Monday, July 23, 2012

On Trying To "Have It All" As A Mormon Girl


          I was a fourteen-year old girl attending a Mormon camp called “Especially For Youth”.  After a seminar meant to excite the youth about serving full-time missions - taught by a very cute blonde boy who had recently returned from his own - I was standing in line for lunch.  I struck up a conversation with the boy next to me, who had also attended the same talk.  My enthusiasm for serving a mission was at an all-time high, as I started gushing about how much I wanted to serve, how important the work was to me.  I was fourteen and I wanted to be the perfect Mormon, to live up the standards that everyone expected of me.  I wanted to be everything that everyone expected of me.  
          “I just can’t wait to go on a mission!” I said, looking at the boy.  He was average cute, which in the hyper-competitive world of Mormon courtship, was enough.  Even at fourteen, I was all too aware of the overwhelming pressure of marriage and its implications on my eternal salvation.  
          He looked at me and arched his eyebrow.  “Aren’t you supposed to be concentrating on -- other duties?” he said, the meaning in his voice plain.  
          “I can do both!” I said.  He shrugged, looking skeptical.
          I was hurt; I turned my back on this guy, who looked uglier and uglier by the moment.  I dismissed him as a pompous jerk.  I convinced myself that I could still do it all.  
          A few months ago, I discovered a talk by Gordon B. Hinckley, the man I considered to be a modern-day prophet of God.  I was twelve when he gave this talk; two years later I got angry when a boy dismissed my goal to become a missionary.   Hinckley gave this talk during the Priesthood Session of General Conference; only the men were allowed to attend.  




“Now I wish to say something to bishops and stake presidents concerning missionary service. It is a sensitive matter. There seems to be growing in the Church an idea that all young women as well as all young men should go on missions. We need some young women. They perform a remarkable work. They can get in homes where the elders cannot.

I confess that I have two granddaughters on missions. They are bright and beautiful young women. They are working hard and accomplishing much good. Speaking with their bishops and their parents, they made their own decisions to go. They did not tell me until they turned their papers in. I had nothing to do with their decision to go.

Now, having made that confession, I wish to say that the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve are united in saying to our young sisters that they are not under obligation to go on missions. I hope I can say what I have to say in a way that will not be offensive to anyone. Young women should not feel that they have a duty comparable to that of young men. Some of them will very much wish to go. If so, they should counsel with their bishop as well as their parents. If the idea persists, the bishop will know what to do.

I say what has been said before, that missionary work is essentially a priesthood responsibility. As such, our young men must carry the major burden. This is their responsibility and their obligation.


We do not ask the young women to consider a mission as an essential part of their life’s program. Over a period of many years, we have held the age level higher for them in an effort to keep the number going relatively small. Again to the sisters I say that you will be as highly respected, you will be considered as being as much in the line of duty, your efforts will be as acceptable to the Lord and to the Church whether you go on a mission or do not go on a mission.

Now, that may appear to be something of a strange thing to say in priesthood meeting. I say it here because I do not know where else to say it. The bishops and stake presidents of the Church have now heard it. And they must be the ones who make the judgment in this matter.”  





          Gordon B Hinckley was a man that, as a fourteen-year-old girl, I considered a Prophet of God.  I discovered this talk a few months back and every-time that I think about it, I feel hurt.  I don’t why this talk hurts me so much, more than ten years after leaving Mormonism.  I suppose because as a fourteen-year old girl the idea of serving a mission struck me as one of the few accomplishments I could aim for in equal accord with men.  
          At the age of twelve I had been inducted into the Young Women program; the lessons about marriage and children were already starting to weigh me down.  And the thought of marriage terrified me; I wanted the luxury of waiting until I was at a reasonable age.  This luxury seemed denied to me in the Mormon world, as most of my fellow Young Women were getting married before the age of 21.  I had just seen the first of my peers get married off - she was eighteen, just a couple months out of high school, when she married a man who had noticed her a couple years earlier while serving his mission.  The ward made a huge fuss over my friend - they talked about her as the ultimate success, having fulfilled her highest potential at the precocious age of eighteen.  And while I was supposed to be happy for her, the thought of marriage at such a young age terrified me.  
          Serving a mission meant that I could defer the prospect of marriage for a few more years, until I was old enough to feel ready. I didn’t want to be married at a young age.  I wanted a life that included a little more than simply marriage and children.  I wanted something of my own; an education, maybe a career.  Some goal that was mine and mine alone.  I wanted to have it all.  
          And yet, even at the age of fourteen, the doors to a larger world were closed to me.  I wanted everything and yet the prophet was instructing the men in my life to hold me back from having it all.  

23 comments:

  1. Sounds like the Mormon Church leans pretty close to having a "one size fits all" attitude towards women. I have never found such an attitude compatible with genuine respect for people. Instead, it seems to turn individuals into something close to commodities.

    To me, one of the odd things is how so many Mormons are conservatives who think of socialism as forcing everyone into the same Procrustean bed of conformity. Yet, the Church itself does that to, perhaps, a greater extent than the socialist governments of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

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    1. It is a "one-size-fits-all" attitude. And we were made to feel guilty if we weren't thrilled about our limited prospects as women - I always felt like I was less of a girl because I didn't want what the Mormon Church told me I should want.

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    2. The "one size fits all" attitude you describe can be found in many religious traditions, sadly. It not only suggests lack of respect for people, but ignorance of the great diversity of humanity.

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    3. And diversity is what I like best about humanity. Although it can be challenging at times, but so very worth it. :)

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    4. I'm in complete agreement with Ahab and PMG about diversity. Our species doesn't even have a standard size and shape of nose, let alone a standard set of aspirations, goals, and dreams. To treat everyone as if they were the runs counter to both morality and reality.

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  2. The only thing you're allowed to have is children, lots of them, and forget about a career...

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    1. And what a depressing thought that is...

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  3. Ashley Seil SmithJuly 23, 2012 at 5:55 PM

    So I want to give my viewpoint on this because it's different and I also feel like you value having multiple perspectives - it helps people come to a conclusion about things, right?

    I have to admit that when reading that excerpt my impression is that President Hinckley knew how much missions sucked and didn't want women to feel obligated to go - or to feel like they were essential to any kind of "celestial" plan (as it seems you believed?). I see it as trying to combat the perfectionism that you believe exists in the church. I guess we'll never know what he meant exactly because he's not here anymore! And that teenage boy you met was just an idiot - he was 14, after all. I think it'd be hard to find a grown Mormon man who would say those same things (though I admit to not knowing every grown man in the Mormon church, just as, I'm sure, none of you know every 14 year old boy in the Mormon church...and I wouldn't put it past any kind of church/organization to have a good number of idiots in their congregation - the trick is being able to distinguish between the idiots and the ones who are worth listening to!).

    All I know is that as a Mormon woman I've been a "career" woman and I'm now going to graduate school in NYC and doing everything I've ever wanted to do and never felt like the church encouraged me not to do these things. If anything I feel more encouraged by those around me to do anything and everything I've wanted to do. True, it's difficult at times not having women around you that you can confide in and get advice from (because it's true that many LDS women don't do the career thing - but then there are a good deal more who are on the lower socioeconomic step of the ladder and they have to work), but I also know that as a career woman, sometimes I hate my job and I totally get the joy of staying at home to manage family. That's my impression. I never wanted to serve a mission because, really, it seems pretty awful, and I think a lot of people in the church realize that. But of course a lot of people loved their missions! So who knows!

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  4. Ashley Seil SmithJuly 23, 2012 at 5:55 PM

    Also, I definitely wouldn't say that Mormonism is a "one size fits all" church. I've never been encouraged not to follow my own pursuits and I've had a lot of "strange" ones over the years. Maybe it was just your congregations? I think part of the reason the church encourages missionary work is because we realize the importance of more perspectives. Of course we want a lot of people to join and to stay so that they will give their input and help mold the church - help create a varied organization that is unified in Christ (and Christ had a lot of pretty "out there" ideas as well!). What fun is a white wasatch front church? It's not! We need everyone's perspectives! That's what a Mormon "zion" is all about - and the more people that join and have the courage to stay and change things, the better off everyone will be. It might not seem this way because of the hierarchy that exists, but it is part of the organization (I mean, sacrament meetings are all about hearing from different random people in the congregation, etc.). The church eventually won't be a white, wasatch front religion. It'll be much more diversified than that. The sad thing to me is when I see women with strong opinions about things leave the church instead of staying to shape it (I'm talkin' to you postmormongirl! We need valuable opinions like yours!) I joke, but I'm partly serious. I'm all about making Mormon women feel more empowered to change things for themselves! They absolutely can.

    Paul, it's funny that you mention socialism and cite that most Mormons are conservative because I actually think most Mormons are socialists and they just don't realize it - law of consecration? They also believe in utopian idealism which is not capitalism and it's not what a lot of conservatives believe in. Also take note that, again, you are talking about Western US Mormons. I'd say a good deal of East Coasters are liberal and good deal more that live outside the US don't give a shit about conservative vs. liberal.

    That's my two cents. I hope you don't mind that I gave it. I really don't mean to be obnoxious and I hope you don't loathe my comments.

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  5. Ashley Seil SmithJuly 23, 2012 at 6:27 PM

    Ahh! Sorry, I cursed so I realized it might not post. Here is my edited version:

    Also, I definitely wouldn't say that Mormonism is a "one size fits all" church. I've never been encouraged not to follow my own pursuits and I've had a lot of "strange" ones over the years. Maybe it was just your congregations? I think part of the reason the church encourages missionary work is because we realize the importance of more perspectives. Of course we want a lot of people to join and to stay so that they will give their input and help mold the church - help create a varied organization that is unified in Christ (and Christ had a lot of pretty "out there" ideas as well!). What fun is a white wasatch front church? It's not! We need everyone's perspectives! That's what a Mormon "zion" is all about - and the more people that join and have the courage to stay and change things, the better off everyone will be. It might not seem this way because of the hierarchy that exists, but it is part of the organization (I mean, sacrament meetings are all about hearing from different random people in the congregation, etc.). The church eventually won't be a white, wasatch front religion. It'll be much more diversified than that. The sad thing to me is when I see women with strong opinions about things leave the church instead of staying to shape it (I'm talkin' to you postmormongirl! We need valuable opinions like yours!) I joke, but I'm partly serious. I'm all about making Mormon women feel more empowered to change things for themselves! They absolutely can.

    Paul, it's funny that you mention socialism and cite that most Mormons are conservative because I actually think most Mormons are socialists and they just don't realize it - law of consecration? They also believe in utopian idealism which is not capitalism and it's not what a lot of conservatives believe in. Also take note that, again, you are talking about Western US Mormons. I'd say a good deal of East Coasters are liberal and good deal more that live outside the US don't give a (crap) about conservative vs. liberal.

    That's my two cents. I hope you don't mind that I gave it. I really don't mean to be obnoxious and I hope you don't loathe my comments.

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    1. Thanks for the information, Ashley. I didn't know that East Coast Mormons are more liberal than the Western variety I'm more familiar with.

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    2. I was always of the impression that California Mormons were pretty liberal as well. I grew up in a very liberal town but my ward was very tight - clannish almost. We thought of ourselves as liberals because our leaders counseled the young women to finish their educations, rather than drop out after marriage. But growing up in an area where Mormons were the minority was a valuable experience for most people, as the members tended to be more tolerant of others. Although inevitably at church, members would always talk about how they pitied the non-Mormons in their lives for not having the truth and for not knowing that they weren't happy without the church.

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    3. Yeah, I've heard that, too, and I don't like hearing the pity talk either. It's strange how much wards can vary by region.

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  6. Ashley,

    Don't worry, I value your perspective. But I did get the over-whelming feeling growing up that my life within the Mormon Church was dictated for me - marriage in temple, staying at home to take care of children. And most of my peers have followed that path, although a few of them had the courage to forge an alternate route. But to have a leader of a church to counsel the male leaders to actively discourage women from following a path is not something I am comfortable with, as it does come across as patronizing. If he was saying this because he knew missions are hard then why would he pressure the young men to serve missions, while patting the women on the head and telling them they needn't bother? And the very fact that he told this in a priesthood session is an indication that he didn't respect women enough to be up-front with them about his own personal beliefs.

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    1. I get where you're coming from. It's hard to know exactly what he meant. I found this talk (http://www.lds.org/general-conference/1985/10/ten-gifts-from-the-lord?lang=eng&query=women%27s+session+president+hinckley+mission) at the general session from 1985, speaking to women:

      6.Yours is the opportunity to proclaim the gospel. Exclusive of missionary couples, we now have 5,872 sister missionaries serving in the field. For the most part, these are young women who are called as other missionaries are called. Many mission presidents give their sister missionaries credit for being more effective than the elders in opening doors and minds to the teaching of the gospel. One mission president told me, perhaps facetiously, that if he had four pairs of sister missionaries doing the finding and the teaching, he could keep a pair of elders busy doing the baptizing.

      You will immediately ask why, then, are lady missionaries not called until they are twenty-one, when young men are called at nineteen? While we recognize the vast good that sister missionaries do, and while we greatly appreciate their tremendous service, we are reluctant to have in the field the same or a larger number of sister missionaries than elders. I believe there is great wisdom in this.

      Furthermore, we regard a happy marriage as the greatest mission any young woman can enjoy, and we feel that the opportunities for such will be increased if there is some delay in young women going into the mission field.

      Nevertheless, you have the privilege. You have the right, conditioned upon worthiness. You have the opportunity, whether serving as full-time missionaries or on a local basis, to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ with power and conviction.

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    2. It's no lie that the church encourages women (and men) to get married. I think there is valid reason for that - lives and families tend to be more stable financially when there's a marriage involved. The truth is that marriage is really hard, too, and I think couples that can successfully grow in marriage, have children and nurture have done more than any missionary could ever do. There's a lot of value in providing a social institution that provides love and caring for individuals. No matter how much things change or how awful life gets, you always have your family. Again, the church isn't the only one that encourages strong family units, though they do insist that the family unit is a man and a woman with children (that's another pickle I won't get into =).

      This is a little personal, but I haven't been able to have children. I have a sister who had a difficult time having children. I want to have children partly because I want to give birth to some friends! I want my social circle to be big and close knit, and oftentimes the easiest way to make that happen is to have lots of babies. It's a survival tactic. The great thing about not having had any yet is that it has forced me to look outside of my comfortable circle and get to know other people so that I'm not lonely. It's hard and interesting - the very thing that the church encourages, and that does make a lot of people happy (these big families), is also something that makes LDS people kind of keep to their own circles without reaching out and getting to know others. I would say the same about many Jewish families in places like Brooklyn. I think the goal is to build strong, loving families while also taking an active role in communities and the world. It's a challenging balance.

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  7. Mormonism inside and outside out Utah are fairly different experinces. In some ways being outside the mormon zone that is Utah it is more liberal in application, in other ways, usaually for children, it is far more constricting.

    As far as mission go, any one whos taken an intro to pysch could noteice the primary goal is not gathering converts. It is cementing control over those with the group. Lack of sleep, poor diet, slavish devotion to the precepts of the cult. Missionary work is low grade brainwashing plain and simple. Converts are just the icing on the cake

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    1. Another thing I noticed in Utah is how pervasive the onus to marry is. You'd be appaled at the number of young women 'waiting' for their young men to get back who were engaged to be engaged when he got back, who would write a dear john letter and marry the closest returned missionary within 6 months of meeting him

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  8. I have a memory from when I was sixteen or seventeen of my stepfather saying something to me which conveyed that he assumed I would serve a mission. At the time I wasn't sure if I should feel insulted that he thought I wouldn't get married before I was twenty-one, because even though I didn't WANT to get married that early, I was also very aware that I had never been on a date and things in that arena didn't look too likely.

    Maybe the attitude/assumptions about women who serve missions have changed drastically for the better since 2007 (when I left the church). I hope that's the case. And as someone who grew up "in the mission field" I have no idea how the pressures placed on young women differ outside Utah as opposed to in. But even during the time that I was a very faithful member, I was aware that the popular view of young sister missionaries was that they didn't get a husband fast enough.

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  9. The Mormon church isn't the only one to have such a benevolent sexist attitude towards women. My Pentecostalish church said similar things. We were patted on the head and told to prepare for a job and a family. Men could prepare for missions and a career. Note the difference between job and career. I wanted a career in missions. I was made to feel ashamed, frustrated, and learned to despise what I thought kept me from my goals: my second X chromosome. Now I know it was my learned veneration of patriarchal authoritarian religious leaders that kept me away. Of course, my dreams of being in missions were because of how missions were viewed in our church. That is something I've also left behind.

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    1. It's surprising how pervasive this attitude is. And how some of this only becomes clear in hindsight.

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  10. I relate to your comments. I too read that talk years after it was given and had the same sick feeling when I read how Pres. Hinckley was suggesting that women should be discouraged from serving missions and doing so in a session where not one single woman was present. He addressed the bishops, Stake Presidents, fathers, brothers, friends and all other men in a woman's life but not the women themselves. This is why it hurts. It hurts because he was enlisting others to keep you from going on a mission.

    I especially disliked the part where he says he's saying this in the Priesthood session because he does not know where to say it. How consdescending is that. He could have said in one of the general sessions, maybe the Sunday morning. He could have said it in the RS or YW conference where women would be present, but he chose to let the men in your life do his job. Pres Hinckley also puts the disclaimer that he didn't know about his granddaughters until they had submitted their papers. And to top it all he says that the FP and Q12 are all in line with that policy.

    The reaction you had from that boy is the same reaction I had from a Bishop as I served as YW President and suggested that two of the young women would make good missionaries and seemed to have the desire to serve. Many can blame the boy or the bishop but I think they were following the advise given to them by the prophet.

    Unfortunately in the church, we, women, are kept on the sidelines of what is going on. No matter how hard I've tried to convince myself that we're equal, we just aren't.

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    1. It was an awful talk, for all of those reasons you mentioned.

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I love hearing comments and I welcome all viewpoints; however, I request that if you do choose to comment, please do so in a manner that is constructive and respectful of others.