Exponent II Classics: Feminism and Mormon Women Today
In this excerpt from a 2006 Exponent II article, author Lael Littke reflects on her life as a Mormon feminist. Most recently, Lael co-authored The Company of Good Women series, which follows the lives of Mormon women.
I grew up on a farm in Mink Creek, Idaho. One of my daily tasks when school was out was to take the cows to a summer pasture. I herded them along, making sure they all stayed together ans that none of them wandered off to follow her own fancy and then funneled them all through the gate to the same destination.
I mention this because I used to ponder life as I rode along on my horse, and one day it occurred to me that, as a Mormon female, I was being herded along, too, to the same “pasture” as all the other young women I knew. That “pasture” was called “wife and mother.” It was obvious from what we were taught that this was the only acceptable destination.
I had nothing against going there. I wanted to get married. I wanted children. But I wanted to visit other pastures first. I wanted to find out what I could do with whatever talents I had. I wanted to get an education.
The conventional wisdom coming down from the pulpit, in my ward at least, was that women should seek an education but only to make them better wives and mothers. As far as going off to see the world, that was dangerous. Dark things were lurking out there. As for fulfilling my destiny — developing my talents — that was selfish unless it contributed to my being a better wife and mother.
When I was a Beehive girl, one Mutual night our teacher asked the six of us girls in the class what we wanted to be when we grew up. The other five obediently said, “Wife and mother.” I said, “I want to be a writer.”
Sister Anderson blinked. “Don’t you want to be a wife and a mother?” She asked.
“Of course I do,” I said. “But I also want to be a writer.”
Many years later, when I was engaged to be married, I remembered that Beehive teacher, and I wondered if I could really be a good wife and mother if I followed my own fancy like those old cows used to try to do. When my fiance George and I went home from Denver to meet each otehr’s parents, I made an appointment with a former Institute teacher I had especially enjoyed. I spoke with him, laying my dilemma out for him and telling him how much I wanted to become a writer. He leaned back, steepled his hands, smiled beatifically, and said, “Oh, Lael, when you hold your first baby in your arms, you’ll forget all about that stuff.”
Out of that remark, a feminist was born. I became a woman’s advocate. I have never put down being a wife and mother because I believe that is where the great warm heart of womanhood is. But for many of us, there must be more. Contrary to what that Institute teacher said, I did not forget all “that stuff” when I held my baby in my arms. I loved her as completely as any mother ever loved a child, but I also knew that I would continue to pursue a writing career. And I would encourage other women who had dreams not to abandon them.
I spoke my mind for the twenty-two years that I taught Relief Society. Then I was released and asked to be a counselor in the YW. The bishop said he wanted me there specifically because I was the kind of woman I was.
I’ve learned to accommodate. I’ve learned to be a Mormon on my own terms. I’ve learned to love the people of the Church — not only the women, but also the men, especially those who are like my husband was — not the problem but part of the solution.
I think things are better these days. At least women are allowed to pray in Sacrament Meetings! Young women are told to “be everything that you can be.” In her article “Where Have All the Mormon Feminists Gone?” Peggy Stack quotes President Hinckley as saying, “…study your options. Pray to the Lord earnestly for direction. Then pursue your course with resuloution. The whole gamut of human endeavor is now open to women.”
I have always felt empowered, maybe because I took whatever power I was given and “magnified my calling,” not always staying within the prescribed boundaries but never being shrill about it. A good friend told me I got away with it because I did it gently. Quietly.
I have had both a lovely family life and also a career as a writer. Nobody gave me permission. I just did it.