My answer as a little girl to the age-old “what do you want to be when you grow up?” question varied between a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, a movie star and POTUS. I clearly had big dreams and little judgment. By the time most Mormon girls like me get to Young Women, they’re not asked what they want to be anymore – they’re told. The current Young Women’s Manual says this about chosing a vocation:
Explain that as women, the class members should have two vocations in mind: first, being a homemaker; and second, doing something that will allow them to earn money to support a family if that should become necessary. Many women also find that before they are married or after the children are reared, there is time to be productive in a vocation. (YW Manual 3, Lesson 45)
And giving credit where it is due, this statement by President Hunter follows:
“There are impelling reasons for our sisters to plan toward employment. … We want them to obtain all the education and vocational training possible before marriage. If they become widowed or divorced and need to work, we want them to have dignified and rewarding employment. If a sister does not marry, she has every right to engage in a profession that allows her to magnify her talents and gifts”
I see several parallels between the LDS approach to women in the workforce and the general approach to women in political work as described by Ann M. Lewis on her blog The Historiann. Lewis writes about Michele Bachmann and women’s whimsical approach to political work, quoting Ryan Lizza’s biography of Bachmann from The New Yorker where he points out that despite having a long history of political activism and at least a year of targeting her opponent, “Bachmann has said that she showed up at the convention on a whim and nominated herself at the urging of some friends. She was, she suggests, an accidental candidate.”
Lewis discusses Bachmann as one more example of a woman being politically credible because of her supposed cluelessness:
Once again, we have white women’s political activism cast as a “whim” or “spur of the moment” decision, rather than the result of careful planning and strategic thinking: “Oh my heck, I don’t know nothin’ ’bout politics! I just care so deeply about the children that I had to get involved!” Very cannily, Bachmann’s signature issue in Minnesota state politics was activism on behalf of home schoolers and charter schools–in other words, as a concerned mother. She is smart to rewrite her biography this way, and I’m sure Will grasps that it just wouldn’t do to have a female presidential candidate who looked at all ambitious, or even scheming. . .
And so it is so often with Mormon women and the workforce. Besides the woman supporting a family because the husband is unable, those whose careers are accepted are those who choose a home-based “on the side” business, or the “accidental careerist,” the woman who stumbles into a career in the normal course of her parenting/homemaking. I’m sure there are exceptions that prove the rule, but generally the women whose careers are the result of a meaningful strategy and ambition are not honored or celebrated. They’re not called to work with the young women nor asked to share their professional talents in ways that men are.
The job market has changed drastically in the nearly 40 years since President Hunter issued this advice and Mormon women no longer have the luxury of stumbling into careers. I followed the manual on this one. I went to college, put my husband through graduate school, had children and then stayed home to raise them. As I returned to the workforce following a 12 year break I was astonished at how far behind I was in skill level and experience, something I hadn’t taken into account in my choice to be a fulltime SAHM. I was surprised, given I’d been gone a relatively short period of time compared to my peers.
I’d made no long-term strategy, believing myself to be employable based on my past experience, degree and volunteer efforts over the course of those years. But truthfully, I was essentially starting over with women nearly 20 years my junior.
It’s a daunting and humbling situation, one that I believe keeps many Mormon women from a meaningful career even after their children have left the home. I often wonder about the disservice it does them, their families and the world to have massive amount of talent lay latent well after they are no longer needed full time at home.
We can do better. We can teach young women how wonderful it is to concentrate on raising children for a portion of their lives (should they wish to) while also helping them strategize how that might fit in a larger career path. We can suggest that both their future children and the rest of the world are in need of their divine gifts and talents, which includes more than a capacity to nurture.
Most importantly, they should understand that women are neither so special nor so weak that they should not expect to be active participants in the “providing” aspect of their family just as men are neither too important nor inept to be key instruments in the “nurturing” of the children.