I was walking down the South Hill of BYU’s campus discussing a lecture I had recently attended with one of my only openly feminist friends. The lecturer had argued that women’s abilities were best spent at home raising children (read sons) that could then go out and change the world. For two young, idealistic feminists still trying to find their place in the world and in the church this talk was devastating. We were smart, capable, ambitious women with the potential to be a force for good in the world. I remember my friend saying, “I can do both! I should do both! Anything other than that is a cop-out. It’s me not being brave. It’s me wasting the talents God has given me.”
It was an important moment in my life, one that has stayed with me as I went on to motherhood, graduate school, and career. But that lecture was certainly not the last time somebody has declared that I am better suited at home, that any contribution I make to the world pales in comparison to what I can do for my children. Indeed, just this weekend I had a conversation with a very genuine woman who has raised and home-schooled an impressive number of children. All of those children went on to get degrees, sometimes multiple degrees, from ivy-league universities and are now making an important contribution to our society. When she heard, however, that I have four children and am trying to complete my Master’s thesis she urged me not to finish it but to pull my children out of public school and home school them instead. She sweetly argued that whatever honor I would get from finishing my degree would be nothing compared to the reward I would receive from making my children successful. Considering her record, I admit that her argument was both persuasive and guilt-inducing. I love my children, I want more than anything for them to be successful and I fear that my choices have negatively impacted them at times.
This guilt and pressure isn’t just coming from random members of the church and it isn’t just our culture. Elder Christofferson proclaimed in this past General Conference:
A woman’s moral influence is nowhere more powerfully felt or more beneficially employed than in the home…Where this ideal does not exist, people strive to duplicate its benefits as best they can in their particular circumstances.
In all events, a mother can exert an influence unequaled by any other person in any other relationship. By the power of her example and teaching, her sons learn to respect womanhood and to incorporate discipline and high moral standards in their own lives. Her daughters learn to cultivate their own virtue and to stand up for what is right, again and again, however unpopular. A mother’s love and high expectations lead her children to act responsibly without excuses, to be serious about education and personal development, and to make ongoing contributions to the well-being of all around them. Elder Neal A. Maxwell once asked: “When the real history of mankind is fully disclosed, will it feature the echoes of gunfire or the shaping sound of lullabies? The great armistices made by military men or the peacemaking of women in homes and in neighborhoods? Will what happened in cradles and kitchens prove to be more controlling than what happened in congresses?”
I would be the first to tell you that what I do as a mother matters and matters more than anything else I do. For better or for worse, I am shaping my children into the people they will one day become. But I believe that what I do outside of the home will have a profoundly positive impact on my children as well. My research and work to end intimate partner violence will help to create a world that is safer for my daughter and kinder for my sons. It will help them to empower themselves, develop healthy relationships and help those in need. But let’s be honest, my peacemaking in the home doesn’t end domestic violence. Hopefully it produces four people who won’t contribute to the problem, but if my moral influence stops in my own home that is all my expertise will have done. For whatever reason, I have the knowledge, the talent, the capability, the privilege to go out and advocate for more effective policy that could have a significant effect on the rates of gender violence in the United States. Why shouldn’t I use these gifts outside of my home just because I am a woman and a mother?
This goes beyond me. Think of the creative potential the world is losing when we tell women they can do no better than to stay at home. It may be true that they will raise amazing children but it also means that their experience and voices will be silent in the culture, laws, and society that immediately impact their lives. Women who want to can do both. Think of the hastening of the work to spread the gospel that has happened just by lowering the age women can go on missions. Who is to say that the work of the Lord wouldn’t get done faster if we encouraged the women with the desire to use their talents for the good of all to do so? If there is one thing I believe it is that God justifies and strengthens us so that we have the ability to do Their work. It is far past time to expand our minds to include the possibility of women.