Strangers in Paradox
by Margaret & Paul Toscano

Chapter Twenty
Sex Roles

[p.237]In previous chapters we addressed both the paradox of male and female as well as the dualistic view that accepts the superiority of the masculine over the feminine. In this chapter we again raise this theme. However, our focus here is on the complexity involved in the relationship between the genders and on the power of myth to illuminate and even resolve some of the convolutions and tensions between the sexes by acting as a “mediation between two polar extremes” (Kirk, 44).

We already noted the widespread tendency to divide the world into metaphysical opposites and to connect each with one or the other sex. Even common objects can be associated with the sex with which they share some obvious characteristic. The female as the universal container of life is symbolized by the womb and associated with the vessel, the cup, the well, the scabbard, the temple, the cave, the earth itself which receives, holds, and gives birth to all. The male, on the other hand, is connected with phallic symbols—the rod, the scepter, the staff, the sword, the plow, the sickle, the tree—and all that comes from heaven including rain, lightening, thunder. These latter associations are reflected in many ancient mythologies, where sky deities were often male and earth deities female. On a more abstract level, male and female are associated with other dualities:

Substance
Form
Spirit
Body

Truth

Light

Day

Night

Justice

Mercy

Symbolic

Literal
History
Myth

[p.238]Conscious

Subconscious

Secular

Sacral

Rational

Intuitive

Square

Compass

Linear

Circular

Individual

Community

Freedom

Obedience

Culture

Nature

State

Church

Above

Below
Active
Passive

This catalog is obviously not exhaustive. Listing pairs of opposites is relatively simple. More difficult is deciding which of each pair should be linked with the female principle and which with the male.

Archetypically, certain pairs have been clearly tied with one sex or the other: spirit is usually connected with male, body with female; day with male, night with female; justice male, mercy female; rational male, intuitive female; active male, passive female. Other pairs, however, are more difficult to align: culture and nature, symbolic and literal, history and myth. Is nature feminine, as suggested by the term “mother nature,” or is it masculine, as suggested by the popular belief that men go adventuring into nature while women keep the home fires burning? Is history a muse and therefore female? Or is it male and linked with the rational and scientific? Even those pairs traditionally associated with one sex or the other are sometimes reversed, not just by moderns who want to erase sexual stereotypes but by earlier thinkers. For example, the connection between the masculine and the spirit was reversed by the Romantics who, influenced by notions of chivalry, put women on pedestals and linked them with spiritual qualities. This happened anciently as well. Philo, the first century Hellenistic Jewish philosopher and theologian, wrote of the two-fold nature of God, manifest as the masculine and feminine principles. He saw the father manifestation of the divine as begetter, creator, and reason and the mother as bearer, nurturer, and practical wisdom. This we might have predicted. But surprisingly Philo assigns “soft” qualities such as “gentleness, beneficence, and goodness” to the father and “hard” qualities such “the legislative, chastising, and correcting powers” to the mother (Patai 1975, 74-75). Philo believed that since the mother maintains order, she must reprove.

[p.239]These examples show that it is not clear which principles or characteristics should be linked to which gender. And it never has been clear. Moreover, most attempts to create precise delineations turn out to be simplistic, rigid, moralistic, and short-lived. This is true in Mormon culture, where for years there has predominated the black and white assertion that males are masculine and females are feminine. Though the church still gives lip service to this rigid view, a growing recognition of the ambiguity inherent in gender roles can be detected in some of our church manuals.

In one Relief Society mother education lesson, for example, women were encouraged to “obtain as much schooling as they wish and to excel in all their pursuits.” Women were also told to seek a career both for their personal fulfillment as well as for the support of their families should the need arise. Mothers were advised to help both their sons and daughters develop certain characteristics such as “faith in God, compassion for others, respect for themselves and each other.” This lesson implied that it is now officially acceptable for boys to learn home-making skills and girls to enjoy sports. But in spite of these modest improvements, the overall tone of this lesson was condescending. In its treatment of the relationship between husband and wife, it reasserted the old truisms. The man is to preside, provide, and protect through his role as wage earner and priesthood holder. The woman is to support, sustain, and strengthen through her role as homemaker and mother. The lesson quoted a church authority: “He [your husband] needs to know that he is protecting you. He needs to feel that he is the leader in the family. … He needs to feel dominant.” These words imply that by harboring or admitting negative feelings about their role as homemakers, women may undermine the superior position of men, upset the divine plan of God, and help the adversary destroy the family—which is a heavy burden of guilt for women to bear.

This lesson is checkered and troubling. We disagree that the differences between the sexes can be translated willy-nilly into sex-roles, many of which are stereotypical, artificial, contrived, rigid, and repugnant to the spiritual feelings and experiences of many church members. But we agree with the lesson’s assumption that sexuality is eternal, that the image of God is reflected in both male and female, and that there are fundamental differences between the sexes. The lesson contained an important statement by President Spencer W. Kimball on this point: “The bodies of men and the bodies of women were created differently so they complemented each other, so that the union of [p.240] the two would bring conception which would bring a living soul into the world. … “The eternal nature of our sexual differences is what creates the need for bonding or sealing. We see this process as symbolic of a deeper metaphysical truth. According to one scholar, “Sexual love is the most universal form of man’s obscure search to eliminate duality for a short while, to existentially overcome the boundary between ego and not-ego, between self and not-self. Flesh and sex are the tools for an ecstatic approximation of achievement of unity” (Evola, 44).

Unfortunately these differences, which should be a source of celebration and wonder, have too often been the cause of animosity, jealousy, and invidious discrimination. For example, the historical denial to women of avenues of education is abhorrent and has had deleterious effects on society. And the notion that only a male can be a proper presider and provider and only the woman can be an effective sustainer and nourisher makes little sense within the complex relationships many modern married couples share.

The question is: how can we maintain a belief in the fundamental and eternal differences between the sexes when most attempts to define those differences in practical terms seem to degenerate into superficial descriptions of male and female sex-roles and rigid prescriptions of how individuals should act? The answer is that we must take pains to avoid thinking about gender differences in static and inadequate terms. Because the relationship between the sexes is living and dynamic, we can never settle upon any one fixed model of what the sexes should be. The paradox is that we can know the sexes are different, but we cannot know precisely or completely the metaphysical nature of this difference.

In the next paragraphs we wish to introduce several conceptual touchstones we have found helpful in sorting out some of the ambiguities and uncertainties which arise whenever we attempt to understand the elusive nature of the sexes. The first of these touchstones is succinctly stated in the Book of Mormon: “all things must needs be a compound in one” (2 Ne. 2:11). This idea suggests that unity can be formed by the conjunction of opposites. Day is made up of light and darkness, love is spiritual and physical, the earth is firmamentum and fundamentum. But the light of day is itself a composite of morning and evening, as night is a composite of evening and morning. Spiritual love is love of God and love of humanity. Physical love is the need to enjoy another and the need to be enjoyed by another. The firmament is clear and cloudy. The fundament is land and sea. Thus each component is a [p.241]conjunction of opposites, containing in it the characteristics of the opposite member. The fact that each opposite contains something of the other makes possible in part the union of the two into a single compound.

Thus male and female each contains some characteristic of the other sex, which makes the bonding of the sexes possible. Although “opposites attract,” similarities also draw us together. In the language of the Doctrine and Covenants: “[I]ntelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom, truth embraceth truth …” (88:40). Gandhi understood that within the female could be found a male component. Thus he was able to use the masculine aspects of passivity, and the weapon of passive resistance was born. A tree, usually thought of as a phallic symbol, also contains a female symbol of fertility in its leaves. The point is that the whole seems always to be a compound comprised of male and female components, each of which seems, in its own right, to be a compound of the male and female and therefore a reflection of the whole.

Remember, in each male there is both a female and a male principle, just as there is in each female. This means that a single female or a single male is not just half a person. Standing alone, each is capable of being a whole. The problem is that most of us are not whole because we have denied parts of ourselves, including parts of the male and female within us. We are in need of healing. Marriage is given by God as part of the healing process, which is why it is an ordinance of sanctification. We can be made whole (holy) if we let the opposites in the other bring forth those same characteristics in ourselves. But if we continue to deny parts of ourselves and project those parts on our spouse, expecting that person to make up for our lack of wholeness, then the marriage will be very troubled. For example, a man may fail to accept his own “soft” or feminine qualities—such as his sensitivity. If he projects this quality onto his spouse with the expectation that she is somehow to make up for his lack, then ironically he will begin to resent her sensitive nature out of envy. Or perhaps he will despise her for possessing a quality which he holds in contempt because he does not possess it. The same can happen if a woman denies her aggression and power (Scarf).

The unity created by marriage cannot be healthy if each partner in the marriage is unwhole. This can be illustrated by the symbol of the halved circle and the symbol of the Star of David. Marital union is not like two half circles that come together to make a perfect ring. Such an [p.242]arrangement implies that an incomplete person is completed only by another incomplete person. Of course this happens in marriages, but if the situation persists, each partner will begin to resent the other for the dependency each partner feels. Marital union was not intended as a substitute for personal wholeness. Rather it was meant to allow whole and healthy individuals to combine to make something entirely new. The Star of David illustrates what we mean. Each triangle is whole and complete in itself. Each represents a kind of perfection. And yet when the two triangles are brought together to form the six pointed star, something beautiful and wonderful is created, something different from the parts which comprise it. And perhaps most remarkable: the parts are not obliterated in the new creation. They are still there, visible in their perfection, intertwined, interdependent, a “compound in one.”

This Book of Mormon idea of everything being a compound is complicated by another concept: “there must needs be an opposition in all things” (2 Ne. 2:11). In other words the opposites we have described are equally necessary. However, in our culture people tend to prefer one part of the duality over the other. Most Westerners would prefer to be active and aggressive rather than passive. Passivity in the West is thought of as a weakness and aggressiveness a strength, an essential pre-requisite for accomplishing anything significant. This is what we tell our sons and now our daughters. It is a bias present even in certain groups within the women’s movement, which has usually decried this concept of duality because it so often casts the female in the inferior role. And yet, the passive is not merely the failure to be assertive, but the positive capacity to be receptive, cooperative, and serve as a counterfoil to the active. A right-handed person, without the use of the left hand, would find it virutally impossible to accomplish even simple tasks without the left hand to hold things still or to receive the action. The passive, then, is the complement to, not the default of, the active.

However, as we have said before, the problem is not the concept of dualism but our predisposition toward favoritism or prejudice. There would be no harm in believing that women and men are opposites, if each is equally valued. This is the crux of Lehi’s statement. Each entity is a composite, a compound of two different elements which are equally necessary: “for there must needs be an opposition in all things.”

The preference for one opposite over another results in part because we tend to confuse necessary opposites such as individual and community with rival opposites such as health and sickness. Rival opposites consist of two contrasting qualities, one of which we see as bad because [p.243]it consists of the corruption or contamination of the other, as with rain and acid rain. In contrast necessary opposites consist of two different mixtures or arrangements of the same qualities, as with bass and treble, inward and outward, up and down. Thus a devil is the opposite of a god in quite a different way than a goddess is the opposite of a god. God and Goddess are extremes on the same continuum, as are low “C” and high “C” in music. These sounds are extraordinarily similar, but because each causes different elements of the overtones series to resonate, the notes also sound very different. But the devil is the opposite of God in the same way sour milk is the opposite of good milk (to use C. S. Lewis’s analogy). The devil is a fallen god, but a goddess is not. Moreover, the devil can also include a female counterpart. In Jewish legend, for example, Adam’s fallen wife Lilith becomes a female demon.

But the matter is even more complicated, for the degenerated component of a rival pair is not necessarily devoid of value. For as good can generate evil, so evil can generate good. The hard-earned wealth of parents can become a bane to children. Industry can become obsessive and destructive. Pleasure sometimes leads to emptiness and pain. Conversely suffering may build character, sickness may promote an appreciation of health, death may be a welcome blessing, and sour milk can be used to make good biscuits.

Certainly the relative value we assign sex-linked characteristics often depends upon our cultural biases. For example, upon reading the Odyssey many people, male and female, are taken back by Odysseus’ public, inconsolable, and tearful lamentation over his losses. The negative reaction occurs if we assume that real men do not stoop to public displays of sentiment. Rather than question our culture’s prejudice on this point, many conclude that Odysseus was really not such a great hero after all. The ancient story exposes our own predilection for a certain type of ideal male. It shows us that in the view of another culture, an admirable man can have characteristics which we do not admire. This tells us that we are apt to generalize in simplistic ways.

This human tendency to seek simple solutions can distort our pictures of reality. There are numerous ways we can oversimplify. When it comes to issues of sex and sex roles, we often confuse the characteristics of a sex with the characteristics which that sex desires. As Carolyn Walker Bynum has noted about medieval mystics, “males seem to have been attracted to female images and women to male images” (162). In this period, the soul was viewed as a feminine principle, and therefore, [p.244]as the object of the desire of males: “If the God with whom male mystics wanted to unite was described in male language, it became difficult for them to utilize metaphors of sexual union. Some monks solved that problem by depicting themselves or their souls as the brides of Christ, but others did so by making God the female parent with whom they could achieve physical union in the womb or at the breast” (161). Thus, males and females sometimes have sought God in terms of images of the opposite sex. But this statement is complicated by the fact that men and women may desire a bonding with their own sex as a reaffirmation of what they are or to supplement or reinforce what they desire. For this reason some women feel they need a goddess to reaffirm the importance of the feminine and to seek a model for what women should be. Men have had a god who has served this purpose for a long time.

Another way in which we oversimplify the relationship between the sexes is by our quick and easy moralizing about sex and sexuality. We do not like to admit our sexual feelings and needs, let alone talk about them. We tend to hide behind asexual masks. For example, many Bible stories contain a sexual component, either as part of the narrative or as part of the symbology. We deal with these by ignoring the sexual aspects and instead drawing from the story a simple moral: don’t steal; don’t lie; don’t cheat; don’t commit adultery or anything like unto it. But what is the moral of the story of Rahab the harlot? Or of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt? Or of Hosea marrying the prostitute? Or of David and Bathsheba?

Some time ago we heard a church high councilman tell some young people that King David had a “pornography problem.” The naked body of Bathsheba, he thought, was a temptation or an obscenity, and all of King David’s problems stemmed from his ogling her from the balcony. The speaker’s point was that young men should avoid looking at naked women. But this story is not about a man with a fetish for pornography. It is about a king who happened to see a woman naked and was filled with desire for her and then used his royal authority to rid himself of her husband so that he could marry her. Like so many others in the Bible, the story does not condemn sexual desire but the abuse of authority. It is hard to read the story in this way, however, if one is afraid of sex and enthralled with power. The point is that if we engage in this type of denial and projection, we can only see sex, sexuality, and sex roles simplistically—in rigid, categorical, and often sentimental terms.

[p.245]Our final conceptual touchstone is that any model of the relationship between the sexes or sex-linked principles is dynamic and not static. It is a model in motion. In other words any description of sex roles is complicated by the fact that the sexes can and sometimes must undergo role reversals. As with the Star of David, the positions of the triangles can be rotated without altering the pattern of the star. The male does and sometimes must become the female, and the female does and sometimes must become the male. Unless this happens a rigidity effectively stifling creativity and life will result.

Role-reversals occur in many guises: child becomes parent, student becomes teacher, host becomes guest, king becomes beggar. Becoming a parent can make one a more sympathetic child. Teachers, by becoming students again, become better teachers. Students, by becoming teachers, become better students. The guest who has never been a host will be a poor guest. The wise who have not seen their folly become arrogant, and the king who has never been a beggar becomes tyrannical. In myth we find the ubiquitous role-reversal motif of the good king who has gone in disguise as a pauper among his people: Odysseus, Henry V, and of course Christ himself. In some cultures this reversal is solemnized as the ritual humiliation of the king and forms part of the coronation ceremony and yearly rites.

With the man and the woman, role-reversals are no less important. Through such an exchange a proper balance can be maintained between the sexes. Reversals allow each to better comprehend and sympathize with the other, to see the world from the other’s point of view. In the writings of Jeremiah there is a passage which hints at this process: “For the Lord hath created a new thing in the earth, a woman shall compass a man” (Jer. 31:22). The Hebrew word used here for “compass” is sawvav. It means to revolve, surround, be about on every side, whirl around, to turn oneself about, to lead. The New English Bible renders this passage as follows: “The Lord has created a new thing in the earth: a woman turned into a man.” And in the Oxford Annotated Bible: “For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth; A woman protects a man.” This suggests a woman taking what has been viewed as a man’s role, to lead and encompass or include him, to protect him—a reversal of Paul’s statement that “woman was made out of man” (1 Cor. 11:8).

Men are also asked to take traditional female roles. In Numbers 11, Moses, troubled with the burdensome task of caring for the children of Israel, asks the Lord: “Am I their mother? Have I brought them into the world, and am I called upon to carry them in my bosom, like a [p.246]nurse with her babies … ?” God’s answer to this question is yes. But he tells Moses he will not have to bear this burden alone. So Moses assembles seventy elders (apparently to be nursemaids), and then God appears to confer upon them the same nurturing spirit given to Moses.

Having discussed some of the complexities involved in any consideration of sex-roles, we wish now to consider sex-role reversals in two biblical narratives: the story of Abraham and Sarah and the story of Adam and Eve. Isaiah puts the story of Abraham and Sarah into the context of mythic or religious paradigm: “Listen to me, all who follow the right and seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were hewn, to the quarry from which you were dug; look to your father Abraham and to Sarah who gave you birth” (Is. 51:1-2). Abraham is the rock and Sarah the quarry. Both are models for us. And what patterns emerge from their relationship? First, as we have mentioned before, God makes a covenant with both. Sarah is to stand as a queen or princess in her own right, independent in the sphere in which God has placed her. She is a Princess of Peace. Both Abraham and Sarah are sealed to the Lord through covenant: the sign of Sarah’s sealing is Isaac, the child of promise. The sign of Abraham’s sealing is the circumcision. Here we have another reversal. In giving birth to Isaac, Sarah bled. In circumcision, Abraham also bled, symbolizing his covenant or marriage to God. In many tribes circumcision is linked with pre-marital rites, and in some tribes boys even wear girls’ clothing when they are circumcised (Frazer, 263). So Abraham and Sarah both play the role of woman before God. And in turn both Abraham and Sarah play the part of priest. For though at times she looks to him for salvation, at other times he looks to her.

There is an apocryphal story, which takes place before Abraham and Sarah make their sojourn into Egypt. In a dream Abraham sees a pine tree, which would have been chopped down and used for firewood if it had not been for a palm tree which in some way spared its life. Abraham is told that he is the pine tree and Sarah the palm. Because of Sarah, Abraham’s life would be spared. This came to pass when Pharaoh honored Abraham as the brother of Sarah, Pharaoh’s intended spouse. Obeying God’s command, Abraham had disclosed to Pharaoh only his relation to Sarah as brother, hiding his relationship as husband. Though Abraham was spared by this device, Sarah was put to the test: her virtue was placed on the lion couch, the sacrificial bed. She was willing to give up her virtue to save her husband. However, her sacrifice, like her husband’s, was arrested. For every time the [p.247]Pharaoh approached her sexually, he was warded off by a disease. Eventually he learned the truth, and after chastising Abraham for the whole scheme, he counted himself lucky not to have angered their God and then let them both go.

Sarah through her sacrifice not only saved Abraham but provided us with a symbol of the truth that both the male and the female may serve as priest. Both may be called to make sacrifice, which is the chief priestly function. Both have power to confer life on the other. Both play a role in salvation.

The story of Adam and Eve also illustrates the complexity of male-female relationships. Though this story is often used to justify male dominance, the story itself, both in the Bible and in the temple drama, contains elements of sex role reversals. In the Garden of Eden, it is Adam who plays the passive and receptive role, while Eve is the active protagonist. It is Eve, not Adam, who recognizes the necessity of partaking of the forbidden fruit. She perceives that it is only by experiencing both good and evil that they can indeed become like God. Eve takes the initiative and is first on the scene. While Adam sleeps, Eve waits for him. And upon awakening, the first person Adam sees is Eve, whom he rightly recognizes as the Mother of All Living. Eve is the first to understand that they cannot stay in their paradise forever. It is she who quickly comprehends the necessity of opposition to bring about eternal life and joy. It is she who realizes the necessity of their remaining together and who uses this argument to persuade Adam to follow her into mortality. She is the first to recognize the true identity of Satan. And finally, it is her seed who will crush the serpent’s head. Because, as we have noted, the word seed is linked with priesthood, this statement may mean that it is the priesthood of Eve or the woman which will crush the serpent’s head. Perhaps this is a prophecy about the active role of women against the adversary in the end time, as may be reflected in Revelation 12. In any case, we have no retiring woman in Mother Eve.

In the Garden of Eden, Eve initiated the sojourn of humanity into the temporal sphere, while Adam yielded to her work. After the fall and expulsion from the Garden, these roles are presented as being reversed. Adam becomes active in the world in a way he had not been before, while Eve assumes a more passive role and yields to him. These role reversals, we believe, are not meant to be applied on a domestic level to reinforce traditional sex roles. Rather, this story must be seen mythically and cosmically. In the eternal drama of the sexes, each will [p.248]sometimes be passive, sometimes active. But whatever the case, each is always required to act spiritually and to be personally responsible to God.

Even in the administration of gospel ordinances, role reversals take place. Although men perform the initial ordinances of salvation—baptism and confirmation—the last rites pertaining to the fullness of the priesthood are administered by women. This ritual pattern is apparently based upon the anointing and washing of Jesus by one of the Marys “against the day of my burying” (John 12:7; Luke 7:37-50). Heber C. Kimball believed that the woman performs this rite in order to have claim upon her husband in the resurrection (Kimball Journal). Although this statement may be interpreted to mean that the woman is dependent on the man for her resurrection, it can also mean that the man must look to the woman for the power of an endless life, which power is the fruition and completion of the gospel covenant. Thus, the woman is the vehicle through which the man obtains the power to come forth from the tomb, even as she is the vehicle by which he is brought forth from the womb. This idea is also suggested in the Egyptian myth where Osiris’ resurrection is dependent on the efforts of Isis, and in other Egyptian ceremonies, where a woman had to be present at every “awakening.”

The paradox is that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Sometimes the woman is first, other times the man. Sometimes he leads, other times she does. Sometimes she is on top, other times he is, and at times they repose in perfect harmony. So long as each sex takes its turn in yielding to the other as the other assumes various roles, it should not matter in any given situation who is first and who is last. A few women lingered last at the foot of the cross and later were the first witnesses of the resurrection, while the apostles though first to preach the gospel, were the last of Christ’s intimates to witness the risen Lord. And, of course, being last is not the same as being subordinate or inferior. Jesus saved the good wine until last. And at the last comes the healing of the wounds.

This shifting of roles, this exchange of natures, this interplay between opposites is the very stuff of life; the cup of one must empty that the cup of the other may be filled, that both may pour out their abundance to receive an even greater fulness. It is not in the elimination of extremes that life comes forth, but in their tension and balance, where contraries come into accord. The sex act itself, with its fluctuations and alterations of below and above, full and empty, inward and [p.249]outward, rest and motion, union and division, is the perfect symbol of this dynamic marriage of necessary opposites that liberates the creative forces that are, in this world, the source of new life and, in the next world, the source of eternal life—spinning and moving and living from eternity to eternity. And those who behold this fearful symmetry may, with John Donne, be moved to sing:

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appeares,
And true plaine hearts doe in the faces rest,
Where can we finde two better hemispheares
Without sharpe North, without declining west?
Whatever dyes, was not mixt equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none doe slacken, none can die.
(“The Good-Morrow,” 8).