A Reason to Believe

Gillian* caught my eye on that first Sunday. I was the new–and only–Young Women’s counselor in a small urban ward. Gillian’s schoolbooks lay in a neat pile beneath her seat, next to a fresh paperback copy of the Book of Mormon. Even during activities, her schoolwork was never far from her. Her parents, recent immigrants, had enrolled her at a local parochial high school — no small sacrifice. The public school alternative boasted the highest gang activity in the state.

I’m not sure where or when Gillian met the missionaries, but she somehow got hooked on the church and attended for nearly a year before her mom gave offered her consent to baptism. Well before this ritual, Gillian wanted to immerse herself in church activity. She even created a three-year plan for completing Personal Progress, though the suggested activities occasionally baffled her. [“Sister X. I don’t have a sewing machine, and I don’t know how to put together a fashion show. Can I give a presentation on female genital mutilation to the class? It made me so sad when I read about it.”]

One Sunday, a stake visitor taught the lesson. She asked the girls to write down who they wanted to be in ten years. Gillian took to the task seriously, and volunteered to share first. “I’m torn. Part of me wants to be criminal prosecutor but I might want to study engineering.” All of the answers were warmly acknowledged before the teacher introduced the topic of the lesson: preparing for motherhood. I caught up with Gillian afterwards – I had to hear more, to see if she had a good guidance counselor, to ask if she had begun prepping for the SATs. Here was a young woman who had friends who were having babies, and she wanted to be a district attorney! Surely I had some obligation to fan this desire. That week, I spent hours on lds.org, rustling up every reference I could find about women and education. The next week, we began the lesson with the following quote from Gordon B. Hinckley:

Find purpose in your life. Choose the things you would like to do, and educate yourselves to be effective in their pursuit. For most it is very difficult to settle on a vocation. In this day and time, a girl needs an education . . .. The whole gamut of human endeavor is now open to women. There is not anything that you cannot do if you will set your mind to it. You can include in the dream of the woman you would like to be a picture of one qualified to serve society and make a significant contribution to the world of which she will be a part.

Over the next few weeks, Gillian and I talked a lot about college and options for the future. When Gillian got baptized, I struggled to find an appropriate gift. The missionaries had given her a set of lovely set of scriptures and church books. I finally settled on a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. I saw in Gillian something of Eleanor’s intellect, integrity, and tenacity. It just felt right.

Then I moved. And got engaged. Then married. Life got busy, and she was better about staying in touch than I was. She left a phone message saying she had been accepted to an Eleanor Roosevelt Summer Leadership Institute. Another phone message told me that she was elected class president. And this March, she tracked me down to tell me that she had been accepted to three of the top liberal arts colleges in the nation to study biomedical engineering. Next week she’ll travel with duffle bags to her chosen institution — a prototypical Ivy with a grassy quad. When we spoke yesterday, she was tremblingly euphoric.

So here she is. A teenager. An African-American. A woman. An immigrant. A Mormon by choice. “Did I tell you? I’m going to double major in women’s studies!” I warn her not to overload her first semester – to get used to the new routine first. I tell her I’m proud of her. Unspeakably so. There’s a sense of destiny about her. Gillian believes – in herself, in God, in the gospel, in the future — and this church had something to do with that. I find that humbling.

I also worry. Someday, she will almost certainly encounter elements of church history, doctrine, or culture that perplex or hurt her. She’s a reader and a thinker. She asks hard questions. She’s passionate about women’s rights, civil rights, human rights. Since Sunday, I have been praying that when those times come, women will be placed in her path to nurture her. Because we need Gillian in this church. My daughters (if I’m so blessed) need to hear her Young Women’s lessons and read about her research discoveries. I need her; she reminds me why I am both a Mormon and a feminist: We worship a God who nurtures the divinity within us. We hold as scripture: “[God] inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female . . . all are alike unto God.”

I believe in this. I believe in her.

*Pseudonym

Deborah

Deborah is K-12 educator who nurtures a healthy interest in reading, writing, running, ethics, mystics, and interfaith dialogue.

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  1. jana says:

    Deborah:
    I love this post! I am so thrilled for Gillian! What an accomplishment for her to get accepted into such a reputable school and what excitement the future holds.

    It is unfortunate that the more education LDS women get, the less likely they are to stay active in the church. I desperately wish that we had role models of LDS women who have attained higher education and experienced successful careers. Do you know if there are there any writings about such women other than the smattering of articles printed in X2 over the years?

  2. Eve says:

    Deborah, I can’t think of anything to say that doesn’t somehow seem meagre after what you’ve written–except maybe to say that I hunger for a Mormon world with more Gillians in it and hope, hope for every good thing and every success for her. Thank you.

  3. Stephen says:

    Jana

    Interesting. We have an older single sister with two grown children who is chief corporate counsel for a local business. She is also our Relief Society president.

    In Elders Quorum, a week and a half ago, in talking about Spiritual Pioneers and good examples, one of the brethren brought her up as a great example and everyone agreed.

    It would be nice if more people like her also had time to write.

  4. Jeremy says:

    “Since Sunday, I have been praying that when those times come, women will be placed in her path to nurture her.”

    In a place where women routinely comment about wanting/needing equity etc. it is fascinating to me that you consistantly marginalize men and their abilities etc. If you want things to be different, you really should act that way.

    Anyone could be placed in her path to help and guide this fine young woman. The fact that you feel it needs to be a woman seems incredibly closed minded to me.

    Some women seem to be constantly irritated about what some men say, or by the way they say it. They never seem to think that they in turn are very capable of doing the exact same thing. If you want men to think more carefully about what they say and how they catagorize issues, I suggest you do the same.

    I completely agree with everything you have said in your post. I just wish feel that if you want the members of the church/church leaders to be more gender neutral, you have to start doing it yourselves.

  5. Deborah says:

    Jeremy: I heartily agree with your sentiment that we are at our best when anyone — male or female (bond or free . . .) — can nurture a person through such questions. I was writing this piece partly in reaction to Molly Bennion’s piece “Why I Stay” — and Gillian is a powerful motivator for me, a woman, to stay and stay strong. I have watched many educated women leave the church, and had that phenomenon in mind when I wrote that sentence. In order to nurture a new generation of educated women, the prior generation needs to be . . . available.

  6. sarah says:

    Responding to Jeremy, I think Deb wrote that she prays for women to nuture Gillian along the way because it really helps to have role models of the same biological sex — for boys and girls. I grew up in Provo, where we learned in YW that motherhood came first, vacuuming could be an art, and if you got too much education you wouldn’t find a man. I had plenty of men who nurtured me academically and encouraged my intellectual growth — more men than women actually, but the biggest influence on my decision to pursue college, graduate degrees, and a professional career, was my mother. She was fully devout and traditional, but she taught at BYU, had a MA in English, wrote a couple of books, and introduced me to Exponent. She also introduced me to many of her women friends who were highly educated, bright, and professional career women. They are whom I modeled myself after, because as much as I appreciate the role male mentors have played in my life — their life experience is different than mine and the hurdles they have had to jump are different than mine. I believe in equity in the home, in church, and in society, but fact is, it generally isn’t there. Thus, the paths women have to trod, and the choices they are asked to make, are quite different from men. I need role models of Mormon women who are both involved mothers and successful careerites — I want to see how they do it and I want to have their listening ears. As long as the church places motherhood as women’s #1 priority (which as a mother, it is for me) and a man’s as being the provider, one can’t help but use gender exclusive language on occassion.
    If Gillian is surrounded by all male nurturers and role models, they might not understand her experience and decisions the same way a woman in the same boat would. I am a single, working mother (adopted child, no father in the picture), and I find that the people who understand me best are other single, working moms.
    I, too, hope Gillian has both male and female mentors. But the fact is, women with professional careers, lots of education, and so forth, are harder to find in the church than men and we often feel alone, misunderstood, and as if there is something wrong with us for valuing our lives as much as our childrens’ lives — or for having to work to support a family as well as be the major care giver and maintainer of domestic goddess duties. I crave being around strong Mormon women with careers, because I simply can’t relate to the professional male who has a stay-at-home wife who takes care of the children so he can focus on his career or education. I envy him, but I can’t relate to him.

  7. Jeremy says:

    I agree with all that you are saying. I was just taking the opportunity to say that many times we say things we dont intend – and others take them the wrong way. I have seen this many times on this blog. Especially concering talks by General Authorities. I think the great majority of things found to be an offense to the feminist mindset are in reality like you said:

    “…and had that phenomenon in mind when I wrote that sentence. “

    I guess I just wish that people would be more careful with what they say, and less reactionary with what they hear. I too have seen intelligent people leave the church, and it is usually due to severe misunderstandings.

  8. Dora says:

    Deborah, I love this. Especially as the scope for development of women has greatly expanded in the last 60 years, we need good role models to be examples. The fact is, women now have more choices than ever before. And just as I think that children need to be exposed to every good thing in order to find those particular talents that each can develop and find satisfaction in, I think that young women need exposure to many different types of female roles in order to find the one that best suits their individual nature. Then, and only then, can it be a choice instead of an obligation.

    And I do agree that there is something very special about having positive role models that one identifies with. Yes, girls and boys should be taught to look up to both men and women. However, in the church, most of the lessons we learn are about men … Sunday school, RS/PH, general conference … are positively full of role models, but rather lacking in female role models.

    As for Jeremy, I must say that I initially took offense when I first read your comments, because they seemed so contentious. That is one of the precarious things about communication in general, and blogging in particular … nuance can be hard to pick up on.

  9. Eve says:

    Jeremy said,

    I too have seen intelligent people leave the church, and it is usually due to severe misunderstandings.

    On the contrary, my impression has been that intelligent people are leaving the church because of severe understandings. 😉

  10. Jeremy says:

    Eve,
    I know you are joking, but I find implying that only unitelligent people stay in the church to be quite rude and insulting.

  11. AmyB says:

    Beautiful post, Deborah. I think Gillian has a bright future ahead of her, and she is lucky to have had you as one of her mentors along the way.

    Jeremy, I saw no implication in Eve’s comment that only unintelligent people remain in the church. There are many stereotypes out there about why people leave the church (they were offended, they wanted to sin, and on and on)- you seemed to name one of those stereotypes. My own relationship with the church is tenuous at times, and I don’t appreciate being put into any of those labels or stereotypes. I’ve been the good girl, I’ve followed the rules and checklists, I’ve prayed and tried my best to work it out, but I have serious issues with the whitewashed history of the church that I’ve been taught and with the current status of women in the church. I don’t consider my issues to come from misunderstanding. Some people make informed, studied-out decisions to remain in the church, and some to leave. I don’t think we should be labeling or disparaging the intelligence of those who make either choice.

  12. John says:

    As I read through the comments and mentally prepared a response, I found that AmyB said everything I wanted to (and more eloquently that I could’ve). So, “Amen” to AmyB and to you too, Deborah. I add my prayers to your for all of the Gillians out there.

  13. Eve says:

    Jeremy, that wasn’t at all what I meant to imply. (As one who has chosen to stay in the church, it’s unlikely I would suggest that all who do so are, by definition, dumb!) I think AmyB put it very well–intelligent people certainly make both choices.

    I was only responding to your suggestion, which I see repeated frequently, that the problems people perceive in the church are “misunderstandings.” On the contrary, I think that people develop problems with the church because they understand certain things only too well. The difference in people who leave and people who stay is probably more a matter of the relative significance they ascribe to those problems than to their relative understanding of them.

  14. Deborah says:

    I appreciate reading all these thoughtful comments.

    If anyone is still reading, I have a question. I want to buy Gillian a book about Mormon women (or *a* Mormon woman) as a gift before she leaves — something to tie together her love for the church and her interest in women’s studies. I also want it to be developmentally appropriate (in the spiritual sense). In other words, I’m not going to give her In Sacred Loneliness or Mormon Enigma at this point!

    I’m look for suggestions. I am thinking about Margaret Young’s book on Jane Manning James (One More River to Cross) — but I haven’t read it myself. I’m am loving the new Emmeline B. Wells biography. Other ideas? I’m looking at my bookshelf right now. . .

    Sisters in Spirit?
    The best of Women’s Conference talks?
    All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir?

    (P.S. The irony, of course, Sarah is that though her daughters *loved* seeing mom work and find that creative fulfillment, she has persisted in feeling guilty that she returned to work while the youngest girl was still a toddler!)

  15. Deborah says:

    Or maybe a subscription to ExII? 🙂

  16. Caroline says:

    Deborah, I vote for either a subscription to X2 or All God’s Critters. Sisters in Spirit is also one of my favorites, but might be a bit academic for a teen.

  17. sarah says:

    Deb — you are so right! Maybe that is why I, too, feel guilt at having to work while Lilly is of school age. Not that I have a choice if we want to eat…but the guilt is still there and I often compensate by denying myself time alone and a social life of any kind. Even for “feminists,” the tightwire act of having a career and a family is not an easy one. I want what the majority of male men get — a stay-at-home partner!

  18. sarah says:

    I meant Mormon men, not male men…I think it’s a given that most men are indeed MALE… 🙂

  19. Ana says:

    Deborah, thanks for this! It makes me think a lot about the girls in our yw organization — we have joint auxiliaries with our town’s Spanish branch. One brilliant and resourceful girl — very much like your Gillian — left us when her mom was deported earlier this year. Fortunately she is continuing her education while living with an aunt in another town in our area.

    All God’s Critter’s is a great gift book. I gave one to my son’s birthmom when he turned one. I vote for that!

  20. jana says:

    Another book that she might enjoy is _Minerva!_, a book about the life of Minerva Teichert. It’s very readable and is one of the few biographies I can think of about an LDS woman who is able to balance art (her career), family, and her church activity.

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