Young Mormon feminists fill me with awe. Intelligent and well-educated, they have or are working towards fulfilling professional careers—even if their current role is SAHM. Not so my generation. When I graduated from a small high school in Utah County in 1959, only five of the 55 girls in my high school class went directly to college. And why should they? The only jobs for women we knew about were teacher, nurse, and secretary. Smart girls took typing and shorthand during high school, went to work in a local bank or business, and saved their money for a trousseau. Girls who preferred filing fingernails to filing folders went to beauty school. Of course, many girls married within weeks of graduation. Only a few of us with no immediate matrimonial prospects opted for college.
It wasn’t that most occupations were closed to women in those days—it was mostly because we didn’t know any women in professional fields. We also weren’t prepared for higher education. When I chose to enroll in Algebra II as a high school junior, the counselor asked why a girl would take that class. Those of us who did attend college mostly majored in elementary education—so we’d have “something to fall back on, just in case.” A few super-brains majored in English, but elementary ed or, at BYU, Human Development and Family Relations (HDFR) was preferred because we could use what we learned with our own children.
Although ERA failed to pass in the 1970s, the discussion changed American culture. Separate laws banning gender discrimination in the work place passed. Jobs opened—telephone operators and nurses could be male. Radio announcers could be female—it took a few more years for women to break into TV.
The ERA debate stirred reaction in Mormondom. Rhetoric ramped up on the sanctity of the home and women’s roles as homemakers and caregivers. Sonia Johnson was seen as an example of what happens to women who let Satan distract them from their divine role as mothers and followers of the Priesthood. In the mid-70s, I took a group of bright, talented14 and15-year-old girls from my Seattle ward out for ice cream. Every one of them had the goal of attending BYU and majoring in HDFR.
Yet, even the Church cannot resist outside change forever. One of the most influential laws passed in the ERA period was Title 9 which mandated equal funding for girls’ and women’s sports in schools and colleges. The YW sports program expanded to accommodate girls who learned competitive team sports in school. The ‘70s was also a time of serious last days’ speculation and angst in the Church, and the YW camping program was expanded to teach Mormon girls survival skills.
I doubt Church Authorities anticipated the effects of young women competing in sports and learning to survive in the wild. Girls who defeat opponents on the basketball court are not afraid to tackle male-dominated science and math classes. Girls who build a snow cave and sleep outside in sub-zero weather know they can go abroad and serve missions. When our oldest daughter received her mission call 19 years ago, she was the first girl ever to serve a mission from our ward. Within the next few years five other girls from our ward chose fulltime missions.
Pandora is out of the box. No way can these capable, confident young women be content in the kitchen and nursery. How can they not question a role that relegates them to “help meet?” They have much to offer, and they want that opportunity.
Mormon feminists are not trying to undermine men. They’re asking for participation in ordinances performed for their children—for the opportunity to hold their own baby during a Church blessing—for the opportunity to give a “Mother’s Blessing” to their children without criticism. They see the contradiction in a proclamation which states that husbands and wives are equal partners, but the husbands preside. And, in a Church that proclaims ongoing revelation, Mormon women long to hear more about their Heavenly Mother as their role model.
In the modern world, men have learned to work with and for competent women. Many young Mormon men recognize that the Church would benefit from hearing from the other half of the congregation in decision-making councils. Elderly leaders, however, lack these experiences. I suspect their wives and daughters are generally satisfied with the status quo—and I doubt many elderly gentlemen listen to their granddaughters.
Change in Mormon Church structure doesn’t always come from the top. Sunday School and Primary were begun by individual members who saw a need and acted. I suspect women’s role in the Church will be changed by individual women who are willing to speak their mind in meetings, who talk about Heavenly Mother, and who are even willing to show up in church wearing nice pantsuits.