Feminist Family Policy and Working Mormon Moms

The New Feminist AgendaIn a public radio feature about feminism yesterday, Governor Madeleine Kunin argued that it is time that American feminists got around to promoting family-friendly work policies that other nations have implemented for decades, such as paid family medical leave, affordable childcare, and flexible work options.  As I listened, I wondered if this focus on family might be a good way to frame feminism for my as-yet unconverted to feminism Mormon associates, since that sparkly, happy word “family” seems to appeal to Mormons.  However, are Mormons ready to support policies that help women to successfully navigate work and motherhood?  Or are  working mothers  still seen as pariahs in our culture?

You can listen to Governor Kunin’s interview here.

And hear the complete podcast, “The 51%” here.

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at aprilyoungb.com.

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23 Responses

  1. O says:

    It’s possible that my vote (respected, admired and accommodated) is slightly naive, being that I’m in YSA and not subject to any of the tension that comes with deciding to work outside of the home when there are children to consider, but many (if not most) of the women in our ward are active in the workforce – including members of the relief society, young women and primary presidencies, and those who hold stake callings.

    Our ward is (mostly fairly) nicknamed “Zion” in our local area, because all kinds of families are supported and admired and given opportunities to serve. The attitudes towards women (with or without children) who choose to or need to work outside the home reflect the way our ward accepts and embraces people how they are.

  2. spunky says:

    I voted for other; I really wanted to vote for “Working mothers are respected, admired and accommodated.”– because my ward has a laregly working mother population, so working mothers are respected and accommodated… but the term “admired.” Hmmmm. Not sure I feel that vibe in the ward. At the same time, do we seek outside admiration for suporting our family? The truth is, I think that I do, but because of the “worldliness” ideology that has been fed to me, I feel ashamed when I say out loud (or type) that admiration would be nice.

    • April says:

      I think it is generally inappropriate to “seek” admiration, yet, people do frequently admire others, even when no one is seeking admiration. In my ward today, two specific women were lauded for their sacrifices as stay-at-home mothers. Working mothers were certainly not chastised in any way, but no specific working mothers were praised, and there was pity expressed for working mothers in general instead of admiration, which reflects an attitude that working mothers are in a sub-optimal situation that is not praiseworthy.

      On some occasions, ward members publicly congratulate other ward members for professional accomplishments. I feel like it shows acceptance of working mothers when their professional accomplishments are admired as much as those of other employed people in the congregation and as much as the “sacrifices” of stay-at-home moms.

      • spunky says:

        I absolutely agree with you, but I think it depends on the ward.

        To be real, I can’t recall any general conference talks that talk about the professional accomplishments of women, though I like that when there are female speakers for BYU free speeches (iTunes)(convocation?). Professional accomplishments are included in the introduction of the speaker, including education (to be clear, a calling pedigree is listed as well, I suspect in part so that when there are female GAs who have not “worked outside of the home,” there is something to say about the their accomplishments outside of home duties. I dunno.)

        There was a well-admired (female) family court judge in my previous ward, and in my current ward, most of the women work and are described in noting thier profession as much as they are described by thier husband/children.

        I think what I wish there was is just general admiration of women in the church, something like is attributed to men because of preisthood (i.e. “he is a righteous preisthood holder.”) We stumble over admiration for women, i.e. there is no way to generally admire women…. SAHM vs. profession can be a tricky attribution in order to not denegrate one choice or the other. And the outwardly problematic “all are mothers in zion” is a degrading, painful, angering, battle call.

        So, yeah. I think what is somehow developing in my line of thought is that it’d be nice to be able to say something like, “she is a righteous preisthood holder”- without inviting ranks for comparison such as number of children, marital status, or even profession often can and does.

        Make sense? Jeez, I am pedantic over that “admire” term!

      • April says:

        I think you have some great points, Spunky. The comparative lack of institutional power for women makes things tricky indeed. I like the way your ward talks about women’s professional roles in describing them. Since that seems so natural, it seems odd that I have seen Mormons occasionally ignore the professional lives of female members, as if to pretend that all are stay-at-home moms. Weird, huh? I hope such attitudes are fading away, but sometimes I feel discouraged. As an example, I receive emails from the church production studios, and they recently sent out a casting call for women they could film talking about their lives as followers of Christ, and they specifically requested a single working woman who could talk about her professional experiences.

  3. Henry says:

    If someone chooses to bring children into the world, no one but them has to pay for childcare. Why would others have to provide funding to take care of your children? If you expect nothing, you won’t be disappointed.

  4. Angie says:

    I live in Las Vegas, and I voted “respected, admired accommodated…” Many women in ward and stake work outside the home, and many are SAHM. Both categories of women hold callings, have few or lots of children, attend church, etc. In my experience (both as a SAHM and as a “working mom”), my employment status has had no impact on how I was regarded at church.

  5. April says:

    I am feeling very reassured by the results so far! It looks like not many of our readers are reporting that working mothers are having bad experiences. I am a working mother myself, and I do not feel like I am discriminated against on a local level, but I have heard other women describe some problems that I had hoped were outliers–like a bishop who released a woman from her youth calling because she got a job and therefore was no longer a “good influence”. If we are past this kind of discrimination, and are therefore finally enjoying the fruits of 1970’s feminism, maybe we really are ready for the next steps…

  6. lanwenyi says:

    I suppose I should speak up then. My ward actively frowns upon working mothers. There are constant statements of pity for working moms, working mothers with young children are not asked to speak in church, are not given anything other than “made-up” callings, and are admonished to promote the “traditional family” in their dealings with youth. If they don’t, they are released from any “real” calling that they are ever given.

    It’s doubly hard on me b/c I am both a working mother and married to a non-member, so I am a double pariah. I can deal with it, but I really dislike it when they belittle my 5yo daughter. There are times that I want to stop going b/c of her. Then she tells me how much she loves primary and I keep going. :sigh:

    Working moms with older kids (middle school age and above) are welcomed, accommodated, and respected.

    Also, if you ever confront the ward members on it, they will tell you the exact opposite (you’re loved and wanted, and here’s a “real” calling), but the actions show the opposite.

    FWIW, I am in a wealthy ward in a very traditional area of SoCal. It’s different in our next ward over where the average income is much lower, and the ward is much more diverse. The two wards (who share a building and share Primary/SS/YM/YW programs) do not get along. I often wish I could just join the other ward.

    • April says:

      Lanwenyi, that is discouraging to hear, but I am glad you spoke up. It is important to bring attention to these attitudes if we ever hope to flush them out.

      • lanwenyi says:

        I think that I just have a particularly “traditional” ward. They also don’t know what to do with divorcees, single moms, the elderly, or single adults (over 30; the under 30s get shipped off to the singles ward whether they want to or not).

        There is a particularly sticky situation now, b/c we have a medical resident who is also a mom of young children in the ward. Her husband is tech-y (has a degree in some computer field) and is a SAHD. They really don’t know what to do with her (or him, but that’s another post), so she has no calling (all the male residents do) and is often ignored when she comes to church. I feel for her.

        It’s much easier for them to deal with me. We are “poor” in the neighborhood (comfortably middle class in reality), I am a teacher (traditional female job) and “have” to work, so they can just pity me (even though I don’t want or need their pity), but she works by choice. His field is lucrative, and before they had children, he worked FT, then worked PT from home with kids, and finally quit altogether when they had more children.

        I also don’t see promoting a “family” focus as helping working moms with respect to acceptance in the church. The church currently has too much invested in promoting traditional roles and SAHMs to accept even a “family focus” with regards to helping working mothers.

  7. Stephanie says:

    I had to vote other. It was the “admired” that kept me from voting for the first option and the “tolerated” for the second. I live in a more blue collar, working class area where probably half or more of mothers with young children work in a wide variety of schedules. I think that in general, people are careful to talk about motherhood in a way that is inclusive to the variety. Working moms aren’t expressly called out but neither are SAHMs. We focus more on the principles. That’s my perspective as a SAHM. I would be interested to hear how working mothers in my ward answer.

  8. CatherineWO says:

    I live in Western Montana, in a ward where well over half of the women work outside the home. I have never seen or heard anything disparaging about working mothers. It’s just accepted as a fact of life. It was pretty much the same way in our ward in Washington (north Puget Sound). However, though women’s jobs are accepted here, they are not discussed. I don’t believe that I have ever heard anyone (male or female) ask a married woman at church what she does for a living. At ward and R.S. gatherings, women talk about their children or their homes or their crafts or their extended families or their callings, but not their jobs/professions. Men are asked about their jobs, and they talk about them, but not women. My husband (a budding feminist) just started noticing this disparity, and we had a discussion about it last week. My take on it is that a profession is not seen as part of a woman’s identity, whereas it is seen that way for a man. So I would say that men are admired (at least here) for the work they do outside the home, but for women, admiration comes for everything BUT what they do as a job outside the home.

  9. Emily U says:

    My ward is mostly made of students and pretty affluent people, and only a few women with school-age kids or babies work (I’m one). I’ve never felt any negative vibes because of my job, it’s pretty much a non-issue. I don’t feel super connected with many other women but I attribute that to scheduling, no one’s fault.

    As to whether pro-family working conditions would be supported by Mormons? I don’t think so. The ideal of mothers being in the home full-time is too strong.

  10. TopHat says:

    Living in the Bay Area, it’s pretty much assumed (outside the Church) that if you have kids, you have two incomes. Many of the moms in the ward work. The ones that don’t tend to be those with newborns, but somewhere in the toddler years, they pick up work again. Though I think I can name 3 or so families in the ward where the mom doesn’t work for pay.

  11. EmilyCC says:

    This is a great poll, April, and it actually makes me feel a lot more hopeful. I remember as a teenager hearing about how it was ok to be a working mom if you had to be one but not if you wanted to be one. I didn’t realize until this poll how that view does seem to be changing (at least where I live).

  12. Caroline says:

    Great poll, April. When I was a working mom (part time high school teaching) in my ward, I never felt or heard anything negative about it. I mentioned this to my Mormon sociologist friend, however, who said that the only reason I never felt frowned upon is because I was a mom with a job (part time) and not a career. If it was a full time career, that would have been different, he thought.

  13. Naismith says:

    If you seriously want to convert those of us who are non-feminists, this is not a helpful approach, because of the chosen terminology: “Working” mother implies that somewhere there are “non-working” mothers. I haven’t met one. I have heard they exist on Long Island or someplace, but most mothers who are not employed work very hard.

    There is already a word for working for pay: Employed. Why insist on granting the dignity of work only to those who earn a paycheck? It comes across like only traditionally male tasks (earning a paycheck) are true work, while traditionally female tasks (homemaking) are not. How is that feminist or supportive of families?

    I’ve been employed most of the time that I have been a mother, but I would never refer to myself as a working mother. Why does it matter whether I earn the money to buy groceries, or feed my family by gardening, canning, drying, baking? It is all work.

    Maternal employment status has been a non-issue in the wards and stakes where I have lived. Of course the availability to serve is an issue that has to be accommodated whether the trigger is employment, elder care, a new baby, or whatever.

    • Alisa says:

      I struggle with the terminology too. Thank you for proposing this suggestion.

      Just to ask for some understanding here, “Employment” doesn’t always mean for pay, either, but I can see why it’s your preference. Employed can also mean to be busy with something. Or when you employ an object, it’s getting use. And it’s also common in our society to refer to “work” as something one is paid for, (i.e., “I don’t get off work until 5:30”). These words have more than one definition.

      So yes, I agree the terminology isn’t perfect.

      And regarding your first premise: I can only speak for myself, but I also don’t think anyone ever thinks they’ll “convert” you. You’re not the typical member in this self-selected community of LDS feminists, but you’re certainly a valuable part of this community, and I’ve appreciated many of your comments over the years.

  14. Kaylie says:

    There a quite a few moms in my ward who are employed, and everyone supports them. People announce job promotions or graduations at Good News Minute time and everyone is really happy for them. But many of the talks and lessons I hear are centered around traditional families and raising kids and the role of women. So it seems inconsistent to me.

    Also, many people in my ward have integrated work and family pretty well. Some of them have work-at-home jobs where they were employed before they had kids or who have cut back on their hours. I know quite a few SAHMs who stay at home and love it. I know others who are worried about their financial security but aren’t sure how to get back into the work force.

    I wish there were more of a concerted effort in the Church, like you mention in the OP, to promote family-friendly work policies. I think that when SWK and ETB were the leaders of the Church, it was much harder to combine work and family than it is today. But with today’s technology, it is (or should be!) easier than ever before create a work/life fit. Work policies still lag behind the technology, and for that matter, they also lag behind other nations’ work policies. People shouldn’t have to choose one or the other anymore (unless they want to).

    There’s definitely been a call for Church members to be involved in family-friendly work policy (Elder Cook’s Apr 2011 talk, for example), but very little organized effort to do so, which is surprising considering where this request is coming from. I’m personally putting a lot of time into this cause, and I’m trying to get the word out, so if you’re interested in these issues, click on my link and find me. But whether, as you ask, Mormons are ready to unite in this effort or not, they’ve been asked to do it, so they should be!

  15. Mae says:

    I think this poll would have done better as a “rate it 1 to 10” – does Pill Daddy allow for that?

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