Guest Post: Bald. Bald as a Billiard Ball

What's a Girl Good For_ (2)

by Emily Holsinger Butler

What is a Girl Good For?

Nice question. I wonder who was asking it back in 1968, which was, incidentally, the year I was born. Answer: everyone was asking that question. In that decade, charged as it was with the high drama of sexual revolution, the Church missed few opportunities to address the issue of what part a woman should play. However, this is the freest, frankest, most unvarnished attempt to delineate a girl’s role I’ve ever come across. It’s just so very bald. Bald as a billiard ball. And from the candy cane stripes to the nursery rhyme title, it’s a message tailored to the youthiest youth in Zion. I’ll leave it to you to read the text, but essentially it goes like this:

Girl: “What should I do with my life?

Church: “You’re not a boy!”

Girl: “Sure, I hear what you’re saying. But what’s life all about? Why am I here?”

Church: “You do not have the priesthood!”

Girl: “Right, I get that. But what I’m asking is, what’s my place in the world? How should I act?”


Girl: “Okay. Anything else?”

Church: “Um, mature in the sweet spirit of waiting upon others.”

Girl: “You mean like Cinderella?”

Church: “Yes. Precisely. Like Cinderella. Now go, and do not ask to see me again until you have done your task.”

That last part is a tiny joke–it’s a line from the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. And as we know, Dorothy had some work to do before she realized that the enormous (bald) Head was just an illusion.

Emily Holsinger Butler is a hausfrau living in Utah with delusions of grandeur & survival, a writer of books, a hoper of all things and a believer in several of them.

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16 Responses

  1. N.W. Clerk says:

    “One thing of which an LDS girl is certain is that her role in the Church and in life will always be different from that of a boy. She has not been given the priesthood. God’s power is not used through her exactly as it is in men. But a girl does have a power. Hers is the power to bear children, yes, but also to love, and with heart and hand to comfort, teach, and train, to heal and care for both old and young, man, woman, and child alike, wherever her service may take her.
    Growing up with an attitude toward service, maturing in the sweet spirit of waiting upon others, giving of one’s self as only a woman can, will mark a girl’s life happily. Her theme song might be:

    ‘Have I done any good in the world today?
    Have I helped anyone in need?
    Have I cheered up the sad,
    And made someone feel glad?
    If not, I have failed indeed.

    ‘Has anyone’s burden been lighter today,
    Because I was willing to share?
    Have the sick and the weary
    Been helped on their way?
    When they needed my help was I there?'”

    The horror! The horror!

  2. Caroline says:

    Yes, this is pretty bad. It’s stunning to hear her talk about “maturing in the sweet spirit of waiting upon others, giving of one’s self as only a woman can.” This notion of women’s self-sacrifice and actions of “waiting upon others” is potentially quite damaging for women.

    Way back in 1960, feminist theologian Valerie Saiving posited that the commonly understood major human sin in Christian thought — pride or selfishness — was actually far more applicable to men than women. She suggested that women’s greatest failing was actually the opposite — extreme self-sacrifice, self-abnegation, becoming a zero, disappearing into the wants and needs of others. I think Saiving was on to something. Injunctions to build a life of waiting upon others and giving one’s self as only a woman can seem to me to be dangerous messages to girls, who are often already socialized to let the needs of others come before their own. I far prefer Hinckley’s take on it in 2001, when he told young women that “the whole gamut of human endeavor is now open to women” and that they should pursue their dreams.

    Thanks for this post, Emily. It’s pretty trippy to see, as you say, such bald messages about what Cannon thought it meant to be a woman. I think we’ve moved beyond this. At least I think so when I think of Hinckley’s talk. But then again, as I think about it more, this other discourse of women’s self-sacrifice and constrained roles and opportunities is probably still alive and well among some Mormons.

  3. Winifred says:

    To let the needs of others come before their own.
    Ever hear of motherhood?

  4. spunky says:

    “(and being a slave of service to others will)…mark a girl’s life happily.”

    I am happy in doing service. But on my 5th load of laundry that I know will not be seen as a thank-able task (unless I bring it up), then such “happiness” becomes just plain drudgery.

    For heaven’s sake! I wonder if the wives of the men writing this dribble were sincere– if only because they preferred to not have their husbands around, i.e. “stay away at church and work because I don’t actually like you.” Otherwise, I just. don’t. get. it.

    Thank you for the smile!!!

  5. Em says:

    I am so glad we have come far beyond this. The problem here is not that it tells girls to find joy in service, at least in my mind. The problem is in the line “the dichotomy is disconcerting” — it is only disconcerting because we’re creating a false dichotomy. What is the point of teaching women to push themselves intellectually and to compete with boys when really women should stay out of the race? The entirely polarized thinking is what is upsetting; the idea that all women, throughout all phases of life and regardless of the their own needs or the needs of their families, should stay in the home and never attempt to one-up men is ridiculous.

    I like to collect old marriage and youth advice books just for the fun of reading the terrible counsel. The problem here is not telling girls to lose themselves in service (which we should all do in healthy and appropriate ways) but that in fact they should lose themselves full stop, in contrast to what God intends for boys. I really feel that our rhetoric in YW manuals, talks etc. has changed a lot from this model. Yes girls are still encouraged to be mothers but to me the fact that this seems absurd and archaic is a sign that there has been cultural progress within the church. The message to “lose yourself in service” is now (I think) less gendered.

  6. Emily U says:

    Thanks, Emily, for using humor to show how progress has been made in the church’s rhetoric on gender.

    I agree that the problem here isn’t promoting service, it’s doing it so exclusively to girls, and minimizing their potential contribution to reproduction. I have heard of motherhood, I’m doing it and serving others every day. In my home it’s not all that different from fatherhood. My husband knows a thing or two about service, too.

  7. Winifred says:

    Family life is all about submission.

    Wife submits to husband, husband submits to wife, children submit to parents and parent submit to children and we all submit to God.

    Why can’t feminists understand this?

    • Caroline says:

      “family life is all about submission.” I don’t know about that. Submission doesn’t really resonate with me. Partnership does, however. Which is one reason I love the Mormon vision of God and eternity. The Mormon God wants peers, not the eternal subjugation of their children.

      If, however, we are going to work with a submission framework, I do prefer the way you characterize it, Winifred, rather than what we get in the temple.

  8. Hmm. I didn’t see this as evidence of how much we have progressed, because it sounds so familiar to what I hear today. The biggest difference that I notice is that today we throw in some extra stuff about how men and women are still equal anyway, even though women are so much more restricted than men from most activities.

    • Emily U says:

      It’s the “men and women are still equal anyway” that I see as some progress, since that acknowledgement of equality didn’t used to be there at all. But it’s double-speak. It’s trying to have it both ways. I hope it’s a transition into a time when there’s only equality, but I admit that lately I’m feeling less and less hopeful. This summer has changed things for me, in ways I’m not done processing.

    • Emily says:

      April, I agree. The language is dated (sort of) but the view from the ground is still the same. When I remember how the church apparatus looked to me as a young girl in the 70s and consider how it looks to my young children today, almost nothing has changed. The official position that we are “equal” is, as Emily U says, doublespeak as long as we are still presided over, one hundred percent, by men. I’m not even sure if our progress within the church can be measured in teaspoons.

  9. Naismith says:

    Let’s put some historical context here, though. The 1960s was about the first time that women had much of a choice to have children or not, thanks to the Pill and copper IUD. Prior to those advances, birth control was much less effective, as any viewer of CALL THE MIDWIFE can see. So encouraging women to have children was something of a non-issue before this point in time.

    And let’s look at the dominant feminist literature of the time. I was assigned to read Simone de Beauvoir’s THE SECOND SEX for like three different classes in high school and college. And it is bald, bald as a billiard ball in it’s anti-motherhood message. She calls the fetus a parasite and describes motherhood as enslavement, and is especially disdainful about breast-feeding (“exhasting servitude”).

    In a 2010 NYT book review of the more recent translation of this feminist classic, Francine du Plessix Gray observed: “And Beauvoir’s truly paranoid hostility toward the institutions of marriage and motherhood — another characteristic of early feminism — is so extreme as to be occasionally hilarious.”

    So yeah, there is baldness in feminism, too. The “liberation” touted was often freedom from motherhood. The path to equality being laid out was to act as much like men as possible. There was even a Ms. magazine article from the 1970s that encouraged women to take hormones to eliminate their menstrual periods so that they would be free of emotional fluctuations associated with a cycle.

    I was active in a feminist organization in the early 1970s as a young adult, and I motherhood was definitely discouraged, and the work of it minimized. I felt that feminism got a lot of things right, but not motherhood. I thought their must be a way to be equal albeit different. So when I heard about the church’s teachings and President Kimball’s talk of “full partnership” in marriage, it clicked and made sense to me. Articles like this were balm to my soul, an antidote to what I was hearing outside the church. Yes, it is bald and one-sided. But so was feminist doctrine of the day, to which it is responding.

    And are things better today? I can’t say yes. Many feminists like Linda Hirshman (GET TO WORK) reinforces the be-like-men message, telling women that the only way to be equal is not to have children, or have absolutely no more than one. It would be easy to dismiss voices like that as extremist, but the book has been selected as a campus-wide One Book in many places, is being taught in various classes, and has been absorbed by many young women. I can’t even count how many young colleagues who insist that this is true. (I would never tell anyone else whether or how many children to have, but they have no problem declaring this.)

    I am also appalled that the career counselors at my daughter’s university have a policy to only consider full-time careers for women. There are many, many fields that afford part-time professional employment for women, to take time off for pregnancy and motherhood yet build a lifetime career: nursing, accounting, pharmacy, physical therapy, law enforcement, occupational therapy, teaching ESL, ASL sign language interpretation, tax law certification…. But the college advisors are prohibited from mentioning that a woman might want/need to dial back her paid employment at some point. Unlike BYU, where I got great advice and was able to structure a professional career that allowed me to be home with my kids every afternoon.

    So there is a lot of baldness going around.

  10. EFH says:

    I think that both sides have a very narrow vision for women. Either you as a woman live your life like this or you are nothing. I believe that these are extreme voices because they do not explain the full reality and I find very little sincerity in this discussion. If you look closely at the women who make headlines around the world these days, they are women who are educated but also who come from very well connected backgrounds, often not married or do not have children. They do not have hobbies in crafts or homemaking either. These is not bad but it tells all of us that in order to really get up high, you have to be focused on only one thing. I live in a city where I meet very ambitious and successful women. Many have children too but they also have babysitters (more than one) around the clock. They spend time with their families only on weekends. To me, this is a form of self-sacrifice where as a woman you are valued only if you meet certain expectations (of others). Same as with the version where you are expected to be lost in the service of your family members.

    As a career woman and a mother, I care about choices and flexibility. I am disinterested in other’s expectations of me and their definitions of success for me. I am a feminist not because I think women can have value ONLY if….. but because they have value in any pathway they choose to live their lives. (period)

  11. N. W. Clerk says:

    Here’s what Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune had to say about the author of this “so very bald” article:

    “[Elaine] Cannon’s effort clearly made a mark on The Church . . . Cannon’s specialty was the Faith’s young women . . . Though she wouldn’t have called it feminism, as early as the 1960s, Cannon was determined that the girls should get the same attention as boys. . . She wanted them to be honored as they moved through various stages, just as the young men moved through stages of the priesthood. . . She was an entrepreneur of relationships, the quintessential people person.”

    But she was, apparently, not ideologically pure enough for The Exponent.

    • Emily says:

      N. W. Clerk, this was not a comment on Sister Cannon, a great woman who did a great work. If she was a product of her times, as she was, then it is useful to investigate what those times were like. I am very sorry if my personal observation that those times were extraordinarily limiting for LDS women has upset you. There are many varieties, strains and facets of feminism presented by the writers at Exponent II, so your comment about “ideological purity” strikes me as baseless. If you have an actual response to the idea that in 1968, girls were encouraged to view themselves almost exclusively as future mothers and servants-in-perpetuity, I’d be interested to hear it.

  1. August 13, 2014

    […] Church: “Yes. Precisely. …read more […]

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