Guest Post: A Sociologist's Perspective on Beck's Talk and 'What Women Know'

(Armand Mauss is a professor emeritus of Sociology and a Mormon Studies scholar. He has written several articles and books on Mormon topics, most notably his book on Mormonism and race entitled All Abraham’s Children.

Armand wrote the following in a personal email to me and a few others who were discussing What Women Know.)

Sister Beck’s talk, and the response to it that was circulated to us (“What Women Know”), simply present us a case in which BOTH parties are in GENERAL agreement, but the one party (Sister Beck, representing the Church leadership) is emphasizing ONE important aspect of a woman’s life (motherhood), while the other party (the sisters signing the circulated statement) are emphasizing OTHER important aspects. I doubt that either party would dismiss the concerns of the others as unimportant.

When I hear or read talks like Sister Beck’s (or similar ones from the general authorities), I take them as expressions of sincere and legitimate concern over the “decline and fall” of motherhood and the family since the1960s. I DON’T understand such messages as in any way gainsaying equality for the sexes, or as rejecting extra-domestic development of women’s talents, aspirations, or opportunities. Rather, I understand Sister Beck and others as voicing a belief that in recent decades, the value placed on mothers and motherhood, both in the Church and in the world, has seriously declined, while the value placed on equality of different kinds has greatly increased. We can all rejoice in what has increased, but we must not forget the importance of the one thing that only women can do, which is to bear children if they are able to do so, nor can we turn over to others the nurturing of children, which is the joint responsibility of both parents.

Considering the shattering of the family, the loss of childhood innocence, and the drastic decline in birthrates in much of the world, it is hard to deny that fathers and mothers both have abdicated family responsibilities on a large scale. I understand Sister Beck et al. as simply calling on women to raise the priority on motherhood back to the level that it once had. I DO NOT understand her as calling on women to forego all the other important things in life. I find it hard to criticize her for that message, just as I find it hard to disagree with the desirability of all the other kinds of activities and accomplishments of women that the circulated statement enumerates. Women and couples in our society now have more choices and more options than ever before in our history. It is up to each woman and couple to make those choices that seem to work best for them (respectively). It is NOT a matter of simply choosing motherhood (or anything else) to the exclusion or detriment of everything else. But it IS a matter of getting PRIORITIES straight.

That’s how I read talks like Sister Beck’s. I would add that men must make the same kinds of choices, and that most of us men ought to be giving a higher priority to fatherhood than we have done. Ultimately,though, each couple must choose career and family arrangements that are comfortable for the couple itself, freely accepted by both husband and wife. No one is entitled to pass judgment on the decisions made by a given couple in this process. All that Sister Beck is saying, it seems to me, is that if we truly understand the gospel, we will place parenthood first whenever possible, and her message to mothers is to maintain (and, where necessary, to restore) motherhood to its rightful place in planning our futures as couples. Men in the church, it seems to me, get similar messages regularly about fatherhood.

All in all, then, it appears… that Sister Beck and the sisters who circulated that statement (“What Women Know”) are not disagreeing with each other so much as talking past each other.

Caroline

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

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Nice thoughts, Armand. I agree with your reading.

    Matt

  2. Tyler says:

    Amen, Brother Mauss. As a medical student working mostly in the inner-city, it is devastatingly clear to me, sometimes on a daily basis, that functional parentlessness is the gravest social problem facing our country. Young mothers with absentee fathers are often forced to work to earn a meager living which then necessitates the abdication of parental responsibilities to a loose and ineffectual alliance of daycare, extended family, and latchkey older siblings (if to anyone at all). This results in a generation with shaky social grounding, many of whom become young mothers with the cycle perpetuating itself–wending its way downward. I do not subscribe to the easy rhetoric of “family values,” but the essence of Sister Beck’s message–that motherhood is the most important calling a woman can have (just as is the case for fatherfood for a man)–is vitally needed.

    In addition, as you point out, I do not believe there is conflict between Sister Beck’s talk and the worthy goals women pursue outside the home; the negotiation of conflicts between the two forces is, in large part, a matter of choosing between “good, better, and best.”

  3. m&m says:

    Thanks you for sharing this, Caroline. Thank you, Brother Mauss, for this post. I think you have helped put Sister Beck’s talk into context and perspective in a wonderful way.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I’m glad someone that can actually see the big picture finally got to make some realistic comments about this talk.

    It is very refreshing to see that this site would actually post what Dr. Mauss had to say.

    Thank you

  5. Bree says:

    As I’ve tried to “make nice” with President Beck’s talk over the past six weeks (and several dozen readings), I’ve had many thoughts similar to Brother Mauss’.

    However, I have to disagree with his final conclusion that we “are not disagreeing with each other so much as talking past each other”, because such a statement makes the assumption that an active dialogue exists between the two parties. Therein lies the rub.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Brother Mauss said in his excellent work “The Angel and the Beehive” that the church would be entering a period of retrenchment. Is this talk a result? Are more talks like this in the future – especially as we have the potential for more doctrinaire presidents of the church (like Packer and Bednar)?

  7. Janna says:

    While I agree that women who are mothers should take the responsibility seriously, I disagree that “motherhood is the most important calling a woman can have (just as is the case for fatherhood for a man).”

    Why does there need to be a “most important calling?” Can’t I have several most important callings – say, being a mother, a wife, a business owner, a philanthropist? All would be important components of living to the full measure of my creation.

  8. Emma says:

    I completely agree with Brother Mauss and Sister Beck. It is all about priority and if we truly do understand the gospel, our families will come first. First implying that other numbers will follow.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I have been reading the various blogs…and their respective coomments, on Sister Beck’s speech. I feel that Armands post was a bit disappointing because it did not seem to critically analyze the social consequences of the talk, and I particularly disagree with the Tyler’s following statement.

    “In addition, as you point out, I do not believe there is conflict between Sister Beck’s talk and the worthy goals women pursue outside the home; the negotiation of conflicts between the two forces is, in large part, a matter of choosing between “good, better, and best.”

    Perhaps it is due to the male perspective, but I do not see how anyone could ignore the conflict between the two. Sister Beck’s talk is a bold statement that tells young women to have kids asap because THAT is what we are commanded to do. She does in no way encourage these same women to pursue goals outside the home, ‘worthy’ or unworthy. This talk LITERALLY divides and reduces women into two distinct categories- women who know (ex.those who clean) and those who don’t know. It’s white and black, good vs evil- and it’s very disappointing.

    Feminist Mormon housewives had a beautiful post on the subject- a rewritten ‘women who know’. I felt that was more inspiring than Armands.

  10. m&m says:

    it did not seem to critically analyze the social consequences of the talk,

    The “social consequences” as you have called them are as much, if not more, about the reactions to and interpretations of the talk than about the talk itself. We have a sober responsibility to receive with the Spirit, not simply analyzing this from a social point of view. With this particular talk, for some that may take more time than other talks. But note what someone said on fMh as well…that one consequence of the talk is that people are doing a lot (a LOT) of chewing on this talk. That is not all a bad thing. The more we chew on it with open hearts, the more the Spirit can help us perceive the spirit in which she gave it and what the Lord would have us each take away from it.

    I think Dr. Mauss has reminded us that Sister Beck’s talk did not happen in a vacuum. The gospel and Church are big picture things. Her talk didn’t suddenly negate all the teachings we have about agency, prayer, personal revelation, the important contributions women can make to society, the different stages women are in, the critical role of fathers, the fact that creating a spiritual home is an effort for parents together, etc. etc. etc. I think sometimes we REact without taking a step back and try to consider what we hear in context of everything else we know to be true. A speaker simply can’t bring all of that big picture into view in 10 minutes. Therefore, it is *our* job to take the talks and figure out how they all relate, not to criticize a speaker for failing to do the impossible.

  11. Dora says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post Armand. It’s always enlightening to get your perspective on problematic and/or controversial issues.

    Yes, m&m, the gospel and the church are big picture concepts. Which was one of the reasons I found Sister Beck’s talk so disappointing.

    Sister Beck took one small portion of a woman’s life, and kept the focus there, without ever broadening the scope in a meaningful way. The church leaders that I enjoy listening to most (such as Elders Oaks and Holland, and Sister Okazaki of yore), DO focus on one aspect of the gospel. However, the focus is then enlarged to show application to members of the church the world over.

    She has had two opportunities (RS and General Conference) to address all the women under her care (which is supposed to include all women in the world, isn’t it?), and yet confined her remarks to the socio-economic status of a select few. It concerns me that as the leader of the largest women’s organization in the world, her vision, as disclosed by her addresses, is so narrow.

  12. Melanie says:

    Dora,
    Do you think it’s possible that Sister Beck wanted/needed/felt inspired to speak directly to the women of that socio-economic status, and general conference was the best way to reach them? It would take months, or maybe years of stake conferences to reach all those women in smaller settings, and general conference talks are more widely available after the fact to sisters who can’t attend the meetings in person for whatever reason.

    I don’t believe that Sister Beck’s message was for only a select few of the women in the church–but even if it was, it seems possible that conference was still the most effective way to reach that target audience.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I have been married for a couple years and don’t have any children yet. For work i have been transfered to a different city for a few months temporarily and then I get to go back home. I am in a very very very small branch for these few months, and so small often RS and Priesthood are combined. Everyone there know that i am there for work and my husband is at his job back in our home state. For last weeks lesson the family I was the only women in the class. I have never been in a lesson so hard on working women. I honestly felt attacked. Basically the argument was women who worked we selfish and that is why they work. Most women who work that i know do so to do things like pay the mortgage on regular house. And these men were so closed minded and judgmental. they only know their situation. i am not saying that mothers should work 80 hours a week I am just saying that they didn’t see the whole picture, and i thought of judge not lest ye be judged

  14. m&m says:

    Dora, my whole point is that I think it’s *our* responsibility to take what she says in context, not her responsibility to, in each talk, to somehow cover it all. She will give others. I imagine we will see more breadth over time. Besides, her counselors addressed more than motherhood, one of them at her (Sister Beck’s) specific request. I just don’t think we can put so much responsibility on the speakers to be able to always cover it all (although I do think there is something in what she said for everyone). We have the responsibility to know enough of the big picture to take it in context and not to assume that by focusing on something specific, they don’t care about the rest. Hang tight. Give her time. Let her share all that is in her mind and heart over the next several years. One talk does not a ministry make. And remember again that her ministry is in conjunction with her counselors, who have already covered things with great breadth. Again, it’s all about context and bigger picture.

  15. Dora says:

    m&m, I hope that she will show more vision during her presidency. I hope that the limited scope of her discourse is a remnant of working in the Young Women program, and that she will start to tkink about all the other sisters in her charge … single women who may never marry, women who are married outside of the church for whatever reason, single mothers, widows, women who cannot bear children, women who work to support their families. The list is endless.

    I never said that she had to “cover it all” in one talk. However, whatever issue in the gospel she does choose to focus on in a particular address, should be somehow applicable to whoever hears it. And not just in the, “Oh, someday you’ll be a (fill in the blank) so just grin and bear it” rather patronizing way that does no once much good. I noticed that Sister Thompson did an admirable job in her talk about families during the RS GC. And really, it was her sensitive treatment of such an important topic that made the RS GC worth attending.

    Sure, we should, “not … assume that by focusing on something specific, they don’t care about the rest.” However, I think that most people who had a hard time with Sister Beck’s talk felt that she was doing that to people, not just issues. Pragmatically speaking (ha!),it matters little how high-minded our church leaders are if their words, behavior and actions don’t invite others to want to know god.

    I also worry that the focus on exterior signs of righteousness makes us a more spiritually shallow people. Yes, Mormons are generally known for being clean-cut, all-American, sweet-as-apple-pie people … as well as polygamist weirdos who wear strange underwear. I dream about the day when Latter-day Saints are known for their Christ-like attitudes and charitable habits.

  16. m&m says:

    However, whatever issue in the gospel she does choose to focus on in a particular address, should be somehow applicable to whoever hears it.

    Um, when did that become a rule for talk-giving? I can think of many, many examples of talks with limited focus. This is part of why Conference includes lots of talks. A little for everyone.

    Besides, there are things in her talk that ARE applicable to everyone. We all should be seeking to create a spiritual atmosphere in our homes, whether single, single with kids, married, still living with mom and dad, or whatever our life situation may be. We should all care about priorities. We should all care about the desires of our hearts for the things that matter most.

    I sort of feel like you aren’t listening to what I’m saying. Sister Beck’s ministry has already addressed women of all walks of life, because her ministry includes her counselors. They work as a team. And remember that she specifically assigned Sister Thompson her topic. I understand you had different expectations, but at some point, you have to realize that it’s not the speaker’s job to appease everyone. It’s our job to take what we can get from what we hear.

    I’m sorry, but I think most of the complaints I have heard reflect more an uncharitable reception of her talk, and many misunderstandings of what she was saying. The spirit of her talk was about the Spirit and caring about spiritual things, which is completely different than focusing on external measures alone. The spirit of her talk was about priorities, as Brother Mauss pointed out. The spirit of her talk, when received with the Spirit, was so much more than what is has been reduced to by those who have criticized it. I’m growing a little weary of people criticizing it without recognizing their own responsibility in receiving it with the Spirit and with love. It’s like anything else in life, if you don’t like what someone does, you can only change you, not the other person. It’s not our job to change Sister Beck.

  17. anonon says:

    I dream about the day when Latter-day Saints are known for their Christ-like attitudes and charitable habits.

    Read Bishop Edgley’s talk. 🙂 Brings tears to the eyes….

  18. Dora says:

    Yes, m&m, I feel that we are indeed talking past one another. I’m not surprised … just weary.

    I really appreciated Sister Thompson’s talk. I did not appreciate Sister Beck’s. I find it interesting that the topic was assigned to Sister Thompson. Are all GC topics assigned? No matter, it will take far more than two disapointing talks from the leading woman figure in the church to assist me in leaving the church.

    However, I do feel that it is our leaders’ responsibility to invite all to come unto Christ. Apparently there were some who felt welcomed by those two talks. And just as apparently, there were those who did not. I hope to be able to take more away from Sister Beck’s future addresses. In the meantime, I find wisdom and solace in many of the other great addresses, such as that given by Elder Oaks (thanks for the hattip to Bishop Edgley, Anon. I’m looking it up right now!)

  19. M&M says:

    Dora,
    It has been made clear that GC talks are NOT assigned, so I thought it was interesting that Sister Beck had made that request, which to me demonstrates her love of and awareness of women who aren’t mothers. My heart hurts for those who hurt because of this talk, but I’m also really hurting for Sister Beck.

    I suppose we have gone back and forth enough on this, though, so I won’t say anything else. I’m sorry you are feeling weary as well.

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