The Ensign Gender Watch: Julie Beck’s Remarks On the Family

I’m thinking it would be interesting to track remarks about gender in the Ensign for the next several months. March’s issue, particularly Julie Beck’s article on the family, provides fertile ground for this feminist evaluation.

Julie Beck

Things I Liked

-Beck uses gender inclusive language. Adam and Eve were “family leaders.” They had “sons and daughters.”

– She lists “unequal relationships between men and women” and “abuse within family relationships” as threats to the family. I’m not surprised about her listing abuse as a threat. Definitely a good thing to list. I am surprised –and pleased –she listed unequal relationships between the sexes as a threat, though I found it a bit puzzling. (Doesn’t Mormonism –particularly in its temple ceremonies–place women in an unequal relationship with men?) I would have loved to hear more about what she thinks characterizes unequal relationships. I suspect she’s referring to men summarily issuing dictates to their wives. Do you have thoughts on this?

-More careful attempts to balance out male and female power. She writes, “Abraham could not hold the right belonging to the fathers without a wife who had the right belonging to the mothers.” She also mentions Isaac and Rebekah, saying, “The story of Isaac and Rebekah is an example of the man, who has the keys, and the woman, who has the influence, working together to ensure the fulfillment of their blessings.” Once again, she’s interpreting the story in such a way as to equalize the importance of the man and the woman’s role. Though I appreciate the motive, I do wonder if she undercuts the argument by assigning keys (hard power) to men and influence (soft power) to women. Can a true equal relationship be formed with such a bifurcation?

Things I Questioned

-she very clearly has an exclusive definition of family. “God created a man and a woman who were the two essential halves of a family.” This of course leaves out homosexual couples as well as other family makeups that don’t contain a man and a woman. (Are widowed/divorced moms and their kids not a family under this definition?)

-She lists “age of marriage is rising” and “lower birth rates” as threats to the family. I think many would interpret these things as either neutral or positive for individual families.

-“[Young people are] placing more and more value on education and less and less importance on forming an eternal family.” Placing more value on education seems to me like a generally positive thing, and I’m not sure that education needs to be set against forming families. Seems to me like plenty of people manage to do both. And besides, it might not be bad for some couples to wait until a good chunk of their schooling is done before having kids. IMO.

-She sites, “the definition of family is changing legally around the world” as a threat to family. I personally think a more inclusive legal definition of family can only do good things for the millions of people who are in non-traditional families.

-Satan knows that he will never have a body; he will never have a family. So he targets young women, who will create the bodies for the future generations.” The verse she quotes right before this mentions men and women committing whoredoms. I wonder why she only mentioned young women in her explication. Is this an example of making young women the gate keepers of chastity?

Conclusion

In her article, Julie Beck seems to be trying to promote equality of the sexes, in the sense that both men and women are equally important and should be treated and regarded with respect. This equality of men and women doesn’t extend, however, to men and women having the same responsibilities. (Men have keys, women have influence.) She has a clear complementarian view of gender within marriage, which, not surprisingly, necessitates her narrow definition of family and marriage, a definition which excludes homosexual relationships. Her ideal marriage also includes many children, an opinion that will resonate with some Mormons more than others.

I do appreciate the fact that she refrained from explicitly criticizing education and career for women. Rather, she mentions excessive attention to both these things as being a danger to families in general, leaving the reader open to interpret this warning as applying to men and women alike.

 

 

Caroline

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

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56 Responses

  1. amelia says:

    Beck started off in a flaming disaster with her talk about mothers who know several years ago and has never recovered, in my opinion. This piece of fluff is no better for more reasons than I’m willing to type out on my phone’s little touch screen keyboard. in spite of a few positives, Beck’s talk is lacking in anything new to say & is typical of so many Ensign & church articles in its missing integrity & substance. When I’m back at a computer I’ll comment in more depth.

  2. mel says:

    I noticed her implicit acknowledgment that women as well as men may view pornography.

  3. Amy says:

    I think Sister Beck is saying what the church has been saying for some time. Men and women are equal, although not the same in God’s eyes. However, there are people who purposely or non-purposefully give more credence and power to men. I believe that this is more a cultural thing than a gospel thing. I believe, like many of you do, that God thinks as highly of women as he does of men. I, however, agree with the fact that men and women are not the same and they never will be. One is not less than the other and there are different roles for them to fulfill. I think it is best, not to try to make them more the same, but to try to give more power and credence to a woman’s role. When women try to assume men’s roles, doesn’t that implicitly say that those women believe they are not as good as men?
    As for the narrow definition of family and marriage, I believe the scriptures are clear and that the church and not just Sister Beck has always had the stand that homosexual relationships are not of God. I feel for those who struggle with this and cannot imagine how difficult this must be. As for other family situations who are not the ideal, I believe the Lord blesses all of us when we are doing the best with whatever situation we have. However, I don’t believe that this should preclude us from trying to encourage others to strive for the ideal.
    Amelia, I would be interested to know what you mean by “missing integrity and substance.”

  4. Kirsten says:

    Her claims that abortions are on the rise and becoming increasingly legal are simply not true. The current data actually show this to be the opposite. Young people’s views about abortion have moved in a conservative direction since the early 1980s. All you have to do is look at the CDC’s abortion statistics to see that abortions are consistently on the decline.
    Furthermore, one only has to read the newspaper to find articles on the many new restrictions on abortion both passed and proposed.
    Factual errors such as these frustrate me when I read Ensign articles. Many (most?) church members will read something and take it as complete fact and truth. This article, and others like it, will be quoted in talks and lessons. I think they should be accurate. (Dare I say fact-checked?!)

  5. Deborah says:

    Well, given that the Ensign is not likely to publish anything that questions an “exclusive definition of family,” I will choose to be appreciative of the gender-inclusive language (and even the attempts to equalize scriptural relationships which are not, necessarily, equal textually!). The language leaders use helps “normatize” language shifts for rank and file members. Start hearing Heavenly Parents at General Conference a bit more, and you’ll hear it more in our wards. There is a language trickle-down. Look at how quickly the phrase as “tender mercies of the Lord” took root after a single talk highlighting it.

  6. Anita says:

    Sister Beck did a fabulous job at the RS presidency training meetings this week. I was so impressed with her candor and spirit. One thing she said on this topic was that the Relief Society is facilitating the assignments of the house of Israel in the last days as we save lives and souls–that RS is not about getting a women’s voice, or feminist equality, but about participating hand in hand with the priesthood in a dignified work given to a royal house to fulfill. I applaud this woman and hope she doesn’t get discouraged by all the criticism she constantly faces from within her own organization!

  7. amelia says:

    I can appreciate things like gender inclusive language and attempts to present more balanced interpretations of scriptural relationships. It frustrates me and makes me sad that we have such tiny things to celebrate when it comes to gender equity in the church, but I recognize the truth of what Deborah points out: when the leaders make these tiny changes, they tend to be magnified way out of proportion by the general membership’s leader-worship.

    As much as I like to see these little things, they don’t come close to compensating for the problems. Caroline hits on some of these things: the exclusive definition of family (even if the church can’t acknowledge homosexual couples and their children as families, surely they could find some way to acknowledge single-parent families as families); the reductive, knee jerk criticism of things like an older marriage age, smaller family size, and valuing education as threats to the family; the continuing burdening of females as the gatekeepers of chastity, which not only harms the girls and women who perceive themselves this way but also hurts the boys who are at least implicitly let off the hook. But these are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this article (and so many like it). Not all of my problems are specifically about gender, but most are at least tangentially related.

    1. “The Theology of the Family”
    I challenge anyone to read that article and tell me what that *means*. Beck sure as hell doesn’t tell us what it means. She asserts that there *is* a theology of the family; she claims that everything from the creation to the fall and the atonement are about the family, but she never explains why or how or provides a scriptural basis for that. In my opinion (and I think the scriptures and most church teachings back me up on this), the Atonement is not about family; it’s about repentance and agency and love, among many other things. The fact that it makes it possible for us to have eternal life and therefore be with our families for eternity does not make it centrally about family. This argument not only lacks substance itself, it also guts the Atonement (and the creation and the fall) of so much of their substance.

    2. “Threats to the Family”
    This whole section reads like copy from whatever right wing scare tactic source you prefer. Some of the assertions she makes are just not true (the abortion one, as Kirsten points out, for instance). There are others which are just fallacious–for instance the either/or arguments about young people seeing marriage as a “selection process” rather than a “faith-based work,” as if being thoughtful about who you choose to marry precludes relying upon faith during that “selection process.” And the fear tactics that are just sad, like saying that our young people lack social skills because they know how to interact online. I know there are probably some people for whom internet interaction could result in less well-developed social skills, but I haven’t seen this in most of the young people I’ve been around and I’ve been around a lot, as someone who taught college for the last seven years and has 24 nieces and nephews. These arguments lack substance and, in some instances, integrity (making false claims about abortion rates, for instance, lacks integrity).

    3. “Teaching the Rising Generation”
    Abraham and Sarah. Let’s talk about those two. Beck argues that Abraham “could not hold the right belonging to fathers without a wife who had the right belonging to mothers,” and identifies Sarah as that wife. She conveniently fails to mention that Abraham had not only a wife but his wife’s handmaiden Hagar, his second wife and mother of his first son, Ishmael. This is standard fare for the church, which likes to ignore polygamy and pretend that things have always been about one man and one woman (for another example look at that ridiculous statement that the family proclamation declares and reaffirms doctrines, standards, and practices the church has always had; not at all true). I can’t help but see such blatant disregard for the realities of these biblical stories as lacking integrity. And Rebecca has the “influence”? You mean by deceiving her husband and manipulating him into giving the birthright he had intended for Esau to Jacob? Nice example of the kind of “influence” that women should try to exert. More absent integrity.

    I get it that the family is important in the church. I understand that sealing is a saving ordinance according to the Mormon church. I’m not suggesting that church leaders should not teach that Family Is a Good Thing. But when it comes right down to it there are far more important things that we should be teaching—namely the things Jesus taught, all of which are to do with Love, not with Family. Which is not to say that family is not one sphere in which we can manifest love and learn to love more perfectly; it is simply to say that we should not become the Church of Family. No matter how important family is, it is not the only thing. Far from it. I can safely say, on the other hand, that love *is* the only thing. Without love, everything else, including family and parenting and marriage, are utterly meaningless.

    Call me crazy, but I believe in the theology and doctrine of love, not family. And when we learn to love more perfectly, we will have more equality between the sexes and in our marriages and our families will thrive. And what’s even better: that will happen while simultaneously making those currently outside the church’s big bold black lines of exclusion feel welcome and loved, rather than rejected and less than.

    • Caroline says:

      Amelia, I LOVE it when you do close readings like this and let your ideas fly. Such important points to bring up.

    • LuluBelle says:

      Oh.My.Gosh. What an AMAZING post. Thank you thank you thank you. I can’t think of a single thing you’ve said that I would disagree with.

    • Jessawhy says:

      (slight threadjack about the OT section)

      Amelia,
      I’ve been looking for the reference, but in the last few months I read a great article about the matriarchy of the wives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

      What I remember was that the culture was based around the woman’s family at the time. So, although the men did hold the priesthood, the priesthood went through the woman’s line, which was why it was so important for these men to marry the right women.

      Also, it makes more sense in the story of Jacob and Esau. Their mother was the one who had a revelation while still pregnant about which one would be the heir and it was the father who didn’t listen to her. So whether or not tricking him was the best way to do it, Rebecca did what God told her to do in her revelation and what was her matriarchal right to assign. When viewed through this lens, it’s a feminist story 🙂

      Does anyone have a reference for something like this? I can’t even remember if I read this online or in print. . .

      • Alisa says:

        I don’t really like dishonesty and manipulation for God’s sake being the foundation for a “feminist story.” To me, the deceit shows a real breakdown in the gender-balance system. Feminism to me isn’t about women getting what they want by any means necessary at the expense of men. It’s about real partnership (which I think could have happened in the OT – or am I just being to presentist?). It’s sad that some of our best OT feminist stories, like Rebecca here, or Ruth, or Judah’s DiL tricking him into marriage, involve such deception. 🙁

      • amelia says:

        I’ve never heard this kind of interpretation, though I’d certainly be interested in reading it. I do have a hard time believing the matriarchal explanation of the OT world order, however. For instance, if priesthood passed down through the matriarchal line somehow, then why was it that Levites (i.e., sons of Levi) were the only men permitted to officiate in the temple?

        I’m certainly no OT scholar and am totally open to some scholarship that supports the points you’re making, Jess, but I would also wonder how accepted such interpretations are in the larger scholarly community.

        And no matter whether Rebekah was correct in arranging for Jacob to receive the birth right rather than Esau, I maintain that the strategies she had to use are indicative of inherent gender inequity. If there were equity, she wouldn’t have to use deceit and trickery to get the right thing done. She could have instead voiced her position and reasoned with Isaac and he would have considered what she had to say; they would have decided together if there were equity, without the necessity of deceit.

        I can see ways to interpret the Isaac/Rebekah story in a feminist fashion. I’m not sure how I feel about those interpretations or the kinds of feminism that lead to them, but I know such interpretations exist. That said, Beck is not trying to make a *feminist* interpretation; she’s trying to make an interpretation of the Isaac/Rebekah relationship as one of equality and partnership and I really don’t see any way to reach that interpretation.

      • EmilyCC says:

        Oh, Jess…I’d love to read that article, too, if you can find it.

      • x2 Dora says:

        My youngest brother, who longer identifies as LDS, is marrying a Jewish woman. Because she is Jewish, their future children will be Jewish. However, the children of a Jewish man married to a non-Jewish woman are not Jewish. Maybe this is why men in the OT were cautioned so often about marrying within the covenant … if they did not, their children would not be Jewish.

      • Jessawhy says:

        Okay, I found it.
        (I can’t believe none of us remembered this after our Sophia Gathering book discussion last year!)
        It’s Strangers in Paradox Chp 15
        Women in the OT

        Here are a few quotes:
        “in the culture of Abraham and Sarah, the right to the priesthood was not passed down through the father but through the mother.”

        Here is the relevant passage (sorry it is long)
        “As they [the twins] grew Isaac favored his elder son, while Rebekah favored her younger. This implies that the family was divided on the succession issue. Was it patrilineal and primogenitive and therefore did it point to Esau? Or was it matrilineal and ultimogenitive and therefore did it point to Jacob? God confirms the matrilineal concept. The story makes it clear that Rebekah and Jacob stole nothing. They were claiming their due. The text takes pains to tell us that while her sons were yet in utero, Rebekah was told by God that the younger should rule over the elder (Gen. 25:23). We are informed that later Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a pot of lentil soup (vv. 31-32). Then comes the story of how Jacob dresses in skins to trick the blind Isaac into believing he is blessing his hairy son Esau, when it is Jacob in disguise (27:1-29). After Isaac learns he has been tricked, he does not curse Rebekah or Jacob (v. 37).

        The point is that Rebekah, though quite certain of her position on the succession issue, does not deny, disparage, or denigrate Isaac’s right to confer the priesthood by blessing upon one of her sons. In fact this blessing or ordination is so important that Rebekah is willing to deceive her husband and put herself and her younger son at odds with Esau in order to insure that Jacob gets it (Gen. 27:41-44). For her the inheritance alone is not sufficient. ”

        Perhaps it isn’t a feminist interpretation, but it does present a more important role for women in priesthood ordination in the OT time.

  8. Caroline says:

    Amelia,
    Yes, I thought this article was a step forward from Mother Who Know, since it tended to steer clear of specifics about gender roles. A very good thing, I think, given how ideas about gender roles inevitably change with time and context.

    Mel, I didn’t catch the gender inclusiveness of the porn comment when I first read it. Thanks for pointing it out.

    Amy,
    I think you voice what a lot of women in the church would when it comes to gender power dynamics. But I have a hard time with the argument that woman’s role is as important as men’s role. First, what is a woman’s role? Many Mormons would say motherhood, primarily. What is the man’s role? Many would say priesthood, primarily. That, in my book, is not a good equation. Motherhood goes with fatherhood. Priesthood goes with priesthood. As it stands now, men have both priesthood and fatherhood (if they’re fathers), whereas women only have motherhood (if they even have that.) I see a major imbalance. The bottom line for me is that I regard women as *fully* human. And as such, I believe they should have similar opportunities to serve and bless their communities as men do. Just my two cents. What do you see as the differences between men and women and the distinct roles the two should have?

    Kirsten,
    I’m so glad you pointed that out. I was one of the lazy ones that assumed the homework had been done and that abortions truly were on the rise. I’m glad to know that they are not. And I’m amazed that Beck’s article wasn’t fact checked better.

    Deborah, excellent point about normatizing language shifts. I don’t know what she means when she talks about unequal relationships as a threat, but I am glad that she is saying it. It’s a good thing for the rank and file to keep in mind, and I’m hopeful that some orthodox women will be able to use those words to argue for more respect and equality in their marriages.

    Anita, I’m glad to know you had a good experience at the training with Beck.

  9. Corktree says:

    I’m not sure how I feel about attempts like these. It sounds similar to the mock Ward council meeting from a couple leadership trainings ago that my husband told me about. Almost as though they are aware of what’s being said and felt in cyberspace and think that mentions of “girls going to the autoshop too!” is enough to appease anyone that is legitimately frustrated.

    I do want to celebrate the small victories and not always get so caught up looking for the bad in what comes from Salt Lake, but I also don’t want to pat them on the back for what seems to be a political attempt at times to cover all bases and be more PC, especially when those attempts don’t quite ring true and frequently fall flat. Oh well, little by little…

    • amelia says:

      Amen, Corktree, amen.

      These attempts especially chafe when they’re so clearly inaccurate (i.e., the Abraham/Sarah example Beck uses). Like not only are those of us who are concerned about these issues supposed to be happy with a little pat on the head and an “aw, it’s okay sweetie,” but we’re also supposed to be so stupid that we don’t see logical inconsistencies and an absence of intellectual integrity when confronted by them.

  10. amelia says:

    One more thing: if a man can’t hold the right belonging to fathers w/o a wife holding her right as mother, and if it takes a man & a woman to form a family, why the hell aren’t we as as church talking more about God the Mother? In our current practice she’s so absent she’s practically nonexistent.

  11. Kmillecam says:

    So many good comments, and such a good post. I also get tired of these kind of attempts that so frequently fall flat, as Corktree said. At a certain point I just want honesty, plain and simple.

  12. Whitney says:

    Great post and great comments! I can appreciate what Sister Beck is trying to do in her reading of these scripture stories about women, but it just feels so disingenuous to me when she doesn’t acknowledge the REAL inequalities that are so plainly there in those stories.

  13. Stella says:

    Again and again the church ostracizes its single population, its educated population, and its older population with talks like this.

  14. CatherineWO says:

    Wow, a great post and great replies! Amelia, thank you for taking the time to write so much–such a good analysis. It really disturbs me when someone takes Old Testament stories and tries to portray them as egalitarian. Yes, there were strong women then, and I’m all for pointing that out, but Beck’s treatment of these stories takes them entirely out of context.
    One of the things I will be listening for in conference talks this weekend is more “inclusive” language. I’m glad to hear more of “men and women” instead of just “men” but I would be even happier to hear “women and men” once in awhile. I know, it doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily, but that’s only because we aren’t used to hearing it. As others have said, the language heard over the pulpit (especially from Salt Lake) very quickly becomes part of the Mormon vernacular elsewhere.

  15. Hydrangea says:

    Traditionally when members have been criticized for “excessive attention” to education the burden to change has fallen on the shoulders of women. It has always seemed as though the auspicious careers of the apostles indicate that it is indeed okay to pursue education thoroughly (for men) as long as your “heart is in the right place.” I think Becks talk is just trying to make things seem fair, but isn’t really changing the church’s standpoint.

  16. mraynes says:

    I find President Beck’s inclusion of education and later marrying age as threats to the family extremely troubling. It would be bad enough if the membership of the Mormon church was solely comprised of people in the United States but our membership is increasingly made up of brothers and sisters in the developing world. Years and years of sociological research has shown that the more education a woman in a developing country has and the later she marries, the fewer children she has and the healthier the whole family is. Not to mention that increased education for women increases the liklihood of greater equality in marriage, something that President Beck says she supports. To discourage more education for women in a publication that will be read by women worldwide, including by those in developing countries, is short-sighted at best and dangerously irresponsible at worst.

    • Corktree says:

      Yes! I hadn’t even thought about how this would come across in developing countries, but the effects of keeping women low due to lack of education and proper childbearing age are disastrous to the communities that are struggling to rise above poverty and oppression and only creates more distance between men and women, not less. Good point.

    • Naismith says:

      The ENSIGN isn’t read in developing countries. The LIAHONA is. This article is not in the current LIAHONA.

      • spunky says:

        Naismith,
        The Liahona is translated into a number of languages, not all of which are only used in developing countries (Japan, Korea, etc). So- are you saying that people who don’t speak English are held to a different standard that English speakers, hence why the article is only included in the English Ensign?

        In any number of developing countries, (India comes to mind), English is taught at school, so the educated class can read the Ensign or the Liahona, as they choose- which makes the whole education argument ironic at best, i.e. the educated English reader can read the Ensign article, but the uneducated woman (if she can ever read)- should only be held the (uneducated) standard uphelp in the Liahona? huh? Is this your argument?

  17. Amy says:

    I just wanted to bring up a question/idea again that I brought up in response to another blog post, but didn’t get many responses, as people were probably more interested in specifically talking about the post. I think this generally relates to most of our concerns with doctrine and church leadership. I would love to see a blog post/ discussion on this. Perhaps there was in the past, or you know of a good discussion on another site. If you do, please link? Here goes:
    Faith vs. Blind obedience. I don’t believe that we are necessarily supposed to follow blindly. But at some point, we have faith that our parents in Heaven know more than us and we have to follow, trusting in them, when it may not make any sense right now. Thoughts on this?

    • amelia says:

      Amy,

      Could you spell out the connections you see between the question you ask in this comment & the issues raised in Caroline’s post and/or the comments on her post? I’m happy to address your larger question, as i’m sure others are, but we need to keep this discussion connected to the original post.

  18. Jennie says:

    So I’m mostly new to these feminist Mormon sites, but I find them incredibly fascinating and enlightening. I’m a little worried that my arguments will be attacked since I fall on the more conservative side of feminism, but I wanted to discuss one of the implications of Beck’s statement about education.

    There is no question that education is vital, especially for women, for becoming well-informed, holistic individuals. But I believe what President Beck is actually warning against is the tendency for educated people to become so confident in their own learning and knowledge that they feel justified in delaying marriage and family to pursue their own goals.

    It is not a secret that the Church values families. We call each other “Brother” and “Sister” because we believe that we are literally spirit siblings. To ignore or belittle our responsibilities for raising families, especially because we believe we “have better things to do,” goes against everything the Church teaches.

    • LuluBelle says:

      Can someone please explain to me what is wrong with “delaying families”? I mean, if I have 3 kids by the time I’m 23 versus 3 kids by the time I’m 40, what difference does it make? Especially if those years are spent getting an education, getting life experiences, and experiencing much needed personal (and spiritual) growth?

      • amelia says:

        A fabulous point, Lulubelle. Having children when young is only necessary if the assumption is that a woman will keep right on bearing children until she can’t have more for physical reasons.

    • Deborah says:

      Jennie, the multiplicity of views makes for a richer discussion! We may have vigorous debate at times, but we hope we have a welcoming, warm environment as well. Glad to have your voice!

    • Caroline says:

      Hi Jennie,
      Welcome to Exponent and thanks for commenting. I’m glad you were willing to dive in with your questions. We welcome such questions, particularly when they are posed with a sincere desire to understand, rather than challenge, as yours were.

      I think your interpretation of Beck’s comment about education leading to pride which leads to delaying marriage could be on target. But a problem I have with that setup is that marriage and family are simply not under one’s control a lot of the time. I have plenty of friends who would like to be married and have kids, but it just hasn’t happened for them. So it wasn’t at all about them *choosing* education over family.

      And I’m with Lulubelle. I don’t see what’s wrong with delaying kids. Whether we have our kids in our 20s or our 30s… why should it matter? (this is assuming people are even able to find an appropriate marriage partner.) I don’t know too many Mormon feminists who belittle having children. All the ones I know take that responsibility very seriously. They may simply decide to get their education in first, which, given the 50% rate of divorce in the church, is not an unwise thing, in my opinion. They may also choose to work after kids, but that’s not a reflection on them not loving their kids or taking their responsibility seriously as a parent. Money might be a serious issue, or they just might feel called to contribute to the community through their career as well as through their parenting. I really believe there should be room in Mormonism for those decisions. I don’t know if those answered your questions, but there was my stab at it. 🙂

    • amelia says:

      Jennie,

      Your voice is absolutely welcome at The Exponent. I know that sometimes I come across as rather, ahem, strident in what I have to say. I’m actually quite nice IRL (just ask Caroline or Jana or most of the other Exponent bloggers; I haven’t met quite all of them but have met most of them). And, more importantly, I want the people I engage in conversation with to also state their opinions strongly. The important thing is that it be a conversation; no matter how strong my opinions I do try to be open to what others have to say.

      I completely agree with you that Beck’s comment about education likely *arises* out of a concern that people may delay important things (like marriage and/or family) in order to pursue education. I think that’s a perfectly valid concern. I am a firm believer that the circumstances never will be perfect, so one should not put off doing what’s important hoping for perfect circumstances at some point in the future.

      That said, I also think it’s completely foolish to do something right away because it’s The Right Thing To Do (something like getting married or having babies, for instance) without doing what one can to create the best possible circumstances. Not perfect circumstances, but the best possible ones. It’s this middle ground that I think Beck fails to find. The one line she dedicates to education pits valuing education against understanding the importance of “forming an eternal family.” She leaves no room for a middle ground in which people both value education and recognize the importance of forming an eternal family. This is a classic fallacy (the either/or fallacy or false dilemma fallacy) and one that obscures the real issue. The real issue is “how do we strike a balance that acknowledges the importance of *both* education and family”; it is not “how do we choose between education and family.”

      I’m also honestly curious, Jennie, if you have met people who you think “ignore” or “belittle” their responsibilities to raise families because they have “better things to do.” I simply haven’t met people like this. (I’m going into generality mode here, not saying this specifically about you since I don’t know you.) This strikes me as more of a straw man set up by a leadership and membership that is afraid of losing something that is good, rather than a reality. But I believe very strongly in embracing the good that comes with social change, taking the risk involved in doing so, rather than holding so tightly and fearfully to the status quo simply because there is some good in that status quo.

  19. Alisa says:

    Amelia hit on this, but what this article does that is most disturbing is transform the core doctrines of the gospel, which are the messages of Christ and the Book of Mormon, and make them into something they’re not. The Book of Mormon, and Jesus’ own words, were about salvation for the individual. Families are great, but that wasn’t what Christ’s gospel was about. This emphasis on the family seems like it’s a relatively new emphasis for Christ’s message (and by Christ’s message I’m expanding that to be messages of leaders of the Church).

    Some might say that this is because the family is a great way for the Church to stand out and be different from other Christian churches. We’ve paid the price for being hard-line on a very narrow definition of families, and that’s what appeals to new converts. I have a client who joined the Church in California after Prop 8 because she doesn’t like families where two parents are of the same sex. She assumed that because I was born into the Church I feel the same way (awkward silence on my end of the conversation). But think about it — where, in North America and similar regions, are we going to get new converts? How can we differentiate ourselves? The Gospel of Jesus Christ and His message of individual salvation can be available at other churches, but only our Church has the temple and its sealing power for families. And our Church is also willing to be very conservative. This appeals to a lot of narrow-definition-of-family believers, and there are a ton of them, even if they are now in the minority in the US. It’s still a great opportunity to grow the Church.

    Where does that put people who love the Church and Jesus’ message but who don’t fit into a narrow definition of a family? I don’t know. We’ve thrown around the term “non-entity” here to refer to single people, infertile people, childless married couples, divorced or widowed people, and people who are beyond their child-bearing years, (working moms, like me), etc.

    It it becoming increasingly common in the US for the adults raising children to NOT be two heterosexual adults who are married to each other. I am professionally involved in a large early childhood education program, and through it we’ve found that about 25-33% of all families are headed by two adults of the same sex. They may not all be gay couples, but a mother and a grandmother, for example. Grandparents are taking on a larger role of raising children. However, I just don’t see the Church targeting these groups. I think they’re aiming for an “ideal situation” (to quote lesson 36 of the Gospel Principles manual). That’s where they have the biggest opportunity to grow the Church, I guess. Or that’s the market they’ve chosen. Jesus’ teachings alone are not going to get converts to specifically buy into Mormonism. We have to have an angle; hence, all the new emphasis on the narrowly-defined family in the last couple of decades.

  20. spunky says:

    Caroline,
    This is a brilliant post, and the comments are equally brilliant. Alyssa and Amelia in particular offer excellent and important points.
    I do think that Beck is trying harder. It seems to me that the disastrous “Mothers Who Know” was intended for Beck’s own circle of peers—which notoriously excluded the majority of women in the church. I am not convinced that she has the ability to empathise with women outside of her personal peer group. But I think she has recognised that she at least has an obligation to consider women who do not mirror her peer group. As a result, I think she has made some stronger choices in the equalization points noted by Caroline.

    It can be difficult at best to filter these messages and not take them personally. In my opinion, one size never fits all with church advice, so when I read “lower birth rates”- and advice assumed because everyone is to be a future father or mother, I was offended. In the past, I have taken similar comments like this to mean that I am not perceived by God as a righteous enough woman to have children, or that I am doing something worldly or wrong of which I need to repent because I don’t have children and have been fighting for 15 years to have family. Apparently, the last $100,000 we invested to have a family and continually failed still means we are selfish. (?!??!!!) I know this is not that case (I am righteous enough to be a mother!), but I am not convinced that Beck knows that I am just as worthy to be a mother as any other women in or out of the church. (My heart bleeds for the women hearing this advice who are struggling with infertility. It is just a cruel reminder that we are perhaps more mortal than the rest of the target population for Beck’s talk).

    It also seems an odd phrase to use anyway- although it is flanked by reminders of “the family”- it can be taken to suggest that single women should become mothers in order to improve the birth rate, since the birth rate is enough of a concern to be mentioned. i.e. if you can’t find someone to marry in the temple, and have this ideal family- is it appropriate to follow at least a portion of the advice to have a family in order to correct this birth rate issue? If temple marriage isn’t available, should single sisters “increase” the Mormon birth rate because at some point they might be married? Although out-of-wedlock births are noted as an issue, does this become a lesser sin for those who cannot find an eternal partner? Consider how in the past, church members who lived too far from a temple to ever attend were still advised to live worthily as though they had temple recommends. Church members outside of the US still married other church members, even though in temple-areas, this would have been viewed as a grievous error. Church material highlighting the importance of temple marriage was still taught outside of the US, even though it couldn’t be practiced. So if we apply this principle to the mother advice from Beck, then we are giving single women permission to have children outside of marriage because they are required to exit the self-state. Beck claims that we should be trained to “be a better father or a better mother”. And although the Korihor reference is meant as a reminder to remain chaste, the constant reminder that motherhood is the most righteous state for a woman makes it easy for single women to disregard the law of chastity for the greater good of motherhood.

    I was also distracted by the scolding in regard to education wherein it is hinted that people are replacing successful parenting with university degrees. I have read psychological material that clearly finds that educated people on the whole are better parents. The children learn better study habits from their educated parents, educated parents are less likely to use corporal punishment (which has positive effects all around as well) and the overall quality of life for the family is improved. This again, is hard for me to not take personally—because I knew as a YSA that I could not have children, so I sought to further my education so I could get a better job so I could afford to dump thousands and thousands of dollars into trying to have a family. If DH and I didn’t have university educations, our adoption applications would have been weakened and we would not be a preferential couple (think about it- if you were a 15 year old thinking of giving up a baby for adoption, do you want a couple with equally low education and income to raise your child just because they are married?) And if anybody knows that forming a family is a faith-based work, it is me. I swear to God, it is me.

    To be fair and honest, my heart breaks when I see mothers who want to provide their children with iPods, bikes or the financial ability to be on the basketball team, so work as maids because it pays better than working at a fast-food chain. I have had them confess to me that they wished they had improved education- so they could provide for their children. And maybe Beck is trying to get away from internet advice, which seems to have replaced the Dr. Spock as the ultimate resource, but I think it could be taught better by not demeaning education and associated careers that are necessary to provide for the family.

    Anyway, I know I rant a lot about infertility and childlessness, but I like to think that I a representing a small percentage of women who are tired of being ashamed, are hurting too much to speak up and don’t want to believe God, prophets and angels don’t love us just because our mortal bodies won’t allow us to give birth. It is a knock-down drag out fight for infertile women to have families, and the church does little but add to the emotional violence or financial burden in many of these blanket and insensitive “family” directives.

  21. sar says:

    I just wanted to thank Caroline and everyone for examining this article so closely. When I read it last month, I was so bothered by her opening paragraph where she seems to deliberately misread young singles, that I’m afraid it colored the rest of my reading. I see now that I’m not the only one.

    I feel sad that Pres. Beck never seems to speak from her own experience. I heard once that she suffered from infertility. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but with only three children she must have had some comments on family size from her peers. Also, she spent part of her childhood in Brazil and is supposed to speak fluent Portuguese, but we never seem to hear any transnational perspective that you might expect this would bring.

  22. x2 Dora says:

    AAA …. awesome analysis Amelia!

    Back in college, the Elaine Jack RS presidency came to the stake where I lived, and held discussions with a representative sample of the women. Mostly they listened. But I remember quite clearly to this statistic: only one in ten women in the church will not be required to work outside the home at some point. Some will never marry. Some will divorce. Some will need to supplement their husband’s income. I was always pro-higher-education, but that day solidified my desire to exit college with job skills that could see me through the rest of my life.

  23. Naismith says:

    “The Liahona is translated into a number of languages, not all of which are only used in developing countries (Japan, Korea, etc). So- are you saying that people who don’t speak English are held to a different standard that English speakers, hence why the article is only included in the English Ensign?”

    I do not receive revelation for the entire church, so I don’t know. But the last time I checked (and correct me if I am wrong; this may have changed), the Ensign was distributed only in North America and thus is used as a platform to address issues that are only a concern in those areas.

    There was a similar precedent in that Pres. Benson’s controversial “To the Mothers in Zion” talk was delivered only as a North American fireside, not given in general conference to the entire church.

    But anyway, that article is clearly not being read by women in developing countries, at least not this month.

    • amelia says:

      While internet access is certainly limited in the developing world, the fact is that the article is available online. It’s a little disingenuous to claim that because an article is published in the Ensign rather than the Liahona it is only meant for a North American audience when the article/Ensign is also published online and therefore available to the entire world.

      More importantly, the nitpicky argument about which publication an article appears in (and the alleged limitation of audience as determined by which publication) fails to acknowledge the complex relationship between the North American church and the church outside of North America. While it may be true that the initial article is not directed at a non-North American audience (at least in its print format; harder to make that argument given simultaneous and freely available web publication), the fact is that it will be read by many, many North Americans who will then go off to serve missions in developing nations. And there’s no doubt that those North Americans will teach things that they have learned from their leaders without considering whether the leaders intended those teachings to be heard/read/consumed/applied only by a North American audience or not.

      This happens in reverse, to, with members of the church outside of North America treating North American Mormons as if they have some kind of insider knowledge into How Things Are Done. This happens all over the world, not just in developing nations. When I studied abroad in London, for instance, I served in the primary as a pianist. I was a young single Mormon who had no experience in primary since I had graduated from the Primary ten years earlier, but the primary president in my London ward deferred to my every suggestion and constantly solicited advice about how things should be done–simply because as an American she perceived me as having greater knowledge of How Things Are Done. And England has a history in Mormonism almost as long as the US does.

      There is no defense for the irresponsibility of Beck’s comment about education and valuing education being a threat to the family. As I have pointed out elsewhere in this thread, it’s fallacious to pitch valuing education against valuing family as if they are not only mutually exclusive, but as if the one will destroy the other. And, as mraynes and others point out, this fallacy is not just about flawed reasoning–it has very real, very destructive, ramifications in our world which is so much broader than Julie Beck’s white, upper middle-class, American perspective.

    • spunky says:

      Naismith, I get the Ensign and I don’t live in North America. At my local (i.e. 20 hour drive from me) distribution center, I have seen copies of the Ensign in Asian characters, side by side with the Liahona. If this is a world-wide church, then the instriction given in North America should be just as applicable anywhere in the world. To suggest otherwise– that non-English readers are held to a lesser standard, is racist. I don’t think you intended to make racist comments, but like many church members in the US, your scope and ability to empathise is limited. If you are close to Salt Lake, I sugesst that you go to the church history library- because they have a collection of the international Ensigns. Within these, there is an insert with “local” church news (literally stapled inside the same Ensign distributed in the US- I am looking at mine right now- there is an article by Tad R Callister). Within this are new branch announcements, temple or mission presidency changes, etc. in addition to summaries and talks given by area authorities. It might be an eye opener for you to have a look and enjoy the church from an international perspective, and understand that the instruction offered there can be just as applicable to all members of the church. 🙂

  24. Caroline says:

    There are too many comments to respond here to everyone, but I want to send out a huge THANK YOU to all of you who are participating in the discussion. I’ve read each comment with interest and love all the different points and ideas coming out. This is exactly what i hoped for when I put up my original post.

  25. rachel says:

    i think this is the first ensign article i’ve read that i marked-up with comments. i was glad to see a post and discussion regarding this article. so many of my thoughts have been expressed in this discussion. thank you!

  26. Naismith says:

    “If this is a world-wide church, then the instriction given in North America should be just as applicable anywhere in the world. To suggest otherwise– that non-English readers are held to a lesser standard, is racist. I don’t think you intended to make racist comments, but like many church members in the US, your scope and ability to empathise is limited.”

    Racist? I have lived in Europe and South America, and travelled extensively in Asia. I am basing my experience on that. You might, oh, perhaps listen to my side of things before labeling me so unkindly.

    In South America, it is common for women to take their children along when they go to work. In all the small businesses where we shopped–and there were only small businesses, no superstores in our little town–there was always a playpen behind the counter, and the proprietress would even (gasp!) breastfeed while customers were there.

    So the USAmerican assumption that paid work=separation from kids just doesn’t translate across the culture there. These moms were raising their kids and working at the same time. And that is a key point because, really, what the church leaders want is for us to focus on our kids and spend time with them and teach them the gospel. Maternal employment is just a detail. And I have never heard a church leader suggest that these women should give up their jobs.

    Also, in the place where we lived, children typically start school at age 3. (Some of our ward members were concerned that our 4-year-old was still at home.) When the time that a child is at home is cut in half, it tends to change the entire dynamic of being a SAHM. Our stake president’s children also started school on time at age 3; there was no suggestion that members there should follow a USAmerican school timetable.

    In that country also, there was a homemaking lesson that particularly struck me. A story had been translated verbatim without bothering to account for cultural differences. It talked about a woman who at 5:30 p.m. was getting all flustered about what to cook for dinner that night. The sweet sister reading it tried to act like it made sense, but it was ridiculous. They don’t eat dinner until 8 p.m. or later (e.g., that is when restaurants open) and they always have beans and rice. Just whatever was in the bean pot from yesterday until it is all gone. So their church activities are at 6 p.m., and people go there right after work or school. And then the family goes home, eats, and is together the rest of the evening. I was glad I was there to explain about our 6 p.m. dinner hour, serving something different every night, racing off to church at 7–and they were aghast at how overly busy it sounded. And nobody has suggested to them that that is how it should be.

    Another difference we noticed was that in youth programs including road shows, our stake in the US had gotten rid of any competition. But in our stake in SA, they still held competitions regularly. Our girls participated in a declamation contest (speeches, readers theater kinds of things). And there were winners and losers. But nobody suggested that it was wrong because it was differently in the states.

    I personally had a hard time getting used to all the hugging and kissing. It would have been rude not to, but my personal sense of space felt assaulted much of the time. Also in that culture, it is rude to answer simply “yes” or “no.” People look like you slapped them, because you are supposed to use mitigating language that translates to, “I think so, perhaps yes.” Listening to their testimonies, one might wonder if they really believe, but that is just how their culture expresses things. And nobody told them that USAmericans don’t hug and kiss before every meeting so they shouldn’t either.

    Then too, young men could serve missions at age 18 in one of the countries where we spent some time.

    Anyway, I agree that the gospel principles are true everywhere. I think the way that they are implemented SHOULD be different in different cultures and I don’t think it is wrong when it happens. I think it’s great that in Relief Society, Taiwanese sisters learn to make Mooncakes and Brazilians learn to make Ovos de Pascoa. In October 2003 conference, Elder Oaks was clear about this when he said, “The present-day servants of the Lord do not attempt to make Filipinos or Asians or Africans into Americans.”

    That’s all I am saying. I don’t think that people in other cultures should have to put up with our USAmericanisms, our way isn’t the only way to live the gospel, and I think it is sometimes appropriate that leaders address the concerns here in a forum directed to us, if there is an issue that we have and is not churchwide.

    Oh, dang. Now I have the worst craving for an Ovo de Pascoa.

    • Caroline says:

      Niasmith,

      Thanks for explaining further where you are coming from. I appreciate you taking the time to write that all out. I too hope that people in other countries can see the USAmericanisms for what they are and judge accordingly. Though I personally venture that her statements about education are problematic, not just for women in other countries, but also for women in US, particularly for those who come from families, cultures, etc. who do not have a history of women seeking educations.

  27. spunky says:

    Naismith,
    I am so glad that you are commenting and sharing your unique experience and the challenges that you faced living internationally as a church member. The points you brought up reinforce my arguments wholly and go back to the core of the message from Beck in what seems to be discouragement from education, just like it made no sense to the sisters hearing a story about a woman having issues with preparing a meal at 5:30, when they normally eat at 8:00 PM: Putting off children in order to obtain an education, in many cases, wholly benefits the children. So believe it or not, I think we are on the same page.

    I do wonder what your experiences were in regard to the disassociation of the Mission presidents and even missionaries with the members in the international areas where you lived? I say this because on the few occasions that I have visited the Mission homes here, the kitchens are well –stocked with American food, which to locals are luxurious import items. It was rather shocking to see American Lemon Bar mixes- which to us would be import items that would cost $12 per box- stocked by the dozens. Normal for the mission home and doles as gifts to performing or homesick missionaries, these things were extravagant for local members, but seen as ordinary for the missionaries. Equally surprising was when we had the parents of a missionary as guests when she completed her mission. Even after 18 months, the missionary had no idea how expensive it is to make local phone calls. She had been using a mission-supplied cell phone previously. On her parents arrival, they spent a night in a hotel by the airport where the missionary made a few calls to arrange to meet with people. The costs were so much that her parents could no longer afford to purchase art they had otherwise budgeted for. The shocked missionary sincerely had no idea how expensive just making a local call was, ending her mission on a disappointingly expensive note. These are just two examples of hundreds that have convinced me that missionaries are not exposed to the very real issues relating to locals, and which makes me wonder how disassociated Beck was from the locals when she accompanied her parents on their mission, as a similar type of disassociation seems prevalent in the talks she offers now.

    • Naismith says:

      “The points you brought up reinforce my arguments wholly and go back to the core of the message from Beck in what seems to be discouragement from education”

      No way in hell is Sister Beck discouraging education. She is warning against the real danger of SOME women making education a higher priority than family. If you’ve never known anyone like that, great, but my sister screamed at me for years that I was ruining my career prospects etc., etc., etc. by getting married and having children rather than focussing on school like she did. Here we are 40 years later, and she is not married with no kids, and I have the pleasure of grandkids and close friends who grew up in my house. I assumed that Sister Beck’s comments were directed to women like my sister, who have many choices.

      I agree that education is crucial for women in developing countries, and was important to me as a single mother working my way out of poverty. I don’t think she is addressing those women. And if by some chance someone in a big city overseas does happen to see the article, it is one of many voices that they hear about education, most in favor. The PEF operates in most of the countries where we have spent time, and since returned missionaries are seen as a priority, this is a reason for some women to serve missions. We donate to a charity run by church members in a Muslim country where parents must provide uniforms, books, and fees for elementary school. Most of the recipients are girls.

      “just like it made no sense to the sisters hearing a story about a woman having issues with preparing a meal at 5:30, when they normally eat at 8:00 PM:”

      Yes, and I suspect that is why Sister Beck’s article did NOT appear in a publication that would be widely read by the international audience, which was my only point. I am not arguing that there are no problems with the article, only that concern of the reaction of women in developing countries is a very low priority.

      I also want to add that the 5:30 example was one of the very rare examples we observed of USAmerican thinking. Mostly, the church worked in that country, in a way that made sense to the natives there. For example, free busses to stake conference were provided, since only a small minority of members had cars.

      And I don’t want to imply that the native way is superior and USAmericanisms are all bad. By no means. Many countries have local word of wisdom challenges that need to be addressed. And the lack of telephones made routine things into a major challenge.

      “So believe it or not, I think we are on the same page.”

      Excuse me??????????????? You called me a RACIST and accused me that “my scope and ability to empathise is limited.” And no apology? I don’t want to be on the same page with you.

      I had no interactions with the missionaries when we lived in South America, so I can’t speak to their isolation. When my husband served in Indonesia, he was not isolated from local culture; he was immersed. They had lots of servants in order to provide jobs for locals, and in a Muslim country where missionaries are forbidden to tract, all they could do was wander the streets chatting up local people.

      • spunky says:

        Naismith,
        I think Amelia said it best and as a result, we are going to have to agree to disagree. I respect your passion and wish you well, but your arguments have not changed my heart or mind. Thank you for commenting and sharing your take on this this topic which is clearly very important and personal to you.

  28. Ziff says:

    Thanks for this post, Caroline. And I’ve really enjoyed the comments! Amelia, I particularly appreciate your analyses.

    Along similar lines to Kirsten’s point about abortions not rising anymore (and abortion becoming more restricted), I think it’s also true that divorces are declining, in the US anyway. (See this table from the CDC, for example.)

    Really, though, when Julie Beck, or when general level Church leaders talk about social problems like abortion or divorce, I honestly don’t think it even occurs to them to look at statistics. I think they’re just going by their gut. In effect, they say, “When I was young, I never heard about this problem. Now I do. Therefore, it’s on the rise.” I may be over-reading into her choice of words, but when she says “we” see these increasing problems, it really suggests to me not that there’s some objective look at the problems, but rather a group of people who (I’m sorry) are old enough to now pine for the Good Old Days of their youth, when problems didn’t exist.

    mraynes already commented along these lines, but one thing I found really striking about Beck’s list of problems is that she completely ignored the interrelatedness of many of them. For example, she decries unequal relationships between men and women. But she also decries divorce. I think it’s pretty clear that one thing that kept divorce lower in the past was unequal relationships between men and women. If women don’t have many options for getting out of a bad marriage, or many ways to make money if they do, then divorce is going to be lower. Really, I think this actually just shows that Beck is trying to throw women a bone (as Amelia already described) by tossing this “unequal relationships” issue in with the rest where it’s contradictory.

    Along similar lines, does she not know (again as mraynes said) that greater education and increased age at marriage are a protection against divorce? Probably she doesn’t; it’s just a laundry list. Again, abuse within family relationships is on her list (and it’s definitely a good thing to decry), but encouraging people to get married young, and sort-of subtly telling women not to be too educated is only going to increase the likelihood that they’ll be abused.

    I’m sure if President Beck even entertained criticisms like this, she’d just respond that she’s teaching an ideal. And that may sound well and good, but I think it would be so much more valuable for her to show some awareness of the practical issues associated with this ideal. It’s like politicians saying that everything is their number one priority, and refusing to ever admit that one issue will eventually win out over another, and that not everything can be solved at once.

    All in all, while I appreciate your finding bits to be encouraged about, Caroline, I found this a hugely irritating article.

  29. Laura says:

    Dear Critics,
    Do you not realize that you are criticizing a woman who is a prophetess, who has been called of God, given a sustaining vote, and set apart to lead the women of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? I am shocked by the intense criticism I see here. I, for one, loved her article, because she had the gall to say what the Lord was telling her to say, even in the face of critics. It is no mistake that Julie Beck was inspired to share the thoughts in that article. Sisters, I hope I can call you sisters… I am so saddened by what I see here. Might I suggest you sincerely ask the Lord to reveal to you what He wanted you to learn from that article? The people of the Lord’s Church will be a peculiar people. We aren’t supposed to be going in the way of the world. Julie Beck was and is trying to help us steer our courses to Heavenly Father’s ways, not our own, and not the world’s ways. How sad that so many women were and are offended by her words. So very sad!

  30. Stella says:

    Laura,

    There is no cause for the drama. Your comment assumes that no one has prayed about their thoughts and feelings about the situation. Your comment assumes that there is one right answer for everyone. Your comment assumes that because Julie Beck is in a position of power then everything she does must be the truth. Your comment assumes that because women want more equality in their religious organization that they are “going the way of the world”. Your comment assumes so much that isn’t true.

    I’m sorry if this saddened you, but I for one find it refreshing when a group of intelligent people can come together and have true discussion about who and what they’ve been asked to follow–instead of doing so blindly.

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