First published in Mormon Women's Forum Quarterly, vol. 5 no. 1 (March 1994)
When the Relief Society lost its financial autonomy and control over its own curriculum, its heritage was obscured and its ability to fulfill the broad vision of its original mandate was eviscerated. But women were told that becoming a correlated part of the church would place the Relief Society where certain men in authority thought it belonged— "under the umbrella of the priesthood." An interesting metaphor.
An umbrella serves to protect those underneath it from rain and sleet and snow. But how efficaciously an umbrella serves its purpose depends for the most part on how it is held. If the person holding the umbrella is mean-spirited, that person will not care if the other person is getting wet and sometimes will act in ways to ensure that the other party gets wet. Other times, without any ill-will or evil intent, the person holding the umbrella is simply oblivious to the needs of the other party. Sometimes the person holding an umbrella simply doesn't know how to hold it in the best way, and the other person gets poked in the eye along with getting wet.
Holding an umbrella is a big responsibility and can be hard to do. I have not always successfully held an umbrella—especially when I've tried to hold it for someone much taller than myself, or for a small child, or when it's been especially windy out. How encouraging to know that women in times past have held umbrellas perfectly well! Yet most men in authority have been adept at ignoring both this fact and the fact that women today have as great a need to hold onto the umbrella as be protected by it. (And that men often need women's hands-on help in holding umbrellas in the storms of life.)
I have found that the best way to share an umbrella, when possible, is to have both parties underneath hold onto it. This is an especially good method among adults: doing so minimizes the risk of poked eyes, and maximizes the chances that the things that really must stay dry will stay dry. It also allows the holders to "even out" the wetness, if such must occur, and to selflessly give up part of the protection if they believe the other person's needs are greater than their own.
It is hard to do much of anything to avoid getting wet except to ask for greater consideration, and ask repeatedly if necessary, if one doesn't have any direct control over the umbrella. When the Relief Society was unilaterally placed under the priesthood umbrella (this was not something Belle Spafford et al. requested—evidently these spiritually sensitive women didn't realize they needed protection), the impact on the local and general levels was enormous. There have been clearly negative consequences for women having to seek human male approval for projects that used to be decided upon by women and the Lord; by having no control over the purse-strings; and by having men in charge of women's curriculum. This last in particular has resulted in the silencing of women's voices within the Relief Society itself: our recycled manuals have hardly any women's voices or experiences in them. It's all male discourse; nearly all of what few women's stories have been included are told in a male voice and from a male perspective.
In short, the net result of placing the Relief Society under the umbrella of patriarchal priesthood has been to transform it into an organization of women that is run at the behest of and by permission of men—men who select the nominal female leadership. The best we've been able to hope for, under the circumstances, is that the men who run the Relief Society (generally and locally) are inspired. Sometimes they have been. Sometimes they most definitely have not been. Some men have insisted on holding an umbrella over women's heads even when the sun is shining. Sometimes some men have decided, even in the midst of a thunderstorm, that it's no longer raining and have walked off with the umbrella, leaving the umbrella-less women to fend for themselves. And then these same men criticize women for taking shelter elsewhere when the correlated Relief Society cannot meet their needs. What then? It seems past time for us to "get a grip" and regain the control we have lost.
In hopes of sunshine and parasols,
Lynn "I love a metaphor" Matthews Anderson