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LDS World: Perception and women in the gospel of Jesus Christ

Published: Tuesday, July 10 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

This painting shows Eve and Adam after the fall.

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In January 1910, Lady Constance Lytton was arrested after participating in a demonstration in London to secure voting rights for women. Knowing she would receive privileged treatment as an aristocrat and be quickly released, she told officials she was Jane Wharton, a London seamstress. Because officials perceived her to be a working-class woman, she was sentenced to 14 days in jail, treated brutally and force-fed eight times. When authorities discovered her true identity, she was immediately released and apologies made.

How an individual is perceived has much to do with how others respond to them and ultimately how they are treated. Throughout history, varying interpretations of the biblical account of Adam and Eve have led to certain perceptions that have had enormous impact on women’s lives. It is worth exploring The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' interpretation of the biblical account. (All scriptures are from the King James version of the Bible published by the LDS Church.)

In the Biblical account the serpent "deceives" Eve (See Genesis 3, introductory heading) and she partakes of the the fruit that "the Lord God commanded...thou shalt not eat" (Genesis 2:16, 17). She goes to Adam and he too partakes. In consequence, God applies a penalty for violating his law. Eve is told she will suffer in childbearing “and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (see Genesis 3:16 or Moses 4:22). Adam is told he is to “till the ground” which will be “cursed … for thy sake. …In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground” (see Genesis 3:19 or Moses 4:25).

For centuries, interpretations of Eve’s actions led in part to perceptions of women as weak, emotional, easily deceived and easily enticed — some churchmen even suggesting sexual misconduct on Eve’s part. Woman’s supposed inclination to disobedience led God to place women under the control of men who were, by interpretation, strong, reasonable, rational and fitted to rule. Woman’s place was to inhabit the private or domestic sphere while men’s place was the public world of warfare, business and commerce. During the centuries, these interpretations shaped social custom and were writ into law.

No surprise that by the 19th century, women were educated primarily in domestic tasks, denied higher education, forbidden entry into professions and prohibited political office and the vote. Marriage was perceived as hierarchical with women inferior and subservient to men. If a woman earned a wage, it was legally her husband’s. Some physical violence against women was legal. With few exceptions money or property a woman brought into marriage belonged to the husband. If a woman left a marriage, any assets and the children stayed with the husband. Women were considered disreputable if they spoke in public and a sexual double standard existed. Any hint of impropriety on a woman’s part was condemned and she became a social outcast. If a man maintained a respectable public façade, he could “sow his wild oats” without public censure.

In the 19th century, women began disputing these conditions and sought to change perceptions. Social activist Josephine Butler argued, “Search throughout the gospel history and observe (Christ’s) conduct in regard to women. …It seems to me impossible for any one candidly to study Christ’s whole life and words without seeing that the principle of the perfect equality of all human beings was announced by him as the basis of social policy.”

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