When I was in college in the early ‘60s, Stella Harris Oaks was a role model for young, Mormon women—at least in Utah. Stella, a community pillar, was often referred to as Provo’s city mother. Her husband died when their oldest child was just seven. With no Social Security benefits for widows and children back then, Stella returned to teaching to support her family.
Pursuing excellence was part of Stella’s creed. She even left the security of Utah to earn her Master’s Degree from Columbia University. She founded the adult education program in Provo and served on the city council and as assistant mayor for many years.
Stella was a single mom with a more than 40 hour a week job while her kids were growing up—but they survived and thrived. Her oldest son became an attorney, a BYU president, and an apostle; her second son became an ophthalmologist and, I believe, a regional representative. I recall her daughter being an outstanding student body officer when I was a sophomore at Provo High.
When I was a freshman at the College of Southern Utah (now SUU) in Cedar City, Stella spoke to the women students. She admonished us to not only finish our education, but to work to improve our communities. She counseled us about time use: “Mormon women are wonderful at working in the church, but they need to go beyond. You don’t have to spend all your time on housework. If you must iron your sheets, don’t dust mop under your bed.” (Strange as it seems, some women in 1960 actually ironed sheets.)
Stella’s message was unusual, but not controversial at that time. Fifty years ago, women and girls heard very little from the pulpit about our divine role as mothers and the need for us to nurture children. Apparently, leaders assumed we knew.
My question is: Why are women employed outside the home no longer seen as role models for Mormon women? When Chieko Okazaki became a counselor in the General Relief Society Presidency in 1990, her occupation as a teacher was mentioned in the Ensign, but I didn’t learn she had taught while her children were young until I read it in one of her books. Why didn’t the Ensign provide that information? I could have handled my balancing act as a working mother in the ‘80s much better by knowing how Chieko and her husband managed their home front while both worked. Instead of help, all I received from church as a working mom was criticism. In the eyes of the Church, I was failing my family by helping provide for our monetary needs.
Church rhetoric extolling the virtues of fulltime homemaking and the evils of “working mothers” ramped up in the 1970s. I can’t help thinking the ERA fight—and Sonia Johnson’s well-publicized opposition to the Church stance—permanently scarred Church leaders who apparently believed their own invective against ERA:
The ERA could endanger time-honored moral values by challenging laws that have safeguarded the family. . . Legislation that could blur those [fathers’ and mothers’] roles gives cause for concern. . . . The ERA could make it more difficult for wives and mothers to remain at home because it could require the removal of legal requirements that make a husband responsible for the support of his wife and children.
ERA did not pass, but even without the constitutional amendment, education and job opportunities opened for women. Male Church leaders since that time apparently believe Mormon women must be continually reminded of the importance of their home and children. Church lessons and talks routinely tell us motherhood is important. Condescending messages that we are awesome and the Church couldn’t function without us performing our traditional roles are delivered at nearly every conference.
I doubt that honoring successful single moms will convince many women that single-parenting is better than a two-parent home. What it would do is make single moms feel more accepted at church. After all, who needs a role model more than a single mom struggling with kids, a job, and lack of financial security?
I also doubt that many Mormon girls will choose to remain single if they become aware of successful single women with fulfilling lives. What may happen is that they will feel less pressure to marry a poor prospect.
What I am asking to see—and maybe the “I’m a Mormon” web page is a harbinger of such things—is to have women with interesting careers, regardless of marital and motherhood status, featured in lesson manuals for both Young Women and Relief Society.
And while I’m asking, why doesn’t somebody write a complete biography of the awesome Stella Harris Oaks?