Sisters Speak: Raising the Next Generation of Mormon Women

Mother and Daughter by Herman

An Exponent II reader writes, “I am a thirty-something new mom. Over the years, I have made peace with my identity as a Mormon. I like getting involved, helping the sisters in my ward, teaching quietly feminist gospel doctrine lessons.  Despite the rough road its been, I like being a bridge-builder.  I’m stubborn and don’t want cultural elements to drive me away from my birthright. 

But my daughter is a really incredible kid. She’s got this spunky energy. And if I dare stop to think about the subtle messages she’ll get about her “role” as a woman from nursery onward . . . gulp!  And then there are the OVERT messages.  From moms of daughters, I’d love to hear how/if having a daughter changed your relationship with the church. From anyone else, I’d love your thoughts about raising the next generation of girls in the Church. How can we help protect them from those problematic messages about womanhood, while at the same time teaching them to appreciate the best of  Mormonism?”

 

This question from the Exponent II reader was an interesting one to contemplate. As the mom of a 2 year old daughter, I did feel some angst when I was contemplating her baby blessing. I felt more peace about my husband being the only voice speaking our hopes and blessings for our son. But with my daughter, something just seemed wrong about that exclusively male voice talking about her woman’s life. I was only able to make peace with our at home male-voiced baby blessing when I decided that I would also bless her surrounded by a community of Mormon women.

As for all the other stuff she will be encountering in the Church, I’m going to try to be on  top of those subtle and not subtle messages every week, asking her to question them, asking if x and y seem right, asking her how she would improve the lesson to make it better for girls, etc. She’ll see me doing a lot of the same so hopefully that will show her a way to be a Mormon woman that doesn’t buy into ideas that constrain her.

Please share your thoughts on this question. I may email some of you to ask permission to quote you in the Exponent II magazine’s next Sisters Speak column.

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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18 Responses

  1. Jessica says:

    We have 4 daughter and no sons, so this is a big issue for me. Last week we had an incident with my oldest who is 9y. She was sobbing not wanting to go to school because her dress was not modest. Well actually she wouldn’t tell me why she was crying- but it finally came flooding out. This dress was knee length, short sleeves, and very cute from Land’s End (I am not sure they make immodest little girls dresses). She was just so upset that since at activity days they told them that modest dresses go to their ankles. I mean really AHHH.

    So we had a huge talk about how she was a wonderful person, but that other people have opinions and even at church we have to think about what people say and try to decide for ourselves. That what we wear should help us feel comfortable in our bodies and help us to feel free to be ourselves. And not what other people think we want us to be, some people will want us to wear things that we do not like and we have to make up our own minds.

    I think it is just such a weird thing to be a woman in the church especially in highly mormon populations because the the psudo- gospel culture is so unhealthy.

    We have discussions about the Priesthood and about how at home mommy and daddy both preside together as equals and how that is different from church. And that God give power not only to men but to all human beings who seek it, but that in an organization there are often people who choose to limit power not God.

    We discuss how there is a difference between just going to church and having a personal relationship with the divine.

    We let them have opinions and ask why and when they get older we will teach them how to submit a written proposal to change a family rule, or to make an argument for themselves and to have opinions and to be able to support those opinions well.

    We teach them that not everyone in the world will think the same as they do or the same as we do in our home, and that is ok. We need not be the same or think the same or see the same or look the same or vote the same. We all have value.

  2. Jessica says:

    I also wanted to add that we also teach our children a lot about the scriptures and especially Jesus. So that they can ground their foundation on Christ and not on the running of a church.

    Because there really is so much good. But sometimes the bad is just so hard to get past. I know I still struggle.

  3. Caroline says:

    Jessica, these are terrific messages to communicate to girls. I’m going to take note of these so I can pass them on to my daughter as well.

    And by the way, I am stunned that there are Mormons out there teaching that only modest dresses come to their ankles. Where do people get this stuff!

  4. MissRissa says:

    I have two little girls and if anything, this has really helped awaken my inner feminist! 🙂 I am more aware than ever about what is being taught at church and how and I am careful to take the time and talk about things with my eldest (who is only 4) especially about the messages she recieves from primary. For example, she asked how the world was created so we sat down with some pictures and the Bible and I told her the story of the creation- except I also taught her that her Heavenly Mother was there helping to create our world also (because I just can’t believe She wasn’t involved!). I want her to know that its ok to think about and have a relationship with her Heaveny Mother and she’s just not going to get that at church. I hope that we can be open with each other as she continues to grow up.

  5. Songaphi says:

    I have 5 daughters, 15, 13, 10, 7, and 4. I have served as a YW president both at the stake and ward level as well as a counselor, secretary, advisor, and camp director in the Young Women program. I love the gospel and the YW program and think the Church has provided marvelous resources to assist in teaching pure doctrine and raising strong, intelligent, well-rounded children. However, I have been in meetings with my two oldest daughters where I have literal thought, “These people are brainwashing my children.” Or, “Everyone here sounds the same, looks the same, cries at the same moment, and wants exactly the same things from life.” I have wondered, as so many leaders here (we are in Happy Valley) embrace and reflect incorrect principals from this screwy culture, whether my daughters are destined to emerge from the process of growing up looking like a rubber stamp of everything they have seen around them. I wonder if they will be given the change to really understand Individual Worth. I wonder if they will have the choice to become the women God wants them to be, and is quietly leading them towards, or if they will feel like they have to fit into the mold of what our culture is screaming they ought to be.

    To me, part of the key is that we talk about it. I always ask them what they thought about certain meetings or talks, I ask them how they felt. We try to learn together how to discern culture from doctrine and emotion from spirit. We try to encourage them to develop their own personalities, to recognize their individual strengths, to help each each other through areas of weakness, and to understand that we are valued because we are different, not based on how well we can fit into this strange idea of what a Mormon woman “ought” to be.

    More difficult, and in some ways, more concerning to me, is the wall created for our young women between youth and Relief Society. As uniform and pedantic as the message our young women receive are, at least there is still a large amount of support for young women to develop talents, to get an education, to be independent and to nurture her personal relationship with Christ and with heavenly parents. Once young adults hit relief society, that all disappears. Suddenly, women are valued only as potential spouses, and then, only as potential mothers. I think we do a much better job at encouraging our youth than we do women and I think that is partially why we lose so many single adults. If you don’t fit the mold and the expectations, it seems that there is no place for you.

    For this reason, I try to instill in my daughters that the are the children of God–a loving mother and a loving father eternally united and working for their good. And that our heavenly parents are the singular source from which they (my girls) can receive inspiration and direction about who they are and what their mission in this life is. Then, we start talking about how that revelation will likely be bounded by revealed truths in scriptures and from prophets. But I think they have got to come out of adolescent understanding that there is no recipe for a mormon woman–there is no mold.

    In terms of the gender issues in the Church, my husband and I have always been very clear with the girls that priesthood is the power of God and earth, that it is here for the benefit of all of God’s children and that we simply do not know why only men are currently ordained or allowed to exercise that priesthood in formal ways outside the temple. They all know that women gave blessings in the early period of the church–all the way up to the middle of the last century. They also know that women are ordained to become priestesses and that will not likely happen without women holding some version of priesthood. They also know that in sacred ordinances their father and I have been equally endowed with power in the priesthood. They know that I accept the rest by faith, because I have too many evidences in my life to turn my back on my Heavenly Parents and the gospel as it currently is on the earth.

  6. Songaphi says:

    I have 5 daughters, 15, 13, 10, 7, and 4. I have served as a YW president both at the stake and ward level as well as a counselor, secretary, advisor, and camp director in the Young Women program. I love the gospel and the YW program and think the Church has provided marvelous resources to assist in teaching pure doctrine and raising strong, intelligent, well-rounded children. However, I have been in meetings with my two oldest daughters where I have literal thought, “These people are brainwashing my children.” Or, “Everyone here sounds the same, looks the same, cries at the same moment, and wants exactly the same things from life.” I have wondered, as so many leaders here (we are in Happy Valley) embrace and reflect incorrect principals from this screwy culture, whether my daughters are destined to emerge from the process of growing up looking like a rubber stamp of everything they have seen around them. I wonder if they will be given the change to really understand Individual Worth. I wonder if they will have the choice to become the women God wants them to be, and is quietly leading them towards, or if they will feel like they have to fit into the mold of what our culture is screaming they ought to be.

    To me, part of the key is that we talk about it. I always ask them what they thought about certain meetings or talks, I ask them how they felt. We try to learn together how to discern culture from doctrine and emotion from spirit. We try to encourage them to develop their own personalities, to recognize their individual strengths, to help each each other through areas of weakness, and to understand that we are valued because we are different, not based on how well we can fit into this strange idea of what a Mormon woman “ought” to be.

    More difficult, and in some ways, more concerning to me, is the wall created for our young women between youth and Relief Society. As uniform and pedantic as the message our young women receive are, at least there is still a large amount of support for young women to develop talents, to get an education, to be independent and to nurture her personal relationship with Christ and with heavenly parents. Once young adults hit relief society, that all disappears. Suddenly, women are valued only as potential spouses, and then, only as potential mothers. I think we do a much better job at encouraging our youth than we do women and I think that is partially why we lose so many single adults. If you don’t fit the mold and the expectations, it seems that there is no place for you.

    For this reason, I try to instill in my daughters that the are the children of God–a loving mother and a loving father eternally united and working for their good. And that our heavenly parents are the singular source from which they (my girls) can receive inspiration and direction about who they are and what their mission in this life is. Then, we start talking about how that revelation will likely be bounded by revealed truths in scriptures and from prophets. But I think they have got to come out of adolescent understanding that there is no recipe for a mormon woman–there is no mold.

    In terms of the gender issues in the Church, my husband and I have always been very clear with the girls that priesthood is the power of God on earth, that it is here for the benefit of all of God’s children and that we simply do not know why only men are currently ordained or allowed to exercise that priesthood in formal ways outside the temple. They all know that women gave blessings in the early period of the church–all the way up to the middle of the last century. They also know that women are ordained to become priestesses and that will not likely happen without women holding some version of priesthood. They also know that in sacred ordinances their father and I have been equally endowed with power in the priesthood. They know that I accept the rest by faith, because I have too many evidences in my life to turn my back on my Heavenly Parents and the gospel as it currently is on the earth.

  7. April says:

    Just recently, my husband said, “We need to put our daughter in Girl Scouts.” It bothers both of us that boys are sent on repeated camping trips and other expensive activities, while such activities for girls are few and far between, because the church sponsors Boy Scouts but not Girl Scouts. There is little we can do to change these inequities churchwide (although I am willing to try), but we can compensate in our own family. The church is going to provide our sons with Boy Scout Troupes, but will not do so for our daughter? Then we’ll do it. This strategy won’t work for everything–there is nothing I can do to get my daughter a seat at the Sacrament Table–but at least with some of these inequities, I can fill in the blanks.

  8. Diane says:

    I have to preface what I’m about to say because I don’t have children.

    Okay, that’s out of the way, I was listening to a survey the other day,(It didn’t have anything to do with church) but, it did have a lot to say about how we raise confident daughters in today’s society.

    In part, the survey asked parents of daughters how they would describe their daughters. Over half of them said beautiful, not smart, but beautiful.

    I believe one of the things that I can do as a mentor and the rest of us who are parents can do is to tell them they are smart, take interest in their likes, talk to them honestly about church and church history(honestly) and hopefully, I can influence them in a positive way that will leave spirits intact.

  9. I really appreciate these comments and agree with everything that has been posted. My two girls are much too little to be noticing gender inequality but they will and I’ll be revisiting these comments for insight. When I was growing up I felt frustrated when my YW leaders pretended not to see the inequality. I think deep down I was worried that maybe God didn’t see us as equals. Fortunately, I had this one amazing YW leader (who is likely a regular reader of FMH) who acknowledged and validated everything that bothered me. She didn’t pretend to have all the answers but she reassured me that women were equal to men in God’s eyes. I believed her because of the way she carried herself. She truly walked like she was a daughter of God, head held high with authority. When she had opinions she shared them openly. My mom would always take note of the controversial (by Sunday School standards) things Ganelle would say in Gospel Doctrine and then tell me after church just to emphasize that it was okay to disagree. Ganelle was very open to us in YW about everything in her life. She told us that she wanted to have a career and waited to have kids until she was good and ready. She also raved about motherhood. Around the time I was finishing high school she went back to grad school to work on a Masters degree because she had started getting stir crazy at home. I loved her for being honest with me about her own feelings and struggles with finding balance in her “role.” A large part of what we feminists take issue with in our church is not doctrine as much as culture. I think there are enough of us to change the culture. It is sort of like the saying “you teach people how to treat you.” We need to carry ourselves with confidence and pipe up. If we share our insights and opinions freely we will create a new norm. We should enthusiastically accept callings to serve the youth and show them as well as tell them that we are equals.

    • Jessica says:

      I think that your post really brings out main issue. That when culture effects the way YW and girls and women are treated at church it reflects on how they view God.

  10. Annie B. says:

    This topic actually scares me a little because I haven’t been going to church. I’ve been sending my two daughters (7 and 18 months)to church with my husband. I want to support him, and I want to support them, but I have pretty high anxiety at church from a variety of triggers regarding the doctrine, history, ideas I don’t agree with ect. I know I need to be there for my daughters to reinforce the positive principles that I agree with, and do damage control/offer alternate views for the ones I don’t agree with, or that caused me pain growing up. But at this point I’m not sure I can. Reading all the responses does give me some courage though, and remembering the wonderful YW leaders that I had growing up helps a lot too.

  11. christer1979 says:

    I just can’t say this enough: the gender roles your children see at home totally trump what they hear at church. Just this week I was reviewing that troubling YW lesson about respecting patriarchal authority. I’m pretty certain I was taught this, probably multiple times, and yet I grew up fully believing husband and wife make decisions together, listen to each other, come to unanimous conclusions, and move forward. Why? Because, as far as I could tell, that’s how my parents worked. Seriously, this is why as a college sophomore I didn’t get why my literary theory teachers treaded so carefully around feminism. Why would they think feminism would work against the church when so much of what I had learned there taught me I was powerful, valued, strong, capable of receiving revelation and just as valuable as men? Modesty was about respecting my body, education was important, marriage was my goal but I knew if it didn’t work out I still was of worth. Seriously, this is all because my parents are wonderful, considerate, egalitarian people. My dad presided to the extent that he almost always drove on vacation, lead scripture study and FHE, and picked who prayed. He was the head for those matters, but everything else I can remember was done as a team. I really thought that every good member of the church who had the Spirit would just KNOW that this is how marriage should be.

    The more I hear about crazy modesty standards (ANKLES? Not even sister missionaries are asked to do that now! It’s just past the knees!) and re-analyze the gender roles, I do get distressed. But the examples of womanhood, manhood, and teamwork that your daughters see at home will be their default, their template for the future. And for everything else, conversations in the car with my mom were really what helped me figure out life, how the gospel applies to everyday things and deep life issues. Be there, talk things through, and it will work out.

    • Annie B. says:

      That might have been my problem. I didn’t have a home life that offered a differing view from the doctrine. My dad tried very hard to do things to the letter of what the church taught. We had a book shelf at home full of books written by and about leaders of the church past and present and whenever we had a question about something he would tell us which book to go look it up in. We sat on the front row at church because he had heard that grade A students sit on the front row in school so why shouldn’t that apply at church? I didn’t see my parents decide things together. I saw my dad presiding in pretty much everything.

  12. Caroline says:

    Thank you for the comments, everyone!

    MissRissa, I think you are so right to teach about Heavenly Mother’s presence in the creation and in our lives. I wanted to get that message across to my son a couple of years ago, so i bought a picture book called ‘Big Momma Makes the World’ (available at amazon) which depicts a feminine divine creating the world.

    Songaphi,
    Your daughters and the YW are lucky to have you! I absolutely this: “I try to instill in my daughters that the are the children of God–a loving mother and a loving father eternally united and working for their good. And that our heavenly parents are the singular source from which they (my girls) can receive inspiration and direction about who they are and what their mission in this life is.”

    April says, “there is nothing I can do to get my daughter a seat at the Sacrament Table–but at least with some of these inequities, I can fill in the blanks.” Great point. That’s exactly my attitude when it comes to male hierarchy issues and marriage. There’s not much i can do to open up leadership opportunities for women in the church, but I can make sure my marriage is truly an equal partnership, devoid of male hierarchy.

    Diane, those are important points. When i was teaching high school, i had to consciously tell myself to not comment on the girls’ appearance. It’s such an easy way to be nice and show interest (“I love your boots” kinds of comments) but I was aware that making comments like that only reinforced the idea that physical appearance was really important, and I just didn’t want my personal interactions to be based on such superficial observations.

    Lindsey Hicks,
    Your bishop and YW’s leaders deserve major kudos for calling that woman into YW. I’m sure some would be afraid to have someone in YW who doesn’t embody common Mormon cultural norms. How fantastic that you had her.

    Annie B, hopefully you can still do some damage control/positive reinforcement, even if you don’t attend, by talking to them afterwards about what they learned or what they had questions about. I generally attend church, but since I’m not in primary or nursery, I just have to hope that my kids communicate anything problematic.

    Christer1979, “the gender roles your children see at home totally trump what they hear at church.” I desperately hope that’s true. I think it probably is most of the time, and that’s good for me to remember. I love your story of growing up with the confident assumption that men and women were equal, despite church lessons and rhetoric.

  13. Women have always been able to speak freely in the Mormon church…as long as they don’t say anything negative about the church or its leaders, or associate with people or groups with different teachings. But other than that it’s a bastion of free speech and authentic self-expression.

  14. Mhana says:

    I agree with the poster who mentioned the difficult transition from Young Women to Relief Society. I think it is problematic for two reasons. One the poster already mentioned, that we lose lots of young adults because they lose the support network and encouragement that YW provided. The other is that there aren’t real bonds being forged in the home ward, because many if not most members of the RS don’t truly know the YW. We don’t meet together. We don’t have activities together. We don’t even have our General Annual Meetings together. Why aren’t the YW invited to the RS broadcast and vice versa? Why don’t we have a Women’s broadcast that is for all ages, twice a year like men do?

    I really believe in the power of young women feeling included in the ward because women who have never taught them know them. I did teach Sunday School for several years and I make a point of talking to the youth I worked with so they know they weren’t just an assignment to me. Still, a lot of them I just don’t know that well. I feel like we’re missing a lot of opportunities to make good connections, not just spiritually but in all fields. I’m working on a PhD in French history. I just wish I knew which girls needed help with their history or French homework, because I would love to help them. I feel like I have now wandered way off topic, except I think another way to present a diversity of messages would be to increase contact between adult women off all ages and backgrounds with our primary and teen girls.

    Also, thanks for being wonderful, Exponent. I needed a place to feel faithful and feminist.

  15. Jenne says:

    Lately I have been pondering women’s life cycles and how each phase of a woman’s life can be related to ceremony and celebration. I’ve been exploring traditions from other cultures and religions and toying with the creation of some of my own. Since I have to small daughters (one just born earlier this week), I recognize the opportunity to honor their life stages as they grow up and to think of ways to honor the life stages that I will continue through. Brainstorming is always fun because the world is wide open. I had planned what I had hoped would be a beautiful mother’s blessing ceremony at the end of my pregnancy but my daughter surprised me by showing up two weeks before the party!

    I had planned for one of my wise woman friends to lead a circle of women in a prayer circle where each person would have an opportunity to state their hopes/wishes/positive visualization/affirmation for a healthy birth and strong transition to motherhood. The party was going to get started with henna and I was going to have my belly painted with henna as well. Plans have changed but I am still planning on having the party, just with my daughter outside rather than in.

    Instead of the blessing ceremony on my pregnancy, now the focus has shifted to a presentation of my daughter to her circle of wise women. My plan is to present her, introduce her through describing her ancestresses (complete with matriarchal lineage!) and then write down the blessings/wishes/hopes/dreams/wisdom that each person in the circle wishes to impart to her. Having this type of a ceremony helps me not resent the patriarchal presenation and blessing that she’ll experience with her name and a blessing ceremony done by my husband and his circle of men. I’m happy to have both done in this way and appreciate the balance it provides. I’m not feeling troubled about separate but equal because I recognize just how good it feels to be surrounded by women at various times.

    That ceremony is what is in the works for now, but I’m looking forward to the time when I can honor the next life stages of my daughters. I’m thinking of doing a variation of the Child Woman Crone ceremony done by traditional Mexican cultures when my daughter is preparing for baptism. Maybe it could include presenting her to Mother in Heaven with encouragement to seek her as she covenants to seek Father through her baptism. Then there’s menarche, another opportunity to honor female life transitions. Next a coming of age as an older teenager, then something in prepartion for marriage. I’m looking forward to bringing back my ideas from the mother’s blessing I had planned for myself and coordinate that for my daughters and daughters in law. It seems so much better than the conventional baby shower.

    For myself, I might just be able to have another mother’s blessing or two before I’m done bearing children and I will participate in the role of woman in my daughter’s Child Woman Crone ceremony. We’ll also be able to honor my mother in that as well.

    When it comes to raising my daughters in the church, that’s something that I’m figuring out as I go along and I’m really happy to have a community like this one where I can puzzle through the question with others who are doing the same.

  16. Erica H says:

    I am an active Mormon and was raised in the faith and now have a strong testimony. In college I was a Womens Studies major. I often wore pants to sacrament in protest. I waited for several years to have a child and at the age of 39 gave birth to a daughter.

    I realize that I went through my own questioning authority phase… I gained and strengthend my own individual testimony. I know my own worth as a woman, a mother and a human being.

    I live in New York now and find there is a lot of pressure to homogenize gender. I think because of this social pressure I’ve found it even more important to embrace my role and my gender. And to appreciate the differences between my female gender and the opposite. I don’t find one gender more important within the church just different and to my surprise I’ve decided that it is okay and actually quite appreciated at times.

    Sorry if this doesn’t help anyone else, I just realized this as I came upon this blog post. I understand that at times there will be issues that come up but there is so much pressure from the outside world placed upon children now that I’m glad we still recognize that men and women are different from each other and that it’s a beautiful thing.

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