An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for January, 2010

Prospering in the Land

Are Mormons more avid consumers than other Americans? Materialistic has joined the list of pejoratives which critics level against the Saints.  Hearing Mormons censured for materialism jolts me because throughout most of my life, the church emphasized thrift. When my Seattle Relief Society organized a rummage sale to raise funds many years ago, I wondered who would come. The Mormon slogan at that time was “Use it up, make do, do without.” Who would want to buy worn out stuff Mormons finally discarded?

But somewhere along the line, we Mormons acquired the national taste for newer, bigger and better. Our old Sandy ward of ‘60s and ‘70s homes began losing member as families moved to newer housing developments across the valley. Mostly non-members bought the existing homes. Finally our ward was combined with another. The same thing happened in neighboring stakes. While the number of Mormons in SL Valley increased, the number of Mormons in older neighborhoods decreased.

When George and I returned to the Wasatch Front two years ago, we rented a townhouse in Draper. The farms we remembered along 126th South had been replaced by a stretch of shopping malls and fast food outlets. We could visit every major big box store within a mile of our house. Tai Pan and IKEA were only a few miles away. “Does anybody here do anything besides shop?” I asked. Apparently not. Although the townhouses in our development were spacious, every opened garage revealed shelves rising to the roof, crammed with plastic storage tubs. By all appearances, the Saints were prospering in the land.

A recent blog speculated that it is easier for Mormons to live a provident lifestyle in California than in Utah Valley. That was not true for our eldest daughter and her teacher husband. While living in the SF Bay area and saving for a home, they were the only Mormons living in an apartment complex of mostly minorities. Although both were employed, ward members knocked on their door a couple of days before Thanksgiving and presented them with a turkey. Choosing to live within their means was perceived as poverty by members of this affluent ward.

Our current Bountiful ward of ‘40s and ‘50s houses is full of wonderful families who chose older homes with yards big enough for kids and gardens. The RS sponsors clothing swaps. Garden produce and outgrown baby equipment are regularly exchanged. Keeping up with the Joneses is easy here since, except for used book stores, the Joneses hate shopping.

Mormons who choose to live within their means can be found—although possibly not in new housing developments. And that will probably change if the economy continues its stall. Certainly we’re hearing the call for careful management from the pulpit once again. The Book of Mormon does promise prosperity to those who keep the commandments, but it doesn’t define prosperity. Perhaps the proper definition of prosperity is “sufficient for our needs.”

Women Against Women

More than thirty years after the ERA controversy, American women have gained the right to participate in occupations formerly closed to them and to more equal education opportunities—yet, we are judged by our faces and figures more than ever before. The need to be validated by male attention has preschool girls learning provocative dance steps, middle school girls displaying bare mid-drifts and any cleavage nature has provided, and high school girls opting for breast enhancement if nature was stingy.

While I appreciate the desire to have a nice guy around, I feel concern for the apathy women show toward the opportunities we have gained and for the push-back against further progress. I hate the fact that feminism is considered a dirty word conjuring visions of mannish women out to emasculate every male within knife range. A few years ago, I tried to get Herland, a 1915 novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, approved for use with my 9th grade English classes in suburban Salt Lake City. Parents accused me of being a feminist with the same tone Glenn Beck pronounces “communist” and “socialist.” It didn’t matter that Herland was written at a time when American women had few legal rights, and Gilman aimed to correct archaic practices such as restrictive clothing, lack of physical exercise, and limited educational opportunities for girls and women. It didn’t matter that the book was an imaginative creation of a world without disease, poverty and crime and would give students the opportunity to discuss relevant social problems. According to the parents on the approval committee, reading a book advocating equal opportunities for women would undermine their family values. Obviously, I, a married, active LDS woman with five children of my own, had a social agenda contrary to the values of this Utah community.

Boyd K. Packer made “feminism” equivalent to the other F word in a speech to the All-Church Coordinating Committee in 1993.  In that speech he listed feminism as one of the three dangers to the LDS Church, along with homosexuals and intellectuals. Packer gave no details on how the feminist movement threatened the church. He did address the issue of working mothers and said while some were justified, the church should not provide “license to the many who are not.” Although few Mormons today recall that speech, the perception that the church is officially opposed to all feminist issues persists and makes Mormon women hesitant to support any women’s issues. Then, of course, Rush Limbaugh coined the phrase “Feminazi” to add a right-wing political dimension. Interesting that women let men define the issues for them.

Fear that we may lose a golden past that never existed also plays a part in women’s attitudes. It’s easy for younger women to believe that people were happier back in the 1950s when all the mothers stayed home and dads earned the living. Personally, I didn’t know too many families in the ‘50s with June Cleaver type mothers. My mother and aunt worked in our family grocery business as my grandmother had before them. Quite a few of my friends’ mothers worked outside the home at least part time. Yet, the dream of returning to the happier days of the past persists—accompanied by the notion that keeping women’s wages low and not providing decent child care and maternity leave somehow benefits families.

Why don’t women speak out for benefits for themselves and other women? Women who landed a great provider usually don’t see their stake in the struggle—unless a sister or daughter is less fortunate. Maybe it’s time to value all women as sisters and daughters.

YW Personal Progress

YW Personal Progress    1/01/10

Personal progress, albeit with different names, has been part of the YW program for decades. And the main focus has always been on preparing LDS girls for homemaking roles. My mother’s Beehive book from the 1930s listed goals for beautifying the home including planting vines around the outhouse. Either Mother was a slacker or she lacked a green thumb. I remember the old outhouse by Grandma’s corral and a luxuriant growth of greenery never disguised its function.

When I entered the Beehive program the summer after 6th grade, our teacher presented each of us with a blue felt banderol (we said bandalo, but spell checker provides this spelling).  We were instructed in blind stitching so we could sew the ends together and wear it across our chests from left shoulder to right hip. As we accomplished each Beehive goal, we would receive a felt emblem to sew onto the banderol to show the world, or at least our ward, our success. Filling the band with awards would promote us to Honor Bees. The first emblem for our band was one we would create ourselves—our personal symbol. The rest of that Mutual class time was devoted to choosing, designing, cutting and sewing our personal emblem. My friends busied themselves drawing and cutting blossoms, trees, and song birds. I had never thought of myself in non-human imagery and had no idea what to choose. Not that it would matter. I had no ability to draw, so nothing I chose and constructed would be recognizable. I finally cut a piece red felt and stitched it in place, answering, “A red gooney bird” to anyone who asked about my symbol. No further emblems ever graced my banderol. Externally created goals meant nothing  to my 12-year-old self.

        By the time my daughters reached YW age, Personal Progress expanded to include frequent goal-setting meetings with advisers. Although multiple goals were possible using the YW Values, the emphasis on lessons—especially for the Laurel age group—was on achieving the “divine role” of marriage and motherhood. Our eldest daughter, Lolly, loudly denied any desire to marry and have children. The YW president asked me one day if Lolly’s denial might not be based on a fear that she wouldn’t have the opportunity to marry. Bingo! Our daughters didn’t date much in high school. Girls without boyfriends appear a bit pathetic if their stated goal is marriage.

While the content of the 2010 YW Personal Progress program doesn’t look too different from previous programs, the packaging may present a problem. A description of 21st century girls as “pink” and “soft” and listing “wife, mother and homemaker” as the only career choices may have as much appeal as a bowl of strawberry Jello nestled among tapenade, sushi, lamb-filled gyros and tiramisu at a smorgasbord . An unintended consequence may be the disengagement of girls who aren’t dating or who don’t identify with pink and softness. Since school and other secular activities provide worthwhile guidance for adolescent girls, non-involvement with YW Personal Progress may not be individually negative. The institution, however, will suffer a loss if the program turns bright girls completely away from the LDS Church .

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