Requiem for a Typical Mormon Woman

This essay (from the Winter 1993 issue) epitmoizes the feminism of EXII that I love. Click here for the complete version.

She is Molly Mormon. Patty Perfect. The Typical Mormon Woman. Different names for the same woman. She sits quietly in sacrament meeting, dispensing Cheerios and quiet books with dignity. She teaches inspiring, non-controversial Relief Society lessons. She wears sensible shoes and bears a striking resemblance to June Cleaver. She’s always ready with whole wheat bread for the needy. She’s our role model, as quintessentially Mormon as the Golden Plates.

Does the Typical Mormon Woman sound familiar? She did to me. I felt like I was surrounded by hundreds of them every week at church. They talked with sugar-coated tongues. They listened to lessons (while smiling) and politely agreed with every word. They said things like, “Sister Smith has given such a beautiful lesson” when I, who had heard the same lesson, was thinking, “That was a trite, irritating lesson.” They spoke in the “Relief Society voice.” Breathy, soft-spoken, and gently.

These women even looked perfect. They wore handmade, feminine dresses and had fluffy hair. Their make-up was neither austere nor over-done, but—you guessed it—perfect! I was certain their homes were always immaculate. I couldn’t imagine them blasting through their living rooms in cleaning frenzies minutes before their visiting teachers arrived. I, on the other hand, panicked if anyone didn’t make an appointment a week in advance—that’s how long it took to get my house to look like their houses.

I wondered what was wrong with me. Why didn’t I get excited over the Cute Things we made in homemaking meetings? Why did many talks in church perturb me? Why did I question issues they took as gospel (pun intended)?

While trying to answer these questions, I realized I couldn’t cram myself into a mold that did not fit. I embarked on my own personal program of glasnost. I stopped trying to be a typical Mormon woman. In the process, I made some delightful discoveries. It’s okay to prefer books to embroidery patterns. It’s not a commandment to grind your own wheat. Temple recommends are given to those of us with messy houses and loud, sassy voices. I can claim, as my own, unconventional opinions. I learned—ever so gingerly—to separate the gospel from the Church.

I wondered whether other women felt like I did. I started to talk—and listen—to women in the Church. Really talk. No more, “Good morning, Sister Jones. That jello salad that you made for homemaking was sure delicious.” I wanted to know Typical Mormon Women. What were their aspirations and feelings? How did they feel about taboo subjects like polygamy? Did they yell at their kids? I decided to find out.

As I got to know the women of my ward, I heard one phrase over and over: “I’m not the typical Mormon woman, but…” Sometimes I wasn’t surprised by this admission. But frequently, I’d assumed I was talking to the gold standard of Mormon womanhood and was chocked that she considered herself atypical. If nobody would admit to being a typical Mormon woman, where was she?…

I had often wondered whether diversity within Mormonism was possible. In every ward I’d attended, diversity among women was met with suspicion. Labels were freely attached. Inactive. Working mother. Liberal. Single. Childless. Oddly, some of the labels that were merely descriptors carried with them negative connotations. I pictured an assembly line of smiling, puffy-haired matrons. Anyone who was different was snatched off the line and tossed aside. We all smiled our way down the assembly line. We all thought that we had to be whole wheat mothers…

If we are too anxious and overwhelmed, our relationships with each other suffer. Sisterhood fizzles in such a volatile pressure-cooker. Our friendships become counterfeit. Healthy, give-and-take connections are not possible if we always wear our Sunday faces, afraid our real selves are unacceptable. Sisterhood will elude our grasp if we continue to pursue the fictitious Molly Mormon prototype. We will never be as spiritual, knowledgeable, or kind as this mythical creature—just as horses will never be unicorns. The Typical Mormon Woman, much like the unicorn, is one-dimensional. Happily, Real Mormon Women are not. We are blessed with unique gifts and strengths, as well as idiosyncrasies and weaknesses. Thank goodness! Diversity enriches and deepens our bonds. Sisterhood happens when we permit each other to be human.

So, let’s allow the Typical Mormon Woman to depart in peace. Give her a eulogy and let her go. We don’t need her any more! We have living, breathing, fallible women to take her place. We can move to a higher plateau of understanding and tear down the fences of artificiality. We won’t turn our heads from women suffering with social problems that we will now admit exist in Mormonism. We won’t raise our eyebrows when an unorthodox opinion is stated. We won’t christen each other with petty labels or expect everyone to be our clone. We’ll take a giant leap toward sincere, sweet sisterhood.

Good-bye, Typical Mormon Woman. We’re secure without you. Go rest. We all know you deserve it.

Lisa Ray Turner
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
Volume 18 No. 1 (1993)

EmilyCC

EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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22 Responses

  1. annegb says:

    I’m up for that.

    Wonderful post.

  2. Julie says:

    Loved this post!

  3. Tracy M says:

    Yay!! Hooray!! Ding-Dong the witch is dead, hay-hi-ho! Fabulous post.

  4. marymelodi says:

    Was she ever real or just a figment of imagination, wishes, and misperceptions? I, for one, cherish the unique and wonderfully mysterious women I find among my sisters in the Church. Amen and amen!

  5. AmyB says:

    I absolutely loved this piece. I feel very alone in my branch right now. I don’t fit the mold in appearance, action, or belief, so I tend to withdraw. Maybe I’d find some good friendships if I took Lisa Turner’s advice and really got to know these women.

  6. Jennifer says:

    This post was odd to me. I have never seen this woman in any of the wards I have been to.

    This seems like something written by someone that never got to know any of the women in her ward.

    They might look the same on the outside, but it has been my experience that LDS women are as diverse as you can get – you just need to get to know them.

  7. Kiskilili says:

    This is a beautiful piece! Thanks for posting it.

    Jennifer, if I understand you right, I think you’re making a similar point to Lisa Ray Turner, except that, although she also refutes the idea that the Typical Mormon Woman exists literally, she suggests nevertheless that her specter appears on our mental landscape and sometimes stifles authentic interaction.

    What I love is the suggestion that we be more accepting of problems in our community, and foster an environment in which people are comfortable admitting to problems (of whatever stripe).

  8. Heather O. says:

    Great post, thanks

  9. EmilyCC says:

    Oops, I realized I cut out an important part of the piece for length’s sake. You may want to click on the link to the entire piece on EXII’s website (it’s listed by the pic) to read more detail about how Lisa learned just what you said, Jennifer. Thanks for pointing that out!

  10. Anonymous says:

    great post I have felt like that before

  11. Eve says:

    I love that last line.

    This article is a reminder I need more or less constantly. I don’t know why, but when I approach an unknown group of Mormon women (upon moving into a new ward, for example) I always assume I won’t belong, that everyone else fits comfortably into the mold and that they’ll find me appalling. While some few have and do, I always have to remind myself that the majority don’t. It’s revealing to consider that probably no one is a typical Mormon woman and that everyone feels some variance from type, for some reason or other.

    But if we all know that the Typical Mormon Woman’s dead, why does she sometimes feel so persistent in our collective social life, in our assumptions about one another? What is it that sustains this mythological nightmare? :>

  12. Jennifer says:

    The typical Mormon woman isnt dead, she never lived. Thats what we need to remember.

  13. Ana says:

    I love this. I moved three years ago into a ward I thought was just bursting with these women. Somehow I became a visiting teaching partner, a counselor, all these different things that let me get to know them.

    I learned a lot. They have trials. They have attitude. Their kids have done drugs. They skip meetings sometimes. They feel inadequate sometimes.

    They invite us to swim in their backyard pools, now usually vacant since their kids are grown up. They tell me to stop by on the way home from work and pick up a Tupperware container full of hot soup.

    They’re still skinny and rich, but I’m way past the point of wanting to hold that against them.

  14. Seraphine says:

    Thanks for posting this–I really love the message of this essay.

    As for Eve’s question, I wonder if part of the problem is the fact that when we hear women talked about in general conference and other church meetings, it’s always in very idealized terms. The church leaders understandably want to make women feel valued in the church, but I wonder if all the talks on the divinity of motherhood, wonders of femininity, keep us thinking that most women are trying (and succeeding in their attempts) to adhere to these standards.

    I think that if we heard stories about women facing real problems and sometimes making mistakes (rather than an idealized picture of what women are) if it would partially help with the pressure we feel to be a “typical Mormon woman.” Any thoughts on this?

  15. Caroline says:

    S
    I think you are right on. Idealization of women is, I think, a big problem. I can’t tell you how many Mormon women I know HATE Mothers’ Day talks because they make so many women feel like they just can’t ever live up to all the accolades.

    This problem of idealization crosses into other boundaries as well. Our manuals always begin each chapter with a little anecdote from the President’s life. And invariably these anecdotes never show a human side but instead idealize them for their honesty, spirituality, etc. A little balance would be most welcome, as I think these whitewashed portraits tend to make people think of church leaders as perfect individuals, rather than humans who are doing their best.

  16. Wes says:

    I laughed a lot when I read this. It was very fun! As a man I have learned a lot over the years about the expectations and ideas of mormon women. Those I’ve known that spent too much time trying to be the perfect mormon women were bound to explode. I think the scripture about not running faster than one’s strength is worth remembering. As a side note, I think you all sound very intelligent and it feels great to have intilectual discussions with other mormons, though I feel a little less tallented. Congradulations on a very entertaining and worthwhile community!

  17. mckenzie says:

    diverstiy

    I love Chieko Okazaki, former RS General Presidency. She spoke at a 1997 Puheesta stake women’s conference when these notes were taken.

    DISCOVER THE JOY

    Sister Okazaki began her remarks by holding up 4 cookie cutters and asking the audience what they thought cookie cutters had to do with joy. She told us we’d come back to the cookie cutters, and she then outlined four principles from the theme scripture D&C 42:61: 1) asking, 2) revelation, 3) knowledge, and 4) mysteries & peaceable things.

    She said that we often get a lot of promissory notes at church–if you have Family Home Evening your kids will get along with each other; if you’re obedient you’ll be happy; if you work harder, do better, or do things more times, you’ll be blessed. She pointed out that this scripture doesn’t mention any of the myriad things we’re all *should* do, but concentrated on 4 gospel basics.

    Sister Okazaki said we have to ask for assistance from the Lord for two reasons: He won’t violate our agency even to give us good things, and He wants to lure us into conversation with him. The first step is to ask and we shall receive–a principle reiterated often in the scriptures. She also said not to worry over prayer protocol or pronouns, just ASK . (law of attraction)

    She then described the two kinds of revelation we can receive: 1)revelation about the nature of God & the meaning of life (testimony) and 2) revelations that are outpourings of specific information regarding our daily lives (personal). The first we need like we need oxygen, the second like we need our daily bread; she also said we NEED to feel joy in our lives.

    She then described a list of things that *should* bring us joy, and likened this to a blue plate special, saying the messages we get a church often treat us like every woman’s needs are the same, one size fits all, and that we should be like everyone else. Mothers are supposed to find total joy & fulfillment in bearing and raising children; single women are supposed to find joy in preparing to marry and raise families; widows like herself are supposed to find joy in enduring to the end.

    She said the problem with these messages is that they do not treat you as an individual. Praying, serving, reading scriptures, and going to the temple are good things, but these messages are not tailored to individual circumstances. She wondered if others felt as she does sometimes–that she doesn’t *want* one more blue plate special, and feels like she’ll gag on what someone else is trying to feed her.

    She then returned to the cookie cutter analogy, saying that cookie cutters are for cookies, not for human beings, and we should not try to live someone else’s life, or compare ourselves to others.

    She then told stories of two women. The first was about Donna Jean Holiday, mother of 10, who after moving to Salt Lake City, suffered a nervous breakdown & depression from the pressures of trying to be supermom. One day, she told her family she was going for a walk and disappeared. She left a note which described her feeling that she was impeding her family’s progress and that they’d be better off without her. Last week, her body was found with a gunshot wound to the head. Sister Okazaki mourned the circumstances that would make this woman feel she was better off dead.

    She then told a story of another woman who had written to her about finding herself in similar circumstances: depression, at the end of her rope, spending years struggling in joyless circumstances. She, too, thought at times that death would be a blessing. But one day, she was reading through one of Sister Okazaki’s books and ran across a passage that echoed King Benjamin’s statements: we would give, but we have not–that sometimes there’s nothing left for us to give. When were in what Sister Okazaki called a season of depletion, it’s OK to await our time of renewal without feeling guilty about our inability to give. The second sister felt like someone had really understood her and loved her, even if she was just reading words on a page.

    Sister Okazaki asked what will create this atmosphere of understanding and love?
    Does it help to bellow cheerful advice,
    To tell someone to get on with their lives?

    No.

    She said if anyone there felt unappreciated, worthless, degraded, unloved, sad, etc. to
    get help from the Lord, the Relief Society president, the bishop, home teachers, family, and a therapist…

    To realize you are *worth* rearranging the environment for.
    You are worth changing society for.
    Find your VOICE. Be heard.

    She said sometimes we live cookie cutter lives, and there can come a time when the boundaries don’t feel good anymore; that’s when we need personal revelation from our Heavenly Father & Heavenly Mother. We may have discovered that we’re not the right person for that particular cookie cutter, and we ought not lop off parts of ourselves to try to fit into someone else’s shape.

    Sister Okazaki then returned to the points from the scriptures: ask for revelation about the way the Savior wants us to live–that all we may have to go on is a tiny flicker, but to keep going. She spoke of the importance of knowledge and the mysteries of God, which she described as things we don’t understand *yet*, not things that are dangerous or irrelevant to our salvation as these are often portrayed. God is anxious to explain his ways to us if we will ask.

    She then said that true joy comes through a firsthand, personal, intimate daily relationship with Jesus Christ–that this is the only must or should that the scriptures mention, and that in the process of developing this relationship, we will discover joy in our lives.

  18. mckenzie says:

    “Many women feel that there is a Relief Society ‘mold’ that they have to fit into to be acceptable. I love the experience of Karen Lynn Davidson, a stake Relief Society President in California [teacher at a Catholic girls’ school; single until 38; no children of her own]..She says- and I love this! “Paradoxically, I serve an important purpose by not fitting the traditional image..I’m a daily reminder to our stake.” (97-8) ‘Cat’s Cradel’ by Chieko Okasaki’

  19. Caroline says:

    mckenzie,
    Thanks for posting that! I just love Chieko Okazaki. May we have more women leaders like her in the future.

  20. Lucy says:

    Oh..thank you. Thank you…thank you…thank you!! Breath of fresh air. Everytime I go to RS I come home feeling….what is wrong with me??! It’s nice to know that nothing is.

  21. mckenzi says:

    The Myth of Perfectionism
    by Dr. John Lund

    Unrealistic Expectations- The Platonic Ideal: Plato did a number on us [the western civilization]. He introduced the notion of ‘Dualism’- separating physical and spiritual. Polarizing and demonizing “corrupt” material from “perfect” spiritual ideals. *President Gordon B. Hinckley has said that is inherently a pessimistic doctrine and incorrect. Yet a lot of people have bought into this “platonic ideal” that if something is not absolutely “perfect” then we are not good enough.

    Catholics and Jews wrestled with ‘Hellenism’, a philosophical foundation of the Greeks. Greeks worked hard to convert the Jews. They set up 10 cities east of Galilee called the Copulas and two universities. The reactionary group, orthodox Jews, in opposition to this came up with 613commandments. Catholics have the 7 sacraments to transcend “corrupt” mortality into the “ideal” world of God. Protestants said this is a gap no man can cross. We will have to rely on grace vs. works. *The Prophet Joseph Smith revealed there is no dualism. It is a single. “As man is God once was. As God is man may become”. Even spirit is ‘material’, just more refined matter in nature.

    !!We Are Not Traditional Duality Christians!!

    There are those in the church who still want to adhere to a platonic ideal. They set up an impossible competitive standard that neither they nor anyone else can live up to. It makes us vulnerable. It makes us vulnerable hypocrites.

    Perfectionism afflicts the church. This is a dangerous thought process. Frustration comes from disappointment. Unrealistic ideals rob us of ability to focus..on this season of life.
    * * *
    Perfectionist deny individual revelation. Do not worship ideals: “Let her alone. Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, becouse she loved much, and did what she could.”

  22. mckenzi says:

    “I think a lot of hate is really fear, just not being willing to reach out and extend yourself. I would argue that capitalism could encourage hate. Focusing the value of human life on profit and capital means there’s less value placed on community, education, and family time. Which leaves us less time to connect, learn and spend time understanding each other.” ~Kathy Bisbee
    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Remedy
    for dangerous thought processes

    *Filtering– Shift focus, no need to magnify

    *Polarized thinking- Think in percenetages, not black and white judgment

    *Overgeneralization-Quanitify- evidence for conclusion? There are no absolutes.

    *Mind reading- Check it out- Evidence for conclusion

    *Catastriphizing- Realistic Odds

    *Personalization-Check it out- Evidence for conclusion – Why risk comparison?

    *Control fallacy-I make it happen- Each one is responsible

    *Fallacy of Fairness- Preference vs. fairness

    *Emotional Reasoning- Feelings can lie

    *Global Labeling- Be specific

    *Blaming- I make it happen-Each one is responsible

    *Shoulds- flexible values, not pharasee strick rule keeping, letter vs spirit of the law

    *Being Right- Active Listening

    *Heaven’s reward Fallacy, Matry syndrom- The Reward is Now

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