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.”
No surprise that with the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the principle of the equality of women and men before God began to be articulated in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In a break with traditional mores, in Doctrine and Covenants 25, in a blessing given to his wife Emma in 1830, Joseph Smith debunked enshrined custom. He encouraged Emma to be a comfort and support to her husband but also gave her license to “expound scriptures, exhort the church” and give time to “writing and to learning much.” The Lord gave her the difficult task of compiling a hymnal, a commission that not only indicated the Lord’s recognition that women were capable but, as Emma succeeded, indicated to other individuals women’s capacity to accomplish difficult tasks.
In the August 1838 Elder’s Journal, Joseph described "the duty of a husband to love, cherish and nourish his wife, and cleave unto her and none else; he ought to honor her as himself, and he ought to regard her feelings with tenderness” (italics added).
One of the 19th century’s most renowned Latter-day Saint women and the second general president of the Relief Society, Eliza R. Snow, acknowledged, “The status of women is one of the questions of the day. Socially and politically it forces itself upon the attention of the world. Some refuse to concede that woman is entitled to the enjoyment of any rights other than those which the whims, fancies or justice of men may choose to grant her. The reasons (against treating women as equals) which (men) cannot meet with argument they decry and ridicule; an old refuge for those opposed to correct principles which they are unable to controvert” (“Woman’s Status,” Woman’s Exponent, 15 July 1872, 29, italics added).
In our day, this doctrine continues in place. President Bruce C. Hafen, an emeritus general authority and now a temple president, explained, “The restored gospel teaches the eternal idea that husbands and wives are interdependent with each other. They are equal. They are partners. The incorrect idea in Christian history that wives should be dependent began with the false premise that the Fall of Adam and Eve was a tragic mistake and that Eve was the primary culprit. Thus, women’s traditional submission to men was considered a fair punishment for Eve’s sin. Thankfully, the Restoration clarifies Eve’s — and Adam’s — choice as essential to the eternal progression of God’s children. We honor rather than condemn what they did, and we see Adam and Eve as equal partners” (“Crossing Thresholds and Becoming Equal Partners,” Ensign, August 2007).
Women today should be grateful for the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the truths it reveals. Only as perceptions change and humankind begins to respond to the truth that women have equal status with men in God’s eyes will women’s conditions worldwide improve.
Kristine Frederickson writes on issue-oriented topics that affect members of the LDS Church worldwide in her column “LDS World."