An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Mormon gender roles’

Changing the Church–One Pantsuit at a Time

Check out my recent post at the exponent here.

Daddy, May I Please Have a Lollipop?

Do Mormon women like being treated as little girls? I attended the Relief Society birthday dinner in my ward last week. Three women wore their hair in the double pony tails usually worn by preschoolers with uneven hair lengths. Several women had bows in their hair—and no, it wasn’t a costume party. The sister in charge of the program announced the skit by telling the bishop, who was in attendance, that they hadn’t cleared it with him, but they thought it would be all right since it came from a church manual.

Her statement, implying that grown women need male guidance in choosing appropriate entertainment for a RS program, reminded me of a General RS Conference several years ago where both President Hinckley’s wife and daughter spoke. The daughter began by noting that since her father presided, he could shut the meeting down if the women in his family got too far out with their comments. I suppose her remark was meant to be humorous, but it is curiously Mormon. I couldn’t imagine that kind of message being delivered by a daughter of George W. Bush (who was President at the time) in a public meeting.

Even in trivial manners, Mormon women seem to feel a need for male guidance. At the General Women’s Conference about a year and a half ago, Julie Beck, the General RS President, sent a ripple of amusement through the Conference Center as she announced that after much prayerful consideration and in consultation with the First Presidency, the name of RS Enrichment Meetings would be changed to, I believe, RS Extra Meetings.

Come on! Do Mormon women really want to portray the image that we are brainless little dolls who can’t possibly think and make the slightest decision on our own?

Mormon Girls–Only One Right Choice?

Mormon girls are raised with the knowledge that their role on earth is to marry a worthy priesthood holder in the temple and provide a happy home for as many children as possible. And I don’t fault that.  Most little girls do grow up hoping to be mothers someday. The problem with Mormon culture is that marriage and motherhood are the only roles toward which girls are directed, and marriage is not a goal over which a person has total control. Nice-looking, intelligent, personable women often fail to attract marriage proposals. And the competition for males in Mormon circles is intense. Mothers-who-know enroll three-year-old daughters in dance because without an early start, adolescent girls don’t make drill team or cheerleader—and the girls who do get the boyfriends.

No alternative to marriage and motherhood is considered for Mormon girls. Girls who haven’t snagged a husband by their mid-20s are counseled to be patient. The possibility that Heavenly Father  might not have a potential mate lined up to take every Mormon girl to the temple is never acknowledged. Girls who fall in love with a non-member face intense family pressure to break it off—no matter what sterling qualities the guy may possess.  After all, didn’t President Joseph F. Smith say he’d rather lay his daughters in their graves as spinsters than to see them marry outside the Church?

Many girls panic in their mid-twenties or even earlier and settle for an eternal companion  less compatible, less intelligent, less capable of earning a living than they’d hoped for. And too few single girls invest in education for what may be a lifelong career. A friend, Passen D’Prime, is typical. A returned missionary in her late 20s, she clung to her BYU ward after graduation, racking up huge credit card debts for clothes, make up, and gym fees. Despite her well-groomed physique, 18 and 19-year-old girls entering the ward each year snatched up the most eligible guys. Preoccupied with dating strategies, Passen missed the opportunity to obtain a doctorate. Still single in her 40s, that doctorate would have opened career opportunities and given her the financial security she lacks.

Well meaning relatives and church leaders often counsel a girl in her late 20s to be less picky, but they never mention alternatives to waiting for that temple-recommend-bearing prince (or frog) to appear. By the time girls reach their 30s, a glimmer of reality pierces the fog of institutionalized thinking. Choosing temple marriage appears to be choosing no marriage—at least no marriage in this life. Faithful single LDS sisters are promised marriage and children in the next life—for what comfort that’s worth.

Marrying outside the church is never suggested to a single LDS woman no matter how slim her chances for temple marriage. Dating non-LDS men is a line most Mormon girls can’t cross—not when they’ve been told their whole lives that marrying anyplace besides the temple courts marital discord in this life and a lesser reward in the next.

I’d like to see Relief Society lessons incorporate Chieko Okasaki’s marriage experience. As a Japanese-American living in Hawaii in the 1940s, Chieko recognized that the limited supply of eligible Mormon men in her area meant she might not marry. She met a non-LDS man with compatible values and the qualities she deemed essential in a husband. Prayer confirmed that God approved her decision. She married—not with the expectation that her husband might someday convert to her church (which he did), but with the knowledge that they would have a good marriage and family life even if he never changed his religion.

 We need to free young LDS women to consider another option: marrying a good man who will be a good husband and father even if he never joins the church.

Trespassing in Priesthood Meeting

Occasionally a member of the bishopric visits Relief Society, but women never violate the male sanctuary of LDS priesthood meetings. Not that there’s anything secretive or even very interesting going on there. It’s just a well-entrenched Mormon tradition. I’d never given much thought about what goes on in priesthood classes, although, from comments made by George and our son Wort, I figured they comprised about the same blend of lessons and friendshipping as Relief Society—minus the tears.

A few years ago I was called to be ward teacher improvement leader. The bishop extended the calling personally, emphasizing the need to make sure pure doctrine was taught in all ward classes. My responsibility was to visit classes and provide support to teachers and auxiliary presidencies both informally and in quarterly inservice meetings.

With normal enthusiasm for a new calling, I contacted the Primary president, discussed her goals and concerns, and made appointments with teachers for class visits. The next month, I contacted the Young Women’s president and visited YW opening exercises and classes. YM was next on my schedule. I contacted the YM president and scheduled a class visit with the Deacon Quorum adviser. When I walked into Priesthood opening exercises and took a seat next to George, all heads turned in my direction. The bishop stared and the counselor who was conducting ignored my presence. It felt kind of like being the only person in town who took the “No Pants Day” prank seriously enough to show up in public sans trousers. Should I have informed the bishop I would be attending priesthood opening exercises when making class visits? In a perverse sort of way, the situation tickled my funny bone. Here I was fulfilling my calling and being perceived as some kind of nut, possibly a threat to the divine order of LDS life. I accompanied the deacons to class and a neighbor asked George, “Does Ann want the priesthood?”

The next Sunday the bishop conducted priesthood opening exercises and made a point of saying, “Welcome Brethren. . .  and Sister Johnson.” He gave no explanation for my visit. In fact, he seemed to enjoy the mystification of his flock. With his own perverse sense of humor, he may have been watching to see if I’d flinch under the floodlight of attention.

After visiting the YM quorums, I visited Relief Society for a month. Then back to Priesthood for the Elders Quorum and High Priests Group. The HP Group leader had been a bishop in a previous ward, knew the church programs well, and responded positively to my request to visit. Some of the gentlemen had figured out the reason for my presence by then, but others gave George a “Can’t you control your wife?” look as I sat beside him. At least no one went to sleep that hour.

The EQ instructor was a personal friend and explained the purpose of my visit . Reb led a wide-ranging discussion more or less on the lesson topic. The difference in EQ and HP discussions was equal to the difference between recess and reading groups in elementary school. Possibly the EQ discussions would have been even livelier without a woman present. As an 18-year-old prospective elder, Wort arrived home from his first EQ class thoroughly disenchanted by the honesty of the good brothers. In discussing family responsibilities, some of the brethren reached the conclusion that divorce was a way for men to give themselves a pay raise. Those remarks sounded similar to some of the gripes against husbands I’ve heard in Relief Society. LDS men and women generally go along with the church definition of gender roles, but that doesn’t mean they are blind to the disadvantages.

The men in our ward eventually got accustomed to my periodic invasion of the third hour of the block. I found I enjoyed EQ and HP classes more than RS because, although the lessons were the same, I hadn’t memorized the men’s responses to every question.  I also liked not having to carry home cutesy handouts to help me remember the lesson.

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