Guest Post: The Message We Send

Posted by on April 10, 2014 in Gender | 17 comments

by Lori Davis

Fairly often, I read a blog expressing outrage about the message women and girls learn at church: women have no value outside the home, working women are neglecting their real responsibilities, women should always be subservient to men, etc.

I feel some sympathy here, but mostly, I feel puzzled. I’m not hearing that message at church here in the UK.

Two recent talks in Sacrament Meeting are good examples. One working mom spoke about praying over a change in her career path with good financial and spiritual results. Another talk discussed Deborah, Esther, and Eliza R. Snow, with particular emphasis on how motherhood is not what they are remembered for. Incidentally, this last one was given on Mother’s Day, which is in March here. As far as I know, no one batted an eye at either of these talks.

Strong role models are more effective than any amount of talking, so I tallied up the currently prominent women in my ward. Between the Primary, Young Women, and Relief Society Presidencies, we have:

  • One practicing medical doctor (married without kids)
  • Two moms working outside the home (one married, one divorced and remarried)
  • One part-time work-at-home mom (married)
  • One stay-at-home mom (married)
  • One stay-at-home mom who takes foster children in addition to her own ten children (married)
  • One recent MBA graduate about to open her own business (single)
  • Three women pursuing advanced degrees (two single, one married without kids)

My previous wards (in Utah, Connecticut, and Germany) probably had stronger contingents of stay-at-home moms, including me. But they’ve also had plenty of women doing other things. Both groups included intelligent, faithful women making their own choices for their own good reasons.

I’m not in Ward Council here, so I can’t say exactly how the male leadership relates to these women. I did watch the Young Women (adult leaders included) facing constant rudeness from the Young Men (adult leaders included). One of the women reproved them with sharpness in a pretty pointed spiritual thought at Mutual. They took it very meekly, and we haven’t had a problem since. In other words, they accepted guidance and correction from a woman without a word of complaint.

Overall, I’m not displeased with the message my daughter is receiving at church. I think she’ll know that righteous women are valued and trusted whether they are pursuing education, career, motherhood, or some combination of the three.

It is true that I occasionally hear a comment I could take as demeaning. I’ve also heard Jabberwocky recited in the middle of a prayer, that cooking with red wine vinegar is a sin, and that scriptures about the “bosom of the Lord” prove that God is a woman. We’ll always have a few misinformed, different, or just plain crazy people floating around. That’s okay. We’re glad to have them too.

Some bloggers mention the subtle messages inherent in the way things are run. Many of their specific complaints I really haven’t experienced here. If such things cause problems elsewhere, by all means, let’s have a change. A few of their specific complaints do occur here, and changes would be welcome. Unfortunately, not even all the women can agree on how to make progress. Meanwhile, it’s only fair to mention that some subtle messages are flowing in the opposite direction: I’m certainly tired of the implication that all men are sexual predators who can’t be trusted in Primary. My point is not that we have no room for improvement, but that the overt and positive messages I hear in Sacrament Meeting and see in the lives of our female leaders provide a very strong counter balance to any negative messages trickling through.

I’m curious to know about the female leadership in other wards. Do they provide that counter balance? What kind of messages are they sending? I personally want to thank the doctor, the MBA grad, the stay-at-home mom, and all of the others for showing my daughter what a myriad of options she has.

Lori Davis grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, loving music, books, green chile, and the Church. She currently lives in Scotland with her wonderful husband, brilliant daughter, and a long list of grandiose plans for the future.

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17 Comments

  1. I loved this: “We’ll always have a few misinformed, different, or just plain crazy people floating around. That’s okay. We’re glad to have them too.” This is a major strength of the Church – that the norm is to attend the ward you’re given rather than selecting a congregation that “fits.” It gives us all so many opportunities to grow and love people who are hard to love.

    Lori, I think your experience is an example of how the members of the Church are sometimes a step or two ahead of the Salt Lake City leadership culturally. I feel this way about my ward – we probably don’t have as many professional women as your ward, but I also feel that the talks and lessons are non-sexist. (Incidentally, in my experience whether a woman is employed isn’t a very good proxy for estimating how much of a feminist she is). I’m glad Church is such a good experience for you and your daughter. Church is a good experience for me and my kids as well, even if I do feel impressed to insulate them from some of the ideas about gender I hear in General Conference.

  2. You are correct Lori. The church culture is different outside of US. I am not from US so I know what you are talking about. I think that US mormon women are a little at a disadvantage when it comes to life and how to see things., especially the ones that come from very strong mormon communities. When I got converted many years ago in a country not US, I saw what you are talking about – a variety of women with different backgrounds and different paths. So, I never thought that there was only one way of being a woman or a mother. The talks and the understanding of the gospel were also different from that of American mormon people because the people from outside of US have another perspective on things and a different historical context.

    When I came to US, I was shocked that people believed that there was only one way of doing things in life. Then I looked at their backgrounds and I saw that their mothers, grand-mothers and everyone down the line had done things in a similar way. So they had no examples of diversity.

    People believe that uniformity in doing and in thinking makes those things and actions right and just. But it is not so at all.

    The church is becoming more international and as we hear more from people around the world, the perspective will change. I feel confident that the culture will be very different from now in 20 and 30 years, at least regarding diversity and where to look for examples.

  3. I have lived all over the US and the World. I agree with what you say that I have never heard these messages either.

    I currently live in Salt Lake City. Our Stake is a small inner city Stake. There are currently more single women (Single, Widowed or Divorced) in our Stake than any other cross section of adults. Every person in our Stake is valued, regardless of situation. The complaints I read about in blogs are vapor. They simply do not exist in my experience.

    • Davis, do you have any positions of privilege that could possibly limit your ability to see the gender inequality many of us experience?

      • “…the message women and girls learn at church: women have no value outside the home, working women are neglecting their real responsibilities, women should always be subservient to men, etc.”

        My gender is irreverent to my post. My post was about the fact that I agreed with the Original Author. The messages listed above are not being taught in any Ward I have ever been in.

    • Amen, Emily.

      “The complaints I read about in blogs are vapor. They simply do not exist in my experience.”

      In your experience? Are you male? Is this a surprise? Unless you’ve had gender reassignment surgery, *of course* these issues don’t exist in your experience.

  4. Thanks for this post, Lori. I agree that there are many positive messages for girls and women at church, along with the negative ones. And I absolutely agree that there are some really disturbing negative messages about and to men/boys that also leave room for improvement. I think the vast majority of Mormon feminists (at least the ones I know, and I know quite a lot) would agree very quickly that in changing the rhetoric of gender in the church, we absolutely need to change the rhetoric around men and boys as well as around women and girls.

    I agree that, at a local level, “the overt and positive messages I hear in Sacrament Meeting and see in the lives of our female leaders provide a very strong counter balance to any negative messages trickling through.” (Though I do think this is at least somewhat dependent on where your “local” is; I grew up in a part of the U.S. that has a pretty good sized Mormon population and I think I only ever had one female leader who worked outside the home once she had children.)

    However–and in my opinion this is a pretty potent however–we don’t get this same thing at general leadership. While the leadership in a ward is actually somewhat evenly split between men and women, that is not at all the case as you move up into higher levels of leadership, starting with stake leadership. And I think we have some pretty starkly discouraging messages being delivered re: the correct performance of gender from our church’s general leadership.

    I would love to get to the point where the kind of diversity you’ve described and identified at the local level becomes common right up through the top levels of leadership in our church. For obvious reasons, that will likely be a long time coming. But I think it could only result in good, for both women/girls and men/boys, if it did come.

  5. Lori, you are so fortunate to have the experience of the church outside the “Zion Curtain”. As the church becomes more international, I hope these experiences will be come the new norm.

  6. Lori, what a fabulous post! Thank you for giving us a view into your world. It’s refreshing to read about your experiences. I love hearing about how things function elsewhere (outside of Utah, where I live). I personally feel individual wards and communities have unique qualities that emerge from their respective populations. I experience a great deal of sexism in my otherwise awesome ward. I can deal with it. And we have many strong women in leadership positions. However, they are less likely to challenge male authority in the ways it sounds like your female leaders are comfortable doing. Oh, well. I still love Provo!

    For my part, I always do my best to communicate my own sense of personal equality with all members of the ward, leadership included. And their equality with me. I’ve found this simple awareness and behavior often effects the way I am treated. “Be the woman you wish every woman would be (be the change you wish to see in the world)” is a sort of mantra for me. It’s well worth summoning the occasional swell of courage this requires. Again, thanks for sharing. Great insights. Great experiences.

  7. I liked your perspective. I have to say I really want to know WHICH part of Jabberwocky came up? As in uffish thought we stand? As we rest by the tum-tum tree? May we slay temptation with our vorpal blades? I’m dying for a snicker-snack? Or was it about our reunion with heavenly parents? Come to my arms, thou beamish boy! We’re so grateful for this frabjous day?

    Calloo, Callay. Amen.

    I know this was silly but I really want to know.

    • It was really about half the poem. We all opened our eyes and looked at each other and wondered how this was going to end, and at some point, he just switched back into saying the prayer and finished up. Definitely the most memorable closing prayer I have ever heard!

  8. I recently visited my son who lives in southern France. He was comparing his current Elders’ quorum to that of our home ward in northern Utah. He noted that the men in his quorum talk about all sorts of interesting things–work rarely being one of them. He liked how different that is from his Utah experience, because work and careers is all they talk about (according to him).

    My only reply to him was, “Imagine what church is like for me, when I can’t even talk about my career.”

    I am passionate about my career, and I’m viewed as such an oddity that no one seems to know what to talk to me about. In my Davis County, Utah ward, we currently have two organizational leaders who are working women:

    Relief Society counselor – part-time realtor
    YW counselor – One part time craft store clerk

    In addition to me, there is one other career woman in the ward. There are other women who work “because they have to”, and I think they get a “pass”. Because I don’t “have to” work, I’m not treated so graciously.

    • Since I joined the church 43 years ago, I have enjoyed being in 11 wards in North and South Carolina, Virginia, Utah and New Hampshire. The diversity of women in my wards is amazing. NASA scientists, attorney’s, school board members, university professors, teachers, nurses, business owners and more. This diversity occurs more frequently outside of Utah. I believe for two reasons 1) Utah culture (which is different from church culture) 2) ward boundaries.

      I have served in leadership positions and always been treated with respect and known my opinions were sought out. The opinions of other sisters were equally valued.

      It is easy to mistake “local culture” for church doctrine, especially when living in the hub of the historical center of the church.

      We are a dynamic church filled with amazing women. Our ideas and observations , our skills and talents, our knowledge and understanding make significant contributions to the church wherever we are.

  9. Three cheers for the UK! I feel completely the same about my ward in Oxford, southern England. It’s a gorgeous community of diverse men and women. Because the ward is not primarily made up of married families with kids, we very rarely have that couple Sacrament meeting where the woman speaks quickly, leaving the bulk of the time for her husband. Our Sunday School teachers are all women. Comments are made equally by men and women. The Relief Society is an intrinsic and powerful force in the ward. I often think that because outside the US, most wards/branches are not only much smaller, but also made up of converts from all walks of life, you simply do not have that bizarre Mormon corridor culture that is described so often in the feminist Mormon blogosphere.

    But! The problem for me is twice a year when I tune into General Conference, and I hear messages from the church’s leadership that perpetuate sexist rhetoric. This is incredibly disheartening, considering these men (and handful of women) are meant to speak for the whole church – worldwide! But they seem to perpetuate a narrow, Western-US culture that is largely irrelevant in places I’ve lived in Europe and Africa. I love the church from the ground up, but find the need for change at the top so profound.

    • Julianne,

      I think I’ve read about some of the work you’ve done with maternal health in Africa. Amazing stuff! My sister is a medical student heading to Africa this summer, so I would love to hear more about your experiences. Also, how lucky are you to live in England?!

      I agree with you that, on a local level, if you are fortunate enough to experience Mormonism outside of Utah, the messages and culture are much different from Salt Lake. As an educated, professional, married, childless woman, I have encountered some (but fortunately infrequent) comments about why I am so focused on my career, why I seemingly do not like children, why I am neglecting my female duties, etc. If only these people could see my heart! But the most damaging messages of all, for me, have come from top leadership. With our current leadership, the messages have a profoundly narrow perspective. I see potential for change in that, but my frustration is that change in our church comes so very slowly. At times I feel almost lost–in that “should I stay or should I go” type of way. But until I can make up my mind, I persevere and endure. I like to think that connects me to my Mormon feminist foremothers.

      Anyhow, best of luck to you!

  10. I live in the heart of Mormonland and while I have encountered sexism by some members, I believe that most Mormons treat women as fairly as they possibly can within the broader framework of the institution. When my own bishop asked me if anything could be done at a local level, I only had one, small suggestion to offer. I think you raise a good point about bringing up the positive. That said, my concerns are more with broader systemic issues than the attitudes of individual members. I showed my bishop this list to illustrate my concerns, and there is very little on it that can be addressed locally. http://whatwomenknow.org/all_are_alike/

  11. I love this post and this thread! One of the things I love about all these different Mormon voices on the web is that it shows how vast our experiences are. Such great opportunities for spreading innovation!

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