This week I am speaking to a group of teenage girls in the church Young Women’s program about my education and career. I have mixed feelings about it.
I was initially flattered and surprised that an acquaintance thought to ask me, since I have no connection to the Young Women’s program. (Query whether I should really be surprised: there aren’t exactly a whole lot of professional women to choose from.)
I was also excited. I love teaching and speaking and I LOVE teenage girls. Sadly, I don’t think that I will ever be called to work with girls in the church because I don’t have a temple recommend and married outside the church and am probably rightly perceived by church elders as a bad example for the rising generation. So I felt like I should jump at the chance to get to know the girls here in Chicago, on however brief a basis.
Looking at the bigger picture, I was thrilled to learn that my local congregation is actively working to encourage girls to reach their full potential. I longed for church experiences like this as a young person and advocate for them as an adult. Local initiatives that present a picture of LDS womanhood beyond wife and motherhood are exactly what the church needs to begin chipping away the at sexist cultural traditions that persist today.
Given all the upsides, I was surprised to find that I was hesitant to agree to the assignment. What Mormon feminist could in good conscience object is to educating girls about their options?
The root of my discomfort is this: the dichotomy between my own beliefs and the church’s teachings on the role of women in the family is too stark, too unresolved, for me to give advice on this topic. It feels unethical to present myself as an example of a working mom, when prophets and apostles have clearly and repeatedly denounced my lifestyle, maintaining that a married woman’s primary role is to nurture children while her husband provides. Even if I don’t explicitly address the fact that I have a young child or that my husband stays at home, my presence at a church sanctioned career event implicitly condones choices that directly contradict major church teachings. True, most church members don’t criticize my choices to my face, but there is no denying that they aren’t choices that are widely accepted by the Mormon community. There is no denying that most Mormons elevate 1950s-style family roles as the divinely-decreed ideal to which we should all aspire. Who am I to stand up in front of a group of impressionable young women and suggest otherwise?
To put it bluntly, it feels deeply hypocritical to lead young women to believe that they can pursue full professional lives, knowing full well that if they actually follow this advice, they will be shamed for being selfish, materialistic, and worldly. For rejecting God’s plan. For depriving their children of a mother’s nurturing care. For being, in so many ways, less than women who don’t earn a paycheck.
The church — members and leaders alike — wants to have it both ways. They want to prove to the world that the institution is good for women, that it encourages women to further their education and provides opportunities for personal growth through public speaking, leadership, and service. To that end, content creators for the church website emphasize the similarities between men and women at church and gloss over the many ways that women lack authority. To that end, local leaders tell young women that they can become doctors and lawyers and teachers and gloss over the many talks from church authorities advising that it is only appropriate for a woman to work outside the home when she has no other option (as in the case of widowhood and divorce).
At the same time, the church is also committed to preserving the patriarchal order, both in the institution and in the home. To that end, spokespeople for the church refuse to engage with people who support the ordination of women. To that end, committees of church employees publish manuals that claim that men are preside over family affairs. To that end, the church encourages women to participate in temple services that expressly subjugate them to men.
The fruit of efforts to implement these two desires — to uphold a patriarchal system while simultaneously conveying the message that the church values women — is tension. Tension between local efforts and teachings by the highest leadership. Tension between the public face of the church and private ceremonies. Tension in the hearts and minds of people like me, who are certain that God does not sanction inequality but who do not want to lead girls down the unhappy path of questioning the religious community of which they want to be a part.
Tension and reservations aside, I decided that I am going to participate in career night for the young women in my area, and here’s why:
I didn’t know that my grandmother was a working mom until I was 28 years old. I happened to stumble across letters documenting her promotions in some family history scrapbooks. My own grandmother. My Mormon grandmother. The only one in our family who came from pioneer stock. A woman so principled that she refused to get in my grandfather’s car on their first date until he put out his cigar. A woman so faithful she married him anyway, knowing he’d be baptized less than a year later. A wife and mother to three girls in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. The woman who raised the most faithful person I know today, my own mother.
When my mom later told me, like it was not a revelation, “Oh, yeah, my mom always worked,” at least part time, and not even because she had to, but because she liked to, I felt, at long last, unburdened. The top layer of all the shame I carry for failing to live up to the standard set for women in the church lifted. I finally had a precedent, in my own family even, of a righteous woman and a good mom working to support her children. I wish I could ask her about it. I wish she could reassure me that I worry too much, that my family’s happiness and salvation doesn’t depend on this one choice I made, to work. I wish I could thank her for showing me a different way, for finally opening my eyes to the possibility that the decision to be a working mom does not have to be a big deal. It is just part of life, such a normal part that nobody thought to mention it to me for 28 years.
In ten years, the youngest of the girls I’m talking to tonight will be old enough to have graduated from college. Some of the girls will be applying for post-college jobs. others will be going to graduate school. Others will be married, some will have kids. I have no idea what the church will look like when these girls are making decisions about marriage and work and how to build a family. I believe it will be better than it is now. Beyond reinforcing the importance of getting an education, working hard in school, and finding a fulfilling career, I want to give these girls a model. If they ever find themselves feeling burdened by church teachings about what a woman should be, I want them to be able to look back and recall the lady who spoke to them when they were in the young women’s program, the lady who worked hard and had a kid and was proud of it. I want them to remember the lady who knew she wasn’t doing anything wrong. I want to point them to a God who knows that the only thing you need to make a family work is love and if you’ve got that, the rest is just details. No big deal.