Guest Post: A Sociologist's Perspective on Beck's Talk and 'What Women Know'
(Armand Mauss is a professor emeritus of Sociology and a Mormon Studies scholar. He has written several articles and books on Mormon topics, most notably his book on Mormonism and race entitled All Abraham’s Children.
Armand wrote the following in a personal email to me and a few others who were discussing What Women Know.)
Sister Beck’s talk, and the response to it that was circulated to us (“What Women Know”), simply present us a case in which BOTH parties are in GENERAL agreement, but the one party (Sister Beck, representing the Church leadership) is emphasizing ONE important aspect of a woman’s life (motherhood), while the other party (the sisters signing the circulated statement) are emphasizing OTHER important aspects. I doubt that either party would dismiss the concerns of the others as unimportant.
When I hear or read talks like Sister Beck’s (or similar ones from the general authorities), I take them as expressions of sincere and legitimate concern over the “decline and fall” of motherhood and the family since the1960s. I DON’T understand such messages as in any way gainsaying equality for the sexes, or as rejecting extra-domestic development of women’s talents, aspirations, or opportunities. Rather, I understand Sister Beck and others as voicing a belief that in recent decades, the value placed on mothers and motherhood, both in the Church and in the world, has seriously declined, while the value placed on equality of different kinds has greatly increased. We can all rejoice in what has increased, but we must not forget the importance of the one thing that only women can do, which is to bear children if they are able to do so, nor can we turn over to others the nurturing of children, which is the joint responsibility of both parents.
Considering the shattering of the family, the loss of childhood innocence, and the drastic decline in birthrates in much of the world, it is hard to deny that fathers and mothers both have abdicated family responsibilities on a large scale. I understand Sister Beck et al. as simply calling on women to raise the priority on motherhood back to the level that it once had. I DO NOT understand her as calling on women to forego all the other important things in life. I find it hard to criticize her for that message, just as I find it hard to disagree with the desirability of all the other kinds of activities and accomplishments of women that the circulated statement enumerates. Women and couples in our society now have more choices and more options than ever before in our history. It is up to each woman and couple to make those choices that seem to work best for them (respectively). It is NOT a matter of simply choosing motherhood (or anything else) to the exclusion or detriment of everything else. But it IS a matter of getting PRIORITIES straight.
That’s how I read talks like Sister Beck’s. I would add that men must make the same kinds of choices, and that most of us men ought to be giving a higher priority to fatherhood than we have done. Ultimately,though, each couple must choose career and family arrangements that are comfortable for the couple itself, freely accepted by both husband and wife. No one is entitled to pass judgment on the decisions made by a given couple in this process. All that Sister Beck is saying, it seems to me, is that if we truly understand the gospel, we will place parenthood first whenever possible, and her message to mothers is to maintain (and, where necessary, to restore) motherhood to its rightful place in planning our futures as couples. Men in the church, it seems to me, get similar messages regularly about fatherhood.
All in all, then, it appears… that Sister Beck and the sisters who circulated that statement (“What Women Know”) are not disagreeing with each other so much as talking past each other.