All eyes fell upon me at Young Women Sunday School when it was my turn to answer the question about what I wanted to be when I grew up. “I plan to attend law school, and later possibly run for public office,” I answered. By the time I had given my response, the temperature in the room of my Sunday school class had risen. Some students looked away, while others exchanged uncomfortable glances. My Sunday school teacher had asked about our future plans, and my answer was clearly out of place. Most of my female peers had responded with desires of motherhood and marriage; I wanted these things too, but they were not my primary goals even though I am a Mormon woman. The painful silence stretched over a few seconds until it was broken by the teacher’s admonition for the next response. Motherhood should be revered, but it should never preclude the realization of a woman’s full academic, physical, and individual potential. Latter-day Saints women can do more, be more, and accomplish more.
Who Are the Mormons?
Today when Mormons are mentioned, most think of Utah, Mitt Romney, polygamy, or the Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon.” But as of April 2019, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — or the Mormon Church — is the fastest growing religious group in America and makes up approximately 2 percent of the total U.S. population. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was officially organized in 1830 in New York by Joseph Smith Jr. With Smith’s celebrated “First Vision,” publication of The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, and restoration of the Priesthood, members claim that it is the only true, restored church upon the earth.
I was born and raised in this uniquely American religious tradition. Like every other young Mormon woman before me, I attended church for three hours each Sunday, early-morning “Seminary” before high school daily, and Church youth activities weekly. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the center and lifeblood of my community and culture. Culture is supposed to give one meaning, connection, and a deeper understanding of how they fit into the patchwork of humanity. In my life, however, my culture and community seemed to do just the opposite. They made me feel conflicted. They confused me. They filled me with uncertainty and, at times, even heart-wrenching despair. The very culture that I was raised in also confined me into a tight, glass box of expectations that was suffocating. But I feared if I pushed against this fragile box, my world would shatter.
This box was supposed to define my purpose and identity as a Mormon woman. My culture told me that my primary purpose and divine role was to find a husband and raise a family. The Family: A Proclamation to the World is official LDS Church doctrine that was published in 1995 by the “First Presidency,” the all-male central leadership committee in Salt Lake City, Utah. This document reinforces the role of families in the LDS religion as “central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children.” It relays the idea that gender is an “essential characteristic” that defines “identity” and “purpose.” This doctrine outlines that men are to “preside over their families” while women are “primarily responsible for the nurture of their children,” but still act as “equal partners.” But as Laurel Ulrich, a Harvard University history professor Emerita and active member of the LDS Church, pointed out in an interview with the HPR, there is an inherent tension between “simultaneously endors[ing] equality and embrac[ing] men as providers and women as nurturers” contained within the Proclamation.
In an interview with the HPR, an anonymous active LDS female political leader said, “In contrast to the ambiguities of scripture, written down thousands of years ago by and for an entirely different people, the Proclamation’s clear, concise language and near-canon status make it very difficult to argue an alternate interpretation.” As a result, she said, “women in the Church are often discouraged explicitly and implicitly from pursuing anything, leadership or otherwise, that would take away their time, energy, or attention from their responsibility to nurture their children.”
Ann Braude, director of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program and senior lecturer on American religious history at Harvard Divinity School, expressed similar sentiments. In an interview with the HPR, Braude said, “The Proclamation says that men and women are equals, but it’s not. If you look at the Presidency of the Church, the Quorum, the Seventy, it’s not equal.” According to LDS religious doctrine, only men can be ordained to the Priesthood, which offers the ability to hold the literal power and authority of God on earth. The Priesthood is required to legitimize all ordinances, like baptisms or marriages in an LDS temple, and only members of the Priesthood can hold most leadership positions in local congregations and regional areas. The all-male central leadership in Salt Lake City consists of the President of the Church or prophet, the First Presidency, and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Below these men are the all-male General Authority Seventies, who preside over large geographical areas, regional Stake Presidents, and local Bishops for each congregation. Braude says that excluding women from “the most important role in the church” because they are “unconstitutionally capable of fulfilling it by their very nature — that is not equality.”
In an interview with the HPR, a -professor of religion at Kalamazoo College, Taylor Petrey, agreed with Braude, postulating that the primary impediment to women’s equality in the LDS community “is the prohibition of women from being ordained to the priesthood, which prevents them from holding certain offices of authority.” It is for this reason that Kate Kelly founded Ordain Women, an organization that advocates for Mormon women to have the ability to be given the Priesthood. Kelly said in an interview with the HPR that it is important to combat the “idea that only men should hold positions of power” because that is a “dangerous, toxic mentality for those in leadership positions to have.” There are a few notable local and Church-wide presidencies for women, but these are primarily for all-female organizations and young children. This male leadership structure, as well as the doctrine that a woman’s primary purpose is to “strengthen home and family”, reinforce the idea that the normative female identity is a wife and mother.
And this notion is fundamental to how LDS culture and community relations have formed. In an interview with the HPR, Harvard Kennedy School Senior Lecturer Richard Parker said that religion “provides a bridge between [individual] identity and community as young people grow” and thus actively “reinforces the normative ideas of what women [and men] are expected to do, and be, and think” — what Petrey referred to as “training grounds for gender roles outside the community.”
Given these strong cultural and community expectations, it should not come as a surprise that relatively few LDS females have public roles. Parker posited that the Church’s doctrines are “retrograde in that they structurally seek to deny women’s ability to explore potential within themselves.” LDS women are not pushed to achieve their full leadership, professional, and academic potential, which “may explain [a] leadership gap between LDS women and men,” according to Petrey. Kelly also relayed that “Utah is consistently ranked the worst state in the U.S. for women … it has the largest wage gap, the fewest women on boards of directors, the fewest women in politics, the lowest college graduation rate, and in almost every measurable category, women have fared worse in a place where 93 percent of the legislature is Mormon.” Thus Kelly and Braude both assert that Utah’s gender-equity underperformance is directly tied to the current LDS structure and predominant culture.
I did not grow up in Utah. Nevertheless, I was a part of a “Ward”, or local congregation of about 150 active members, in the Midwest. My community was incredibly tight-knit. I constantly received messaging about my normative place in society from this group, growing up with a stay-at-home mother myself and only a scattering of working female role models. My community made it clear that my place was not in the workforce, nor in leadership. Even the attainment of higher education was not considered as an end in itself, nor a means of pure self-betterment: The aquisition of knowledge was to teach my children and to provide for my family if my husband was somehow incapacitated.
LDS women have the opportunity to shatter the glass box and redefine female leadership, strength, and ambition. LDS women can shift the narrative, catalyzing and inspiring meaningful action among our peers. Recognizing that not every woman takes the same path is the first step in realizing the full potential of women and ultimately achieving greater equality in the Church. Motherhood, the pursuit of personal ambition, and participation in community leadership are not mutually exclusive.
Braude cautioned that, if nothing changes, the Church risks loosing a “whole generation of young women.” According to a 2016 survey of active LDS members, 60 percent of millennials do not approve of the status of women in the Church. Petrey further cited recent survey data that showed “that LDS women with higher educations tend to leave the church at higher rates, while the inverse is true for LDS men,” — perhaps because women do not appreciate their low status within the Church or its male-dominated leadership.
Braude believes that LDS officials recognize this pressing reality and are working to make changes. In the past decade, the LDS Church has changed the age for female missionary service to 19, changed key terminology in essential rituals, and allowed women to act as witnesses to baptisms. However, more strong female role models must emerge within the LDS community and demonstrate that women have more than one correct path. A divine role as a mother should be revered, but not preclude the realization of her full academic, physical, and individual potential. Mormon women world-wide have the potential to put the “more” in “Mormon” — to make history, one shattered box at a time.
Image Credit: Unsplash/Umberto // Unsplash/Orange Thomas