How Do You Raise Feminist Sons (or Daughters) in a Patriarchal Church?

[Image: Superhero Kid by Laura Powell on Flickr]

A friend recently posted this on a private social media group I belong to (reprinted here with permission):

“This morning, my son (11) came into my room and asked if it was okay if he could fast today. He’s been sick and hasn’t been recovering well, so I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea. He was so disappointed, and when I asked him why my heart broke open. He said, “I wanted to fast in remembrance of Heavenly Mother. It’s the best fast purpose I have ever thought of in my whole life. Can you and Dad fast for Her for me?” Raising a son who cares about women is probably the most important work I have ever done. My mama heart is so proud of him and his thoughtfulness. . . . Does anyone have any additional thoughts on how to include Heavenly Mother with their children? Or on raising sons in a way that helps break the cycle of patriarchy?”

Here is my response:

I don’t have any sons, but I have two small daughters. Ever since the birth of my oldest daughter, I have felt a lot of angst about raising daughters in a patriarchal church and have racked my brain about what I can do (if anything) to try to protect them from its toxic effects. Here is what I’ve come up with so far.

We refer to Heavenly Mother by name often in our home and have taught our daughters to begin prayers with “Dear God in Heaven” to be inclusive of Her. (I often begin nightly prayers at their bed side with “Dear Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father.”) There’s an inordinate amount of emphasis on patriarchy at church, including the overemphasis on the male/father God in prayers, talks, quotes from the scriptures and general conference, exclusive male leadership, and in the exclusively male priesthood that it feels imperative to me to focus on Her almost exclusively at home. So anytime I can make a scripture or story from the Friend magazine inclusive of Her by including Her name or changing “Heavenly Father” to “Heavenly Parents,” I do. This is painstaking, but I also go through the Friend and edit these phrases by hand and remove entire pages that don’t reflect our family values or beliefs.

We hold Family Home Evening at times by reviewing the kids’ lessons from primary and nursery that week and emphasize the Feminine Divine and the girls’ divine nature and potential because of Her.

We also purchase books that depict strong, powerful, intelligent, capable girls and women (Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls is a favorite) and we try hard to steer clear of books that involve a helpless girl or woman being rescued by a boy or man. That means we own few Disney movies or books (Frozen and Moana being exceptions). When my 5-year-old daughter occasionally questions this restriction, I explain to her that it’s my job as a parent to protect her from images or ideas that are not healthy for her. I feel fortunate that there are many quality books and even a growing number of kids’ shows and movies with strong female protagonists or prominent characters.

As far as church-related publications, Deseret Book has published a series of children’s books called Girls Who Choose God. There are two books in the series so far: one featuring biblical women and the other focusing on women from the Book of Mormon. Deseret Book also recently published a book called, Our Heavenly Family, Our Earthly Families, which contains images of Heavenly Mother throughout and mentions and her on nearly every page. These books are so well-written and have such quality content that I bring one of them to church every week to read to my daughters during the sacrament. I’ve even had women turn to me after the meeting to ask what I was reading so they could recommend the book to a family member.

During sacrament meeting my girls and I color the limited-edition coloring book, Illuminating Women: A Coloring Book of Mormon Women, which was created and printed through the volunteer efforts of talented women from the Exponent II community. Each page contains a detailed bio of a notable Mormon woman—starting with Lucy Mack Smith—and has an accompanying illustration. It’s like Good Night Rebel Girls for Mormons! But even better because you get to color in it! This book is a tangible way for me to teach my children about strong Mormon women and the powerful impact they had on their communities. (You can order them individually or in bulk online at )

Finally, my biggest piece of advice as parents is to model for your children what sharing power and decision-making as a couple looks like. In my opinion, the most effective effort one can exert to mitigate the damaging effects of patriarchy is to counteract it at home by coleading your household with equity and mutual respect. It sounds like you and your husband are doing a phenomenal job already since your son is so sensitive to the Feminine Divine. And yet we all have internalized sexism (even women do!) so I feel like the biggest gift I can give my daughters is to live a full, rich life in equal partnership with their father. My husband and I are continually reexamining how we can more equitably share domestic responsibilities like child care, homemaking, cooking, laundry, bill-paying, and cleaning. The more changes we make to distribute these tasks fairly, the healthier and happier I feel we are as individuals, as a couple, and as a family.

Oh, one more thing! I have begun planting the seeds of critical thinking for my 5-year-old so she has a framework with which to understand the skewed gender balance that is on dramatic display at church every week. I talk to her in age-appropriate ways about my nuanced beliefs about the church (that it contains both good and bad, like everything else in life) and that what some people teach is truth, I sometimes think is false. So far I have only said simple things like, “You’ll hear people say at church that the prophet knows what’s best for you, but I think you should listen to the Great Still Voice and to your heart; they will guide you and tell you what is right for you.” I’ve also told her that she may see or experience things at church that make it seem like only boys or men can be leaders or do important things. I’ve told her that her dad and I don’t believe that is right and that we believe someday this will change. This is my subtle way of teaching her about continuing revelation and that the narrative that is presented at church doesn’t always square with the truth (see the church’s Gospel Topics Essays, especially  “Race and the Priesthood” and “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham”  for prime examples of this).

Despite the patriarchal organization of the church, I appreciate the valuable aspects of the church. I want my children to inherit the good while questioning the bad. I’ll admit that more often than not this feels like an up-hill battle. And yet, we soldier on in our quest to raise feminist daughters in a patriarchal church.


Readers: How do you try to counteract the negative effects of patriarchy for yourself or the children in your life?

For those with sons or boys in your life, what have you found to be helpful in teaching them about the damaging aspects of patriarchy? How do you encourage them to treat girls and women equitably (and not just idealize or pedestalize them) despite what they see modeled at church?


Wendy has had multiple lives, figuratively speaking, but she likes the one she's living now the most.

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27 Responses

  1. Andrew R. says:

    Many times reading here I find great posts and comments. However, sometimes I only experience sadness (and maybe a little rage) at the feelings expressed about what I hold so sacred and important in my life. Unfortunately this post, as important as the underlying issue is, falls in the latter.

    I understand (at least somewhat) how important you feel this is. But some of what you write, and do, just doesn’t work in the Gospel I understand – no matter how well meaning.

    “emphasize the Feminine Divine and the girls’ divine nature and potential because of Her.”

    They don’t have divine potential because of Her, any more than men have it because of Heavenly Father. We have divine potential because we have divine potential. The Plan exists because we have the potential to become gods – it is the potential of Intelligences.

    “This is painstaking, but I also go through the Friend and edit these phrases by hand and remove entire pages that don’t reflect our family values or beliefs.”

    From a publication that does reflect the values and beliefs of the Church. Question, what is the purpose of the Church? If you can “edit” out what is right, by your own interpretation, why do you need the Church?

    “These books are so well-written and have such quality content that I bring one of them to church every week to read to my daughters during the sacrament”

    I have grown up be told to, and then deciding to, think about Jesus Christ – the Saviour – during the Sacrament. Not doing so, however well meant, fails to acknowledge the Atonement.

    “You’ll hear people say at church that the prophet knows what’s best for you, but I think you should listen to the Great Still Voice and to your heart; they will guide you and tell you what is right for you.”

    Again, if it is that simple why do we even need Apostles and Prophets? I’ll let the Spirit tell me what I need to do, and do it, and end up with God.

    We are told in Scripture to pray to Heavenly Father. Jesus prayed, “Our Father”. Now, you could say the millennia of Patriarchy led to the scriptures being male led. But if that’s the case, why read them at all?

    • chiaroscuro says:

      Andrew, good questions. Its funny that I’d like to ask you the same ones –If reading this blog doesn’t coincide with your views of religion, why do you keep reading it at all?

    • Ziff says:

      I don’t think you need to be so black-and-white about listening to Church leaders, Andrew. Why does it have to be so all-or-nothing that if someone rejects part of Church teachings, you suggest that they should just discard the whole? Are you really so sure that it’s *all* perfect that you’re willing to accept *everything* that you hear at church?

    • Lily says:

      Can’t I ask the same question about having the Holy Ghost? If I just do what I am told and following the Apostles without question, why do I need the Spirit?

      • Andrew R. says:

        Really. I am talking about what is, and isn’t, doctrine. Not whether you should take a particular job, what constitutes your tithe, or anyone of a host of other questions we don’t ask for first presidency and the quorum of the twelve Apostles about.

  2. Dani Addante says:

    Wendy, Thank you so much for this post! I myself don’t have kids yet, but when I do have kids, I’ll refer back to this post to get ideas on how to raise them to believe in gender equality despite the church culture. Both my husband and I want to teach our future kids about gender equality. It’s awful that while the church teaches gender equality, it doesn’t do a good job of living it. Thanks again for your wonderful post! This gives me hope that things will change for the better!

  3. Nancy Ross says:

    This is such an important issue. I think that modeling shared decision making and respect is one of the most impactful things that we can do.

  4. Caroline Kline says:

    Wendy, this is fantastic. I do many of the things you mention in this post, but now I’m excited to add a few more things to my list. Here’s a question: I too have deep reservations about Disney movies that depict women as needing to be rescued or abused. Do you think it’s also ok to watch those Disney movies with our kids but then have a discussion afterwards about its depiction of gender, abuse, etc? Could that discussion counteract the problematic messages in the film? (I was thinking of taking my 8 year old daughter to see the Beauty and the Beast movie…)

    • Wendy says:

      That’s a great question, Caroline! I have the same question. My daughters are too young developmentally (at ages 5 and 2) to have those conversations yet, but my husband has told me a story of his parents doing just what you spoke about with his sister after they watched “Beauty and the Beast.” Apparently they said something like, “You know men don’t just change from being abusive like that.” And she ultimately chose to marry a wonderful man. But that likely had more to do with her dad treating her mom with respect and being a good enough husband and father, and her mom speaking up for herself, than that one conversation. Still, since these dynamics exist in life, it’s certainly instructive to initiate conversations about domestic abuse etc after viewing movies that depict it. And probably even important to do so children of any age aren’t left wondering if their parents think things like abuse should be tolerated in relationships. I plan to do the same with my daughters when they’re older. And even now when I notice negative dynamics even in movies like “Frozen” (think Prince Hans).

      • Niki La says:

        An easy solution to Disney is to discover Studio Ghibli. The famale characters are layered and complicated. None need princes to rescue them and several self-rescue. More often rescue/romance is not the point, but development and relationships are. For the OP I would recommend Ponyo and Totoro (a lovely story about sisters).
        Doesn’t solve all problems, but it solves the problem of Disney

  5. Heather says:

    So thoughtful and insightful. Thank you!

  6. chiaroscuro says:

    It agree it is important to follow your own conscience and inspiration for what is personally best for your family and situation. Prophets necessarily speak general counsel and are of course falliable as well, so continually studying and praying as you live and parent is vital. Talking often about your values and how you see situations is very useful in imparting those values to your children. I am inspired by parents like you who are trying to take a middle way in mormonism by embracing what they love and pushing for improvement where it is needed

  7. Ziff says:

    Great post, Wendy. Thanks for all the recommendations!

    • Wendy says:

      Thanks again, Ziff! I forgot to include that we also change the words to Primary songs and hymns at home to be inclusive of Her (and I do it when singing at church too but don’t tell my girls to do it at church, but they obviously observe me doing it).

  8. Dude says:

    Mormonism is stupid. And so is feminism. And you’re trying to raise your children in both. Good luck with ALL OF THAT.

    • Andrew R. says:

      I get why someone with out proper knowledge, and a testimony, might consider Mormonism to be stupid (not the word I would choose when referring to a religious belief system).

      However, feminism. I am not best person to speak to feminism, as anyone here will tell you. However, the idea that we are all people of the same species and ought to be allowed the same rights, seems like a fairly basic principle that it is hard to say is “stupid”.

      How, pray tell, do you see feminism as “stupid”.

  9. Em says:

    Great post. I’m also wrestling with how to confront the overwhelming whiteness of our approach to scripture. Specifically, I just bought the picture book scriptures for my kid but I haven’t even opened them. On one hand I really want him to be familiar with scripture stories and I think this is a great way to introduce them. On the other hand, I get really sick of how blonde and pale everyone is. Maybe I’ll go through with a crayon and darken things up a bit? I don’t know. I’m not sure if there are more realistic resources available that cover the same scope.

    • Wendy says:

      Thanks, Em! That’s a tough one that I struggle with as well. I love the idea of adjusting the illustration. Having regular age-appropriate conversations about your feelings about how people are portrayed in the Book of Mormon and the illustrations (including the correlated art used at church) when it comes to race and indigenous peoples is probably even more important.

    • ExpatMom says:

      Em – They can be hard to find, but there are great books out there that depict the variety of the human family and expose children to the scriptures. Already mentioned, Our Heavenly Family by Krishna and Spalding is packed with gorgeous artwork and plenty of people of color. I know that this was a priority for the authors.

  10. Moss says:

    My husband and make an effort to read books with girl and boy protagonists to our sons (we only have sons) because we want them to see girls and women as main characters in their own stories, not as solely supporting characters in lives of men and boys. I also gender swap characters in stories where there is a lack of female representation (I was REALLY tempted to do this in the Book of Mormon but I didn’t want to make Sunday School and Seminary more difficult for my kids than it already is going to be). I name unnamed women when we read the scriptures. We have conversations about the way girls and boys (and people of color) are depicted in the media. Power Rangers has been giving us a lot to talk about lately. I really appreciate these kinds of conversations because I think there is tension between raising kids to see where the problems are and think critically about them but also see value in conservative institutions such as the church.

  11. Jason K. says:

    Thanks for this post. Lots of wisdom here. I join with you in believing that personal discernment is important.

    Spunky: well said.

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