You are an individual that makes choices and perhaps one day you will make a choice to become one flesh with another human, and perhaps together you will choose to start a family together. All of those decisions are incredibly, incredibly personal and you should make them according to what you personally, and then you and your equal partner, feel is good and right for you.
That all sounds good, right? Nothing controversial, I don’t think. But many women throughout history and including in the present day have made and continue to make decisions based on their personhood being attached to others.
A few women in a political science class of mine at BYU recently made comments during our discussion of John Stuart Mill’s “On the Subjugation of Women” about how they believe that women have natural tendencies to mother, cook, and clean, and thus women should not have careers or jobs if they can avoid it. My initial reaction, which I posted on social media, was to ask “What century is this?”
But as I reflect more on that experience, I put it in the context of the many other times now that I have met so many women at BYU who openly acknowledge their number one priority here is to find a husband, women who if they are here for an education are choosing their major based on what will be most useful to teach their children with, and women who are basing their career decisions (if they are making any) solely based on what will be flexible with their potential future husband’s grad school/career plans. And I have to wonder how persistent and deep this sentiment really is among Mormon women my age (I’m 20), not to mention the broader Mormon population.
I think back to a lesson when I was a laurel in Young Women’s, when one of my leaders told us, “I was alive during the ERA time and they told us we could have it all, but you know what, you just CAN’T. You’re going to have to choose, and you should choose your family and motherhood.” I remember feeling deeply conflicted that day. I couldn’t stop thinking of the many examples I had seen of women both working and being mothers- many different diverse examples of women in different fields and with different passions who found unique ways of parenting alone or with their partners, women who found fulfillment in developing their talents and using them in ways that felt meaningful to them. Women who seemed to recognize, as I was just beginning to recognize as a teenager, that they might have been born with or come to develop certain personality traits, talents, and skills that could be very useful in many different pursuits. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it at the time, but I think back now and see that that deep seated discomfort was due at least in part to the fact that I was beginning to realize that I would one day have a great many career and volunteer aspirations outside the home, in addition to my desire to be a mother one day.
I think back to before that when I was about 13 or 14, writing in my journal and looking out my window one day and having that sudden, passionate, depths of my being (the drama comes with the teenager territory) epiphany that I LOVED government. That I LOVED thinking about how people work together in a community, how laws can be used to ensure fair and equal opportunities, how people participate in creating that government that will best fit their needs. And that I wanted to participate. And I remember feeling that shaky discomfort of realizing, “That probably means I will work outside the home.” And realizing that I would like that, because I was realizing that I felt like I had skills I was born with (and which I felt like my patriarchal blessing affirmed) of leadership, articulation, calmness in contentious debates, empathy for people’s experiences- skills that would be useful in a career in government and politics.
I remember that conflict in my heart, of feeling like I had something to offer the world that was unique and which was not mutually exclusive with motherhood- and yet the messages I was getting at church both explicitly and implicitly told me otherwise.
Today, Mormon women are encouraged to get all the education they can get. My own patriarchal blessing, if I may reverently quote from it, encourages me to follow the admonition of President Hinckley to get all the education I can get because it will be essential to the work I will be (or have been) called to do. This isn’t unique to me- church leaders have of late particularly emphasized the need for women to get an education. This is very much needed, not only because women deserve to be educated for no other reason than their personhood and individual development, but also because Utah (majority Mormon and capital of the church) has one of the largest gender gaps in college degree earners in the country. It is not in our current teachings that women should abandon their education, but conflicting messages and the implications of strict traditional gender roles reinforced in the Family Proclamation (with men presiding and women nurturing) encourage many women to prioritize their husband’s pursuits and their potential children over their own goals and desires.
This conflict of being told that your role is to nurture and your husband’s is to provide and preside sets up a binary in which you are either living the way a family is “supposed” to function, or you are not. I can completely understand why such a binary would reinforce teachings of there being natural tendencies for men and women. In my political science class, one woman shared that because her father has been sick, her mother works; and because her father’s natural tendencies are to fix things and put up shelves (her own words), they always had to wait till their mom came home from work to cook and clean because those were her natural tendencies. But my immediate reaction to hearing that story (besides how silly it is for someone to get out of doing any necessary chore by saying it’s not their “natural tendency”) was to say, “But it’s not MY natural tendency to cook and clean and mother, and I’m a woman, so where does that leave me?” I find myself repeating what is almost a mantra: “Stop telling me who I am and what I can do: just let me show you.”
That mantra is coincidentally a possibly simplistic but accurate sum up of my views on motherhood and careers: don’t tell me what I should or shouldn’t do, or what my natural tendencies are, or what would be best for my family. I am quite capable of discovering and deciding those things for myself, and I have full faith in all people to do this as well. Third wave feminism, with its emphasis on validating and supporting women’s choices, speaks strongly to this need for affirming equal opportunity for whatever women decide, including motherhood.
The answer to the seeming conflict between motherhood and ambition outside the home is not to limit women to one or the other and castigate their choice either way- the answer is to rethink the systems and institutions that make such a conflict exist at all. More moderate examples would be addressing the motherhood penalty, securing paid family leave, creating family-friendly workplaces, more affordable and high quality child care, offering cost-effective family planning to all people of all levels of income. More radical examples would include but are not limited to changes to the way we as a society value motherhood and home economics, as well as our economic system and individualized family units instead of community emphases.
And we can stop acting like women exist for their uteruses. I am more than my ability to create and nurture life; I am an individual who chooses to spend my talents and will likely one day choose to become a mother, biologically and or through adoption- but I make my choices based on my personhood. We all choose to make sacrifices and choose what will be best for us and our families, and I am not saying that every choice a person makes must benefit them individually the most; I am instead recognizing that women have for thousands of years been expected to put others before themselves in ways that have denied them their own identity and purpose. To be a woman has meant to give, and give, and give even when there was nothing left to give and yet they continued because to be a woman was to be self-less, in the most extreme sense. This legacy is both inspiring for its compassion and gut-wrenching for its deprivation of potential contribution to the world from women who would have had much to offer in addition to caring for their families.
I’m waxing grandiose. I just want to say that motherhood and career ambitions are not mutually exclusive, that there are myriad possibilities to explore for pursuing your interests, and you deserve to pursue them just because you’re a human who deserves to pursue their interests. There’s also all those nice points about how pursuing your passions can make you a better parent, and how people pursing their passions makes a society stronger, but really you deserve it because you’re a person and that’s what matters most.
Huge shoutout to the wonderful folks at Aspiring Mormon Women– if you liked this post, please check out their site and share it with your friends!
Their mission is as follows:
Aspiring Mormon Women is a non-profit organization with the broad purpose to encourage, support, and celebrate the educational and professional aspirations of LDS women who are high-school age, who are in school, who are working, or who are desiring to return to school or the workforce.
More specifically, the goals of this organization are to:
- Embrace and discuss the intersection of the personal, educational and/or professional, and spiritual lives of LDS women.
- Include LDS women of all ages, at various levels of faith, and across all education levels.
- Showcase the great work that has been accomplished by LDS women of the past, that is continuing with LDS women today, and that will be accomplished by LDS women in the future.
- Support women in their efforts to develop their talents and pursue knowledge as they realize their potential to meaningfully and effectively contribute to the world around them.
- Inspire and empower LDS women to purposefully pursue (and complete) educational opportunities—both formal and informal.
- Provide informal and formal mentoring and networking opportunities for LDS women.