An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for the ‘Gender Roles’ Category

Smart Women and Mormon Culture

Question of the Day: Are many bright, confident, articulate women unmarried at age 30 because men fear bright, confident, articulate women? Or is it because a woman who is single until age 30 has more opportunity to develop these attributes through education, work, and travel?

In Mormon culture—which for decades has urged 21-year-old boys returning from missions to marry— women who haven’t snared a man by that age are likely to still be single at age 30. Now, marrying young needn’t preclude a woman from further education and a stimulating career—unless her culture also prescribes motherhood within a year of marriage.

A consequence of a culture that effectively limits many women’s education and professional development is a dearth of bright, confident, articulate women. I can think of only three dynamic women speakers in recent Mormon history: Sheri Dew, Chieko Okasaki, and Ardith Kapp—all career women.

I wonder if they would have developed the abilities which gave them so much credibility with Mormon women had they become wives at age 19 and mothers at age 20. While it’s not impossible for married women with children to continue their education or to pursue professional careers, it is more difficult—especially if the wife is forced to drop out of school and work a low-paying job to pay for her husband’s education.

But, back to my question. I think it’s pretty obvious than single women do have more opportunities to develop their brains and self-confidence than women who are supporting spouse and/or feeding babies and potty-training toddlers. (And I don’t have anything against babies and toddlers. I enjoyed my own—but I am glad they didn’t arrive until I had time to learn a few other things.)

The real question boils down to:  Are men turned off by brainy, assertive women? According to David Brooks book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, high-achieving men tend to marry women from the same prestigious universities which they attended—producing highly intelligent children who will be given all the advantages which bright, successful parents can provide. These children, in turn, will have access to the best universities where they will meet their future spouse—essentially creating an intelligent, elite upper-class which is closed to everyone else.

I doubt if the phenomena of brainy men selecting brainy wives from the same educational institutions applies to many Mormon men. Physical attraction plays a role in selection of mates, of course. And a Mormon male who have been acculturated to see himself as the main provider for his future family may be unconcerned with a woman’s brains if he sees her role as essentially providing him with sex and children. When I taught junior high in an affluent Wasatch-front neighborhood, I dealt with fathers who, as successful, professional men, could not understand why their child struggled with school. I suppressed the urge to say, “Well, Lumpford must take after his mother.”

A Huffington Post blog ran a piece today about the issue of men fearing brainy women. Essentially, their advice was for smart women to not assert themselves in relationships the same way they assert themselves on the job—and to not demand perfection in a potential spouse. Good advice for men, too, I might add.

Separate and Unequal

When my grandchildren showed up Friday, 5-year-old Goody carried a jack-o-lantern made from a roll of toilet paper which I thought she had made in kindergarten. She told me her 9-year-old sister, Gymmi, had made it at Primary activity day. I looked at the roll of toilet paper covered with orange tissue paper, black triangles pasted on for a face.  I thought about what Gymmi’s brother did during Cub Scout meetings. Cub Scouts experiment with building electric circuit boards. They build bird feeders, twist twine into ropes, tie knots, make stoves from tin cans, cook food over their stove creations, and take nature hikes to identify plants. They do not do kindergarten-level craft projects.

That is why, when the ward Scoutmaster showed up at my door collecting for Friends of Scouting, I declined to donate. “I have two problems with the BSA. First, too much of the money goes for high salaries to BSA officers and executives. Very little of the money the ward raises on this drive will go to our local troop. Second, the Church does not have an equivalent program for the girls.”

I wish my granddaughters could participate in Girl Scouts. Their mother would like them to, but the family is so highly scheduled with Church activities, little time is left for outside enrichment. My recommendation, were I asked, would be to replace activity days with a more purposeful interest or program. Devout Mormons, of course, feel a need to “support the program,” whether it benefits them or not.

The problem with supporting an inferior program is that it promotes mediocrity. Why improve something that is obviously successful because people show up for it? But I digress. The real issue is that programs for Mormon girls are supported with a fraction of the money and effort expended on the Boy Scout program.

Why Men Fail

David Brooks’ thought provoking column in this week’s NY Times,“Why Men Fail,” argues that women adapt better to social and economic change than men do. Consequently, American women are moving upward economically while men are in an economic decline. According to the statistics Brooks quotes, annual earnings for males declined 28% in the past 40 years.  

One theory supporting the upward economic mobility of women is that during times of social change, the people at the top (males) resist change. They wait for—even fight for—things to go back to the old order. People at the bottom of the economic ladder (women) take advantage of change to improve their own position. Certainly, statistics about the number of women currently earning college degrees (60%) support this theory.

Brooks quotes from a book by Hanna Rosin, The End of Men, which claims that women today have freed themselves from old stereotypes of masculine and feminine behavior while men have not. Our son, Techie, sees this in the tech industry where he works—and he criticizes women who have given up their roles as child-bearers and nurturers.

I think it’s unfair to blame women for the social changes that allow them opportunities to advance economically—and it’s not my place to judge the personal choices of others. But while I believe in the right of every couple to determine their individual roles and responsibilities for their own family, I don’t think we can wish our society back to the 1950s.

I suspect the problem of stagnant growth and member retention which the Mormon Church is currently experiencing could be solved if the 50% at the bottom of the power structure had an equal voice in policy making.


Back to Work Bliss

Our oldest daughter, Lolly, got her first paid job in ten years this week. Her youngest started all day kindergarten this year and friends and neighbors were still asking Lolly to tend their kids while they went to doctor appointments or visiting teaching.

Rather than become an unpaid day care center, Lolly applied for a part-time job as a GED prep teacher. She is currently in a flurry of shopping (without a preschooler in tow), for a wardrobe beyond jeans and T-shirts.

I understand how she feels. While I know lovely women who build their lives entirely around home, family, and church—that gene missed my family. My mother and grandmother worked in our family grocery store. My other grandmother, a wretched housekeeper, was handy with a hay rake on the family ranch. Much as I loved my children, I felt as liberated as an East German watching the Berlin Wall fall when I dropped my youngest son off at kindergarten.

Lolly doesn’t need a paycheck to make ends meet for her family, but she does need worthwhile work outside her home to stimulate her mind and give her a feeling of accomplishment—an identity not dependent on her role as wife and mother. The world of paid work offers her that.

Mormon Spokeswoman

Male Mormon leaders have been slow to recognize a public role for women in the Church. Yes, I know leaders tell us how “amazing” we are, and how much we are valued. Still, except for a token woman speaker in one or two General Conference sessions, Mormon women—even auxiliary presidents—are seldom asked to make public comments for the Church.

Since the Church is not putting forth Mormon spokeswomen, the press is doing just that. A current favorite of the press is bright, articulate Joanna Brooks—a professor of English at San Diego State University. Brooks, a liberal Mormon who is married to a Jew, has been interviewed by the Huffington Post and other national newspapers and journals. Her memoir, Book of Mormon Girl, has been picked up by a national publisher. Her  interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show promoted a favorable image of the Church and its members.

Maybe it’s just as well that Church leaders haven’t put forth a Mormon woman as an official spokesperson. I doubt they could have found a traditional Mormon woman able to field questions with Brooks’ confidence and honesty.

Mormon Feminism–Not All About Priesthood

David Wong’s piece, “5 Ways Modern Men Are Trained to Hate Women” at is wit with the bite of reality. I rather suspect that part of Mormon feminine angst comes from the same source which Wong credits as causing male hatred of women.

Since early childhood American women, like American men, are fed unrealistic notions about their relationship with the opposite sex. As Wong points out, for men this leads to the notion of thinking of a beautiful, sexy woman as a reward for success. Since our culture is no respecter of persons, girls are also trained to see a person, in their case a well-heeled man, as the prize for being and looking good.

Expectations for both boys and girls are unrealistic. Beautiful women lose their looks with age despite diet, exercise, and surgery. And sexy-looking women are not nearly as interested in sex as the average male.

For women, the disappointment results from a severe shortage of men in the upper 5% income bracket. In Mormon culture, this reality hits particularly hard. From the time they can toddle, Mormon girls know their role in life is to become a wife and mother. Even pre-adolescent girls engage in Primary activities such as planning their temple weddings. Little encouragement is given to help girls develop interests that might lead to worthwhile careers. Lip service is paid to girls getting an education “in case something happens.” Standard procedure, however, is for young wives to drop out of college and take a low-paying job to help her husband achieve his goals. Postponing children until the wife has a chance is complete her education is generally frowned upon.

Of course, the Mormon model never worked for women who fail to marry—and that is considered failure in Mormon culture. The model also does not acknowledge the relatively high divorce rate—even among temple married couples. Today this model is unrealistic even for most married couples. Naturally, the model worked better when the economy was booming. In the current economy, well-paying jobs are less certain even for bright young men with degrees.

(Yes, I know, when Mitt is elected, he’ll quickly fix the economy—but what if he loses—or what if he wins and doesn’t have a magic wand?) But, I digress. I do think one segment of Mormon feminist angst is the feeling we’ve been sold an illusion. Young wives wake up to find themselves trapped with young kids, mounds of student loan debt, and husbands whose job prospects offer little chance of upward mobility.

Women in this boat love their husbands and kids, but can’t help wondering—Is this my reward for graduating from Seminary, serving as YW class president, and always wearing at least two layers of clothing?

Of course, Church leaders don’t deliberately mislead Mormon girls, but outdated programs fail to prepare girls for the simple fact that their future may not allow them the luxury of being a SAHM—even when they marry an RM in the temple.

My visiting teacher, D’Lemma, is a single mom with a six-year-old and a 3 ½ year-old. Her ex-husband’s grandparents have been supporting her and the kids. When I asked her future plans, she was vague. “I’ve done retail sales, a little accounting, some bookkeeping, and general office work. What I’d like is to find something I can do part time or at home.”

Somehow, I don’t see a successful single man looking for a ready-made family in D’Lemma’s future. I wish her Church training had prepared her to face the fact that she needs a plan to support herself and her children. D’Lemma is too devout to direct feminine angst at a world that doesn’t give women a fair deal economically or to a Church that hasn’t prepared her to function in the world we have. But she should.

Confession–Not So Good for the Soul

Mitt Romney’s famous apology for the bullying incident, “And if anyone was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that,” sounds like a speech from Fast & Testimony meeting. Public confession of sins has long been part of Mormon tradition.

The Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants both command confession as a necessary step in repentance. The 42nd section of the D&C lists fornication, adultery, stealing, and lying as sins needing public confession. “And if any one offend openly, he or she shall be rebuked openly, that he or she may be ashamed. And if he or she confess not, he or she shall be delivered up unto the law of God.” (D&C 42:91) And don’t you love the way the only Mormon scriptures that include feminine pronouns are for negative behavior?

The Bible also demands confession of sins to God and/or others. James 5:16 tells church members, “Confess your faults one to another.” Most Protestant religions believe sins should be confessed directly to God. Catholics confess to a priest who assigns penance. Mormons confess serious sins to their bishop—an untrained lay person who may be released from his calling and replaced the following week. Mormons generally don’t do public confessions other than the, “If I’ve offended any of you, please forgive me” rhetoric. (In most cases I suspect this phrase is code for “If I’ve said or done something you don’t like, tough sh__.”)

 In Fast & Testimony meeting, I have seen unwed pregnant girls make public confession and even a woman in her thirties confess sexual transgressions from her teen years. I don’t understand the point of public confession. Is there any evidence that it deters people from repeating the transgression? I also miss the point of confessing trespasses from years ago.

Some parts of the past are best left buried. In Levi Peterson’s novel, Aspen Marooney, the protagonist marries a returned missionary in the temple, not telling him she is pregnant with a former boy friend’s child. Somehow, she manages to carry off the deception and the child is raised as her husband’s own. Years later she meets the old boy friend and wonders if she should tell the truth.

Of course, she should not tell the truth. Her conscience might be temporarily relieved, but her confession would destroy her husband and the son he has raised. God could surely not be pleased at causing so much harm.

Our youngest son joined an evangelical church several years ago. He got a lot of mileage with his new friends by telling stories of his youthful escapades—prefacing with, “Before I became a Christian.” A pastor’s wife in our son’s church uses her past to teach young people about faith and repentance. She describes pulling herself from a spiral of sexual promiscuity by accepting Jesus as her Savior and receiving His help in rebuilding her life.

Somehow, I can’t imagine a Mormon leader’s wife encouraging sinners to reform by telling about a past shoplifting offense—let alone rehashing a drunken episode that resulted in waking up in bed with a strange man. Mormons may no longer make the analogy of repentance to pulling a misplaced nail from a board—“The nail has been removed, but the hole is still there.” Still, the feeling persists among Mormons—those who have sinned and repented are not equal to those who never sinned.

Confessing to God may be good for the soul. In most cases, confessing to humans is not.

Custom Dressed

In a recent discussion with some Mormon women, reasons why women should wear pants to church were noted:

  •     Pants are warmer in winter.   
  •     Elderly women can’t manage pantyhose—and their legs are too awful for them to go bare-legged. 
  •     Women who don’t own dresses are discouraged from attending.
  •     Pants don’t show your religion when you cross your legs or bend over.

Someone asked, “Why can’t the Church change the rule about wearing dresses to meetings?” Sorry, Sisters. The Church can’t change the rule because there isn’t one. Mormons are encouraged to wear Sunday best to church meetings. A strict dress code exists for men and boys—white shirts and ties. Custom decrees that women wear dresses, but I have yet to see a written rule. I can’t recall a General Conference address telling women to wear skirts to church.

Wearing pants to church won’t get a woman kicked out. It might cause her to be overlooked as a potential Relief Society president—reason enough to don trousers. Women wear pants to funerals and week night programs held in the chapel. I wore pants to sacrament meeting several years ago when I needed to catch an overseas flight right after the meeting. No one asked me to leave.

Last winter, I decided to make one of my increasingly rare appearances at the ward and dressed in my nicest pants outfit. George was horrified. “You’re trying to make a statement. You’re going to make people uncomfortable.”

Not the first time George has misread my mind, but anyone who has been married a long time knows it’s best to yield on trivial matters. Conflict should be saved for truly important stuff—like whether or not the dog sleeps in the house.

Eventually, younger women will start wearing pants to church—at first because they’re working in the nursery or teaching Sunbeams. They will be followed by young mothers who have to retreat babies and toddlers from under the pews while a high councilor recites the joys of raising children in the gospel. Once the young lead the way, my age group will gratefully join the ranks.  

Ordaining Women

Mormons, of course, are not the only denomination that does not ordain women. Still, more and more women are attending divinity schools. Those who belong to churches which do not ordain women as ministers find employment as chaplains, social workers, counselors, and professors.

In this segment from the PBS series, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, Serene Jones, the first woman president of Union Theological Seminary in New York discusses the role of women in the ministry and the changes she sees happening in American religious practice.

Genghis Khan and Women’s Rights

For anyone interested in a real game-changer, I recommend Jack Weatherford’s book, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Weatherford, an anthropologist, accessed sources of information not available to authors of 20th century history books. The Secret History of the Mongols written in 13th century Mongolian was translated from its Chinese characters in the late 1970s. The author also visited sites in Mongolia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Lack of information has fueled Western concepts of Genghis Khan as a murderous barbarian destroying civilized countries. It is true that Genghis and his warriors were illiterate animists, yet their acts of warfare were in many ways less barbaric than those of Christian crusaders of the day. While Mongols had no compunction against killing enemies, they abhorred torture and preferred taking captives (who could be sold or used as slaves) to genocide.

It seems odd to think of war as a means to peace, but Genghis united the small, warring tribes of Mongolia into a peaceful kingdom with an economy based on plunder of neighboring countries. Not great for the neighbors, but a real step forward for Mongolia. Countries taken into the Mongolian Empire thrived. Genghis imported scholars, including clerics, from China and Persia to teach his people.

Although they adopted literacy, arts, and sciences from other countries and tolerated Taoism, Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity, Mongols kept their own culture—including an active role of women in their social and political life. Mongol society lacked the belief that female sexual purity was a value to be defended at all costs—including defense of and seclusion of women. When one tribe was ambushed by another, the men fled on horses so they could live to fight another day. Captured women were taken as wives by the conquering warriors. If the men escaped, they attacked and recaptured the women. A recaptured wife might be pregnant with her captor’s child, but the child was raised by her husband as his own.

While the warriors were off sacking and looting—sometimes for more than a year at a stretch— Mongol women ran the country. Mongolian girls as well as boys were educated when schools were established. Both Genghis Khan’s wife and mother influenced his governing decisions.

True, Mongolian women did not have total equality, and prosperous Mongols could take more than one wife. Yet, compared to women in 13th century Europe, China, Persia, and the Arab world, Mongolian women had a good deal.

And what about the present? Despite the lifting of legal restrictions on gender discrimination, too many American women are limited by the Cinderella syndrome—the notion that somewhere a prince awaits them—a man who will save them from the drudgery of the working world. The obvious problem with this line of thinking is the dearth of men with large incomes. The competition to snare a good breadwinner is fierce, especially in Mormon circles.

Despite Church emphasis on modesty, many devout Mormon mothers enroll their three-year-olds in dance classes, dress them in skanky costumes, and paint their faces with lip gloss and mascara for performances. Planning weddings is a frequent Primary activity for girls. Make up sessions are regular YW activities. Even before puberty, girls are groomed for the meat market.

One possible solution is to bring back polygamy for multi-millionaires. Only a sentimentalist would object to being Mitt Romney’s 20th wife. The living would still be more lavish than being the sole wife of an average wage-earner.

A less likely solution would be to encourage girls to develop their talents and abilities and opt for a marriage where equal partners negotiate the best way for each to support and nurture their children.

Or, we can follow the Mongol lead—send the men off to war and let women run the country.

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