Sisters Speak: Countering Androcentric and Limiting Gender Messages Our Children Hear at Church


by Sheila Rhodes

Dear Exponent readers, the Sisters Speak column of an upcoming Exponent II magazine will focus on the topic of raising empowered daughters and sons in the face of sometimes limiting gender teachings at church.  I am looking for brief (one or two paragraph) responses to the question below, and I will email some of you commenters to ask if I can quote you in the magazine. For those that would like to respond privately, please email me at carolinekline1 at gmail dot com. 

Church teachings can be enormously empowering for young people. Knowing that we are children of God, that we all have divine potential, that our Heavenly Parents and Jesus care deeply about us  — these are, I believe, healing and affirming messages for kids and adults.

I do worry, however, about other androcentric and limiting teachings regarding gender and how they will affect my kids, particularly my daughter. What will she make of incessant references to Heavenly Father (with no mention of Heavenly Mother)? What will she make of lesson after lesson about prophets and priesthood, with all examples and images focusing on males? Will it hurt her, as it does me, to sing hymns every week that virtually erase her existence as a woman? Will Young Women lessons constantly frame the end goal of her life as finding someone to “take her to the temple”? What will it do to her psyche to hear messages about men presiding in the home and church? Will she begin to question whether God loves her as much as God loves males when she sees boys only being allowed to perform priesthood tasks?  Will she reign in her professional dreams and desires in order to conform to church ideals of proper womanhood?

Perhaps not. Perhaps she’ll soar above these messages and never let them hurt her sense of self or constrain her. I hope so. And I am determined to do whatever I can to help her soar above them.  My kids are still young — eight years old and younger — so I have only begun to deal with some of the issues I mention above. But here are some of the things I do to counter androcentric and limiting messages.

  • tell my kids incessantly that God is Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father combined. I then often quiz them randomly. “And who is God?”  “Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father!” they yell.
  • when they need to give a talk in primary about prophets, I have them focus on a woman — Deborah, Anna, Huldah, etc.
  • my husband and I both bless our children. I want them to see women engaging in ritual acts.
  • I read them books that depict a divine feminine or at least an inclusive vision of God. I like In God’s Name, Big Momma Makes the World, and When God was a Little Girl.
  • I often speak to my daughter about what she might become professionally when she grows up. We talk a lot about her becoming a scientist or vet someday.
  • Every so often, I take my kids to another church where women lead and officiate. It’s important to me that they see women as leaders in numerous realms of life.

I imagine we’ll get into deeper conversations in the future — perhaps what it means that only men hold priesthood office in our church and can be official prophets and revelators. Perhaps we’ll discuss why scripture and church teachings place women in subordinate roles as obedient listeners to men’s active presiders and leaders. And I plan to be frank about hoping for change.  I’ll tell them that I believe this is the gospel of progression and that it must also be the church of progression. Rhetoric will change, emphases will shift — and until then, we can be voices for change, for hope, and for inclusive love.

What strategies and tips do you have to raise girls and boys in empowered ways that counteract limiting gender messages at church? What do you wish parents or leaders had told you as a young person confronting the reality of gender roles within Mormonism? 



Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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13 Responses

  1. Katie says:

    I don’t have children, so I can’t speak from firsthand experience as a parent. However, I think that androcentric messages largely rolled off of my back, as I was growing up, in large part owing to my parents’ strategies. Perhaps of greatest importance, they simply let me be me. They didn’t try to fit me into any predetermined mold or set of norms (either the church’s, or their own) other than the basic gospel and family principles of kindness, honesty, learning, curiosity. I only hope to replicate this neutral, loving, supportive environment with my own children. The second thing that was helpful to me, personally, was that I found role models anywhere and everywhere (particularly in literature)–Jane Eyre, Jo March. Literature was critical for me. We read and search the scriptures, yes, but gospel truths can be learned in many places–and I learned early on to see this. Read with your daughters and sons great literature. Encourage them to read on their own. Studies have shown we learn empathy through reading fiction. I am also convinced that growing minds become more expansive and balanced minds–throughout a lifetime–by reading. Literature asks us to embrace difference and make it a part of our own experience, to really consider thoughts and conclusions other than the ones we already hold. Through this experience we can better learn who we are and what we actually think. And I think we grow from this experience–in our mental and emotional elasticity, and in our capacity to wisely measure, weigh, contextualize, adopt or toss out the ideas, norms or expectations that are presented to us. Teach your daughters and sons to love to read, and through this, you teach them to think.

    • Caroline says:

      Katie, I absolutely agree. You articulated my own feelings about the importance of literature in forming characters and ideals of young people.

    • EFH says:

      So true. What you have said describes what gave me foundation for the self esteem I have today. Reading literature and constantly stabbing at my own intellectual horizon have been the best investment in myself that gave me strength to rise against not empowering messages and realize that my life doesn’t have to resemble to any other female one. It only needs to be my own.

  2. Moss says:

    I second the use of literature. My sons are 7 and under but I read to them nightly. I make sure to alternate books with male protagonists with books with female protagonists. I want them to see women as active, as main characters in their own stories- not as perpetual sidekicks in stories about boys. I also have been known to gender swap characters in my kid’s books when there are not enough female characters. (I was really, really tempted to make Zoram and Sam girls the other night, but I figured that might get my boys into trouble when they get to Seminary…)

    I am also currently serving in primary, and I drag my kids out the moment things go south. We have a lot of conversations about how you and your spouse get to prayerfully decide what your family looks like and how it runs.

    My husband and I also model equality in our home- we both share tasks of providing, presiding, nurturing and home making. We bless our children together. We even take turns on calling on people to say prayers.

    • Caroline says:

      Moss, this is great. I need to start making scriptural characters female too! I also think you are wise to remove your kids from primary when things go bad. I’m not in primary, so I fear there are times I should remove my children, but I don’t because I’m not there.

  3. Nancy Ross says:

    I work full time as a university professor and love my job. I’m concerned that my girls receive messages at church and school that our family is somehow less fortunate or somehow disadvantaged because I work. My husband and I share childcare and try to frame our work-and-home arrangement as normal. In my opinion, we have an ideal arrangement for our family.

    We often ask our girls what they want to do when they are older and we are trying to find ways for them to pursue their interests, even though they are only 8 and 6 years old. I know that their interests are likely to change over time, but I want them to know that their interests and the things that they want for themselves are important. I hope that if I value their individuality now then they will value it in the future.

    • Caroline says:

      Nancy, the very fact that you are modeling a co-parenting, co-providing role will no doubt be hugely important in showing your girls that they can and should pursue their dreams and interests. Very cool that you have worked that out in your family. Thanks for the great comment!

  4. EFH says:

    I only have two boys who are very young for us to have deep conversations. What I hope for them is that they will be men that appreciate women and do not feel invited or entitled to use, abuse or misuse them. What I plan to do with them is to read classical literature together and talk about human nature and social mores and taboos and the inclinations to do harm and to do good. I think that once they learn and become more aware of their emotions and social privileges and responsibilities and how these two interact together, they will be in a better position to be better men, friends, husbands and citizens.

    In addition, I am trying not to teach them what color, profession or behavior is for girls and what is for boys. My oldest one loves purple and I try to buy him cloths and toys that come in that color. In addition, I do not steer him towards activities that boys should do but I let him play with what he likes. For example, he loves painting his nails with me, it is a mommy and me activity for him, and we do that together every so often. Many people think that I am teaching him to be a homosexual while I think that that is not the case at all. I hope that I am giving him the freedom and the confidence to be himself and enjoy what he likes to enjoy without being labeled from society. The labels that we put on everything are so damaging because that is what prevents children from dreaming big and treating others with respect.

    I do believe that the biggest lessons he will receive will be from simply watching me and my husband interact and how we treat each other. The example of our relationship has the power to override all the negative messages they will get from everywhere else. So, I also need to focus on treating my husband well and vice versa.

    How to best educate them in all these topics is a long journey and I am sure I will do modifications along the way. I also think that they will learn by making mistakes too so it is important for them not to be identified as macho or feminist just by a couple of actions. They need to understand that they can rise after every fall and fall again and who they are and who they are becoming is an ever unfolding process with no end. It is up to them to tell the world who they are not vice versa.

    • Caroline says:

      Love this, EFH! Totally agree here. “I hope that I am giving him the freedom and the confidence to be himself and enjoy what he likes to enjoy without being labeled from society.” I let my 3 year old boy paint his nails too, when he wants to.

  5. Corrina says:

    When I was in the Young Women’s program, I was very frustrated by the inequality I experienced between the YW and YM programs. While I had great parents who modeled equality in the home and encouraged me and my sisters to become anything we wanted to be, I wish they had helped me combat this inequality at a local programming level. Instead of just complaining about not going on a high adventure trip like the boys, I wish I had researched and planned one and presented my ideas to my YW leaders and Bishop. I hope that I can support my daughters in being agents of change when they see inequality or are frustrated by church programming or messages.

    I also try to expose my daughters to many diverse women. I truly believe “it takes a village,” and I think that it’s so important that my daughters see me forging relationships with a variety of women. For example, I have a dear friend who has her Ph.D. in Astronomy, and my daughters already know that we can go to her if we have questions about space and the universe. Such women can be an influence on and example for my daughters–both inside and outside the church.

    • Caroline says:

      Corrina, great idea about speaking up on a local level about inequality issues. I’m sure I’ll be supporting my daughter to do the same as she ages. And I think your last point is so important. I’m lucky enough to live in a university neighborhood, so there are female professors everywhere. I’m so glad my children will grow up seeing that.

  6. Kristin says:

    Instead of changing the names or genders of characters or historical/scriptural people, I think it’s a better idea to talk about why there are not as many strong female characters historically in our culture, past and present. I’ve taught my children the truth as to why there are not many women in our history books. I teach them that it wasn’t that long ago, in the scope of recorded history, that women didn’t even have a voice….and now we can be the ones to continue to make a change. My sons, now 19 and 17, choose to play the female characters when playing video games, write stories with strong female leads, and I dint seem to hear them speak of the different genders in negative ways. I’m hoping my 10 and 12 year old daughters never feel as repressed and marginalized as I did growing up.

    • Corrina says:

      Kristin–good points. My dd studied many Hebrew/Old Testament stories at her school as part of the 3rd grade curriculum (it’s a Waldorf school). Anyway, one day she asked her teacher why there are so many more stories about boys than girls, and her teacher said it led to a really great discussion in class about how women’s roles have changed/history, etc. I felt proud of her for noticing and asking the question.

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