Exponent II Classics: Feminism and Mormon Women Today

author Lael Littke

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.

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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9 Responses

  1. Azucar says:

    I’m ALWAYS stunned to hear these kinds of stories because I never felt hemmed into wife and motherhood.

    Sure, like the author, I wanted to be a wife and mother, but I never remember equating those opportunities, as marvelous and fulfilling as they are, as the only endeavors to which I was either suited or should aspire.

    I keep wondering if this is a generational thing? I’m about to turn 34. Was it my unique experience? Is it just me? Because I’ve never felt, not until I actually became a mother, that there was any sort of absolutist or wink-and-nod about my potential. I’ve NEVER felt like I had prescribed boundaries. As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that plenty of women have felt that kind of pressure, and I have to say, their experiences have me gobsmacked. Where have all the Mormon Feminists gone? Well, no where, I’m still here, born and raised.

  2. Erin says:

    I agree with Azucar, at least as far as my growing up years were concerned. But I also grew up in New Jersey, far from overwhelmingly Mormon culture. There everyone around me assumed I would be making a career out of my intended musical studies. Imagine my shock upon arriving at BYU to have people tell me that it was a good major for me since I wouldn’t be needing a career after marriage! Particularly alarming was the bishop who, upon finding out I was steadily dating someone and thinking about grad. school exclaimed, “You should get married! You should get married and make babies!”. Not that either of those is bad (I’ve since done both), but the sense that he conveyed that marriage and grad. school were not compatible was startling.

    I’d say that the expectations and pressure expressed in the OP are not as strong as they were when the author grew up, but they’re still there. And possibly that where you live might influence the strength of that pressure.

  3. Chris says:

    My biggest frustration has been the time demands of Church activity on my family. Although I have said “no” to a number of Church callings, it’s been difficult to pursue my passion of writing while my husband served in four stake callings (simultaneously) and I served as stake RS president. As I attempted to juggle writing, fulfilling church responsiblities, caring for my widowed mother, and rearing four children, I have found it very difficult to remain sane, let alone accomplish my dream of being an accomplished writer.

    I believe the Church is still very demanding of women, who do a great deal of the work with very little opportunity to give imput about needs of organizations and families.

  4. MJK says:

    Erin; your story of that bishop reminds me of when I got married. We had been married just over a week and went to our new ward in Provo. Had an interview to introduce ourselves to the bishop and he asked about us and this and that. One of the first questions out of his mouth was, “So when are you going to start having kids?” At first I thought he was kidding, but he was dead serious.
    I blinked and said, “We just got married last week. Then I think I mumbled something about ‘whenever the Lord blesses us with them.’

    The answer was 6 years, just as well he didn’t know that then, I’m sure we’d have gotten a lecture!

    Chris, I also agree that church activity takes a lot of time that would otherwise be spent with my family…

  5. Azucar says:

    Oh, and, I GREW UP IN PROVO. So no generalizations about an overwhelming Mormon culture and good feminists, heehee. Deborah, since we grew up nearly twinned, your thoughts?

    I was never asked by a person in authority when my husband and I would be having children. Not in our first married ward, not in our family wards (YES, IN PROVO.) We were married for 6 years before the first came along.

    Am I the outlier? I get that a lot.

  6. Caroline says:

    Azucar,
    I too never assumed that ‘wife and mother’ was all I should do. Certainly those roles were emphasized at church, but it didn’t seem to me that those were exclusive. I think this must certainly have been because of the time period. I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s. Lael must have been hearing these ideas in the 40’s and 50’s.

    Erin, you bring up a good point. Locale must certainly have something to do with this as well. Perhaps Lael’s experience would have been different if she grew up in New York or CA. And wow, I find that comment by your old bishop presumptuous and annoying.

    Chris, I love hearing your perspective. I think your comment also points to the difference locale makes in one’s church experience. I am in a ward with 650 people, a great deal of whom are active and highly accomplished. I have a calling I love (humanitarian coordinator) but I feel like I have more to give. I am probably being under utilized. Your situation is so different… I think I’d have a hard time staying sane as well if not only I but also my husband had heavy callings. And amen to your last statement.

    MJK, another presumptuous bishop! Good grief. Though I will confess that I do sometimes ask people that question. I exonerate myself somewhat though, because when I ask there’s no sense that I think they should have them right away, I’m just curious. But it sounds like these bishops are trying to steer you to early parenthood. Yikes! Seems to me like a lot of young couples would be better off with a few more years under their belts as spouses before they throw kids into the mix.

  7. mb says:

    Thank you Lael. Well written. And I think there is a lot to be said for the powerful efficacy of “magnifying” and “gently, quietly”.

    We live in a world where people think things only can be accomplished forcefully and loudly. Some of our world’s greatest changes in both the recent and ancient past have come about by people who put their creative souls wholly into their work and employed gentle and quiet means.

    Jesus knew what he was about.

  8. Callie says:

    I still can’t say the opening prayer in my sacrament meeting.

  9. gina says:

    my favorite part of the whole excerpt:

    “Nobody gave me permission. I just did it.”

    We wait too often for other people to approve and allow what we want to do instead of valuing our own estimation and doing what we know to be in our own best interest, in my opinion.

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