On the Value of Including Women's Voices in Church Councils



In September of 1993 I watched with sadness as church courts were held which resulted in the excommunication or disfellowshipping of some of my favorite Mormons. My reaction was one of sorrow and discouragement. I felt sorrow for those who had been cut off from the church and their families. I find those among the "September Six" with whom I am personally acquainted to be good people and fellow Saints. I do not believe they are enemies of the church. They are people for whom the church and the gospel have been their life, or a very large part of it. They have not sought to destroy the church. I believe they have tried to contribute to the church by addressing difficult problems and issues which need to be addressed, and which it would benefit the church to address. The problems and issues they raised existed before the offending papers were written, and they continue to exist even after some of those who publicly addressed them were so summarily dismissed from the church.

I also felt personal discouragement at the unfolding of these events. I share many of the same convictions as those who were excommunicated, and I wondered if the same fate would befall me were I to speak publicly and openly about my beliefs. I looked at priesthood leaders I have known and loved my whole life, and whom I believe have loved me, and I wondered how safe it would be to trust them. Troubling questions kept running through my mind, questions like, "If a General Authority were to call you and suggest that my membership needed looking into, would your first loyalty be to him or me? If someone above you in the hierarchy told you to cut me off at the knees, would you obey him?" It pains me that because of recent events I no longer feel sure of the answer to those questions. And I don't know what to do about that.

In 1982 Harvard professor of education Carol Gilligan published a book entitled In a Different Voice, in which she explores differences in the development of moral reasoning in males and females. In this paper I will consider how Gilligan's research might be used to shed further light on the church's recent disciplinary actions.

Gilligan prefaces her work with the observation that most of our current models of human development are based on a male model, and thus may not be fully adequate in addressing female development. For example, Lawrence Kohlberg's generally accepted stages of moral development are based on a study of eighty-four boys whose development Kohlberg followed over a period of twenty years. Kohlberg claims that his stages are universally applicable, yet his data was collected using only males. Gilligan proposes that the omission of girls and women from Kohlberg's original study explains why women's moral judgments typically reach only the third of Kohlberg's six stages. The failure of women to fit existing models of human development points to a problem in the model being used, rather than to a problem in women's development.

In an effort to explore this idea, Gilligan and her colleagues conducted a "rights and responsibilities" study, which involved a sampling of females and males matched for age, intelligence, education, occupation, and social class at nine different points across the life cycle: ages 6-9, 11, 15, 19, 22, 25-27, 35, 40, and 60. In the study, interviews were conducted and data collected from eight males and eight females at each of these ages. The interviews were designed to assess the subject's concepts of self and morality, their experiences of moral conflict and choice, and their judgments of hypothetical moral dilemmas.

A sampling of two eleven-year-old children included in the study illustrates the kinds of differences in moral reasoning which Gilligan found. Amy and Jake were in the same sixth grade class. They came from similar socio-economic and educational backgrounds and were both bright and articulate. As part of the study, both children were presented with a dilemma originally devised by Kohlberg to measure moral development. In the dilemma, there is a man named Heinz whose wife is very sick. Without a certain medicine, she will die. The local druggist has the medicine, but Heinz does not have enough money to pay for it, and the druggist will not lower his price. After presenting this dilemma to each child, the child is then asked, "Should Heinz steal the drug?" The reasons given for or against stealing it are then explored in an attempt to reveal the underlying structure of each child's moral thought.

Jake concludes that Heinz should steal the drug, and his reasons rely on the power of logic, considering the dilemma to be "sort of like a math problem with humans."1 In his response he reasons that:

For one thing, a human life is worth more than money, and if the druggist only makes $1,000, he is still going to live, but if Heinz doesn't steal the drug, his wife is going to die. ...the druggist can get a thousand dollars later from rich people with cancer, but Heinz can't get his wife again. ...people are all different and so you couldn't get Heinz's wife again.2 

When asked about the fact than Heinz would be breaking the law by stealing the drug, Jake reasons that "the laws have mistakes, and you can't go writing a law for everything you can imagine."3 Jake also adds that if Heinz were caught, "The judge would probably think is was the right thing to do," and "should give Heinz the lightest possible sentence."4

In Amy's response, Gilligan found that Amy and Jake, while presented with the same moral dilemma, actually understood the question being posed to them differently. The question which Jake heard and responded to was, "Should Heinz steal the drug?" He answered yes, and then proceeded to explain why. However the question which Amy heard and responded to was, "Should Heinz steal the drug?" And her response included statements like:

I think there might be other ways besides stealing it, like if he could borrow the money or make a loan or something. ...If he stole the drug, he might save his wife now, but if he did, he might have to go to jail, and then his wife might get sicker again, and he couldn't get more of the drug... So, they should really just talk it out and find some other way...5 

While Jake conceptualizes the dilemma as a sort of a math problem with humans, Amy sees it as an interaction among people in relationships that will extend over time. She also addresses the issue of the druggist's responsibility, once again in the context of human relationships, saying that "...if somebody has something that would keep somebody alive, then it's not right not to give it to them."6 Amy considers the value of the wife's life not in an abstract hierarchy of values in which life takes precedence over property, but rather in the context of relationships, concluding that it would be wrong to let Heinz's wife die because, "...if she died, it hurts a lot of people and it hurts her."7

Gilligan concludes:

Just as Jake is confident that the judge would agree that stealing is the right thing for Heinz to do, so Amy is confident that, "if Heinz and the druggist had talked it out long enough, they could reach something besides stealing." As [Jake] considers the law to "have mistakes," so [Amy] sees this drama as a mistake, believing that "the world should just share things more and then people wouldn't have to steal."8 


Transposing a hierarchy of power into a hierarchy of values, [Jake] defuses a potentially explosive conflict between people by casting it as an impersonal conflict of claims. ...But [in Amy's construction of the dilemma] this hierarchical ordering, with its imagery of winning and losing...gives way to a network of connection, a web of relationships that is sustained by a process of communication.9 


Thus in Heinz's dilemma these two children see two very different moral problems -- Jake a conflict between life and property that can be resolved by logical deduction, Amy a fracture of human relationship that must be mended with its own thread.10 

Throughout her study Gilligan observed the development of two different bases of moral reasoning and decision making. Jake's thinking demonstrates the logic of the justice ethic, "the vision that self and other will be treated as of equal worth, that despite differences in power, things will be fair."11 Amy's judgments contain the insights central to an ethic of care, "the vision that everyone will be responded to and included, that no one will be left alone or hurt."12 Gilligan also observed that "...in neither comparison does one child's judgment appear as a precursor to the other's position."13

In exploring the development of these two different voices of moral reasoning, Gilligan is careful to point out that these differing courses of development do not indicate a deficiency on the part of boys or girls, but simply the development of differing strengths (individuation and connectedness).14 The goal for mature adults, both men and women, would be to achieve a healthy balance between both of these strengths. Thus for Gilligan, Jake's further development "would entail coming to see the other as equal to the self and the discovery that equality provides a way of making connection safe."15 Conversely, Amy's development "would follow the inclusion of [the] self in an expanding network of connection and the discovery that separation can be protective and need not entail isolation."16

When Gilligan's book was first published twelve years ago it raised as many questions as it answered, and opened many avenues for further research and debate in women's development. Obviously there is much yet to be learned, but I find her work to be an illuminating piece of the puzzle in understanding the unique contributions which women and men can each make.

I first read In a Different Voice several years ago. What brought it to mind more recently were the church courts. As I watched good people being cut off from the church, I thought a lot about what had gone wrong and what could prevent things like this from happening again. Eventually I began to wonder if things might have gone differently in those church courts, and in the confrontational and divisive events that led up to them, if each of the priesthood quorums involved, from the Quorum of the Twelve to the individual stake high councils and bishoprics, had been comprised of both men and women. What if half of all the voting members in each of those decision-making bodies had been women for whom the value of building honest and caring relationships and nurturing connections was as great (or greater) as the value of maintaining obedience to hierarchical authority?

I do not mean to suggest that there are not caring and compassionate men in the church. Certainly there are. But the thought that kept going through my mind as I watched these sad events was that something somewhere was out of balance. I don't know for sure that having women in those governing bodies would have changed the outcomes. But I have no doubt whatsoever that all of the church's governing councils would benefit greatly from drawing on the understanding gained in women's life experiences, and including women's voices and women's votes in their decision-making. It's not that male voices are bad. It's just that they represent only half of the picture. Without the inclusion of women's voices and votes at every level, the organization is out of balance. As Chieko Okazaki has written with regards to valuing individual differences, "If both of us thought alike, one of us would not be necessary."17

Of course placing women in the governing bodies of the church would not guarantee that an ethic of compassion would prevail. In the words of one woman, placing

women [in] positions of...power does not in itself guarantee the expression of a feminine voice... Once in power, women can be tempted to conspire with the paternalistic system that they feel has so magnanimously allowed them a place at the table. They [may] feel compelled to be strong men among strong men. Only when women go into the world to express an authentic balance of intelligence and compassion...will there be genuine liberation...18 


A lack of understanding of the importance of relationship in resolving moral dilemmas can be seen in an experience Nancy Freestone Turley had, which was related by Lavina Fielding Anderson in a recent Dialogue article.19 Nancy had written an article about Mother in Heaven which was published in Exponent II in the spring of 1992. In May of 1992 Nancy's stake president called her husband, Kent, who was a former member of another stake presidency, into his office to discuss Nancy's article. Kent told the stake president that he was aware of Nancy's article, and that he felt it was inappropriate for the stake president to discuss the matter with him rather than directly with Nancy.

The Turleys subsequently met with their bishop and stake president in Nancy's home to discuss the issue. At the close of the meeting Nancy expressed her regret for what she felt was a confrontational relationship. She told her stake president that she wished he could come to her home for dinner, and that they could have the opportunity know one another as fellow Saints. The stake president's reply was that he couldn't do that, because if he ever had to take church action against her, a personal relationship might stand in the way. One wonders, of course, how this stake president could possibly hope to influence Nancy for good through "persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned"20 if he deemed it unwise to get to know her personally or to establish any kind of an ongoing relationship with her.

Nancy's statement to her stake president demonstrates a belief that the differences between them could be resolved if they could just come to know and understand one another other better. One is reminded of eleven-year-old Amy's belief that "if Heinz and the druggist had talked it out long enough, they could reach something besides stealing."21 Both Amy and Nancy seem to see their respective dilemmas not as a contest of rights, but rather as a failure of communication and understanding between basically good people.

One man who has set an exceptional example of both justice and compassion is Lowell Bennion. I remember hearing a sermon of his in which he outlined what he felt should be our first three priorities. He said that the most important thing in the world was people. The second most important thing was the gospel, because of the positive things it could do for people. And the third most important thing was the church, because it could be a vehicle for bringing the gospel to the people. This theme was explored in a 1987 Sunstone article in which he wrote:


Much to the consternation of scribes and Pharisees, [Jesus] dined with publicans and sinners. In doing so, he placed the well-being of persons even above the sacred law of Moses. ...man was not made for the gospel, but the gospel was made for man... A person, to be a Christian, must place the highest value on persons and his or her relationship to them. Nothing matters ultimately in any setting -- in marriage, the family, school, the Church, the community, the world -- except what happens to persons. Even the Church is an instrument to bless people. It is not an end in itself. Man was not made for the Church, but the Church was made for people. We should not serve the Church, but rather [serve] people through the Church.22 

In the events of the fall of 1993 we seemed to see almost a complete reversal of this order of priorities. It appeared as though the most important thing was protecting the institutional church, and the least important thing was its individual members, who were apparently expendable if they challenged the institution.

For me, it feels as though this whole episode has torn the fabric of our church community. There have been painful tears in it where good people have been forcibly and unwillingly cut off. I value these people as members of our religious community. Personally I have found many of their writings to be very beneficial to my faith. They have helped me to begin to reconcile difficult issues, and to remain in the church.

It is my hope that the fabric of our religious community can be mended. I particularly admire Lavina Fielding Anderson for choosing to remain connected to the church by continuing to participate in all of the ways she is officially "allowed" to. She has not allowed herself to be separated from her church community and her faith, despite what anyone has written somewhere on a piece of paper about whether or not she is still a part of it. I see her refusal to sever her connection with the church as one way of attempting to mend the tear with its own thread.

January, 1995


1.   Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1982, pg 26.

2.   Ibid.

3.   Ibid.

4.   Ibid.

5.   Gilligan, pg 28.

6.   Ibid.

7.   Ibid.

8.   Ibid.

9.   Gilligan, pg 31.

10. Ibid.

11. Gilligan, pg 63.

12. Ibid.

13. Gilligan, pg 33.

14. Gilligan proposes a theory for the differences in development in boys and girls, drawing on the earlier work of Nancy Chodorow and Robert Stoller. For a discussion, see Gilligan, pgs 7-9.

15. Gilligan, pg 39.

16. Ibid.

17. Okazaki, Chieko. Cat's Cradle. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1993, pg 60.

18. Williamson, Marianne. A Woman's Worth. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993, pg 119.

19. Anderson, Lavina Fielding. "The LDS Community and Church Leadership: A Contemporary Chronology," Dialogue, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Spring 1993), pgs 39-40.

20. See D&C 121:41.

21. Gilligan, pg 29.

22. Bennion, Lowell. "What It Means to be a Christian," Sunstone, Vol. 11, No. 4 (July 1987), pgs 5-6.