identify yourself.

in the last couple of months, the laurels in our ward have been coming into relief society for “opening exercises” on the first sunday of the month (part of a church-wide effort to help smooth the transition from young women’s into relief society). this translates to not only sharing announcements and introductions, but also the women of the relief society joining the young women in reciting the young women’s theme. which i find rather uncomfortable.

let me explain.

i understand the idea of a theme for young people. it’s an articulation of ideals. something meant to reinforce to the young women very important principles and values. i don’t really object to the idea of girls (or boys) who are in an important formative period of their lives memorizing and reciting a statement that encourages them to understand the importance of such things as their divine nature, their personal relationship with god, the value of education and service, etc. while i don’t really think the best approach to teaching is to give a young person a canned identity to shape themselves to, i think the young women’s theme is generally principle-based as opposed to role-based, which allows them to take those principles and use them to guide their own individual lives.

what bothers me is grown women reciting some kind of statement of identity. i realize that the women reciting the young women’s theme is mostly just a way of making the girls feel welcome (i think it’s a misguided way; the girls would be better served to simply not recite the theme on the one sunday each month they’re in RS and instead get a feel for how RS actually functions). but reciting the young women’s theme reminds me of the handful of times i’ve been in a RS meeting (always in a ward i’m visiting and not my own, thankfully) where the women have stood and recited the relief society declaration (which was introduced in the october 1999 general relief society meeting by mary ellen smoot, then relief society general president).

the opening line of that declaration perfectly captures my problem with adult women reciting a rote statement of identity. why on earth do we need to assert that “our lives have meaning, purpose, and direction”? shouldn’t that go without saying? are these the “grand blessings of womanhood” to which smoot refers? are mormon women really so pitiful in the eyes of the world that we must assert not only what we believe and value, but that we are ourselves valuable?

i don’t really disagree with most of the declaration’s content, but i do take issue with it as a statement of identity. the existence of such a document implies that women’s identity and role must be prescribed in a way that men’s identity and role is not. sure, both women and men are given counsel about how they should live righteously. yes, there are statements of women’s responsibilities and men’s. but there is simply no male equivalent of the relief society declaration. (can you even imagine a group of adult men in the church standing and, in unison, reciting some list of characteristics they allegedly embody? laughable, isn’t it?) i suppose this is not surprising. after all, the western world is only recently recovering from the perception that woman is an incomplete or lesser form of man. it shouldn’t be surprising that women still must justify their existence in ways men do not, especially in a subculture that continues to insist on gender essentialism in defining gender roles.

and that really is the crux of my problem with such a statement—the notion that gender essentialism can and should shape individual identity. i don’t think the idea of this life is to be a “good woman” (or a “good man”) but rather to be a good person—to seek after all the best gifts and to make of ourselves, with all of our unique abilities, the best person we can be. the very idea of grown women reciting some theme or declaration suggests that women should fit themselves to some external standard. and that, in my opinion, is a recipe for the kind of spiritual and psychological disaster i have unfortunately seen in the lives of some of my dearest friends who think of themselves as failures not because they have accomplished nothing but because they don’t fit an external standard of “womanhood.”

and then there’s the inherent contradiction between asserting gender essentialism (gender as an eternal characteristic) and prescribing how to be a woman or a man. if gender is actually eternal and essential, why must we so vociferously prescribe how to be a woman or a man? wouldn’t it make more sense to simply allow that essential, eternal characteristic to shape our lives rather than trying to force ourselves into a narrow (and most likely flawed) understanding of what it means to be a man or woman?

{if you’re interested, i’ve posted a companion piece on the young women’s theme at feminist Mormon housewives.}

Amelia

Amelia has recently relocated to Salt Lake City for her new job selling college textbooks (a job she loves). She’s a 9th generation Mormon redefining her relationship with the church (the church she both loves and hates). She’s passionate about books, travel, beauty, and all things cheese.

You may also like...

No Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Amy, I LOVE this topic.

    I too am disturbed by the reciting of the YW theme in RS. I’m a grown woman. I don’t want to chant in unison a statement of YW ideals.

    I love the way you questions the whole rationale behind women’s declarations like this. You’re right, why should we as women have to recite that our lives have purpose, and assert our role and identity. Like you said, let’s just encourage people to be the best people they can be. In whatever form that takes.

    So now I have to decide what to do about my RS. The first time we recited this, I stood but didn’t say a word. The second time I didn’t even stand. The next time… well I think an email to my RS president may be in order.

  2. janeannechovy says:

    Sounds like it must be a church-wide thing, because it’s been happening in my ward, too. Drives me batty. I haven’t stood either time I’ve been there for the recitation. Thanks for summing up so nicely the reasons why it is problematic.

  3. Azúcar says:

    We don’t recite the theme in our RS, but our laurels are there for every Sunday.

  4. G says:

    your thoughts on the redundant obviousness of the declarations reminds me of the constant phrases we hear from the pulpit, reminding everyone that woman are important and of value. the very fact that this needs to be stated again and again is indication of the fact that it hasn’t quite been accepted yet.

  5. Julie P says:

    In our ward, the days the YW are in RS, the YW stand and recite the theme, but the adult RS women have been instructed not to stand and participate.

    I’ve heard (but can’t find an official source to back up) that the RS is not supposed to recite the theme out loud, as the YW do.

    Whenever people throw out that “the church is the same all over the world!” I roll my eyes. It’s far from it. This is but one tiny example

  6. Paula says:

    Julie P. I tried to find a source which said that the RS theme was not to be recited in meetings, about a year ago. My ward had been doing it, and my friend’s ward had just started and we were both uncomfortable with it. The best I could come up with was that it had been discussed at the leadership meetings in SLC before the Women’s broadcast, and the instruction there was that we’re not be reciting it. I really wish they’d make this known more publicly. I think it’s insulting to expect grownups to do recite the them together.

  7. Paula says:

    I just searched my email and found that I still have the email that was the closest I could find for a source about this. Of course it doesn’t relate to the YW theme. This came from a friend who said this has been a source of much discussion on the RS yahoo list.

    Sister Pingree at Open House October 2005. It was given in the Auxiliary Update portion. This is a quote from a post to the Yahoo Relief Society email list:

    “Relief Society sisters are NOT to stand and repeat the Relief Society Declaration as the young women do with the Young Women Motto. The Declaration is a profound document that tells the world who we are, Daughters of a living
    Father in Heaven and expresses what we stand for and believe in. It is important that each of us understand the Declaration but we have been instructed by the First Presidency that we are NOT to stand and recite it.”

  8. Adam S. says:

    I sympathize with you about this. In my parents’ ward, the priesthood opening exercises always open with all the men standing and reciting the aaronic priesthood purposes. I’m similarly weirded out by these recitations. To me they seem militaristic and brain-washy.

  9. amelia says:

    i’m glad i’m not alone in being bothered by this practice of recitation. i’m honestly bothered as much, if not more, by the very existence of the RS declaration. if we’re of such value, why must we assert it ad inifinitum, ad nauseum? the fact that our leaders felt it necessary to defend the status of mormon women to the world indicates a basic problem, as “g” points out (comment #4).

    adam s., this is the second time i’ve encountered someone mentioning the “priesthood purposes.” however, when i searched lds.org for it yesterday i didn’t turn anything up (it was an admittedly quick search, so maybe i just overlooked it). do you know where i can find it? i’m just curious.

  10. Anonymous says:

    How about this… (our ward)

    Opening song: melodic? NOT!

    Opening Prayer: Who? who?
    oh, I forgot!

    COMING SOON?
    Young Women’s Theme: Laurels
    COMING SOON?
    R.S. Theme: R.S. Sisters
    (how bonding would that be!)

    Announcements: 15 minutes minimal. Most were also said in Sacrament mtg.

    Sharing Time: 1 min. each sister. How many sisters did you say would share? Ooooooo juicy!

    News update: 10 minutes. Yes a little diff. than announcements, not sure how or why.

    A 50 pound binder is passed to sign away your life. Oh, that doesn’t include the 2 clipboards and other endless papers.

    Singing Practice: Needed? Yep Effective? Not

    Bye the way, every word that has been spoken thus far is also translated into Spanish.

    Spanish Sisters now depart and go to their own class room. Our sisters move slow so this transition takes another 10 min.

    How much time for the teacher?

    If she “NEEDS” the calling, and the subject is modesty (Ha Ha) watch out. Hopefully there is only 10 minutes for the lesson.

    If the teacher is great, the subject is great, then you are disappointed that she has only 10 minutes.

    Closing Prayer: Who? who?
    Oh, sorry I forgot.

    Closing song: 1/2 verse or scratch it.

    “Let us All pressssss onnnnn in the Work of the Lord,”
    Amen

    Unidentified Sister W/attitude. Slap me upside the head? Go Ahead.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Is this going to be a hot topic?, or is it just me that’s hot!

    Clarification:
    Young Women’s MOTTO
    Relief Society’s DECLARATION

    I do enjoy these words of encouragement. I think it is not a bad thing to have them for a mantra.
    I can tell you that my teenage daughter has music lyrics memorized that I would rather wash out with Pinesol. I can also say that I’d much rather declare myself as said in the R.S. Declaration than try and declare myself as the Victoria’s Secret commercials portray. (of course I’d love to look like that! Duh.)

  12. amelia says:

    the church website actually calls it the young women theme. i think i linked to it in the body of my post.

    given the choice between the RS declaration and declaring myself a skanky ho, i’d probably choose the RS declaration, too. but then, it’s not really an either/or decision is it? there are as many identities out there as there are individuals. i’d prefer to use my actions and life as a declaration of who i am than to attempt to adhere to some externally imposed identity.

    and that’s the real problem. this idea that women need to have some identity imposed on them, whether it’s the victoria secret version or the RS declaration version.

  13. Eve says:

    I’m curious about the reasoning behind the distinction between YW, who stand and recite and adult women, who don’t. I suppose that in some abstract way I can see the virtues of mass inculcation, but I really dislike standing and reciting themes or mottoes or declarations. Even as a YW I refused to.

    On the other hand, I enjoyed reciting D&C 4 every week in district meeting. If we’re going to stand and recite something, let’s pick something beautiful and poetic and scriptural, not these boxy militant-sounding lists. It’s like the grocery list of heaven: these are the things I must believe and do: tick, tick, tick, tick, TICK.

    Oh, another memory from my hellion youth; I and a friend once started making up fake values. As I recall, they were:

    Fat
    Supine Nature
    Inconceivable Girth…

    I don’t think we got any further than that because I was just so overcome with hysterical laughter at my own wit.

  14. amelia says:

    eve–

    i think the only real distinction i make is that 12-18 year old kids are arguably in need of more explicit guidance as to values and objectives than adults. i’m sure arguments could be made for and against that distinction and i’d be more than happy to hear them.

    ultimately, i’m not a big fan of rote statements of identity for anyone, regardless of age. i just understand the justification for having youth participate in such a thing and can live with it, so long as the statement is one that allows room for self-determination (which i think the old version of the YW theme did; check out my post on fMh to get my take on the new version of the YW theme).

    i honestly don’t think there’s a justification for having adult women do such a thing that i can understand and accept. for there to be such a thing for adult women is to suggest that they, like young adults, need to be guided in shaping their identity–that they’re somehow comparable to the undeveloped state of teenagers.

    and i agree. i’d much rather recite something beautiful and poetic.

  15. jessawhy says:

    First of all, I can’t believe Eve knew the word “supine” as a 16 year old. Amazing.
    Secondly, I am glad we’ve stopped reciting the RS declaration. It always felt a little strange for me.
    Honestly, the value of women in RS is something I’ve struggled with from day one. One of my first RS meetings was in a ward that was newly combined. Each sister introduced herself, and included number of children (and grandchildren, etc)she had. Those without children, or unmarried felt obligated to say so, and it made me uncomfortable. (I was a BYU freshman at the time) I wondered why these women weren’t talking about themselves instead of their posterity. Did they a sense of self? Are they individuals on any level, or did they just exist in relationship to others? (or not exist w/o relationships?)
    I’ve thought about that meeting over the last 10 years or so, and now that I’m a mother I’m more understanding of why the introductions happened that way, but I still think it’s shouldn’t be the focus of Relief Society. We should be able to identify ourselves and not be held to established benchmarks.

  16. Ann says:

    We recite the RS theme every Sunday. Hate it. I asked the RS President why we have to do the chant and she told me: the women in our ward aren’t close, and she wanted them to be unified in SOMETHING. So for 60-80 seconds every Sunday, the women in the room all say the same thing.

    I still don’t like it, but I’m glad I asked why we’re doing it. I don’t think it has the effect the RSP wants, but at least she has a purpose for it.

  17. EmilyCC says:

    Paula, thanks for that email! I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find the statement that we’re not supposed to recite the declaration.

    A few months ago, my RS started reciting it again when the YW were there. The first time, like Caroline, I stood but didn’t recite.

    The second time, I stood for the YW’s theme and sat down for the RS declaration–except I was really pregnant, and my balance was a little off. I went down quicker than I meant to and almost fell off my chair. Everyone on my side of the room looked at me. We haven’t recited it since, though…

  18. Emily M. says:

    I like the RS declaration. Kind of. I was initially put off my the “our lives have meaning, purpose, and direction.” Sounds too defensive to me. Of course we have meaning, purpose and direction! But if we have to assert that, then it seems defensive to me.

    But I like it now, and here’s why: after it came out, my dad taught an FHE lesson, and he went through the declaration and talked about all the ways my mom exemplified it. I will never forget that. I think about her when I hear it.

    But reciting it every Sunday? Uh, no thanks.

  19. Paradox says:

    I must respectfully disagree with the notion that the Young Women’s theme has no place in Relief Society. A careful and diligent perusal of the theme, line by line, will reveal that the theme does not encourage a stereotype or an image. Rather, the Young Women (myself included) have been encouraged to take a stand for our values; to be clean and chaste in all things, and to prepare for the blessings and covenants that our Father in Heaven so desperately wants to give to us. How are these things any different than what the Relief Society sisters are expected to do? Are you not expected to live up to your values, simply because you’re not a laurel or a beehive anymore? Then what have you against keeping that mission for yourselves? What have you against standing in unison and supporting the Young Women when they accept the mission God has given them?

    And believe me, sisters, they NEED you. They need to know that you believe in the task that Heavenly Father has handed them, which can be so daunting and difficult sometimes. If they see you sitting down, refusing to recite the YW theme, or hear about your tantrums to your RS presidents about saying the YW theme once a month, what message does that send to these young sisters? Such selfish and prideful actions are not the ways of the Relief Society, and should not be presented as such to the YW of your wards and branches by their examples.

    A careful perusal of the RS theme (which is hanging on my wall) reveals that the only place that might encourage gender roles is the line about finding joy in womanhood and motherhood. But really, is that such a bad thing? Who said that enjoying woman/motherhood had to be done through housework or traditional roles? I’m about as non-traditional as they come as a martial arts instructor, and I LOVE being a woman. It’s one of my favorite things about me. Why shouldn’t we encourage our YW and our RS sisters to have that same joy and confidence in their identity? And I don’t mean identity as in ‘stereotype.’ I mean identity as in ‘you have 2 X chromosomes, now DEAL with it.’

    And by the way, the only mold in sight is the one that women create for themselves. The Church, the YW theme, and the RS pledge have nothing to do with it.

    And you know what doesn’t make sense to me? Why the men DON’T have a creed of some kind to memorize. I think they would be better off with one than without, to be honest. Maybe then, the misconception that men taking their faith seriously is “laughable” could be eradicated.

    Have you ever had all of the women in your congregation stand together and recite the YW theme? We did that at EFY, and the YM stared at us as if we were the most beautiful and angelic things they had ever seen. I’ll never forget that. I had never felt so beautiful as I did then, and it wasn’t from a miniskirt or make-up. It was because we sincerely treasured our values, and you could see it in the eyes of every YW in the room. Why does that kind of righteousness have to be only for girls?

    Why not for men? And for our women in the Relief Society?

    I pray that you all will reconsider what you’ve said about the Young Women’s theme. As a convert, I came to this church lost and afraid, with sins so horrible, they don’t bear repeating. I needed to learn what the Young Women’s theme had to offer; about how special I was/am, and what I was/am supposed to do. Remember also that not everyone has been so privledged to be born of goodly parents, to know who they are and why they’re here. You may think you’re beyond the YW theme, but I assure you that 1.) none of us are, and even if you still think you are 2.) it isn’t always about your individual needs anyway.

  20. amelia says:

    thanks for your comment, paradox. i appreciate it and the perspective you bring. i do want to point out that i like the content of the young women’s theme (though i don’t particularly care for the addition of “strengthen home and family”; you can read my reasons over at fMh if you’re interested). i just simply believe there are more appropriate ways than rote recitation to achieve the objectives you discuss in your comment, particularly for adults. in our church we far too often hear that what’s good for our children and teens is good for adults. i just disagree. it’s a very different thing to be an adult than a child or a teenager and how we teach the gospel to those different groups should reflect that fact.

  21. Kiri Close says:

    It’s a stupid, blanket worldwide thing that i didn’t give into when i was YW pres. Luckily, Our inner-city Boston girls wanted no part of it. Hello! There are other ways to transition the YW into post youth life!

    Great topic, Amy.

Leave a Reply