An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Mormon women’s roles’

About Life on a Pedestal

Don’t miss this terrific post on By Common Consent.

We Are People

Rebecca J at By Common Consent has a great post with the radical notion that the teachings that prepare a girl to be a good wife and mother are the same teachings that prepare her to be a good PERSON. Find it here.

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.

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.  

You’ve Come a Short Way, Baby!

Young Mormon feminists, frustrated with the limited role of women in the Church today, should be grateful they missed the rhetoric of an earlier generation. I was married in the ‘60s when the evils of birth control were preached loudly from the pulpit and “working mothers” was uttered with the same tone used for the word “prostitute.”

No matter that I returned to teaching when my kids were all in school and we needed health insurance and another income to fill five hungry bellies and shoe ten growing feet. The message I received from Relief Society lessons and General Conference talks was that I had given in to “worldly” values and was jeopardizing my children’s—and probably my own—salvation.

We don’t hear such strong rhetoric about family size and working moms anymore. Today, many Mormon women earn graduate degrees and enjoy professional careers. The admonition that ALL mothers needed to be restricted to the world of home and church was always tinged with a touch of fantasy. Ensign photos of the ideal Mormon family never showed that family kneeling on threadbare carpet, their arms folded upon chairs with ripped upholstery. The ideal family never arrived at church in a rusted-out car that barely held their large brood.

But reality prevailed. Most large Mormon families need more than one income in order to feed the kids and ante up tithing. Like their gentile counterparts, a majority of Mormon women now work outside the home at least part time—and Church rhetoric reflects the facts on the ground.

Unfortunately, a softened stance on working women has not been matched by an increased voice for women in Church decision-making circles. Unlike getting a job, this is not an issue where women can take the lead themselves. Apparently, what many women and men are doing is dropping out from a Church that doesn’t meet their needs.

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?

Is the Iron Rod Really a Balancing Beam?

Genpo Roshi of the Zen Center in Salt Lake City has developed a technique called Big Mind in which students explore facets of their own minds. Two facets that have intrigued me recently are the seeking mind and the grasping mind. The seeking mind seeks more—more light, more knowledge, more love, more of everything. The grasping mind tries to hold on to whatever it has— relationships, possessions, time, accomplishments, everything.

I think most people can be categorized as basically seekers or graspers. Seekers are future-oriented—always ready to move onto something new and better. Graspers tend to be past-oriented—wanting to hold on to what they have. Neither facet is necessarily good or bad, just different. The trick, as I see it, is balancing the two.

Mormon teachings emphasize both seeking and grasping. Joseph Smith admonished members to follow the advice of Paul and seek after anything “virtuous, lovely, or of good report.” Mormons are also instructed to study, to work, to prepare for their earthly future, and to prepare for the next life. Mormons are counseled to hold onto family relationships not only in this life, but for all eternity—and to adhere to not only their nuclear family, but their ancestors for as far back as they can find records. Mormons are expected to record their own personal histories as well as to research those of ancestors. Seeking for the future while grasping at the past leaves many Mormons feeling too overwhelmed to enjoy the present.

I think the Buddhists have it right. Life is suffering, and suffering is caused by attachment. Knowing when to let go is a tricky proposition. Children have to grow up. Parents must let go. And here is where I think Mormon culture makes the transition difficult. Mormon girls are admonished from the time they can push a doll carriage that their main objective in life, indeed, their “divine calling,” is to be a mother. How does a woman let her children go when the whole focus of her life is being a mother? A friend told me her sister actually e-mails each of her married children three times a day. I’ll bet her in-laws hate her.

“This American Life” on NPR recently featured a segment about a dying Mormon mother who wrote letters to be delivered on her 16-year-old daughter’s birthdays for 13 years. At first the daughter welcomed the letters, but as she reached adulthood and was making her own choices, her mother’s advice from the grave was troubling rather than comforting. The daughter had no way to reply, to share her adult feelings with a mother who was writing to a 16-year-old. I understand why a dying mother would dread relinquishing her parental role with her daughter, but the mother’s attachment became a burden to the daughter.

How do we strike a balance between valuing important things like relationships and being attached to them in an unhealthy way? Between letting go when necessary versus giving up too easily? Buddhists meditate to find the place of no seeking, no grasping—Nirvana. For many Mormons, temple worship provides the space to relinquish the worldly concerns of seeking and grasping, restore the spirit, and experience a brief Nirvana.

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