by Naomi Watkins
Mormon men do not marry highly educated women.
You really don’t ever want to be a wife and a mother, do you?
Having one degree is more than enough.
Many of these types of statements have been lobbed at me, and at many of my LDS female friends, as we have pursued advanced degrees and careers. Based on facts alone – I’m not married, I don’t have kids – some might say that these statements are true. I choose not to believe these cause-and-effect explanations, but I do admit that during the low or difficult times on my PhD path, they were often the statements that ricocheted in my head, despite the fact that I had a powerful spiritual experience underscoring that earning a Ph.D. was the path I should take.
No one, woman or man, should have to question or wonder if the personal revelation she receives makes her “good” or not. At home, I was taught that I should get all of the education that I could – not because my future husband might die, as I was told at church (which is an incredibly morbid thought, by the way) – but because I should educate myself because I was (and am) a child of God. No caveats were attached.
I recognize that Utah is not and does not reflect the LDS Church, or even its culture elsewhere in the world. However, given the large number of Mormons in Utah, and the emphasis on education’s importance by many leaders, one might expect Utah to lead the nation in college graduates. And Utah men do. However, “while prior to 1990, Utah women showed a higher rate of college graduation than U.S. women, by 2000, Utah women had lost their ‘bachelor’s degree or higher’ educational edge. Utah shows by far the largest gap in the nation between male and female college graduation rates.” Further, “Utah women are slightly less likely to have college degrees than are women in the rest of the nation. This lower overall rate is the result of significantly lower educational attainment of Utah’s younger women … So, while Utah young women start college studies at above average rates, they are less likely to complete their degrees.” 
This trend is incredibly disturbing to me. What has happened? The findings from Susan Madsen’s Utah Women and Education Initiative, which studied the reasons behind these trends, found that “young women who had group and one-on-one encouragement from at least one of their local [religious] leaders were significantly more likely to attend and graduate from college.” Additionally, the Initiative found that “education is a top priority for many [LDS young women] until marriage, and then priorities quickly change. Some participants struggled with understanding why there is so much emphasis placed on education before marriage and then why they must ‘give it up’ after they are married.” 
I look at the younger generation, young women who are just embarking on their educational and professional paths, who are rising up and serving missions, who want to contribute to society in and out of the home. In many ways, they and I are alike. They not only hope for more; they expect more. And so, they need guidance and support – we all need guidance and support.
After I was accepted to graduate school, I desired to connect with other LDS women who were pursuing PhDs or who had already done so. I wanted to find LDS women who not only mirrored my own educational and professional aspirations, but also provided a window into what could be. Given that I attended graduate school in Salt Lake City, I was able to more easily find these women. We discussed and asked questions, lamented about typical graduate school woes, and helped each other with paper editing and project creation. We also discussed how our educational paths and career trajectories related to our faith – and how they perhaps didn’t mesh with its cultural expectations. I credit this support network for much of my graduate school success and for helping me combat the false statements often circulated in our church culture.
I realize, however, that not all LDS women are able to find mirrors and windows of their educational and professional aspirations and goals in their wards, stakes, schools, jobs, or families. Even if we personally do have these types of connections close to home, I believe it’s vital that we extend our network, and reach out to our sisters who need this support. In addition, I believe that if we want to eliminate false cultural beliefs about women and education and work, we must band together.
Aspiring Mormon Women is my solution to making these dreams a reality, and extending the support network that I had in graduate school. Dianne Orcutt and I founded this non-profit organization to encourage, support, and celebrate the educational and professional aspirations of LDS women. We aim to include LDS women of all ages, at various levels of faith, and across all educational levels; to inspire and empower LDS women to purposefully pursue (and complete) educational opportunities; and to provide informal and formal mentoring and networking opportunities for LDS women. It is the precise place where women can come with their educational and professional goals, where they can share their current paths, and where they will not be slammed by false cultural beliefs and statements.
It’s time for us to visibly support the educational and professional goals and dreams of other LDS women. It’s time for those of us who do have educational and professional goals, or who are on paths that are not considered the LDS cultural norm, to be more transparent. Let us be the windows to others of what can be. Let us be the mirrors to those around us of what we currently are, and what we are becoming. We invite you, then, to join us if you are a high-school age young woman, if you are currently in school or working, or if you desire to return to school or the workforce. Create a profile; connect with other LDS women; pose a question; offer advice; share your goals, your frustrations, and your stories; be a mentor; find other women who are educationally and professionally ambitious; begin to discover what might be your life’s work.
It’s time that we not only show each other what we can be, but how this is possible.