Guest Post: To Thine Own Self Be True — Being Female at BYU

By DefyGravity

(DefyGravity describes herself as follows: “I’m a senior at BYU studying theatre education and history teaching, graduating in April. I’m an avid reader, anglophile and I’ve been a raging feminist since I was in junior high, which fortunately has not scared away my husband of two years.”)

For about 2 years, I’ve wanted to explore the female experience at
BYU. I’ve never felt I fit the expectations for women at BYU, and
never wanted to. But there were periods when I felt guilty or ashamed because I didn’t want what I was supposed to want, or because I wanted things I wasn’t supposed. It was a painful place to be in, to feel that who I was and the things I wanted for myself were wrong in the eyes of the church or the Divine. I felt as though I had to be disloyal to myself or to Deity because it was impossible to be loyal to both. Eventually I came to understand that just because the people around me expected me to marry, have kids and stay at home with them, that didn’t mean that God expected the same thing of me. I’ve found that my marriage doesn’t mean I have to be domestic or that I have to have kids or that I can’t pursue a career. I’ve found peace with my choices and my desires because I learned the difference between cultural expectations and what God might want from my life.

After finding peace with my own beliefs, I began to see other women around me suffering from the same things I had. My sister, who is an incredibly talented special education teacher, feels like a failure for not being married and for not wanting kids. I’ve heard women say that their education was a trial because they wanted to use it but they were supposed to stay at home and be mothers. I’ve had friends who’ve chosen to stay home with children who feel looked down on for not having careers. I watched these women and felt their pain. I wondered how I could help the women around me to embrace their own choices, and to make decisions based on their relationship with the Divine, as opposed to what others expected of them?

My response to that question is a devised theatre project called To
Thine Own Self Be True. Devised theatre creates a theatre piece from scratch so you can make it specifically for a given situation. With a group of five actors and a playwright (all female) we are creating a piece about the expectations put upon women at BYU. We deal with dating, modesty, the focus on family, the break between family and career, missions, domestic skills and personal revelation and decisions. The script is draw entirely from experiences of the cast or those they know.

I know my attitudes towards being female in a predominantly Mormon society have changed as I’ve worked on this project, and will probably keep changing as we finish and perform it. I’m more accepting of other women’s choices, even if they aren’t the choices I would make. I can respect and admire those who feel called to motherhood, without feeling as though my calling to other things like theatre and teaching are of any less value. I know others who are involved in this piece have changed as well. I’ve seen an actress who started out expressing no opinions at all begin to speak out in rehearsals. She seems more confident in who she is and what she thinks. Another member of my cast says she’s “figured out I just need to happy with my life.” I doubt any of this has to do with my prowess as a director, and more to do with the fact that we’ve created a space that gives women a voice, where they can talk about what they want from their lives without judgment. We’ve made it a goal to celebrate who we are and the choices we make and treat our rehearsals as such. In celebrating who we are, we have found the freedom to make the choices we need to make.

This piece is a one-time thing. It will perform a few times, and then
be over. I hope it has as strong an effect on the audience as it has
on me. But how can empower women to claim their own choices in a more lasting way? Or is this just a BYU/Provo/Utah Valley problem that doesn’t need addressing outside of this area? What experiences have you had that have helped you live as your Parents would have you live, rather then by the expectations of those around you?

(If anyone is interested, To Thine Own Self Be True shows March 30, 31 and April 1 at 7:30 in the Nelke Theatre on BYU campus.)


Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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17 Responses

  1. I’ve made my choices–and experienced parent and church disapproval. What I’m trying to do now is allow my daughters to make their own choices. Interestingly, it is my Molly Mormon daughter rather than myself who worries about her sister’s choices not to have children.

    Thank you for this post. Good luck with your theatre project!

  2. HokieKate says:

    I was just talking about some of these issues with one of my friends last night. She’s a single attorney and I’m a married & pregnant PhD student; we both earned our engineering bachelor’s degrees a BYU a few years ago. While we are BYU alumnae, we are now thousands of miles away from Mormonville (and each other!). Still, we are both facing the pressure from church people and family to aspire to be homemakers, while our professional associates encourage us to advance our careers. We love our careers, and get a lot of fulfillment from them. We’re honestly scared of being home with babies all day every day, though we want children.

    Interestingly, one experience that gave me strength in my decision was visiting a daycare this week to put my baby on the waiting list. I really feel that that daycare will give my child more support and structure than I could, and meanwhile I can go to work and have a professional identity. Thankfully my husband and I are in a financial position where I don’t *have* to work, and he is incredibly supportive of my desires. Still, that not *having* to work is what makes the pressure from those telling me to stay home more frustrating. When I posted on Facebook about the long wait for daycare, my mom responded “I’ve heard some mothers care for their own infants”.

    Anyway, I’m rambling and procrastinating. I’m sorry that I won’t be in Provo to see your play; it sounds fascinating and I hope it goes excellently! I think this is a major issue pretty much everywhere women have choices, regardless of religion. Have you considered cross-posting this at FMH? They tend to get a lot of commenters.

    • Caroline says:

      In regards to what your mom said: Ouch! If my mom ever said that to me, I’d be really upset.

      Good for you for knowing yourself well enough to know what is best for you and your family. Day care — good day care — can be absolutely wonderful for kids. I’m sure my 4 year old would be happier if he were in day care every day. Activities, friends to play with, great socialization… way more fun than hanging out and going to the grocery store with me or watching TV in the afternoon.

      I’ve never done full time day care, but I’ve done preschools and lots of babysitters. And every time I drop them off I feel great about it. They prefer being with other kids, and I need to get work done. So it’s a win-win for everyone.

    • Nancy Howard says:

      Daycare was the best educational experience my children had, even though they went to the “wonderful” schools in Madison, WI. I learned so much about parenting. My son would not sit still for me to read to him, but he listened with the group in daycare. We have friends from daycare and my kids are 26 and 27. My daughter lives in Idaho and works full time. Her 9-mo-old daughter loves daycare. I was there last week and spent two days trying to keep her busy and entertained. We had a great time but I was exhausted. According to her mother, my granddaughter was absolutely delighted to return to daycare. The baby is outgoing, confident, patient, tolerant, and doesn’t scream she left with someone else. Neither of my kids had separation anxiety with babysitters or Sunday School. I highly recommend daycare even to those ideal stay-at-home moms.

      • Nancy Howard says:

        In reading my own post, I realize that my final sentence sounds sarcastic. I apologize for my tone. I appreciate the kind and tolerant comments of sisters of all perspectives. You all have great spirits.

  3. MB says:

    A breakthough moment for me as a twenty-something was when I realized that all the stay at home moms I knew felt judged or pitied by women who worked outside the home AND all the women who worked outside the home that I knew felt judged or pitied by the moms who worked at home.

    I realized that just about all of them were operating out of fear of being unappreciated for what they were doing and the result was defensiveness and division.

    Once I recognized that in the responses of women who taken had a different path than I had I was able to recognize that in my own response as well. Knowledge is power. My modus operandi changed from defending my choices to respecting those of others. It was both liberating and bridge building and increased unity rather than fomented division between me and my sisters.

    Changed my life.

  4. Corktree says:

    What a wonderful thing you’re doing! I hope it is received well and widely.

    I left BYU after my freshman year because I couldn’t handle what you describe, so I hope that efforts like yours have an effect for positive change for the women like us. I can’t say it’s completely absent everywhere else, but certainly not crippling to one’s sense of self as it is in Provo.

  5. I will be in attendance, for sure.

    I’m not sure how we can encourage women (and men, too) to live based on a relationship with God as opposed to the expectations of church and family culture, but I do know that it’s a crucial shift for all of us. I’m so happy that other women (in my neck of the woods, no less =) are focusing on this need.

  6. Celeste says:

    When I was an undergraduate, I don’t think I particularly noticed anything. When I entered BYU grad school simultaneous to working full-time, I noticed a perceptible shift, most painfully from my bishop who wished I would focus more on dating others. From other young men, I found push-back; it was intimidating I guess to go out with someone younger than them who was already so much farther ahead career wise.

    Interestingly, I found that this was far less true off campus. In my workplace, people are incredibly supportive of both career and personal choices (at least, those I have mentioned those personal choices to). If I were to suddenly get married, pregnant, and leave, they would support that too.

    Perhaps the metaphor that has crystalized things most clearly in my mind is accepting that I play many instruments. Someone who specializes in keyboard might never dream of going to a string, and vice versa. Someone who does both knows that there are different yet equal fulfillment in each, but they cannot be played simultaneously. I have made career choices accordingly, so that I will never have to choose one over the other.

    Yes, I want to be a mother. Babies are not my favorite thing, but I love the wit and dialogue and antics of kids and I do not want to be as lonely as my one-child grandmother, but fulfilled as my 8-child mother. Yes, I want to keep my career. I passionately love what I do. It’s not all my favorite thing; being at work has its drudgery as much as being at home does; but there are those moments that make everything worth it (and you know what I mean :-).

    By splitting my interests, I may never quite become as expert as someone who selects one, but that doesn’t mean I can’t find fulfillment in both. When I switched from being a runner to a triathlete, I found that my running speed and ability did decrease a bit as I split time amid running, swimming and biking, but the decreased injury from cross training was worth it. To each woman her own, and to each an understanding that it’s okay if her own is different from someone elses.

    I will be at this play. Thank you, thank you for addressing such a relevant problem.

    • HokieKate says:

      My step-mother switched to triathlons a few years ago after starting with marathons. I really, really like that metaphor.

  7. Hydrangea says:

    I would love to hear some of the dialog in your play. What a creative format to project these ideas.

    I don’t know if I felt that there was any more pressure at BYU than there is in the church anywhere else. I think there is always a tendency to follow the crowd though and if the crowd happens to be all LDS . . .

  8. Angie says:

    Asked with respect, and not with a hidden agenda – what is best for the children?

    I stayed at home for seven years with my two kids, after a masters degree and six years working. Staying home was so hard for me; I can’t find words to describe how hard. I worried/agonized that my education, gifts, and talents were wasted. I truly thought my years of personal achievement were behind me. But here’s what really happened:

    1). I went back to work after my kids were in school full day.
    2). My bond with my kids is SO STRONG and a source of profound of joy to me.
    3). I am so much better at my profession, because of the skills I learned as a stay-at-home mom.

    I know there are exceptions, but for the vast majority of women, motherhood and sacrifice will result in blessings that God is waiting to give us.

    I’m trying to describe my experiences in a way that doesn’t sound trite, dogmatic, or just plain rude. Please know that I have struggled mightily with this topic. And I have learned that God can be trusted to love us as women, to help us find joy in our gifts and talents, to consecrate the sacrifices we make to bear children.

  9. Debra says:


    Have you considered filming your productions? It sounds wonderful and such a great topic for Mormon women and men and girls everywhere! I would love to see it, and youtube might be a great place to post it!

    Love and blessings to you.

  10. DefyGravity says:

    Thanks for all the responses! I feel lame for not having commented earlier, but my access to the internet is limited.

    I love that there are such a variety of ways that you have been empowered or found peace with choices. It’s hard to know sometimes if that will ever happen for the women in my life, or for me for that matter, so it’s wonderful to hear that there doesn’t always have to be this conflict between doing what feels right and what others expect.

    I’ve especially loved the comments about working vs. being a stay at home mom. We try to address some of the pros and cons of each choice in this piece, while suggesting that there is no right decision to make. We’ll see if we’re successful in that attempt.
    @Angie, thank you for sharing your beliefs. I have complete respect for your decision to stay home, because I know it will be hard for me if I choose to do the same thing and I applaud that you were willing to make the sacrifice to stay home. Might I just point out that motherhood does not equate being a stay at home mom. While motherhood and sacrifice will likely bring blessings to a large number of women, that doesn’t mean that the sacrifice to stay home is the correct decision for that large number of women.

    @Nancy: I love your description of daycare and the advantages of it! We often only hear the hoor stories. Thanks for the other side.

    @Celeste: I love the instrument metaphor! Reminds me of one of my actresses. She describes cultural expectations and trying to “feed Christ’s sheep” by insisting that everyone do the same thing is like trying to give all the sheep broccoli. You’re so busy trying to feed them that you don’t notice that one of the sheep is allergic to broccoli!

    To those of you who will be able to make it to the show, come talk to me afterward. I’ll be the crazy director leading the talk-back. I’d love to hear waht you have to say!

  11. Thotman says:

    I truly love these comments. Especially those who express a struggle with what ever their decision has been. I believe it is not so much WHAT decision we make but the amount of SELF we put into that struggle and eventual decision. Thanks to everyone who contributed here. Life must certainly be about the journey and self awareness. Who can doubt that love, self respect and good will are the primary ingredients in every life being represented by the thots and words shared above. Joyous son, Husband of one, and father of five wonderful women…all different in their views, faith and goals in life.

    • Thotman says:

      …comments, especially BY those…
      …what decision we make, but the amount of struggle and THE eventual decisions…
      …shared above?

      Joyous son, husband of one….etc

      I really should proof my comments instead of just dashing them off.

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