Role Models

Posted by on September 28, 2012 in Mormon women | 19 comments

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?

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19 Comments

  1. So nice to hear about Stella Oaks’ story this morning. My son’s afterschool program isn’t working out and it has me upset, so it helps to hear about other mothers coming through these kinds of things, even if my challenges are small compared with Stella’s. It’s great there are ways to share stories, even if we aren’t reading them in the Ensign.

  2. “Successful single women with fulfilling wives”? I think that’s a Freudian slip there! Haha. Just kidding.

    • spiderlady

      That may have been a Freudian slip. Thanks for catching it.

  3. One place to look for female role models is at BYU. I listen to the devotional podcasts, and over the last year or so, there have been at least four female professors, including department chairs and a dean, who spoke and talked about having young children at home while pursuing their careers. Amy Jensen was particularly amazing. Also, Camille Fronk Olsen was not among them, but she is chair of the Department of Ancient Scripture at BYU, so apparently that job does not require priesthood:)

    So apparently BYU has a fair number of mom/professors serving as role models for students there.

    I was also an employed mom in the 1980s, and I am sorry that you did not receive the support that I did. When I was set apart to a major stake calling in 1984ish, the blessing said that I would be able to fulfill all my roles, with my children as well as at my employment.

    I dunno, I don’t hear so much of the rhetoric as slamming moms who are employed as much as presenting full-time parenting as a viable and worthwhile option for those who can choose it. Where I live, people look down on such mothers as “not working.” Full-time dads are kinda trendy and considered progressive, but fulltime moms are obviously mindless and traditionalist (sigh. Even if they have put as much thought and consideration into the decision as the dad, and are doing it for the same exact reasons!) So the young women where I live very much need role models who are at home fulltime for a season–there are so few of them!

    As far as why the Ensign didn’t provide that information, we really have to decide whether we want women treated like men or not. When would an article about a man say, “He was employed while his children were little”? There actually were a lot of Ensign articles that treated maternal employment in a very matter-of-fact way; I remember RS president Barbara Smith writing an article about selecting the best daycare.

    The wife of my bishop, stake president, and an AA 70 who lives in our area have all been employed, although not all had paid jobs while the kids were young. But they also offer role models.

    I have chosen to be employed part-time most of my career, early on for our own kids, later so that I can help with elder care and grandchildren, always so that I can put effort into homemaking efforts that minimize our costs of living. I am sure some find me a poor role model for my failure to “work fulltime,” but it is my life, and we all need to find what the Lord would have us do and what works best for our particular situation.

    • Naismith
      BYU does have many incredible women faculty abnd staff members. I just wish they were more visible to the rest of us.

      You make an interesting point about the Ensign not noting that Dad’s may be employed while their kids are young, but I’m not sure women and men need to be treated identically in the press. As a woman, I’m always interested in another woman’s family situation.

  4. Course Correction,
    This is terrific. Thanks for telling us about Stella Oaks. I had heard Elder Oaks refer to his widowed mom in talks before, but I had not heard about all of her professional accomplishments. What a great role model.

    I’m glad to hear that the rhetorical emphasis on motherhood was less common several decades ago. Maybe someday the pendulum will swing back and we’ll get from our leaders a heavy focus on women as disciples of Christ rather than mothers. I have always been struck by D&C 25 which is the section for Emma. In it, there’s not a word about her nurturing children or mothering or housekeeping. It tells her to exhort the church and expound the scriptures. That’s a good model for contemporary Church leaders to follow when they talk about women’s roles, I think.

    “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?”

    Amen to that.

    • Love your comments Caroline and the whole post Course Correction!
      I’m hoping this weekend to hear more talks like Elder Baxter’s from last General Conference (the one specifically to single moms)!

  5. I LOVE this post. As a traditional-job-holding mom today, I echo this feeling of a lack of support from the higher ups at the church. Fortunately, I feel more support on the local level in my new ward. When I turned down a calling because it would simply drain me too much to do my emotionally-demanding job, the bishopbric counselor said in the most understanding way, “The bishop has told us: Your family comes first, then your job, then your calling.” I was so relieved that he understood that I needed to save up my energy to be a good provider, and I wholeheartedly accepted the next calling that was offered to me, which fit my time/energy requirements much better and showed me that they really listened to my concerns and wanted me to have a fitting calling.

    I love that Naismith brought up BYU as well and echo that. I also was fortunate enough that when I was at BYU I was never discouraged from getting an advanced degree or becoming a professional. Plus there were great female role models.

    But it is the rhetoric of the church, their publications, and their lesson manuals that really get me down when it comes to presenting traditionally-working moms as a valid option and women deserving of support that women in other positions receive. And I have heard a lot of unsopportive, judgmental, and hurtful comments by ward members in lessons, or made by family members (I am the first working mom in my family). I have also been without visiting teachers for about six years because they can’t find anyone who is willing to meet in the evenings or on the weekends (they understandably want to be with their families during these times, and so do I, but that won’t make me available at 11:00 a.m. on a Thursday morning).

    I feel like a loner a lot in being the primary provider and a mom. I have searched for and have not found local or online support groups for working moms. I find myself grasping to find out how other moms are doing it so I am not inventing the wheel all the time. Even among Mormon feminists, I often feel like an anomaly. The stigma associated with working moms by the kinds of things that are said–and not said–by the official church makes this worse for me, and I feel that the struggle is greater than it would be if there were other women who shared my circumstance or who could help without judgment.

    • Alisha,

      Online visiting teaching sounds like a great way to reach employed women like you. I wonder if any wards are implementing it.

  6. Yes! I would love to hear more about Stella Oaks as well. Perhaps more needs to be done in the church to encourage single mothers. I think the worry is that nowadays, at least where I live in CA, it is more than accepted to have women work outside of the home. There are times when as a SAHM, I feel like other women who do work outside the home look down on me. But the truth is for me and really probably everyone- if I, my family, and the Lord feel like I am making the right choice, then I just need to get over what everyone else thinks! Right?? I also think that as it has become more accepted to have women working and achieving outside the home, it is even more important to emphasize the importance of the work we as women do inside the home. Because, baby, it does not always feel fulfilling. I wonder if the church is just trying to balance the messages that are coming from the rest of the world saying that being a mother is not enough- when it should be the priority. When Sister Oaks and Emma Smith were being mothers, I wonder how common it was for women to reach outside of the sphere of their family and immediate friends. What a wonderful message and example these women were and now look at the wonderful things women are doing. I just look at it that women are getting so much more encouragement and accceptance for accomplishing many things outside of the realm of their homes and I believe that the leadership in the church just wants to make sure that amidst all of the opportunities we now have as women, that we don’t forget how important being a mother is. …And it would be nice if we didn’t feel judged, but frankly, no matter what decision I make, I feel judged by someone… so instead of trying to change everyone, I am working on being true to my God, myself, and my family, and being strong enough inside to let the rest go to the wayside.

    • Amy

      SAHM is a great choice for families that can afford it–especially when the children are very young. I agree that we should not judge each other. Every couple must choose what works best for their family.

    • Amy, I love your perspective. I’m trying to develop a smiliar outlook in myself.

      I live in a very affluent So Cal community, and SAHMs are envied like lottery winners. We have women with high educations and earning potential, LDS and non-LDS, choosing to stay home with the kids. It’s almost a status thing. Me? I have to go to work. No one looks down on ‘Working Moms’ in my community, but we are kind of pitied.

      I think we had 2 speakers at conference in April talk about their single mothers and how hard they worked and what a great example of service they were. Those messages were a great trend. We as women need to accept each other regardless of our choice to stay home or work- we are all sisters!

  7. It must vary by area. In our area, working mothers are very looked down upon in a number of the wards. And they have been for any number of years. Because there are a majority of stay at home moms in a lot of the callings, it can make it harder for the working mom when she can’t attend a presidency meeting during the day. I have seen a situation where the stay at home moms were not good about scheduling in advance, so that the lone working mom could arrange to be at a meeting. It just seemed the stay at home moms were flying by the seat of their pants about getting the meeting done instead of taking the time to organize and schedule it in advance. One day or same day notice isn’t helpful to working mothers. I just wish we could get to the point where we all truly support and help each other. This is a wonderful article about Sister Oaks. I loved reading about it. And that is interesting about Chieko Okazaki too. Thank you for this post!

    • Sally and All

      Getting to the point where we all truly support and help ech other is what it’s all about. I appreciate all your thoughtful comments. I think this kind of dialogue does help us understand each other better so we can be supportive.

  8. Fascinating post, Course Correction! Like Caroline, I have heard Elder Oaks mention his mom and her sacrifices but not much more than that. What an inspiring story, and yes, we do need her biography!

    I wonder if this problem could be remedied at the ward level if people felt comfortable to tell their unconventional life stories and those of their family in lessons and activities.

    • Emily,

      Sharing our unconventional life stories in church lessons–what a great idea. This is a situation where members don’t have to wait for the hierarchy to act.

  9. I sometimes feel a bewildering mix of messages. I think church leaders have been getting away from a heavy-handed “stay home or else” message like the ones we used to hear in the 80s and 90s, especially considering that in many areas, staying at home is just plain impossible. But I think there is plenty of residual cultural pressure for women to stay home, and perhaps not enough encouragement for women to use their brains and the Spirit to find their own paths (though Pres. Beck did suggest this very thing a couple of years ago–see https://www.lds.org/callings/relief-society/messages-from-leaders/messages-from-leaders/womens-conference-2011?lang=eng).
    For those of you like Alisa who are looking for a support group for working women, I started a site and blog a few months ago at http://www.familyfriendlywork.org. It’s got information about parental leave, child care, flexibility, guilt, and more. I also have a related FB group called FamilyFriendlyWork. I would love to hear from more from working women, especially LDS ones. I also noticed there weren’t very many resources out there for LDS working moms, and so I’m doing something about it!
    I wish I could write that biography about SHO. That would be such an amazing project!

    • Thanks for notifying me of this resource, Kaylie!

  10. I found this a thoughtful and interesting post, but this thought really struck home with me. I watch and worry about the young women today…

    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.

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