Requiem for a Typical Mormon Woman
This essay (from the Winter 1993 issue) epitmoizes the feminism of EXII that I love. Click here for the complete version.
She is Molly Mormon. Patty Perfect. The Typical Mormon Woman. Different names for the same woman. She sits quietly in sacrament meeting, dispensing Cheerios and quiet books with dignity. She teaches inspiring, non-controversial Relief Society lessons. She wears sensible shoes and bears a striking resemblance to June Cleaver. She’s always ready with whole wheat bread for the needy. She’s our role model, as quintessentially Mormon as the Golden Plates.
Does the Typical Mormon Woman sound familiar? She did to me. I felt like I was surrounded by hundreds of them every week at church. They talked with sugar-coated tongues. They listened to lessons (while smiling) and politely agreed with every word. They said things like, “Sister Smith has given such a beautiful lesson” when I, who had heard the same lesson, was thinking, “That was a trite, irritating lesson.” They spoke in the “Relief Society voice.” Breathy, soft-spoken, and gently.
These women even looked perfect. They wore handmade, feminine dresses and had fluffy hair. Their make-up was neither austere nor over-done, but—you guessed it—perfect! I was certain their homes were always immaculate. I couldn’t imagine them blasting through their living rooms in cleaning frenzies minutes before their visiting teachers arrived. I, on the other hand, panicked if anyone didn’t make an appointment a week in advance—that’s how long it took to get my house to look like their houses.
I wondered what was wrong with me. Why didn’t I get excited over the Cute Things we made in homemaking meetings? Why did many talks in church perturb me? Why did I question issues they took as gospel (pun intended)?
While trying to answer these questions, I realized I couldn’t cram myself into a mold that did not fit. I embarked on my own personal program of glasnost. I stopped trying to be a typical Mormon woman. In the process, I made some delightful discoveries. It’s okay to prefer books to embroidery patterns. It’s not a commandment to grind your own wheat. Temple recommends are given to those of us with messy houses and loud, sassy voices. I can claim, as my own, unconventional opinions. I learned—ever so gingerly—to separate the gospel from the Church.
I wondered whether other women felt like I did. I started to talk—and listen—to women in the Church. Really talk. No more, “Good morning, Sister Jones. That jello salad that you made for homemaking was sure delicious.” I wanted to know Typical Mormon Women. What were their aspirations and feelings? How did they feel about taboo subjects like polygamy? Did they yell at their kids? I decided to find out.
As I got to know the women of my ward, I heard one phrase over and over: “I’m not the typical Mormon woman, but…” Sometimes I wasn’t surprised by this admission. But frequently, I’d assumed I was talking to the gold standard of Mormon womanhood and was chocked that she considered herself atypical. If nobody would admit to being a typical Mormon woman, where was she?…
I had often wondered whether diversity within Mormonism was possible. In every ward I’d attended, diversity among women was met with suspicion. Labels were freely attached. Inactive. Working mother. Liberal. Single. Childless. Oddly, some of the labels that were merely descriptors carried with them negative connotations. I pictured an assembly line of smiling, puffy-haired matrons. Anyone who was different was snatched off the line and tossed aside. We all smiled our way down the assembly line. We all thought that we had to be whole wheat mothers…
If we are too anxious and overwhelmed, our relationships with each other suffer. Sisterhood fizzles in such a volatile pressure-cooker. Our friendships become counterfeit. Healthy, give-and-take connections are not possible if we always wear our Sunday faces, afraid our real selves are unacceptable. Sisterhood will elude our grasp if we continue to pursue the fictitious Molly Mormon prototype. We will never be as spiritual, knowledgeable, or kind as this mythical creature—just as horses will never be unicorns. The Typical Mormon Woman, much like the unicorn, is one-dimensional. Happily, Real Mormon Women are not. We are blessed with unique gifts and strengths, as well as idiosyncrasies and weaknesses. Thank goodness! Diversity enriches and deepens our bonds. Sisterhood happens when we permit each other to be human.
So, let’s allow the Typical Mormon Woman to depart in peace. Give her a eulogy and let her go. We don’t need her any more! We have living, breathing, fallible women to take her place. We can move to a higher plateau of understanding and tear down the fences of artificiality. We won’t turn our heads from women suffering with social problems that we will now admit exist in Mormonism. We won’t raise our eyebrows when an unorthodox opinion is stated. We won’t christen each other with petty labels or expect everyone to be our clone. We’ll take a giant leap toward sincere, sweet sisterhood.
Good-bye, Typical Mormon Woman. We’re secure without you. Go rest. We all know you deserve it.
Lisa Ray Turner
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
Volume 18 No. 1 (1993)