By Sharon Lindbloom
The following was originally printed in the February 2008 edition of MRM’s Update, a special edition mailed to financial supporters who also receive the publication Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription of Mormonism Researched, please visit here.
Mormonism is structured as a patriarchal society. The highest positions of leadership are held by men; and only men may hold the LDS priesthood. Mormonism is seen from the outside as a sexist religion; it has struggled since its beginning to overcome that unflattering public (and in some cases, internal) perception. Some of the painstaking progress toward recognition as an equal-opportunity religion came undone at the October 2007 General Conference of the LDS Church.
During a general session address at the conference, Relief Society President Julie B. Beck explained the God-given role of Mormon women. Her talk, titled “Mothers Who Know,” sought to encourage LDS women as she detailed the means by which they may exercise “eternal influence and power in motherhood.”
Ms. Beck’s talk may have encouraged some LDS women, but for others her comments produced a very real and distressed reaction. In a nutshell, Ms. Beck suggested that faithful LDS women:
- desire to bear children: “Prophets, seers, and revelators who were sustained at this conference have declared that ‘God’s commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force'”
- honor their sacred spiritual covenants by bringing well-groomed children to church: “daughters in clean and ironed dresses with hair brushed to perfection; their sons wear white shirts and ties and have missionary haircuts”
- nurture their families through “cooking, washing clothes and dishes, and keeping an orderly home”
- place a “house of order” above educational pursuits
- limit personal activities outside their homes
- consider their homes a “pre-missionary training center” for their children
- limit their children’s exposure to and activities in things that draw them away from home
- “are willing to live on less and consume less of the world’s goods” in order to have more family time
- dedicate their lives to raising up a “righteous generation of sons and daughters”
Not every point made by Ms. Beck was objectionable to Mormon women, but overall the perception of the message was seen by some as disheartening. Lisa at the Feminist Mormon Housewives blog expressed it this way:
“I’m feeling very discouraged just now. Sad, sad, sad. Disappointed. Tired…
“The thing is, I want to sustain Beck, I don’t want to bash her, but there is no way that I can believe that ‘keeping our homes as tidy as the temple’ or ‘being the best homemakers in the world’ are the vital lessons that will bring myself and my family closer to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
In 2001, LDS feminist Margaret Toscano was excommunicated from the Church for publicly challenging this long-accepted view of women in Mormonism. During an interview for this year’s PBS documentary “The Mormons” she summed up gender-tension in the LDS Church with these words:
“…the bottom line is that the present structure of the LDS Church does not allow a woman to develop her full personhood, and no matter what authority you quote to me to contradict this, for me, the basic teaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the notion of the worth of the individual soul. And I believe that the present structure of the church damages women’s sense of worth.”
It is wholly understandable that people were troubled by Ms. Beck’s characterization of LDS women and the implication that a woman’s standing before God is dependent upon her ability to wash and iron her children’s clothing. One group of concerned Mormon women actually took action. They banded together and published an online document to counter Ms. Beck’s words. On their web site, What Women Know, these Mormon women explained,
“Several ideas within the body of President Beck’s talk conflict with our inspiration and experience. We are authors of our own lives, and this is the story we know to be true.” (http://whatwomenknow.org)
Thirteen counter-points follow this introduction. They affirm a well-rounded view of both men and women, as well as the equality of genders. The final point reads, “We are created in the image of the divine—people of worth in our own right, in our choices, in our individuality, and in our belief that the life story we are ultimately responsible for is our own.”
While many Mormons would like to see change in the way womanhood is regarded within the LDS Church, the Church is not likely to abandon its ingrained traditions. Time will tell whether this is the end of the story, for not only is Mormonism a patriarchal religion, the LDS Church also possesses an historic reputation for disciplining dissenters.
Marlin Jensen of the LDS First Quorum of the Seventy explained that where members get into “difficulty” with the Church is
“when that … person takes a position and begins either to attack the general leader or the local leaders of the church or begins to attack the basic doctrine of the church and does that publicly. … That’s, at least in my humble view of it, probably the definition of apostasy. At that point a person in that situation would be counseled and lovingly invited to become at least quiet — (laughs) — if not orthodox, and if they refuse and persist in their public opposition to leaders or to the doctrine of the church, at that point I think the church has no option but to take some disciplinary action toward them with the hope that they will humble themselves and change their hearts and become more contrite members of the church…”
Taking this into consideration, perhaps in her talk Ms. Beck should have made it clear that in addition to being “the best homemakers in the world,” faithful LDS women keep their heartfelt concerns to themselves.