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For Despairing Mormon Feminists: It Gets Better

It's that time of year when many Mormon women despair of ever being treated like equal partners in church (hello, onslaught of Mother's Day pedestal rhetoric!). Here is the rhetoric and its accompanying subtext in a nutshell:

Women are wonderful (but we couldn't trust them to make important decisions, or even to be present when said decisions are made, so we'll just smile broadly and reiterate that they are wonderful).

Women are incredible (but for all their strength their Heavenly Mother is still too retiring and gentle a spirit to have her name mentioned in public, so please pretend she does not exist).

Women are uber-spiritual (but not so spiritual that they can still bless each other as their pioneer ancestresses did, so please don't mention historical claims of lost female authority).

Women have motherhood, which is equal to men having priesthood (and it is entirely irrelevant that men also have fatherhood, so please don't bring that up either).

In other words, it is the time of year when some Mormon women feel driven to demolish leftover Easter bunnies as they kvetch to one another about how unfairly women are treated in church, having been entirely shut out of ecclesiastical authority. And this is a legitimate complaint that I share, which is why I haven't attended sacrament meeting on Mother's Day in six years (except for the year they asked me to speak and received rather a mouthful). I prefer to spend the day with my family and eat the rest of the Easter bunny, who has retained all but his ears since Easter morning -- an oversight that must be rectified.

But I recently took heart from taking a walk down memory lane with a 1948 magazine article that reminded me how far we've come. In harvesting old ads from postwar issues of Woman's Day, I was particularly struck by the column "How to Be a Girl." Basically, this is the advice section of the magazine that is directed toward teenage girls, trying to prepare them to become the Woman's Day readers and enthusiastic pie bakers of tomorrow. It's entertaining enough that it bears quoting at length:

Feeling sorry for yourself is almost exclusive with girls. You rarely see it in males....And baby, how stuck you can feel if you indulge your self-pity! Since it does nothing for you except to make you feel bad, it might be a good idea to cement that weak spot in your psychology now....

There are, we think, three reasons why girls and women find the habit so easy to fall into. In the first place, you are born with the tendency, we'll bet. Centuries of being the weaker sex have given our side an assumed right to do nothing. Down through literature comes a train of pretty ladies famed for their beauty and wit and given to vapeurs in the face of extreme difficulties. Centuries of being the strong, protective sex have made men capable of doing twice as much work with never a thought of being imposed on by us!

[The second point is about how women complain because they are constantly interrupted, which is quite reasonable. So let's pick up with point #3.]

And in the third place, gals are unprofessional in their approach to life. Because they are not paid for the word they do directly, they have the feeling that they can do it or not, as they please. They don't feel any compulsion . . . . [But] they are paid -- they are supported by their husbands. To earn the right to be supported they have to do their end of the family work. And that is running a good, happy and successful home which everyone adores.

Now, doesn't that make you glad to be a 21st-century woman? I'm not going to dissect how absurd this passage is, but suffice it to say that nothing this incredibly sexist could be published in a major national magazine today, unless it were The Onion.

So here's the good news: It got better. In almost every sphere of life today, women's contributions are valued on an equal footing with men's. I am an equal partner in my marriage and a valued colleague in my profession. I've been encouraged to obtain all the education I possibly could, to vote and serve on juries, to write books on all kinds of topics, to teach university, to go toe-to-toe with a doctor who gave a too-hasty diagnosis, to manage my investments, to travel the world.

In fact, the only arena of my life where I am not treated as fully equal is in my religion. Yes, that is clearly an important arena, but let's take a moment and thank God and all the brave women who came before us that it's not 1948, or 1787, or 1692. And let's in turn become brave women who can pave the way to make the world, including the LDS Church, a place where women and girls can feel equally significant, equally beloved of their Heavenly Parents.

It got better. And it will continue getting better.


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Topics: Culture, Gender & Sexuality
Beliefs: Mormon
Tags: 1940s advice to teen girls, flunking sainthood, jana riess, mormon feminism, mormon women, mormon women and mother's day, mormon women and priesthood, mormon women blessing and anointing, november 1948 issue of woman's day, skipping church on mother's day, woman's day


  1. I still believe in the Easter Bunny too.

  2. I agree that LDS women should agitate for equal treatment in their church. However, one of the central claims of Mormonism is that their leaders are guided by revelation. If God is directing Mormon leaders, then why not expect the needed changes to come from the top?

    It seems that trying to change things from the bottom up (which I am highly in favor of) is an admission that LDS leaders are out of touch and not receiving the message God wants them to hear.

  3. I would like to offer the case of Mia Love, the Republican candidate who was selected by a 70% vote of the Utah state party convention to run against incumbent Democrat Jim Matheson for his seat in the US House of Representatives.  She is the daughter of Haitian immigrants, mayor of the small town of Saratoga Springs, mother of three, and a convert to Mormonism.  Many Mormons seem more than happy to choose her to be a leader of their government with real power over their lives.  The leadership of the LDS Church, of course, are not taking sides in this or any election campaign. 

    A number of women, including non-Mormons, have been elected in Utah to either Congress orbstate-wide office, such as attorney general.  Female elected officials are a natural outgrowth of women having the right to vote, something Utah Territory first legislated in 1871 (during the life of Brigham Young).  Apparently Mormon men do not have problems with giving specific women governmental power over them.  If they are on a permanent campaign to suppress women, they have done a poor job of it. 

    Similarly for the education of women in the LDS Church universities, where the Church financially subsidizes an equal number of female and male students in pursuing higher education and qualifying themselves for leadership in every profession. 

    The sexual differentiation in roles within the LDS Church does not translate into such differentiation in the secular worlds of government, education and business.  This has to give insight into what the gender differences within the Church really mean.  I would be.most interested in Jana’s insights into what that meaning is. 

    May I suggest that the meaning of this has something to do with the sexual differentiation between ourselves and our spouses, which is so fundamental to our own feelings and personalities.  The LDS Church appears to me to be saying that it is more like the family, where gender roles are organic, rather than the secular world, where such differences are irrational and can be discarded.

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