At Sunstone this weekend, Mormon feminists held a postmortem discussion of “tone” in dealing with LDS church leaders.
I wasn’t there in Salt Lake, so I am only reading about this panel secondhand, but one comment in particular rang true to me. That was Ordain Women member Nancy Ross’s remark that Mormon women sometimes adopt a “Primary voice” when speaking in public — an infantilizing voice they employ even when addressing mature adults.
Yes. There’s that.
I have heard Mormon women give talks in sacrament meeting in which they apologize all over themselves that they have to be up there at all. They expound upon how nervous it makes them and how they would so much rather be having a nice, pleasant root canal.
They make especially sure to tell us which member of the bishopric called them to speak, often going into laborious detail about where they were and what they were doing when the request/demand came, so that they can absolve themselves of any personal responsibility for being in that pulpit in the first place.
It’s not my fault! they are saying. I’m only obeying my bishop. If my ecclesiastical superior hadn’t ordered me to be here I would never dream of taking up your valuable time.
This is more than our church’s bizarre general custom of assigning people to give public talks more or less annually but giving them zero training in how to do it well.
It’s more, even, than most people’s morbid fear of public speaking. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 74% of people suffer from glossophobia, and it’s a fear that’s divided pretty equally between men and women. A majority of people just hate speaking in public.
In my experience, though, Mormon men tend to grin and bear it. They might spend a moment at the beginning of their talks to note in passing that they feel inadequate to the task, but they rarely go into the long and involved mea culpas that afflict women.
This isn’t surprising. Mormon women have a particular reason for apologizing for their very existence every time they give a talk in sacrament meeting. What they’re about to do is, according to the customs of our church, highly irregular and therefore dangerous.
When else, in our church, does a woman stand before a mixed-gender audience as an undisputed authority figure? When else does she expound for ten, twelve, or even fifteen minutes (the latter if she’s in a ward with a bishop who sometimes assign women to the “final speaker” spot)?
If Mormons in general do a lousy job of training people to give talks in sacrament meeting, then we expect women in particular to gamely do the impossible: give talks they have not been trained to deliver in settings in which it would never otherwise be considered appropriate to have them up front.
Women do not preside over mixed-gender meetings in the LDS Church. They do not hold forth to men in other sanctioned settings. They are not in charge.
Except here, for these precious few minutes in sacrament meeting.
Of course women are terrified. Of course they spend half their allotted time explaining why they’re not worthy to speak their mind. Say the wrong thing in the wrong way with an insufficient number of self-deprecating remarks, and women could be viewed poorly. Or worse.
According to the journal Psychology Today, humans’ general fear of public speaking is an evolutionary atavism that stems from our days as hunted prey. We once needed the safety of a large group for protection from the Big Bads of the forest. If we ever did something that resulted in our social ostracization, we were toast.
In other words, people today fear public speaking more than death because public speaking is a form of being singled out and historically, being singled out was death for our distant ancestors.
This summer, there’s been a great deal of debate about what kind of voice women are supposed to have in the Church. Some people say that tone is everything, and that women can say almost whatever they want, even if they disagree with male Church leaders, if they adopt the “right” tone. Just what is the right tone remains unclear — especially since there aren’t exactly abundant practice opportunities for Mormon women to get it right.