Church Ends Discriminatory Employment Practice: How Mormon Feminists Made a Difference

The New York Times invited Mormon women to post their feedback about the status of women in the LDS Church in April 2014. We are still waiting for Mormon church leaders to show equal interest in the feedback of Mormon women as the Times.

The New York Times invited Mormon women to post their feedback about the status of women in the LDS Church in March 2014. Do Mormon church leaders show as much interest in the feedback of Mormon women as the Times?

The Church announced yesterday that it will no longer refuse to hire women with children under 18 or fire female seminary and institute teachers when they become mothers. “This change makes it possible for families to decide what best meets their needs as it relates to mothers working while raising children,” said the announcement. Reference A

Amen to that.

I am thrilled about this change because it will make a real difference in Mormon lives (unlike renaming Women’s Meeting to Women’s Session, which is a nominal change only, especially considering that men will continue to preside and give the keynote speech at the women’s session). I look forward to a future with more  female scriptorian role models for our youth. Even for women without children, the knowledge  that they would be fired if they ever had children was a big deterrent from seeking a seminary or institute job.  It was also an obstacle preventing local managers from hiring women, even without children; who wants to hire someone they would most likely have to fire later? As a parent, I am relieved that I will not have to make a difficult decision to either enroll my children in a program that blatantly discriminates against female employees or forego the benefits of seminary instruction for my children. And as I mentioned in a recent Exponent post, the discriminatory seminary and institute policy was actually undermining teachings by current apostles who encourage more friendly attitudes toward working mothers. Reference B

In December 2011, I posted here at the Exponent about some life events that had helped me realize that I needed to seek gender equality within the Mormon faith, including how I learned about the church’s policy banning mothers with minor children from employment as seminary teachers.

Insignificant Events That Make A Mormon Feminist | The Exponent, December 2011

In the online conversation surrounding the post, I noticed that people who defended the church’s seminary program did not argue that firing women for having children was okay; they said that the Church has no such policy.  It occurred to me that even more traditional church members would disapprove of this policy if they were made aware that it really exists.

I searched the Internet for documentation of the policy and found nothing.

Finally, I called my local Seminary and Institute Preservice Training Office and asked about the policy. They confirmed it, clarified it (although the clarification did not make it sound any less reprehensible) and admitted that they intentionally avoided disclosing the policy publicly. I suspect that they preferred to hide the policy because its discriminatory nature would bother church members and the general public. I documented the conversation, posted it here at the Exponent, and at last, the policy was available for others to read.  I hoped that shining a light on the policy would lead to change.

LDS Church Educational System Employment Policies For Mothers | The Exponent, January 2012

There was a strong reaction to the posted interview. A healthy debate ensued about how to change the policy. In April 2012, a major media outlet mentioned the LDS seminary program’s hiring ban for mothers, finally bringing broader public exposure to this long-held policy.  My post at the Exponent was referenced as the source for the article.

The rise of the Mormon feminist housewife | Salon, April 2012

In March 2014, the New York Times posted a detailed article about the status of women in the LDS Church and invited Mormon women to comment.

Missions Signal a Growing Role for Mormon Women | New York Times, March 2014

And we did comment!  We posted so many comments that we prompted a follow-up story about the issues we mentioned in our comments, including the ban on mothers as paid seminary teachers.

From Mormon Women, a Flood of Requests and Questions on Their Role in the Church | New York Times, March 2014

Again, many church members were surprised to learn from the New York Times about the usually undisclosed policy, prompting Ordain Women to write a response, linking to my 2012 interview at the Exponent.

NYT on Mormon Women Questioning Their Role at Church: A Response to Questions and Criticisms | Ordain Women, March 2014

Later that week, Peggy Fletcher Stack at the Salt Lake Tribune asked a church spokesperson about the policy, finally resulting in a statement from official channels articulating the ban on mothers’ employment.

Rare honor: Female BYU prof to run Mormon institute | Salt Lake Tribune, March 2014

And at last, in November 2014, the policy finally changes.

Our work is not done, of course.  It appears that other aspects of the policy still discriminate on the basis of family circumstance.  For example, while some divorcees are newly eligible for seminary and institute teacher employment, the policy has only been relaxed for divorcees who are remarried.  It appears that if a seminary or institute teacher ends a marriage to an abusive spouse, he or she will be fired.  That is not acceptable.

What can we learn from the demise of the mothers’ employment ban at LDS seminaries and institutes as we seek further progress?

I conclude that shining a light on inequity works.  When the policy was undocumented and its implications widely ignored, nothing changed.  Bringing national media attention to the issue seems to have helped church leaders recognize the need to change.

It is too bad that the media are needed as an intermediary between church leaders and their female parishioners, but such is the state of affairs in our church today. Women are excluded from priesthood leadership, so we are not at the table when policy decisions are made and our input is received within the leadership hierarchy only when male leaders think to ask for it.  Church members are officially discouraged from communicating with General Authorities and Church Headquarters returns feedback letters to local, mid-level priesthood leaders who have extensive authority to punish their parishioners but no authority to change church-wide policy. Reference C, Reference D   In an open letter to Mormon bloggers, the head of the Church PR Department, Michael Otterson, informed us that “General Authorities do not engage” with “individuals or groups who make non-negotiable demands.”  Reference E How they can possibly know if someone’s demands or requests are non-negotiable if they refuse to meet to discuss these issues with the interested parties remains a mystery.

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is an advocate, mother, professional, lover of the arts, hater (but doer) of housework and seeker of truth. Podcast: Religious Feminism Podcast Twitter: @aprilyoungb

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17 Responses

  1. Jessawhy says:

    Way to go, April! This is a great moment. I’m so glad that you’ve documented the twists and turns of this journey.

    My favorite seminary teacher was a woman. She was pregnant and left the last quarter. I missed her so much and I could tell how hard it was for her to be “fired” because she started a family. She never said she wanted to leave, but tried to be brave. I’m so glad for this policy change. I wish it had happened decades ago.

  2. This is great news!

    I love that this allows “families to decide what best meets their needs as it relates to mothers working while raising children.”

    I remember watching John Dehlin’s podcast with former CES teacher John McLay and his wife Brooke. I felt so sorry them and other CES families, living on low pay and prohibited from making choices about “what best meets their needs.”

    I love that the internet is changing top-down policy decrees to a better balance of top-down and bottom-up. There are a select few things in our church for which there is only one right way to do them. Since I believe in revelation, with Christ at the head of the church, I can reckon with top-down on those doctrines.

    But there are so many more practices for which there is no one right way. That’s where bottom-up input comes in.

    I look forward to more changes. Kudos to those who stand out on the front lines.

  3. It’s not true that the general authorities are not listening to the concerns of members and especially women in the church. For the past several years, leaders have been meeting closely with a wide range of female members and leaders to discuss issues they face and ways the church can be improved. Changes are slow in the church, but they are happening.

    • That is nice to know. Who are they meeting with? How do women get such a meeting? I have personally co-signed 6 letters over the past two years requesting a meeting with any General Authority available, and received no response.

  4. Melody says:

    Thank you, April! Wonderful post about wonderful news. Your opening sentence took my breath away. “The Church announced yesterday that it will no longer refuse to hire women with children under 18 or fire female seminary and institute teachers when they become mothers.” Bam. And the phrase “the mothers’ employment ban” – tells it like it is. Or was. I love your clarity and courage.

  5. Alisa says:

    April, I always know your posts are going to be solid. This is no exception. You’ve been making your mark, and it’s a pleasure to see you bring about these changes for the better. And who says that blogging never does anything? This is such evidence how in this case specifically, it does.

    I am so thrilled that the Church won’t be firing these women any more for being pregnant or having a baby, or inviting trained teachers to return to work only in lower-paid administrative work because they’re now mothers and seen as unfit to influence students directly.

  6. Em says:

    I’m sure you addressed this in past posts and discussions about this. What still is crazy to me is that mothers with children under 18 have always taught seminary in our area, because it isn’t a paid position, it is a calling. Two of my teachers growing up were in that position, and the current teacher for our ward is too. They are all great women who did (do) a great job. So it is okay to put added pressure on younger families and take time of mothers as long as they’re working for free. I know that the Lord blesses these teachers, but it sends an unfortunate message when we pressure women to do it for free, but refuse to allow them to be paid. This policy change is important. It sends a stronger message about the value of women and motherhood than any words in a lesson ever could.

    • Heather says:

      Amen Em!! As long as a woman isn’t paid to teach seminary it’s all cool… April, bravo. I loved this. Loved how you documented the slow process, loved how you owned your part, loved how joyous your response to the change is. I’m proud to know you!!!! And I know I’ve over-exclamationed but I don’t care!!!!

  7. CAS says:

    Outstanding post, April. And wonderful policy change, too. I hope this is the beginning of greater expansion of women’s roles in our church and support for the variety of women’s contributions in our society generally.

  8. senalishia says:

    This makes me hope real change is possible. Thank you.

  9. April, thank you for the report.

    It is too bad that the media are needed as an intermediary between church leaders and their female parishioners, but such is the state of affairs in our church today. Women are excluded from priesthood leadership, so we are not at the table when policy decisions are made and our input is received within the leadership hierarchy only when male leaders think to ask for it. Church members are officially discouraged from communicating with General Authorities and Church Headquarters returns feedback letters to local, mid-level priesthood leaders who have extensive authority to punish their parishioners but no authority to change church-wide policy.

    Yes, yes, yes. And to further clarify, local male and female leaders tend to lean very strongly to the accept-and-don-not-ever-question side. Meaning that the generally impotent (with regards to general policy) leaders are almost never going to be of the mindset to seriously consider input that bucks the status quo —‚ and even less likely to support that input and pass it up the chain of command.”

  10. Violadiva says:

    So interesting that you point out the “hidden” nature of this policy.

    I’m curious about another part of the equation that also seems “hidden”: are male CES employees wives allowed to work outside (or inside) the home? In light of this announcement, I’ve now heard both ways. A friend of mine wanted to have an etsy shop and was told by the Seminary director she could not. But I just read of a woman who had a full-time job outside the home while her husband was a seminary teacher. How do we get to the bottom of that maybe-policy? And, if it is true, will it be enforced for the husbands of the female CES employees?

    Also, families of CES employees are asked to relocate, sometimes against their preferences, to take a teaching position at a new location. If it is a female CES employee, whose husband is also gainfully employed in the area, would they transfer her as easily as any other person? Or would her husband’s line of work be considered a trump?

    Still some confusing double standards to sort through, but this will be such a great blessing to the women who seek this employment! Many women become school teachers for the convenience of the schedule, summers off, etc., it will be a nice option for them to consider seminary teaching for the church as a profession. In general, the church seems to be a good employer, right? Pretty good benefits and not a completely horrible wage?

    I think it will be great for High school and College students to have excellent, female scriptorians to admire and associate with. Hopefully they will start hiring more women right away!

  11. SH says:

    Now we can hope that some other discriminatory and not family-friendly policies will be changed, such as:

    -single men not being allowed to teach at church schools
    -women of “child-bearing years” (as determined by priesthood leadership and not the individuals themselves) not being allowed to serve as temple workers
    -BYU and possibly other church schools not offering paid or even unpaid maternity leave or paternity leave

    I did not find BYU to be a family-friendly employer other than regularly including spouses in social events. The church is self-insured and we paid more and fought more with DMBA, the church’s self -insurance plan, than any other insurance we’ve ever had. Despite a doctor’s emergency recommendation that my fallopian tubes be tied, I had to show DMBA that I had had at least five pregnancies before they would pay for it. Took a 50% pay raise when we left and went to a smaller public school; we felt very blessed.

  12. Ziff says:

    This is such good news! Many kudos to you, April, for doing the work to bring the policy to light in the first place! And thanks for recounting all the intermediate steps; I had lost track of all that had happened.

    I was also struck by the section that Alison Moore Smith also quoted:

    “It is too bad that the media are needed as an intermediary between church leaders and their female parishioners, but such is the state of affairs in our church today.”

    So sadly true. This point has always been at the center of apologists for the female priesthood ban’s arguments against OW. They will claim that women can somehow magically get their concerns to the ears of decision-makers at the top of the Church, but of course the reality is, as you said, that unfortunately the only demonstrated way to do this is to get the media to serve as an intermediary.

  1. October 29, 2015

    […] used to do one thing, and now they do another thing. The CES policy of firing new mothers has already changed. Along the same lines, I hope that a future Church essay says, “Although it was uncommon in […]

  2. July 29, 2016

    […] I had been told that the church fires married, female seminary/institute teachers for giving birth but there was no public documentation of the policy, so I interviewed someone at the Seminary and Institute Preservice Training Office. Spoiler: Yes, they were firing married women for becoming mothers. The good news is that this policy has since changed. […]

  3. May 30, 2017

    […] this was the only publicly accessible documentation of the policy and my post was referenced in national news articles about LDS Seminary and Institute hiring practices. Finally, decades after the policy was first implemented but less than three years after […]

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