Church Ends Discriminatory Employment Practice: How Mormon Feminists Made a Difference
The Church announced yesterday that it will no longer refuse to hire women with children under 18 or fire female seminary and institute teachers when they become mothers. “This change makes it possible for families to decide what best meets their needs as it relates to mothers working while raising children,” said the announcement. Reference A
Amen to that.
I am thrilled about this change because it will make a real difference in Mormon lives (unlike renaming Women’s Meeting to Women’s Session, which is a nominal change only, especially considering that men will continue to preside and give the keynote speech at the women’s session). I look forward to a future with more female scriptorian role models for our youth. Even for women without children, the knowledge that they would be fired if they ever had children was a big deterrent from seeking a seminary or institute job. It was also an obstacle preventing local managers from hiring women, even without children; who wants to hire someone they would most likely have to fire later? As a parent, I am relieved that I will not have to make a difficult decision to either enroll my children in a program that blatantly discriminates against female employees or forego the benefits of seminary instruction for my children. And as I mentioned in a recent Exponent post, the discriminatory seminary and institute policy was actually undermining teachings by current apostles who encourage more friendly attitudes toward working mothers. Reference B
In December 2011, I posted here at the Exponent about some life events that had helped me realize that I needed to seek gender equality within the Mormon faith, including how I learned about the church’s policy banning mothers with minor children from employment as seminary teachers.
In the online conversation surrounding the post, I noticed that people who defended the church’s seminary program did not argue that firing women for having children was okay; they said that the Church has no such policy. It occurred to me that even more traditional church members would disapprove of this policy if they were made aware that it really exists.
I searched the Internet for documentation of the policy and found nothing.
Finally, I called my local Seminary and Institute Preservice Training Office and asked about the policy. They confirmed it, clarified it (although the clarification did not make it sound any less reprehensible) and admitted that they intentionally avoided disclosing the policy publicly. I suspect that they preferred to hide the policy because its discriminatory nature would bother church members and the general public. I documented the conversation, posted it here at the Exponent, and at last, the policy was available for others to read. I hoped that shining a light on the policy would lead to change.
There was a strong reaction to the posted interview. A healthy debate ensued about how to change the policy. In April 2012, a major media outlet mentioned the LDS seminary program’s hiring ban for mothers, finally bringing broader public exposure to this long-held policy. My post at the Exponent was referenced as the source for the article.
In March 2014, the New York Times posted a detailed article about the status of women in the LDS Church and invited Mormon women to comment.
And we did comment! We posted so many comments that we prompted a follow-up story about the issues we mentioned in our comments, including the ban on mothers as paid seminary teachers.
Again, many church members were surprised to learn from the New York Times about the usually undisclosed policy, prompting Ordain Women to write a response, linking to my 2012 interview at the Exponent.
Later that week, Peggy Fletcher Stack at the Salt Lake Tribune asked a church spokesperson about the policy, finally resulting in a statement from official channels articulating the ban on mothers’ employment.
And at last, in November 2014, the policy finally changes.
Our work is not done, of course. It appears that other aspects of the policy still discriminate on the basis of family circumstance. For example, while some divorcees are newly eligible for seminary and institute teacher employment, the policy has only been relaxed for divorcees who are remarried. It appears that if a seminary or institute teacher ends a marriage to an abusive spouse, he or she will be fired. That is not acceptable.
What can we learn from the demise of the mothers’ employment ban at LDS seminaries and institutes as we seek further progress?
I conclude that shining a light on inequity works. When the policy was undocumented and its implications widely ignored, nothing changed. Bringing national media attention to the issue seems to have helped church leaders recognize the need to change.
It is too bad that the media are needed as an intermediary between church leaders and their female parishioners, but such is the state of affairs in our church today. Women are excluded from priesthood leadership, so we are not at the table when policy decisions are made and our input is received within the leadership hierarchy only when male leaders think to ask for it. Church members are officially discouraged from communicating with General Authorities and Church Headquarters returns feedback letters to local, mid-level priesthood leaders who have extensive authority to punish their parishioners but no authority to change church-wide policy. Reference C, Reference D In an open letter to Mormon bloggers, the head of the Church PR Department, Michael Otterson, informed us that “General Authorities do not engage” with “individuals or groups who make non-negotiable demands.” Reference E How they can possibly know if someone’s demands or requests are non-negotiable if they refuse to meet to discuss these issues with the interested parties remains a mystery.