No Caveats Attached

by Naomi Watkins

Logo_final_RGB-01 Good Mormon women do not get PhDs.

Mormon men do not marry highly educated women.

You really don’t ever want to be a wife and a mother, do you?

Having one degree is more than enough.

Many of these types of statements have been lobbed at me, and at many of my LDS female friends, as we have pursued advanced degrees and careers. Based on facts alone – I’m not married, I don’t have kids – some might say that these statements are true. I choose not to believe these cause-and-effect explanations, but I do admit that during the low or difficult times on my PhD path, they were often the statements that ricocheted in my head, despite the fact that I had a powerful spiritual experience underscoring that earning a Ph.D. was the path I should take.

No one, woman or man, should have to question or wonder if the personal revelation she receives makes her “good” or not. At home, I was taught that I should get all of the education that I could – not because my future husband might die, as I was told at church (which is an incredibly morbid thought, by the way) – but because I should educate myself because I was (and am) a child of God. No caveats were attached.

I recognize that Utah is not and does not reflect the LDS Church, or even its culture elsewhere in the world. However, given the large number of Mormons in Utah, and the emphasis on education’s importance by many leaders, one might expect Utah to lead the nation in college graduates. And Utah men do. However, “while prior to 1990, Utah women showed a higher rate of college graduation than U.S. women, by 2000, Utah women had lost their ‘bachelor’s degree or higher’ educational edge. Utah shows by far the largest gap in the nation between male and female college graduation rates.” Further, “Utah women are slightly less likely to have college degrees than are women in the rest of the nation. This lower overall rate is the result of significantly lower educational attainment of Utah’s younger women … So, while Utah young women start college studies at above average rates, they are less likely to complete their degrees.” [1]

This trend is incredibly disturbing to me. What has happened? The findings from Susan Madsen’s Utah Women and Education Initiative, which studied the reasons behind these trends, found that “young women who had group and one-on-one encouragement from at least one of their local [religious] leaders were significantly more likely to attend and graduate from college.” Additionally, the Initiative found that “education is a top priority for many [LDS young women] until marriage, and then priorities quickly change. Some participants struggled with understanding why there is so much emphasis placed on education before marriage and then why they must ‘give it up’ after they are married.” [2]

I look at the younger generation, young women who are just embarking on their educational and professional paths, who are rising up and serving missions, who want to contribute to society in and out of the home. In many ways, they and I are alike. They not only hope for more; they expect more. And so, they need guidance and support – we all need guidance and support.

After I was accepted to graduate school, I desired to connect with other LDS women who were pursuing PhDs or who had already done so. I wanted to find LDS women who not only mirrored my own educational and professional aspirations, but also provided a window into what could be. Given that I attended graduate school in Salt Lake City, I was able to more easily find these women. We discussed and asked questions, lamented about typical graduate school woes, and helped each other with paper editing and project creation. We also discussed how our educational paths and career trajectories related to our faith – and how they perhaps didn’t mesh with its cultural expectations. I credit this support network for much of my graduate school success and for helping me combat the false statements often circulated in our church culture.

I realize, however, that not all LDS women are able to find mirrors and windows of their educational and professional aspirations and goals in their wards, stakes, schools, jobs, or families. Even if we personally do have these types of connections close to home, I believe it’s vital that we extend our network, and reach out to our sisters who need this support. In addition, I believe that if we want to eliminate false cultural beliefs about women and education and work, we must band together.

Aspiring Mormon Women is my solution to making these dreams a reality, and extending the support network that I had in graduate school. Dianne Orcutt and I founded this non-profit organization to encourage, support, and celebrate the educational and professional aspirations of LDS women. We aim to include LDS women of all ages, at various levels of faith, and across all educational levels; to inspire and empower LDS women to purposefully pursue (and complete) educational opportunities; and to provide informal and formal mentoring and networking opportunities for LDS women. It is the precise place where women can come with their educational and professional goals, where they can share their current paths, and where they will not be slammed by false cultural beliefs and statements.

It’s time for us to visibly support the educational and professional goals and dreams of other LDS women. It’s time for those of us who do have educational and professional goals, or who are on paths that are not considered the LDS cultural norm, to be more transparent. Let us be the windows to others of what can be. Let us be the mirrors to those around us of what we currently are, and what we are becoming. We invite you, then, to join us if you are a high-school age young woman, if you are currently in school or working, or if you desire to return to school or the workforce. Create a profile; connect with other LDS women; pose a question; offer advice; share your goals, your frustrations, and your stories; be a mentor; find other women who are educationally and professionally ambitious; begin to discover what might be your life’s work.

It’s time that we not only show each other what we can be, but how this is possible.



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21 Responses

  1. X2 Dora says:

    I love this so much. I’ve done a lot of formal and informal mentoring, and I think this is just the thing for LDS women. Over the last year, I’ve talked to many LDS women who stopped their university studies after marriage, who are finally taking the time to return and finish. I’ve also started an informal nursing education mentoring program at my work, which looks like it may go house-wide! Development should be part of all of our frameworks!

    • Naomi says:

      X2 Dora,

      And not only can these women who are returning to school find support from one another, but from women who have already done so. Both sets of women are such great role models!

  2. April says:

    While in graduate school, I reluctantly attended one of those multilevel marketing “parties” where women buy overpriced goods and experience a dreaded recruitment speech to become a vendor. In the speech, the seller commented about how this was a great way to make money for female newlyweds who drop out of school because “your husband’s education is more important.” Ugh.

  3. heidikins says:

    Love this site so much! I created a profile on AMW!!


  4. Caroline says:

    Great post, Naomi, and what a wonderful idea to create this network.

    I love this line: “No one, woman or man, should have to question or wonder if the personal revelation she receives makes her “good” or not.”

  5. Em says:

    I love this. I do feel like an anomaly though the internet has helped a bit. When I was in the singles ward I knew a handful of women who were also in graduate school but now that I’m married I’m the only woman in my ward doing so. I actually only know one other LDS woman in grad school at my university (though I am sure there are more than I know) and our fields are so different as to almost mutually incomprehensible.

  6. Naismith says:

    “…and where they will not be slammed by false cultural beliefs and statements.”

    This is important, but such false beliefs come from all sides. I live far from Utah, and I have tried to pursue a part-time professional career. I have gotten zero support from women, and lots of criticism and roadblocks in my way. My most support has come from old white men who respect that the work I do for my family is a priority.

    Maybe I am missing something, but at first glance of the website, I don’t see how this is different from the many, many, many other places that encourage women to pursue full-time careers. There is so much support and even pressure out there that I do not see the need for one more source.

    Yes, those are horrible things that people have said to you. But what about the things that are said to women to discourage them from putting more efforts at home? I was at a party where a dental student said that she was interested in oral surgery, but ultimately decided that it would not be compatible with having children. She was criticized and excoriated, and told that she would be a bad example for her kids. Mind you, this was a woman who is going to be a general dentist, not a prarie muffin who was going to stay home and bake bread!

    Instead, I would like to see a world that appreciates parenting so much that every worker can take up to five years of maternity leave and have a job when they return (not uncommon in other countries). I would like a world where a PhD program can be pursued on a part-time basis (I turned down a lucrative fellowship because they insisted I go full-time). I want a world where part-timers are not assumed to be less serious or committed.

    And sorry, but I believe that we live in a world where there ARE caveats. The caveat is that we should do whatever the Lord asks of us.

    For some, that is getting a graduate degree; I also had a sweet spiritual experience around pursuing my masters degree. But when I prayerfully considered getting a PhD, the answer was clearly no, that I should focus on my family.

    • Naomi says:


      I could copy/paste link after link from our site that shows examples of women who are working part-time and who discuss following the Spirit in making their decisions about family and career and education. Our “currently working” forum includes both full-time and part-time workers. We also have a “lifelong learner” group for those who are learning through informal or non-traditional means.

      In the LDS community, virtually and in-person, there are plenty of places where women find support for homemaking and child-rearing. However, merely because we focus on education and jobs at Aspiring Mormon Women does not mean we do not value these things. This point is stated clearly in the FAQ on the site.

      Never would I advocate that all women take and pursue the same path–that’s the point of AMW–showing that there are options. I’m sorry that you did not find something with us that could support your goals to work part-time, but I am glad that you at least found support from “old white men.”

  7. Emily U says:

    Thank you for your good work, Naomi. If something like AMW had existed when I was in college I’m sure I would have loved it and used it. When I was doing my Ph.D. work in biology I didn’t have many role models of women scientists with kids, but I longed for them. It’s hard to say if I had had better mentoring if I would have stayed in the field instead of going into higher ed administration (which I do not love), but I do believe good mentors are so important.

    Naismith, obviously the thing that makes AMW different from other career sites is the fact that it’s a gathering place for LDS women. That is new. LDS women have some unique things to contend with as they make their life choices and it’s good to have that companionship of others traveling on the same road.

    My feelings about the career/motherhood balance are complicated because my experiences and observations tell me that it’s not possible to have it all, and that all choices have inherent costs. I just think it’s really important not to judge each other and to support each other as much as we can. I’m so pleased that AMW can be a support to women who are looking for it.

    • Naismith says:

      I’m totally for not judging one another. I was an LDS mother of three when I went to grad school.

      It’s just that in my experience, not all the judging comes from those who criticize women pursuing education/careers.

      • Dianne says:

        Both sides of the so-called “Mommy Wars” are guilty of judging women for their choices, there is no doubt. At Aspiring Mormon Women we have tried to carve out a space for LDS women to leave that “war” behind, and find instead support, a voice, and the practical resources to help them realize their professional and educational aspirations – whatever those may be, and in whatever season of life they might find themselves. I’m confident that if you take the time to view our site with that perspective, you would find something positive and of value.

  8. stacer says:

    As a publisher of diverse children’s books who just met Ms. Bishop at ALA this year, and who quotes her all the time because of her groundbreaking work in diversity in children’s lit, it was pretty awesome to run into her mirrors/windows/sliding glass doors analogy on Exponent II. This community might be exactly the kind of thing I’ve been looking for. I’m trying to be smart and innovative at my demanding while trying to overcome the culturally programmed tendency to hold back and ask for permission. I’m reading Lean In right now and it’s obvious that these tendencies are not unique to LDS women, but we also have unique challenges in LDS culture and doctrine when we don’t fit the mold of the perfect wifeandmother. I’ll go check it out!

    • Naomi says:


      I’m a big fan of Ms. Bishop’s work as well, and particularly love introducing my students to quality children’s global literature. I would love to hear about your work in children’s publishing, so I hope you join us.

  9. Bethany says:

    Thank you for this! I grew up with parents who taught us that NOT getting a degree was NOT an option. Although they didn’t foresee many of their daughters actually using their degrees, I am grateful that they pushed us all to attend college. When I asked my talented niece what she would study after high school, she told me it didn’t matter, because she would only need to work if something happened to her future husband. I’m still a little heartbroken about that. I hope to be better prepared to talk and be an example to the women in my life about this subject.

    I am grateful to you for creating a place where true sisterhood can be strengthened. I am eager to take part.

    • Naomi says:

      I apologize that I’m just reading your comment now, Bethany. I hope that your niece sees you as a role model, and please do join us over at AMW. We’d love to have you. 🙂

  10. Nicola says:

    This seems like an interesting place to discuss our role as aspiring women. I recently taught a Laurels class at a Youth Conference the importance of becoming women, not just mothers and wives. For many there is no opportunity to become a wife or a mother, and even for those who do, they will always be women. I had pictures of admirable women, many from New Zealand, but also Malala, who is an example to us all.

    For twenty years I worked as a university professor in a Department of Management, part time, while raising two sons, one of whom has severe special needs, and earning my PhD VERY slowly. I have no regrets, and am loving the next stage in my life, running my own business and making online resources and videos to teach statistics. When I was teaching at university I would give one lecture a year in which I would suggest to the women in the class that if they want to have children, don’t leave it too late, for there lies potential disappointment. In parallel I was teaching an early morning seminary class how important it was for all of them, young men and women to get a good education or a trade. There are many good ways to live your life, and what is right for one is not necessarily right for someone else.

    I always felt that my primary role was as a mother, but that it gave me great satisfaction to be working in something I felt was also worthwhile. For me it was a blessing to be someone other than “the blind boy’s mother.”

    In all our decisions my husband and I worked together and prayed for inspiration. And that has been the greatest blessing for me when other people might see my decisions as less than optimal. Having said that, we have several women with PhD’s in our stake, all earned while raising children. Interesting.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, Nicola, I agree–the spiritual guidance and promptings that I have received regarding my education and career have been a great source of strength to me as well, particularly when faced with opposition by others or when these paths grew difficult and challenging.

      And that is interesting (and awesome) that you live in a ward with so many female PhDs. So often, I (and others) are the only ones.

  1. June 18, 2015

    […] back we featured the origin story of the awesome group Aspiring Mormon Women, a non-profit organization that supports and encourages […]

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