from responsibility by the weight they carry. If I have to assign blame, I blame those in the middle rows. They’re high enough to see the pyramid for what it is, and close enough to the ground to do something about it.

Half a Church

So what does this have to do with women in the church? Here are a few assertions:

1) Church leaders don’t deserve all the blame. They can’t lean too much, or they’ll topple (or be toppled) off the pyramid and be replaced. Boyd K. Packer, in a sense, really can’t help himself (even when he makes comments like these).

2) Climbing on someone’s shoulders (i.e. accepting a leadership role) limits one’s freedom of movement. It requires one to balance, and by balancing, one becomes part of the problem for at least two reasons.  First, one becomes part of the structure that weighs down the pyramid and keeps it from moving (it’s like trying to move a stepladder while standing on it).  Second, being “a good guy” in a leadership position decreases the likelihood of social change, because it reduces the motivation of those under you to move the pyramid.  In other words, by attempting to soften the realities of a patriarchal system (or shield individuals from it by being “progressive”), men actually protect the institution by creating a buffer between it and those whose dissatisfaction (if channeled) could change it.

3) It shouldn’t be surprising that those that benefit from the existing social structure will be the most likely to support it. The obvious cheerleaders? The wives of men in leadership positions.  In other words, we should expect women themselves to be among the primary “enforcers” of sexism in the church (or at least the women that benefit from it).  For example, not even Boyd K. Packer would produce something like this (from a recent BYU women’s conference, original link is here.)

4) When someone asserts that the church isn’t sexist because the men in the church love their wives (as Boyd K. Packer does in the comments linked above), it should be clear that this is the equivalent of asserting that footbinding wasn’t bad because Chinese parents loved their daughters. How men “feel” about their wives is completely irrelevant to the question of sexism at an institutional level.

5) The “nicer” men are about the patriarchal structure of the church, the more likely it is to be perpetuated (because the “nicer” men in authority are, the less onerous this authority is perceived to be).  In other words, the more benevolent the patriarchy, the more durable it will be will.  If the problem is patriarchy itself (regardless of whether benevolent or oppressive) then the best way for men to promote change may be to act like authoritarian jerks.

6) Those who understand how human pyramids work and could advocate effectively for change (i.e. those in the middle rows), but don’t out of convenience (or because they benefit from the status quo), deserve the most blame.

7) And finally, it is really really hard to move a human pyramid. It took the combined efforts of Western missionaries, feminists, and the full weight of the Communist regime to stop footbinding. It also took hundreds of years.

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